Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Celebrating Summer at Gas Works

6/10/19 Gas Works Park

Gas Works Park is my go-to when warm weather finally arrives. Of course, I’ve sketched there in all seasons and weather, including rain and surprising sunshine, but in the summer, my favorite park represents the best of Seattle. It’s one of our favorite places to bring out-of-town visitors. Lake Union, a marina, the Space Needle-centered skyline, grassy Kite Hill, those steampunkish gas works – I never run out of things to sketch.

The afternoon that I sketched this, it was 73 degrees with a typical lake breeze, and the sky was nearly cloud-free. Hallelujah – at long last, summer is here!

Monday, June 17, 2019

Product Review: Pentel Pocket Brush Pens (and Weaning Myself of Grisaille)

Gray and brown Pentel Pocket Brush Pens

For more than a year now, I’ve been using various markers, most often Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Brush Pens, to serve as a grisaille with colored pencils. (See my tutorial on this method.) The gray marker tones establish the values, and I then color over the grisaille with colored pencils. If the marker is waterproof (as Pitt pens are), I can then choose to activate watercolor pencils if I want to.

Recently I’ve been trying to wean myself of relying so heavily on the marker grisaille and instead learn to convey values directly with colored pencil hues. The biggest challenge is the darkest (near-black) value, which is difficult to achieve with colored pencils alone, especially on location (with limited time and other constraints). I consider myself still in transition: I use a marker grisaille now only for the darkest value until I figure out a better way to achieve this. A second issue is that I’ve never cared for the streaky, “marker-y” look I get with Pitt pens (or any hard-edged marker).

I got excited a couple of months ago when Roz Stendahl reviewed new colors in Pentel Pocket Brush Pens – gray and sepia. I’ve been using a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen with black ink for years (it was included in my review of seven “hairy” brush pens several years ago), and it’s one of my favorites. The synthetic bristles hold up well, even under my heavy hand, and the ink is easily refillable with cartridges or fountain pen ink. The brush pen containing dark gray ink that Roz showed seemed like an interesting alternative to a hard-edged marker, especially if it was waterproof. I decided to give the sepia a try, too. (I got mine from Wet Paint, which seems to be one of few stores carrying both new colors. I’ve just recently seen both on Amazon, too.)

The pens have the same fountain-pen-like body (above) as the original black. The only indication of the ink color is the end of the cap (which I appreciate when I store them cap end up in my bag) and the narrow center band.

Bristle brush tips

Like the original, the brush tips are very flexible bristle brushes (not formed felt or other fibrous materials) that can produce a wide range of line widths. (See Roz’s blog for beautiful drawings that take full advantage of the brush effects.)
 
A wide line variation

After waiting about five minutes, I put a waterbrush through the thickest part of my scribbles. The gray ink was nearly waterproof, but the sepia bled considerably. After another hour, the inks still bled the same. The gray is acceptably waterproof for my purposes because the little bleeding won’t alter colors substantially. I’ll still use the sepia when I want an ink that washes, but I probably won’t use it as a grisaille.
 
Washed with water after about 5 minutes. Scribbles made in Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook.

Shown below are several recent sketches (most of which youve seen previously) that include the gray Pentel. The ink stays wet on the paper’s surface just long enough for the edges to blend a little, which reduces the marker-y look that I want to avoid. I really like using the tiny brush tip to achieve fine lines and marks, which I’m not able to get with a Pitt brush marker (which starts out sharp when new but mushes down fairly quickly under my heavy handedness). Conversely, if I lay it down on its broad side, the brush can make a wide stroke. It takes a little practice to handle a bristle brush instead of a marker, but I’ve always preferred the versatility and organic line of an actual brush to the more graphic look of markers.

Until I wean myself completely of the grisaille method, the gray Pentel is my pen of choice.

6/2/19

5/31/19

5/22/19

5/30/19 I used the Pentel brush pen only on the darkest shadows. The shading on the yellow parts of the
excavator was done with a gray colored pencil acting as a grisaille under the yellow.

