Thursday, June 22, 2017

Morning Still Lives

6/21/17 colored pencils
For many years, I wrote daily “morning pages” as recommended by Julia Cameron in her well-known book, The Artist’s Way. The concept is to write a few journal pages shortly after waking to release whatever mental baggage you might have and make room for creative energy so you can move on to a productive day. The direct focus of stream-of-consciousness writing for those few minutes quiets your mind. Eventually I figured out that this release of potentially negative energy through writing works better for me if I do it in the evening before bed, because it helps me sleep better. That’s still my journal-writing time now.

I’ve come to realize that drawing a small, simple still life first thing in the morning serves a similar purpose as morning pages. The focused concentration relaxes me even as I’m challenged by the exercise, and the repetitive quality feels like a ritual rather than a boring habit.

6/20/17 colored pencils
In past years, sketching an apple or a banana from the kitchen used to be my way of getting through the bad-weather months when I couldn’t sketch outdoors. Back then I didn’t necessarily enjoy it – it was just something to do while I waited for the weather to improve. But the more I did them, the more I appreciated what I can learn from still lives, especially this past winter when I spent several months studying the use of colored pencils. In recent weeks as the weather has warmed up, and I’ve been able to sketch outdoors again, I found that I still wanted to sketch cherries or tomatoes, even though I have plenty of other subject matter now.

Mind you, I don’t prefer still lives over urban sketching; drawing on location is still the most fun and engaging type of drawing I do. But urban sketching requires a very different type of focus and energy than anything I can do at my desk. Sketching on location is about looking for appealing subject matter and keeping up with the challenges of constantly changing light and other outdoor conditions and restrictions (those challenges are half the fun!), but it isn’t exactly relaxing.
6/18/17 colored pencils 

Drawing a small still life, on the other hand, is relaxing in a quiet, meditative way. It prepares my hand, eye and brain for a creative day – hopefully filled with more sketching. The exercise gives a ritualistic quality to my morning, and when I don’t do it, I miss it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Lions in the ‘Hood

6/19/17 Gekkoso 8B pencil
I often cruise around my neighborhood – on foot when the weather is favorable, by car when it’s not – looking for a sketch. Most of what I see is predictable and commonplace. Imagine my surprise when I happened upon a large, ornate, three-tiered fountain surrounded by lion heads on each tier. The house was set back a bit from the sidewalk, and the fountain was in front, water pouring from each lion’s mouth. I saw these often in Italy and France, but rarely in Seattle, and never in little ol’ Maple Leaf. 

Once I got over my shock, I pulled out a pencil. Maybe one of these days I’ll bring my stool, settle in for an hour or two and sketch the whole thing – all 12 lion heads.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Painting the Livingroom Walls

Pre-Tran Portfolio: The Kutsuwa Dr. Ion
with all my pencils bunched up.
Are sketchers ever completely happy with their bag or sketch kit-carry system?

For years, I almost was – all my tools and materials fit comfortably and compactly in my everyday-carry Rickshaw messenger bag. My only issue was finding a way to keep all my implements standing upright (which is an absolute requirement for the way I like to sketch) and instantly accessible. A big improvement a couple of years ago was the Kutsuwa Dr. Ion bag organizer that I found in Tokyo. At last, I was completely happy and satisfied – all my bag organization needs were met.

Then just a couple months ago, shortly before I went to Italy, I discovered the Tran Portfolio Pencil Case – an elegant, streamlined way to keep all my colored pencils accessible and visible at all times – and something happened. It’s similar to what happens when you paint the livingroom walls, and suddenly the carpeting looks dingy, so you have to get new carpeting, too. And then the furniture looks terrible. (This is why we haven’t painted the walls in 25 years.)
The Tran Portfolio: like painting the livingroom walls.

The Tran Portfolio made me realize how much I prefer having all my colored pencils in a single row, and I no longer liked the way the rest of my tools bunched up in the Dr. Ion’s roomy pockets (the largest of which was now unused, since the colored pencils were now in the Tran). I didn’t need a second Tran Portfolio, which would have been overkill for the remaining tools, but I wanted something else like it.

