How to choose open stock colored pencils from scratch

Right off the bat, a disclaimer that this is MY way of going about this, you may go a completely different route and have a great success, there is no one set way to do this.

That said, lets get to it! Quite a few of you have written to me on different social media platforms, asking about pencils on a budget, you can’t afford the full set but still want high quality artist grade pencils. So what to do? One option is to buy the Marco Renoir pencils you can find on Ebay easily. I’ll have a review on those up at a later date. But for now, we’ll talk about choosing pencils from open stock, creating your own custom little set that will get you through most coloring pages without leaving you feeling like you want to scream your head off from frustration. This requires a bit of planning and thinking ahead but the great news is, you can always get more pencils later if you feel you are missing something and as a bonus you’ll gain experience as you go along.

To simplify the logic behind the choices, the basic gist of it is that you’ll need the most variety you can get from the least amount of pencils and that’s why you need to plan ahead and know some things about color in general. Note that today I’m using Prismacolor Premier but there will be a separate post later with lists and charts to other popular brands so you can choose your poison. I just don’t want to make this too long 🙂 I’ll link it here as well when it’s up.

So back to the variety issue. Lets talk about color and mixing in general. Meet the handsome mister Color Wheel:


This is a great thing to own as well, even better if you make it yourself. But lets start by explaining what this all is to those who have never seen one and don’t know.
So the outer ring is the hue itself, we’ll come back to it in a second. The next ring shows tint, meaning the hue mixed with white. Then the next one is tone, that is mixed with grey and the last, inner ring is shade, which means the hue mixed with black.
Lets start with primary colors. There are three primary colors, red, yellow and blue. Those three are colors you can not create by mixing other colors and they are the basis of all other hues. On the color wheel, they are shown in the middle as the triad.
Skipping one space, smacked in the middle space between the primaries are the secondary colors. These are colors that you create by mixing the respective primaries. Red+blue results in violet for instance.
In the space between the primary and the secondary colors are the tertiary colors, those are the result of the primary and secondary mixed. It sounds way more complicated then it is. Look at the wheel and it will be pretty obvious what all this is.

All this is useful to know for mixing purposes, obviously but also how to create contrast and such but that I can explain later if anyone is interested. Lets stick to the mixing for now. Pencils are a different medium then paints, they do not mix as well since they’re solid, not liquid. So while you could get away with just a few pencils, as long as they contain the primary three, plus white and black, you’re better off thinking this thing through a bit more.
With Prismacolor Premier, the closest to the primaries are Canary Yellow, Crimson Red and in my opinion, Denim Blue. They don’t have to be 100% exact in matching but the closer you get, the better. That is because when you choose a different yellow for instance, it contains red or blue to some extent already and then you’ll have a harder time predicting the mixing results. Something you should know is that when you mix all three primaries in a certain way, you’ll get brown. But stray a little and you’ll get an unattractive mud shade. So when your yellow is not a primary yellow but leans towards blue, then trying to mix orange with adding red, you’re likely to end up with mud, not orange. Hope that wasn’t too confusing.

So when mixing the primaries, you get secondaries, as said earlier. The second row here shows the result with pencils. While the orange is decent, the other two mixes really aren’t. And you don’t really want to go through this every single time you want to color a leaf, right? So I’d say secondaries are really good to get as ready-made mixes instead of trying to mix them every time. With Prismacolor Premier, these are Cadmium Orange Hue, Grass Green and Violet. As you can see, the tertiaries with these are pretty okay so you can stop there if you wish.

So the very bare bones of a start to your new custom set is the basic six plus black and white that are optional but a great addition.

These are some great additions to any set you choose. Slate Grey or any other greyish blue from other sets is great for shadow work, Sepia is a dark cool brown that will work as any brown, you can warm it up with yellow/orange or use it as a darkening pencil for warm tones. Cream I find to be great with some highlighting, plus blending warm tones with adding a bit of extra zing to it. Indigo Blue is great for darkening cool tones but you can replace this with a cool dark grey, such as Payne’s Grey (though this is not an option with Prismacolor since they don’t have this grey).

If you also want to do skin tones, you will want to add Light Peach and Nectar to the mix. These two will not be the only pencils you use for skin but they’ll be the ones missing otherwise. You’ll also probably use Sepia, a red of some sort and a blue of some sort.

Now, before we go any further, you’ll need to now stop and think about what you like to color. Write down the answers to these questions:

  • What do I love to color? (people, foliage, animals, buildings, trees? List everything you can think of that you might want to color)
  • What colors would I need for those? (not specific pencil names, in general. Like “I love coloring trees” would continue with “I’d need natural brown and green”)

Why is this important? If you like to do nature and foliage, you’ll probably want to use warmer natural greens a lot. That means you probably don’t want to start trying to mix the primary green with yellow every time you color a leaf. When you know what you’ll be trying to do, you can pick the best tools for the task. This is also the time to decide how many pencils you’ll be willing to buy. You do NOT have to stick to the basic six. For example, here’s what I would choose as the smallest possible set I’d buy:
As you can see, I’m skipping the primary yellow altogether because I would never use it, not even for mixing, I always use warm ochres instead, also for mixing. My palette is pretty warm in general, I’d keep the primary red and blue but skip the secondary green as well and replace with two warm greens, again, because I rarely ever use cooler greens and I can cool these two a bit if necessary. Also I’d be annoyed if I’d have to lighter/darken the warm green all the time, so I just go with two. I also tend to use beige and it’s a bastard to mix for me so I’d get that in a pencil form. I’m here replacing the dark blue with a cool grey and skipping white altogether though you might want to add a white to lighten up some of the hues and possibly even blend (though please don’t, just get a blender pencil). I just don’t like the chalky look, I don’t use white. But I do recommend you add it just in case, you might need it.
This is a very very skeletal set, I’d happily add at least a handful more to it but I tried to pick the least amount possible for the sake of simplicity. I’d suggest you get as many as you can afford, it will be a whole lot easier then and focus on the colors you’ll be using most. I rarely ever use blue by itself, I use it to cool down shadows and thus I don’t really need more. If you love to color with blue, be it water or anything else, you’ll definitely want more of them and so on. I’m mostly into people, metals and foliage so I choose accordingly.

Hope that helps and I know it’s a huge and confusing topic and I can remember thinking I can never EVER choose just a few, what would I choose? Don’t worry. The great thing about open stock pencils is that you can always add to your existing set if you feel something is missing. You do not have to get it perfect the first time. But I do hope this saves you some money, you really shouldn’t be buying five blues you will never use when you really need greens to color leaves 🙂

Any questions? Comment below or drop me an e-mail:

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