Color Spree

Color Spree
My favorite color is "all of them." What's yours?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Derwent Drawing Pencils

Derwent Fortnight concludes with #14: Drawing Pencils.

I saved the best for last. Derwent Drawing Pencils are my favorite Derwent pencils by a nose. It's a tough choice because so many of the others are unique and indispensible -- Inktense, Graphitint, Tinted Charcoal pencils are not available from any other manufacturer, Coloursoft is the most opaque soft colored pencil and clay-based Derwent Artist's colored pencils have a tricky but rewarding texture that I love. But these are my favorites.

Back in the 1980s, a monthly art workshop group I founded went on an excursion to an art store that was closing down for good, to get as much clearance goodies as we could. About half the group were serious colored pencils artists doing breathtaking realism. One of them, a good friend of mine, shrieked and jumped up and down like a little kid.

"Come see this, you've got to try these. I can't believe they're only a quarter! Get as many as you can. I'm not going to be greedy and just buy the box, everyone needs to get these."

She dragged me over to a bin I'd overlooked that had open stock pencils ... and only six colors left. Black, white, two earth reds, brown and gold, big round oversize pencils.

"They're from England. You can hardly ever get them here and they're usually two or three dollars each. I know there's only six colors, but they're worth it. Wait till you try them. This is the best black. This is the best white. And those other colors are insanely good for portraits."

So I bought two or three each of the earth tones and half a dozen blacks and whites, because I was doing a lot of illustrations. They needed to be reproduced for our fanzines on office copiers. I found out rapidly that she was right about the black Derwent Drawing Pencil. Anything I sketched with it came out copying exactly as I'd drawn it, broken color or solid black areas.

The white was creamy, dreamy and opaque. I began using it for tonal underdrawings whenever I worked on black or dark paper. A couple of years ago I gave in and bought a box of a dozen white Derwent Drawing Pencils because I wore through them that often. White is the most opaque white colored pencil made anywhere. Even the Coloursoft White isn't quite that strong.

Then around 2004 or 2005, Derwent answered all of our wishes by extending the range from six earth colors to 24. All of a sudden I had soft greens, blues, grays, violets and yellows with an expanded group of earth reds, oranges and browns. The drawing on the tin inspired me, a seascape with breathtaking detail and accuracy all done in these strange, slightly muted but incredibly mixable colors.

Even with the original set of six, I was improvising yellow by going over Brown Ochre with white and improvising implied blues by using white over black. I got pinks and oranges out of reds. I knew that with a short range these pencils blended better than anything else I'd ever used. The set still doesn't have the traditional spectrum bright colors of most colored pencils sets.

But that's okay. They can be implied by juxtaposing complementary colors to intensify them and using the Derwent Drawing Pencils range gives a beautiful, consistent range of natural hues for anything I want to draw. Derwent recommends them especially for animals and nature. I can agree with Derwent on that, because I did a cheetah with those and a non-photo blue Prismacolor back when I only had six of them that came out better than any other animal I'd ever drawn.

However, my friend was right too -- these are great portrait pencils. Light Sienna is a perfect highlight color for pale skin and easily shadowed with Mars Violet and the earth reds and browns depending on the person's complexion. Dark people of course are incredibly easy to match with the Derwent Drawing Pencils range.

Deep darks enhance the range of almost any large set of colored pencils, including Ink Blue, a great monochrome color. The black is a glorious mixer, easily taking blends with other hues to deepen them still more. I used to carry the six-pack anywhere I went, in case I wanted to sketch from nature. Now with the full 24 color range, I sometimes tuck the full set into my Sketch Folio and bring it along.

They are worth every penny, no matter what you have to pay for them. The price has come down over the years, especially online. They're only $1.57 at Blick in open stock, and Blick now carries the full range in open stock. For a couple of years you had to get a set of 12 or 24 in order to get the full range, now you can replace the Ink Blue or Olive Earth if you use it up faster than the rest.

