If you love having precise control over blending and fine details when you color, chances are you enjoy using colored pencils! Not all colored pencils are made equal, however — which is why we brought in Brandon, a colored pencil expert, to give us the inside scoop on the best colored pencils for coloring books!
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His detailed overview below delves into different kinds of colored pencils (yes — there are lots of different kinds!), their pros and cons, and the best colored pencil to fit your budget and preferences.
Looking for colored pencil techniques to improve your coloring skills? Look no further than this other post of mine: Adult Coloring Tutorials: Tips & Techniques to Improve Your Coloring Skills!
Without further ado, let’s turn it over to Brandon!
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While there are plenty of great artistic media out there to bring your favorite coloring books to life, colored pencils are usually near the top of the list. Colored pencils’ unique combination of easy usability, the huge variation of colors, and low initial costs are big reasons for their popularity. However, figuring out the best colored pencils for coloring books can be an overwhelming task. A quick search on any online marketplace or a stroll through your local art store will reveal dozens of different types of colored pencils in all shapes, sizes, materials, and price points. What should you choose?
BestColoredPencils.com is in the business of testing out all of these different colored pencils and providing colored pencil reviews to help you find the perfect product to meet your needs. In this post, we will break down some of the factors that go into what makes up colored pencils. We will also provide some of our top choices for the best colored pencils for coloring books.
Colored Pencil Cores
We have all heard the old proverb “It’s what inside that counts” and that holds particularly true for colored pencils! The core of the colored pencil is its most important feature and the thickness, materials, and consistency can have a huge effect on how color is applied to your coloring books.
Colored Pencil Core Materials
There are many different types of material that are used in the core of a colored pencil. However, it surprises people when they find out that many of the “specialty” colored pencils on the market are in fact not colored pencils at all!
The traditional definition of a colored pencil is a medium that contains a wax-based or oil-based binder. A binder is an ingredient that is added to hold the color together and allow it to be applied and spread on a drawing surface such as a coloring book page.
There are many increasingly popular colored pencil brands that utilize non-traditional binders. Examples of these include soft pastels (Koh-i-noor Giocandas), dry pastels (Faber-Castell PITT Pastels), and chalk (Stabilo CarbOthellos).
There are also brands that take a hybrid approach, basing their binder on a traditional ingredient but adding a unique twist. An example of this is Holbein Artist colored pencils, which include various oils and fats in their wax binder.
To keep things simple, we are going to focus on wax and oil-based colored pencils as they are easily the most popular.
Wax vs. Oil Colored Pencils
If you go to the store and pick up a random set of colored pencils, there is about a 99% chance that it is labeled as either a wax colored pencil or oil colored pencil. Within this group, there is about a 90% chance that it is labeled as a wax core and a 10% chance that it is labeled as an oil core (however, oil cores will almost always have some percentage of wax included into the recipe as well).
So why are wax cores so much more commonplace in the art world?
Wax Colored Pencils for Coloring Books
First, wax cores are much easier for beginners to pick up and use. Wax cores tend to be softer which greatly assists in layering and blending without relying on burnishing agents. Having a pencil that is better at blending is a great way to expand the capabilities of your colored pencil set as you can create new colors by blending two (or more) pencils. Also, they are erasable.
Second, wax cores are typically much more affordable. After speaking to various colored pencil manufacturers, the process of creating a wax core is much cheaper than using oils. These cost savings are reflected in the retail price and there is a huge range of wax-based colored pencils in the budget price tiers.
However, wax colored pencils do have some negatives.
Being a softer core, they are more prone to breaking and are also more difficult to sharpen to a fine tip. This can make them challenging to use on highly-detailed areas of your coloring book pages.
Also, they suffer from what is called wax bloom. Wax bloom is a process where the wax binder actually evaporates to the surface of the coloring book page. This can create a waxy sheen over the surface of your work which most people find takes away from the final product. It can also create a slick surface that doesn’t adhere well to additional layers. You can see an example of wax bloom on the right side of the image below:
Source: Empty Easel
Furthermore, wax colored pencils are more notorious for fading over time (poor lightfastness) and may require a fixative to help protect the color. If you happen to have a set of colored pencils that would benefit from using a fixative, one of our favorite products is Krylon Workable Fixatif. It provides a great protective coat yet is still gentle enough to be able to be applied to thin coloring book paper.
