Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Three Kinds of Roundish

1/13/19 Maple Leaf Park

The Maple Leaf water tower is probably my most-often sketched artifact within walking distance of my house. On days when our usual mid-January doldrums are broken by well-deserved sunshine, I don’t care where I go – I just start walking, and Maple Leaf Park is where I often end up.

As I studied the tower, I was thinking about color but found myself reaching for my trusty Blackwing pencil instead. In bright sunlight, the tower is full of interesting cast shadows from the girding around it. But the most intriguing – and challenging – are those difficult shadows that describe its form – a cylinder around the middle, a saucer on top and another on the bottom. I love graphite for that type of shading; I haven’t used any other medium that is able to express roundish shading in quite the same way.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A Dose of Vitamin D

1/12/19 Maple Leaf neighborhood
Even Weather Bunny enjoyed a brief al fresco coffee.

We’re having a short spell of dry and even sunny weather! I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “warm” – I had hoped to sketch on the sidewalk, but in the shade, I got too chilly and retreated to my car – but any kind of outdoor sketching is better than none.

Driving home after getting coffee, I spotted another decorated tree in the ‘hood. Unlike last time when I found a festive traffic circle, the ornaments seemed a bit sparse. Maybe the last windstorm had taken its toll.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Wallet-Friendly Watercolor Pencils

1/8/19 Caran d'Ache Swisscolor pencils in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook

From my own frustrating experiences, I’ve come to learn that the oft-repeated advice about art supplies is both smart and economical: Always buy the highest-quality materials you can afford. During my first couple of years of sketching, I paid my dues by ignoring that wisdom and struggled mightily trying to use watercolor on low-quality or inappropriate papers – which made it much harder to learn. Just a couple of months ago in the middle of reviewing some watercolor pencils, I was once again reminded of an early experience that recalled that advice (scroll to the end of that review if you want to cut to the chase).

Frustration and impeded learning are the worst results of using inferior products, but there’s a financial side to the issue, too. Although it seems economical to buy inexpensive materials when you’re just starting out and not sure if you even want to continue with the medium, it can be a false economy. If you use the product for only a short time before you realize how inferior they are, the cost of those materials, no matter how low, is wasted. I have learned this lesson repeatedly myself.

I have good intentions in doing my share of lecturing on this subject. However, I’ve lately started thinking that I may have discouraged some readers who aren’t willing or able to make the investment that some art materials require. I am certainly aware that some products I use and love are expensive (Or as someone once said to me, “Four bucks for one pencil?! You gotta be kidding!”).

I thought more about this issue when I wrote a recent review in which I deliberately used watercolor pencils that had given me problems in the past. In that comparison, I wasn’t thinking primarily of inexpensive products – just ones that I didn’t like for various reasons. That post was mainly to satisfy my own curiosity about whether having more experience with using colored pencils would make a difference (and it did).

In this review, I’m taking the question in a more practical and perhaps more helpful direction: Are any watercolor pencils worth using if they are inexpensive (and therefore probably of lower quality)? If cost (or perhaps commitment level to a medium) is a concern, which would I recommend?

The three pencils that I’m reviewing here are all pencils that I can recommend, though sometimes with caveats. Before I get into reviewing each, I’ll make a few general statements about product quality:
Although these inexpensive bicolor pencils bear Faber-Castell's name, they
were made in India, and the quality is not up to F-C's standards.

  • In general, if a water-soluble pencil line is made by a major manufacturer known for making high-end art products – Caran d’Ache, Derwent, Faber-Castell and Staedtler all come to mind – then it’s likely that even their low-end products are of reasonably good quality (especially if they are made in the company’s original country; check the fine print on the back of the box). In some cases, even though a maker’s student-grade line is significantly less expensive than its artist-quality line, it may not necessarily be inexpensive compared to lesser-known brands. The products I would stay away from are ones that are made by unknown brands that come in sets of 72 colors for $10 (Amazon offers lots of products in this range).
  • One quality you will always sacrifice if you opt for the less-expensive line is lightfastness. As a sketchbook filler and not a gallery exhibitor, I have less concern for archival quality and lightfast pigments than many people do. But it’s something to be aware of if you intend to frame your art and expose it to light or sell work.
  • Sometimes a product made by a reputable manufacturer will use a less-expensive wood or make the pencil’s exterior less pretty and finished, but the core may still contain reasonably good pigments. I try not to judge a pencil by its exterior (though it’s difficult, given how easily seduced I am by thick lacquer, a glossy end cap and the scent of incense cedar).
  • Not surprisingly, student-grade pencils are not sold open stock. I suppose the theory is that if you’ve used a single color so much that you need to replace it, it’s time to invest in professional quality pencils. 

