Saturday, September 22, 2018

Vintage Colored Pencils: Laurentien and Venus Paradise

Laurentien colored pencil packaging

Earlier this year when I was surfing around on eBay for vintage colored pencils, an interesting name caught my attention: Laurentien, a Canadian brand. The name popped up relatively frequently, sometimes in large bulk quantities, so I deduced that these pencils were no longer being produced but were also not rare. The sets I saw most often were of 12 or 24 colors packaged in plastic cases.

Some Internet research revealed that this colored pencil brand was fondly and nostalgically remembered by Canadians who used them in elementary school much the way Americans look back at Crayola. Unlike Crayola, however, Laurentien pencils were apparently pleasant to use.

Win a Commodore home computer system!
Curious, I waited for an inexpensive, used set to appear, and shortly thereafter, an interesting offer popped up: Two packages were for sale together, and one had a label promoting a giveaway of a Commodore computer! Instantly dating the pencils for the 1980s, the package made the offer irresistible.

The two incomplete sets I bought – both with the Faber Castell logo on the cases – might be of slightly different ages. The barrels of one set say “Venus Canada” while the others say only “Canada.” In addition, the pencils that say Venus Canada include color names in English only. The pencils labeled Canada show color names in both English and French. A distinguishing feature of
Faber Castell's logo appears on both packages
Laurentien colored pencils are the color numbers, which are intended for use with color-by-number coloring books. (Some of those corresponding coloring books can still be found on eBay.)

The name Venus was familiar to me from vintage graphite and colored pencils I’ve seen on eBay, including the small set of American Venus watercolor pencils I reviewed earlier this year. In that review, I mentioned the two random Venus Paradise pencils I had dug up at a local thrift shop. Disappointingly, the watercolor pencils were not nearly as soft and pigmented as the Venus Paradise, so I went on a hunt for more of the latter.

Eventually I acquired a used set of 12 Venus Paradise, which are relatively rare compared to other Venus colored pencils. When examined, I saw that the Paradise pencils have the same color numbers as the Laurentien pencils! The plot thickens!
In each color pair, the upper pencil is Venus Paradise; the lower is Laurentien. The color numbers match.

A nearly complete set of color numbers 1 - 24. Some say Canada; others say Venus Canada.

Some color names are in English only; others include French.

Indeed, it didn’t take long to discover that Laurentien and Venus Paradise were basically the same pencils marketed in Canada and the US, respectively. The most informative article came from the Canadian Design Resource, which said the following:

Although Laurentien (then spelled Laurentian) pencil crayons were made in Canada right from the start, The Venus Pencil Company Ltd. also marketed the same pencils under the brand name ‘Paradise’ in the United States. Both brands were developed for Colour-By-Number kits, and they both kept the same colour names and numbering system. This would explain some of the more exotic colour names like “#2 Sarasota Orange” and “#4 Hollywood Cerise.”
During the 1960’s, a couple of Canadian innovations were made: The packaging was changed to the portable vinyl pouches, and space for labeling on the pencil was introduced to deter theft from classmates.
In 1972, a year before Faber-Castell bought Venus, the French spelling “Laurentien” was trademarked in an attempt to increase sales in Quebec.
Sanford acquired the brand in 1994, and in 2001 they changed the packaging and discontinued the vinyl pouch.
Intriguing information for a colored pencil historian! It made me happier than ever that I had gotten sets in vinyl pouches (not to mention the Commodore promotion).

Two logo designs on Venus Paradise pencils
Left: Venus Paradise; right: Laurentien
I say that Laurentien and Paradise are “basically” the same because they aren’t identical. The Paradise core is ever-so-slightly thicker and feels a bit waxier.

The Paradise set I bought on eBay has a slightly different logo design than the two random ones I found at the thrift store (I’m particularly fond of the logo on the light blue and green ones from the thrift shop).

As for how they apply, both pencils are soft and waxy but don’t layer and blend as well as other soft pencils I’ve used. Still, for pencils intended for elementary school children, they are pleasant and certainly useable (a far cry from the hard, unpigmented Crayola pencils that I remember from my youth). As the only Canadian colored pencil in my collection (or that I even know of), the Laurentien remains unique and special.

5/27/18 Laurentien colored pencils in Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook

Friday, September 21, 2018

Seven Years on This Journey


Seven years ago today, I began a drawing habit. Every year on this anniversary, I indulge in long-winded introspection about my practice and process. Last year I got so long-winded that I had to divide my musings into three posts (part 1, part 2 and part 3). I’ll spare you this time and keep my commentary brief:

During the first couple of years that I was sketching, I showed the most growth and improvement. My learning trajectory was mostly straight up simply because I went from never practicing to practicing daily. When that improvement started to taper off, even though I was still sketching as much as ever, my biggest fear was that I would eventually hit a plateau and never get past it.

