Thursday, November 14, 2019

Shawna Chooses

11/11/19 Shawna (20-min. pose)

As I filled yet another Gage punch card Monday, I thought about how I used to feel in life-drawing sessions when I first began attending seven years ago. I would return home completely drained and exhausted, partly from the mental focus but also because I was entirely tense the whole three-hour session. Completely out of my comfort zone, I found life drawing stressful.

11/11/19 20-min. pose
I got over it after a few times, and fairly soon after that I started feeling relaxed and “in the zone” during many sessions. Don’t misunderstand – life drawing is still one of the most challenging and mentally focused drawing practices I engage in – but the relaxing part is that I don’t have to do anything to prepare.

Whenever I sketch on location, I have to consider the weather and temperature, the time of day, how to get there and where to park, and once I’m there, I must choose a composition. It’s all part of urban sketching, and I enjoy the process, but there’s always a bit of tension in not knowing exactly what I might sketch or the conditions I might encounter.

At life-drawing sessions, the conditions are completely controlled, including the lighting, and the model chooses the composition. All I have to do is show up and draw whatever he or she presents for two minutes or 20. In that way, I am completely passive, and my only active engagement is in the act of drawing. I wouldn’t want all my drawing to be this way – searching for and discovering my subject and composition are a large part of the fun of urban sketching – but once a week, it’s relaxing to let someone else decide.

11/11/19 20-min. pose
11/11/19 5-min. pose

11/11/19 5-min. pose

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Sketch Kit Retrospective

11/9/19 My current sketch kit

In the eight years that I’ve been sketching, my materials and tools have changed significantly as my working methods and habits have evolved and my preferences have changed. Whenever I prep for a major trip, I review my sketch kit and report on how I’ve refined it for travel (I’ve consolidated related links on this Travel Sketching page). I thought it would be fun to put all my sketch kit photos together in one post to see the transitions all at once.

During most years, I shuffled my kit more than once, but I chose only one photo for each year as representative of the direction of my changes at the time. If you surmise that I’m somewhat obsessed with my sketch kit, you wouldn’t be wrong – but at least I know I’m in good company. (I challenge you to name one sketcher who doesn’t think about, talk about, shop for or rearrange their sketch materials regularly and often!)

11/10/10 Here's the M+R sharpener I forgot in the large sketch.
Unlike many, I don’t sketch my sketch materials much (though I like the meta-ness of the concept), but since this post is the ultimate in sketch-kit navel gazing, I decided to indulge. I must say that there’s a good reason I don’t do this often: It’s tedious and even annoying to sketch all those long, narrow objects. I wanted to keep the sketch to a reasonable size so that it wouldn’t take all day, but the tradeoff is that I couldn’t put in as much detail as I wanted to distinguish among all those long, narrow objects. If you’re interested in the details, a post from July describes most of the same items. (At right is the sharpener, which I tend to forget about because it’s kept in a separate bag compartment.)


Taken six months after I began sketching, this is the earliest photo (from March 2012 when I began this blog) that I could find of my sketch materials: a Sakura Koi watercolor kit, waterbrushes, waterproof fineliners and a few brush markers. It’s a solid, basic kit that many sketchers begin with. The Moleskine landscape watercolor sketchbook is the only one shown, but I was trying out a wide variety back then.

2012 A beginning urban sketcher's basic kit.


I dumped the fineliners for fountain pens, including my first Sailor fudes. The brush markers increased, and so did the waterbrushes. My leather “Stefano” sketchbook cover made its first appearance as I readied for my first symposium.

2013 Fountain pens have appeared.


Surprisingly few changes from the previous year except that a few more colored pencils crept in.

2014 More colored pencils.


This was an interesting year: More fountain pens were added as well as more colored pencils. I jettisoned all the brush pens except a few self-made ones (ink-filled waterbrushes).

2015 More pens and DIY brush pens.


I’m certain this was a record-breaking year – my fattest sketch kit ever. I remember it as a year of major transition. I knew that watercolors were not meeting my needs, but I hadn’t figured out what to replace them with, so I carried everything – color brush markers, black brush pens, DIY ink-filled waterbrushes, watercolor pencils and more fountain pens. A small red Field Notes (and a white gel pen to use with it) became an integral part of my daily-carry. Very sadly, I let my beloved “Stefano” go. 

