Color Spree

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

Monday, March 8, 2010

Derwent Pastel Pencils Reformulated

Derwent Fortnight continues with #3: Derwent Pastel Pencils!

Derwent has reformulated their pastel pencils. The new formula is soft, pigment-rich and beautifully consistent in texture across all the colors I tried. The color range has been shortened to 72 with more lightfastness and that's a good thing to know, since I use pastel pencils often for serious works. Especially if I do detailed realism or small ATC and postcard sized paintings, I want pastel pencils as good and lightfast as my artist grade pastels.

I haven't had time to test their lightfastness, but Derwent lists a lightfastness rating for most of their pencils individually on their website (linked). There isn't a listing for Derwent Pastel Pencils in the new formula yet, but the photo and range of 72 shows they're writing up the new formula rather than the old 90 color range. When they do post the lightfastness results, I may come back and edit this review.

To tell whether you've got New Formula pastel pencils or old formula, look at the tin or packaging. The old tins had a sketch of poppies on them, the new tin and blister pack art is a lovely portrait of a girl shown in the photo at the top. With the elimination of 18 colors, you may want to snap up old full range sets if you're a color fiend who must have every single possible pastel pencil available. Since they changed the colors on some of them, combining the old and new ranges may have more than 18 different colors involved, but the older ones include some less lightfast hues.

Yesterday I tested my new formula six-pack on some gray Canson Mi-Tientes, smooth side. Using a midtone paper allowed me to see how strong the white is and how well the colors lay down over another color. I cut a nine by twelve inch piece in half and did two sketches. This one is quick and light to show how strong a single or double layer laydown looks against a gray background, the other is more developed to see how well they blend and how much I can fine-tune the blending on a more serious painting.

I drew a dandelion from memory, including a dandelion clock to see how strong and opaque the white is against a midtone background. White pastel pencils are incredibly useful for initial sketching and tonal sketching on black and dark papers. The strength and opacity of the white helps determine how well I can layer very bright or light colors over it when I'm using black.

From the moment I started drawing I knew I liked these well enough that I want the full range set. It won't match most of the colors in my Cretacolor set because Derwent has so many good proprietary hues. Even colors like the bright warm red that are ubiquitous across different pencil and pastel lines will have a different cast in different brands, so multiple large sets can literally extend your range.

I found I liked the new formula a little more than my trusted Cretacolor pastel pencils, they're ahead by a nose. I'm still not sure about replacing my Carb-Othello ones, but Derwent's pastel pencils are far ahead of them in priority even if I do. The new formula is soft!

One point broke off when I first used it, the yellow pencil had a little internal breakage. This may have been from the rigors of travel in a blister pack, I've noticed with other pencils like Prismacolors that the ones in the tins arrive less damaged than open stock or blister packs. Compared to the breakage in my Carb-Othellos, losing one point that sharpened without breaking off again was nothing. When I first got the Carb-Othello ones, half the range were down at least three or four points just on the first sharpening and some colors were mere stubs when new!

Still, it's a reminder to use a brand-new pencil sharpener with a wide hole for sharpening these and replace it whenever there's any difficulty turning the pencil. You get a feel for it after a while, there's an ease of sharpening with brand-new pencil sharpeners that wears off.

The point the blade's too dull for soft pencils leads to the second bin, the level where it's still useful for normal graphite and hard-lead pencils. If you want to be frugal, drop them into that second bin once a point breaks on a softie and then toss it only when the wood splinters on a normal HB pencil, that gets the most use out of a sharpener.

With just one point broken out of six, the track record for sturdy core is running about even with Cretacolor. I did lose points on a few of my Cretacolor set in the first sharpenings, but not as many and only one pencil in that set lost more than one point. After purchase, either keep them in a secure, heavy pencil cup that your cat can't tip over, or store them in an elastic-band pencil case.

Pastel pencil is a delicate medium. Even the more durable brands need some pampering to get the most use out of them. I'm delighted with how this sketch came out and that six-color blister pack will probably get used up in field sketching. Right now these live in a pencil cup on my desk with a half dozen Tinted Charcoal pencils for quick sketching when I don't want to dig out large sets just to draw on impulse.

