Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Maple Bar

3/29/18 The Maple Bar

This old building is typical of homes in the Maple Leaf neighborhood. While most remain homes, this one has changed many times through the years from one type of restaurant or business to another. Most recently it has been a friendly neighborhood bar – The Maple Bar (ha-ha).

A couple of days ago it was finally warm enough to take a stroll through the ‘hood and sketch from the sidewalk – what a treat to be outdoors! I chose the bar to sketch because I was there to see a show of watercolor paintings by urban sketcher Eleanor Doughty. She moved to Seattle only last fall but has already made a wonderful collection of paintings of her new city.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Hard Enough to Write With

The top two pencils are contemporary; the rest are vintage. I used red for these tests because that's the most commonly used
for editing, but of course all of these are available in all colors of the rainbow. :-) 

With my recent interest in vintage colored pencils, I’ve come to find that one of the biggest differences between them and contemporary colored pencils is that the former are generally harder. Much harder. A few older brands like Eagle/Berol Prismacolors, Faber-Castell/Venus Spectracolor and American Venus Paradise are very soft, but they are exceptions. Based on clues I’ve gleaned from marketing copy on some old boxes I have, colored pencils back in the day seem to have been targeted more toward architects and drafters rather than artists or coloring book fans as they are now. If that was the intended audience, then I can see that a harder core would have been preferred by designers and drafters making thin, crisp lines. Contemporary users, however, probably demand a softer core and more intense colors. (Or perhaps pencil manufacturing technology has improved over time, enabling pencils with softer cores containing more pigment to be made. But that’s speculation.)

I’ve talked before about how I have specific uses for both soft and hard colored pencils (just as it’s useful and often necessary to have several grades of graphite pencils). But as I’ve reviewed various vintage colored pencils that turned out to be harder than any contemporary colored pencils I’ve used, I started thinking about how some of them are so hard that they could be used for writing as well as drawing. When I want to write with color, I tend to choose fountain pen inks or gel pens, but every now and then a colored pencil is just right. I know, too, that many editors and teachers use colored pencils to correct or mark up copy. Colored pencils hard enough to write with have their place.

Since today is National Pencil Day, I decided to write this crossover review: I compared some of my hardest colored pencils and selected the ones I could see myself writing with for whatever reason. Some contain enough pigment that they are also excellent for detail work in drawing.

Shown below are scribble tests I made on a sheet of ordinary copier/printer paper, which is often what editors and teachers need to write on. While the hardest cores are the vintage Eberhard Faber Mongol, Wallace Invader, Eagle Verithin and Dixon Anadel, they also contain the least amount of pigment, making them harder to see.
Scribble tests on ordinary copy/printer paper

My favorites are very slightly softer but also contain enough pigment that they are practical for writing: vintage American Venus Unique and vintage Stabilo Schwan. The Stabilo is a good balance between hardness and color intensity, but it’s also scratchy compared to the Venus Unique.

Because these vintage pencils can be difficult to find (though perhaps not as difficult as you might think – I see some of them on eBay fairly regularly at reasonable prices, and often they are sold by the box for a single color), I also tested a couple of the hardest contemporary colored pencils I own – Prismacolor Col-Erase and Prismacolor Verithin. They are about the same in hardness and color intensity, but I tend to favor the Verithins because they are available in a wider color range and feel a little smoother. (By the way, forget about using the eraser attached to the Col-Erase; it’s apparently just for show.)

A third contemporary pencil that I couldn’t include in this comparison is the Staedtler Noris. Very hard, possibly harder than either Prismacolor mentioned above, Staedtler Noris colored pencils are available in a wide range of colors. Instead of wood, the cores are covered in Wopex, which is some kind of recycled product that makes me think of plywood. The reason that I couldn’t include them in my comparison is that the first time I sharpened one, I broke my electric sharpener on it! (Note to self: Plywood can’t be sharpened.) I immediately got rid of the (admittedly inexpensive) set. However, if you use a knife to sharpen them, I think they might qualify as a good colored pencil for writing.