2016 Whoa... did I really carry all that to the UK? Yes, I did.


During the second half of 2016, I made the final jump from watercolors to watercolor pencils, and by 2017, I had fully embraced colored pencils as my sole color medium (so much so that I committed to two quarters of study at Gage Academy). Graphite pencils made their first (and permanent) appearance (also reflecting my study at Gage). The only markers and brush pens that remained were black and gray. And the Tran Portfolio Pencil Case I had discovered the previous year turned out to be my best bag enhancement ever.

2017 The colored pencil era begins.


Last year’s kit looked very similar to my current supplies except that it still had two fountain pens in place. Not shown is the sketchbook, which was still the DIY signatures and handbound sketchbooks I had been using consistently since 2013.

2018 A stable kit.


(Sketch at top of post and photo below.) The biggest change I made this year was switching to off-the-shelf Stillman & Birn sketchbooks instead of the handbound books I’d been making since 2013. A kneaded eraser and tortillon are currently among my daily-carry for when I’m in a graphite mood (more often in winter than at other times of the year). The ballpoint pen took up permanent residence after 2018’s InkTober. And reluctantly, I realized I had been using a fountain pen less and less, so I took it out (and put it back only for this year’s InkTober).

Kit staged for the sketch, plus the usual desk mess.

During all these changes, the one constant throughout has been my faithful Rickshaw messenger bag, which has sketched with me on four continents since 2012. Although the organizing accessories within the bag have changed many times, since the beginning, I’ve always made all the primary tools stand upright to be fully accessible without the need to unzip, unroll or un-Velcro tabs, pockets and cases. So even though most of the media and tools have changed over time, my basic carrying setup has not.

Everything upright and ready for action.

My Favorite Art Materials page has details about my current kit contents. For details about any of my past sketch kits, see the Archive page.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

I Appear, I Leave

10/28/19 Gloria (10-min. pose)

My current reading is Ways of Drawing: Artists’ Perspectives and Practices, by the Royal Drawing School. It’s a collection of essays about the practice of drawing by students and faculty of this classical drawing school in London. While most of the essays are by artists, a notable exception is by a long-time art model, Isley Lynn. Not an artist herself (in fact, she’s a playwright), she has experienced a range of encounters with artists who spend many hours scrutinizing and interpreting her nude body. 
I appear, I leave, and the artwork is the trace of my visit. Thousands of people have seen me intimately without knowing me. They never see me, they see a reflection of me, a version of me, someone else’s story of me. And art to a model is like money to the dead – you can’t take it with you when you go. – Isley Lynn
20-min. pose

10-min. pose

10-min. pose

Monday, November 11, 2019

Caran d’Ache Watercolor Pencil History Update

The incomplete and confusing history of Caran d'Ache watercolor pencils.

With a few exceptions, most of my vintage colored pencil collecting has been led by whim, curiosity and availability of affordable items on eBay – without specific targets. One notable exception has been Caran d’Ache’s water-soluble colored pencils. As my favorite maker of and the original creator of my favorite art material, Caran d’Ache is special to me, and therefore its history is interesting. The product history of Cd’A’s watercolor pencils is also short enough – the Swiss company developed the first one in 1931 – that I might actually have a chance of acquiring samples of all its products through various eras. Although I’m certain I don’t have samples of all variations through Caran d’Ache’s history (many questions remain unanswered), I think I now have a fairly good range.

Since I’ve already written about most of these pencils before, this post will serve as an update rather than a rehash of my previous speculations and theories. For the context, please see these posts:

  • Vintage Prismalo (possibly from the ‘30s; the oldest set in my collection)
  • Vintage Prismalo (probably from the ‘90s)
  • Contemporary Prismalo (100th anniversary edition, with historical comparison)
  • Contemporary Supracolor (in which I ponder at length about why Supracolors are called Supracolor “II” when there is no Supracolor “I”? It turns out there was a “I”! Read on.)