Lihit Lab Slim Pen Case, opened
First I found the Lihit Lab Slim Pen Case, which has a couple of slender pockets. The whole thing is meant to fold in half like a billfold, but I leave it open in my bag, and it keeps nine or 10 implements standing upright in a single flat row. There’s no room for them to bunch up as in the Dr. Ion, and the pockets are too narrow for short pencils to fall down and get lost – perfect! The only problem was that I still had about eight more implements that wouldn’t fit in the Lihit Lab, but I felt like I was on the right track.

The extra-small Grid-it
Next I found the Cocoon Grid-it Organizer in the extra-small size. A bunch of elastic strips criss-crossing over a stiff board, the Grid-it is designed to hold and organize whatever random gadgets you carry. I’ve known about these Grid-its for a while, but the ones I’d seen were as large as laptops and would never fit in my bag – until the 5-by-7-inch size caught my attention. I put my remaining implements into the Grid-it, and like the Lihit Lab Slim Pen Case and Tran Portfolio, it’s slim, compact and allows everything to stand upright in single file, just as I want them to, and they also feel very secure – too secure. The only thing I don’t like about the Grid-it is that the elastic strips are very tight, which means I sometimes struggle to get tools back into the loops. I think they might loosen up after some use, but maybe not, since the system is designed to hold everything in place securely.

I do like the way all three components fit together nicely in my bag with minimal bulk (compared to the Dr. Ion, which is a bit bulkier). I’ll give these a try for a while and see how they go.

Bird's eye view of my Rickshaw bag: All three components keep my tools upright and fully accessible.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Geese and Cranes at Lake Union Park

6/17/17 inks, colored pencils

USk Seattle’s 10x10 workshop series culminated yesterday morning with a group reportage activity at Lake Union Park. While I didn’t take part in the workshop, I joined the general sketchcrawl that followed in the same location, which is one of my favorite Seattle parks.

6/17/17 Sailor brush pen, gel pen
I’ve sketched parts of the skyline from the park a few times, most recently last summer, but I’ve never had my panoramic Stillman & Birn sketchbook there. The landscape book was still in my bag from Friday’s outing in Tacoma, so I took advantage of it to capture as many as possible of the 14 cranes visible from that spot (I only got 11, and then I ran out of space). 

As for the Canada geese, I couldn’t have sketched them all even if I had wanted to. There must have been hundreds, including some very sweet goslings and adolescents with fuzzy heads. (Adorable as they may be, there’s no leash law for geese. Watch where you step.)
Panorama detail

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Festival of Sail

6/16/17 inks, water-soluble colored pencils

The day dawned with typical mid-June wishy-washiness: It could end up with “sun breaks” just as easily as it could rain. I took a chance on the former to join Urban Sketchers Tacoma at Foss Waterway, which was the site of this weekend’s Festival of Sail.

6/16/17 gel pen, brush pen, colored pencils
With my landscape-format Stillman & Birn sketchbook on the panorama setting, I tried to squeeze in as many as I could of the dozen or more tall ships across the waterway. It was the first time I’d seen Tacoma’s skyline from that direction, so even though my focus was on the ships, I couldn’t resist putting in Old City Hall (left of center).

My next plan was to make a detailed sketch of one of the ships – the only one that had some of its sails up (it’s near the center of the panorama). Since white rigging is always a bother to save out in a sketch on white paper, I took the easy way out and sketched it on red paper.

I always seem to have five or 10 minutes left to kill before the sketchbook throwdown, so I used them to capture the row of snags (one of them was home to a family of flickers) next to the waterway where Natalie and Beverly were sketching.

The morning’s gamble was a good one: Not a drop of rain all day, and despite the chilly wind and thick cloud cover, we had a good turnout of enthusiastic sketchers.

6/16/17 brush pen

Panorama detail

Friday, June 16, 2017

Free Life Drawing

6/15/17 brush pen (5-min. pose)
Gage Academy recently initiated a new membership program. For $75 a year, you get a stack of benefits, the best of which are eight free life-drawing sessions, discounts on more sessions and a free ticket to Drawing Jam. Those benefits alone more than pay for membership. With all the excellent classes I’ve taken the past few years in colored pencil drawing, sketching quickly, life drawing and pen and inknot to mention all the fun at Drawing Jam each year, I signed up immediately – both to support a terrific art school and to take advantage of the great bennies. 

