Monday, May 05, 2014

Spectrum Noir Pencil review


NOTE: My original review was based on earlier release information and notes on the actual pencil packaging that described the Spectrum Noir pencils as oil-based. A few of you noted that the site description lists the pencils as wax-based, and questioned the difference. 

Upon further inquiry, I have been told by Spectrum Noir that though the pencils do contain some oil, they are not completely oil-based. Their present advertising does describe the pencils as wax-based, and they are in the process of revising their packaging. 

My review has been edited from the original to reflect these changes.


Spectrum Noir recently added pencils to their product line. Marketed as "Blendable Pencils," the new range of pencils is wax-based.  I was thrilled to be sent the entire line of 120 pencils to review! The range is divided into 5 sets of 24 pencils, each set in a unique decorative tin. There are 2 core sets, called Primaries and Essentials, which catch the highlights of the spectrum (in the photo below, those sets are in the bottom 2 tins). In addition, there are 3 themed sets, which provide a broader range of in-between colors inspired by floral images, marine scenes, and nature. The full range contains 120 pencils. The 24-piece sets have a suggested retail value of approximately $30 apiece.

Just a note:
What we would typically think of as "regular" colored pencils are wax-based. Prismacolor Pencils are probably the most well-known artist-grade wax pencils on the market today. Wax-based pencils can be used alone or blended with a special tool or solvent.

Oil-based pencils can be more expensive, but they can be used on a wider variety of surfaces, including wood. They are also more break-resistant than wax pencils, and their water-resistance opens up possibilities for using them in mixed media projects for detailed resist techniques. Their leads are not as soft as wax-based pencils, but they have a smooth laydown of color with no waxy sheen, and are extremely blendable. They can be used with wax-based pencils, and blended with or without a solvent.

To complement the Spectrum Noir Blendable Pencils, there is a range of accessories, including blending pencils, stumps and a sanding block, blending solution, and a sharpener. Below are the accessories that I received.  The solvent and blender pencils will also be available through Spectrum Noir later in May. The pencils and accessories are all made in China.

The sanding block seems pretty standard. The pad has 12 sheets of sandpaper that can be torn off after use. I used it to sharpen a couple of the pencils, and was pleased.  In general, it's meant to be used with the paper stumps, and though I don't prefer to sand my stumps, it does the job just fine. The price point from Spectrum Noir ($3.49) seems high to me - the same product is available HERE for 97 cents.

Each pack of blending stumps contains 7 pieces, in assorted sizes (2 - #1, 2 - #2, and 1 each of #3, #4 and #5). They are soft, and the ones I received did not have a good tight point at the tip.  I used a couple of them to blend with odorless mineral spirits, and they did fine. These were a little softer and looser than I am used to, and the scruffy tip made it difficult to get into small areas. Hardness or softness in a stump is a matter of personal preference, so if a softer stump is what you're used to, then these differences may not be an issue for you.

The walls of sharpener in the accessories kit felt a little flimsy in my hand, but the sharpener did a fine job getting the pencils to a very sharp point. It has a swing-out container that holds the shavings inside - with the logo side up over a wastebasket, the shavings fall right out.

A tip for sharpening too, with any self-contained sharpener - it's good to keep an eye on the contents and not let that container get 'packed' - too many shavings inside, and breakage of the pencil being sharpened becomes even more likely.

The pencils are presharpened (though not to an extremely sharp point), and organized in snug plastic trays within each tin. They're so snug, actually, that I found them a little difficult to remove from the tins individually. Here's a close view of the pencils before use.

For the sake of the review, I felt compelled to keep the pencils in their tins and in the order they were when they came. I made the chart above to have a visual sample of all the colors... but it was difficult to find the pencils when they weren't organized in the same order. To be able to work from a chart as I normally do, I'd be inclined to stash the tins, and keep the pencils in a case instead, in an ROYGBIV order that makes more sense to me. That is purely a matter of personal preference, and may not be an issue for you. It's an easy fix, too... I keep the rest of my pencils in Global Classic Leather Pencil Cases.

Lead Strength
While coloring, the leads of the pencils felt strong and durable. I had no problems with crumbling or breakage because of coloring or pressure, even with heavy pressure, and no problems sharpening pencils that were dulled simply from coloring.

There was one lead that was broken in the tin, and also some pencils that revealed breaks up inside the core while I was coloring.  I did have issues sharpening those pencils - it actually took several sharpenings before I got to a place where the lead wasn't broken inside the pencil. While coloring 4 images I amassed a pile of 21 lead bits. Since the pencils cannot be replaced individually, I found this very concerning.