My latest acquisition is a set of Supracolor I (left, top row, in the photo above), which answers the question I had been asking for a long time. When I first acquired the “Water Soluble” set (center of top row), I was told that these pencils and Supracolor I (which I didn't own yet) were the same – only the names on the boxes and the barrels were different. In addition, Supracolor I and Water Soluble” both have the product code 3999. Now that I finally have some Supracolor I to make my own comparison, I have confirmed that the cores are, indeed, the same: The thin cores are very hard and contain little pigment. According to the Supracolor I tin (below), these pencils have “fine leads, ideal for detailed drawing,” while Supracolor II have “thick leads, ideal for shading.”
Bottom of the Supracolor I tin.
Although I could see from initial swatches that the very hard Supracolor I pencils would not be easy to use for coloring, I made a sample sketch of an apple on principle. As you can see, I had difficulty developing saturated hues, but as promised, the very hard cores remained sharp throughout the sketch and would be ideal for fine details.
11/6/19 vintage Supracolor I pencils in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook

According to Atelier Caran d’Ache: The Workshop Book, the Supracolor product line was introduced in 1988 (though the I and II designations are not specified). I wish I had a sample of Supracolor II from that era to see how it compares to a contemporary Supracolor II. In any case, a new question arises: When did Caran d’Ache stop producing the I line and why? Personally, when I need a colored pencil for sharp details, I reach for a hard traditional (wax- or oil-based) pencil so that all the fine marks I spend time making won’t accidentally wash away. Perhaps other artists concur, and Caran d’Ache saw no need to maintain the harder I line.

To add to the mystery of the set of Prismalo that I reviewed last year, I have acquired a few pencils that came in a random lot without a box which are labeled Prismalo I on the barrel. What?! Prismalo and Prismalo I!? (Can you be any more confusing, Caran d’Ache?) To my hand, Prismalo feels slightly softer than Prismalo I, but beyond that, there’s no difference. Both have the product number 999. Why the two names? When did Prismalo I disappear? And was there ever a Prismalo II (doubtful, but the question is cause for yet another sleepless night)?

Notice that all three tins – Supracolor I, Water Soluble and Prismalo – look identical, with an image of the Matterhorn, red flowers and the sans serif Caran d’Ache logo.

The blue box shown is another new mystery. Contained in this tin was a set of pencils with three sailboats on the barrel. Their cores are slightly softer than the others and contain a bit more pigment. What was this nameless line, and where did it fit within the Prismalo/Supracolor history?
The nameless, numberless "sailboat" pencils (and one random Prismalo that came in this used set).

Finally, also in a random lot, I acquired a single Swisscolor pencil, with a core similar to contemporary Swisscolors, which are dryer than Prismalo and Supracolor and lower in pigment (my guess is that they are student grade). The product history in the Atelier book is not helpful regarding the “sailboat” and Swisscolor pencils; they are not mentioned at all. Since the book seems to focus more on artist-quality products rather than student products, perhaps both belong in the latter category.

All the above-mentioned pencils are water-soluble. I also have a few unnamed pencils with two tulips on the barrel (product code 333) that are not water-soluble. A precursor to the contemporary Pablo, perhaps?

Shown below are specimens of all the vintage product lines or eras I own. The last two in the photo are contemporary Supracolor (now called Supracolor II Soft with the product code 3888) and Prismalo.
From top: 1930s Prismalo, 1980s Prismalo, Prismalo I, unnamed "sailboat," unnamed "water soluble," Supracolor I, vintage Swisscolor, unnamed "tulip" (not water-soluble), contemporary Supracolor II Soft, contemporary Prismalo.
The swatch comparison indicates that all the vintage pencils (top row) have about the same pigment level except the “sailboat” set, which is slightly higher in pigment and softer. For reference, the two swatches in the bottom row are from contemporary Prismalo and Supracolor II Soft pencils. (Whenever I compare contemporary pencils with their vintage counterparts, I am always grateful for advances in technology and manufacturing that enable me to have products now that are of much higher quality than their predecessors. I like collecting old pencils, but with few exceptions, I don’t prefer them to contemporary pencils.)
Swatches made on Canson XL 140 lb. watercolor paper
The Caran d’Ache watercolor pencil history described in this post is not exhaustive by any means. If anything, it just raises more questions. If you know more about Caran d’Ache colored pencil history or can solve the mysteries described, I’m all ears!