Faber-Castell Goldfaber Aqua

I’m keeping comments here brief because I’ve already written a full review of Goldfaber Aqua, which is Faber-Castell’s student-grade line. Although lightfastness is not rated on the Goldfabers, the pigments appear remarkably similar to the German company’s Albrecht Dürer artist-quality line (which I compare it with in that review; swatch comparisons are also shown). They also activate in a similar way, at least in swatches. In the photo comparing the two points, it’s obvious that a different wood is used in the Goldfaber, and the core is also slightly smaller.

Left: Goldfaber; right: Albrecht Durer

Color numbers printed on Goldfaber pencils match Faber-Castell’s other pencil color numbers. This is a nice benefit if you are trying to find similar colors from the artist-grade line. It’s unusual to find student-grade products with color numbers.

In terms of use, the biggest difference between them is that the Goldfabers are more difficult to blend and build strong hues with (which are important factors for beginners to consider). At about half the price of the Dürer pencils, however, Goldfaber Aqua, which is made in Germany, is a good value.

1/8/19 Faber-Castell Goldfaber pencils in S & B Beta sketchbook

Staedtler Triangular

The least-expensive pencil in this review, the Staedtler Triangular Watercolor Pencil was one of the brands I had problems with before I knew what I was doing, but later with experience, I didn’t think it was as bad as before. It’s a very hard pencil, but that quality can be put to good use on details and coarser paper. Based on the price, packaging and barrel shape, this pencil is clearly intended for children.

Left: Triangular; right: Karat Aquarell

The caveat with the Triangular is that the cores lack strength and can break easily. Compared to artist-grade Staedtler Karat Aquarell (which is a favorite among harder watercolor pencils), the wood is different. In my swatch tests, the Triangulars dissolve adequately, but with slightly less pigment visible.

Made in Indonesia, this would be a good pencil to try if you really aren’t sure you want to use watercolor pencils. It would give you a quick taste at a very low investment. But if you already know you want to use colored pencils and are looking for an economical option, skip this one.

Swatches made in S & B Beta sketchbook

11/25/18 Staedtler Triangular pencils made in S & B Beta sketchbook

Caran d’Ache Swisscolor

Caran d’Ache’s product lines continue to perplex me (you can read about the teeth-gnashing I’ve done in my review of the company’s Prismalo). Up until I ran across Swisscolor, I had thought that Fancolor was the Swiss manufacturer’s student-grade watercolor pencil product. Yet based on the (admittedly adorable) cartoons on the back of the Swisscolor’s box and its price range (similar to Fancolor’s), I now believe Swisscolor is Caran d’Ache’s student line. Why make more than one water-soluble colored pencil in the same price range? I don’t get it. (And why do I care? It’s what geeks do.)

Looks like a student-grade product to me.

Left to right: Swisscolor, Supracolor, Museum Aquarelle
L to R: Swisscolor, Supracolor, Museum Aquarelle

When placed next to a Supracolor and a Museum Aquarelle (both Caran d’Ache artist grade pencils), the Swisscolor’s wood looks very similar and is probably the same. All Caran d’Ache’s contemporary colored pencils look to be made of the same wood. However, the Swisscolor has a thinner core, and the opposite end is unfinished. (Although rounded, the Fancolor’s end is uncapped.)

In my comparison of swatches, the Swisscolors dissolve well but show slightly less pigment than Supracolors. The Swisscolors do not have names or numbers printed on the pencils, so it’s more difficult to find hues that match with the artist-grade line.
Swatches made in S & B Beta sketchbook
In my sketch of the avocado (top of page), it took a while to build pigments to strong hues, and I had a bit of difficulty applying successive dry/wet layers (again, these are important factors to consider if you are new to watercolor pencils). They blended reasonably well with some work.

About a third of the price of Supracolor and a fourth of Museum Aquarelle, the Swiss-made Swisscolor is still not what I would call an inexpensive colored pencil, but it is an excellent value.