Finally, wax colored pencils may produce lower color output compared to oil colored pencils. It is important to note that this issue is mostly on the budget lines of colored pencils and most of your higher-end wax sets will still produce fantastic color.
Oil Colored Pencils for Coloring Books
Oil-based colored pencils take up a much smaller sector of the colored pencil industry but they do offer some unique benefits.
Being a harder core, you are able to achieve a much sharper point. This is great for very intricate areas of your coloring book where large, heavy strokes are not needed. The point is also much more resilient, requiring less sharpening. This can make the pencil last longer as well.
Also, you don’t have to deal with wax bloom. While oil pencils do have some wax in them, it is usually a low enough percentage that wax bloom isn’t a concern.
Finally, the color output of nearly every oil-based colored pencil is awesome. Almost every set we have ever tested has produced fantastic color. And this color tends to last longer without requiring a fixative.
As for the negatives of oil colored pencils, the most noticeable issue is the higher asking price. Generally, all oil-based pencils will fall into the premium price tier.
They can also be a bit more challenging to use. While they can still blend and layer with ease, they may require the help of a burnishing agent to achieve the same buttery feel of wax pencils. Also, a soft application may be a bit more of a challenge as oil-based pencils are notorious for being heavier with color, even on gentle passes.
Oil colored pencils may also have a higher likelihood of smudging when pages are rubbing against each other (such as in a closed coloring book). If this becomes an issue you can either separate the pages or spray some fixative.
Colored Pencil Core Thickness
The core thickness of a colored pencil can also vary. Traditionally, cores are measured by their diameter and in metric units (millimeters). For nearly every brand, you can expect thicknesses between 2.5mm to 6mm, with a vast majority being between 3mm and 4mm. While this may not sound like a big fluctuation, going with a thicker (or thinner!) core can make a huge difference in how you use them in your coloring books.
If you enjoy coloring books with large, open areas where you plan on implementing a single color then going with a thicker core can allow for much greater control and consistency. There are actually specific sets designed around their larger core such as Prang Thick Core and Prismacolor Art Stix.
If you prefer more detailed coloring books with many intricate areas then going with a finer core may be better-suited for you. A good example of this is the Prismacolor Verithin. Coming in with a diameter of just 2mm, they can be sharpened to an extremely fine point and are perfect for highly detailed areas.
Colored Pencils vs. Watercolor Pencils
Next to core material, the most common source of confusion is with the differences between colored pencils and watercolor pencils. And, more importantly, which one of these is better for coloring books.
As you probably have guessed, it really depends on several factors including the type of coloring book, the user’s skill, and what sort of user experience they are looking for.
If you pick up a random set of colored pencils from the store, it most likely falls under this category. These are pencils that are able to blend without the inclusion of water. Their blending ability comes from the various agents that are built into the core.
You will generally have greater control of small areas while using traditional colored pencils. However, they will typically be limited in how much area they can cover with a given stroke (although adding blenders or solvents can increase this). Also, it is more difficult to lighten the color intensity outside of blending in lighter colors.
Watercolor pencils are sets that are designed to be used with water in order to spread color. They will be clearly marked as “watercolor pencils.” You will immediately be able to tell the difference with watercolor pencils compared to colored pencils when you apply some color to a page. Blending and layering will be much more challenging.
However, when you apply water to the canvas, things will come alive! You will feel like you are working with a totally different medium. Color will spread freely. This is great for large areas of a coloring book where you want consistent color. But you may struggle with keeping control of areas with small sections.
Also, watercolor pencils have the ability to be easily lightened by adding water and spreading over a larger area. You don’t have to rely on solvents or lighter colored pencils.
