Let's Talk: Defending Prismacolor Pencils

In defense of Prismacolor's Premier Soft Core colored pencils. | VanillaArts.com

Colored Pencils are hot

A few years ago, every crafter had to own alcohol markers. Then watercolor took center stage. Now it’s colored pencils.

There’s a ton of chatter about colored pencil on the internet right now.

And a lot of it is flat-out wrong.

It's fashionable to bash Prismacolor pencils online

And as an art instructor who teaches with Prismacolor Premier Soft Core pencils, this makes my life a lot harder.

I’m getting more student questions like this:

You have Prismacolors on the class supply list but I’ve heard they’re not very good. What other brand would you recommend?

Well, that’s a problem. 

By giving you a supply list with Soft Core pencils on it, I already recommended the best brand for the class. 

I’m telling you what colored pencils I used... and clearly, they work, right? And I’m telling you what pencils I'll be demonstrating, which means that I'm going to show you how to get great results, correct? But because someone talked trash about Prismas online, now I have to defend my teaching methods.

How do I respond politely to this?

Look, I’m going to be blunt in this article because the misinformation has gotten completely out of hand.

Someone needs to set the record straight.

Prismacolor pencils are not crap

Blunt enough for you?

I don’t care what “KraftyKassie95” from Omaha said on the Scrap-Happy Facebook page.

You don’t know her, you haven’t seen the quality of her work. She’s a semi-anonymous voice on the internet and you’re about to make a large purchasing decision based upon a few sentences in a comment section.

If that’s the case, then I’ve got a really cool bridge you might be interested in purchasing!

I have used Prismacolor on a daily basis since 1985

And 90% of the classes that I’ve taught for the last decade use them too.

I think Prismascolor Soft Cores are an excellent choice for anyone beginning to work with colored pencils and they’re a great forever-pencil for card makers and hobby colorers.

Look, I wouldn’t ask my students to purchase them if they were terrible pencils. I teach anywhere from 4 to 12 classes per month using PPSC pencils because I sincerely think they’re the best option for my students.

So who are you going to believe, me or KraftyKassie95 from Omaha?

Quality versus Price

When you begin a new medium, there is always a great debate-

Do I go cheap and get lots of colors or do I go with fewer colors of greater quality?

I never, ever, ever recommend buying student grade anything because student grade products are inconsistent. Their inexpensive ingredients can complicate your learning process. It’s simply harder to get good results from a student grade product. As a beginner, the last thing you need to do is make things difficult.

So that means you have to look at the more expensive, artist grade products. Unfortunately, artist grade pencils can be cost prohibitive.

That is less true for Prismacolor Premier Soft Core pencils.They’re a real artist grade product, no matter what KraftyKassie95 says. Of all the artist grade brands, they provide a lot of bang for your buck.

Do I think everyone should work with Prismas forever? No.

Do I think they’re the best investment a beginner can make? You bet’cha!

So what’s with all the Prismacolor bashing on the internet?

Well, it seems that Prismacolor made some seriously stupid decisions.

Right before colored pencil started trending, Prismacolor decided to cut corners, lower quality standards, and skimp on shipping procedures.

Dear Prisamcolor, If your name is mud, it’s your own darned fault.

There’s also the internet problem though. KraftyKassie95's half-baked opinion can be read and parroted by thousands of people. The internet equalizes voices so that you can’t tell if the commenter is an an experienced professional artist or a twice-a-month novice.

I’ve been loyal to Prismacolor since high school

In defense of Prismacolor's Premier Soft Core colored pencils. | VanillaArts.com

That was thirty-umph years ago.

I’ve seen both subtle and major changes to their product line over the years. 

And because I’m brutally honest, I’ll give you the straight scoop on what I’ve observed- in personal use and in my classes.

The sad fact is that Prismacolor Premier Soft Core pencils are not as nice today as they were a decade ago.

But let me be clear, the pigmented core (the lead) still feels like the same smooth formula. I don’t detect any difference between my projects today and the projects I did a decade ago. So if they have changed their color core ingredients, the differences are subtle and unlikely to cause users problems.

the major Prisma complaints:

But please note, for all the complaining going on in internetland, you’d think I’d be greatly affected by these quality problems. 

I go through at least 50 pencils a year; I use them daily and I see a heck of a lot of students using them every month.