Supracolor I

Sunday, November 10, 2019

St. John the Evangelist

11/7/19 Greenwood neighborhood

The bishop’s hat on top of St. John the Evangelist Parish always catches my eye when I’m in its neighborhood. In Greenwood for an errand on a foggy and then overcast morning, I was attracted to it again, though I knew it would be a challenge in that indistinct light (as it is in any light; I attempted it last year and several years before that, too). But the lazy sun on one side and the bright white sky on the other framed the hat with subtle highlights that gave me somewhere to start.

Now that the leaves are falling off, I think graphite season is beginning.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Dick’s on Queen Anne and La Marzocco Café

11/8/19 Dick's on Queen Anne Avenue North

Dick’s Drive-in has been a Seattle-area institution for 65 years. When I think of the family-owned chain of burger joints, I think first of the one on Broadway (which I sketched few years ago) with its classic drive-in shape (though in-car dining is no longer an option). The one in lower Queen Anne has a more modern building, but it’s still a neighborhood icon. On a brisk and still-partly-foggy morning, I started the Seattle USk outing with a sketch of Dick’s.

Chilled after standing for more than an hour in the shade, I went back to the meetup location – La Marzocco Café – to warm up. Housing indie radio station KEXP (DJs are visible through a window, and the station’s broadcast is the café’s soundtrack), the café is also a large public space for town hall meetings and other events. There’s also a vinyl record shop and espresso-making equipment shop inside. I didn’t have much more time than a hasty sketch of café patrons in front of me, but I’d enjoy going back to take advantage of the many seating (and therefore composition) options. The coffee and snacks aren’t bad, either!

11/8/19 La Marzocco Cafe

Friday, November 8, 2019


11/5/19 Wedgwood neighborhood

After being sadly surprised by how much lower the light is in the early afternoon, I set my sketching clock back to sync with the sun. Shortly before lunch (instead of after), heading toward the sun, I found this dappled street where the trees’ colors were visible only around the fringes of branches. Although I missed all the color I would have seen if I’d faced the other way, I had more fun capturing the shadows and the tiny sparks of yellow burning through. Any day now, clouds and rain will be back for the long haul; I’m hunting as much light as I can – even from the back.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Life Drawing Lessons from Apples

11/4/19 Clara (20-min. pose)

As you know, I sketch a lot of simple still lives consisting of no more than one or two pieces of produce. These aren’t especially inspiring compositions or subject matter, but they give me practice in working on values in color and blending with colored pencils, and fruit is easily available in my home. The forms of apples and pears are so simple that they aren’t very challenging to draw, but anything three-dimensional is good practice in rendering form and interpreting light logic.

One day at a Gage life drawing session last spring, I suddenly made a new observation: In addition to the strong shadow under the breasts (which I always expect), I saw subtle arcs of light reflected from the model’s thigh or some other plane of lighted skin. I know it sounds like a sophomoric joke to compare breasts with apples, but I realized that the reflection was exactly the same as the reflected light I always see in my sketches of fruit that I place on white paper to help me see the shadow easily. I’ve been going to life drawing for years, yet this was the first time that reflection on the model consciously registered in my brain – and the light bulb turned on. All that fruit I’ve been sketching had taught me something – though it took a long time for the lesson to sink in.

Now I always look for that reflection as well as the shadow. It might take a while to learn, but once seen, a lesson cannot be unseen.

5/8/19 Shannon (20-min. pose)

4/29/19 (25-min. pose)
2/8/19 Lessons from apples and other handy produce.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Time Change

11/3/19 Crown Hill neighborhood

In the early fall, I tend to go out sketching after lunch when the sun (if it’s out at all) is still high enough that I can catch some light. I remembered to set my clocks back on Saturday night, but the next day I went out to sketch at my usual time, according to the clock – forgetting that it would be an hour “later,” according to the sun. By 2 p.m., it was already so low in the sky that I was too late for the shimmering backlit views I’ve been chasing lately. By the time I finished this sketch, the shadows looked like dusk.

I need to adjust my sketching time along with the clock.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

New and Much Improved Burke Museum

11/1/19 Columbian mammoth exhibit, Burke Museum

The Burke Museum has been one of my favorite indoor locations for almost as long as I’ve been sketching. Whenever I got my car serviced nearby, I would dash over for an hour or so and sketch an artifact or two; I think I sketched almost all the large skeletons at least once, sometimes more, and some small fossils. The museum had been closed for about a year while its new facility was being completed and everything moved in, and I really missed it.