Here's a length comparison of an unused pencil and the blue pencil I used in the rose sample down below. I sharpened a full 2-3/8" off while coloring this one piece.

For beginners or those who have trouble picking out colors that blend together in sets of light - medium - dark, Spectrum Noir has grouped the pencils in threes. This is a common way of blending with markers, too, so if you're accustomed to marker blending, you'll appreciate this thoughtful touch. Here's a closer look at the way the pencils are organized in the tins when they arrive.

I tried out 4 pencils (014, 006, 021, and 105) on a single image, and ran them through all the methods I normally use for blending. Each section of the flower below is blended with a different tool or method. The central petal was colored without using any kind of solvent or blender - this is my preferred method. I was pleased with the way the pencils worked together. This is an image from Impression Obsession, stamped on Georgia Pacific cardstock.

Color Range
I filled out a simple chart to be able to see the color range for what it is, in the order of Spectrum Noir's labeling system. (Click HERE for their downloadable charts.) The labeling is number based (no color names), and follows a reasonable progression for colored pencils, beginning with flesh tones. The numbers don't follow any kind of system otherwise, grouping the colors into families or blending sets (that's typical for pencils, but noted for those who may be used to the numbering systems for markers which indicate shade and/or color family). I left the image large so that you can click it for a closer look (it's really big!!). Of course, scans aren't always exactly true to the original colors, but you can get the idea of the brightness and coverage I got with a heavy hand. Some pencils did have  better coverage than others, and that's evident on the scan.

I found the color range to be pretty balanced, until I got down to the browns. Other color families typically filled out with 8-12 pencils. There are 26 browns. I would have liked to see more flesh tones in the set, and some more earthy shades in between the brights. All in all, if you like brighter colors, you'll be happy with the range here, and again, they've seen to it that there are blending sets throughout the collection.

The painted index colors on the pencils tend to be a bit darker than the actual lead color. Here are a few examples from the Floral set. If you're working from a hand-colored chart, this won't be an issue for you, but I felt it was worth mentioning for those who rely on the indexing. My heaviest pressure is to the right.

I found the smoothness of the pencils to be a little inconsistent across the board. Some of the pencils were more smooth and creamy; others seemed a bit more scritchy to me when using a heavy pressure. Compared to the wax-based pencils that I normally use, the leads felt harder, possibly attributed to the addition of oil in the leads.

I prefer to blend my coloring using the pencils themselves, but if you're used to using a solvent to blend out your coloring, then the laydown won't be too big of an issue for you. You may have a different result, too, on the paper you're used to.

Here's a sample I colored using just 2 pencils, 070 (a royal blue) and 120 (black). I varied my pressure to get the different shades of blue, and blended the coloring with the Caran d'Ache Full Blender Bright. I stamped a script image over the image with a watersoluble ink to test the waterproof property of the pencils - I was able to blend away the ink from the colored areas with a waterbrush. Both stamps are from Impression Obsession.

I put the pencils to the test in two other arenas. The pencils are an obvious companion to the Spectrum Noir markers, and can be used for detailed and deeper shading over marker coloring. I used my Touch Twin Markers (PB272, GY233, BR115) for a color base on this image from Impression Obsession, stamped on a matboard ATC...

...then added shading with the pencils. I love this technique and was happy with the results.

One more sample to show how the pencils perform on a darker panel. This is a dark grey ATC from Inchie Arts, and another stamp from Impression Obsession. Pretty good coverage here too.

I'll share these pieces in blog posts throughout the month.

Value and Purchasing Options
The pencils are available only in the sets shown below.

As with the Spectrum Noir markers, replacements can only be purchased in full sets. Individual pencils are not available in open stock. Especially with the breakage issue, I truly hope this strategy will be reconsidered. It would be sad to have to purchase an entire set of 24 pencils just to replace one.

If you're interested in the Spectrum Noir sets and your budget doesn't allow for the full 120 pencils but you're able to purchase 2 or 3 sets, you could either purchase the 2 core sets or the 3 specialty sets together. Either grouping would give you a decent range to work with. I'd personally prefer the 3 specialty sets, if I were needing to limit my purchase.

The MSRP per pencil for these sets is $1.20. Since the pencil base is an oil-and-wax mixture, I'll compare with other brands of both types. (Note: the price at Dick Blick is much less - 90 cents, and that rate is also discountable.)

Artist-grade oil pencils are Caran d’Ache’s Pablo line, Lyra Rembrandt Polycolor Pencils, and Faber-Castell Polychromos Pencils. These range in price from $1.95 - $5.52 per pencil, based on the manufacturer's highest suggested price of the largest sets available. (They are usually sold at a lower price, which will vary by seller - at the time of this review that price range is actually $1.21 - $4.13.)  