For those who don't like muted colors and expect spectrum brights, at least try a white one or a black one. They still hold the crown as the best white and the best black colored pencils I've ever handled -- and this includes the Pablo and Spectracolor Soft ones that a friend sent me to test.

They're good for all colored pencils techniques. The earth reds and browns are great sketching pencils for sanguine life sketching. All the darks are good sketching colors, each with a different character. Using the range together on white in a "pencil drawing" style whether loose or meticulous produces wonderful tonal variations and textures. Yet these pencils also shine for layer-and-burnish realism techniques.

They sharpen to a good sharp pinpoint and will hold that point. Being soft, it'll wear down but it doesn't just fall off because it's sharpened fine. The thick 4mm core and extra wide case protects them from internal breakage, so does something about the formula. These pencils are tough!

My original six-color handful survived being thrown around in the bottoms of bags and boxes, shoved in my pocket, dropped off my desk or table dozens of times, stepped on, kicked across the room and otherwise abused. I got internal breakage on one, and that was after a particularly nasty fall in a pencil that was already worn down to a three inch stub and had been mistreated all its life.

Now of course, I treat them more gently. They live in their sturdy Derwent tin with the cover snapped on and even turned on its side to shove into a messenger bag or folio, they don't fall and bang into each other. I'm not recommending you abuse your pencils. More remembering that even at my most careless, they survived some conditions I'd never subject an artist grade pencil to now.

Here's the drawing I did today to show some of what can be done with the soft muted range of Derwent Drawing Pencils. I used most of the set to shade these two peppers, with a loose technique in the shadow and heavier blending and layering on the fruits. I even had to lift and erase the white highlights on the green peppers to get them brighter. I'd filled the paper tooth with green and then gone over the highlights three or four times with white and light blue, then decided they weren't bright enough.

They'll lift all the way back to white unless they're dug into the paper so deep you're incising. I just lifted back to bare paper with a kneaded eraser, restated the highlights starting with the white and then went over that with the darker colors and the light tints I wanted to shade the highlights. If that green hadn't already had a half dozen layers or if I'd been working on Stonehenge, I probably wouldn't have needed to restate it -- but I had filled the paper tooth.

This concludes our Derwent Fortnight. I hope you enjoyed it and I'll review new Derwent products as they appear and come into my possession. I hope you had as much fun as I did. I'll be back tomorrow with something completely different.

Bell Peppers
5" square
Derwent Drawing pencils on Burgundy Canson Mi-Tientes, smooth side.
Photo reference by |_Heather_| at from Weekly Drawing Thread challenge in the Drawing and Sketching forum.


  1. I love these pencils! I found a few open stock in the earth tones at my local art supply, and would love to get the full set. I use the chocolate, the black, and terracotta all the time for sketching.

  2. Enjoy your blog.. thanks for the info

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  4. Thank you so much for this review. I found you from Derwent's own site.

    I am struggling with the Derwent Artist range of pencils, so it sounds like these will be well worth trying.

    Best wishes


    I tend to tie a shoe lace round my pencil tins as have found they do have a habit of coming open unless they are packed tight in a bag.

  5. Thank you for taking the time to write this review. I just received my first set of colored pencils. I chose these because of your review. I am retired and have taken up acrylic painting and now drawing as new hobbies.

  6. Now I must have them. Found your review googling opaque white colored pencil.

  7. Hi Rob,

    I have a single one of these (not even sure how I got it) and really like it. But I don't love the color selection (I like earth tones, but I want brighter colors too). What I really like about the one I have is the creamy feel, and that I can get vibrant color with light pressure. Do you know of anything similar with a wider color range? My local stores don't carry Derwent (Prismacolor and Koh-i-nor is it I think; maybe a small set of Faber-Castell). But I can always order online if Derwent or another brand would better provide what I am looking for. Any thoughts? Thanks!

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  9. The black derwent can be used almost as a sumi-e ink stick - really does some magic stuff when you add water over it with a waterbrush...beautiful ink wash look