As a final test, I used my top three – vintage American Venus Unique, contemporary Prismacolor Verithin and vintage Stabilo Schwan – to write in a Baron Fig journal, which is a bit toothier than copier/printer paper. All three were fine, though the Venus was my favorite for being the smoothest.
Writing tests on Baron Fig paper

When I say these are hard enough to write with, I’m not talking about H or HB hard; I’d say they are more like 2B or Blackwing Pearl hard. Some writers would find that too soft, but I prefer writing with softer pencils, so they are good enough for me. Some of those vintage pencils that are too light in pigment are probably closer to an HB.

If you are not a writer, editor or teacher and have no use otherwise for writing with colored pencils, let me just say this: We can all use more color in our lives. Why not write todays shopping list with a colored pencil? 

Happy National (Colored) Pencil Day!

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Curved Glass and Steel

3/28/18 The 14th floor view of South Lake Union
3/28/18 Union Square

I had some time to kill in a 14th floor waiting room with a fantastic view of South Lake Union. When I saw it, I kicked myself for not bringing my landscape-format sketchbook. In the time I had, I could have sketched twice as much of the glass and steel horizon as I did.

One of the more attractive modern buildings in downtown Seattle is Union Square, which has a subtly curved face on one side. I was told that its design was inspired by the prow of a ship. I don’t often sketch portraits of modern high-rises, but with time and that fabulous view, it called to me.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Inside the Spheres

3/27/18 A view of the top two floors

A couple of months ago Greg and I went to the Amazon Spheres visitors center, which is on the street-level floor of the bubble-shaped complex. Since it was the first time the public had access to the long-anticipated buildings, many were disappointed that they couldn’t go up into the terrarium-like space where all the amazing plants were. I knew that was off-limits to us, so I had checked my expectations, but I still hoped that we would get an opportunity to go inside the Spheres themselves someday. Recently Amazon began allowing the public inside if accompanied by an employee, so our friend Julie invited us. What a cool privilege it was to be inside one of Seattle’s most intriguing buildings!

3/27/18 A conference room "nest" atop the trees
As soon as we walked in, our glasses steamed up! The temperature is kept in the 70s and the air very humid, like a tropical rainforest. Normally I don’t like humidity, but after walking several blocks in the drizzly cold, it felt good to shed my down jacket and be instantly warm.

First Julie walked us around each level of the five-story building so we could take photos and experience the lush, surrounding green. All the exotic plants are labeled as in a botanical garden. Nothing is at right angles or has sharp corners; everything is curved or organic. Tucked in around all the plantings are small seating areas for employees to work quietly or hold meetings. (No employees have offices in the Spheres, but any can use the space whenever they want to. If I worked for Amazon, I think I’d find an excuse to go to the Spheres every day!) A concession area offers snacks to hungry Amazonites. I was tempted by the donuts, but I didn’t want to waste precious sketching time eating.

Julie had generously taken an hour and a half out of her work day to accompany us, so after our walk-through, I had to budget the remaining time carefully. So much to sketch, so little time – and all of it overwhelming! What to choose, what to choose?

3/27/18 Lush and green inside; cold steel and glass outside
I had my eye on the coolest “conference room”: the “nest” perched high in the trees. A meeting had just broken up when I started to sketch it, so I turned around to sketch the larger view of a couple of the upper floors first (top of post). When I had finished, another meeting had started in the nest, so I quickly sketched that before we moved on. The surrounding natural light made sketching delightful.

With only 10 minutes remaining, I had to think and sketch fast. I picked an umbrella-shaped tree with fern-like foliage. In the background of every view are those crazy windows that look like they should form a geometric pattern but don’t. Through the windows of the warm bubbles, you can see the cold canyons of steel and glass that seem so ordinary by comparison.

Soon enough, it was time to put our jackets on and go back out to cold reality. 

The Spheres from outside

The "green wall" is a popular selfie spot

Climbing vines on the pillars
The "nest" from below

The "nest" from above

Thanks, Julie, for a peek inside the fantastic Spheres!

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

New Diner

3/25/18 yellow diner at our feeder

Now that some spring migrators are in town, we’ve occasionally seen new birds at our feeder. Recently this bright yellow fellow was dining leisurely enough that I could capture him. With that hue, I thought it could be an American goldfinch (our state bird, though I rarely see it), but the one I saw and sketched did not have a black head. The black markings on his wings formed a chevron in the same way that they do on a pine siskin. In fact, I’ve sketched a male pine siskin with some yellow, but I’ve never seen one this bright. I couldn’t find anything quite like it in my bird ID books.

Anyone know?