Just a note here... in other brands that have sets of different sizes, there is overlap of color. If there is a set of 12 and 24, the larger set has the same colors as the smaller set plus 12 more in between, and so on. In general, too, the larger the set you purchase, the lower the price per pencil... if you're buying smaller sets or individual pencils, the price per pencil will be higher.

Artist-grade wax pencils are Prismacolor Softcore (or Premier) Colored Pencils, Derwent Coloursoft Pencils, and Blick Studio Artists’ Pencils. These range in price from $1.70 - $2.17 per pencil, based on the manufacturer's highest suggested price of the largest sets available. (They are usually sold at a lower price, which will vary by seller - at the time of this review that price range is actually $0.80 - $1.19.)

Especially for artists
If you're able to make a larger investment and you're really looking to use colored pencils heavily for the long term, I'd recommend spending a little more for a line that has open stock replacements. Of the oil-based sets above, the Lyra Rembrandt Polycolor Pencils come in 72 colors at $1.21 apiece in the largest set (Blick's price), and the Faber-Castell Polychromos Pencils come in 120 colors, at $1.61 apiece in the largest set (Blick's price). I have used both brands and would recommend them both. 

For wax-based pencils, I love my Prismacolor Pencils, but the Blick Studio Artists’ Pencils are great pencils and a great value as well. The Prismacolors come in a range of 150 colors at $0.80 apiece in the largest set, and the Blick pencils come in a range of 91 colors, available in open stock, the largest set being 72 pencils at $0.75 apiece.

A random thought, in case you are thinking of using pencils in artwork that will be displayed for a long period of time... the Spectrum Noir pencils have not been tested against ASTM standards for lightfastness. If you want to be sure that your work will not fade or change color over time, you should look for pencils that have undergone these tests. Along the same lines, there is no mention on the packaging regarding toxicity. If it's important to you for your art supplies to be non-toxic, again, you should look for pencils that have undergone these tests and have an ACMI AP seal.

**ETA - according to SN, the pencils are currently undergoing lightfastness testing and the results will be available soon. (This rating is done over several months, with coloring of each pencil exposed to sunlight through a window. The rating per pencil is based on how much (if at all) the color fades or changes.)

Final thoughts
Overall, the Spectrum Noir pencils were able to perform all the tasks I put them to. They can blend and layer. They're a fine set of pencils, with a reasonable color range and properties that I feel a crafter or hobby colorist would find adequate. The hybrid mix of oil and wax is interesting.

The concerns I noted above (breakage and replacement options) pertain to the value over the long term. I do not think the Spectrum Noir pencils are of finer quality than other tried-and-true artist-grade oil or wax pencils which have been developed and perfected over decades with fine artists in mind. I won't be switching to this brand, but I'm happy to have had the opportunity to try them out, and to share my thoughts with you so that you can make an informed purchase.

If you're a new learner or a crafter with a more limited budget, and either wanting to make a one-time purchase or not ready for a larger investment in oil-based pencils at this time, you might consider these pencils as an option. For a longer term investment in oil-based pencils, my recommendations are above.

If you're looking for a good value over time in a wax-based pencil, my recommendations are above.

If you have a question about the pencils themselves, please feel free to leave it in the comment section... I'll collect the questions and answer them in a separate blog post. If you're interested in learning more about pencil coloring, I'd love to invite you to take my online class, Pencil Basics! The class includes information on:
  • Wax- and oil-based pencil, and other types of colored pencils
  • Tips on purchasing pencils and other supplies
  • Blending tools and blending with and without solvents
  • Getting organized - color charts and storage
  • Theory of shading (step-by-step detailed instructions, theory, video demos)
  • Pressure and layering (theory and technique, video demos)
  • Coloring contours - curves, waves, folds, and lines (ways to imitate and indicate shape, curve, direction, and depth with shading, video demos)
  • Adding shadows, weight and grounding
  • Full coloring demos (videos) 
  • Borderless coloring (theory of borderless coloring, video demos)
  • Color options and shaping with shading (lots of colored samples)
  • Theory and challenges for coloring white objects, video demos)
  • Exclusive digital stamps and practice sheets
Thanks for stopping by!
Thanks for stopping by!


