Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Review: Mitsubishi Uni Colored Pencils


The fantastic Uni Colored Pencil box!

Like the Mitsubishi Uni Water Color Pencils I reviewed recently, I’ve had a set of Uni non-water-soluble colored pencils for years, yet I never got around to reviewing them until now. My initial impression of them was lukewarm at best, and I couldn’t quite muster up enough enthusiasm (if I loved them) or outrage (if I hated them) to review them immediately. I was recently asked my opinion of them, however, which made me realize I had never reviewed them. I also reminded myself that when I finally did get around to reviewing the Uni Water Color Pencils, I was surprised that they were better than my first impression. I further reminded myself that the more experience I have with colored pencils, the more tolerant I seem to become, and the better my results are with pencils of any kind, even ones that had disappointed me in the past. With or without enthusiasm or outrage, it was high time to review Uni Colored Pencils.

A clamshell box that opens to ...

I don’t usually spend much time commenting on pencil packaging, but this set deserves attention. When the vinyl-covered clamshell lid is opened, the two trays of pencils in this 72-color set lift slightly away from the box, making it easy to withdraw individual pencils. The set of 100 has an even more mechanically elaborate box: four pencils share a tray that swings out from the rest. (I admit, I came close to buying the 100 just for the unique box, but somehow I managed to resist.)

...two trays of easy-to-withdraw pencils.

In addition, each pencil has its own slot labeled with its color number and name (in both Japanese and English)! If you are the kind of person who likes all your pencils neatly stored and arranged, this box will be very satisfying – I don’t recall seeing any other set of colored pencils arranged and labeled in this way.

A labeled slot for each pencil... very satisfying.

If you know me, of course, you will know that I am not that kind of person – I don’t do well with keeping colors stored in the order determined by a pencil manufacturer – but I appreciate the esthetic and organizational appeal. Also, having experienced many tins and boxes of both vintage and contemporary pencil sets that look nice but are nearly impossible to remove individual pencils from, I genuinely appreciate Mitsubishi’s box design. (If there’s one thing the Japanese do well, it is design user-friendly products.)

As for the design and appearance of the pencil itself, there were no surprises: They are as beautiful as anything you’d expect bearing the Uni name. The glossy barrel, the rounded end cap, the elegant double band, the gold imprint (all of which match the Uni Water Color Pencil’s design except that the barrel is round while the watercolor pencils are hexagonal) – all reinforce the esthetic and quality that I have come to know and love about Uni. I love Uni end caps!

Each pencil is identified with its color number and name (which are essential for accurate refiling in the labeled box).

Color name (in English) and number on the barrel (no lightfast rating; I found no information, but I doubt these could be artist quality.)

Appreciation for esthetics finally done, it was time to open a sketchbook and go get one of the gorgeous heirloom tomatoes I had just purchased at the farmers market. With the primary triad I learned in Kathleen Moore’s class firmly planted in my color mind lately, naturally I picked out three hues accordingly: Carmine (512), Lemon Yellow (504) and Blue (533). Carmine is warmer than Prismacolor’s Process Red, but it was as close as I could find.

Using a smooth Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook, the first layers of color went down well enough. Uni pencils are among the hardest I’ve used; they are similar to Faber-Castell Polychromos in that regard. Although many prefer a soft, creamy texture in colored pencils, I don’t necessarily deem hardness a flaw; a strongly pigmented pencil like Polychromos is useful for both fine details as well as multi-layered applications. So I didn’t hold the hard core against the Uni.

6/27/21 Uni Colored Pencils in Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook

It didn’t take long using the Unis to be reminded of my initial impressions: Although it seems contradictory, Unis are hard, but they don’t seem to retain a point the way Polychromos can. I found myself sharpening them as often as I do soft Prismacolors. (Incidentally, every time I sharpen a pencil, my Fitbit registers the activity as 11 steps! Tina has discovered the pencil-sharpening workout! This was especially useful during our record-breaking heatwave, when sharpening pencils was my only physical activity.)