I typically go to life drawing only during the winter, but now that I have this membership pass, I’m going to try to go more regularly all year long. Well, OK, maybe only when it rains, but it still rains plenty year-round. Like last Thursday. And yesterday.

6/15/17 brush pen (2-min. poses)
6/15/17 water-soluble pencil (15-min. pose)

6/8/17 brush pen (1-min. pose)

6/8/17 brush pen (2-min. poses)
6/8/17 brush pen (2-min. poses)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

King Street Station Again

6/13/17 ink, water-soluble colored pencils
I seem to be on a Seattle icon roll (not to be mistaken for a Seattle roll). You already saw the six I managed to hit in one day last Friday. Yesterday I had only a bit of time in the International District, so I went straight to the small park across from the King Street Station. I’ve sketched it at least a couple of times before – once about a year ago and back in 2013, too. It’s a classic shape that I’m still not tired of sketching. Frankly, each time I do it, a different part looks wonky, so it never hurts to keep practicing.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mail Truck in Wedgwood

6/12/17 ink, Tombow marker, water-soluble colored pencils
So I like cheap thrills: I get excited when I spot a mail truck within sketching distance. It’s not just that they’re cute and fun to sketch; it’s the added challenge that its driver is likely to return soon. I’ve bagged two previously – one last January and one a couple of years ago.

Driving through the Wedgwood neighborhood yesterday, I pulled over immediately when I saw this one. Almost as soon as I put pen to paper, I saw the mail carrier returning. I drew faster and faster, quickly throwing on shadows as she rearranged parcels for her next stop. I was still making the last of my tick marks around the truck to help me place the cars and other elements around it when the carrier hopped in and drove off. Yes! Bagged another one!

You know what else I’d love to sketch? A garbage or recycling truck! I managed to get one from the distance several years ago, but I’d like to get more detail. Despite their ubiquity, they hardly stop at all, so they are truly elusive. Once I got stuck behind a garbage truck on a narrow residential street and had to follow it for quite a while; if I hadn’t been driving, I would have had plenty of time to sketch its rear end. 

Mail trucks have become too easy. I’m after bigger game now. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

It’s Farmers Market Season!

6/11/17 ink, colored pencils
Although the West Seattle Farmers Market is one of few in Seattle open year-round, my visit yesterday was the first market of the year for me – so I’ve officially declared the opening of the farmers market season!

Unfortunately, I didn’t get there until afternoon with only an hour before closing, so these sketches of a cello busker and the Easy Street Records sign (which I sketched almost exactly a year ago) were all I had time for. Most of the summer-only markets opened last week, though, so I’ll have one to go to nearly every day of the week for the next few months. 

Ahhh, summer! So short, so sweet.

6/11/17 brush pen, gel pen

Sunday, June 11, 2017

New Moo and Stickers, Too

Moo cards and stickers, too!

One tradition of the Urban Sketchers Symposium is for participants to bring small cards to exchange with other sketchers. Like business cards, they have contact information on one side and a sketch printed on the other. It’s a fun way to remember people and stay in touch long after the symposium is over.

For the first two symposiums I attended, I printed my own cards at home, which was enjoyable as well as inexpensive, but I didn’t like all the cutting. Last year I finally got some Moo cards made. Popular with urban sketchers and other artists, Moo is an online company that prints small cards, but unlike some printers, Moo allows you to print as many images as you want on an order of cards for the same price as printing the same image on all the cards.

I found that many of my sketches don’t fit the long, skinny format of the 2 ¾-by-1-inch mini card that is especially popular, so this year I got traditional size business cards instead. (Last year I got a batch of the larger size for non-symposium purposes, and I used almost all of them. They’re fun to hand out to people I meet when I’m sketching in public who ask about Urban Sketchers.)

Then on a whim (and good upselling by Moo, which made it very easy to add to my order), I sprang for stickers, too. It was even more challenging finding images that fit the 1-inch square format, but who can resist stickers! (However, they aren’t very well made – the perforation isn’t complete, so it’s hard to peel the backing off.) You can see the book of stickers near the center of my photo. 

