Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Answer

1/25/15 Caran d'Ache Museum water-soluble colored pencil, watercolor, Canson XL 140 lb. paper

Sometimes people who live in other parts of the country ask how we can stand to live in a climate that is rainy, drizzly, cloudy or overcast for much of the year.

Today, Jan. 25, the temperature is 63 degrees, and the only clouds I see are as thin as a whisper.

Today, this is the answer.

Technical note: This sketch seemed to demand watercolor only, but I didn’t have quite enough confidence to paint Mt. Rainier’s shape without some kind of line first. A dark blue water-soluble pencil makes an ideal line – it just dissolves once the paint is applied.

Epic Pen Search and Discovery, Part 1: MikeD’s Pen

Spoiler alert: These are some of the nibs you'll meet in this epic blog
post series.
Impulse buying is not something I’m known for. (The last time I made a totally impulsive purchase, I came home with a Hello Kitty Pez dispenser collector’s box to hold my then-small ink collection – but who could resist that?). Whether it’s a clothes washer or a can of soup, I tend to read reviews and labels carefully. I do my research.

At the same time, I always come out strong as a J on the Myers-Briggs type indicator, which means I’m not comfortable with lots of options, and I prefer to seek closure and resolution rather than keep things open. In terms of shopping, that means I like to make the purchase as soon as I’ve made the decision to buy something. Once I decide, I don’t like continuing to look for more options.

All of this is preamble to documenting the epic search-and-discovery mission I have been on since last August that I’m finally ready to begin describing. (It’s going to take me a while, though – I’ve written seven parts so far, which will appear weekly on Sundays.) Six months may not seem epic to you, but for me it is, mainly because of my discomfort with unresolved searches. And as of this writing, the search continues.

The object of my search? The grail of variable-line-width fountain pen nibs.

Before I get to the search itself, I should explain why such a nib has become so interesting (OK, obsessive) to me. What’s the big deal? What’s wrong with a plain ol’ conventional, single-width pen nib?

For my first couple of years as a sketcher, I used mainly single-width writing instruments of various types – first a variety of technical pens (such as one favorite, the Copic Multiliner SP), which are designed to produce a consistent line width, and eventually Lamy and Pilot fountain pens. I was happy with each at the time.
The Sailor fude nib.

Somewhere in 2013, variable-width writing instruments moved into my radar range, and after trying a few, the first to really grab my attention was the cheap Sailor “calligraphy” pen (with what I now know is the fude nib). Not overnight, but slowly and gradually that pen changed the way I drew by making me more aware of the expressive line – and how a varying line width can be a large part of that expression.

1/20/15 Private Reserve Velvet Black and Fuyu-syogun inks, Pilot
Petit1 pen, Zig marker, Baron Fig Confidant notebook
Shown at right are two sketches I made of the same tree in Shoreline as examples. Although I would probably typically add color to the sky and maybe more shading, I deliberately left these sketches minimal to emphasize the line work in the tree.

The one on top was made with a Pilot Petit1 fine nib fountain pen – a perfectly serviceable, extremely inexpensive and highly reliable pen with a firm, conventional nib that makes a clean, consistent line. The one below it was made with my trusty Sailor fude.

1/20/15 Iroshizuku Take-sumi and Fuyu-syogun inks, Sailor fude pen, Zig marker,
Baron Fig Confidant notebook
Which one seems to describe more about the tree and, I hope, tells more about how I was feeling about this tree? To me, its the one sketched with the Sailor fude.

Perhaps the difference between the two sketches is subtle, but it’s a huge difference to me – in the way I feel while Im sketching. And so the search began.

(To be comprehensive in my documentation, before I get to the nib search itself, I’ll mention here two other contenders among variable-line width drawing instruments that I’ve discussed previously: the twig (surely able to produce the most variable – if also unpredictable – line width) and western calligraphy nibs. I’m happy with the twigs I currently use, and if I’m not, I can always go out to the backyard and pick up a few new ones, so I’m not including twigs in this epic search. Likewise, I currently own as many calligraphy nibs as I’ll probably ever consider for sketching, and I’m not fond of them for that purpose anyway, so I’m not searching for more.)
Two other variable-line-width sketching tools I've tried:
Above, a Lamy Vista fitted with a 1.5mm calligraphy nib;
below, a twig from my backyard -- the most variable (and
unpredictable) line width I've used.