The more frustrating trait, however, is that it takes significant effort to build up color layers with the Unis, which indicates low pigment content. I spent 90 minutes on this small tomato sketch, but I still didn’t achieve the color depth that I had wanted. I had planned to draw the lime green plate under the tomato, but after that much work on the tomato, I didn’t have it in me to continue.

The exercise wasn’t a total frustration, however: I did enjoy using and mixing the primary triad. Even with Carmine being warmer than I was looking for, it mixed beautifully with both Lemon Yellow and Blue. The more I experiment with this triad principle, the more I love it.

I went through my image files to look for other sketches I had made with the Unis, and I found two from 2017, probably around the time I had first bought the set. One was made in a S&B Alpha, and an unfinished one was made in a S&B Epsilon (both tomatoes – imagine that!). According to my notes, I found it a bit easier to build color on the toothier Alpha. I was frustrated enough on Epsilon (which has the same smooth surface as Zeta) to abandon the sketch without finishing it – just as I did this time. And like this time, my notes say I could not seem to build layers adequately. Hmmm, a pattern is developing, and it’s not a good one.

8/9/17 unfinished sketch on S&B Epsilon

8/27/17 S&B Alpha

I had thought that several more years of colored pencil use under my belt might have improved my application technique or simply increased my tolerance for pencil idiosyncrasies, which I sometimes enjoy as a challenge. But not in this case. I’ve been generous enough: These Uni colored pencils are not worth the effort. (If you know how much I love Uni graphite pencils, you would understand how much it breaks my heart to say that.)

The box they came in, however, is another matter. Some Amazon reviewers had the best idea: Empty out the mediocre Uni pencils and fill the slots with your favorites! If it weren’t for the fact that I don’t like to store or use my pencils that way, I would do that.

A note on price: When I bought my set of 72 several years ago, I paid less than $60. Now I see that Amazon’s price for the same set is $95. This disproportionate price increase is similar to what I’ve seen with the Holbein sets. I’m not sure what’s going on, but it doesn’t bode well with American consumers of Japanese colored pencils.

The Uni box is nice, but this is the way I like to see and use my pencils!

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

On the Other Side


6/24/21 Green Lake neighborhood

One year ago, I was constantly looking for safe neighborhood spots to sketch, and some of my favorites were a bunch of dead-end streets just on the other side of I-5. Safe from both cars and other pedestrians, I could stand in the middle of the street if I wanted to. (One such view was a row of ornamental plums, which led to my brief obsession with finding the right color to depict them.)

With nearly 90 percent of adults in my zip code now vaccinated, I’m no longer concerned about safety, but I still find myself crossing the freeway to look for sketch opportunities. The architecture on the north side of Green Lake is still mostly older, original homes; I don’t see nearly as many modern behemoths as I do in Maple Leaf. This classic Craftsman is typical of the lovely houses there.

There’s another reason to cross the noisy, unpleasant I-5 overpass: It’s one of few spots I know of where I can see both Rainier to the south and The Brothers to the west just by pivoting on my heels.

I’d like to pause here a moment to gloat: For these two or three months out of the year, Seattle is arguably the best place on earth (our "jaw-dropping," record-breaking heatwave notwithstanding).

Rainier to the south...

...The Brothers to the west.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Show My Sketch Kit

6/23/21 My sketch kit contents (page 1 of 2)

Throughout the pandemic, USk Japan has issued regular prompts and themes to keep their members motivated. I’ve been inspired many times to join them – to sketch a journal page; to show process steps; to make urban sketches with blind contours; to avoid thinking; to use white as a prominent color. I also enjoy seeing what their members share on social media.

The group’s most recent prompt is to show the contents of their sketch kits – by sketching them, of course. Although I’ve sketched my tools in the past, it’s been a while – the last time was nearly two years ago – so I thought it would be fun to join them again. (Search the hashtag #show_your_sketch_kit on Instagram to see their kits.)