In the years after that, I continued to see incremental improvements – not the more gratifying leaps I made in the beginning, but still mostly steady movement in the right direction. Every now and then I slide back discouragingly, but somehow I always get back on track. Rusty whenever I return to life drawing after a long period, the nuts and bolts eventually get oiled again. That recurring pattern has given me reassurance that my creative progress looks more like a series of rolling hills rather than a rocket (an insight I had even when I was just starting).

11/17/11 Here's a self-portrait I made directly in ink within two months
after I started sketching. Rather brave of me, huh? I see I cleaned up my
eyebrows! ;-)
The last two years I made a concentrated effort on formal learning by studying a total of 25 weeks with Suzanne Brooker at Gage (first with color, then with graphite). More recently, Eduardo Bajzek changed the way I responded to values by giving me a new take on graphite. And all of that learning has led me to experiment with teaching myself how to understand values better (see yesterday’s post). I no longer waste energy worrying about when I’m going to hit a plateau. Instead, I’m hopeful that I’ll always have some capacity to continue learning.

Perhaps the most gratifying part about my journey is simple: Now when I look at a sketch I’ve just finished, I’m more often happy than unhappy. But regardless of how I feel about that last sketch, the important part is this: I always turn the page and make the next one.

(My previous years’ anniversary posts are here: 20162015201420132012.)


12/1/11 When I first started, I wrote a lot more commentary to accompany the sketches than I do now. As a lifelong
journal keeper, I was more comfortable writing in public than sketching, so when I felt nervous, I often
wrote notes like this to relax before starting the next sketch.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Purple Shadows, Yellow Trees

9/17/18 Wedgwood neighborhood

Ever since my head exploded in Eduardo Bajzek’s workshop, I’ve been thinking about his graphite technique and trying to figure out how I can do it with color. As much as I love graphite – its material simplicity; its monochrome elegance; its incomparable richness when applied well – I always miss color when I use it. Especially this time of year when brilliant color fills the urban landscape, I can’t bring myself to use a monochrome medium.

Then again, I know all too well how distracted and confused I can get by color. As soon as I start focusing on hues and trying to match what I see to the colors in my palette, I forget all about values. And if there’s one thing I have learned over and over in every class I’ve taken and every book I’ve read on drawing, it’s that values are king. If you get the values right, a sketch will “read” properly, regardless of color.

1/26/17 photo reference
When I was taking the landscape drawing class in colored pencil last year, it was the first time I seriously studied how to use color to convey form and value. One of the most informative exercises we did was to use only three pencils to draw a tree (at left): a green for the mid-values; a warm yellow for the sunny side; a cool blue for the shadows. In the same way that Eduardo’s workshop helped me to see and understand values in a way I had not before, this tree assignment simplified color into three basic values. I felt enlightened.

Although yellow/green/blue is a natural palette to use for a tree (since optically mixing yellow + blue = green), I don’t think it would have mattered which three colors I had used. The enlightening part was that looking only at these three hues made it easy to “codify” the values in my mind. I looked at the reference photo of the tree, and wherever I saw light, I colored the tree with yellow. Wherever I saw shadows and shade, I used blue. Everything else was the green mid-value.

In later assignments when we could use as many hues as we wanted to, I often got confused when I was trying to indicate local color (the color I see on that rock) and the values (the difference between the light and shaded sides of the rock). I sometimes resorted to “codifying” the values as I did in the tree exercise: I’ll use this hue for the sunny side of the rock, and that hue for the shaded side. Eventually I would blend everything with numerous pencils so that it all looked more natural, but developing a “code” helped my brain understand it.

All those lessons working with photos have stayed with me on some cerebral level, but when I’m sketching on location, my very literal mind gets confused about local hues and values again. And yet when I use nothing but graphite on location, it’s much easier not to get confused. Black and white are already an abstracted code. I squint, I see the lights, mediums and darks, and I can get the job done with one pencil.

Thinking about all of this, I decided to play the codifying game on location, but to trick my pea brain, I tried to avoid literal hues. In the sketch at the top of the page, the small aspen really was a brilliant yellow, so I allowed my literal brain to start there, and then I continued to put in yellow wherever I saw light on other trees (yellow = light). I started to make the other trees green, but then I stopped myself and put their shadows in with dark blue and purple (blue/purple = shade). The result is somewhat garish, but I hope it “reads” accurately.

