Does making color choices make your head spin?


For the past year I have been looking for the magic answer to how to pick the right colored pencils for a project. Why is it so darn hard? Well, have you ever wondered just how many colors there are to choose from? Personally, I had no idea. So, I did what you know I do when I don’t know something . . . yep, another side trip to the internet.


Lucky for me, I found an answer in an article written by Jacob Olesen (Color Meanings). At the time he wrote this article he stated that to determine the number of colors in the world you have to start with how many shades of light the human eye can actually see. He said that according to researchers, the human eye can see 1,000 shades of light. Within those shades, we can detect 100 different levels of red-green shades. We can also see 100 levels of yellow-blue shades. Knowing that, it works out that there are ten million colors in the world that the human eye can see! He ends his article by saying that “we can’t escape the fact that the concept of labeling all colors (all 10 million) is slightly arbitrary due to the subjective nature of color perception”.


Oh dear, subjective nature of color perception. That is so true. Not only can you and I look at the same color and give it a different description, but I can also look at that same color in different lighting conditions and not realize it’s the same color. How will I ever know if my determination of a color’s hue is correct?


I can see the colors on a color wheel, but when holding one of my pencils in my hand, I can’t always tell where on the wheel it comes from. I can hear Frankie right now, “Kathy, you are over thinking this” and she might throw in “why the heck does it matter”? Well, for me, when I pick colors for a project, I need to know I’m really getting the color that I expect, that I can use it confidently with other colors to create harmony and/or when I store my pencils, I like to keep them together in their respective color/hue family.


I have this personality quirk that drives my need to know that what I am doing is correct. As you can tell, that is true when it comes to color too. When I started coloring, I didn’t worry about colors because I simply followed a list of colors called for in a class or tutorial. On occasion, if I didn’t have a required color, I would do what most of us do, ask the teacher if I could substitute it with something else and if so, what color did he/she recommend I use.


But today I am creating my own projects and now color selection is important. From the time I start thinking about a project until I settle on the palette, I struggle. You wouldn’t think it’s true because I have quite the stash of colored pencils. I can’t believe I’m going to admit this, but I just counted them up (oh my good thing my husband doesn’t read this) I have 8 different brands of pencils that add up to 740 unique pencils. I had to take a little break there and settle my heart rate back down. It’s not that bad is it? I mean, if there are ten million colors in the world, I only own .000074% of them. Now that I did the math, I can talk my way out of this one the next time I’m asked if I really need another set of pencils.


This has also helped me solve another mystery of the coloring world, if I own 740 pencils how is it possible that I don’t have just the color I need. Well, because now we know there are 10 million colors, no wonder this happens. But do I really need more than I have? I clearly don’t have room for 9,999,260 more pencils!

I don’t believe I need more pencils until I have a firm grasp on what I currently own. That means finding a way to organize and recognize what it is I have. You might remember I started the organization of my pencils in 2020 when I took an online course about color. It taught me how to determine the makeup of my Prismacolor Premier colored pencils. I was fascinated by the process. Learning what colors were combined to make a pencil helped me to start to recognize the origins of the pencils color. It also led to me developing a tool that really helped with my color selection, my CMY/Prismacolor Premier color wheel. After I had done this for all my Prismacolor pencils I was ready to jump in and do this analysis on my other seven brands. But I didn’t get far. The technique I had used for Prismacolor wasn’t translating across my other brands. So, I let it go until . . .


I took another online class and was introduced to the Munsell color system. Now, I’m not going to go into detail, but I will say that the basis of the Munsell color system is to identify any color based on its hue (color), value (how light or dark it is) and chroma (dull/brightness). That really intrigued me. I found that as I would reach for a color, I was started asking myself just those three questions, what’s it color family, how light or dark is it, and is it bright or dull. Ultimately, I added another question, is it a pure color from the rainbow or is it leaning towards one of its two next-door neighbors on the color wheel? It’s like finding the DNA of my colored pencils.

I spent quite some time to swatch and then classify all eight sets of my colored pencils (except the blacks and greys). After which I charted them based on the Munsell numbering system. The result is I now know the DNA of all my pencils. Which colors from different manufactures share the same DNA and which are unique. I now understand how the value and chroma can adjust the hue but not change it's family of origin. I am happy to say, the majority of my pencils are unique. And when charted out, you can see how close, yet different the colors can be and it’s why when used in a project can totally throw it off balance.


What am I going to do with all this information? Well, I’m not totally sure yet. But I do know that my color confidence has experienced another growth spurt. What I’ve learned here I can apply to color in any medium. I’ve also now combined my pencils by color family instead of keeping them all separate by manufacturer and I’ve summarized what I learned in this “top ten" list:


Kathy’s Top Ten Lessons Learned from Color Swatching


10. Fully saturate your swatch with the pigment to see the true color of the pencil.

9. Not all pencils like my electric sharpener. Prismacolor, Holbein, Posca and other hard-core pencils do, but Derwent Coloursoft pencils prefer the Derwent hand crank and 2-point manual sharpeners.

8. Never trust the paint on the pencil barrel to reflect its true color—check out Koh-I-Noor #15. And, never trust the name of a pencil to indicate the color — like what the heck is Lincoln Green - is it a pure green, a yellow-green or a blue green?

7. Caran d’Ache Pablo pencils feel thin and light compared to my other pencil brands

6. Derwent Coloursoft has the softest core of all my pencils and creates the most pigment crumbs.

5. Just because you open a set of new pencils and they look stunningly beautiful doesn’t mean they will perform any better than any other not so pretty looking set.

4. It’s a toss-up, not sure whose numbers are harder to read on the side of the pencil, Caran d’Ache Luminance or Faber Castell Albrecht Durer Watercolour Pencils - they are both difficult for these old eyes.

3. Identifying the temperature of a color/hue is easier than I ever knew. It means that once I have identified the color/hue of my pencil then I determine if it is a pure color or is it leaning towards its nearest neighbor to the left or to the right on the color wheel.

2. For interest, I’m told a color palette should have a mix of temperatures. Did you know that a complementary color not only adds a pop of color, it also introduces the opposite temperature!

1. I can now truthfully tell my husband I have used every one of these pencils!


Since resurfacing from this color rabbit hole that I fell into I see even more colors all around me. Don’t you think this is something that should be celebrated? I do! Well, it is February, we just had a major snowstorm, which I believe means we should have six more weeks of coloring. Hmmmm, maybe it’s time that what we are looking for on Groundhog Day becomes just a little more colorful. If not, I can still check my color charts and let you know the DNA of his shadow color.

What's happening in the Corner . . .


Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why you are attracted to an image, so much so that you want to color it too? Whether it is whimsical or realistic, chances are it's the shading of the image that caught your attention. Join us this month as we focus our practice on the creation of clean edges and smooth color transitions.

If you are reading this after we moved on to the next technique, you can find the Work-at-Your-Own-Pace Practice for Clean Edges & Smooth Color Transitions here.

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