Of the three pencils evaluated in this review, both the Swisscolor (if you prefer softer pencils) and the Goldfaber (slightly harder) are good starter sets for someone who doesn’t want to make the full commitment of artist-grade watercolor pencils. If further commitment were made later, either set could be upgraded gradually by buying artist-grade pencils individually.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Dry at Last!

1/11/19 Amazon Sphere and Space Needle in South Lake Union

Café Suisse is a cute venue in the South Lake Union neighborhood. Filled with lots of fun, colorful décor in a Swiss theme, it also offers a wide variety of pastries, including many that are gluten-free. Greg would have loved all the GF goodies, but I was there without him (he didn’t miss out; I got him some muffins to go) to meet Natalie and Kathleen.

1/11/19 Cafe Suisse
Right outside the café, I spotted a peek-a-boo view of the Needle near the Amazon Spheres. It was chilly but dry! After being rained in for what seemed a long, long time, it was wonderful to sketch outdoors again.

After that, I needed a warm-up. I dashed into the café, where Kathleen and Natalie were already settled in. I had planned to sketch other patrons, but in the direction I was facing, the chairs remained unoccupied. Although many decorative items filled the space, I simplified the composition significantly to focus on the challenging perspective of the tall chairs. Sketchers often bemoan the perspective difficulties of architecture, but personally, I find interior perspective to be just as difficult.

And speaking of simplification, my minimal kit is working out well so far. The limited palette is forcing me to make choices I otherwise wouldn’t think to make (like the purple and orange Space Needle). It’s hard for me to be imaginative about color otherwise, so this challenge is good for me.


New group selfie technique!

Friday, January 11, 2019

Rainbow Pencils Make Me Happy

1/7/19 Koh-i-Noor Tri-Tone pencils in Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook

On these wet, dreary January days, the view out the window can be entirely colorless. Sometimes the fastest way to happiness is a rainbow pencil. I’m prepared – I have lots of them. Although all of them make me happy just to scribble with, some are better than others for sketching. These are my favorites:

Many rainbow pencils have cores with multiple colors that are marbled rather than striated. The Koh-i-Noor Tri-Tones are a good example. (I first reviewed them back in 2014.) The marbling can give you an overall multi-colored pencil stroke, but it’s impossible to isolate a single hue. They are excellent, however, if you want to use a range of similar tones in one convenient pencil. In this sketch of a satsuma, tomato and banana, I used one pencil with varying shades of yellow and orange for the satsuma (and a blue range for its shadow). If I were using traditional colored pencils, I would have chosen several pencils to achieve the same blend, but I did it all with one pencil. Similarly, I used one pencil with shades of red and orange for the tomato.

Koh-i-Noor Tri-Tone pencils have marbled cores.
12/28/18 Marco Tri-Jumbo pencil in S & B Epsilon sketchbook

The Marco Tri-Jumbo pencil has striated hues.

Last week I showed you my sketch of a swan gourd that I made with a Marco Tri-Jumbo rainbow pencil. Its large core and overall hefty girth make it easy to use and hold (for kids as well as myself). An added benefit is that its core is made of the three primaries plus green lying parallel to each other, which makes it easier to isolate hues if you want to. I used the warm red and yellow side of the pencil to bring the swan’s “head” forward, and I used the cool green and blue side to make the “body” recede in shadow behind the head.

Pencil strokes made by the three rainbow pencils reviewed here.

1/9/19 Camel pencil in S & B Alpha sketchbook
My favorite rainbow pencil is the Camel, which can be found on Amazon with a black body or a natural finish (the core seems to be the same in both). The standard-size pencil contains seven striated hues arranged in color wheel order! Although it’s difficult to isolate a single hue on that soft, skinny core, the arrangement means that you can easily use the warm side of the pencil (red, orange, yellow) for the lighted or foreground element in a sketch and achieve a nice analogous blend. Then twirl the core to the cool side (green, light blue, dark blue, violet) for shading and receding elements. Once I figured out how to do this, I had so much fun sketching the pear. The result looks like I spent a lot of time blending multiple pencils, but I did it all with one – and fairly quickly.

Camel pencil has 7 hues in rainbow order!

I hope your day is as colorful as mine is, and if it’s not, go get yourself a rainbow pencil. I guarantee instant happiness!

A bouquet of happiness!