Who has a bigger mouth?
The new Burke finally reopened a few weeks ago, and the long wait was worth it! Spacious, well-lighted and with many more artifacts on display than they ever had room for before, the University of Washington’s world-class museum is three floors of natural and human history exhibits focused on the Pacific Northwest. What a sketcher’s delight!

Although my sketching interests tend to stay on the animal exhibits – what is it about drawing prehistoric skeletons that is so much fun!? – but the human history exhibits of native cultures are also fascinating.  

Last Friday’s visit was only a cursory run-through so I could plan future sketching objectives. I’ll be back again soon and often. Perhaps this winter wont be so hard to endure after all!

I recall sketching this stegosaur a few years ago and not being able to fit the whole thing in my sketchbook!

Paleontologists and other scientists at work are visible
in many areas.

Biology exhibit

Big bones!

Monday, November 4, 2019

Caran d’Ache Bicolors: Wish List Fulfilled!

Brand new Caran d'Ache water-soluble Bicolors!
Package back

What kinds of sketch materials and tools would be on your wish list? Not things that do exist, but things that haven’t yet been invented or manufactured? Nearly two years ago, I came up with such a list for myself, and I’m ecstatic that the No. 1 item on the list has been fulfilled: high-quality, double-sided, water-soluble colored pencils! Made by Caran d’Ache, no less! When I saw the new pencils promoted by CW Pencils recently, I could not buy them fast enough.

I love bicolor pencils, both for sentimental reasons (my first childhood memories of colored pencils are of bicolors) and practical reasons: A good set of compact bicolors would be especially handy as a portable sketch kit. Almost all bicolor pencils I’ve tried, however, have been lower-quality, novelty pencils, often intended for kids. And none have been water-soluble. I quote from my own blog:
Caran d’Ache’s red/blue Bicolor is the one exception – high quality and with the same water-soluble cores as its Supracolor collection. I wouldn’t need a huge color range – just the basics that would come in a standard 12-color box, but compressed into six sticks. How about it, Caran d’Ache?
It’s obvious that Caran d’Ache reads my blog and developed these pencils just for me. 😉 As far as I know, this is the only water-soluble bicolor pencil set ever to be made. It’s fitting that it should come from the company that first gave watercolor pencils to the world (in 1931; see my recent review of vintage Prismalos for more history).

Packaged in Caran d’Ache’s classic red-logo tin with a cardboard wrapper, the set of 10 pencils (20 colors) comes with a waterbrush. (I’ll probably review the waterbrush separately at some point.)
The classic Caran d'Ache pencil tin
The design of the Bicolor pencil itself is almost identical to Cd’A’s stand-alone red/blue editing pencil, which has been out for a long time. (Its existence is what made me hopeful that someday Cd’A would come out with a full set of bicolors.)
The new Bicolors (top) look similar to the red/blue editing pencil that has been around for a long time.

Although Caran d’Ache’s premium Museum Aquarelle is still my urban sketching favorite, the Swiss company’s Supracolor Soft line (previously known as Supracolor II) is a close second and is often better than the Museum line for detailed work. So I was thrilled to learn that the cores of the Bicolors are the same as Supracolors (according to CW Pencils’ product information). During swatch tests, the Bicolors felt a bit harder than Supracolors, but when making sketches. The Bicolor cores are just a smidge thinner than the Supracolor cores. Perhaps the thinner core gives the perception of being harder when applied even if the core material is identical. It’s difficult to see the thickness difference in my head-on shot (below left), but I think the side view shows it better. Both samples were sharpened with the same sharpener. (In each image, the Bicolor is on the left; Supracolor on the right.)

From left: Bicolor and Supracolor

Of course, I had to know exactly which hues in the Supracolor line were among the Bicolor cores. Since the Bicolors don’t include color numbers or names, I had to do go through all my Supracolors to match them first by eye, then by swatching (a colored pencil geek’s work is never done). The chart below shows the colors that were the closest (usually identical) matches. The upper rows are the Bicolors; the lower rows are the Supracolors. For fun, I also tossed in the red/blue editing pencil, marked with an asterisk.

