Friday, December 14, 2018

Product Review: Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer Watercolor Pencils

Faber-Castell's Albrecht Durer water-soluble colored pencils

In addition to my favorite Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles, I keep two other sets of water-soluble colored pencils at easy reach on my desk because they both have a much wider range of hues than the Museum line – Caran d’Ache Supracolor and Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer. Although I have tried many other brands, I consider these three artist-grade pencils to be my main go-to’s. I recently realized that I have never written a full review of the Albrecht Dürer line (the closest was a comparison review I wrote earlier this year of Faber-Castell’s student-grade Goldfaber collection). It’s time to correct that.

The hue-matched barrel is a standard-diameter hexagonal that fits in any pencil sharpener. Branding and a band near the simple end cap are silver. (With my eyes closed, I think I could tell them apart from the Supracolors, which are just a touch smaller in diameter and have a glossy finish, while the Dürers have a more satin finish. Why is it important to be able to tell them apart with my eyes closed? That’s an unnecessary question for a geek like me.) I couldn’t find the box, but I initially bought a medium-size set and added more colors over time through open stock. Shown here are a random fistful from each of the two large mugs that contain them – one for cool hues, the other for warm. The collection includes several unique colors that are different from anything Caran d’Ache offers.

With the hardest core of my three go-to’s (though by no means the hardest artist grade I’ve used; that would probably be the Staedtler Karat Aquarell), Albrecht Dürer pencils hold their points well, making them ideal for details as well as solid areas of color. The rich pigment dissolves easily and fully when activated with water.

The pigments dissolve easily and completely.

12/10/18 Albrecht Durer pencils in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook
n my sketch of the tomato and pear, I made multiple cycles of dry/wet applications (apply dry pigment, activate with water, allow that to dry completely; repeat), and the colors became richer and more vivid with each. That’s the way I expect high-quality water-soluble pencils to behave.

As I was using the Dürer pencils, I started thinking about my post last week about the dilemma that all watercolor pencils present: Activate or not? Regardless of how I resolve that dilemma, I noted that a key benefit of all water-soluble pencils is that they can be used either wet or dry, making them highly versatile.

For something like a still life, I almost always decide from the beginning whether I want a watercolor-like look or not. If I don’t, I usually choose a traditional wax- or oil-based colored pencil instead. But if water-soluble colored pencils can truly be used either wet or dry, I should be able to use them all the time, regardless of my choice. It occurred to me that I rarely choose to use a watercolor pencil if I know I’m going to leave it dry. That’s when I got the idea to make a sketch with the Dürer pencils as if they were traditional colored pencils, leaving them dry throughout.

12/11/18 Albrecht Durer water-soluble colored pencils (no water used) in
Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook
Thinking the cores would be sufficiently hard for Stillman & Birn’s toothy Alpha paper, I started the pear sketch. I realized almost immediately that they are actually softer than would be ideal for that degree of texture, so I had some difficulty covering it. More surprising, though, was the difficulty I had in building intensity of hue when I left the pigment dry. It felt strangely “sticky” instead of smooth to apply subsequent layers, and I didn’t enjoy using them.

That’s when I realized that making a sketch with a dry-only application should be part of every review I write of a watercolor pencil! If it is a truly versatile medium, it should be enjoyable and effective to use either wet or dry.

I’m sure you can see where this is going! Stay tuned for my (relatively) scientific comparison of my top three favorite watercolor pencils – used as dry pencils only. The results are illuminating and informative.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Long Pose

12/10/18 (1.5 hours, graphite)

A few months ago I went to a long-pose life drawing session at Gage because I wanted to try Eduardo Bajzek’s graphite technique on the human form. I used the full three-hour session (with model breaks, that’s about two-and-a-half hours of drawing time) on one drawing – probably the longest period I’ve spent on one figure.

I was in the mood to try it again, but I modified the technique slightly. Much of the time spent on this graphite technique goes toward the initial toning and smudging of the paper with graphite. As I learned last time, though, the human form doesn’t have as many places to erase out for highlights as would a street scene, for example, with a large wedge of sky above it. This time, instead of toning the whole area, I lightly roughed in a contour line of the model first in a more traditional manner. Then I applied graphite and smudged it within the contour line in a way similar to what I had learned. I was still able to erase out small highlights. Although I didn’t have the full range of values that I might have if I’d used the complete toning process, I think I had enough to get the job done. This drawing, about the same size as the one from September, took about an hour and a half.

The pose went on for another hour, and I could have continued working, but I was afraid I would overwork the drawing (I was tempted to continue picking at her face, for example) and lose whatever freshness is possible for a drawing that takes that much time. I’m happy that I stopped when I did.