4/30/19 In this sketch, I used the Pentel brush pen both for shading and to draw the foreground tree branches.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Fremont Bridge and the Rocket

6/15/19 Fremont Bridge

As many times as I’ve sketched in the Fremont neighborhood, I’ve done the historic Fremont Bridge only once, and it was years ago. With USk Seattle’s sketch outing centered on the Lake Washington Ship Canal area, it was high time to sketch it again. This time I climbed partway up the stairway, which put my eye level just below the bridge deck with a good view of the bright blue and orange towers. According to Wikipedia, “due to its low vessel clearance of 30 feet, the Fremont Bridge opens an average of 35 times a day, which makes it the most frequently opened drawbridge in the United States and one of the busiest bascule bridges in the world.” No wonder Fremont is the Center of the Universe. Even as I sketched this, the drawbridge opened twice. One of these days I need to sketch it open, though I’d have to be quick – it stays open for only a few minutes at a time.

Another Fremont icon that I’ve sketched only once before is the Rocket. Last time, I stood right in its shadow with the benefit of strong sunlight. On this overcast morning, I didn’t feel like sketching a light gray rocket against a light gray sky, so my vermilion/Prussian Blue editing pencil came to the rescue. (To those unfamiliar with the Center of the Universe, it probably looks like a church steeple.) Just as I was lamenting the empty spot near the center of the composition, a huge truck came by to unload a delivery to a nearby merchant. It stayed just long enough for me to fill the boring space with its girth.

Despite the chilly morning, it was great to see the strong turnout in Fremont with several new faces!



The sun finally came out for the throwdown!

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Downtown in Maple Leaf

6/9/19 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Although I’ve lived in Maple Leaf for more than 30 years and drive on this street occasionally, I walk on it far less often. Street views always look different on foot. When I’m driving, I must attend to not crashing, so I miss things, like the downtown skyline just above the treeline. Out walking on a quiet Sunday afternoon, the city view caught me by surprise.

Technical note: In a recent alley sketch, I impulsively tried adding yellow to the red and blue I’ve been experimenting with, and it didn’t seem quite right. This time I was more deliberate in my addition of yellow to represent the near-lightest values. I don’t use yellow much as an abstract color, so it was fun, and I like using the three primaries together. What do you think? Is yellow an interesting addition?

Friday, June 14, 2019

Sun Break at Freeway Park

6/8/19 Freeway Park
6/8/19 Ellie giving a demo

Ellie Doughty taught “Dry Air,” her new USk Seattle 10x10 workshop, last Saturday, so I popped in briefly to see how things were going. Rain was predicted that morning, so she had wisely changed her workshop location from a park to the Convention Center, where the floor-to-ceiling windows offer excellent views of downtown. I was going to take advantage of one of those views myself, but – wouldn’t you know it? The whole day was dry!

After a quick sketch of Ellie, I couldnt resist going out to adjacent Freeway Park, where the sun was darting in and out of clouds. Although the park doesn’t offer the high views of the city that the Convention Center does, its maze of walls and lush trees and plantings are eye-catching in a different way. Just then, the sun broke through a patch of clouds, and I spotted a play of light and shadow through the trees.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Urban Palette

6/5/19 Maple Leaf neighborhood

On my walk through the ‘hood, I heard a lot of noise near the Ace Hardware store, so I went to see what was going on. It was yet another hole in the ground and another excavator – but this time, a cement mixer was also on the scene. It backed up several feet before I could finish all those wheels, but I got most of it.

Sometimes other sketchers complain that the typical urban palette is nothing but grays and browns. I don’t know – I seem to have no problem finding yellow, orange and red!

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

June Gloom

6/1/19 Wedgwood neighborhood

I first heard the expression “June Gloom” when I was visiting L.A. It’s a weather pattern marked by foggy or overcast skies and cool temperatures during the late spring and early summer. The weather people here like the term, too. The fog usually burns off around noon, but it starts to dissipate gradually long before that, so on this morning I headed over to Wedgwood early. The dips and rises in that neighborhood’s hills seem to emphasize the varying distances of the trees, which make them fun to draw in fog.

I had a feeling the car could disappear before I finished, but I could see that the fog was starting to thin, too. I had to make a choice.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

A Forgettable Donut from Memory

6/8/19

If it hadn’t been for a chance comment made by Michele Cooper, I might have missed National Donut Day last year. I wasn’t going to take a chance this year: I marked it on my calendar immediately, and Michele and I decided to celebrate together. Unfortunately, a scheduling conflict meant that we couldn’t meet up until the afternoon, so the selection at Top Pot was slim. A pink-frosted cake donut would not have been my first choice to eat, but it was the prettiest for sketching priorities.

We had barely gotten started when we were told that Top Pot would be closing in five minutes. What?! Closing at 4 p.m. on National Donut Day? Outrageous! We bagged our donuts and vowed to start earlier in the day next year.

