Choosing the right colored pencil set isn’t as easy as going to the store and picking up the first box you come across.
While you can go this route, you will probably end up disappointed with the result.
So what do you need to consider when selecting a set?
Your budget is going to play a big factor in the selection process.
Colored pencils range in price from a couple of dollars to over a hundred. Yes, really!
Quality, number of pencils, and what comes in the set will affect the overall cost.
You will have to set a budget range you are comfortable with. As the old saying goes: “You get what you pay for.”
However you can be frugal and still walk away with a great pencil set.
Know Your Needs
Just like being a carpenter or a repairman, artists need the right tools for the job.
What is that job, though? Most smaller sets are marketed to adults for coloring in books. If that’s what you’re looking for then virtually any set will work.
If you are creating your own drawings you may need more specialized sets.
There are several grades of colored pencils; however, the three most common are Student(or Scholar), Professional, and Artist.
It can get confusing since not all sets are labeled with their grade, and some companies use the professional and artist grades interchangeably.
Depending on your needs, knowing what grade and how the pencils are made will go a long way towards finding the perfect set.
These pencils are a step up from the basic colored pencils.
Their cores(which I call lead, even though they aren’t made of lead anymore) are hard, brittle and dull quickly. Student grade pencils tend to color well but leave behind the tell-tale signs of pencil marks and scratches.
Student grade pencils are designed for colors other than pencil gray, but just barely. They offer more composite material and less pigment. The colors are brighter than the pencils from 3rd grade art class but aren’t super vivid.
You won’t often find student grade pencils that are waterproof or wear-resistant. However they will save you a lot of money.
Student grade pencils tend to cost 50 to 60 percent less than the higher grade ones. Though they don’t last as long so you may end up paying more in the long run.
With professional grade pencils you can have either soft or hard cores. And depending on the other factors they will be better used for blending, shading, or filling in.
The cores are medium to thick depending on the brand and are less likely to flake or need constant sharpening.
You will also find that you pay more for the professional grade than you will for student grade sets.
Though if you go professional you will know where your money went. The colors are vibrant and most will be wear-resistant. If you search enough you can find a set that is also waterproof.
So artist grade pencils are going to be the most expensive when it comes to initial costs.
However you will notice that these pencils last a lot longer than any other grade.
In the long run this offsets the cost and the longer you use them to draw or create, the less they will end up costing you.
Artist grade pencils tend to have thick, soft leads and contain more pigment than any other grade.
Usually these will be oil based cores instead of wax-based like the student and some professional grades. Because of this, the colors will glide smoothly on the paper without a lot of skipping, jumping or blanking.
Absolutely perfect for professional artists or anyone practicing to become an artist with serious effort.
Wax or Oil?
The cores of colored pencils are colored with pigments that are either wax based or oil based. Either will work, again depending on what your primary use is.
Oil-based cores tend to be harder, more rigid, and are prone to flaking and breaking. This means you will stop more often to sharpen the pencils.
Wax-based cores, on the other hand, are soft. While drawing they almost seem to melt right into the paper. This makes drawing a little more difficult but once you get used to it you won’t want to go back to oil.
The oil-based colors hold more pigment (in general) than their wax-based counterparts.
This translates into more vibrant colors and the ability to blend and mix a lot easier.
You can also do shading work but it is more difficult with oil leads than with wax.
The Small Details
Grade, price, and core materials are going to be the largest factors in deciding on which set to purchase.
However there are some smaller details that some people like to have (or avoid).
For instance, some sets will have well over 100 colors to choose from but not all of them will have the color name on the pencil itself.
Some artists like the ability to search for “Copenhagen Blue” while others just look at the sharpened tips to find which one they want.
Pencil length is also something to consider. Shorter pencils will wear down faster and be more difficult to hold towards the end of their life. Longer pencils, though, can be more difficult to manipulate in tighter coloring areas for detail work or shading.
Lead thickness, durability, and width all come into play as well. Thinner pencils will have less lead and cause more hand fatigue as they are harder to hold properly.
You will have to try out a few different styles to find out which length and thickness work best for you. But generally speaking all sizes of colored pencils should work for all purposes. It’s mostly about getting used to the feeling.
Now that you know what to look for let’s browse through the best colored pencil sets out there. I have a feeling your next set will be somewhere on this page.
The wax-based cores are soft yet firm to give the user a solid marking pencil. SUDEE STILE has enlarged the cores and uses poplar wood for the barrel which gives a firmer grip with less hand fatigue.
The wood and core combination make the pencils easier to sharpen and hold the lead in place to prevent breakage at the tips. Much moreso than other hard cored pencils.
The pencils will dull faster than the oil based cores; however shading lines can be achieved with better results.
Colors are numbered but not named on the barrels.
The actual color numbers are stamped on the wooden barrel and the blunt ends have a color cap displaying the lead color for easy identification. This all feels very intuitive when working and drawing regularly.
The set includes three removable trays with two sharpeners to ensure you always have the proper tip for your projects.
Thick cores allow for shading and sketching at any length
Poplar wood barrels are easy to sharpen
Professional grade cores are designed to lay down more constant color
Colors can be harder to mix together
Harder tips are more prone to breaking over time
Arteza Colored Pencils (72 Set)
The oil-based cores of this Arteza set make for bright, vibrant coloring experience with minimal breaking.
These pencils are encased in a hardwood barrel and do not flake, break, or splinter when sharpening. You can use almost any pencil sharpener and never sweat extra breakage from too much force.
The set of 72 colors focuses more on the darker tones, which is bad news for those that work on darker paper.
But if you usually work on lighter paper or in a sketchbook then you won’t miss those brighter toned colors.
You can’t replace individual pencils as the Arteza pencils are only sold in sets. But you can get a cost-effective color range with their different sets.