My search started innocently enough in August 2014 when I saw a photo of urban sketcher Mike Daikubara’s (MikeD) sketch kit on Flickr. I spotted a cool-looking fountain pen and asked what it was. When he responded that it was his “trusty Sailor pen,” the Sailor Transparent Profit 21 Naginata Fude De Mannen, my heart skipped a beat – the Fude de Mannen is the same type of “bent” nib as on my own Sailor pen!

Readers of this blog have heard me refer to “my trusty Sailor pen,” which has appeared on my Top 10 list both this year and last year. I absolutely love the variable line width that crazy nib can make with just a front-to-back tilt, and I’ve been amazed that its price is under $20 (under $10, including shipping, when purchased online at J-Subculture) for such a fantastic pen. My only complaint is related to its plastic body, which, though comfortably lightweight, is a bit too slender, looks cheesy and insubstantial, and posting its cap causes the trim ring on the end to fall off. Even the slightly higher-priced Sailor Profit model, which has the identical fude nib, isn’t much better. I had resigned myself to putting up with the less-than-satisfactory pen body to use this favorite of nibs.
The Sailor "calligraphy" fude pen (top) and the Sailor Profit
model with the identical fude nib.

It had never occurred to me that the same type of nib could be acquired on a better quality body. Seeing that photo of Mike’s much more handsome and higher-quality Sailor with a fude nib turned on the proverbial light bulb over my head.

I immediately e-mailed Mike for more information, and that’s when I discovered that the fude is only one of many different types of specialty nibs that Sailor makes. The fude nib itself could be purchased in a 21kt gold version that Mike said is a whole different experience from that of the steel nib I have – the same, but better. It would be the Mother of All Fude Nibs! What’s more, it turns out that Sailor sells outside of Japan only through a few authorized dealers, and the pens with specialty nibs can only be purchased through a third-party vendor. Further research led me to one such vendor, Engeika.com, which stocks a dazzling array of Sailors, including several models that could be custom-made with a fude nib and finessed by nibmaster Nagahara himself – a process that could take up to six months. My grail was still far away but in sight! All I had to do was order.

But a funny thing happened on my way to the checkout button. . . (stay tuned next week).

Friday, January 23, 2015

Fran’s Chocolates!

1/23/15 Diamine Chocolate Brown ink, Caran d'Ache Museum water-
soluble colored pencil, Canson XL 140 lb. paper
Under any circumstance, it doesn’t take much to get me to go to Fran’s Chocolates. And with my sketchbook? Meeting the Friday ad hoc sketchers at Fran’s new Georgetown location this morning was my idea of heaven: Sipping a mocha so rich I could have eaten it with a spoon, the scent of chocolate wafting gently from the kitchen, I sketched the workers handcrafting jewel-like creations through a huge window.

As I sketched, Fran’s daughter Andrina came by to chat, and I told her that I have fond memories of shopping at Fran’s back in the ‘80s when she had a small storefront in Madison Valley. Fran’s newest location is in a building that started out as the Rainier Brewery’s ice house in 1902, Andrina said. It’s now a sparkling-white kitchen and spacious coffee and confection shop for the family-run business.

1/23/15 Diamine Chocolate Brown ink, Caran d'Ache Museum water-
soluble colored pencil, Canson XL 140 lb. paper

Although it was fun to tour Theo Chocolates a couple of years ago, it wasn’t conducive to sketching because we had to stay with the group and couldn’t linger where the action was. At Fran’s, I could sketch by the window at my leisure with a perfect view of all the activity. 

Afterwards I joined the other sketchers in the café and retail area, where an employee helped a customer pick out chocolates like they were precious gemstones. (Yes, they are pricey, but worth it.)

A heavenly sketch outing, indeed!