Edited 3/27/18: ID’d by Alex MacKenzie as a female American goldfinch!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Product Review: Caran d’Ache Supracolor 30th Anniversary Set

Caran d'Ache's 30th anniversary limited edition box of Supracolor pencils

Before I discovered Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils (my long-time favorite), Caran d’Ache’s slightly lower-end Supracolor II line was one of my go-to water-soluble colored pencil brands. Supracolors deliver rich pigment and a soft point. They are a useful counterpoint to Faber Castell’s comparable Albrecht Durer pencils, which are a bit harder but have equally good pigment. Each brand has many unique colors, so whenever I have difficulty finding a certain hue in one brand, I can usually find it in the other. Years ago I invested in a complete set of each, and they continue to serve me well. (Despite my preference for Museum Aquarelles, that line has a relatively narrow color range that tends toward muted, natural hues, and sometimes they just aren’t the right hues. For example, the only color close to pink in the Museum range is too peachy for cherry blossoms, so the pencil I carry this time of year is a Supracolor in a true pink.)

Now, I know I’ve said that most people – especially a mostly urban sketcher like me –  probably don’t need more than 36 or even 24 colors (if they are the right colors). So adding 30 more hues to the 120-color Supracolor set I own didn’t make any sense. Nonetheless, when I saw CW Pencil Enterprise’s recent promotion of a 30th anniversary limited edition set of Supracolors, you can imagine how my colored pencil senses tingled. I mulled it over for a few days, and then CWP announced it was celebrating its own (third) anniversary by offering a generous discount coupon. Helloooo, new Supracolors!

In addition to a tingle, this pencil set gives me a timely reason to do a full review of Supracolors. Although I’ve been using them for many years (beginning with mixed media work long before I began sketching), and although I showed a limited-palette experiment with them a while back, I’ve never given them a proper review.

(Before I go on, I must pause here a moment to quibble about product nomenclature. Why are the Supracolors called “II”? The obvious answer is that a Supracolor I line also exists, but I’ve never seen it. To further complicate matters, Caran d’Ache has Neocolor I and Neocolor II lines of wax pastels, with the II line being water-soluble. Logically, I might infer that the Supracolor I line consists of colored pencils that are not water-soluble – but as far as I know, C d’A’s non-water-soluble counterpart to Supracolor is Pablo. Need more confusion? While the pencil itself is branded “Supracolor II Soft,” the anniversary box and other boxes say only “Supracolor Soft.” Was there once a Supracolor I line of harder pencils? Are they eventually going to drop the II altogether, as the box has already hinted? These matters keep me up at night.)

First, let me get the “limited edition 30th anniversary” stuff out of the way. As I mentioned in my recent review of vintage Prismalo pencils, Caran d’Ache introduced the world to water-soluble colored pencils in 1931. This 30th anniversary celebration is for its Supracolor Soft line specifically: “It has already been 30 years since Supracolor Soft began unleashing the creativity of artists, drawing enthusiasts and all those who love colour,” says the enclosed brochure. “To celebrate three decades of style, quality, creativity and sharing, Caran d’Ache is enriching the Supracolor Soft colour palette with 30 brand new colours in addition to the 120 existing shades.”

The commemorative tin box is the typical kind that colored pencil sets come in with the lid showing examples of art. I wish this anniversary edition had a more interesting image of something symbolic of Switzerland or 1988 (the Matterhorn traditionally appeared on the older Prismalo boxes).

In addition to the removable bow tie band around the tin and the anniversary proclamation inside the lid, each pencil is stamped with “limited edition” on its reverse. The front indicates the branding.

"Limited Edition" is stamped on the back of each pencil along with its color name and number.

Supracolor’s branding has changed in recent years. The top pencil (photo below) is from my original set, which is probably 10 years old. The middle pencil was part of a small sample set I received from ArtSnacks a little over a year ago. The branding on the bottom pencil, which is from the anniversary set, is identical to the middle pencil. (Thankfully the limited-edition pencils lack the unsightly bar code on the back.) All the renditions I own have beautifully varnished hexagonal barrels and rounded, painted ends to match the barrels. In addition to both a color name and number on the pencil, stars indicate the pigment’s lightfast rating.

