Thursday, October 31, 2019

Halloween Parade

10/27/19 Maple Leaf Halloween parade
One of the things I like about living in the Maple Leaf neighborhood is that even though we are in the middle of the city, we still have a few old-fashioned community events. In the summer it’s the ice cream social (which we’ve missed, unfortunately, the past several years because we always seem to be out of the country then), and in the fall it’s the Halloween parade. Sunday afternoon was the latter – sunny, brisk and perfect for kids, dogs and parents in costume. 

The festivities begin at the Chevron station, and everyone parades past local businesses and neighbors who give out candy. We end up a few blocks away at Maple Leaf Park, where more candy, hot chocolate and apple juice are consumed. Sketching a chaos of over-sugared kids is always a challenge, so I simply made a composite of a few people who happened to stay still long enough for me to get a few shapes down. The orange balloon was a backdrop for families to take photos. My favorite costume this year was the tiny Yoda. 

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Vintage Colored Pencils: Nearly Antique Caran d’Ache Prismalo?

From the 1930s?

According to collectors, the term “antique” should be reserved for an item that is at least a hundred years old. The term “vintage,” however, seems to get tossed about casually by eBay sellers and others dealing with collectibles without being defined. I certainly have pencils in my collection that are probably no more than 20 years old that were sold to me as “vintage,” and I use that term myself without really knowing how old something needs to be to qualify as “vintage.”

Today, however, I own a set of colored pencils that is certainly vintage by any definition and could possibly be an antique in a few years, if my sleuthing is accurate.

Note the logo inside the tin lid.
During a recent casual, habitual eBay search of “vintage” colored pencils, a new item appeared: a tin of Caran d’Ache Prismalo Aquarelle. I already own a set of “vintage” Prismalos that is probably no more than 20 to 40 years old, but these looked very different. Although the pencils didn’t look particularly old in the photo, the box lid had a design to it that I hadn’t seen before, so I read the seller’s description with curiosity: “After extensive research I am dating the tin to the 1930s based on the design typical of the era with the floral balcony and the logo in art deco red fonts which changed dramatically to a standardised ‘sans serif’ in 1940 carried out until the late fifties.”

I knew from Caran d’Ache’s book Atelier Caran d’Ache that the Swiss company had introduced innovative watercolor pencils to the world with its Prismalo line in 1931. If the eBay seller was correct, this set would be among the oldest to exist! I was, however, a bit skeptical; the pencils themselves showed no sign of use (as the seller stated). Although significantly yellowed, the box looked to be in good condition, too. (On photo appearance alone, the yellowed tin seemed to be the best indicator of the product’s age.) Could this set really be that old? I decided to do my own research:

A few years ago when the company was celebrating its 100th anniversary, a timeline of its product and logo history was shown on its website. (The page is no longer live, but an archive page still exists.) The description for the logo shown in 1958 says, “Since the 1940s, the Caran d’Ache logo is standardised and sports a sans-serif font typical for these years.”

For 1977, a red and white drippy paint logo is shown, which looks like the one on the inside of the tin in question (as well as the inside of the vintage tin I already own). At first this made me suspect that the set was possibly a reproduction of a ‘30s set but manufactured decades later. However, the text describing the 1977 logo says the following: “For its Fine Arts Products, Caran d’Ache communicates since 1981 with a logo inspired by Emmanuel Poire’s signature, which design decorated old coloured pencils boxes from the 1930s.” Comparing closely the 1981 logo shown below and the one on the tin in question, they look similar but are not identical. The logo on the tin in question does not say “Swiss Made,” nor does it have the Bonne-Mine pencil guy (which appears on the box I own) that started appearing in 1974. This led me to think that the tin in question could be one of the “old coloured pencil boxes from the 1930s” that inspired the contemporary Poire signature logo.

I remembered that the 100th anniversary commemorative set of Prismalo pencils I bought last year had come with a flier of product history, so I pulled that out. The design of the commemorative box was inspired by the “red and gold box from the 1930s” shown at the top – but look at the lower example shown. That box design, typeface and mountain image all look very similar to the tin in question. (Interestingly, that same flier copy refers to “majestic Mount [sic] Cervin,” which I believe should be Mont Cervin, the French name for the Matterhorn.)
From the flier that came with an anniversary commemorative set of contemporary Prismalos.

Finally, there’s this bit from the Atelier Caran d’Ache book in its product historical information about Prismalo: “The link between Prismalo and the Matterhorn was created in the 1940s and the famous Swiss mountain has adorned the Prismalo colour cases ever since.” I believe this refers to the image of the Matterhorn from a more pointy angle that is shown on the box I own (below) as well as contemporary tins. From this, I deduced that the set being sold on eBay was older than the 1940s since its mountain has a less pointy peak.
This image of the Matterhorn appears on this box that is
probably no older than the '80s and contemporary
Prismalo tins.

