For centuries, artists have told their students and proteges to invest in the best tools possible: the best marble and chisels, the best paper and charcoal, the best supports and paints. It’s such a popular refrain that it’s become cliche—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
The fact of the matter is that you get out of your tools only what you put into them. Yes, you can probably make decent art from cheap paints and cheap pencils, but you’ll have to work for it.
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I know this firsthand. For years, my primary consideration when it came to art supplies was price. Why buy that high-dollar tube of paint when I could get two cheap tubes for the same price, or just a little more?
Then I got a tube of the good stuff, and realized my mistake with the first brushstroke. And I still had to make the same journey with colored pencils. I don’t know why. . . maybe I was too buys watching the scenery. Maybe I’m just cheap!
Why I switched to better colored pencils
I used Prismacolor pencils for years. At first, that was the only brand I could get. Later, it was because they were available everywhere. I mean, everywhere. Still later, after colored pencils began to get popular, it was because I was familiar with them and because, you guessed it, they were less expensive (read cheap.)
How much better could those expensive pencils be than the Prismacolor pencils I’d used for years and loved?
But then, some things happened that led me to start buying a few “expensive colored pencils.” I sold a nice original. I discovered that half of my Prismacolor colors were fugitive (not lightfast.) I remembered my oil painting experiences. It all added up, and earlier this year I became the owner of a full set of Polychromos pencils.
I’ve now used my Polychromos pencils both by themselves and right alongside cheaper pencils, and I love ‘em.
This isn’t a review article. There are plenty of those out there. My purpose with this article is to help other artists like me, artists who want to try better pencils, but are either limited by budget or belief.
Maybe you won’t have an experience like mine, but how will you know unless you try? Here are a couple of ways to dip your toe into the more expensive end of the colored pencil pool without having to dive in.
1. Start small
You really don’t need a full set of pencils to learn how they perform. Most of the better brands are available in sets as small as twelve pencils, and are priced better than buying open stock. Some of them even come in sets for specific uses, like landscapes, portraits, etc. These small sets are ideal for getting a good collection of colors at a manageable cost.
2. Buy two or three pencils open stock
Even if the pencil you’re interested in is as pricey as open stock (Luminance are over $4 each) most of us can at least afford a couple of colors.
And, since pencils like this are usually available only online, you can add one two to an existing order without paying extra shipping charges.
OK, what colors should I get?
There are a couple of ways to look at this.
Option 1. Buy primary colors
A good place to start is to get each of the primary colors. It doesn’t really matter which red, yellow, and blue you get, because the goal is see how the pencils lay down color, how they cover the paper, and how they blend. I recommend looking at at the color charts and selecting the three primaries that look the purest, because they will produce the truest secondaries when you start blending colors.
If you have a little more disposable income, get two sets of primary colors, one cool and one warm of each color.
You can also get cool primaries from one brand and warm ones from another. Almost all of the brands can be used together, but blending this way is a good way to find out for sure if the brands you’re considering work well with your drawing methods and style.
Option 2. Get your favorite colors
If primary colors aren’t your speed, why not just buy a few colors you’re most likely to use? For example, I do a lot of landscape drawing. If I were to try a new pencil, I’d opt for a selection of greens, blues, or earth tones; maybe one or two of each.
Again, you can get warm and cool versions of those colors in the same brand or mix brands.
Option 3. Go random
This might be the most fun for some, but is also potentially the least useful. Just close your eyes, and pick three or four colors at random. You’re guaranteed to end up with a collection of interesting colors!
Of course you run the risk of getting colors you’ll never use for anything beyond experimentation, but some of us thrive on that. (At least that’s what I’ve heard. I’m actually a very routine-oriented person so this would drive me crazy.)
The fact of the matter is that you can try all kinds of pencils without breaking the bank on any one brand. With a little planning, you can even end up with a wide range of colors and brands.
You might be wondering if all of this is worth the effort, time, and expense. All I can tell you is that it has been more then worth the investment for me, and I encourage you to ttry at least a couple of different, top quality pencils for yourself!