Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Fresh Look at the Baron Fig: Pencil

12/12/16 Mars Lumograph 8B, Tombow Mono 5B,
Baron Fig Confidant
Nearly two years ago, I blogged about the Baron Fig Confidant notebook – a hardcover journal I received when I supported the company’s Kickstarter campaign. Although I had no intention of using it as a sketchbook – I could see right away that the paper was too thin to take the kinds of media I like to use – I gave it a shot with a few sketches anyway. I figured I would use it as a writing journal sometime, and I put it away. That was that.

Fast-forward to last week, when I was looking at the sketches I’ve recently done in graphite. While the surface of my favorite Canson watercolor paper isn’t too bad for graphite, it’s a little toothier than I like, and I don’t really need the 140-pound weight. With my preference for softer-core pencils, I’ve been getting a lot of transfer to the facing sketchbook page, which makes me want to skip pages. I started thinking that a separate sketchbook for graphite would be a good idea – with thinner, slightly less toothy paper.

My first thought was to stitch up a signature or two, but then I realized I don’t have any thinner, slightly less toothy paper that’s unbound. What I do have is huge stacks of commercial notebooks that I had previously rejected because they couldn’t hold up to all the fountain pens, brush pens, markers, watercolors and other wet media I had abused them with. Surely a common notebook is made to be used with a common pencil. I dug them out for some rainy-day testing with graphite.

It turns out that although they might all be fine for writing in with pencil, I’m a bit picky when it comes to sketching with pencil. Paper with a smooth finish ideal for ballpoint, rollerball and especially fountain pen is a little too smooth – with pencil, I prefer a little tooth that easily picks up the graphite (or colored pencil pigment, for that matter). But I don’t like so much texture that the surface slows me down. Ideally I also want a form factor larger than a pocket notebook. I had to re-reject most of the notebooks for being too smooth, too rough or too small.

Hard to please? Maybe, but one notebook rose to the top of the heap: the Baron Fig Confidant – the same one I had rejected as a sketchbook two years ago. Although smooth to the touch, graphite doesn’t smudge on the surface as much as I had expected (unless I rub it deliberately for shading). In fact, even the Staedtler Mars Lumograph 8B (which is charcoal, not graphite) doesn’t smudge much.
12/11/16 Polychromos and Pablo colored pencils

Just for kicks, I even tried colored pencils on it. While I still prefer Stillman & Birn’s toothier Alpha paper that really picks up pigment well, I was surprised by how nicely colored pencils took to the Baron Fig. In short, it has a pencil-friendly surface.

I’ll give the Confidant a try for a while, at least for pencil sketches. Its hardcover and thickness are bulkier than I like, but if I really enjoy the paper, I might switch to Baron Fig’s softcover Vanguard, which looks very slim and portable. A huge plus for all of Baron Fig’s notebooks is that they open completely flat, even the hardbound edition. (I always wished Stillman & Birn’s hardcovers opened flat the way the Confidant does.)

Pencil tests
If you’re interested in the pencils I tested my notebooks with, they are:

Blackwing Volume 24 (no longer available but the same core as the current Volume 530)
* Palomino Blackwing (the classic one, sometimes referred to as MMX)
* Caran d’Ache Technalo HB (water-soluble)
* Uni Mitsubishi HiUni 10B (also mentioned in the same brush pencil post)

They’re all graphite except the Staedtler Mars Lumograph, which is charcoal. My current favorites for sketching are marked with *  chisel-cut when the core is thick enough. Below, you can see where I deliberately smudged each line with a clean finger (except the water-soluble Technalo line, which was washed with a swipe of water).

Smudge test
Incidentally, these and related tests were illuminating in a couple of other ways. The Tombow Mono line had been my favorite graphite pencils for a while (though perhaps “favorite” is too strong a word, given that I haven’t used graphite much for sketching until lately), and I own almost the whole range of grades. More recently I acquired several soft grades of the Uni Mitsubishi HiUni line. I compared them with the Tombow Monos grade for grade, and in every case, I found that I preferred the Hi Uni. Each HiUni seemed smoother and softer than its Mono counterpart.

Around the same time that I was making these comparisons, I read some chatter in a Facebook group speculating that Blackwing pencils have cores that come from the same source as Tombow, Mitsubishi and other Japanese pencil cores. Was it possible that Blackwings and Japanese pencils of comparable grade all have identical cores? Since I had just convinced myself that I like HiUni pencils better than Tombow Monos, and I simply couldn’t believe that Blackwings were the same, I decided to do my own test.

I pitted the Blackwing MMX (with the softest core) against several soft grades of Monos and HiUnis as well as one Blick Studio 4B (made in the Czech Republic) as a control, sort of. It turned out that the Blackwing was identical in darkness to all the 4B pencils, but not in softness. The Blick Studio 4B was definitely the roughest of the four. The Blackwing is as smooth as the Mono 4B and HiUni 4B – but I still insist that the HiUni feels the softest, even if its line looks the same.

So there. Subjectivity and idiosyncratic preferences win.

Updated 4/20/17: Baron Fig changed its paper – and I like it even better now! See my follow-up review.

12/13/16 Blackwing MMX, Mars Lumograph 8B


  1. When I saw the sketch on FB, I thought, "I really like those trees!". There is a pleasing texture and value to them.

    1. Thanks, Kate! I've been trying to work on values. . . I'm hoping the pencils will help.

      - Tina


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