Watercolour pencils are one of my favourite mediums, and I’ve been using them for a very long time. But in recent years I relegated them to my sketchbook, because I was concerned about using non-lightfast mediums in work that I may exhibit, gift, or sell. The lightfastness of watercolour pencils I used (Koh-i-Noor Mondeluz and Derwent Inktense) varies greatly within a set, and typically the colours I use most often (like reds and purples) tend to fade a lot faster than others. I didn’t want to take any chances.
The most renowned artist-grade pencil brands that claim to be lightfast are Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle and Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer. Museum Aquarelle are eye-wateringly expensive. I don’t really trust Faber-Castell ratings anymore, as some independent tests showed considerable fading of some colours. (Guess which? Yes, the ones I use the most: reds and purples.)
Then I discovered a hidden gem, medium-priced artist-grade lightfast pencils: Royal Talens Van Gogh. Finding reviews for this brand is hard. Very few artists seem to know about them. I directly asked a few popular YouTube artists why they haven’t reviewed them yet, and they said they’ve never heard of them!
They’re also hard to find in art stores around the world. I’ve ordered mine from Amazon UK and I’ve seen them in other European Amazon stores, but none of the independent art supply stores where I usually shop. Even though these stores carry other Talens products, they don’t seem to import Van Gogh pencils. They're also available on Amazon.com, but reportedly they're being shipped from Japan? I don't know.
I’m satisfied with other Talens products (like their Van Gogh and Amsterdam paints), so I decided to trust the very few reviews I found that claimed it was a pretty good quality product for the price, and the independent blue wool lightfastness tests that confirmed the official ratings.
I’m writing this review because there are so few of them out there! If you’re able to get these pencils for a good price where you live, they definitely deserve to be shortlisted.
The box is a basic metal tin with a hinge. The pencils are laid on a plastic tray with a velvety finish. The velvety lint sticks to the pencil, and some of it got on my test paper, so that can be a bit irritating. Other than that, the box is decent quality, and all the pencils arrived in good shape. Some of them moved around the box a bit, which is common with shallow plastic trays.
The pencil barrels do not match the colour of the actual pigment. The swatch card that comes in the box is pretty accurate to dry pencil application, but there’s always a colour shift with watercolour pencils (see below).
I published a short video with a quick recap of my impressions, but my more in-depth thoughts follow in the rest of this article.
I swatched them on Canson Imagine 200gsm smooth mixed media paper. I don’t normally paint swatch charts this neat, but I wanted to make sure they all fit on one page.
The dry to wet colour shift is not very pronounced in most colours. They do get a bit more vibrant, but not as dramatic as Inktense. The benefit of this is that if I go over a dissolved wash with a dry pencil (to fix, soften, or intensify color of an area) I can leave it dry, and it will match the layer below. Washes appear significantly more vibrant while they're wet, and as they dry again they’ll settle into a slightly duller shade, just like watercolour paint does. (This depends on each individual pigment, with some colours having a bigger drying shift than others.)
These pencils feel hard, similar to Polychromos. Inktense and Mondeluz are both a lot softer and a bit crumbly. Van Gogh pencils leave barely any crumbs. Some pencils feel harder than others. I noticed that vibrant colours (with higher pigment load) are quite a bit softer than the muted or pastel shades. With the muted/pastels, I really had to dig into the paper to fill the area. Usually pencils sets are more balanced, but this one is all over the place. I suppose this is where that cheaper price comes into play.
Even when my application was scribbly, my pencil strokes dissolved very easily. There are no visible marks on the smooth mixed media paper. On textured paper the marks are very faint. The pigment travels far on the vibrant pencils and covers the blank swatch area. The pale pencils like Naples yellow light, Naples yellow red, Lilac, and Cold grey light almost disappear under the brush and don’t travel at all into the surrounding areas. I don’t expect to be using these colours much.
I was curious to see how the pencil names compare to the Talens Van Gogh watercolour paints with the same name. Some of the name choices seemed weird right off the bat. For example Ultramarine looks nothing like the PB29 Ultramarine pigment, it’s more similar to Cobalt blue. They could’ve just named it “Sea blue”. (Faber-Castell Ultramarine also doesn’t resemble actual Ultramarine at all.)
