A Journey through the Colorful History and Types of Colored Pencils

Introduction to Colored Pencils

Colored pencils, also known as pencil crayons, have existed for centuries. These tools have been used by artists of all ages and skill levels to create a wide range of art styles, from simple sketches to intricate details in a realistic portrait.

Structure of a Colored Pencil

Colored pencils are structured very similarly to standard pencils. The difference lies in the pencil's core.

A standard pencil is composed of a central core surrounded by a wooden barrel. The central core is graphite mixed with a clay binder, then kiln-fired to harden. The graphite core is then encased within a wooden barrel to form a pencil.

Instead of graphite, the core of a colored pencil is made out of pigments mixed with either a wax or oil binder. The pigments provide the color, while the binder holds the pigments together.

Standard Colored Pencil
Colored Pencils Features

The Evolution of Colored Pencils: A Brief Timeline

  • 1795: Swiss painter Mr. Hardtmuth revolutionized pencil making by adding wax to powdered graphite and clay, which included different pigments.
  • 1850s: Colored pencils, made using Hardtmuth’s technique, are mass-produced, becoming widely available for artists and everyday use.
  • Late 19th Century: German art supply company Faber-Castell started producing colored pencils using oil mixed with pigments, resulting in more vibrant, saturated, and brighter colors.
  • 21st Century: Colored pencils are made with either oil or wax, depending on the manufacturer's preference and the intended use of the colored pencils. Each pencil is designed to achieve a specific effect.

Types of Colored Pencils and Their Methods of Use

Let's dive into the world of colored pencils. There are two main types that artists use: wax-based and oil-based. Each type has its unique traits and ideal use scenarios.

Wax-based Colored Pencils: Your Go-To Choice

Here's what you need to know about wax-based colored pencils:

  • Erase easily: Mistakes aren't a big deal with wax-based colored pencils.
  • Beginner-friendly: If you're just starting, these are an excellent choice.
  • Soft and spreadable: The soft consistency leads to more breakage but spreads easily on paper.
  • Blend, layer, and mix: Perfect for exploring different coloring techniques.
  • Easily available: You can find these in any art store.

These pencils often use paraffin, beeswax, or carnauba wax. But watch out for 'wax bloom,' a thin waxy layer that can form on your drawing over time.

Star Brand

Prismacolor Premier Soft Core Colored Pencils. These pencils are high-performing yet affordable, with a wide range of 150 colors.

branded colored pencils
Oil-based Colored pencils

Oil-based Colored pencils: The Premium Option

Here's what sets oil-based colored pencils apart:

  • Less common: You might have to search for these in an art store.
  • Harder to erase: Make sure you're confident with your strokes!
  • More expensive: These are generally produced as a premium line.
  • Harder pencil core: Less breakage means these pencils last longer.
  • Better lightfastness: The pigment doesn't fade over time, maintaining your artwork's vibrancy.

Oil-based colored pencils typically use vegetable oil, giving them a premium, durable feel.

Star Brand

Faber-Castell Polychromos Pencils. These oil-based pencils offer quality and permanence, making them a favorite among professional artists.

Artist-grade vs. Student-grade Colored Pencils

Understanding the difference between artist-grade and student-grade colored pencils is crucial for anyone working with this medium. The key distinction lies in the pigment-to-binder ratio, which directly impacts color vibrancy.
  • Artist-grade pencils have a higher pigment-to-binder ratio, producing more intense and vibrant colors.
  • Student-grade pencils have a higher binder-to-pigment ratio, which may produce less vibrant colors.
  • Artists and professionals often prefer artist-grade pencils for their exceptional color quality, while student-grade pencils are more budget-friendly and suitable for beginners or casual artists.
color pencil arts
color pencil art


Consideration of lightfastness is vital when using colored pencils. Lightfastness refers to the pigments' resistance to fading or changing when exposed to light over time. Keep the following in mind:
  • High lightfastness ratings ensure colors remain stable and vibrant even after prolonged light exposure.
  • Lower lightfastness ratings may cause colors to fade or change over time.
  • For artworks intended to be displayed or preserved, it's advisable to choose colored pencils with high lightfastness ratings.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Are colored pencils toxic?

The core of colored pencils is composed of pigment held together by wax or oil. These pigments generally contain non-toxic chemicals in the small quantities found in pencils.

While colored pencils may stain the skin during use, this is harmless and easily washed off with soap and water.

2. What type of paper should I use with colored pencils?

Acid-free paper is recommended when using colored pencils to prevent yellowing and deterioration of paper fibers over time. The paper's texture, determined by its material, impact how the pencil tip glides and the texture of the finished drawing.

Common choices include Smooth Bristol Paper, Hot-pressed Paper, rough Mixed Media Paper, and 100% Cotton Paper.

3. How can I blend colored pencils effectively?

Wax and oil-based colored pencils can blend well with the proper techniques. For advanced blending, burnishing can be used: color over the darker hues with a white or light-colored pencil to achieve an airbrushed effect with practice.
wooden color pencils


Colored pencils are versatile tools that have played a significant role in the art world throughout history.

From simple sketches to intricate details, they offer artists of all levels the opportunity to create stunning artwork.

By understanding the different types and brands available, you can choose the colored pencils that best suit your style and preferences. Let the colorful journey begin!

Su - Interwell Founder
Hi, I'm Su, the author of this post. I founded Interwell Stationery and have served over 1000+ clients since 2003. Feel free to contact us for custom stationery supplies, manufacturing support, and the latest trends in the industry.