Instead of setting up all the materials together like a still life, I was in the mood to use a more illustrative style. (Most items are not shown to scale!) I usually feel like my kit is too big, but sketched this way, I see that it’s really not as big as I think (it all fit on two pages)! Maybe my annual minimalism efforts have had lasting effects after all.

I happen to have a new Hero 330 fountain pen with a fude nib (review coming up soon at the Well-Appointed Desk), so it was a good opportunity to take it out for a test drive. (Spoiler alert: It’s a great little fude, especially for the price!)

Page 2 of 2

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Green Lake Bathhouse Theatre


6/22/21 Green Lake's Bathhouse Theatre

Setting out early on Tuesday to get ahead of the day’s projected heat, I found Green Lake shrouded in a surprising June gloom. (Strange . . . I live less than a mile away, and it was sunny there when I left the house.) Dressed for summer, I was downright chilly in the lakeside breeze.

As regularly as I walk around the lake and sketch in the Green Lake neighborhood, I don’t sketch the lake itself often. (I think the last time I did was nearly three years ago when I was inspired by foliage just beginning to turn.) Spotting it from across the water, I couldn’t remember ever sketching the historic Bathhouse Theatre (now operated by Seattle Public Theater), which was built in 1927 as an actual bathhouse for swimmers to change into their suits. I’d like to sketch it again sometime illuminated by early sun.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Suck It In


6/21/21 Maple Leaf alley
Our “heat dome” had promised blistering temps by afternoon, but it was still lovely in the low 70s when I went out for my morning walk. Glancing down this alley, I saw that The Brothers were perfectly framed, and I figured I’d have the alley to myself. Just after spritzing the page, I had to turn sideways and suck it in to let a car pass through, causing the drip. But that’s urban sketching – and I love every drip.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Backyard Primary Triad


6/20/21 Our messy bushes and fence (Caran d'Ache watercolor pencils in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook)

Our forsythia and other unkempt bushes next to the fence between our yard and our neighbor’s are not my favorite sketch subjects, but every now and then they are handy. The last time I sketched the forsythia, I was making a value study. This time it was both a value study and another experiment with the primary triad I studied with Kathleen Moore. When I tried it last week, I used a cool Payne’s Gray for the deeper shadows. This time I tried a warmer French Gray. Initially, I didn’t like the sketch at all, but the more color I added, and the darker I pushed the shadows, the more I liked it. I also like the shimmering Pointillist effect from the toothy Stillman & Birn Beta paper.

Of course, the best moment of all was when I finally spritzed the page to release the watercolor pencil pigments. Up until that point, I had been patiently applying dry pencil, layer after layer. Although I can see the relative values, I know I can’t see the full intensity of the primary hues and the way they mix until I hit the page with water. See below for a peek at the way the page looked right before I spritzed it. (I’m usually so eager to get to the activation part that I rarely remember to photograph it before spritzing.) The explosion of color is a fun reward for my patience.

It was 75 degrees but with a nice breeze in the shade when I made this sketch – the very best of summer. It was also the last day before a “heat dome” threatened to break temperature records for this time of year.

Here's the sketch just before I spritzed. You can see why I enjoy the moment of spritzing -- and why I love watercolor pencils so much!

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Non-Photo Blue: A Timeless Tool

The barely visible under-drawing
was done with a Staedtler non-photo blue pencil

Back in the day, graphic designers and printers used “non-photo blue” pencils. Certain shades of blue could not be detected by camera film, so rough drawing lines or notations could be left on the art and would not appear in the final form. Modern scanners can see that blue, so non-photo blue pencils are not effective in the same way anymore. However, image-editing software can be used to manipulate the contrast or hue of the blue so that it can be made invisible digitally. Non-photo blue pencils still have life – but in a different way.

I’ve never worked in graphic design or printing, and I don’t use sophisticated image-editing apps, so I had no practical use for non-photo blue pencils. Coincidentally, two teachers both recommend the non-photo blue pencil, so I was tickled that this old-school tool has yet more life – this time in an analog way.