All of my research concurred with the seller’s deduction that this set could well be from the 1930s, which would certainly make it among the *earliest watercolor pencils in existence. And certainly the oldest in my personal collection! I snapped it right up.

The design of the pencils themselves is simpler than that of the vintage set I had acquired previously and my contemporary set. The end is bare with an exposed core instead of a white end cap. The core is slightly thinner than either of the newer Prismalos. The barrel lacks the paintbrush icon that signifies a water-soluble core on all of Caran d’Ache’s contemporary water-soluble pencils. (It seems to me that the paintbrush icon has become nearly universal that way – most contemporary watercolor pencil manufacturers use it.)  
1930s (?) Prismalo barrels
The ends are unfinished. Cores are slightly smaller than contemporary Prismalos.
From top: 1930s (?) Prismalo; "vintage" Prismalo probably 20-30 years old; contemporary Prismalo

As stated by the seller, the cores did not appear to be used at all. Curiously, the set includes two No. 17 reds and no greens at all; surely a set of 18 colors would include at least one green. A defective set? Perhaps the original owner noticed the defect and was going to take them back to the store for an exchange but never got around to it? (You know – this happens to all of us.)
Two red No. 17; no green
While swatching and activating the pigments, I noticed immediately that the cores are much harder than the contemporary Prismalos and the newer vintage Prismalos. Activation indicates that they contain about the same level of pigment as the newer vintage Prismalos and less than the contemporary ones. (In my comparison below, I tried to match the hues as closely as possible, but I didn’t always have the same color number in all three sets.)
Swatches made in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook

Finally, I made a sketch of a pear and an apple in a Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook. The low pigment made it difficult to achieve intense color, but the hard cores made it easy to draw the fine line of the pear stem’s shaded side. I was able to finish this entire sketch without sharpening the pencils I used – they retain their points very well.
10/23/19 1930s (?) Prismalo watercolor pencils in
Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook
The whole time I was sketching, I marveled at the thought that these pencils might be more than 80 years old, and yet they still perform as well as they could have when they were newly purchased. Colored pencils are often dismissed as kids’ stuff, yet I can’t think of many other art media that would survive for 80 years and still be useable – certainly not paints or anything liquid. (I have no regrets about my enormous stash of colored pencils. . . a hundred years from now, they’ll probably all be working as well as they are today.)

I don’t know if I’ll ever learn more information to confirm or debunk my deduction that these Prismalos are from the 1930s, but for now, I enjoy believing that they are. (If you know more about Caran d’Ache history that could be helpful, I’m all ears!) One day when I fulfill my bucket list item of touring the Caran d’Ache factory in Geneva, I’ll bring this set along and ask someone there.

11/5/22 A very interesting discovery that seems to put my deduction in the right ballpark

11/17/22 Update: A reader who has a collection of Caran d’Ache tins believes that, based on the typeface and pencil design, it’s more likely that my set is from the early ’50s rather than the ’30s. Maybe not quite antique, then, but I always appreciate having pencils older than I am. 😉

* Although Caran d’Ache developed the first watercolor pencils containing pigments for artistic purposes, “copying” pencils – water-soluble graphite pencils containing an aniline dye to make copies of documents – existed long before 1931.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Macy’s Downtown

10/24/19 Macy's at Third & Pine

Macy’s department store isn’t doing well. A few are closing in the Seattle area (along with many more nationwide), including the downtown store that used to be the Bon Marche’s flagship before Macy’s took over.

I’m not especially sad to see it go; I rarely shopped there in its Macy’s form. When it was still the Bon Marche during my youth, I went there a lot more often because it was my mom’s favorite store. After I was old enough to drive, I used to take her there so that we could park in the adjacent ramp and walk across the skybridge to shop without ever getting wet. After all my childhood years of waiting for buses in the rain, it was a sheer decadent luxury. So the skybridge (at far right) is a bit nostalgic.

Although I don’t care much about the retail store, I do love the grand building itself, which opened in 1929, and all of its ornate elevators and interior trim. Amazon offices have occupied some floors for a couple of years now. I hope the rest of the building gets used profitably in some way so that it can remain standing.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Two Weeks Later

10/23/19 Maple Leaf neighborhood

The maple tree at right is the same one I sketched on Oct. 9 (shown below) sketched again exactly two weeks later. While some trees are still showing brilliant hues around town, this one is nearly done. Still, it was bittersweet to sketch it one more time with the afternoon sun catching the remaining yellow leaves.

Like last time, I sketched it first in ink only for InkTober, which served as a handy values study.


Sunday, October 27, 2019

Vintage Colored Pencils: Design Watercolor

vintage Design Watercolor Pencils

For a while, my eBay foraging was focused on vintage Design Spectracolor Pencils, including the more elusive Doublecolor version that I came across serendipitously. Once I had acquired a decent range of these truly delightful colored pencils with soft, rich cores, they dropped off my eBay radar.

