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Best colouring pencils 2023: Draw like a professional artist with sets starting from £32

Whether you love Prismacolors or Faber-Castells, we’ve got a selection of the best colouring pencils at a range of prices

Finding the best colouring pencils, the ones that feel just right in your hand, ultimately boils down to personal choice. But that’s not to say we can’t nudge you in the right direction with our guide to the leading brands for artists.

There are the brands that artists know and trust, such as Faber-Castell and Caran d’Ache, who produce professional-grade pencils. Then there are the less well-known manufacturers that might offer better value, especially if you are just starting out.

Finding a pencil that suits your particular style should be at the forefront of your buying decision. The hand of each artist moves in a slightly different way, producing their own distinctive works. Pencils vary enormously too, in the hardness of the lead, how they feel in the hand and in the variety and depth of pigment. Matching your style to that of the pencils is key.

The buying decision can also hinge on how you plan to use them. From everyday workhorses that can be used again and again, to beautifully crafted models that might be saved for special works, coloured pencils vary enormously in quality.

The reviews below cover the entire spectrum of price points, from beginners’ sets to those for professional artists. There’s also a buying guide delving into the properties you might want to consider when purchasing pencils and how much you should pay for them.

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Best colouring pencils: At a glance

How to choose the best colouring pencils for you

What types of colouring pencils are there?

There are many elements of colouring pencils that all combine to form the set you’ll buy from a store. Some of the terms used on packaging and in art forums can be confusing to newbies on the scene. To help you out, here are some of the key properties to consider.

  • Type: To start with, you’ll want to decide whether you want oil-core, wax-core or watercolour pencils. Oil pencils generally provide a finer point suitable for drawing fine detail such as hair, while wax has a duller tip that is better for shading (more on watercolour in a minute). These are crude categorisations though – in reality, no pencil is purely wax or oil and both are often present in the same pencils, alongside other ingredients. A third alternative is watercolour pencils. As the name implies, these pencils imitate the look of watercolour paint since the coloured pigment is held by a water-soluble binding agent rather than wax or oil. That means, once you’ve shaded something, rubbing water over it using a paint brush will produce a watercolour painting-like aesthetic. Alternatively, you can put a little water on a page and draw on with your pencils thereafter.
  • Quality: When it comes to quality, you’re generally looking for pencils with higher proportions of pigment, which should result in richer colours coming off the pencil. Trusted brands are always a good choice in this regard, but don’t be put off if you haven’t heard of a manufacturer before – it might just be better value.
  • Hardness: An interrelated concern to both quality and type, this refers to the relative hardness of pencil lead. Harder pencils tend to have more pigment in them and less wax, hence they are better for drawing detail and outlining, rather than covering large areas. They are also lighter and easier to erase. On the other hand, softer pencils will provide a more opaque stroke that smudges faster, making it useful for blending colours and shading.
  • Colours: Of course, the range of colours in a set of pencils is an important consideration. However, you don’t want to go overboard if it’s your first set – start with 24 or fewer and work your way up. You can often buy individual pencils from the leading brands to add further range to a small set.
  • Lightfastness: This refers to how fade-resistant your drawings will be when using that pencil. This is especially important if you’re a professional artist, although any artist wouldn’t want their drawings to fade quickly. Coloured pencils have their own standard for lightfastness and pencils that reach those heights are labelled with ASTM D6901. Not all manufacturers use this standard, with some making their own scales of lightfastness – for instance, Prismacolour use I – Excellent, II – Very Good, III – Good, IV – Fair, V – Poor.

How much should I pay?

Interrelated to all those properties is the price. Generally, the greater the range of colours in a set, and the greater the pigmentation of those coloured pencils, the more the set will cost. Higher cost also generally means better lightfastness, though do look for a label confirming that. A full set of 120 pencils from one of the top brands might cost almost £200.

That’s not to say there isn’t a range of colours available at lower price points – they just might not be from brands that professional artists adore. You can often get a similarly sized set, around 180 colours, for £30 to £50 and still enjoy reasonable quality if you’re just starting out. Price isn’t usually tied to the pencil core type or hardness levels, which can vary at all different price points.

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The best colouring pencils you can buy in 2023

1. Prismacolor Premiers: The best soft-core colouring pencils

Price: £80 | Buy now from Amazon

By far the softest pencil lead around is found in the Prismacolor Premiers. The only thing that comes close is the Caran d’Ache Luminance set, but the Premiers tend to offer a more opaque look that blends beautifully between colours like butter. Because of this, it’s easy to get a lot of the high-pigment lead down on the page without applying much pressure (press too hard and you’ll blitz through your new set in no time). We recommend keeping the tip fairly short to avoid breakages mid-draw, but the velvety softness delivers that high-quality look that artists crave.

