Today We’re going to be comparing at two wax based colored pencils. Prismacolor Premier and Luminance from Caran d’Ache
Starting off with prismacolor, I started using these pencils 20 years ago. Back then, they were made well. They built a good reputation for themselves for having a large range of colors that are super smooth to blend with. These are an easy pencil to find here in the US, actually they are pretty much the only colored pencil you will find in most art stores over here. I used them exclusively for years. These are one of the most inexpensive of colored pencils available, making them quite attractive for many buyers.
Several years ago prismacolor changed where and how these were manufactured. Prismacolor has a very brittle lead. That has always been true. The problem however is that they started using poor quality wood for their casings and overall quality control became non existent. The wood casings now are regularly warped and the leads are off centered more often than not, and the wood is prone to splitting when sharpened.
Everyone knows with prismacolor not to drop your pencil or you risk cracking the lead inside the casing. The thing is now you don’t even have to drop your pencil to break the lead anymore. Because of the off centered leads (or warped casings), you just have to sharpen it which creates pressure points on the lead inside the casing causing breakage inside. I hear from people all the time who have this problem and thought that they just got a bad set or that they were doing something wrong. Know that these problems are more common than not with these pencils.
Another problem we’re seeing a lot now are the leads completely falling out of the pencil. Prismacolor claims they will replace the pencil when this happens, but those I’ve spoken with who had this happen, months later still have not received their replacement. I don’t know about you, but when I’m working on a project, I can not sit around waiting for replacement pencils on defective products.
If you’re using prismas, there are a few things you can do to lessen the breakage. First, use an electric pencil sharpener. This makes a huge difference. I still had breakage and split casings but not nearly as bad as when I used handheld sharpeners. Next, when you have a lead that is broken down inside the casing, you can heat the pencil up to remelt the wax lead back together. This can be done with a heating pad, a heat lamp, setting the pencil in the sun. Be careful not to overdo it though as you can cause the lead to melt completely out of the casings.
Prismacolor is available both open stock and in sets as large as 150 pencils. That is a lot of colors, however be aware that they are not all lightfast. This means that many of their colors are going to fade when exposed to light. Prismacolor follows the ASTM measure for lightfastness but does not mark their individual pencils with the info like many other brands. Instead you need to go to their website http://www.prismacolor.com/Style%20Library/PrismaColor/media/promotions/Prismacolor_Lightfast_Color_Chart.pdf to check which colors are going to be prone to fading. Only pencils labled as a 1 or 2 on the lightfast scale can be labeled as complying with the standard according to the Colored Pencil Society of America. Why does this matter? In as little as a few months to years, that beautiful painting you created could completely change from bold and bright, to faded and dull depending on the colors you used.
Back in February of this year I created this flamingo using Prismacolor. While working on this piece I was SO sick of the non stop breakage with these pencils. I actually threw out a couple of pencils that had the wood casing split all the way up the side when sharpening. That is a big deal because I hoard art supplies, even damaged paint brushes…never know when you need an abnormally damaged paint brush that you forgot to wash properly right? I spent so much time trying to get my pencils sharpened and repairing the wax leads that were split inside the casings that I had just had it with them. I started looking into alternative pencils. I was so sure for so long that prismacolor pencils were the best that I was hesitant to give other brands a try. Like so many others I had accepted their defective casings and constant breakage as something I had to deal with if I wanted to work in colored pencil. The flamingo piece was my last straw. I ended up buying a set of Polychromos and was quite pleased to see that not only were there alternatives, there were alternatives that were superior in many ways to the prismas. The only pencils I really didn’t like in the polychromos were the white and cream colors which are too translucent for my taste. To avoid having to continue using the whites in the prismacolor I ordered a couple of luminance pencils by Caran d’ache. I liked the white pencils so much that I ordered a few more to use in combination with my polychromos. I loved those as well and decided it was time to give the whole set of Luminance a try.
