Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Vintage Colored Pencils, Part 8: American Venus (Watercolor)

Box front of Venus watercolor pencils

The vintage Venus brand first came to my attention when I found two random Venus Paradise pencils – a light blue and a green – at Seattle ReCreative when I was digging through the well-organized pencil bins. When I swatched them alongside the small handful of old Prismacolors I had found there the same day, I was surprised to find the Venus pencils to be very similar – soft and creamy in texture. They had no identifying maker other than “USA.”

A short time later I was poking around eBay when I spotted an incomplete box of Venus watercolor pencils for a good price, and I was curious if they, too, would be as soft as the two Paradise versions I’d found.

Made by the American Lead Pencil Co. of New York beginning in 1905, Venus pencils were apparently marketed to artists and architects (according to Wikipedia). By 1956, the company had officially changed its name to the Venus Pen and Pencil Corp., which probably accounts for my two random ones having no other name on them. Eventually in 1973, the company was acquired by Faber-Castell. I couldn’t find much more historical information about Venus.

Easel-back box
The small assortment I purchased came in a cardboard box with a hinged easel back that was a popular packaging form for colored pencils back then. The instructions on the inside panel say that the pencils are both indelible and water-soluble, which at first seemed like an oxymoron. The box also says, “Venus (the name and the statue), and the crackled coat as well as the blue band on the caps of the pencils are our exclusive trade marks.”

That “crackeled coat” is a pattern painted onto the round barrel, not a true crackle, but still it’s a distinctive appearance I haven’t seen on any other pencil. The white cap and blue band are also nice touches. By contrast, the two Venus Paradise pencils have an unfinished end similar to Prismacolors.

Modern-day watercolor pencils always sport a tiny paint brush icon next to the logo or color number so that they can be easily distinguished from traditional colored pencils. Interestingly, the Venus pencils lack such an icon. 

The Paradise pencils are obviously newer than the watercolor ones, since they no longer carry the American Lead Pencil name. Usually I go for older typefaces, but in this case, the Venus Paradise logo is quite wonderful.

Trademarked "crackled coat"
Logo on the Venus watercolor pencils reviewed here.
The top two pencils are the newer Venus Paradise pencils with plain, unfinished ends.

I love that Venus Paradise logo!
Unfortunately, the distinctive crackle coat and end cap are probably the best features of the Venus watercolor pencils, which are possibly the hardest colored pencils I have ever used – certainly the hardest water-soluble pencils. To get any pigment, I had to bear down so hard on them that I was afraid I was going to flatten the toothy surface of the Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook page where I made test swatches. Applying water was just as disappointing – very wimpy washes. If they were being marketed to architects, though, I could see that their very firm cores might be useful. They would retain a point forever, and they could easily be used for color-coded writing.
 
Swatches with water washes.
I didn’t bother making a sketch since I knew they would be frustrating to use. I was still curious, though, about the claim that they were indelible as well as water-soluble. That seemed contradictory: If a pencil washes with water, how can it be indelible?

I recalled my recent education in the NoBlot ink pencil, which I also acquired at Seattle ReCreative without knowing what it was. Ana at the Well-Appointed Desk talked about the Sanford version of the NoBlot; mine is branded Eberhard Faber. In any case, the unusual “ink” cores in these old pencils really are indelible in that they can’t be erased. When the marks, which look like graphite, are washed with water, they turn bright blue, and once dry, that “ink” is also indelible. So, to my mind, the NoBlot is, indeed, both indelible and water-soluble. Could these Venus pencils have similar cores?

I scribbled some test swatches on Canson mixed media paper and washed one side of the swatches with water. After the paper dried, I ran my electric Seed Sun Dolphin eraser over the marks. The dry part was erased about as well as any colored pencil, so it’s not exactly indelible. The washed part was slightly less erasable, but not what I would call permanent, by any means. Hmm. So much for indelible.
 
Indelible? Not so much.
Although these Venus watercolor pencils turned out to be a disappointment functionally, I’m happy to have a few with the original American Lead Pencil Co. branding, fancy crackle and all. Only the green and purple colors seem to have been used much at all by their original owner. . . was that person frustrated by the core’s hardness and wimpy wash, too? Back then, they probably didn’t have fabulous Caran d’Ache Museum or Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer watercolor pencils as an alternative as I do now. Learning about history often makes me grateful for what I have in modern times, and these crappy Venus pencils are one example.

As for those two soft and creamy Venus Paradise pencils (which are not water-soluble at all) that I stumbled upon . . . now I’m on the hunt for more. Perhaps the Paradise line was developed to compete with Prismacolor at some point . . . ?

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