In my haste, I forgot to take a photo of our table, so I had to finish my sketch at home from memory. This is all I remember, and the donut’s flavor (plain vanilla) was completely forgettable. It’s a good thing I began celebrating a few days earlier with a truly memorable donut.



The donut was meh, but the company was fun!
We're starting early in the day next year!

Monday, June 10, 2019

A Super-Cool Bic

From top: my custom Baux pen, a random surprise Baux pen, a hotel freebie Bic Stic
5/28/19 faux gargoyle spotted in the University District
sketched with my custom Baux containing black ink

Ever since last InkTober when I learned to appreciate sketching with a commonplace Bic ballpoint pen, it has become so essential that it even made my Top Products list for 2018. The Zebra F-301 has similar ink (and a better body), and the Bic Clic’s retractable design is a slight improvement over the capped Cristal or Stic. The featherweight Stic form factor is my least favorite – the plastic is so light that it’s like drawing with a drinking straw that could blow away in a breeze – but any of them will do. It’s the ink that counts.

I wasn’t actively looking for a better Bic, but somehow things like this seem to find me: The Baux Pen Co. makes “super cool machined pens” for Bic ink. Made of anodized aluminum with titanium or brass on the grip and available in a choice of several colors, Baux pens are Bic Stics dressed up for the Oscars. (The cap and tip collar retain the Bic logo, so they actually are Bic pens.) But the metallic finishes are not just for show. The titanium grip on mine adds 12.5 grams of heft, making the pen much easier to hold and use. Baux pens all take standard Bic refills that I can pull out of the freebies I’ve taken from hotel rooms.

5/28/19 sketched with the "be the good" Baux
containing blue ink
All of that is cool, but I’m not sure I would have sprung for a Baux if it weren’t for two super-cool options: custom text and the choice of printing the text in the left-handed direction! For five bucks more, I opted for a random surprise pen – and it’s printed in the lefty direction, too! Someone who packed my order was paying attention.

Who needs a Bic dressed up for the Oscars? Apparently, I do – and it’s super-cool.

Not only that – it’s National Ballpoint Pen Day!



Sunday, June 9, 2019

Street Cat

5/30/19 Maple Leaf neighborhood

“What’s going on?” I asked, peering into the hole in the street. They had just returned from their break.

“Just sewer work,” one replied, barely looking up from his phone screen.

“Will you be coming back with more equipment later?”

“Naah – just this,” he said, head jerking in the direction of the CAT. 

Bummer.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Moon Bridge

5/31/19 Moon Bridge at Kubota Garden

Last summer in Kathleen Moore’s Drawing Nature class, I made a small study (shown below) of the Moon Bridge and surrounding foliage at Kubota Garden. The other students and I who drew the same scene joked about how hard it was to focus on values using nothing but graphite when the bridge was bright red. It was difficult resisting color.

On a beautifully sunny afternoon last week, I finally got to bring out my colors for the Moon Bridge. This time I chose a slightly different angle so that I could include the reflection in the pond. Interestingly, even though I didn’t go back to look at it, I still remembered making the graphite study – the challenging foliage, but also the important darkest value under the bridge and of the railing shadow to keep the eye focused on the bridge. I was pleased that the small tonal study was still useful to me 10 months later.

On the other hand, the tonal study was of no help to me at all in preventing a messy mistake: I started by drawing the bridge and its reflection, thinking that if I placed and drew them accurately, the rest of the composition would be easy to fill in with mostly foliage. Once I was happy with those, I scribbled in the trees behind the bridge. But then I pulled out my spritzer as usual to activate the foliage and realized a moment too late that the bridge I had carefully drawn was now a blurry mess! As with any water media, sequence is important: I should have first lightly marked the bridge without coloring it, then drawn and activated the foliage behind it. Then I could have colored the bridge on the dried paper, and it would have stayed as crisp and solid as I had initially drawn it.
8/7/18 graphite study

Every sketch is a lesson for the next sketch.



Friday, June 7, 2019

Ninth & Hennepin Donuts

6/4/19 Regrade Farmers Market

The Seattle Sketcher’s recent column about pop-up farmers markets downtown reminded me that I had wanted to check them out last summer but never got around to it. On Tuesday, I hopped on the bus to the Regrade area, where a market had popped up right next to the Amazon Spheres. Before exploring the market, I sketched a few tents in the shadow of the Spheres from across the street.