This drawing is a good example of the very typical dilemma I often face when I’m not sketching on location. In the field, more often than not, I seem to be motivated to complete a sketch as quickly as possible: I’m cold, hot or distracted; other potential sketches call to me; the light is disappearing quickly; I have an appointment to get to; the sketch outing is nearly over; etc. Working quickly seems to help retain a sense of freshness and spontaneity (although sometimes at the risk of looking rushed and sloppy). But when I’m making a still life in the comfort of my home or attending a long-pose session, I run the risk of overworking past the point when I should stop. For me, the stopping point is when the spontaneous response to whatever I’m looking at is still apparent.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Celtic Magnificat

12/8/18 City Cantabile Choir performing at Green Lake United Methodist Church

One of our annual holiday traditions is to attend a chorale concert or two in one of the neighborhood churches. The past several years, we’ve been following City Cantabile Choir, whose director develops creative and unusual collaborations or interpretations of holiday music that always incorporate traditional Irish songs. (You can see my posts and sketches from previous years.) This year’s concert, “A Celtic Magnificat,” was no exception: It was an imaginative meeting of Bach and harpist Turlough O’Carolan last Saturday evening at Green Lake United Methodist Church (an old stone church that I sketched several years ago).

Sketching in a darkened church is always an interesting challenge (I’ve sometimes used a book light, but I decided to keep it simple this year), especially when the choir, orchestra and conductor are all dressed in black. I was delighted to see conductor Fred West wearing a bright red shirt this year, and all the choir members wore matching red scarves, which made the sketching more fun.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Brick Tudor

12/5/18 Maple Leaf neighborhood

After the series of sketches I made last spring and summer of houses in my neighborhood, I thought I wouldn’t get back to it until next spring when it was warm enough to sketch outdoors again. But driving around last week when it was brilliantly sunny and startlingly cold, I spotted this cute Tudor that I could easily see from the comfort of my mobile studio (parked legally, even!). I love the bay window that looks like a small tower.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Studies in White: Garlic

12/2/18 Derwent Lightfast
A couple of weeks ago I talked about white colored pencils and compared all the brands I own. My main use of white is as a highlight on toned paper (especially in life drawings), which means I don’t use it much. But making that comparison chart of white pencils made me realize how much they vary in opacity and even hue temperature. As anyone who has ever looked at paint chips at a hardware store knows, there’s no such thing as white white.
12/5/18 Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle

All of this got me thinking about the color white as I use it in a sketch. I rarely think about white except when I need it to depict light, and in that case, it’s mostly a matter of remembering to retain some part of the white paper. Otherwise, white is usually just the negative space around whatever I consider to be the positive space. But what about when the subject matter in the positive space is white?

I grabbed the first white thing with an interesting shape that I laid eyes on: a head of garlic. It’s white, but of course, white is never really white. In this case, it’s yellow, purple, taupe and gray. I had fun pulling out all three versions of Stillman & Birn’s Nova sketchbooks for these small studies.

12/5/18 Caran d'Ache Pablo

Sunday, December 9, 2018


12/4/18 Calvin (10 min. pose)

In a couple of recent posts (Thursday and Friday), I talked about how much I love the subtle tonal gradations that are possible with pencils. Strangely, I also like harsh, graphic tones that are easy to make with markers and brush pens. From the same life-drawing session at Gage, here’s another sketch of Calvin, this one of a 10-minute pose. I had run out of pages in the mixed-media sketchbook that I usually use with water-soluble brush pens, so I tried the Strathmore toned sketchbook instead. The paper isn’t sized appropriately for wet media, so instead of using water to wash the tones in, I just went in heavy with the brush pen. No subtlety here.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Pacific Place and Nordstrom Santa

12/7/18 Nordstrom Santa

On a cold (29 F) but sunny morning, Nilda and Natalie met me at Pacific Place for some holiday sketching. As a warm-up (literally and figuratively), I walked up to the second floor, where I had a good view of the café below. (You can see blue-haired Natalie sketching near the center.)

Unknown to us, a big renovation was going on, and I was disappointed that Santa was no longer on the second-floor thoroughfare as he has been in previous years. I’ve enjoyed sketching him several times from the floor above looking straight down over his head or from the front. This year he was sequestered in a retail shop right next to a gift-wrapping service, so I didn’t have a good view without standing in the way.

Undeterred, I marched across the street to Nordstrom, where Santa sits inside a big show window. His voice is amplified so that people on the sidewalk can hear him chatting with the kids and ho-ho-ho-ing. I stood right next to the window, where I had a great profile view of Santa and his clients. I would have liked to sketch all the toys and other decorations, but 15 minutes in the cold was all that I could stand.

12/7/18 Pacific Place main floor

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