After three symposiums, I have a nice stack of cards I’ve traded with others. I’m looking forward to adding to the stack in Chicago next month!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

A Library and a Walrus

6/9/17 ink, Tombow marker, water-soluble colored pencils (Seattle Public Library)

How many icons can a person sketch in one day? When I started out yesterday for the Urban Sketchers Seattle gathering, I didn’t know I would end up sketching several icons, including two on my “must sketch someday” list.

6/9/17 View facing east on Madison Street
The meeting place was the Fourth and Madison Building’s seventh floor terrace – a pleasant outdoor space for nearby workers to bring their bag lunches and for sketchers to catch unusual peek-a-boo views. The one I (and many other sketchers) chose was looking east on Madison Street toward St. James Cathedral at the top of the hill looking very tiny in the steel and glass canyon.

However, that’s not one of the “must sketch” icons I was referring to. For one I went down to the building’s lobby, where a large window faced the Seattle Public Library’s downtown branch. Although I’ve sketched inside this flagship library building several times, I’ve never sketched the whole building, although I’ve wanted to. Designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus, the unusual and striking building has always seemed too intimidating. Yet as I gazed at it yesterday, I had the same feeling I had while sketching in Positano or the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A.: The architectural lines are so unconventional and unexpected, who would know if my sketch were wonky? I took it on.

By then I had only five minutes left before the sketchbook throwdown, so I quickly went back up to the seventh floor terrace for the other peek-a-boo view I’d considered: The Space Needle hiding behind the “Darth Vader” (Fourth and Blanchard) Building.
6/9/17 brush pen, gel pen (Space Needle and
Fourth & Blanchard Building)
However, that, too, is not one of the two “must sketch” icons I was referring to. The second one was a walrus on the side of the Arctic Building. One of few old buildings in Seattle with any kind of gargoyles or other cool exterior decorations, it has walruses all the way around, way above eye level. Luckily for me, this one was adjacent to a parking lot, so I could stand next to it instead of on the street, where I would have had to look straight up to sketch. As a bonus, the Smith Tower was right next to it! 

Whew. I think I hit my Seattle icon quota for the year.

6/9/17 ink, Tombow marker (Arctic Building walrus
and Smith Tower)

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Guild 45th and the Seven Gables

6/8/17 ink, marker, water-soluble colored pencils (Seven Gables Theatre)

Local media started reporting Tuesday that two Seattle theaters, the Guild 45th and the Seven Gables, had closed “abruptly” that day, ostensibly for renovation, but it doesn’t bode well. Part of the Landmark chain, these theaters haven’t been independent neighborhood film houses in a long time, but people who don’t like 12-plex mega theaters in shopping malls were happy to have old-fashioned alternatives.

As soon as I heard the news, I dashed out to the Guild 45th in the Wallingford neighborhood. Someone had taped a handwritten sign on the wall saying, “What next?” alluding to the lack of information about what’s going to happen to the venerable institution. As I sketched the pink art deco building with curved walls, a woman walked up to the windows to peer inside, and she snapped a photo of a sign saying the theater was closed.

6/7/17 inks, water-soluble colored pencils (Guild 45th Theatre)
The next day I stopped in the University District to sketch the Seven Gables. At the corner of Northeast 50th and Roosevelt Way Northeast, this old building is surrounded by tall trees. (That was fortunate for me, because it meant I didn’t have to draw more than three of those gables.) A red “open” sign was lighted in a window, but that was for the Ristorante Doria that occupies the street-level floor of the building.

Technical note: After using most of its contents in Italy, I refilled a waterbrush with gray ink – my favorite way to make “cheater” shadows. Wanting to get it a little darker than before, I added a bit of black, but it turned out to be way, way darker than I intended. I regretted it as soon as I applied it to the sketch of the Guild 45th. For the Seven Gables’ shadows, I switched to a Tombow marker. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Bostitch Quiet Sharp 6: My Electric Grail?

The hefty Bostitch Quiet Sharp 6
Staying sharp is an issue.

I know this because members of the Facebook Erasable Podcast Pencil Community discuss pencil sharpeners frequently, debating the reasons why they favor one type over another and sharing advice on using a particular type. Most are discussing sharpeners for graphite pencils with conventional-size barrels.