None of the swatches look so alike in hue that I’d be convinced they contain the same pigments, but some of them are close enough. At least colour matching the pencils with paints won’t be that difficult.
There’s a bit too many blues, greens, and yellows for my liking, with a few near-duplicates. I love that there are 4 violets which is quite rare, but I’d like a saturated crimson red (like Permanent red deep which is available in the 60 piece set).
I'm missing 1 or 2 very dark chromatic colours (such as sepia or indigo blue), that I could use instead of black to apply very strong shadows. All the colours except for Ivory black shift lighter when diluted with water. Ivory black is the only one that becomes darker with water. The darkest pencil after Ivory black is Ultramarine violet! In all the other colour pencil sets I own the darkest shades are brown and blue, and I’m used to using them for deep shadows.
Not that I’m opposed to using black – I do use it a lot when I need actual black, but when I mix deep shadows on a portrait I avoid it because it “dirties” the colours. Speaking of Ivory black, it's definitely not the darkest, most intense black pencil I own, probably because it contains more filler than Stabilo All, Mondeluz, and Inktense. It's better for sharp lines than to fill in large areas.
White pencil is not included in the 36 set. I don't mind since I've found white watercolour pencils to be pretty useless. They turn transparent as soon as you touch them with water and I doubt Van Gogh's is an exception. (I use a white wax pastel or white gouache when I need strong highlights.)
On an unrelated note, even though it prominently says “Holland” on every pencil, the box states they are made in China. I was a bit disappointed to learn that, but it also explains why they're cheaper than their European-made competition. My older box of Van Gogh Sketch pencils doesn’t specify country of origin, which can either mean they used to be produced in the Netherlands, or they didn’t disclose they were produced elsewhere.
Using watercolour pencils in artwork
My first test of these pencils was a stained glass inspired coloring page I've drawn in my old Winsor & Newton A5 hot press sketchbook recently. The hard pencil point was quite useful for getting into the tiniest areas. I haven't sharpened any of the pencils as I was coloring it. All of the colors I used are very transparent, so the brush pen ink lines remained crisp. All the visible strokes on the robe and the dark violet side panels are caused by the brush, not the pencils. (This paper is very sensitive to lifting.)
My second test was a quick raven study loosely based on a reference photo, in a Clairefontaine Carnet de Voyage sketchbook.
You can see on the progress photos I took that my chicken scratch pencil marks dissolved without issues, even too well. I wanted the branch to retain some bark texture, but I lost most of it as soon as I touched it with a brush. Later I became more careful in order to preserve pencil texture. (Digging in the pencil tip also helps.)
It took 3-4 layers to get the raven dark enough because I started off too light. I'm used to working with Inktense, so I need to get used to applying heavier layers with Van Gogh. The background is bad because I didn't take my own advice (see below) on avoiding washed out colors and layering didn't help. (And because I improvised instead of sticking to the reference.)
I don't normally use watercolour pencils on their own.
After I switched to watercolour paint, I started using colour pencils to add details, intensify shadows, soften transitions, and fix watercolour mistakes. However, the paper that works best for watercolour usually has a strong texture that results in grainy pencil marks that are very difficult to blend. I don’t like the look of paper texture in my artworks. I prefer more organic textures created by the flow of paint, or those I intentionally make myself.
I can achieve a smoother look on hot press surfaces. But I already have so many cold press papers that weren’t cheap, and hot press paper is ridiculously difficult to find in Croatian stores. I realised watercolour pencils would work better on cold press, as I can blend them to get rid of the texture. So my plan for using these in artworks is over watercolour, to add fine details and deeper values where necessary. That may mean my expectation from these pencils is different from other people’s.
For someone who wants to complete an A4 or A3-sized painting with a strongly coloured background, these may not be soft enough. Getting the whole page covered will take a long time.
