The world of colored pencils can be both exciting and intimidating and they are considered by many to be the holy grail of illustration tools! We want to empower you to choose your tools confidently and answer your burning questions about quality and what makes oil-based colored pencils unique from other types.
What's the difference in quality between the colored pencils used at your local kindergarten and a professional-grade tool? A colored pencil is essentially a wooden barrel filled with binder and pigment, along with fillers and clay. Quality comes down the ratio of pigment to binder: cheaper pencils will use more binder and less pigment, whereas a professional-grade pencil will have a high amount of pigment. There are three main kinds of binders: wax, oil-based, and water-based.
Wax is an inexpensive binder that typically gives good coverage, but is prone to wear down quickly or break and leave a layer on the surface of work known as “wax bloom”. Wax colored pencils tend to leave debris and limit the amount of layers the artist can use, unless used in combination with a workable fixative. They tend to be softer than oil-based colored pencils and are more difficult to erase.
Oil-based colored pencils use vegetable oil as a binder and tend to be harder than their wax-based counterparts so they tend to hold a sharp point and experience less breakage. They enable the artist to use many layers as they don’t have the issue of “wax bloom”. These pencils are often more expensive as a result. You’ll typically need to use more layers than with wax-based pencils because of the hardness.
Also known as “watercolor pencils”, these binders are water soluble due to the added emulsifier and can be used in a similar fashion to watercolor paints. They’re less stable, but can be used wet or dry.
You don’t need to limit yourself to choosing only one type! Experiment with a variety of binder types, and try using them in combination! You may want to use oil-based pencils for your base layers and burnish with wax, or incorporate water-based at some point in the process. Other considerations that you may want to factor in when choosing a colored pencil are the size, shape, and lightfastness. Check out our article on common mistakes when using colored pencil to make sure you’re getting the best use out of whichever colored pencils you choose!