Yukon Potato Cake Donut with chocolate ganache glaze!
As Amazonites on their lunch break poured out of nearby buildings, I started strolling around the vendors to check out their wares. Suddenly, my nose led me to the tent of 9th & Hennepin Donuts, where two guys were making donuts to order! On the menu that day were Yukon Potato Cake Donut with chocolate ganache glaze, Applesauce-Hazelnut Cake Donut with cinnamon sugar, Filled Brioche Thumbprint with strawberry custard and vanilla bean glaze, and d’Anjou Pear Fritter with a local honey glaze. It took me a while to decide, but that chocolate ganache called to me. I considered sketching it . . . but the thought was fleeting, and I scarfed it down while it was hot.

After sketching the donut shop with the warm sun at my back (it was 68 degrees with a soft breeze), I brought home the first local strawberries of the season. I wait nine months in the year for a day like that, and it’s worth it.

Incidentally, I asked the owner if Hennepin was the one in Minneapolis (Twin Cities native Greg has taken me there), and indeed, it was. He said the shop is named for the Tom Waits song in which donuts are referenced. (Urban sketching teaches me so many things!)

And not so incidentally: Happy National Donut Day!

6/4/19 9th & Hennepin Donuts 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Free in Wedgwood

5/20/19 Wedgwood neighborhood

After being cooped up in a dark livingroom for decades, it must be a relief to be free.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Derwent Pencil Extender: It Fits!

Shorties are back in action, thanks to the Derwent
pencil extender.

You may recall my post about how I’ve used my shorty colored pencils to help me choose a limited palette with the “calling the dog” method. Too short to carry easily in my Tran Portfolio Pencil Case (when they get pushed down past the elastic, pencils are difficult to pull out quickly), the shorties aren’t wasted, of course – I just retire them from my daily-carry bag and use them in the studio.

Some of those shorties are now getting close to the “Steinbeck stage” – too short to be supported by the web between the thumb and forefinger, making them uncomfortable and awkward to use. Although many pencil extenders for standard-size pencils are readily available, none I tried would accommodate my favorite Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles and Derwent Drawing Pencils, both of which have barrels that are slightly larger than standard. (These favorite large-barreled pencils have also given me problems with sharpening, which I finally resolved.)

Derwent pencil extenders




A Derwent pencil extender was recently brought to my attention because it is designed to accommodate pencils up to 8mm in diameter, so I gave it a try – and voila! It fits! Barely – I had to really jam the Museum Aquarelle in – but that’s good enough for me. Packaged as a pair with a second extender made for standard-size pencils (up to 7mm), it’s made of lightweight aluminum, so it doesn’t add much weight to my bag.

The extender now makes the shorties long enough to go back into my everyday-carry Tran Pencil Portfolio Case, where I can use them fully and comfortably again.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Alley on 8th

5/27/19 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Although I’ve seen plenty of alleys in other parts of town, Maple Leaf has very few. On one of my usual sketchwalks, I was surprised to find this alley on 8th Northeast that I had never noticed before. Mundane and nondescript, this is the kind of alleyway that I would be delighted to sketch in Italy or Portugal, but at home, I ignore (if I notice it at all).

Sometimes it’s valuable to walk around the neighborhood with the eyes of a foreigner.

Technical note: To my usual red/blue editing pencil, I tried adding a bit of yellow this time to indicate the sunny patch of grass in the middle ground – and immediately regretted it. I hoped it might round out an interesting primary triad, but all it did was make me think I should color the entire sky and sidewalk yellow.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Not the Model

5/20/19

A scheduling mix-up meant that the life-drawing participants had to wait nearly an hour for the model to show up. What to do, what to do? A few of us decided to kill time by sketching each other. We eventually did get to draw the model, but the sketch I ended up liking best was this one that I had made of one of the other participants.   

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Botanical Drawings (Plus Sketchbook Mutterings)

5/25/19 corncockle, iris, lupine (Staedtler Karat Aquarell colored pencils, Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook)
5/9/19 iris (Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelles, S&B Zeta sketchbook)

I’m not much into sketching bouquets – even back when I was using watercolors, I rarely painted florals – but I do enjoy making small botanical drawings.

Several weeks ago while taking a walk around the ‘hood, I turned a corner and was astounded by a huge garden of purple irises (at left) next to the sidewalk. The stalks were so tall that I didn’t have to squat to sketch – the flowers came nearly to my eye level! (I had almost taken that purple pencil out of my bag because I use it so infrequently, but I was very happy that I had it that day.)