Then one day I spotted something extraordinary in the middle of a large vintage pencil lot: Design Watercolor Pencils! The pencil branding and design looked identical to the Eberhard Faber Design Spectracolor pencils I owned except the barrel was stained and varnished natural wood instead of painted matte black. This was the first time I had ever known that a water-soluble version of this pencil line existed! How had I not seen it before? After much internal debate about not wanting to be saddled with the rest of that lot, I reluctantly let it pass.

As soon as I started searching for these Design Watercolor Pencils, I realized why I hadn’t spotted them before: They are scarce, indeed. I kicked myself for not going after that lot. Sometime later, another set appeared on eBay, and this time I bid actively for it, but at the last minute, a sniper app swooped in and grabbed it. Design Watercolor Pencils remained a grail, as I have not seen any more come up on eBay again. 

A while later, I was having an email correspondence with a blog reader who was also interested in vintage Spectracolors, and I told her of my grail. She had managed to acquire not one but two sets of Design Watercolor Pencils – and she offered to give me one! I don’t know how I’ll ever repay her for her kindness and generosity, but I am certainly thrilled to have the set.

The 12 pencils came in a vinyl case that is of the same design as the non-watercolor Spectracolor sets. Neither the pencils nor the case include manufacturer information (the pencils say only “USA”), but my benefactor told me that they are of the Eberhard Faber era. That would date them to before 1987, when EF was purchased by Faber-Castell.

Natural wood barrels stained and varnished.

As mentioned, the round barrel is unpainted wood stained reddish-brown and varnished. The round end cap indicates the core color – a feature that matches the Spectracolor pencils.

Colored end caps indicate the core colors.

Shown below are all the iterations I own in various, mostly incomplete and used sets: Faber-Castell Design Spectracolor Doublecolor (natural wood), Design Spectracolor (natural wood), Design Spectracolor (black wood), Faber-Castell-branded Design Spectracolor (black wood), and Design Watercolor. Venus-branded Spectracolor pencils (that company was purchased by Faber-Castell in 1973) look distinctly different with barrels color-matched to the cores, but the cores are the same softness and pigment quality.

From top: F-C Doublecolor, Design Spectracolor with natural wood, Design Spectracolor with black wood, Faber-Castell-branded Design Spectracolor, Design Watercolor

Venus-branded Spectracolors, which preceded the others, have color-matched barrels.

In application, the Watercolor cores feel similar to their traditional Spectracolor sisters – very soft and waxy. A bit softer than vintage Sanford Prismacolor watercolor pencils, they are not as soft as contemporary Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles (still the softest water-soluble colored pencils I’ve used). The Watercolors have a high level of pigment – on the same level as the vintage Prismacolors and contemporary Caran d’Ache Supracolors – but not as high as Museum Aquarelles. They have much stronger pigment than Caran d’Ache Prismalo pencils of around the same vintage, which surprises me a bit, since the Swiss company invented water-soluble colored pencils. What a coup for a US-made watercolor pencil to be of higher quality!

In my sketch of the pears made with three primary hues only, it was easy to apply multiple layers of dry-wet-dry pigment and develop intense hues. I’m guessing that Design Watercolor Pencils were the best of their kind in their day. I’d love to grab a larger set – I’ve seen photos indicating that they had been available in sets as large as 48 colors – but given my searches so far, these pencils are as common as unicorn teeth.
10/6/19 vintage Design Watercolor pencils in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook

No matter. I’m happy to use and enjoy these lovely pencils that I do have, thanks to my very generous reader.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Clouds, Rain and Orange at Swansons Nursery

10/25/19 Swansons Nursery

A big reason why USk Seattle meets at Swansons Nursery at least once (and often more than once) a year is that it’s ideal for any kind of weather. And a big reason we like to sketch there in the fall is orange. It was a predominant color in the palettes of many sketchers yesterday, when we had a wide variety of weather conditions.

While it was still dry and not too cold (if one were dressed in down as I was), I found a mandatory pumpkin display and steer skull to sketch outdoors. Near the hay maze, children were invited to plant and water flowers inside pumpkin shells, so I tried to quickly capture one such child . . . though a 10-second “pose” is a challenge even with life-drawing practice.

Inside Swansons' Barn & Field Kitchen cafe 
The eventual rain and wind drove most sketchers indoors to the nursery’s café, which is filled with a lush jungle of greenery and even some pink anthurium. Noshing on my scone as I sketched, it was a relaxing way to warm up and chat with other sketchers.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Urban Trees

8/8/15 San Diego

Often I sketch trees as a hazy green background to whatever is the main subject of my sketch, especially if they are in the distance, because they aren’t critical to whatever “story” the sketch is telling. But sometimes trees are important to the story, especially when I travel, because they often convey information about the location.