Branding changes (from top): my original set; open stock pencil from ArtSnacks; 30th anniversary limited edition

Reverse of pencils in same order as previous photo

OK, enough fancy stuff; let’s get to the important part: the colors and how they perform. As far as I know (and I’ll admit it: I go down the colored pencil Google hole regularly), this addition to the Supracolor line gives it the largest color range of watercolor pencils currently available. (Holbein and Prismacolor each have 150 colors, but they are traditional wax-based colored pencils, not water-soluble.)

Shown below are Caran d’Ache’s color swatches and my own.

From the 30th anniversary box brochure
My swatches swiped with a waterbrush on 98-pound Canson mixed-media paper

 Of the two new reds in the anniversary collection, Red Lake Safflower and Crimson Alizarin, the former is not different enough from the standard Indian Red to get excited about. However, Crimson Alizarin is a useful cooler addition that I use frequently in Faber-Castell’s Durer line, so I’m happy to see it here now. (I used both new reds in my apple sketch.)

Comparison of reds

 I’m of the mind that one can never have enough greens for urban sketching. Although the standard selection of Supracolor greens is adequate for most of my needs, I was pleased that none of the greens in the new set is close to anything I already have. Overall, except Crimson Alizarin, the 30 new colors are all hues I can’t honestly say I’ve missed, but almost all of them are true additions and not duplicates of others.

Comparison of greens

I wonder what “limited edition” means in the C d’A world? In addition to the tin box set I have, the new colors are also being offered as part of two other anniversary sets that include some standard colors or other types of colored pencils. I can understand if “limited” means the colors will no longer be available once the celebration is over and these sets are gone, but the important question is whether the new colors are also available open stock. I hope so, but I haven’t seen them yet.

As for performance, the anniversary pencils apply as creamily as their 120 predecessors and activate easily and completely with water. The apple sketch was made on Stillman & Birn’s beefy 180-pound Beta paper, which I knew would take multiple applications of pigment and water, so I did a lot blending and also applied final details with dry points. Because the core is so soft and loses its point almost immediately, this is where I might have used the Albrecht Durers instead. Still, for this small sketch, the Supracolors were fine.

3/22/18 Sketched in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook with
limited edition colors
(Incidentally, if you’re wondering why I always use an apple for sketch samples in my colored pencil reviews, it’s because the Honey Crisp variety that Greg prefers has a beautifully irregular red and yellow pattern that requires blending of hues as well as keeping some color patches distinct. In addition, the stem and other delicate details are a good test of how well a pencil keeps its point.)

Before I discovered the Museum line, I would have been perfectly happy to use Supracolors for the rest of my life (along with Albrecht Durers for missing hues and when I need a harder core for details). Of course, once you try Museums, you get spoiled for the amazing pigment content that explodes with rich color when water is applied. But as I said earlier, the Museum line is missing several hues I have certain needs for, so I can’t live by Museum alone.

In hindsight, if I were to follow my own advice and buy colored pencils only by open stock, I might have chosen a solid urban sketching palette of 25 or 30 colors from the Museum line and then filled in specific missing hues from Supracolor’s vast collection (both of these standard Caran d’Ache lines are, thankfully, available open stock). I’d probably also fill in other missing colors with careful choices from Faber-Castell. I’d be pretty happy with a total of maybe 35 colors that would serve me well in just about any sketching circumstance.

But hindsight is always 20/20. In my myopic reality, 150 Caran d’Ache colors are exactly what I need (especially 30 new ones).

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Lazy Mail Truck

3/22/18 Wedgwood post office parking lot

I have a thing for mail trucks. I’ve sketched them several times, usually when I’ve seen them parked in the ‘hood. I know their drivers will be back soon, so I enjoy the challenge of sketching as fast as I can.

When I pulled into the Wedgwood Station parking lot, I saw a mail truck next to the building, so I chose a spot directly opposite and backed in. After finishing my postal business, I had an easy view sketching it from my car. It felt lazy – I knew that the truck probably wouldn’t leave until morning. But it was fun to finally have time to get all the stripes and details.

When I finished the truck, I saw that the Toyota parked next to it was still there. Now the challenge was on again, because I figured its driver would be back soon. But I guess there was a long line inside – I got done with time to spare.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Through a Wet Window

3/23/18 Downtown Everett through the Choux Choux Bakery window

As Nilda and I drove to Everett yesterday morning, big, soggy snowflakes splattered onto the windshield. If the 40-degree temperature hadn’t reassured me that nothing would be piling up on the street, I probably would have skipped the sketch outing to Farms & Market. But I was curious enough about this brand-new indoor market venue to make the trip.