If you bring up colored pencils, it’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. The pigments and binders in colored pencils can dull the blades and clog the inner workings of hand crank and electric sharpeners. And since many of them are slightly larger in diameter than typical graphite pencils, they often don’t fit in ordinary sharpeners.

To further complicate matters, graphite pencil writers are primarily interested in getting long, sharp points so that their pencils can be used for as long as possible without resharpening. Lethal points aren’t necessary or even desired for colored pencil work.

My Opinel knife and some hand-carved chisel points.
Augghh! It’s enough to make me sharpen with a knife – which I do quite often when I’m home. But hand-sharpening takes time and care, and in the middle of a colored pencil drawing, I don’t want to stop and get out my knife – I want to be able to stick the pencil into a sharpener and be done with the task in seconds.

While a hand-crank sharpener is acceptable (I have several, and none can handle all my colored pencils), ideally, I want an electric sharpener to save wear and tear on my hands and wrists.

Internet research eventually led to discussions of vintage Panasonic electric sharpeners highly coveted by colored pencil artists. (Years ago, I went to a demo on colored pencils, and the instructor talked at length about the importance of having a good electric sharpener. He mentioned a now-vintage Panasonic model that he hoarded decades ago when he’d first heard that they were no longer being produced. He still had several in storage. When someone asked if they could buy one from him, he literally “Bwaa-haa-haa’d” at the student and said, “Nooooo waaaay! They’re all miiiiiine!” Clearly, that particular Panasonic model is important to him.) These vintage Panasonics are available on eBay, but most are used, and I’m always reluctant to buy used products sight unseen. It was a dilemma.

I read many reviews about contemporary electric sharpeners, but most either fail with colored pencils or the reviews don’t mention colored pencil usage. The past year or so I’ve been using a Westcott iPoint Orbit sharpener that I got at Costco for a good price, and it does a decent job with conventional size pencils, but not the rest – the ones with larger barrels.

Kum portable 2-hole sharpener
Of course, my very favorite Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle is one of the worst offenders. Since it has a slightly larger barrel than most pencils, the only sharpener of any type that sharpens it decently is a portable two-hole Kum that’s probably intended for kids. I carry one in my bag and keep one on my desk. Since I use it so frequently and had to try many, many portable sharpeners to find it, I even put it on my 2016 Top 10 list. However, it’s still not ideal: While it fits my hard-to-fit Caran d’Ache, it doesn’t sharpen some of my other pencils well. And there’s still the issue of wear-and-tear on my wrist (those little portables are even worse than hand cranks). Arggh!

Then one day an artist in the Erasable group mentioned the Bostitch Quiet Sharp 6, a “work horse” contemporary electric sharpener that she has been happy with for a long time. Found for about $30 on Amazon, it seemed like a bargain compared to some vintage Panasonics I saw on eBay – but it would only be a bargain if it worked. I bought one with hesitation . . . was this yet another specimen destined to join my ever-growing collection of sharpeners that work on some pencils but not all?

Look at the beautiful points on my hardest-to-fit colored
pencils! From left: Derwent Drawing Pencil,
Caran d'Ache Luminance, Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle
As big as a bus, the Bostitch makes a formidable presence on my desktop but is surprisingly quieter than the much-smaller Westcott. With six holes of varying diameters, including a triangular one, it appears to accommodate many types and sizes. With trepidation, I sharpened a few graphite pencils to warm it up. Hmmm, not bad at all. Then I started sharpening one each of all my colored pencil brands, including my favorite Caran d’Ache and the even larger Derwent – and they all fit! What’s more, they sharpen beautifully to a clean, smooth taper and sharp but not deadly point.

Could it be that I’ve found my grail electric sharpener? I’ve only been using it a week, so time will tell whether colored pencil binders and pigments eventually wreak havoc. So far, though, I haven’t put a pencil into it that it couldn’t handle.