My final test before I start using them in earnest was a fantasy mixed media painting in my typical style. I drew a forest fairy in a Strathmore Mixed Media Visual Journal, which honestly I'm not a fan of because it has a grainy texture I mentioned earlier. So if they work in this sketchbook, I'm sold. Click on the image to see it larger, and the closeup:
First I filled in all the large areas with watercolour paint. I used Van Gogh and Roman Szmal paints that I colour-matched to the Van Gogh pencils. I found that these worked out pretty close:
- Van Gogh Quinacridone purple blue paint and 568 Perm. violet medium pencil
- Van Gogh Payne's gray + Burnt sienna paint mix and 403 Vandyke brown + 701 Ivory black pencils
- Roman Szmal Perylene maroon paint and 348 Perm. red purple pencil
- Roman Szmal Cobalt Teal + Van Gogh Viridian hue (Phthalo green) - I didn't use a pencil, but 661 Turqoise green is close
After the paint layer (see progress photo at this phase), I added shading and details with pencils, blended them with water, and then corrected, softened and deepened areas with dry and blended pencils. The hair got a few more layers of pencils and paint, but the skin is mostly shaded with pencils. Blending removed most of the grainy paper texture. I added highlights and wispy lines with white gouache. (I added some with a light gray pencil too, but these are quite faint.)
I loved using these pencils alongside watercolor. I got just the effect I needed, and being able to match them to the paints I already have is wonderful. I'm happy with this purchase.
- Probably the most affordable guaranteed lightfast pencils in Europe.
- Very strong pigment load in the bright colours.
- Decently balanced colour range in the 36 set that can work for portraits, botanical art, and landscapes.
- Supposedly open stock, but I don’t know where to get them.
- Many common colours are a close enough match to Talens Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Roman Szmal watercolour paint, which is great for combining mediums.
- All but a few pastel colors are transparent enough to not cover up ink lines.
- Hard to find in local and independent art supply stores.
- Pastel and muted shades are way too pale, they don’t make sense for watercolour pencils. I’m guessing they’re matched to the regular coloured pencil set, but the two mediums require different approaches.
- Huge variability in hardness among different pencils. (Pigmented pencils are softer, pastel and muted are harder.)
- I’m missing a very dark indigo or sepia in this set for strong chromatic shadows.
- Velvet tray lint.
- Made in China.
- Limited layering, though this may be true for most watercolour pencils.
Are Van Gogh pencils artist grade or student grade?
Royal Talens Van Gogh pencils are artist grade. Talens calls them “fine art pencils” on the tin and the marketing literature, and they are tested and graded for lightfastness according to rigorous industry standards.
There’s a bit of confusion among artists, because Van Gogh is a line of student grade paint. Here’s the Royal Talens hierarchy of paint lines:
- Artist grade: Rembrandt (oil, watercolour, acrylic, pastel), Talens Gouache Extra Fine (gouache)
- Student grade: Van Gogh (oil, watercolour, acrylic)
- Children & novice: Talens Art Creation (watercolour, gouache, acrylic, pastel)
Since there are no pencils in the Rembrandt line, their highest grade pencils are bumped into the Van Gogh range. This makes perfect sense from a marketing standpoint. The Rembrandt packaging looks as if it was designed a hundred years ago. It’s clearly aimed at traditional oil painters and watercolorists, and this demographic has little interest in colour pencils. The Van Gogh range keeps in step with contemporary trends (like metallic, dusk, and pastel watercolours), and is aimed at budget-conscious mixed media artists.
For pencils, the Royal Talens hierarchy looks like this:
- Van Gogh
- Bruynzeel Design
- Bruynzeel Expression
- Talens Art Creation
Some pencil reviewers incorrectly place Van Gogh on a rung below Bruynzeel Design. The price is similar, but Bruynzeel Design has nicer packaging, and they’re a softer core that’s pleasant to use. Sounds great, right?
However, the individual pencil lightfastness of Bruynzeel Design Aquarel varies drastically. I went through their catalogue and counted 17 pencils with the lowest “0” designation (fugitive), 7 pencils with marginal lightfastness (+), 14 pencils with good lightfastness (++), 9 pencils with excellent lightfastness (+++), and one pencil (Burnt Ochre) without a rating. Anything below good (++) is not considered archival, and that accounts for half of their entire range. They can't be considered a higher grade than Van Gogh.
Avoid the washed out look with watercolour pencils
When using watercolour paint or markers, we can layer as much as our paper allows. We tend to work from light to dark: starting with large areas of light tones, and then adding deeper and darker shadows on top of them. This is not the way to work with watersoluble pencils and pastels.