These pencils are not carried in any of the art stores I have locally which can be an inconvenience, but you can find them online both open stock and in sets. Their largest set is 76 pencils. I thought this would be a strike against the Luminance pencils, but I found that I preferred the colors in the luminance set. There were more shades of tans and cream colors that as a portrait artist I was THRILLED with. They really do have a beautiful range, and have some colors not available in the full 150 set of prismas.
The biggest thing about these pencils is that they are the only ones where the full set are labeled as complying with the ASTM D-6901 scale of being lightfast. These are the highest lightfast pencils you can get, which is important when you want your work to last. This is especially important if you’re selling your work. The last thing you want is a customer coming back a few months or years later wanting to know why that painting they bought from you has changed colors.
The chickadee I shared with you last week was the first piece I completed using 100% luminance. I found that they they blended and layered quite nicely. They overall felt very similar to working with the prismas, only without the breakage, which was pretty exciting for me (I don’t get out much). There were a few additional differences. The first, some of the shades of dark browns, black and the darkest grey are a bit dry, or scratchy feeling. They sort feel like working with charcoal, without the crumbling or smearing. I wasn’t thrilled with this at first, however as continued working with them, their results were the same as the creamier colors and you couldn’t tell there was a difference in the end piece. They burnished and blended just fine with the paint thinner, so while I know some people said they didn’t like that about those colors, it didn’t end up bothering me on either of the projects I used them on. There weren’t that many that had the dryer scratchy feel to them, most were super smooth and absolutely amazing to blend with.
The second difference was that these did not seem to build up as much of a wax bloom as primsas which did allow for more layering. They sharpen to a MUCH finer point than the prismas can, and again with no breakage, which allows for more detail work. I wasn’t expecting to get the kind of detail with a wax based pencil as I was with these.
I wanted to try out both pencils side by side on the same project. I chose this butterfly photo taken by wildlife artist Jason Morgan because it allowed for me to test how well each pencil worked for achieving a soft, blurry background and then detail for the flowers and butterfly. I blended both with burnishing and paint thinner. While doing the background I noticed that I was burning through my prismas MUCH faster than I did with the Luminance. The luminance seemed to go a lot farther, not even taking into account the three times my prismas broke, even while using an electric sharpener.
While I easily achieved the same look for the background with both pencils, I found I needed to use more colors in the prismas to get the same look I could with fewer shades of the luminance. I had to layer a lot of grey on top of my blues to get the right shade. It seems like, to me at least, that the prismas tend to lean towards a brighter, less natural color for most of their shades, many of which I would never use, while the luminance offers a combination of both bright and more natural shades. The luminance has some really nice greyish lavender and greyish blues for that I really liked. Now this is going to be a personal preference, not necessarily a strike against either brand, but because I generally paint wildlife and portraits with my pencils, I prefer having more natural colors. Don’t get me wrong, the luminance has a huge variety very bold, bright colors as well, they just have a larger selection of the neutral ones included in the set than are available with the prismas.
Once I moved onto the detail of the flowers I saw the biggest difference. I do not enjoy small detail work with prismas because you’re constantly fighting to keep the pencil sharp enough. Then there is so much wax bloom that also hinders detail work if you’re layering a lot. I found getting the detail and maintaining control with the Luminance to be much easier. I spent more time working on the prisma piece than I did with the luminance because I was so unhappy with how those flowers looked. Even with the extra time, I couldn’t make them look as good as the ones done with luminance. Being that I am so detail oriented…this is a huge deal to me. Detail can be achieved with prismas, just not as easily.
When I got to the butterfly I found the same situation. I felt I had more control with the Luminance pencils. I was able to fade one color to the next easier, and keep my lines and shadows cleaner. The black with the Luminance is one of the scratchier colors in the set, and takes more layering to get fully black than the prisma does, however the prisma black is harder to get the detail I needed. I felt like the prisma black just sort of took over the wings, where I really wanted the lighter greys to be more apparent like I got with the luminance version. With the luminance butterfly, it was quite easy to get all those various shades of greys, purples and all the other details to fade from one to the next with the black working more like shadows instead a black glob. For the way I work, I definitely preferred the luminance with the black, but if I were covering a large background with solid black, in that case I would have preferred the prisma black. Now I know some are going to look at the prisma butterfly and feel it’s better because it has more contrast, the black is more bold, but in reality that was not what I was trying to achieve. I wanted the black to be shadows over the other colors and in the veining of the wings. So while some will like the look of the prisma wings better, it was not what I was trying to achieve. I did not have nearly the amount of control that I did in layering and detail that I did with the Luminance pencils. It would have been no problem to make the luminance butterfly an overall darker black like I have on the prisma had I wanted that look, but much harder to get the prisma to look like the luminance butterfly…which again was my goal.