This is good if you tend to use up certain colors well before others.
Not only are the barrels marked with the pencil number and colors but you will also notice little plus sign markings(up to three) on each pencil. This is the lightfast rating.
One plus has a lighfastness of 10 to 25 years, two pluses rate at 25 to 100 years and three pluses rate over 100 years. Pretty cool feature!
Mid-range cost for high-end pencils
Easily identifiable colors with name and lightfastness ratings
Cores do not break as easy as other similar pencil sets
Less bright tone colors in the set
Can’t replace individual pencils without buying a new set
Positive Art Colored Pencils (60 Set)
Positive Art has a professional grade set of 60 colors that have an incredible feeling in your hands.
The thicker barrel is soft to grip and doesn’t slide as much as some others in this list with a similar build.
The cores are hard which can break at the sharpened tips with too much pressure. So you have to be cautious of how much you’re pushing on the paper.
Once you adjust your hand to the new feel these pencils glide along smoothly.
They aren’t as bright as some of the higher-end artistic sets here. But for general coloring you won’t notice much of a difference honestly.
The cores are thick and provide broad coverage with minimal effort and with less hand fatigue you can color for longer. This is good news if you find yourself pushing too hard on your current pencils.
These colors are mixed well and don’t fade in light, though they aren’t wear-resistant or waterproof.
I’d say this pack is great for newer artists who have never used colored pencils before. Break into the game with a set that feels professional but doesn’t come at the same price tag.
Colors blend and fade well into other colors
Thicker barrel is easier to hold and manipulate from many angles
The barrels are designed for easy grip and firm control. This goes for kids and adults.
However they are prone to splintering when sharpening so I definitely suggest a handheld sharpener for this pack too.
The cores are harder than most others so don’t be confused by the label on the packaging that says “Artistic Quality.” The set is not artistic grade.
But that marketing faux pas aside, the colors are rich and lay down easily on any paper.
The number identifier is printed on the barrel but not the color name. Although the lead color is reproduced on the barrel end which is a very close match to the actual color.
The cores resist breaking mostly because of how dense they are.
If you’re coloring with lines you’ll notice they feel lower quality than that of the higher-end pencils. But for standard drawing hatch shading they work very well.
Especially if you’re getting a pack for your child or if you’re just starting out with colored pencils.
A full pack of colors for artists including skin tones
Thinner cores mean a finer point if you sharpen just right
Often splinters when sharpening
Lower quality color compared to larger brands
ColorIt Colored Pencils (72 Set)
These ColorIt colored pencils are a professional grade pencil set that come in a zippered travel pouch for easy transportation.
In this set you’ll also get a bonus sharpener so you don’t need to purchase one separately. This is great news for anyone who’s never worked with colored pencils before.
All cores are wax-based for a softer, smoother effect. No extra pressure required.
The softer cores don’t flake as much when being sharpened and they hold a point longer.
Plus with these softer cores you’ll find they hold more pigment than some of the other options on this list too.
Your finished result is a vibrant colored piece that mixes well with all colors on the page.
And the thickness of the marks lend to blending and smudging. Wear-resistant, though not waterproof, you can still use oils to mix and blend on paper if needed.
Also worth noting these barrels have the color marked on the end of the pencil and the color name and identification number are printed about halfway down.
Soft lead doesn’t require much pressure to draw with
Easy-to-hold barrels with color names labeled
Wax-based cores hold more pigment
These are not waterproof
Harder to accomplish precision shading
Faber-Castell (24 Set)
For over 250 years, Faber-Castell has been producing high-quality art sets and materials to artists of all ages. These colored pencils are professional grade with extra thick lead(3.8mm versus 3.3mm).
Because of this thickness the leads resist breaking and chipping, even when being sharpened aggressively in an electric sharpener.
The oil-based cores lay down a smooth and rigid color that mixes better than most other oil-based pencils.
The barrel’s wood is the color of the pigment for the entire length of the pencil, not just the blunt end.
The names of the colors, though, are not printed anywhere on the pencils.
On the plus side all of these colors are wear-resistant, water-resistant, and have a lightfastness of over 100 years.
The smooth softwood surrounding the core is easy to hold and offers very little hand fatigue. You can draw for hours and get some real high-quality output!
Wear and water-resistant cores
Extra thick lead sharpens easily without breaking
Limited color swatches
Colors don’t mix well with oils or wet mediums for smudging
Diamond Driven Colored Pencils (120 Set)
Diamond Driven colored pencils are student grade pencils that offer a professional grade final work. The cores are standard thickness and oil based, which means you can sharpen them to a fine point without worrying about breaking.
I often worry about sharpening my pencils and this pack really felt incredibly sturdy. I’d rank it within the top 3 of sturdiness when used inside an electric sharpener.
The barrels show the color of the pigment, but unlike most professional/artist grade pencils they are not SV bonded.
Because of this you may experience some lead and barrel separation which can lead to the barrel splintering during sharpening. Or even during repeated use.
The colors do blend well and with the harder core you can do detailed work in smaller areas, perfect for coloring books and more complex drawings.
Easy to hold with a good length
Will sharpen to an ultra fine point
120 colors cover most hues and tones
A slightly thinner core than other brands
Barrel isn’t bonded to the core which can result in wood splintering
This set offers vibrant colors, durability, and continuous performance with a trusted brand name. However you may decide you like a longer barrel, a thicker core, or just don’t need that many colors. So if the Prismacolor pack isn’t for you have another look over this list and see what you think.
You’re sure to find a great set of colored pencils if you keep researching and know exactly what you’re using them for.
Author: JT Pledger
JT is a ghostwriter, novelist and screenwriter. He loves making words convey more than just a message and helping others find their passion with the written word. You can contact him through his website.