The next day at the arboretum, the light was brilliant on one of my favorite trees there, a decorative cherry (below). Remembering the yellow/purple complement I used on the street scene, I gave the combo another shot, using green for the mid-values.

My intention isn’t necessarily to continue sketching in abstract, non-literal colors, but if I can apply to urban sketching the same kind of codifying I taught myself while drawing from photos, maybe I’ll eventually figure out how to make the leap from monochrome to color without losing the values.

9/18/18 Washington Park Arboretum

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Alice’s Tomatoes

9/15/18 heirloom tomatoes

I’ve sketched a lot of tomatoes – they’re probably my second-most-often sketched fruit after apples – but these tomatoes are special. Not only were they the most delicious tomatoes I’ve eaten this year; they were grown by my friend and neighbor Alice. She said this summer, her garden’s tomatoes were the best they had ever been. I guess all those weeks of dry heat were good for something.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Losing Ground, Gaining it Back Again

9/13/18 10-min. pose

I hadn’t been to a Gage life drawing session since June. It took me at least the first two hours to feel like my hand and arm had finally warmed up, but even after another hour, I didn’t find my mojo. Whenever I go back to life drawing after a summer hiatus (I can’t bear to draw indoors when the weather is beautiful), I feel rusty for weeks. That’s the way it is with the practice of practice – it has to be continuous.

10-min. pose

During the spring and summer when I was sketching houses in my neighborhood regularly, I think my architectural drawing skills improved. But now that I can’t sketch outdoors much anymore, I’ll probably be rusty by the time I resume my series again.

I know it’s not possible to practice everything all the time, but after a long break, I wish I could just pick up where I left off. It doesn’t seem to work that way, though. Fortunately, the ground I lose isn’t permanent. The more regularly I go to life drawing, the easier and faster it will be to get back to where I was.

2-min. poses

Monday, September 17, 2018

Fire Station No. 2 and Belltown

9/16/18 Fire Station No. 2 and other Belltown landmarks

It was déjà vu all over again.

Just like Friday, I woke to pouring rain, wondering if I would be alone at the meetup location. An overhang and some large trees would offer some shelter to sketchers who wanted to face Fire Station No. 2 in Belltown, but if we got the thunderstorms and heavy rain forecast by, it wouldn’t be much fun. In addition, the Storm’s WNBA championship parade at Seattle Center was expected to make traffic and parking difficult in the area.

The hardcore who showed up at the start time!
But again, just like Friday, the showers turned into sunshine, and the handful of sketchers who met me at the start time turned into a strong showing by the time of the throwdown!

Despite the blue sky directly above, I was leery that the rain could return at any moment and reluctant to commit to a page-size composition that I might have to abandon. Instead, I decided to make a series of small sketches in Michele Cooper’s montage style. My first stop was Station No. 2, the focus of our outing. Designated a landmark in 1985, the 1921-built facility houses one engine company, a ladder unit, a medic unit and a reserve medic unit (some of which we saw coming out and back into the station as we sketched). 

One of the fire trucks responding to an emergency as we
Next I wanted to capture the Space Needle flying Seattle Storm’s flag. I’m not a basketball fan, but it was exciting to see a women’s team being celebrated as an alternative to the usual Seahawks’ 12 flag at this time of year. (The drops on my Needle sketch indicate that standing under a tree while sketching isn’t necessarily a good strategy when it has been raining all night.)

The historic bell had captured several other sketchers’ attention, and for good reason. From the station that was near the same location in the 1800s, the bell sounded an alarm that could be heard for “nearly 10 miles,” said the plaque. “The horse-drawn engine then responded to the location.”

(Contrary to my speculation, the Belltown neighborhood was not named for this bell, which had an important emergency response role in the 1800s. It was named for William Nathaniel Bell, a member of the Denny party that originally settled Seattle. In addition, Virginia Street and Olive Way were named after his children. It’s a good thing I sketch and blog about my sketches or I’d never learn such local trivia.)
Natalie and Antonella sketching the historic bell.

By then the strong wind had chilled me, so I went to look for coffee. Walking back, I looked up at the numerous cranes and construction sites in Belltown. To complete my montage, I picked an apartment complex going up on Second Avenue and Wall Street (one of many such boxy buildings popping up all over the city).

Once again, hooray for hardy sketchers who say bah-humbug to dire weather forecasts!

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Furtive Color

I worked very quickly and furtively because I had to park illegally to get this sketch. But who could resist color like this?

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