Because pencils and pastels have a lot of binder that holds the core together, that binder can fill up the tooth of the paper faster than watercolour paint can. This means that after a while, we can’t add any more layers because of the wax buildup. The pencil “skates” across the surface. (Smooth papers fill up faster than textured ones.)
I saw a video portrait demo by an artist using these same pencils, and he used the “light to dark” approach: filling the entire areas of skin and hair with light values first, blending them with water, and then adding darker and darker shadows with each layer. In the end, when the artist wasn’t able to add any more layers, the portrait still looked washed out. The darkest pencils didn’t leave strong enough marks to get that contrast.
What’s the solution? Apply the entire range of values from the very first layer.
When I draw with pencils and crayons, I first add the shadows and highlights, and then blend them with midtones. The whole drawing has a good amount of contrast from the very start, and each subsequent layer allows me to deepen the shadows further. I’m not “wasting paper tooth” on colours that won’t even be visible in the final drawing.
It’s fine to mix in a bit of the same colour across the entire area to tie the drawing together, but I tend to do that more towards the end, when I’m sure I’ve got enough contrast.
Let me show you an example I did on Canson XL watercolour paper (smoother side):
The left sample was quite challenging. I didn’t mess it up on purpose, it looks patchy because I couldn’t even control my pencils anymore, they were just sliding over the wax buildup.
The right column is how I normally work. The colours are richer, and the transitions are smoother. The amount of layers applied in both samples is the same.
Alternatives to Van Gogh pencils?
In most watercolour pencils brands, the lightfastness ratings vary by pencil. This means that if you consider lightfastness of your art supplies important, you wouldn’t be able to use many pencils from a set in professional artwork. (In general, watercolour pencils are less lightfast than regular colour pencils.)
As I’ve already mentioned, the only other watercolour pencil brand whose entire range is archival is Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle. It’s also the most expensive.
Watercolour pencil brands that have variable individual lightfastness ratings (or whose self-proclaimed ratings have been deemed unreliable by independent testing), include:
- Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer
- Caran d’Ache Supracolor
- Derwent Watercolour
- Derwent Inktense
- Prismacolor Premier Watercolor
- Koh-i-Noor Mondeluz
- Arteza Expert Watercolor Pencils
- Cretacolor Marino
- Bruynzeel Design Aquarel
I haven't included the Winsor & Newton Studio Collection on this list because their official testing is still in progress, and independent testing results are pretty bad.
I’m sure there are more brands, but these are the ones that I’m familiar with.
Many of the brands listed are available open stock, so you can check individual ratings and purchase only the archival pencils. That way you won't end up with a bunch of pencils you can't use in your fine art or commissions, so you may actually save money. Some brands list ratings directly on the pencils, but others don't, so you'll need to find their official chart online.
If lightfastness is not important to you, Van Gogh pencils may not be the best choice. Especially if you need a set you can use on its own, that can easily cover larger areas.
- If you want the most vibrant colours and don't intend to use the pencils dry, Inktense pencils are super saturated and quite soft. They're less prone to lifting than other watercolor pencils, but they don't dry completely waterproof. They have a huge dry to wet shift, more than any other watercolor pencil I've tried.
- If you don’t want to spend a lot of money, Koh-i-Noor Mondeluz are as pigmented as expensive brands and very enjoyable to use. You can also use them dry.
- Some watercolor pencils come in woodless form (Koh-i-Noor Progresso, Arteza Woodless, Cretacolor Monolith, Derwent Aquatone). You're getting a lot of usable product, and it's easier to apply color to large areas. You can still sharpen them to get a fine point, and save the shavings to use as paint.
Coloring Bliss channel on YouTube has a comparison video of 26 brands of watercolor pencils. It sadly doesn't include Van Gogh pencils, but it does include most of the brands I listed as alternatives, and quite a few more budget brands. (Her top choices are Albrecht Dürer and Inktense.)
If you do like combining pencils and watercolour paint, I think these are a great set because of their ability to draw fine details and stay sharp for a long time, which is exactly what I need.
I hope this review has been useful!
Note: Some links contain affiliate codes. I may earn a small commission if you buy anything from Amazon, at no additional cost to you.