1/23/15 Diamine Chocolate Brown ink, Caran d'Ache Museum water-
soluble colored pencil, Canson XL 140 lb. paper

1/23/15 Diamine Chocolate Brown and Twilight inks, Caran d'Ache Museum
water-
soluble colored pencil, Zig marker

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Sketching, Listening and the S. S. Minnow

1/21/15 various inks, Canson XL 140 lb. paper
We had been invited to a presentation; the topic was of greater interest to Greg than to me. However, free refreshments were promised, so I tagged along – with my sketchbook, of course.

At some point I picked up a Bic ballpoint pen that had been provided for note-taking. I know some sketchers swear by the ubiquitous ballpoint for sketching, saying they can get all degrees of value with just one pen, just like some people are able to achieve with a pencil. I’ve never been a fan of ballpoint ink, but I started to see why it’s favored – it’s the kind of medium that you can keep building layers with.

1/21/15 various inks
I left that pen behind, but now I know that if I’m ever stuck on Gilligan’s Island, I’ll remember to grab a Bic that the S. S. Minnow would certainly have onboard.

P.S. Since I didn’t think I was very interested, I didn’t expect to pay much attention to the presentation while I sketched. I was surprised to find that I retained almost all of it. I find I can’t talk and sketch at the same time, but apparently some part of my brain is able to listen and pay full attention.

1/21/15 ballpoint pen

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Product Review: Baron Fig Confidant Notebook

1/19/15 various inks, Caran d'Ache Museum pencils,
Baron Fig Confidant notebook
More than a year ago I supported a Kickstarter campaign for Baron Fig, a couple of guys who wanted to produce a new kind of notebook. I liked their attitude and approach – ask potential users what kind of notebook they want rather than simply duplicate products that already exist. They dared to go against the standard dimensions of the typical A5 notebook, used better paper, made sure the binding opened flat and gave it other features that appealed to me.

I knew that the notebook’s paper – though fountain pen friendly and 100 gsm – wouldn’t be heavy enough for watercolor painting, and I’m not looking for a replacement for my current sketchbook system anyway. I mainly wanted to support the fledgling company because it seemed like they might listen to customers (which hasn’t been the case with most notebook manufacturers I know of).

My intention was to use the hardcover Confidant notebook that I received from the campaign as a journal. As expected, the paper is smooth and pleasant to write on with a fountain pen, and the book’s construction is attractive and seems sturdy. (The Pen Addict and Fountain Pen Geeks have thorough reviews of the notebook with good photos, and many other bloggers have commented on it.) What’s more, the paper is a crisp white (instead of ivory), and the books are available with the option of a plain, unruled page (relatively rare in a vast notebook world that favors all types of ruling over plain). After an initial scribble to test the paper, I put the notebook away for future journaling use.

In the year that followed the Kickstarter campaign, Baron Fig became quite successful and put out a few more notebook designs. Since I had a plentiful supply of journals on hand, I didn’t pay much attention.

1/19/15 Iroshizuku Take-sumi ink, Baron Fig Confidant
Fast-forward to a couple of weeks ago, when I had a renewed fit of annoyance with Field Notes Brand, a popular maker of pocket-sized notebooks. Maybe my annoyance wasn’t specifically against Field Notes so much as all small notebook manufacturers: Why can’t anyone make a thin, pocket-sized notebook with decent paper? I know it would be too much to ask for full-on watercolor paper (for that, I’m probably stuck with making my own) – but is it too much to ask for paper that could take a light wash from a waterbrush and be heavy enough that there’s no show-through? Maybe 90 or 100 pound (150 gsm)? (My experience with a hardbound Rhodia notebook last summer convinced me that if Rhodia came out with a thin, softcover version using the same paper, it would be as close to ideal as I could expect to get.) Perhaps my internal rant was directed at Field Notes because last summer it came out with the so-called “Arts & Sciences” series, which gave me high hopes, but even those notebooks had the same paper as the rest – unusable for any kind of sketching.

Fast-forward further to the past weekend, when one of the many fountain pen blogs I read raised my awareness of Baron Fig again – this time about the limited “Time Travel” edition of its Apprentice line of pocket-sized notebooks. Curious about the paper, I e-mailed to ask and was told that it is identical to that used in the Confidant notebook I have.

