Saturday, June 27, 2020

If I Had to Choose Only One Colored Pencil

6/19/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood (Caran d'Ache Supracolors in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook)

Several months ago, I needed a new inkjet printer. Scrolling through hundreds of options, I became frustrated by the many “all-in-one” models. They don’t just print; they also scan, fax, copy, make espresso and serve it to me with music and dancing. All I wanted was a reliable, high-quality color printer. While there may be nothing wrong with a multi-functional device that can do all things, I had a feeling that they would not do any one thing exceptionally (such as print). That’s been my experience, anyway.

All of this is preamble to what I really want to talk about, which is, of course, colored pencils. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I occasionally like to think about what I would take to Gilligan’s Island. It’s my way of hypothesizing different ways of simplifying my sketch tools: Beyond a “three-hour tour,” what if I had to use these and only these tools indefinitely (or at least for a specified length of time, like my annual minimalism challenges)? It occurred to me one day that I had never posed the question about colored pencils: If I could choose only one set (perish the thought!), which would I choose?

I have mentioned several times that different types of drawings or parts of the same drawing require different types of pencils (such as soft or hard), so identifying one pencil that can do all jobs well is not possible. My recent picks of top colored pencils short-listed my favorites, but that list still includes three water-soluble pencils and three traditional pencils. If I really had to choose only one set – the footlocker I’m taking to Gilligan’s island simply will not hold six sets – which would I choose? And how would I choose?

The answer comes down to versatility: Even if a single pencil set cannot do all jobs well, which “all-in-one” pencil set can at least print, copy, fax and serve espresso satisfactorily, if not ideally? These are the criteria I used to make my choice:

  • Water-solubility is essential and non-negotiable. That means the water-soluble pencil I choose must also work well dry. This criterion alone eliminates many watercolor pencils I’ve tried that are either unpleasant to apply (Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer, for example) or are difficult to blend and layer dry.
  • The core must be sufficiently soft and thick to accommodate my need to sketch quickly and efficiently on location.
  • Yet it must be hard enough to manage small details.
  • The color range must be wide enough to cover any subject matter I might want to sketch.
  • Replacement pencils must be easily available open stock (even on Gilligan’s island).

The pencil that meets all these criteria best is Caran d’Ache Supracolor. If you recall how often I’ve gone on and on about the virtues of Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle, you might be surprised by my choice. As often as I would easily choose Museum Aquarelle as my overall “favorite” pencil, it is the equivalent of a professional quality inkjet printer that makes beautiful color prints but that will certainly not send faxes (let alone make espresso). It’s my all-time favorite because it meets my urban sketching needs ideally. It is not without downsides, however. For example, the Museum Aquarelle is so soft and has such a hefty core that it will not hold a point for small details. Its color range is also narrow compared to most colored pencil lines. When achieving accurate hues is important (such as for botanical drawings), I almost always have to supplement Museum Aquarelles with colors from the Supracolor or Albrecht Durer lines.
6/9/20 Supracolor in S&B Nova sketchbook

The task that recently made me appreciate Supracolors used traditionally (without water) was my daily hand sketches on black paper. When I don’t plan to use water, I tend to choose a traditional pencil, so it was an interesting experiment to use a white Supracolor fully intending to leave it dry. The white Supracolor applied almost as pleasantly as various oil- and wax-based white pencils (without the “stickiness” of some water-soluble pencils), and the dry pigment was rich and opaque.

To continue examining Supracolors dry, I made two similar sketches of bellflowers using the same four Supracolor pencils – one sketch using dry pigments only, the second with both wet and dry layers. Although extremely soft, Supracolors will sharpen to a nice point and stay sharp long enough to draw slender leaves and stamen. In the dry sample, the pigments layered and blended beautifully. In the dry/wet/dry sample, the pigments again layered and behaved predictably well (as I have come to expect from both Supracolors and Museum Aquarelles).

6/18/20 dry Supracolors in S&B Epsilon sketchbook

6/18/20 wet and dry Supracolors in S&B
Beta sketchbook

Incidentally, the four colors I used are Cobalt Violet (620), Ultramarine Violet (630), Bright Green (720) and Olive Yellow (15). The first three are from the Limited Edition 30th Anniversary Set, which means they aren’t available open stock (and therefore can’t be replaced at the Gilligan’s Island art supply store). I sure wish Caran d’Ache would make these “limited” colors part of their standard line, as I often find that the color I want happens to be one of them.

As a final test, I wanted to see how Supracolors perform in the field. Although I normally carry one or two Supracolors (usually seasonal or specialty colors that aren’t available among Museum Aquarelles), I’m not sure I’ve ever made an entire sketch on location with nothing but Supracolors, so it was high time I tried it.

Before going out, I tried to match each Museum Aquarelle in my current palette (which is smaller than usual in the Pandemic Edition of my sketch kit) with an equivalent Supracolor. I was able to find an identical or close match for most colors, but not Museum Aquarelle’s Dark Phthalocyanine Green (719), which I use often for the shady side of foliage. Nothing in the Supracolor line comes close.

The sketch at the top of the page, a quiet alley with interesting shadows one morning, was the result (including a bit of pentimento from a previous sketch that ended abruptly when my subjects went away). Not quite as soft or rich in pigment as my beloved Museum Aquarelles, the Supracolors still held their own and would certainly be sufficient for sketching on location. (I did miss that green 719, though.) I was able to cover large areas almost as efficiently as with Museum Aquarelles, and spritzing the foliage areas with water activated the pigments nearly as vividly.

So if I had to choose only one set of pencils, it would be Supracolors. The irony is that they might not be my first choice for anything. If I want to do a detailed, full-color drawing with traditional pencils, I would probably choose Faber-Castell Polychromos or vintage Prismacolors (or more likely both – an ideal hard/soft combo). If I want water-solubility, then I would go to Museum Aquarelles first, then pull in additional colors as needed from among Supracolors and Albrecht Durer. If I’m stepping out the door, Museum Aquarelles are always my first choice. But while Supracolors aren’t ideal for everything, but they can do everything well enough with no complaints from me. It’s my most versatile colored pencil.

Move over, Gilligan... here I come!

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