I simply have not encountered problems on the scale that the internet suggests.

Let me repeat that- if anyone is going to see massive Prismacolor problems, I’m a great candidate. I am NOT seeing gigantic numbers of pencil failures. 

In fact, problems are pretty rare and isolated when they do pop up.

1. wood casings can splinter

Splinters and shards are from a defect in the wood used to make the casing. Small chunks of wood can splinter off when sharpening the pencil with a electric rotary blade.

Yes, Prismacolor is using a noticeably lower grade of cedar than they used to. The wood simply feels softer to the touch. So I’ll buy the theory that softer wood and less inspection at the lumberyard leads to more splintering.

In the last five years, I’ve had one pencil splinter. After I sharpened past the missing notch, the pencil looked and performed as any other pencil would. 

I can’t recall any students loosing shards in class and we sharpen a lot. A LOT.

If you have a pencil that splinters, don’t use an electric pencil sharpener until you get past the missing chunk of wood. A hand model that uses a blade rather than rotary grinders will be more gentle.

It’s an easy fix. No need to go ballistic on an internet chat board about it.

2. off-center color cores

Yep, this is a factory defect. At some point, Prismacolor started allowing more off-centers to leave the factory. Once upon a time, the off-centers would have gone into a reject pile.

In defense of Prismacolor's Premier Soft Core colored pencils. | VanillaArts.com

If your core is off-center you may have sharpening problems. You think you're sharpening as normal but when you pull the pencil out,  there is wood at the tip instead of colored core. If the core is just a little off center, you'll never notice. It has to be waaaaaayyyy off center to be a serious problem.

Look, this is a simple fix. Don’t buy a pencil that has an off-center core. Look at the pencil end, it takes about two seconds to spot which ones are wonky. No one is forcing you to buy wonky pencils.

If it came in a set, return the pencil by calling the Prismacolor consumer hotline at 800-346-3278.

3. Wood splits or Loose cores

Pencils are made like a sandwich. There’s a bottom half of wood with a channel down the length, a color core which sits in the channel, and then more wood on top. Glue holds the wood halves together and also keeps the core from sliding out when you color. If the glue fails, your pencil falls apart.

I can't recall ever having a pencil split. I had one core dislodge while filming a class two years ago; the pencil was about 3 inches long when it happened. I put a dab of crazy glue on the top end and continued working.

No big loss. I won’t head up to a bell tower to express my anguish over the loose core.

4. shattered cores

When you shop for apples, you pick out your favorites and drop them into a plastic bag, right?

That’s not how you shop for eggs... or do you toss those in a bag too?

All colored pencils are fragile. You should not manhandle any brand. And psssttt... if your pencil has "Soft Core" right in the name, they’re telling you that maybe you ought to treat it with a little more care than usual.

But seriously folks, I don’t understand this complaint. Do you want Prismacolor to make a firmer core that's less likely to break? They do. It’s called a Verithin. Go buy that instead and leave my precious soft cores alone. I want that soft buttery pencil lead and I’m willing to deal with occasional breakage to get it. It’s worth it.

Now maybe Prismacolor changed the way their cargo palettes get loaded and shipped. Poor shipping practices could totally be contributing to this problem. You can’t drop a crate of colored pencils and expect them to survive.

In defense of Prismacolor's Premier Soft Core colored pencils. | VanillaArts.com

However, I’ve got two more guilty parties we need to look at…

The store that allows customers to fondle, drop, and bang pencils around on open, unmonitored display shelves? If you’re buying from a store like that, you deserve a broken pencil. I'm looking at you right now, you 40% off Michael Ann's Lobby shoppers.

The colorer who stores pencils loose in a plastic box or anyone who allows their pencils to roll off the desk is also asking for breakage. You have fragile pencils and you’re not taking care of them. How is that Prismacolor’s fault?

Now I know, there are methods on the internet which claim that heating the pencil can heal the core. I’ve seen people mention the microwave, a heating pad, a low oven, and even setting them out in the sun. But here’s the deal, I don’t know if any of these methods work because I’ve never had to try them. I haven’t had a pencil with multiple internal breaks, at least not in recent memory.

I haven’t purchased a full set of Prismas in at least 20 years, so maybe that’s why I don’t see this problem much. I buy open stock pencils at two very reliable art stores (either would immediately exchange a shattered pencil) and I store my pencils in this case (affiliate link warning). 