Key details – Unique pencils: 48; Type: Wax; Lead thickness: 4mm; Lightfast rating: ASTM D6901; Purchase individually: Yes

2. Faber-Castell Polychromos Artist Pencils Set Of 120: The best pencils for colour range

Price: £195 | Buy now from Amazon

Of the three most revered pencil brands – the others being Caran d’Ache and Derwent – Faber-Castell has the widest range. The company’s biggest set of pencils is this Polychromos set. An oil-based set, these pencils are quite hard with a sharp lead point – in fact, it’s incredibly resistant to going blunt, which is perfect for drawing all that fine detail, from wispy hairs to intricate leaves.

They are pricey, but for the breadth of colour choice whilst still delivering professional-grade quality, there is nothing better. This set would make an incredible gift for any budding artist that will be cherished for a long time to come.

Key details – Unique pencils: 120; Type: Oil; Lead thickness: 3.8mm; Lightfast rating: ASTM D6901; Purchase individually: Yes

3. Arteza Expert: The best budget soft-core colouring pencils

Price: £39 | Buy now from Arteza

Both the Prismacolor Premier and Faber Castell Polychromos sets offer some of the best soft-core pencils around, but many artists can’t justify spending £100 or more on a set. Besides, those soft cores can wear away quickly. A more affordable option that will take you a little further comes from Arteza’s Expert line.

They aren’t quite as soft as those more expensive brands, which should have the benefit of making them more durable, while still providing a creamy touch on paper. That’s perfect for getting even coverage over a larger area.

In terms of colour, the Arteza pencils have excellent pigmentation, offering a wonderful range of colours in the 72-piece set, from warm and cool to earthy and dark. Lightfastness is pretty solid too, with only a dozen of the 72 pencils not being recommended for professional work. Considering the price, the Arteza pencils are an exceptional choice should those expensive top-tier brands fall out of reach.

Key details – Unique pencils: 72; Type: Wax; Lead thickness: 4mm; Lightfast rating: Pencil specific (12 rated 1+, 20 rated 2++, 40 rated 3+++); Purchase individually: Yes

Buy now from Arteza

4. Caran d’Ache Luminance 6901: The best colouring pencils for black paper

Price: £53 | Buy now from Cult Pens

For those with a preference for drawing on darker paper, the Caran d’Ache Luminance 6901 set is just about perfect. Their superior luminance means they perform well on darker materials, but they can be used on lighter paper too.

These colouring pencils are a stunning choice for their overall quality. Caran d’Ache claims they are the “most lightfast permanent colour pencil ever designed” which is some claim, so you can be confident your work won’t fade in short order.

Each pencil has its own foam slot in the cedar wood casing, which gives a premium feel to this set. This is only a pack of 20, but if you want professional pencils that are beautiful and bright then these are your best best – plus you can always expand your collection as and when you can, or mix and match with other brands.

Key details – Unique pencils: 20; Type: Wax; Lead thickness: 3.8mm; Lightfast rating: ASTM D6901; Purchase individually: Yes

Buy now from Cult Pens

5. Shuttle Art 172: The best colouring pencils for durability

Price: £32 | Buy now from Amazon

Sometimes you just want a reliable set of pencils that will always be there when you need them. These Shuttle Art pencils are durable workhorses that will suit any beginner down to the ground.

The 3mm lead is a little smaller than others on this list, but it is tightly packed and not as prone to breakage as other wax pencils – in fact, they act more like oil pencils due to their hardness. Still, the wax allows you to wear them down which makes them more appropriate for blending too.

The lower price tag on a whopping 172 different pencil shades is something that should appeal to beginners who can’t wait to put pencil on paper.

Key details – Unique pencils: 172; Type: Wax; Lead thickness: 3.8mm; Lightfast rating: ASTM D6901; Purchase individually: Yes

6. Van Gogh Royal Talens: The best value colouring pencils

Price: £50 | Buy now from eBay

These pencils are pretty hard to come by but, oh boy, they are worth picking up.

The Van Gogh Royal Talens colouring pencil sets – as the name suggests – offer quality that the artist would be proud of. They were part of the very first ASTM tests for lightfastness in coloured pencils and are now the standard that other pencils are judged against, so you can be sure your drawings will last for a very long time. That’s pretty incredible considering the price – the Royal Talens are the least expensive of the ASTM rated pencils out there.

The Talens are light in hand and have a thick core with excellent pigment strength. The core is wax based, so provides an overall creamy application that blends well between colours. That colour range isn’t as extensive as some more expensive brands but there is a lot to work with and, at this price, they make a great starter kit for someone after a more professional touch to their drawings.

Key details – Unique pencils: 36; Type: Wax; Lead thickness: 3.8mm; Lightfast rating: ASTM D6901; Purchase individually: No

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