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Mobius + Ruppert (M+R) Sharpener: A Hazardous Grail

Successfully sharpened points at last!

Ever since I started using Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles as my daily-carry colored pencils, I have been on the hunt for a portable sharpener that accommodates the Museum’s slightly larger-than-average barrel. At home I can use my trusty electric Bostitch or even a knife, but on the street, my choices are few.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been using a KUM 2-hole that is serviceable, but not ideal: While one of the holes fits, it’s a bit wobbly, so I must be careful or the point will snap. Still frustrated, I put a portable sharpener on my relatively short sketch material wish list a year ago.

A while back I tried writing directly to Caran d’Ache. Reminding the Swiss company that not all users of their products work in studios with access to desktop sharpeners or knives, I asked for a recommendation for a portable sharpener that would accommodate their premium artist-grade pencils with larger barrels, Museum and Luminance. I didn’t receive a response. Undeterred, I tried contacting the company a second time a few weeks ago, and this time I did get a response: I was referred to the Mobius + Ruppert (M+R) line of brass portable sharpeners. Although I have tried many portable sharpeners in my quest, this series had been off my radar because I assumed they were designed for conventional-sized pencils. The German-made sharpener comes in four styles. As a bonus, the blades are replaceable.

The double-hole round M+R sharpener
First I tried the double-hole round version, which was a personal favorite of the rep who responded to my inquiry. With expected robust German build quality, the sharpener looks like it could be run over by a tank unharmed.

I have tried so many sharpeners with dashed hopes that I was entirely skeptical when I stuck my first Museum Aquarelle in the recommended smaller hole (the larger is designed for use with charcoal, crayons and other chunky materials). It fit comfortably and securely – no wobble. Could it be . . .?

Yes! The grail I had been searching for! Museum Aquarelle, Luminance, Derwent Drawing Pencil – all pencils with larger-than-standard barrels – all sharpened beautifully! Look at those points (see top of page)! You can imagine what I shouted! Hallelujah?

No – ouch! On the far end of each hole, the blade extends just far enough past the sharpener’s edge that the blade’s corner is exposed – and that corner happens to be exactly where I need to hold the sharpener while sharpening. Since no pencil would reach the opposite end of the blade due to the sharpening cone’s angle, there’s no need for the blade to extend past the sharpener’s edge. After nicking myself twice, I complained to my handy Spouse Guy, who came to my rescue with a Dremel and file.

Corners of blades are exposed on the opposite
ends of the pencil holes.

For an $8 sharpener, you’d expect to be able to use it without injury. I wondered if the design I chose was particularly faulty – the two blades lie perpendicular to each other, so it’s especially awkward to hold without encountering the dangerous points. Since I like to have multiples of anything useful, especially grails (one for my bag, one for my desk, one for the kitchen where I sketch birds at our feeder . . .), I decided to spring for the other three models, too.
Four styles of M+R brass portable sharpeners
Although all three of the other models – the single- and double-hole wedges and single-hole grenade – are easily held without coming in contact with a blade corner, I gingerly felt the edges, and they all have the same design flaw: The blade corners are exposed. Reaching into a bag pocket could still result in a nasty surprise.

Without doubt, the M+R sharpeners are keepers. They are the best portables I’m likely to find for my difficult-to-sharpen Museum Aquarelles, and I’m happy that they are built ruggedly. I’d advise filing the blade corners before using.

Who knew that drinking from the grail cup could cut a lip?

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Another Chocolate Fountain

1/5/19 Feast Buffet's chocolate fountain and chocolate shaving station

Call it sketching serendipity or buffet déjà vu. We were invited to brunch at Feast Buffet on Saturday, and just like the time we went to Bluefin Buffet last November, we were seated with a perfect view of the chocolate fountain (and it almost looks like the same girl using it!). Although it never tastes as good as it looks, the fountain is the most fun to sketch at a buffet. As a bonus, this buffet also has a chocolate shaving station – a pole that looks like the Cat in the Hat’s hat except it’s made of dark and white chocolate. Again, it looks better than it tastes, but it’s fun to sketch.

My dessert was more fun to sketch than eat, especially after eating several
plates of other foods!
Technical note: I’m really feeling the challenge of my self-imposed limited palette! In November when I sketched the fountain, I simply grabbed my chocolate brown pencil – easy-peasy. This time I used warm gray, orange and a touch of red to mix that shade of brown.

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