A colored pencil is an art medium constructed of a narrow, pigmented core encased in a wooden cylindrical case. Unlike graphite and charcoal pencils, colored pencils’ cores are wax-based and contain varying proportions of pigments, additives, and binding agents. Oil-based, water-soluble and mechanical colored pencils are also manufactured.
Colored pencils can vary greatly in terms of quality and usability; concentration of pigments in the wax core, lightfastness of the pigments, durability of the colored pencil, softness of the lead, and range of colors are indicators of a brand’s quality and, consequently, its market price. Typically, water-soluble and oil-based colored pencils are considered to be a higher quality than their wax-based counterparts, but for many artists, these differences are a matter of preference. Rising popularity of colored pencils as an art medium sparked the beginning of the Colored Pencil Society of America (CPSA). According to its website, “[CPSA] was founded in 1990 as a nonprofit organization dedicated to artists over 18 years of age working with colored pencil”. The CPSA not only promotes colored pencil art as fine art, but also strives to set lightfastness standards for colored pencil manufacturers. Other countries such as Great Britain, Canada, and Australia – among many others – have formed their own organizations and societies for colored pencil artists. In Canada, colored pencils are known as pencil crayons.
The history of the colored pencil is not entirely clear. The use of wax-based mediums in crayons is well-documented, however, and can be traced back to the Greek Golden Age, and was later documented by Roman scholar, Pliny the Elder. Wax-based materials have appealed to artists for centuries due to their resistance to decay, the vividness and brilliance of their colors, and their unique rendering qualities. Although colored pencils had been used for “checking and marking” for decades prior, it was not until the early 20th century that artist-quality colored pencils were produced. Manufacturers that began producing artist-grade colored pencils included Faber-Castell and Caran d’Ache in 1924, followed by Berol Prismacolor in 1938. Other notable manufacturers are Derwent, Progresso, Lyra Rembrandt, Blick Studio, and Staedtler.
Several types of colored pencils are manufactured for both artistic and practical uses.
Artist-grade pencils are filled with higher concentrations of high-quality pigments than student-grade colored pencils. Their lightfastness – resistance to UV rays in sunlight – is also measured and documented. Core durability, break and water resistance, and brand popularity are also notable features of artist-grade colored pencils.
Student and scholastic grade
Many of the same companies that produce artist-grade colored pencils also offer student-grade materials and scholastic-level colored pencils. Lightfastness rating is usually not included in student- and scholastic-grade colored pencils. Core composition and pigment-binder ratio vary among artist- and student-grade colored pencils even when the same company produces them. As they are intended for different users, student- and scholastic-grade colored pencils lack the high quality pigments and lightfastness standards that hold artist-grade products true to their name.
Using lower grade colored pencils does have its advantages, however. Some companies offer erasable colored pencils for beginning artists to experiment with. Also, due to their significantly lower prices, student-grade colored pencils are ideal for elementary and middle school students. Colored pencil manufactures tailor their products — and prices — to different age and skill groups.
Mechanical colored pencils
Although not as common as graphite mechanical pencils, some companies also offer colored refill leads. Currently a very limited color range exists for colored refill leads.
Watercolor pencils, otherwise known as water-soluble pencils, are a versatile art medium. The pencils can be used dry—like normal colored pencils—or they can be applied "wet" to get the desired watercolor effect. In wet application, the artist first lays down the dry pigment and then follows up with a damp paintbrush to intensify and spread the colors. This technique can also be used to blend colors together, and many artists will apply both techniques in one art piece.
Colored pencils can be used in combination with several other drawing mediums. When used by themselves, there are two main rendering techniques colored pencil artists use.
- Layering is usually used in the beginning stages of a colored pencil drawing, but can also be used for entire pieces. In layering, tones are gradually built up using several layers of primary colors. Layered drawings usually expose the tooth of the paper and are characterized by a grainy, fuzzy finish.
- Burnishing is a blending technique in which a colorless blender or a light-colored pencil is applied firmly to an already layered drawing. This produces a shiny surface of blended colors that gets deep into the grain of the paper.
- "How It's Made: Colored Pencils". HowStuffWorks, Inc. Retrieved 13 September 2013.
- "About CPSA". Colored Pencil Society of America. Retrieved 12 September 2013.
- "D6901 - The Standard Specifications for Artists' Colored Pencils". Colored Pencil Society of America. Retrieved 12 September 2013.
- "UK Coloured Pencil Society". UKCPS, Artist 2013. Retrieved 13 September 2013.
- "Coloured Pencil Society of Canada". Coloured Pencil Society of Canada. Retrieved 13 September 2013.
- Lindhardt, Belinda. "Australian Coloured Pencils Network". Australian Coloured Pencils Network. Retrieved 13 September 2013.
- Girdler, Jr., Reynolds (1967). Crayons in the History of the Arts. National Art Education Association. p. 31.
- Ellis, Margaret. "Categories of Wax-Based Drawing Media". waac newsletter. Retrieved 13 September 2013.
- Gildow, Janie. Colored Pencil Explorations: How to Mix Media for Creative Results. North Light Books. pp. 14–15.
- "Scholar™ Erasable Colored Pencils". Prismacolor. Retrieved 15 September 2013.
- Poulin, Bernard. The Complete Colored Pencil Book. North Light Books Inc. pp. 13–14.
- Hammond, Lee (2008). Lifelike Drawing In Colored Pencil With Lee Hammond. North Light Books.
- Gildow, Janie. Colored Pencil Explorations: How to Mix Media for Creative Results. pp. 19–20.