After buying a couple of large bouquets at the farmers market to take to the cemetery on Memorial Day, I picked out a few of my favorite blossoms to keep, including a corncockle, a yellow iris and a lupine. On a very wet afternoon (hoping some part of the holiday weekend would be dry enough to visit the cemetery without getting drenched), I drew the lovely flowers on my desk (above).


5/29/19 peony fruits (Museum Aquarelles, S&B Zeta)
Finally, a few days after Memorial Day, we took a walk through the Washington Park Arboretum. We had missed most of the rhodies, but the park looked lush and green everywhere. I spotted an interesting plant with arrangements of three or four fuzzy pod-like things (at right). On the tip of each pod was a magenta coloring – the remains of petals, perhaps? A Facebook friend identified them as peony fruits.

Technical notes: For the purple iris and peony fruits, I had used Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles because that’s what I carry in my bag, but for the bouquet flowers, I had my choice of all my pencils at home. I used mostly Staedtler Karat Aquarells (plus one C d’A Museum Aquarelle in “heavy equipment” yellow) because they are harder than the Museum Aquarelles and therefore better for fine details. While the purple iris and peony fruits were sketched in my daily-carry Stillman & Birn Zeta, I used a S&B Beta at my desk for the other flowers. Beta’s surface sizing is definitely better for liquid media, even minimally wet media like watercolor pencils. Colors on Zeta don’t look quite as vibrant, and water sinks in quickly. Despite that, I wouldn’t want to use Beta as a daily-carry because the soft, toothy surface is not at all suitable for graphite or mostly dry colored pencil drawings.

For those of us who won’t limit ourselves to using only one medium, every off-the-shelf sketchbook is a compromise.

Irises in the 'hood!

Saturday, June 1, 2019

A Better Blackwing Eraser

From left: Standard Blackwing eraser, Rasoplast, Mono Smart,
Sumo Grip

Although I use a variety of graphite pencils to draw with, Blackwings are especially versatile because they are ideal for both writing and sketching. One retains permanent residence in my daily-carry bag (it made it onto my Top Products list in 2018), and I probably have a couple dozen sharpened at any time and distributed all over the house. Its high-quality graphite, wood, distinctive design and general esthetics (not to mention price) easily put the Blackwing into the premium pencil category. Why, then, does its trademark ferrule contain such a mediocre eraser?

If I’m drawing, I usually reach for a soft, kneadable eraser, but when I’m writing an appointment in my planner or making a list, I prefer the efficiency of flipping the pencil around to its attached eraser. (In elementary school, we Americans took for granted that pencils have erasers attached, but I didn’t know until I became a pencil geek that erasers attached to pencils are an American innovation; most countries produce pencils without attached erasers.) I have been continually annoyed that Blackwing erasers look nice but do not perform as well as most standalone erasers I’ve used.

After discovering in the pencil community that some people hack their favorite block erasers to fit a Blackwing ferrule, I became inspired to do my own. To see the full results of my epic eraser hack-a-thon, please see my review at the Well-Appointed Desk.

Hacking in progress.
Spoiler alert: Of the 10 erasers I tried, most were too soft to work as erasers in ferrules, but three strong performers came through as sufficiently firm. The Tombow Mono Smart is my favorite, followed by the Sakura Sumo Grip and the Staedtler Rasoplast Black. Finally my Blackwings have frustration-free erasers! Now please go read all the nitty-gritty details in the review.

(When I mentioned to a sketcher friend my plans to hack a bunch of erasers to find the best for this purpose, her eyes disappeared into the top of her head. Geeky as the task may be, it’s a public service I’m happy to provide. You’re welcome!)

With a sharp Opinel, it's not a bad way to spend a rainy afternoon.

Friday, May 31, 2019

A Return to Heavy Equipment Heaven

5/23/19 Viaduct demolition on Seattle's waterfront

It had been nearly a month since we were down at the waterfront to view ongoing demolition of the viaduct – it was high time to return and see how much progress had been made. We didn’t see quite the concentration of heavy equipment as last time; the machines were all still there, but undoubtedly scattered over a larger area moving north.

5/23/19 Greg doing his thing
This time I got a closer view of the remains of three supports. Shredded rebar and other debris spilled out like veins from ripped limbs. I also got a better look at a lobster-clawed Ferma machine that I had sketched previously. It was busily gobbling up what looked like piles of black wire.

