This review discusses watersoluble Caran D’ache Neocolor II wax pastels, not to be confused with Neocolor I, which are not water soluble.
Let me start off by saying that I absolutely love Caran d’Ache to bits. They are my favourite brand of art supplies. This review might be a little biased in favor of their products, but I am biased towards them for a reason as Caran d’Ache really do make excellent art products. You can find their lightfastness ratings at the bottom of this post.
Described as “water soluble wax pastels,” Neocolor IIs are part of an increasingly popular but reletively new emerging medium.
The set consists of 126 colours, 10 of which are metallic. The full set contains a very nice, wide range of greens, blues and purples. There are perhaps not as many greys and browns as I would like – but because the crayons are so versitile it’s not that much of an issue. You can just mix colours with water until you find the one you need. Because of this, if you don’t feel you can afford the rather steep price of the full set of 126, it’s still worth getting even just a small set to play with for the time being (which is what I actually did initially, back in August). The metallic crayons are a nice addition but are perhaps not quite metallic enough in my eye – much of the shine disappears when water is added.
Unfortunately I experienced issues with the ‘metallic silver’ Neocolor II. It was dried out and cracked, and would not activate with water – this is probably a manufacturing fault as I’ve seen a lot of people have had issues with it, including JenW Fine Arts and my artist friend Kitt Morgan. After contacting the art store they bought it from, Kitt was sent a working replacement and was told that the issues they were having were probably due to a bad batch.
The set also comes with an inculded metal tin containing a 2-hole KUM Magnesium pencil sharpener, one Technalo B watersoluble graphite pencil, two sponges, a hog hair brush, and a metal scraper. These are very nice additions to the set though it’s a shame that no proper paintbrush was included. The hog hair brush is far too wide and stiff to get any good detail or small brushstrokes and is in my opinion much more suited to mixing colours on a pallette, and the sponges are not much more suitible for similar reasons. The KUM pencil sharpener is very, very good – it’s the only sharpener I can find that you can sharpen Neocolors with, without them gumming up the sharpener or not even fitting in the hole. It works really well for fragile pencils too. I don’t know where I’d be without this sharpener, it’s brilliant.
Edit 2021: It seems Caran d’Ache have discontinued the set of 120 as well as 42 colours in the range which is an absolute shame. The largest set available now is the set of 84.
Test Paintings and Techniques
To put this medium to the test, I decided to do a couple of test paintings, trying out and combining different techniques. This included wetting the crayon itself, or using dry crayons over washes, heating up the paper with a hair dryer to melt the crayons onto the paper, and creating my own pan palette by disolving shavings of crayon with water onto my palette as if I were using watercolours.
Using the Neocolor IIs dry with hard pressure creates a very nice, thick and solid layer of colour, with a look and feel that is very similar to oil pastels. This effect is even easier to achieve when heating up the paper or the pastels with a hair dryer or using tools such as the Icarus Board. Using them dry with light pressure creates a crayon-like texture, showing the tooth of the paper underneath. I think this is my favourite technique especially when done over the top of an underpainting (as shown in “Coastal Sunset” above). You can also add water after laying down the crayons dry or paint with a paintbrush and use the crayons as a palette to create a painted look very reminiscent of gouache.
You always know what colours to expect when using Neocolor IIs wet or dry. A lot of other brands in this medium look a little dull when used dry and get a lot more vibrant when water is added, which personally I have never liked. Neocolor IIs have the rare advantage in this medium to look nearly exactly the same colour dry as when wet, making it much easier to judge values and hues, and thusly to combine wet and dry techniques.
Once the crayons have been water activated, they can be repetedly wet and reworked as many times as you like. This may be a turn off for some, but I think this is one of the strengths of the Neocolor IIs. The crayons are so opaque that layering is still very easy, even with them remaining water soluble after the first wash. You can work from dark to light or light to dark, both work really well.
Another strength of them being rewettable is erasing – if you make a mistake, most of the pigment can be lifted off by dabbing it with a damp cloth and the remaining errant pigment can be covered up with additional layers of crayon.
Mixed Media Possibilities
Neocolor IIs are great for mixed media projects and cover well on many different kinds of surface because they are so opaque. Pretty much the only thing they don’t work very well on is glass.
These crayons work very well with coloured pencils and also permanent markers. They are best used as an underpainting when combined with coloured pencils. As usual with coloured pencils you are best working from light to dark as lighter shades of coloured pencil don’t show up very well over the top of a dark neocolor II wash. Another caveat to bear in mind is that you can’t use paint thinner when mixing coloured pencils and neocolors as it will cause the neocolor underpainting to shift and lift all of your coloured pencil layers off.
With markers, I found that they are best used on top, after adding a “base” layer of marker underneath. You can start dark or light with the markers, the neocolours are so opaque that they easily show up over the markers.
All in all I am very excited about the posibilities of using these in conjunction with coloured pencils. It would certainly signitificantly cut down the time it takes to draw backgrounds and large areas of flat colour!
I love the way they work with my Faber Castell Pitt pens too – though I don’t use markers all that much.
Because they are so versitile, Caran d’Ache Neocolor IIs are a great tool for any artist, be it realism, impressionism, abstract, illustration, the list goes on. This medium works really well for all of them! You can use so many different techniques with them too, I only barely touched the tip of the iceberg in this review and I could go on forever about them (though I think this review is far too long as it is!). You are hard pressed to find a better watersoluble crayon with lightfastness ratings as good as the Neocolor II line too – see the below section for more information.
There’s no contest, really. These watersoluble pastels are a cut above the rest. All in all I rate the Caran d’Ache Neocolor II line…
Excellent quality, fun and versatile. If you can afford them, they are worth it!
The lightfastness ratings for the Neocolor II line have proved somewhat difficult to chase down. The only mention of it in the set’s brochure and packaging is the statement that the pastels have “excellent lightfastness.” Not including the lightfastness information in the packaging seems like a bit of an oversight, as it is usually readily available and easily accessable for most of Caran D’ache’s products.
There was also next to no further information online, so I contacted Caran D’ache directly requesting the individual lightfastness ratings of each crayon. They very kindly replied back with all the star ratings and gave me permission to share them all with you. To my surprise and delight, only 12 out of the set of 126 colours for the Neocolor II line are not lightfast, two of which being fugitive colours. Water soluble mediums tend to be a little iffy when it comes to fading over time, so this is fantastic news for fine artists hoping to create works that will last. I would still err on the side of caution however – be sure to frame your work using archival quality materials and put it behind UV glass just in case.
Below are the ratings for each pastel. Pastels given a three-star rating will last for 100 years or more, two-star rating for 20 years, one star for 5 years and a slash (/) denotes fugitive colours that fade quickly. Generally speaking three-star and two-star rated colours are sufficiently lightfast. Avoid using one star and slashed colours in work that you wish to preserve.