Now if only I can find a portable sharpener that fits all my pencils, my life would be complete. (But what’s the fun in that?)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Campus Surprises

6/6/17 brush pen, ink, water-soluble colored pencils

While my car was being serviced nearby, I walked over to the University of Washington campus on a spectacularly beautiful afternoon. I’ve sketched these decorative cherry trees in the Quad many times in all seasons, and I never seem to tire of their gnarled branches and huge knotty trunks. As I sat on a bench I’ve used several times before, I started to sketch this old tree, and suddenly I realized it was covered with small leaves sprouting from its trunk. I noticed a similar phenomenon a few months ago when I was sketching the flowering cherries near Sunset Park – blossoms blooming from the side of a tree’s trunk. I’m sure this tree has always had such leaves this time of year, but I had never really seen them before. The tree was mostly in shade, but I decided to focus on the leaves instead of the shading on the trunk as I usually do.

6/6/17 graphite
That was surprise No. 1. Walking elsewhere on campus, I saw movement in my peripheral vision: On the ground was surprise No. 2, a baby crow. Not sleek and shiny like adult crows, this young one was dull and somewhat scruffy, and it looked like it was sitting on the ground on its butt, legs straight out. Of course, I quietly pulled out my sketchbook. As I sketched, a researcher seated nearby reassured me that the crow was fine and that “baby crows like to do that.” I wasn’t really concerned, just curious and thrilled that the bird was still long enough for me to grab a quick sketch.

My third surprise of the afternoon came as I left campus to go fetch my car. Walking by Raitt Hall, a building I probably passed nearly every day for the four years (plus graduate work) I was a UW student, I stopped at a pair of ornate lamps flanking the entryway. At the corners of each lamp were tiny gargoyles – two different animals – that I had never noticed before.
6/6/17 brush pen, gel pen

Going on my sixth year as a sketcher, this never ceases to amaze: When I have a sketchbook in my hand, it’s as if I’m wearing new glasses. Things come into focus that I’ve never observed before. But it’s not my eyes that are wearing the new glasses – it’s my brain. 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

My Thin Italy Sketchbook

Collages of maps and postcards are on the covers of my Italy sketchbook.

I spent a recent rainy morning binding my sketchbook from Italy. Only three signatures thick, I think it’s the thinnest book I’ve bound with the Coptic stitch and certainly the thinnest of my 37 total handbound sketchbooks. As I mentioned in the sketch kit follow-up post, I ended up making a dozen full spreads in my Stillman & Birn softcover landscape-format sketchbook, which is unusual for me – I typically make only one or two in that book when I travel.

My Stillman & Birn landscape-format sketchbook
did a lot of the heavy lifting in Italy.
I’m certainly happy that I had the Stillman & Birn along when I needed it; I would have felt constrained and frustrated by my usual 9-by-12-inch spreads if long-and-skinny is the shape I was looking at. Still, it bothers me a tiny bit that such a large number of sketches from the trip are not in the same book in chronological order. There’s no way around it, of course; even if I were to cut and fold my own signatures in the long-and-skinny direction, I still wouldn’t be able to bind them together with the portrait-format 6-by-9-inch signatures in the same book.

It did occur to me that the next time I travel, I could try making only landscape-format signatures, since smaller sketches can still be done on the pages without going across the spread. But the long-and-skinny format is also awkward to hold, especially when sketching while standing. (I remember several times on crowded, narrow streets in Venice and Positano when a corner of my landscape book got jostled and bumped by passers-by.) And without the support of a cover, a thin signature of paper would probably be too flimsy when held open as a spread. In general, landscape is not my format of choice – until it is.

Choosing a sketchbook is just like the rest of life: As soon as I make one choice, it means giving up others. At least I’ve got my travel sketchbooks down to these two formats – DIY signatures and the S & B softcover landscape. That’s a far cry from the half a dozen types and formats I used to use simultaneously years ago. Talk about sketchbook schizophrenia! Compared to that, being split in two isn’t so bad.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Cheap Colored Pencil Throwdown: U Brands and Sivo

6/1/17 colored pencils, Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook (U Brands on left
tomato, Sivo on right)
A few months ago when I was taking a colored pencil class and trying to sort out my preferences, I wrote an eight-part series of reviews of traditional colored pencils (including an introduction and conclusion). Of the six brands I reviewed, all were either high-end professional artist grade or middle-range of uncertain grade (meaning I couldn’t find information about whether the pigments were archival or otherwise “professional,” though they seem of high quality). Given my penchant for relatively expensive pencils (including my long-time favorite water-soluble colored pencil, the pricey Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles), you might have the impression that I only go for high-end price and quality.

