In defense of Prismacolor Premier pencils

If you are a working visual artist who makes their living from creating and selling colored pencil art, move on, this post isn’t for you. The same goes for any kind of colored pencil fanatic, because I’m never going to convince you, and I really have no interest in trying!

For the rest of us, those who make art as a hobby, a creative release, a way to get to that Zen-like, in-the-zone state without going all woo-woo transcendental meditation, Prismacolor Premier pencils are actually still a great pencil. Anyone who’s used the Prismacolor Premiers before they moved their manufacturing to Mexico in 2010 will tell you these were the best. They were pricier then than they are now, but they were worth the price because a) they laid down creamy and also blended and layered beautifully and b) they were made in the USA and easily available whereas the other power brands were not.

So, here’s the deal: if you have (or can get hold of) a set of Prismacolor Premiers that were manufactured before 2010, you know that these are great: the pencils are richly pigmented, the laydown is creamy AF and blending colors is relatively easy (of course, if you have the 150 pencil set, you need to do less blending because there are SO many colors to choose from!), and you can sharpen them to a fine point with zero fuss.

The made-in-Mexico ones, on the other hand, do have problems. Yes, I said they have problems. The trouble seems to be mostly one of quality control. Hold up your older Prismacolor Premiers by the non-sharpened end, and you’ll see that the cores (the colored centers) are perfectly centered. Now hold up several of the newer ones by that non-sharpened end, and you’ll note that almost none of the cores are exactly in the centre of the wood casing!

Prismacolor Premier Off-Center Cores
Prismacolor Premier Off-Center Cores

Why is that a problem, you ask? Well, sharpeners are made with the assumption that the pencil has a centered core! So, if you stick that not-quite-centered-core pencil into a sharpener … yep, you’re going to get oddly sharpened pencils if you’re lucky, and plain old broken cores if you’re unlucky. That seems to be the main complaint: these pencils are now very hard to sharpen without breaking off the point, so you use up the pencils very fast without even actually making much art with them!

This is troublesome, of course: you don’t want barely-used pencils being worn to the nub while sharpening! But there’s a solution: just sharpen the pencils using an electric sharpener – the even pressure seems to help. If you prefer a hand-held sharpener, some people recommend holding the pencil still in one hand and turning the sharpener instead of the more instinctive method of turning the pencil while holding the sharpener still. That does work.

I personally prefer to sharpen my Prismacolors by hand using a craft knife like this one. That way, you maintain control over pretty much everything: how much pressure you apply, how much of the core you expose, how sharp you make the point, and how smoothly you shave around the wood casing. To get a fine point on the pencil, you can file it smooth on a sandpaper block. This is how I sharpen my pencils, and the technique works beautifully! If you’re more visual: go check YouTube for videos on how to do the craft-knife pencil sharpening – there are several demos there.

Another issue seems to be that the wood casings on the new pencils are not the highest quality. Sometimes, the casing will split down the entire barrel, leaving you with  a pencil that feels irritatingly uncomfortable to hold. There is no solution to this problem that I’ve found – I go buy a new pencil to replace the old one when this happens!

Lightfast? Not all these pencils are lightfast, so be sure to check Prismacolor’s own lightfast ratings charts if you do want to create a piece of art that you will sell or want to hold on to for a long time. Alternatively, you could do what I do: create the artwork on high quality, acid-free paper (I’ve been using the Arches hot press watercolor paper) using all the colors I want, and then spray the finished work with a UV-spray and/or frame it behind UV-protective glass.

So why did I write this post if the Prismacolor Premier pencils are so problematic? Because, for the non-professional artist, these pencils are still a wonderful purchase. The intrinsic properties of the richly pigmented cores haven’t changed dramatically. Best of all, the price has dropped dramatically now that more people are aware of the quality control issues: at the time of writing this post (and if you came here from Facebook), you can pick up the largest set at Amazon for just over $100 … that’s less than a buck a pencil for a pretty darned nice set of pencils!

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