Thursday, May 20, 2021

Review: Mitsubishi Uni Water Color Pencils


Mitsubishi Uni Water Color Pencils

Five years ago when I was just beginning to embrace colored pencils as my primary color medium, I was given a set of Mitsubishi Uni Water Color Pencils (I wasn’t able to find a current link for it on Amazon, but I’ve seen it on eBay and at other retailers). Already convinced that Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles were my watercolor pencils of choice, I didn’t take these too seriously. Of course, as a colored pencil geek, I was interested in how a Japanese-made watercolor pencil compared to Caran d’Ache, Faber-Castell and other European brands I was more familiar with.

A little research indicated that Japanese watercolor pencils are surprisingly rare. Japan is known for high-quality stationery products, including some of the best graphite pencils in the world. While traditional (wax- or oil-based) colored pencils are certainly available from Mitsubishi, Tombow, Holbein and other major Japanese manufacturers, these Uni Water Color Pencils seem to be the only water-soluble ones. Could that be true? Surely there must be others – perhaps some available only in Japan? (If you know of any, please leave a comment.)

Beyond my geeky interest, the pencils themselves didn’t grab me at the time, so I put them away and moved on. Just recently they piqued my interest again (more on that in a moment), so I pulled them out to re-view.

The set of 24 comes with a small brush (which I seem to have taken out of the tin and mislaid) and an unusual palette. No purple or violet is included, which is surprising, but three greens are included that are all relatively natural, which I appreciate. Most colored pencil sets include greens that are only useful for street signs or trash bins, which of course I need, but not as often as a good range of natural greens. The red range includes several that would be useful for brickwork and tile rooftops. While no gray is included, the Dark Sepia is a useful choice that I don’t often find in sets of 24. I daresay this palette was chosen with urban and landscape sketchers in mind!

A solid urban sketching palette (swatches made on Canson XL 140 lb. watercolor paper)

The hexagonal barrel is elegantly adorned with simple double bands and end cap. (I would expect nothing less from Mitsubishi, which makes some of the most beautiful graphite pencils I’ve ever seen.) The color name and number are stamped on the opposite side of the branding.

Nearly as soft as Caran d’Ache Supracolor, the Unis apply with more dust. Their pigment content is also a bit lower than Caran d’Ache’s artist-quality pencils but higher than Cd’A’s (or most other) student grades. My guess is that the Unis are not artist grade, but compared to most watercolor pencils I’ve tried at the student level, they contain good pigment.

Digging through my digital files, I found some sketches I had made a year and a half ago, probably intending to review these but somehow getting distracted. I sketched the pear two ways – once with water activation and once using dry pencils only. (They were made around the time I had experimented with the varying qualities of watercolor pencils when used without water.) This is an important attribute for me, since I often do leave some of the pencil work unactivated.

12/10/19 Uni Water Color pencils in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook (water-activated)

12/11/21 Uni Water Color Pencils in S&B Epsilon sketchbook (dry only)

5/14/21 Uni Water Color Pencils in S&B Beta sketchbook

To refresh my memory, I made the sketch of the mushroom and tomatoes. I found that the Unis blend and layer well through a few cycles of dry-wet-dry. In fact, I liked them enough after that still life that I decided they were ready for the “final exam”: sketching on location. Most watercolor pencils never make it to this stage – if I don’t like using them in the studio, I don’t bother to take them out in the field.

On a sunny afternoon, my “location” was our upstairs deck. (Here’s something good that came of my self-enforced isolation during the pandemic: I sketched on our deck and in our yard many times, which I discovered are convenient places to test new materials before taking them out in the “real” field. While out urban sketching, I tend to depend on the tried and true because I don’t want to be frustrated. But at home, if I realize I need something, it’s easy enough to go back into the house to get it.) I had fun trying out different greens for foliage than my usual palette – the unusual Night Green is much closer to blue than green and makes a striking shading color. The Unis are soft enough that they take well to my hard-and-fast field application method and contain enough pigment to respond well to spritzing and even my wet-in-wet “licked” sky method.

5/16/21 Uni Water Color Pencils in S&B Beta sketchbook

Although I might not choose Unis over Supracolors (for one thing, the color range of 36 is much narrower) and certainly wouldn’t prefer them to Museum Aquarelles, they are much better than my first impression must have been, and I regret that I dismissed them years ago. I like them now and will use them more going forward.

Now, here’s the reason for my renewed interest: A new-to-me online shop recently crossed my radar – St. Louis Art Supply. Cruising through the shop’s nice but conventional range of materials, I suddenly stumbled on something I had never seen before: an adorable set of half-size Uni Water Color Pencils! The tiny, compact kit includes a waterbrush, a sharpener and even an extender to make the short pencils easier to use. What a precious and portable urban sketching watercolor pencil kit! (Can you hear me squealing with delight?)

Lemon for scale (not included)

A short waterbrush and plastic extender!

Identical to the full-size set except that they are half the length, the pencils happen to be in the 12 colors that are not included in my set of 24, serendipitously completing the 36 colors available in the line. The package indicates that it is “volume 3,” which was puzzling until I did a bit more searching: Volumes 1 and 2 are also available in the mini sets (I saw them on eBay and Amazon). Each volume contains 12 colors from the total 36 without overlap.

At this point, you are wondering, “Why buy a set of short pencils? Why not just use regular pencils, and soon they’ll be the right length?” One answer is that I wouldn’t have this adorable set! But the better answer is that this adorable set led me down a whole new line of thinking . . . stay tuned.


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