  1. What an excellent review. Thank you!

  2. An excellent, impartial, honest review. TFS!

  3. WOW Dina - thanks. I appreciate your time and effort on this.
    you do beautiful work, and I do so enjoy visiting.
    Thank you.
    Sandra ltb

  4. Great review I wonder like normal pencil crayons if you give them a quick 15 sec nuke and let them cool would the lead rejoin together cause that seems like a huge loss when only sold in a kit
    thanks for sharing this

  5. Terrific review. I would be reluctant to buy these pencils due to the replacement issue. Thanks

  6. Hi Dina, great review on these pencils, thanks! I am sure these are great as a cheaper alternative for customers if they resolve the breaking issue. We are looking to purchase a good quality pencil for a craftshop from a friend but I am still in doubt about the choice between a good wax or good oil based pencil. I use the old Karisma's, Derwent Color soft and some Prisma's and I love working with those pencils. But I am wondering about the oil based(harder) pencils. warm greet Miranda

  7. The pencils are currently undergoing lightfast testing, and results will be available soon.

  8. Thx for your thoughts! It's interesting to read about the different choices available in colored pencils. So much to learn!

  9. Thank you Dina for your review! Very helpful.

  10. FANTASTIC REVIEW, Dina, but I am very confused. The Spectrum Noir website says they are releasing their new WAX based Blending Pencils on 5/13. Are these different than the set you were sent? Please help me, a rank beginner, get this straight! Thanks for your terrific tutorials.

  11. Very nice and seriously very informative and grateful! Your opinion and review is something I feel I can TRUST!!

  12. Dina, I can't thank you enough for this fine article. I am a colored pencil lover, I use Prisma colored, but have Fabra Castell, Derwent, and Lyra pencil. also some water colored pencils and few pastels. I recently purchased some of spectrum noir markers, novice with markers.
    I agree with you throughly about they need have single pencils available for replenishing your stock. Lyra doesn't either, and makes me furious, when you need a color. thank you sooo much for taking the time to explain so much, it will be a great help.
    have a good day.

  13. Good news, when I clicked on the Lyra connection within you information,led me to Dick Blick, I found that you can buy the pencils separate, I really like them with Prisma color as well to use. So happy.
    Also If I don't use the colorless blender, or blend to the extent I want. Winsor Newton Sansador solvent works, wonders(Prisma only oil base), also available at Dick Blick. I love these pencil, appreciate you knowledge and tutorials.....have a good day.

  14. Just a question.. You stated these are oil based pencils; Spectrum advertises them as wax-based. Which are they?

  15. I currently use Derwent Coloursoft, Inktense and Aquatones not so sure about these also just got a Polychromos yesterday loving the open stock

  16. I am applauding you in a very loud fashion here, although you cannot hear me. This is THE best, extraordinarily thorough and unbiased review, well thought out and presented for colored pencils. I am such a novice in the world of art and appreciate your experience and sharing this review with the rest of us -- many hugs to you, well done!

  17. The review and all the other information was extremely helpful, well written and easily understood by a beginner. I do have a couple of questions though.

    1. Watercolor pencils are blended using water, yes?
    2. What is the best way to blend wax based pencils and can they be used in conjunction with the water colors?
    3. I noticed you used an alcohol blender pen? On wax based pencils or on your alcohol markers just for the review comparison? It wasn't clear to me.
    4 Is the Bright Blender only usable on wax pencils?

    Thanks Dina.

  18. It is certainly nice to find a review of pencils used by a professional artist. It's so one-sided to visit a company's website to learn about their products, or worse yet, to stand in the store and
    have to get your information from their packaging. I know you were given sets of these pencils complimentary, Dina, but I wonder what their response would be to a customer who experienced a brand new pencil with 1/2 the lead falling away because of breakage within the pencil? Thanks for your well written review.

  19. I've just bought 3 sets on the pencils and found a quarter on them broken when I first sharpened them. So I emailed SN and they're sending out 3 new sets.

    Heating them up does fix some of the pencils but not all of them. I think I managed to fix 10 but still had loads left that are unusable.

    There customer service was excellent but I'm not sure if I'll buy the remaining 2 sets for buy polychromos instead.

  20. Thank you for this thorough review of Spectrums! I'm a pencil fan and was wondering how these performed. Your review is very informative and has helped me make wise choices in the past.

  21. this was the best review I've seen for any product. Thank you.

  22. Rumpleteazer5/30/2015 6:26 PM

    Can I ask if you have tried Koh-I-Noor Polycolor pencils? If you have, how would you say they compare with the Spectrum Noir and other wax pencils?

  23. This is exactly what I was looking for. I have several sets of wax pencils and was interested in these as a possible addition. Your review was perfect! It told me everything I wanted to know and possibly more. Because of your review, I am not going to add these to my collection. Saving the money I thought I might spend, will allow me to begin my oil pencils. Thank you! I also intend to look into your class.

  24. Fantastic review, I love your blog but only just found this. I've bookmarked cos def wanna take that Pencil class. You're fab!!.