Updated February 2022
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Buying guide for best colored pencil sets

From coloring within the lines to creating your own artistic masterpieces, the only thing that limits what you can create with a colored pencil set is your imagination. Not all colored pencils are created equal, though, and not all sets enable you to do every kind of coloring. Basic colored pencils are really only suited to coloring books or simple drawings, rather than blending and shading.

Unless you're already a colored pencil expert, figuring out which ones are right for you can prove tricky. Will your chosen colored pencil set meet your individual requirements, or will it end up gathering dust in the back of a cupboard?

We at BestReviews have compiled this in-depth shopping guide for colored pencil sets to make your purchasing decisions easier.

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Some colored pencil sets contain duplicate colors, so a set of 150 pencils might only contain 100 different colors. Always check the number of colors you're getting before you buy.

Types of colored pencils

The three varieties of colored pencils are differentiated by the binder used to hold the pigment together: wax, oil, and water.

Wax-based colored pencils

The most common type of colored pencil, these use a wax to hold the pigment together inside the pencil. If you've ever bought colored pencils from a grocery store, they were probably wax-based, but that doesn't mean that only basic colored pencils are wax-based.

As well as the standard hard wax-based coloring pencils that you'll find in any elementary school classroom, you can also buy softer wax-based varieties for blending and layering. While these are popular and versatile, the wax can separate from the pigment and form a "wax bloom" on your work. This is more common with cheaper pencils.

Oil-based colored pencils

Less common than wax-based varieties, you usually only find oil-based colored pencils in art supply stores, though they're also available online. Thanks to a harder core, oil-based pencils are less likely to break, but it also means they don't blend or layer as easily as wax-based kinds. On the plus side, there's no chance of wax bloom, and oil-based pencils are less messy to use than softer wax-based pencils.

Water-based colored pencils

Also known as "watercolor" or "water-soluble" colored pencils, water-based varieties can be used either wet or dry. When used wet, the gum arabic that binds the pigment dissolves, giving you an effect that looks much like watercolor paints.

Colored pencil set features to consider

Color range

One of the first factors to consider is the range of colors included. Some sets have well over 100 colors, while others only have 20 or 30. If you only want colored pencils to use in coloring books or to create simple art, you might not need a huge range of colors. On the other hand, creating detailed or realistic artwork requires more colors. Since you can't mix colored pencils as you can paint, you might need more colors than you think. Of course, the more colors you require, the larger your set will need to be, which means you'll need to spend more.


When creating art with colored pencils, you'll need to layer one color over another and blend them together for a smooth transition. Wax-based colored pencils are easier to blend than oil-based varieties. And softer pencils are easier to blend than harder ones.


The term “opacity” refers to how opaque or transparent the color is on the page. The greater the opacity, the fewer layers you'll need for good, even coverage. High opacity is also a huge benefit when using colored pencils on darker colored paper.


Colored cores in your pencils come in varying degrees of hardness. Harder pencils are good for fine detail but not so good for laying down large areas of color, layering, or blending. If you want to blend and layer colors, a softer pencil is your best bet. But soft pencils can be messier to use and require more regular sharpening.

Match the colored pencil set to the activity

  • Coloring books: While you can use very basic colored pencils for coloring books, higher-quality pencils with a slightly softer core will give you better, more even coverage.

  • Sketching: For basic sketching, you don't need a huge color range because you'll usually only use one or two colors. While it's easier to sketch with quality pencils, they should be fairly hard so they don't smudge when you close your sketchbook.

  • Fine art: For fine art, you generally need a variety of hard colored pencils for detail and soft pencils for blending and layering.

  • Colored paper: If you want to draw on colored paper, especially dark-colored paper, you need a quality pencil set with good opacity.

Colored pencil set prices

It can be tough to compare the prices of colored pencil sets because the sets vary in size. But you can compare sets by comparing the price per pencil. You can expect to pay between $0.10 and $3 per pencil.

Inexpensive: Basic colored pencils cost about $0.10 to $0.25 apiece. These are usually fairly hard wax-based crayons that are fine for kids or for simple drawing or coloring but may be lacking for artistic use.

Mid-range: Colored pencils in the middle of the price range cost from $0.25 to $1 apiece. You can find some very good options that blend and layer well enough for amateur and student artists for $0.50 per pencil.

Expensive: High-end colored pencils cost roughly $1 to $3 apiece. These are the colored pencils that professional artists use. The average buyer won't need to spend quite this much.


  • Think about durability. Costlier colored pencils are crafted from quality wood that's bound tightly to the core, making the core less likely to break even when dropped.

  • Keep your colored pencils sharp. Your colored pencils need to be sharp for the pigment to penetrate into the tooth of the paper. You might find it easier to sharpen soft-leaded pencils in a sharpener for eyebrow or eyeliner pencils.

  • Consider the case. If the case is poor quality, or it’s hard to get pencils in and out of it, you might want to invest in a new one.

  • Look for a wide range of each color. When shading your drawing, you need a darker shade of the color you're using for the object. If you plan to do a lot of shading, make sure you have a wide range of hues for each color.
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A quality set of colored pencils can be pricey, but remember that they're meant to last. They don't dry out the way paint and markers do, so a good set could last you for years.


Q. What kind of colored pencils are best for kids?

A. Young kids who are using colored pencils for simple drawings and scribbling only need basic, inexpensive types. At this age, children often break or lose the pencils, so spending a lot on a high-end set would be a waste of money. However, if you have older kids who are showing an interest in art, we recommend buying a quality colored pencil set with fairly soft cores. These are much better for coloring and drawing and will give your child an opportunity to learn how to layer and blend.

Q. What's the difference between student and professional colored pencil sets?

A. You might see some mid-range and high-end colored pencil sets marked either "student" or "professional." Professional sets contain a higher ratio of pigment to binder, so the colors are more vivid and opaque with fewer strokes. Professional colored pencil sets are more expensive than student sets.

Q. Where can I learn new techniques for drawing with colored pencils?

A. If you're a budding artist but don't know much about drawing with colored pencils, you'll be able to find plenty of resources online. You can find a wide range of drawing tutorials on YouTube, as well as websites with step-by-step guidelines and advice.

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