You’d be wrong. While I prefer using colored pencils of high quality, I am not above buying inexpensive, presumed low-quality sets, especially if they come in a cute box or have some other novelty factor that I can’t resist, quality be damned. I always make test swatches to see the colors and feel how the cores apply, and if that testing confirms my suspicions that they are not worth using, I wait until the novelty wears off, and then I give them to some children I know.

Two purchases, however, felt good enough in application that I had to stop and look at them again. The set of U Brands pencils came from Costco – 48 pencils plus sharpener and canvas pouch for $8.79 (I couldn’t find it on Costco’s website, but the link goes to Amazon at a higher price). Hindustan’s Sivo Vivid colored pencils were from Amazon  a set of 36 for about $8. On a recent rainy morning, I thought it would be fun to put these two extremely inexpensive colored pencils head to head.

U Brands have a sense of humor!
What caught my eye about the Philippines-made U Brands pencils is that they have a sense of humor! Who can resist color names such as I Lava You, Not Too Jaded and Water You Up To? (If nothing else, they would be fun to keep by the phone in the kitchen.) They also have a nicely lacquered natural finish with dipped ends where the color names are stamped in silver.

OK, so they’re good for a chuckle, but how do they apply? Relatively soft – which is what made me give them a second look. Somewhat waxy and crayon-like, they don’t produce much dust or crumbs (a pet peeve of mine about soft colored pencils). The colors are surprisingly vivid – more so than some high-priced pencils I’ve tried. Interestingly, the set contains no less than 11 pinks and purples (hmm, I wonder what that says about the intended demographic . . . obviously one that includes me). The cores are disappointingly slender (which is typical of colored pencils intended for kids).

In my tomato sketch, the front (left) tomato was done with U Brands colors R U Red E, Dill With It, Olive You Lots and Atomic Orange (so much more fun than scarlet or dark cadmium orange). They cover the tooth of the Stillman & Birn Alpha paper with only a few layers and are easy to blend.

The factory sharpening on the U Brands pencils was strangely blunt, so I sharpened the ones I was using shortly after I started the sketch – and sadly, that’s where they ran into trouble. The wood would not sharpen cleanly with any of the portable hand sharpeners I usually use with colored pencils, and the core broke on two of them before I could get them sharp. I had the same mess in my electric Westcott iPoint Orbit. I got much better results with the sharpener that came with the set, but one core broke even with that. One sharpened to a nice point, but when I started to use it, the core snapped off inside the wood, as if it were already broken. Since most colored pencils I’ve used at any price point sharpen acceptably, it’s a deal breaker that these don’t. A pity – they have such nice soft cores (not to mention a sense of humor).

Plenty of pink in the Sivo Vivid set
India-made Sivo Vivid pencils are not as soft as U Brands, but they still have enough softness (with no dust at all) that I wanted to give them a try. The cores are more than 3mm in thickness, which is as thick as most of my “artist grade” pencils. In the sketch, I used the Sivo Vivid pencils on the right-side tomato. I used mainly three colors (no names or numbers on the pencils at all) – red, orange and dark green – but I wish there was something closer to olive (I added touches of yellow instead). With a wide range of pinks and lavenders for a set of 36 (hmmm, I’m seeing a trend), the set has a comparatively narrow range of greens, and the hues aren’t quite as vivid as the U Brands.

Since they are slightly harder than the U Brands, coverage of the Alpha tooth took a little more work. More significantly, they sharpen beautifully, both wood and core, with handheld sharpeners as well as the electric. (I’ve used several very inexpensive India-made graphite pencils of excellent writing quality and that sharpen beautifully, so I was hoping that these Sivo pencils would also sharpen well.)

I wouldn’t count on the pigments in either of these brands to be lightfast or “archival” (but let’s be honest – I’m not hanging any of my tomato still lifes in the Louvre, so archival quality is not a priority). While I probably wouldn’t choose either as my go-to colored pencil, I’d definitely pick the Sivo Vivid set over the U Brands for casual sketching (though the color range is limited).

As for the humorous U Brands, they are going in the kitchen for when I need a giggle.

Left: U Brands; right: Sivo Vivid
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