Do you remember your first box of coloured pencils? I don’t. But I do remember the arrival of my cousins’ two tiered tin box of Caran d’Ache pencils with a mountain on the lid. I was immediately in love… and envious. Not possessive as such even if, of course, I wanted to touch them, to use them but perhaps -even more so- to be able to put them to rest at the end of a long drawing day in perfect rainbow lines. A serene secret colour garden full of promises… they smelled lovely too.
Coloured pencils are not very old and were not originally developed for professional artists although Faber’s Polychromos (which came on the market in 1908) immediately had a range of 60 colours and these were chosen to match standard watercolour ranges of the time. Their main drawback was perhaps that they were never lightfast and that might explain their destiny mainly as a kid’s colour tool or perhaps a designer’s…. somebody anyway for whom “archival” is no big issue. It is still not a medium serious artists much think of using. However, over the years, some artists have given it a respectability as a material for fine artwork… and now that Caran d’Ache has produced a truly lightfast coloured pencil -Luminance- it can definitely be considered a good enough tool. They are after all so cheap, so easy to carry around and so fuss free that I don’t see why there are not more works done in them.
So how do you get the colour into the wood? Well, sorry to disappoint but there are no colour trees growing out there (even if pencils sure use a lot of wood) and actually colour is not somehow pushed into that little hole either… First, as usual, it’s all about pigment + something. In this case in boiling water are added some binding agents: gums, resins and waxes, which turns the water into a paste in which the pigment is added. Another machine turns the paste into chunks (they look like the colour shards you get when you sharpen except bigger) and these are then compressed by another machine which pours at the other end a continuous strip of coloured lead. The strips will be cut to the size of a pencil and thrown into a wax bath. And it’s that wax which is the vehicle in coloured pencils (in graphite pencils it’s clay) and which will help the pigment cling to the paper. Good pencils can also give that sort of unworldly luminescence which is the sure sign of wax. So, we have a perfect coloured lead at this stage but now what?
Well, pencils are no so much a tube as a sandwich in fact… two slats of wood grooved, a bit of glue to hold the lead firmly in the groove, another grooved slat on top and hop… a double decker! Other machines will now separate them into individual pencils, round them or shape them into hexagons or triangles (a new variation) and then they are ready for further embellishments… first they are dipped into a coloured (or transparent) varnish or get as many as 8 coats of paint in some brands, then they are marked or embossed along a side so that you know what to reorder once they are down to their last strokes and then, more often than not, the end will be dipped again in paint or varnish to either indicate the colour of that pencil or as a little trademark. It also seals the wood at the unused end. A final visit to the hairdresser who will sharpen their ends and give them a nice punky spike (check it out here) then… into the beautiful box they go!
In the good pencils, (and may the others RIP but I really really hate them!) only the finest pigments are used to ensure maximum lightfastness, smoothness and purity and only very fine wood is used for the casing too. Caran d’Ache sources sustainably grown Californian cedar wood for theirs while Faber Castell, being the world’s biggest single producer of wood-cased pencils, actually plants millions of seedlings of Pinus caribaea in Brazil and grow the trees they will cut some fifteen years later.
Concentration of good quality pigments is, as ever, the key to a good product and each coloured pencil has a precise mix of them. I haven’t been able to find out how others have devised their ranges but Caran d’Ache (“karandash” by the way means pencil in Russian… weird name for a Swiss brand perhaps?) start with Cyan, Magenta and Yellow just like the printing inks. They then mix those to get all their colours and add only black to darken some shades and white to heighten some others. The absence of expensive pigments explains, I’m guessing, the uniformity of price in the range.
If you’ve read above, you’ve understood I do not believe much in giving kids (or anyone else for that matter!) not-good-enough coloured pencils… Maybe I’ve left out a brand you love (please shout back) but I confidently can recommend…
For little hands:
LYRA : Color giants in 35 colours available individually… These pencils are not only highly pigmented, they also have an extra thick lead to give you more colour power! They are break-resistant, long-lasting and deliver a colour both smudge-proof and waterproof. Hexagonal-shaped barrel and unlacquered they are truly perfect for smaller hands.
STABILO : WOODY 3 in 1 is available in 18 colours… These are a colour pencil, a watercolour pencil and a wax crayon all in one. Non toxic of course, it is the highest quality ones in fat and broad for very little hands but hey, what do you know… lot of artists love them too to make big marks!
For older children or adults I think Derwent’s Artists and Inktense, Prismacolor and Bruynzell’s are definitely good enough and, depending on your fancy, probably a few other brands too. My favorite two though are…
middle of the range price: FABER & CASTELL : POLYCHROMOS & ALFRED DURER (their watercolour artist’s counter part) in 120 colours sold both individually and in tins… Price wise, these are middle of the range coloured pencils but I find them very pleasant, smooth and they blend easily for layered effects. Made with a special process that keeps the lead very firmly into the wood casing, these should not move and shatter inside the pencil… sharpening is also very much improved.
top of the range price: CARAN d’ACHE : PABLO, SUPRACOLOR & of course the LUMINANCE 6901 range are all available individually (if you’re lucky as not many shops stock these) and in tins and wooden cases of course.
In my humble opinion Caran d’Ache is the Rolls Royce of coloured pencils… Pablo and Supracolor (the watersoluble range) are both superior quality ranges. They have a soft lead, excellent lightfastness and very durable wood casings. And then, in 2010, arrived… Luminance 6010! Not quite sure which superlatives to use for these 76 colour guys (“to die for” might do it?!) you’ll just have to see for yourself and try them… perhaps suffice is to add that they have the highest lightfastness of any coloured pencils (100%) so that their (high) price then might be entirely justifiable to yourself if you are producing professional work in pencil!
I’ve just found this pencil blog, and here’s a link to their chart page which might help you choose between brands too. I also have come across the amazing photographs Christopher Payne took at the General’s pencil company in New York and here’s a link to them.
Want to read another blog post about pencils? Go to “2015 the year of… the pencil” by clicking here