Do Colored Pencils Expire or Dry Out?

Do Colored Pencils Expire or Dry Out
Do Colored Pencils Expire or Dry Out?

Why Do Colored Pencils Expire?

Let's say you finally decide to get out your favorite box of colored pencils to do some drawing, then Oops! They don't seem to work anymore like they used to. The color might be scratchy or doesn't spread on the paper like before. Worse yet, the color tip keeps breaking-off no matter how many times you sharpen it. Then you ask yourself, why do colored pencils expire or dry out? This article will help you solve a very tricky question easily enough.

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Why Do Colored Pencils Expire?

Unlike graphite-based pencils that use a material that never is affected by time, colored pencils have a dark secret! A secret that most experienced artists like myself have dealt with for years and is frustrating at times. I learned to take care of my art and drawing supplies mostly since they cost a lot of money. But the other reason is also that they have a shelf date that cannot be determined by looks alone.

In the beginning, I liked the smooth blending texture of some color pencils and hated the harder ones. I was assuming they were just old, but later I learned from a professional graphic artist about the truth. Not all color pencils were the same and they have different applications for drawing technique. After that, I started to learn more about why this problem was not just about age but how they are also stored. Prismacolor Colored Pencils. Artist quality pencils made using high-quality pigments. Click here to view the latest prices on Amazon.

Why Do Colored Pencils Dry Out?

The biggest factor that I noticed is where you keep a colored pencil when I put them away. I used to live in the San Francisco bay area where the temperature is fair and cool. When I moved to Los Angeles, things changed in a whole year when I was living there. L.A is a very dry place that ranges from arid to desert-like conditions. My pencils died in just a year and had to buy a whole new set. But later I learned how to keep them from drying out. Here’s why:

• The Quality of Pigment That’s Used

All colored pencils use special pigments to make a variety of shades. The pigment is important since that will determine how much quality you get from the amount that's added inside them. Too little and you go through them faster and a lot means they will last longer. But how does this work? As mentioned before, my graphic artist friend told me everything.

• The Pigment Rating Tells All

You might remember that all graphite pencils have a number on the side. Usually, you see No.2 printed on the side. But did you know this means it's an all-purpose school pencil? No.4 is harder and No.1 is the softest. The grading system for drawing pencils goes from 10H to 10B. There are 22 levels in the hardness to the softest scale. No.2 is in the middle of that scale. You can see why certain pencils are only good for specific types of drawing jobs.

With color pencils, the rating scale is completely different and tells you the percentage of pigment that's been added. The rest will be a binder material. If you see a color pencil that has a Lightfast rating. This determines the scale of how long that color will last once it goes on the paper. It will let you know how many years the color will last. 1 is the poorest lasting 1-2 years. A rating of 8 can last up to 100 years. 

These are based on non-sunlight display conditions. Additionally, the pencil will often say soft, medium-soft, medium, or hard in most cases. This is how easy the color will transfer to the paper. Harder doesn't mean the color will be less intense, but how much pressure is needed to draw with it. A softer color pencil will be the easiest to lay-down color but is more prone to getting dull faster as a result. It also depends on how much filler as added to the pigment as you will read further.

• The Kind of Wax That’s Used

Color pencils use a binder that is made from wax. Most commonly bee's wax but can also be natural waxes that are purchased in bulk. Each company will have its proprietary wax that they stand by. Waxes tend to bloom over time. You might notice that color pencil drawings will have a cloudy sheen that can be wiped away with light rubbing. This is called blooming and isn't a bad thing. It can rub-away more color each time your picture is lightly wiped-off.

• Temperature is Important

Hotter and drier conditions will affect wax-based color pencils. The wax can warm-up and leach into the wood handle itself. It will make the combination of wax and pigment less and the result can be dry and scratchy color pencils. This is what happened to my pencils in L.A. since they were in a room that has no air- conditioning. Even though they were in a dark desk, they dried-out from being too dry!

• Vegetable Oil Vs Wax

You usually won’t find oil-based pencils in your local supply store and are typically far more expensive than wax-based pencils. They don’t break as easy as the wax pencils will, which is why they are meant for professionals. The cost difference is often 25-50 dollars more for a set of colors. Serious artists like them because they are harder and last much longer than wax-based sets. There is also no bloom when it goes onto the paper making the colors easier to set with a setting spray.

•How to Fix Old Color Pencils

If you have wax-based colored pencils that are old and dried out you can try the microwave trick. It worked for me and I got 10 more years out of them so far. What you do is simple. First, take a rubber eraser cap and put it on one end of the color pencil. If you have a set, you'll need to use one or two at a time. I have 5 erasers so I could do just five at a time. First cut off the tips.

Then put them in the microwave at an angle or 45-60 degrees in a large coffee mug. Microwave it for 30 seconds, stop, then again for 30 seconds. Let them sit for 2 minutes. The heat generated should re-melt the wax and pigment within the wood liner just enough to make it semi-liquid. If you try for longer it may turn the color inside to liquid. This is why the eraser caps prevent the wax from draining out of the bottom of the pencil. Then it’s fixed.

• Use a New Sharpener

After the color is cooled (give it an hour or so), you can then begin to re-sharpen them. This should always be a fresh razor blade pencil sharpener. Use a pencil sharpener that schools use or a quality sharpener from a paper supply shop. The shavings should come out of the top blade easily. You can see how well it shaves the wood and forms a sharp color tip. Then you can begin using your color pencils once again.

How to Store and Protect a Set of Premium Colored Pencils?

I recommend using an airtight container that is used for kitchen vegetables and food. Those Tupperware containers that can be burped’, when you want to remove excess air. I found these work-out best and they have sizes that fit color pencils perfectly. I can even add a label to the top that says what kind of pencils they are. Add the date when you bought them to keep track of how old they are. If they are wax-based and dried- out, you can do the microwave trick to refresh them again.

My Conclusion:

Colored pencils aren’t as finicky as caring for cigars thankfully. But these tips and facts can help you further to keep your color pencils living longer. Why do colored pencils expire or dry out? Your region where you live will be the ultimate answer to that. Protect these investments inside an airtight container to keep wax and oil from drying-up or escaping. If you spent a lot on your pencils, you want them to last as long as you value their worth too.

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Ian Walsh is the creator and author of and an Art teacher based in Merseyside in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in Fine Art and a PGCE in teaching Art and Design. He has been teaching Art for over 24 Years in different parts of the UK. When not teaching Ian spending his time developing this website and creating content for the improvedrawing channel.

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