Friday, September 14, 2018

Contemporary Bicolors

A few bicolor pencils I have known.

Despite appearances, my intention is not (and never was) to amass every kind of bicolor pencil I can get my hands on. Although I do love them from a pencil geek perspective (if a pencil with one usable end is wonderful, surely a double-ended pencil is twice as wonderful!), and although I do have some strong nostalgic associations with Empire Sunset Dual-Kolors that may be one source of my lifelong affection for colored pencils, I have a purely pragmatic motivation for hunting the bicolor pencil grail: I could carry twice as many colors in my sketch kit while taking up the same amount of space (or carry the same number of colors and make my kit smaller). A good quality (not necessarily artist quality, but decent) bicolor – and even better, with a water-soluble core – has long been on my sketch material wish list.

(Edited 11/4/19 This wish list item was fulfilled! See my review of Caran d’Ache Bicolors – which are not only high quality but also water-soluble!)

I think the closest I will ever come to the grail is the set of vintage Design Spectracolor Doublecolor pencils I acquired earlier this year on eBay, to my intense glee. The only feature they lack is a water-soluble core, but that may be too much to ask, given that I have never yet seen a water-soluble bicolor pencil (except for the red/blue Caran d’Ache Bicolor 999). They are otherwise an excellent colored pencil.

However, because I know those Doublecolors are rare and potentially expensive, I remain interested in finding a contemporary, easily available set of bicolors to recommend. To that end, I’ve rounded up three reasonably priced sets worth considering.

Chameleon Color Tones
Around the time I bought them, Austria-made Chameleon Color Tones were being heavily promoted on Amazon and Facebook, so they were nearly impossible to ignore. Unlike most bicolor pencils, the Chameleons’ 50 colors (25 pencils) are paired so that each pencil contains two shades of the same hue – light green with dark green; light blue with dark blue. The concept is that you could easily create shading or gradations – “just flip to blend.” I probably don’t know how to take advantage of that admittedly unique feature because I have to see all the colors available and choose from the whole crowd, not just the one on the opposite end, but it is an intriguing concept.

4/4/18 Chameleon Color Tones in Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook
The Chameleon hexagonal barrels are thicker than average – about the same as my favorite Caran d’Ache Museum pencils. They contain reasonably strong pigment, but the cores are a bit harder than I prefer and generate dust. The color range is a little stingy on yellows but generous in greens (although two are very similar).

For my apple sketch, the hard core was a good pairing with Stillman & Birn Alpha’s tooth. Despite being harder than I like, they apply well and are pleasant to use – in an “average” kind of way. In other words, they are serviceable, but nothing to write home about.

Colleen bicolors
I was more excited about the set of 48 (24 pencils) Colleen bicolors. Colleen, a vintage Japanese brand that I recognized from the triangular-shaped face logo, produced high-quality pencils at one time, so I was eager to see if these followed suit. Unfortunately, this set (and probably most others under the current Colleen name) was made in Thailand, and a couple of the cores are off-center. The wood is of the type I see often in India-made pencils.

2/10/18 Colleen bicolor pencils in Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook
Disappointed that they aren’t of Japanese quality, I was surprised that they are the softest of all the bicolors I’ve tried (other than the aforementioned vintage Doublecolors) and contain good pigment that blended well in my apple sketch. If you prefer softer pencils, this Colleen set is a good value (much better than the Chameleons).

Of note are the neon colors included in the Colleen range – of interest to me because I’m always trying to find neon colors that reproduce vividly and accurately when scanned. With my penchant for sketching construction projects, where workers and traffic cones often sport neon colors, I probably use those hues more than you’d expect. For whatever reason, though, all the ones I’ve tried look faded and not at all neon once scanned. There must be something about the neon pigments that don’t photograph well. Although the Colleen neons are a bit better than most, their scanned images still look like a faint shadow of the colors in my sketchbook. Strange. Also note that six neons are included, but the two yellow-greens are very similar, as are the two pinks.
Colleen's neon colors
This type of near-duplication of hues is something I see often in non-artist-quality colored pencil sets. A box may say it contains 48 or 72 colors, but after swatching them all, you discover that many are so similar they hardly qualify as different hues. I found this to be true of Staedtler bicolors also. Endorsed by coloring book designer Johanna Basford, these pencils have a triangular barrel like a few other colored pencil lines from Staedtler. Including 48 colors (24 pencils), several of the pinks, oranges and yellows are fairly similar.

Staedtler bicolors

Some similar hues in the Staedtler set
On the harder side, they apply with a waxy consistency and blend better than I expected. The point retention is useful for details. My apple sketch was made on Stillman & Birn Epsilon’s smoother surface. Despite the similarity of some colors, the Staedtler set is a very good value, especially if you prefer a harder core.

8/29/18 Staedtler bicolors in Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook
I don’t usually spend much time discussing packaging, since I rarely use or store pencils in the packages they are sold in. I prefer to keep them upright in cups on my desk, or if they come with me in my bag, they go directly into my Tran Portfolio Pencil Case. However, it’s worth mentioning the box that the Staedtler set comes in, which is a very compact, lightweight cardboard box. It won’t last forever, but if you take colored pencils into the field only occasionally, it’s an ideal grab-and-go package that fits easily in most bags. That would not be true of the large, flat trays that the Chameleon and Colleen pencils come in.

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