You can’t buy pencils from Super-Piggly-Mart and toss them loose into a desk drawer.

And if you do, don’t whine about breakage on the internet.

5. Prismacolor Soft Cores don’t erase very well

Go away. Just go away.

They’re not supposed to erase easily. If you want an erasable pencil, go shop for one.

6. wax based pencils are bad

If you get that white wax coating called "bloom", well... there's no nice way to say this:

You’re doing it wrong.

Bloom happens when you put down too many layers of heavy pencil, when you burnish like a mad banshee, or when you fail to seal your finished project.

If you must burnish (I do not) then a simple spray coat of fixative or sealant will prevent blooming.

And don't use hairspray! Hairspray is not, not, not fixative.

Here's the kicker and most people never think about it before they do it- you actively encourage bloom when you use a blending pencil. You don’t get to complain about wax bloom if you're coating everything with extra wax. But again, fixative solves the problem.

If your project does bloom, a light rubbing with a facial tissue will remove the bloom entirely. Then spray it with fixative; fixative prevents blooming.

Are you getting the impression here that fixative is important? I hope so.

And by the way, the oil based pencil which folks keep recommending online as “super-duper awesome because it's not wax based”? Uhm, it has wax in it. All colored pencils have wax. They just don’t mention it on the box.

7. “Prismacolors are the worst pencils ever”

This is the biggest internet bandwagon- unspecific with hints of inevitable doom.

Prismacolor did a dumb thing- they took the name “Prismacolor” which once stood for something awesome and they used it to rename of all the other pencils they crank out.

So Verithins became “Prismacolor Verithins”. And Col-Erase and Scholars now use the name Prismacolor too. And the word “Premier” seems to be leaking over into the other styles now, most of which are completely unworthy of a Premier moniker.

I’m seeing confusion with my students, something that never happened a decade ago. The names are a serious problem. I call for the Soft Core pencils but they’re labeled “Primacolor Premier” and they once simply went by “Prismacolor”. A lot of my students are accidentally buying the wrong product, no matter how specific I make my lists.

I had one online student using Verithins for a year and she never understood why I kept calling my pencils buttery because hers were hard and brittle. Once she got her hands on a Soft Core, my classes suddenly made sense. And I have some students who get enticed by the eraser on the Col-Erase version and they simply will not upgrade to the softer pencil until they feel like they've recouped the original investment.

So before you accept an internet opinion about terrible, horrible, Black Plague inducing Prismacolor pencils, find out which Prismas they're referring to. They could be talking about Scholars. If that's the case, KraftyKassie95 is completely right. Scholars are terrible!

Let me put it simply:

In defense of Prismacolor's Premier Soft Core colored pencils. | VanillaArts.com

Yes, Prismacolor has some quality control issues but I really have not experienced enough of them to get my britches in a bunch.

Either I'm living in Shangra-la or the internet has exaggerated the problem.

And I'm near Detroit. This ain't Shangra-la.

I totally understand why professionals have switched from Prismas to other brands- I did too. But I started incorporating more lightfast colors long before the Prisma problems popped up.

Despite the internet scuttlebutt, I do not think that students need to buy ultra premium pencils immediately.

In fact...

It is unwise to purchase super-premium pencils right out of the starting gate

No colored pencil artist uses every pencil in the set. We all have a core group of about 20 to 40 frequently used colors. And we all have pencils that we’ve used only once (to make a color swatch).

Paying extra for a full set of expensive pencils is a waste of money if you don’t yet know what your most used pencil colors are going to be. 

Additionally, as a beginner, you simply don’t know enough about colored pencils to make a smart purchase. You don’t know if you’re going to do lots of landscapes or specialize in florals, wildlife, or portraits. You don’t know what project size you prefer to work at. You don't know if you'll be a fine detail person or work in loose strokes. There is not one brand of colored pencil that works for every genre and every technique at every scale.

This is why I recommend and why I teach with Prismacolor Premier Soft Core pencils. Because they’re an entry level, artist grade pencil which facilitates learning while allowing you to explore different genres and scales. They’re chameleon pencils and they’re financially accessible.

This is why I disagree with KraftyKassie95 from Omaha.

This is why I recommend Prismacolor Premier Soft Core pencils to my beginner and hobby level students.

Internet experts be damned.