3/23/18 My delicious breakfast
Along with Michele, we settled in at Choux Choux Bakery adjacent to the market. I took more time than I usually would with a chocolate croissant waiting for me, but as soon as I finished, I scarfed it down in record time.

Afterwards I was planning to sketch Farms & Market’s wide-open space that hosts a variety of local farmers and other food purveyors. But right outside the wet bakery window was a street view of downtown Everett, including a bright yellow building, and it seemed to summarize the day: It would be a sunny spring day – if only it weren’t 40 degrees and snowing.

Ambidextrous Michele

Regardless of the weather, the handful of sketchers who showed up had fun!

USk Seattle at Everett's new Farms & Market

Friday, March 23, 2018

Starbucks SoDo Reserve

3/20/18 Princi Bakery inside the Reserve

A few Saturdays ago I dropped in at the new Starbucks Reserve store and café in the SoDo neighborhood, but it was too crowded to sketch. This week I went on Tuesday morning, when the crowd wasn’t bad at all, but it was lively enough to be fun and energetic. Like the Roastery, where I’ve sketched many times, it has a pleasant ambiance, and all the employees seem so happy and friendly. Although the beverages and pastries are overpriced, they come with impressive customer service, so I enjoy indulging now and then.

After sitting down with my coffee and chocolate croissant, I turned one way to sketch the Princi Bakery counter, where people were busily baking and selling pastries (you can get healthy stuff like fruit and granola too, but I get enough healthy food at home). Then I swiveled 90 degrees and sketched one of the coffee bars and a bar bar – yes, you can get wine, beer and other drinks there! And the obligatory patron staring at his laptop, of course.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Tightly Closed and Oversold

3/20/18 Sunset Hill neighborhood

I guess we had been overly optimistic (as had been the news media, who had reported sakura season as being “near peak”). And in promoting yesterday’s ad hoc sketch outing to my favorite street in the Sunset Hill neighborhood (the one I call Fairyland) at this time of year, I used photos that I had taken last year, which may have been just a touch misleading. In any case, when we arrived, all the buds on the cherry trees were still tightly closed (just like the cherry I’d sketched the day before). But it was such a gorgeous day that no one seemed to mind that the promised pink blossoming trees were still a few weeks away.

I know I didn’t mind as I sketched these grand old trunks in the sunshine. In fact, I cant think of too many things Id rather do on the first day of spring.

Not quite prime time.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Tightly Closed

3/19/18 Tony's cherry tree, Beacon Hill neighborhood

My brother-in-law has a lovely old cherry growing in his yard on Beacon Hill. Whenever I visit, I admire its classic umbrella shape and knotty, gnarled trunk, but I never seem to catch it in bloom. He’s out of town right now, and I figured the cherry was fully flowered, so I went over there to surprise him with a sketch of the blossoms he’s missing. But the sad surprise was on me: Although a few spindly young cherries across the street were pink and fluffy, all the reddish buds on his tree were still very tightly closed – not a single blossom in sight.

Since I’d come across town to sketch it, I decided to do it anyway. Any time of year, its majestic shape is still beautiful.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Hunt for Pink

3/16/18 Ravenna neighborhood

Driving through the U-District Friday afternoon, I didn’t have enough time to stop at the Quad (arguably the best show of spring in these parts), but I thought I’d check on the nearby blossom situation. Crossing Ravenna Boulevard, my peripheral vision spotted some pink, so I turned around at the next intersection. Slender trees lined both sides of the residential street. With rounded petals instead of the telltale notched petals of ornamental cherries, this tree was probably not a sakura (at right). But on a beautiful day like that, I don’t discriminate.

3/17/18 UW Quad cherry blossoms

The next day I did make it to the Quad, where the news media had been reporting “near peak” cherry blossoms. Although I certainly saw open blooms, I also saw lots of tiny, tight buds. This particular variety is closer to white than pink, and from a distance, some trees still looked dark from buds firmly closed. In my down parka, I was too cold to sketch, but I stopped long enough to make a quick one of the buds. Not quite ready for prime time, the blossoms were still enough for some chilly hanami

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