In the end they are VERY similar. I was pleased with the results of getting a smooth background with both pencils, but as far as moving onto the detail, I was not thrilled with the results of the prisma. Not being able to keep the pencils sharp enough, then having to fight the wax bloom on top of that just made it more difficult. I do want to be clear that you can create beautiful colored pencil work with either pencil. I’m not trying to imply that you can’t. There are some absolutely amazing artists who work with both types of pencil. I hands down prefer working with tools that are consistently well made…not to mention being lightfast. Even not counting those points, I hands down prefer the end result of the Luminance pencils over the prismas because of the ability to achieve more detail, more easily.
The big thing everyone keeps asking me about the luminance pencils is “are they worth the cost?” A set of 150 prismacolor pencils runs around $130 (more if purchased in store and not online), and a full set of 76 Luminance pencils runs around $315 here in the US from DickBlick or Jerry’s Artarama. That is a big difference. There are a few factors to consider here. First, the reason the Luminance cost so much more is that the company who makes them is very focused on making the highest quality, most lightfast pencil available. Prismacolor…not so much.
When figuring out my cost to use each pencil, I looked at the price of each when purchased open stock. Online from somewhere like DickBlick.com or JerrysArtarama.com the cost of prismacolors purchased individually are $1.03 (or just over $2 each if you purchase them in store somewhere like Aaron Brothers, Hobby Lobby, or Michaels). The prices from both Dickblick and Jerry’s state that that is their everyday sale price and coupons can not be used. For the luminance pencils, they cost $3.91 a piece (which is less than buying the full set if you don’t want the tin the set comes in), but it appears that coupons can be used on the individual pencils, just not on the full sets. While that is a significant difference in cost, I can honestly say for me, I would MUCH rather pay more to have a pencil that is not only lightfast, but in my opinion is far superior when it comes to use because it works well for both detail and super smooth blending, and they are consistently made and don’t fall apart. I don’t hear of people having the lead from their Luminance pencils completely falling out of the casing, or the lead breaking every time they’re sharpened. The wood casings don’t split either. They are just a solid product. As I mentioned before, the luminance pencils seem to last longer. I burned through my prismas so much faster on covering that background. I had to continuously sharpen them. I’m not saying that is a bad thing, but as far as cost per pencil, if the luminance pencils are lasting that much longer to achieve the same amount of coverage, that is something to consider when figuring the price per pencil.
Another thing to factor in cost wise is your time. Is it worth it to have to continuously stop while you’re working to try and melt your lead back together, or fight with a pencil that won’t sharpen right? For me, it had gotten to the point where I didn’t even want to work in colored pencil anymore because of how frustrating the process was. If you look back through all my old videos you will see, until earlier this year when I started using the Polychromos pencils, I rarely posted videos done in colored pencil. They were just not fun for me to fight with. Now that I know there are other, better options out there, you can see that I post new colored pencil pieces all the time. I love working in this medium again now that I no longer have to fight with my tools to make them do what they are supposed to.
As I’ve stated before, I feel that prismacolor is currently a defective product. They have been selling pencils with warped, bad wood casings that are prone to splitting and cause even more breakage in an already fragile lead. Complaints have been sent to prismacolor by artists for years and they have not improved. Those of us who were using prismacolor before they started cutting corners know that they can be made well, but they are choosing to cheap out on their production and sell us an inferior product. As a consumer, this is insulting. As an artist who depends on my materials to be both archival and dependable, they aren’t even a remote option to me now that I know there are better options available to us.