This light dandelion sketch shows marks with light, medium and heavy pressure on a mid-tone toothy but ordinary pastel paper. They'll wear down faster on sanded or coated papers, but pastel pencils work fantastic on ClaireFontaine PastelMat which is the smoothest of the coated papers and perfect for realism. I know this blister pack set will wear down fast with how often I use pastel pencils in my sketchbook!

Dandelion from Memory
6" x 8"
Derwent Pastel Pencils
Gray Canson Mi-Tientes, smooth side.

Derwent is fantastic for choosing exactly the right colors to put in a six-color blister pack trial set. I trust them enough to choose good mixers to know that I can make use of a six-pack, when with most brands of pencils (pastel or otherwise) I want at least 24 to be able to get a good range of color. I'm used to a large palette.

The blister pack of Derwent pastel pencils was no exception. The red leans slightly toward orange but is true enough to give a good strong red-violet in the shadows on the strawberries below. The brown and green are both good and dark, while the yellow lightens either to a brilliant range of tones. I only needed one layer of white over the several layers of color on the strawberries to establish the highlights, just pressing harder for the stronger white patches.

I would have liked to push the darks a bit farther since the reference had some pitch black areas, but that's easily accomplished with a charcoal pencil. I've got some Derwent charcoal pencils in the same cup, but strictly used only the pencils in the bubble pack for this demonstration to show how well they mix and how good the color selection is.

The brown and dark green are both far more useful than a black, especially when most artists also have charcoal handy and many pastelists never use black at all. If I were working on white paper, the deep darks would easily be sufficient, it's just this reference had an extreme value range. The softer background gives it a gentler, softer appearance though. Even with black I'd still have used all the colors but yellow to create a shimmering, shifting range of hues in the background.

Of course when I can get mixing results like this with a six-pack, I want the full range to find out what I can do with other browns, other greens, grays, reds, oranges... I'm crazy about color and these are definitely worth getting the full range!

4" x 5"
Derwent Pastel Pencils
Gray Canson Mi-Tientes paper, smooth side
Photo reference by AlainJ from for Weekend Drawing Event March 5-7th 2010.


  1. Great review, Robert! How to know if the pencils are old or new, look at the blunt end, where the colour of the pencil is indicated in paint:
    - really old: straight dip, no extra border, text on pencil in white print, casing looks stained and laquered
    - old: slanted dip, with a dusty pink border between coloured end and the red of the casing. Text on pencil in white print. Casing looks stained and laquered.
    -new: slanted dip, with a silvery border, text on pencil in silvery print. Casing looks painted red, opaquely.

    Short version: slanted dip, silver border and silver print = new.

    Amazing what you could do with only 6 colours! Love the dandelions!


  2. Thank you, Charlie! It's great to have a quick and easy way to tell which generation the open stock pencils are at a physical store, or query an online store.

    I might try to get some old formula to compare and see how much of a difference there is. Blick still has the white lettering/pink slant generation of them, so if I get them before July I can compare them. That's when Col Art will get them the new formula stock.

    The opaque paint look is that they switched to a more environmentally friendly watersoluble paint for the casings, so that makes me feel good about the new formula too.

  3. Nice Review Robert,

    I've been searching all over to find a full set of 72 with no joy. The samples Derwent sent me just made the craving worse.

    I did find a lone tin of 12 at Jerry's to hold me over. The tin of 12 contents: P030 Process Yellow, P100 Spectrum Orange, P130 Cadmium Red, P260 Violet, P340 Cyan,P350 Prussian Blue, P410 Forest Green, P430 Pea Green, P530 Sepia, P580 Yellow Ochre, P710 Carbon Black and P720 Titanium White.

    The cadmium red was a little too warm for mixing a violet but they will probably have a good carmine in the larger sets and should mix to a nice violet with the cyan.

    Let me know if you hear of a U.S. supplier that has the new version.


  4. Thank you for the great review! I have spent so much time trying to locate these new pencils and I cannot find them ANYWHERE! Do you happen to know who is selling the new formula? If not, am I not finding them because they have not been released yet?

    Thank you, so much!

  5. Hi there. Dakota Art Pastels has the new Derwent Pastel Pencils. I found out about them from an email Dakota sent me.

  6. Rob, if you are going to use pastel pencils for detail with oil pastels, which make would you choose? I'm trying to buy a set during the holiday sales.
    Thanks! Diane