Meanwhile, my favorite photographer continued to document progress with his camera.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Holy Rosary Church

5/23/19 Holy Rosary Catholic Church, West Seattle

When we left Maple Leaf, the sky was clear, but as we crossed the West Seattle Bridge, that part of the city was shrouded in morning fog – unusual for this time of year. While Greg was at an appointment, I had planned to do a sketch of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in the sunshine, but I had to settle for fog.  

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Landscaped Tudor

5/22/19 Maple Leaf neighborhood

I admire the landscaping on this corner house every time I drive by. At the intersection of two noisy, busy streets, it was unpleasant to sketch because of the traffic, but all that lush greenery was soothing. The house itself is a cute, well-kept Tudor, but I think it takes a backseat to all those plantings.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Graphite Pencil Review: Kitaboshi Art Set


Typical tin box
At least in the US, the Kitaboshi name isn’t quite as well-known or as popular as Mitsubishi or Tombow among Japanese pencils, but the few Kitaboshi pencils I’ve tried contain excellent graphite. When the Kitaboshi Art Set crossed my Amazon radar one day, I wagered that the pencils would be worth using.

The set of 12 comes in a typical hinged tin box (with a barcode unattractively placed right on the lid). The grade range is 4H through 6B, which is an ideal drawing range; I can’t imagine needing any grades outside of it. (Yes, yes – I know I own the full 22-grade set of Mitsubishi Hi-Uni graphite pencils, but that’s beside the point.)

A delightful cedar scent wafted from the box when I opened it. Elegant yet unpretentious, the unpainted, lightly varnished, semi-hex barrels display a lovely natural wood grain.
 
Lightly varnished natural barrels.
No mundane drawing allowed!

In addition to appearing on three facets, the grade is also printed in silver on the glossy black end cap. This is a small but enormously helpful detail for those of us who prefer to store our pencils in cups and in our everyday-carry bags rather than in flat tins. I wish more graded pencils offered this feature. (Please ignore the apparent white eyelashes on the end caps… those are reflections of our deck railing.)

Very helpful grades on the glossy end caps.

Now for the important part. First I swatched all the grades, and as I’d hoped, the graphite is smooth and consistent.
 
Swatches made in Baron Fig notebook

I then compared the Kitaboshis grade-for-grade against my all-time favorite Mitsubishi Hi-Uni drawing pencils. In each case, the Kitaboshi was slightly darker than the Hi-Uni of the same grade. It also felt very slightly less smooth. (Would I be able to tell the difference with my eyes closed? I’m not sure.)
 
Kitaboshi and Mitsubishi Hi-Uni comparison. Swatches made in Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook.
(Yes, it bothers me no end that my Hi-Uni 2H has gone missing.)

Finally, I made one more swatch comparison – purely as geek research. Palomino Blackwing pencils, while headquartered in California, are manufactured in Japan. If you hang out in the pencil community as I do, you may have heard the speculation that the unnamed Japanese manufacturer of Blackwings is Kitaboshi. Annoyingly, Blackwings are not graded – instead, they retain the general core descriptors extra firm, firm, balanced and soft – so it’s an ongoing topic of discussion to figure out which grades the four core designations are comparable to. Without confirming or denying the Kitaboshi conspiracy theory, I thought it would be interesting to compare each standard core to a few Kitaboshi grades.
 
Blackwing cores compared with Kitaboshi grades in Baron Fig notebook.

Separated at birth?
5/21/19 Kitaboshi grades H, HB and 4B in Stillman & Birn
Epsilon sketchbook

The extra-firm Natural edition seemed closest to a Kitaboshi 2B, or perhaps between a 2B and B. The softest core (nicknamed “MMX”) seemed like a 4B, which is exactly how I think of it when I use it to draw with. I tried to grade the firm 602 and “balanced” Pearl too, but frankly, they seem so similar to each other that it was like splitting hairs. Somewhere around 2B or 3B, I suppose.

What turned out to be more interesting than trying to grade the Blackwings was realizing how similar they feel to Kitaboshis, grade for grade. (Is the speculation true? Is Kitaboshi the poor sketcher’s Blackwing? You decide.)

The final test, of course, is a sketch, and the Kitaboshi Art Set pencils are delightful to use. For this sketch, I used grades H, HB and 4B in a Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook. Although they may be just a tiny smidge coarser than my beloved Hi-Unis, the natural finish is so pleasant to hold and touch (and smell!) that the Kitaboshis are a very strong contender. In fact, they earn bonus points for graded end caps and a reasonable price.

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