Hmmm. . . ! All the many reviews I’d read about Baron Fig’s notebooks were written by fountain pen users, not sketchers. Our needs are not very different – we all want non-feathering, non-bleeding paper with a relatively smooth surface (though I require less smoothness than most fountain pen users, since a bit of tooth is fine and even preferred for sketching). The only additional requirements I have are the ability to withstand a light wash and enough weight that I can sketch on both sides. I decided to give the Confidant notebook paper a sketching workout.

Backside of tree sketch (front was saturated with water and ink)
The first sketch I made was of a bare willow tree while parked at Whole Foods (at top). As you can see, the top half of the sketch buckled a bit after I sprayed it with water and took a quick swipe with a waterbrush filled with ink. But the backside of the same saturated page (at right), while buckled, shows no more bleed-through than a page with nothing but ink. (The bottom half of the sketch above reveals show-through from the sketch on the next page.)

In another sketch (the planter and the man on a bench, above), I didn’t use sprayed water or brush-applied ink – just fountain pen ink lightly washed with a waterbrush. As expected, this time there was no buckling, and the backside (below) shows only a little bleed-through. The show-through on the back is more than I would like if I want to sketch on both sides, but it’s no worse than what I experienced with the Rhodia (which is 90 gsm).

Backside of second sketch (waterbrush wash only)
A pocket-sized version of this paper would be ideal as a travel journal (the Rhodia I used in Brazil, though the right dimensions, was a little too bulky because it was hardbound). It might even be acceptable as a catch-all pocket sketchbook (the role currently served by my handmade sketchbooklets because nothing store-bought serves that need)! If only the paper were a bit heavier, it would definitely be acceptable. To express my enthusiasm for a product that comes very close, I ordered a few pocket-sized Apprentice notebooks to try (I might take one on my next trip).

What’s potentially more exciting than the notebook itself is the possibility that Baron Fig might listen to its customers. Here’s what it says on its website:

Our team contacted all types of thinkers around the world and asked them one simple question: What do you like in a Sketchbook or Notebook? Their thoughts and ideas continue to fuel our research, discussion, and design.

I’ve let them know my paper needs. If you have similar (or other) needs, tell them!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Another Peek-a-Boo View (Sketch No. 8)

1/19/15 Super 5 Frankfurt, Iroshizuku Fuyu-syogun and Tsuyu-kusa inks,
Caran d'Ache Museum water-soluble colored pencil, Zig marker,
Canson XL 140 lb. paper
It’s been close to three months since I sketched a Roosevelt Light Rail Station construction crane. Too cold to stand on the street or even sit at Starbucks’ outdoor tables where I last sketched one, today I remembered that the same Starbucks has a bar-like table against large windows facing the same direction. At a slightly different angle than last time, I gave that view a try. It’s mostly blocked by large trees, but in a few months those same trees will be fully in leaf, obstructing the view even more, so I figured I might as well sketch what I can now. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Uninspired at the Pike Place Market

1/18/15 various inks, Caran d'Ache Museum water-soluble
colored pencil, Zig marker, Canson XL 140 lb. paper
If there hadn’t been an Urban Sketchers outing this morning, I probably would have stayed in bed listening to the torrential rain and wind battering our windows and skylights. As much as I enjoy sketching at the Pike Place Market, doing so on a blustery, stormy day does nothing for me. Everything I like to sketch there is either outdoors or too close to the elements for me to be happy on a day like this.

Despite the ridiculous weather, the Market crowds were already getting thick, maybe because many people were coming through on their way to the noon Seahawks game. Before the crowds became daunting, I sketched a busker who was barely sheltered from the downpour just behind him.

1/15/15 Diamine Sapphire ink, Museum pencil
After that, chilled and uninspired, I wandered around in the Market’s deep lower bowels trying to warm up. Looking down from a railing toward the stairwell that leads to Western Avenue, I finally sketched another busker and got chilled all over again. Eventually I wandered back to the Atrium for our final sketchbook sharing and killed the last few minutes with twig and ink. (I think that last hasty sketch was my favorite of the day!)

I might have been crabby about the weather, but it certainly didn’t keep others away: We had a terrific turnout, including several first-timers! Only Urban Sketchers (OK, and maybe the Seahawks) can get people out on a day like this.

1/18/15 India ink, twig

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