My first influence is cartoonist Lynda Barry, whose how-to books I have been voraciously devouring of late as I work to develop my imaginary drawing skills. She specifically recommends the Staedtler non-photo blue pencil.

The second influence is Gage Academy instructor Kathleen Moore, whose class I just finished in drawing nature with colored pencils. She, too, recommends a non-photo blue pencil.

Both artists use a blue pencil for lightly sketching the initial line drawing before inking (in Barry’s case) or using colored pencils (in Moore’s case). Their reasons are similar: While not invisible to modern cameras, non-photo blue lines are so subtle and pale that they tend to magically blend and disappear once the final medium is applied. In addition, lightly applied pale blue pencil is easily erased. Moore demonstrated another practical reason: If an initial drawing is made with graphite, almost all of it must be carefully erased before applying colored pencil. If any large particles of graphite remain, they could smudge, muddying the colors.

To learn more about non-photo blue pencils, read my review of five brands I tried at the Well-Appointed Desk.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Price is Right


6/19/21 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Here’s another “first” for my post-vax life: an urban couch. I did sketch a couple during the pandemic when I had spotted them on my daily walking route, but discarded furniture is more likely to be found in neighborhoods where tenant turnover is high. In any case, I didn’t feel comfortable taking as long as I wanted to sketch those, so they had been done hastily.

This red couch was on Roosevelt Way, a busy arterial with high visibility, so I was afraid it would be gone by the time I got to it the day after I had first spotted it. Relieved that it was still there, I stood in the warm sunshine across the street and took my leisurely time. The actual couch wasn’t as vibrant as I made it, but I got the price right.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Café Arta with Primaries

6/18/21 Cafe Arta

 Café Arta’s patio was an ideal place to sketch on a lovely afternoon (before our heatwave began), this time with Carol and Natalie for company. Between a plate of delicious mac & cheese and an affogato, the patio plants and trellis shadows were an opportunity to try the primary triad I had studied in Kathleen Moore’s class – with a difference.

Instead of using Prismacolors, I picked out hues in the Caran d’Ache palette to match the Prismacolor triad – Process Red, Canary Yellow and True Blue – as closely as possible: Purplish Red (350) in the Supracolor line and Yellow (10) and Phthalocyanine Blue (162) in the Museum Aquarelle line (see below). As for the Prismacolor Black Grape that I like for shadows, I couldn’t find a good Caran d’Ache match (Supracolor Violet 120 doesn’t come close), so I used my usual Museum Aquarelle Payne’s Gray (508) instead.

With only the three primary hues, it’s difficult to match “reality” (which is an effective way to bust me out of my usual self-imposed color box), but I love the shimmering quality of light in the trees where yellow predominates. I wouldn’t use the triad for everything, but now that I understand how to use it, those pencils have become part of my regular palette. And I’ve made a mental note for next winter’s minimalism challenge: This triad would be an ideal limited palette.

Prismacolor primary triad and matching Caran d'Ache pencils

Monday, June 21, 2021

Review: Cretacolor MegaQuattro Multi-Color Pencil


The MegaQuattro water-soluble rainbow pencil

It’s no secret that I love rainbow pencils. Though I don’t use them regularly to draw with, I doodle and scribble with them frequently just because they make me happy.

While I have a reasonably large collection of rainbow pencils, none are water-soluble. Given my fondness for watercolor pencils, I have often wondered why I have never seen any water-soluble rainbow pencils. Then I respond to my own musings by speculating that it may be because all those mixed colors, which look magical when applied dry, would dissolve into mud if activated with water.

I can’t recall now what I was actually searching for, but browsing through the Internet one day brought me to Hull’s Art Supply and Framing in Connecticut. Although most of their wares were not new to me, one thing got my attention: the Cretacolor MegaQuattro Multi-Color Pencil. At first glance, its jumbo-sized, marbled barrel looked suspiciously similar to the Koh-i-Noor Magic Pencil. What caught my eye, though, was the telltale brush on the barrel – the universal symbol of water-solubility!

