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  • Writer's pictureMakalla Shernick

Colored Pencils

Health and Safety Disclaimer

The majority of colored pencils are non-toxic and approved for use by all age groups. However, there may be particular colors (typically metallic) in certain brands that can be toxic. Further, solvents can be both toxic and non-toxic depending on its chemical composition. Here is a really fantastic video on various solvents, their applications, and toxicity levels. Also, located on The Art and Creative Materials Institutes’ (ACMI) website, there is a tool you can use to search all AP or CL certified products by the ACMI. This can be a very handy tool in quickly deciding if a material is safe for use or not in a classroom setting.

Brands Compared: Crayola ($), Amazon Basics ($$), Prismacolor ($$$)

Before I begin, I want to address a few limitations of my studio exploration. For starters, the Prismacolor set of colored pencils I own is a ‘portrait set,’ meaning I was only able to test natural tones and not vibrant colors. Also, I did not have access to any watercolor or oil based colored pencils to experiment with. Further, I did not have any solvents or colorless blenders at home to further push the applications of colored pencils. However, after very much regretting I wasn’t able to experiment with these mediums, I will eventually update this blog post with new thoughts and observations after expanding my collection of supplies.

Colored pencils are considered in many minds—certainly in mine before this studio exploration—to be one of the most basic art mediums. For this reason, colored pencils are often associated with the artwork of children. However, through my research and studio exploration I have discovered a new appreciation for the seemingly simple medium.

Pigments, minerals, and binding agents are all combined to form the ‘lead’ of the colored pencil. The quality of the colored pencil is largely based on the concentration of the color pigment within the lead. The documentary series How it’s Made has a segment on the manufacturing of colored pencils, depicting everything from the mixing of pigments to the final product in its packaging. This video would be an excellent educational video to show to older students before they begin working with colored pencils, as it could help them to see colored pencils in a new light through a breakdown of the pencils’ composition.

In terms of quality, colored pencils range significantly. Scholastic grade pencils are generally made with more wax and less pigment. Brands like Crayola make really great student grade colored pencils. They are cheap and easily accessible to most people in the United States. This plays a large role in their popularity and success with elementary students. For older students, student grade colored pencils would most likely suffice for many applications. However, I think exploration with artist grade colored pencils could be very beneficial to the development of understanding color. Premium colored pencils, like Prismacolor, are made with more pigment and less wax. This results in vibrant colors and a softer core texture. These types of pencils, in my exploration experience, had the greatest payoff with the least amount of effort. Using these pencils was a very satisfying experience, and really opened my eyes to the potential of colored pencils in my own art.

Before I began my journey exploring colored pencils, admittedly I had never considered them as a significant art medium past simple “coloring.” While freely letting myself explore all the different ways I can manipulate colored pencils, my opinion of this art medium changed drastically. Most exciting to me was of all the different effects and meaning you could imply by simply changing the pressure in which you apply the pencil to paper. The colored pencils, across all brands, were able to beautifully achieve light and dark line qualities. Across the board, I was really impressed with the variety of mark making that can be achieved with colored pencils. Due to this and their wide variety of available colors, I believe this can be an incredibly expressive medium for students to use. As I was experiencing myself, I think that older students would be able to appreciate the tremendous amount of control you have when using the pencils. While younger students may appreciate the simplicity of use and color properties of the pencils. The only significant limitation I observed in this material was the constant need to keep the pencil sharp. While using these pencils, the lead quickly loses its point (especially in soft-core Prismacolor pencils). This could be a real hindrance to young children who may not have the patience or ability to sharpen their pencils yet.

At the end of my “experimentation” with colored pencils, I was really inspired by their unique ability to layer and build colors on top of one another. So, I tried to use this effect in order to achieve a gradient background. While creating this piece, I was almost entranced by the repetitive motion of layering the colors together. I am really happy with the final outcome, as to me it represents how you can use even the most basic techniques with colored pencils and achieve something really unique. In retrospect, I wish I would have pushed the colors even further and allowed less white space to be shown throughout the pencil marks. I think allowing so much of the textured paper to show through ended up being a little too distracting for the delicacy of the flowers in the foreground.

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