Although I’m not necessarily interested in drawing trees to the degree of detail and accuracy that a naturalist might, I think trees are under-regarded by many urban sketchers. I’ve seen trees in sketches that have been dismissed as generic green blobs or architectural symbols to give the general sense that some kind of trees were there, but that seems like a missed opportunity. If I can learn to sketch trees with enough realism to indicate the species, even if I can’t identify it, I think it can go a long way in hinting about the location.

The other day, you saw the Monterey Cypress that I sketched on my last morning before flying home from the California Coast. I tried my best to depict it realistically because its shape is almost as iconic as styles of California architecture. I would like someone from northern California to scan my sketch online and say, “Hey, that’s a Cypress! I wonder if she’s in Monterey…”

5/21/18 Alameda, CA

8/30/19 Bloomington, MN

11/13/15 Kyoto

10/11/18 Green Lake, Seattle

Thursday, October 24, 2019

#InkTober2019 Check-in: Still Flailing


InkTober continues to be a struggle this year on a number of levels. First was my initial choice of an old Moleskine sketchbook to use with a fountain pen. My early tests seemed fine, but the more I used my juicy Sailor fude, the more I regretted that choice as the paper feathered and bled. After the first week, I switched to my ever-faithful Field Notes Sweet Tooth, which can stand up to any pen I’ve used it it, including that juicy Sailor.

My only personal goal was to get reacquainted with fountain pens, which I had mostly forsaken for pencils the past couple years. But even on that front, I strayed occasionally, dabbling in some borrowed watercolor brush pens and my usual brush markers. I fell back on all my usual techniques and subject matter, which annoyed me greatly, because I knew I wouldnt learn anything from them. My only satisfying InkTober day was when I used a fountain pen at life drawing and discovered a new way to do short poses.


I started wondering if I should have given myself a more challenging goal. Last year when I focused on ballpoint and stayed with it all month, I was pleased with my progress and gained an appreciation for that low-cost tool. In 2016 I focused on working from imagination, which was a very difficult goal for me, but sticking with it resulted in the birth of Weather Bunny (who continues to report on the weather to this day). Maybe I should have challenged myself by using the official InkTober prompts or picking a theme . . .

Feeling annoyed and frustrated, I gave myself a break while I was traveling in California and skipped InkTober altogether. When I got back, I pulled out the A5-size Shizen Design notebook containing multi-colored pages that I had so much fun with last year. Although the paper is too thin to take fountain pen ink without bleeding through, it doesn’t feather at all, and I don’t mind using only one side of the page. As I well know from all the Sweet Tooth books I’ve filled, something about colored pages makes line drawings easier to do, especially when I can add highlights with white ink. And on Monday I even followed the official prompt for the day, “Treasure,” and sketched an old teapot that used to be my mom’s (top of post).

So that’s where I am now . . . still mostly unfocused but determined to finish out the month.

Not everything about InkTober has been frustrating: Before I left for California, I attended a fun and free InkTober event sponsored by ArtSnacks at my local Artist & Craftsman Supply store. Participants received an InkTober tote bag and other goodies, including snacks, and played with inky art supplies. Cake makes everything better.

Gifts from ArtSnacks
Check out the cakes with the ArtSnacks logo!








Wednesday, October 23, 2019

No Dogs at Third Place Commons

10/20/19 Lake Forest Park parking lot

Somewhere out at the farmers market adjacent to Third Place Commons, dogs were supposed to be participating in a Halloween costume competition. I was hoping to sketch said dogs during the USk Seattle outing last Sunday, but the cold and drizzle kept me and all the other sketchers indoors.

Fortunately, I found a large window looking out at the lower level parking lot, which was blazing with red maples. As I was finishing up this sketch, I started hearing bluegrass music from the stage. Four men – the Milner Family Fiddles, according to their CD cover – played guitars and violin, and their lively, toe-tapping tunes made me feel like I was sketching at Wintergrass. The middle guitarist had an interesting way of elevating one knee to support his guitar.

10/20/19 Performing on the stage at Third Place Commons
10/20/19 On a table or on the floor? Who knows...

My sketch of the chess pieces has, unfortunately, no sense of scale. A toddler was occasionally running onto the chess board, so my plan was to block in a few pieces, and as soon as she ran onto the scene, I could put her in and show that the knight was only a bit smaller than she was. But of course, she never returned.

I made the last sketch while eating lunch after the outing and chatting with other sketchers. It’s the type of sketch that Liz Steel calls a “reflex” sketch – made without paying much attention because the conversation is more interesting than the scene.
10/20/19 diners at Third Place Commons

A good turnout on this chilly fall morning that might as well have been winter!

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