The important thing to remember with watercolor pencils is that you are literally applying water to a page. If your coloring book uses thin pages, this may result in warping of the paper. If you are downloading coloring book pages and printing them onto your own media, but sure to use a thicker paper that is more capable of handling water.
Also, start off slow with applying water to the canvas. A little water can go a long way! Many watercolor pencil sets will come with a small brush included in the case. There are several ways to use this brush and it will really depend on what sort of color intensity and texture you are after.
Source: Peta Hewitt
Some people prefer to wet the brush and dab the tip of the watercolor pencil to extract some color. Then they apply the brush to the canvas in a way similar to how a traditional set of watercolors are used. Another method is to apply color to the page first and then use the wet brush to spread the color across the page. Both approaches can have very different effects. We recommend testing both out and seeing which way works the best for you and your coloring book.
Some people have had success incorporating both traditional colored pencils and watercolor pencils into various areas on a coloring book page. We encourage you to explore different approaches and figure out what works best and is the most enjoyable for you.
The Best Colored Pencils for Coloring Books: The Top Choices for Every Colorist
As you can see, there are many factors that go into determining the best colored pencils to use in your coloring books. Finding the perfect combination of blending ability, color output, ease of use, and price point will vary from person to person.
We have listed some of our top choices for various needs below:
Best Colored Pencils if You’re on a Tight Budget: Reeves Colored Pencils
We understand that art supplies can be quite expensive. However, there are some very good colored pencil sets that can be had for an asking price that just about everybody should be able to afford. Our top choice for those on a tight budget is Reeves Colored Pencils. These pencils provide nice color and layering and the 3.8mm core is surprisingly strong despite being wax. Including these with a couple of your favorite coloring books makes a great low-cost gift for a friend or family member.
Best Colored Pencils for Beginners: Fantasia Artist Colored Pencils
Fantasia is a brand that has flown under the radar but we have found that they are very easy for anybody to pick up and start using. Their artist line of colored pencils has excellent color output and the blending and layering are almost effortless. They are also well constructed and should hold up to wear and tear as you figure out your optimal application pressure in your coloring books.
Best High Quality Watercolor Pencils: Caran d’Ache Aquarelle Museum Watercolor Pencils
For those wanting to step up to a premier brand of watercolor pencils, we can’t say enough positive things about the Caran d’Ache Aquarelle Museum Watercolor Pencils. These pencils contain high-concentration pigments that really come alive once you expose them to water. The wax core is soft and creamy and provides excellent user control. This makes these watercolor pencils good for both detailed areas as well as larger locations where you can test your water blending techniques.
Best High Quality Oil Colored Pencils: Faber-Castell Polychromos Colored Pencils
If you are curious about experiencing the upper echelon of oil pencils then look no further than Faber-Castell Polychromos Colored Pencils. These are arguably one of the most popular sets of oil colored pencils in the art world and for good reason. Despite being an oil core, Faber-Castell is able to emulate the creamy texture you are used to seeing in a wax core but with the added benefits of not having to deal with wax bloom and also having excellent lightfastness.
Best All-Purpose Colored Pencils for Colorists: Prismacolor Softcore Colored Pencils
Prismacolor Softcore Colored Pencils really have it all: Great color, easy application, dynamic blending, and a reasonable asking price. There are also plenty of set sizes to meet everybody’s needs and budgets. This is an amazing all-around pencil no matter if you are a seasoned colored pencil veteran or still learning the ins and outs of your new coloring books.
We hope that this overview helped explain some of the common differences between various types of colored and watercolor pencils. More importantly, we hope that it will help give you an idea of what the best colored pencils are for your coloring books going forward. Finally, we encourage you to try out different types of colored pencils. Even if you find a particular set that you enjoy, there may be other types that you like just as much or that you find to compliment your current sets well.
Brandon is the owner of BestColoredPencils.com, a website dedicated to all things colored pencils. When he’s not testing out the latest colored pencils, you can find him cooking, traveling, and spending time with his family. Keep up with the latest colored pencil reviews on Twitter @coloredpencils0.
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