Comparison of Bicolors and Supracolors on Canson XL 140 lb. watercolor paper

Interestingly, I found the black Bicolor to be somewhat warmer than the standard Cd’A black (009). In fact, it is much closer to dark sepia (408), which is actually one of the limited edition colors from the 30th anniversary set. All others are standard Cd’A colors.

Up to this point, I was mostly convinced that the cores in the Bicolors and Supracolors were the same, despite the Bicolors feeling a bit harder. Then it was brought to my attention that on Caran d’Ache’s UK site, the Bicolor packaging is slightly different – labeled as Prismalo Bicolor! (Since Prismalos don’t appear in the U.S. market much, perhaps the name was taken off the packaging because buyers wouldn’t be familiar with it.) Here’s the image taken from that page:
Packaging for the European market.
Of course, I had no choice now but to test them against Prismalos also (what did I tell you about a colored pencil geek’s work?). Unfortunately, my set of 25 Prismalos doesn’t have exact matches for all the Bicolors, so I compared only the hues I had that matched fairly closely. Most of the color numbers differ from the Supracolors I matched.
Comparison of Bicolors and Prismalos on Canson XL 140 lb. watercolor paper

The pigment content looked comparable – in fact, I was surprised that the Prismalos looked so close to the Supracolor swatches. The Prismalos also feel the same as the Bicolors in their application and softness. Perhaps the strongest clue is the core size: The Bicolors and Prismalos look identical.

Left: Bicolor; right: Prismalo

Whenever I acquire new colored pencils, I always make swatch samples and test them first at home on various papers before taking them out on the street. (I consider field use to be the ultimate test for any art material; sometimes a disappointing or inappropriate product never goes further than my desk.) The Caran d’Ache Bicolors were a rare exception. I received them on a surprisingly brilliant (but cold) day, and within the hour, I took them out for a test sketch. The sketch below was the first time I put pencil points to paper.
10/26/19 Green Lake neighborhood (Caran d'Ache Bicolors in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook)
The colorful scene I happened to find in the Green Lake neighborhood turned out to be an especially effective test. I used the Bicolors in exactly the way I tend to use my daily-carry Museum Aquarelles: After heavily applying pigment for the trees, I spritzed the page to activate the color. (For the sky, I had grabbed my usual middle cobalt blue 660 out of habit, but I think the Bicolor blue 260 could also work.) Although I missed the ultra-soft, thick-core (and therefore faster) application of the Museum Aquarelles, I was delighted by the Bicolors’ rich hues when activated. Of course, the Museum Aquarelles have spoiled me with their pigment content, which can’t be matched by the Bicolors, but the latter adequately pass my urban sketching test.

Later at home I made the sketch of the maple leaves to test the Bicolors in a more traditional approach of repeated cycles of dry/wet pigment applications. Here’s where I found them more difficult to use than either Museum Aquarelles or Supracolors. Once an application of pigment was activated and dried, additional pigment did not seem to apply well. This behavior didn’t match with what I knew of Supracolors, so I was puzzled – but now that I see how close the core size and softness match with Prismalos, the sketch test is more evidence that the Bicolor cores are probably Prismalo cores, not Supracolor. (See my full review of Prismalos for more on my experiences with them.)

10/28/19 Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook
If you have no need for portability, buying full-size, open-stock Supracolor pencils or even the set of 18 would be a much better value. (Prismalos should be less expensive than Supracolors, but since they seem to ship from European stores on Amazon, they are way overpriced.) And for my everyday urban sketching, Museum Aquarelles still meet my needs and habits better. 
For travel, however, sketch kit minimalism is always a priority. And the way I test such minimalism is my annual winter challenge, which I’m already thinking about. In past attempts to slim my portable kit, I’ve done well when I’ve used toned paper because I focused on values, and color was often unnecessary. But last winter when I used white paper, my color choices were constantly frustrating: Whatever color I wanted at the moment was the color I didn’t have. With these compact Caran d’Ache Bicolors, I could carry the full spectrum in a small, lightweight set. Heck, with my typical urban sketching palette, I bet I could get it down to six or seven sticks! That’s probably a third of the number of colored pencils I regularly carry now.

I’ll talk more about winter minimalism in a couple of months. For now, I’ll just say, thank you, Caran d’Ache, for reading my blog!

I admit, this image is gratuitous eye candy.
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