Colorful core visible on the end.

With red, blue, green and yellow, the colors are not swirled together in the core, so it is somewhat possible (though not easy) to use one color at a time. I prefer to let the colors mix anyway, but I made a sketch of a lemon with some attempt to keep the colors separate. The yellow seemed the hardest to apply independently, so the lemon came out a bit blue-greenish – which I like! Rainbow pencils keep me from being too literal with color (which I have a bad habit of being).

The downside is that the MegaQuattro’s core is relatively hard, though that’s not unusual for most rainbow pencils. (The exception is my favorite seven-color pencil by Camel, which is now available with the CW Pencils name.) When activated together, the four colors do become muddy. Still, I’m happy that a water-soluble rainbow pencil exists.

6/10/21 Cretacolor MegaQuattro in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Nishant Jain’s Faces for India


Drawing by Nishant Jain
Here’s the drawing Nishant Jain made based on the photo I sent him. So far, he has drawn 200 “Faces for India,” raising more than $11,000, all of which will go to organizations providing COVID relief in India. This prolific urban sketcher is also host of the popular Sneaky Art Podcast that focuses exclusively on interviews with urban sketchers.

If you’d like to see all the portraits or participate (he takes a limited number of requests at a time to manage his workload), visit Faces for India.

Gleefully clutching pencils . . . I think he captured my essence, don’t you think? 😉

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Trees on Location: Exploring a New Primary Triad


6/15/21 Japanese maples, Maple Leaf neighborhood

Nearly a year ago, I was excited to learn about a different way of looking at primary triads from Amy Lindenberger’s book on color. Instead of the traditional pigment-based color wheel and primary triad that painters use, Lindenberger uses hues that would look more familiar to printing press operators: magenta, yellow and cyan. In Prismacolor pencil terms, the three primaries are Process Red (994), Canary Yellow (916) and True Blue (903). Understanding this triad really opened my eyes to a new way of looking at color mixing that makes more sense for a glazing medium like colored pencils in which layers of transparent hues are optically mixed. Unfortunately, I didn’t explore it much further beyond studying the book.

Kathleen Moore, instructor of the colored pencil class I just finished at Gage Academy, also uses the Process Red, Canary Yellow and True Blue triad, which she discussed several times during the course. (In fact, she says this triad makes sense even for traditional paint media, and she uses it with watercolors and oils, too.) For field sketching, she brings only the triad plus Black Grape (996) and/or Sepia (948) for the darkest value. For our final lesson, she demo’d using nothing but that limited palette to draw trees on location while camping at Kalaloch. The assignment was to do the same: Draw a tree from life using only that limited palette. Finally, I would have the opportunity to explore the possibilities of this triad – and in the field!

For my first attempt, I walked a few blocks from home to where I have seen a row of Japanese maples (the variety that stays dark red all year; above). Because their foliage is dense, it seems easier to see the shapes of the leafy branches and the dark, shadowy areas underneath. That was my theory, anyway. Depicting the deep red of these maples was difficult with this triad, but it helped to have both Black Grape and Sepia to make the shadows as dark as possible. (I can’t explain the presence of the cone; perhaps it came along with the excavator across the street.)

My second attempt was also just a couple of blocks away (below). Although I could have applied more blue to make the tree more green instead of yellow, I liked the stark complementary contrast with the Black Grape shadows. (Yes, the class is in drawing nature, not urban sketching, but most of the nature I see must coexist with humans and their need for utilities, so it’s an urban sketch after all.)

6/16/21 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Since I’m much more accustomed to the speediness of watercolor pencils on location, I thought the Prismacolors would take longer, but each of these sketches didn’t take much longer than usual. The additional time probably went more toward thinking and planning values and composition in ways that we have been studying in Kathleen’s class. I thoroughly enjoyed the last lesson, as it was the most applicable to urban sketching, and the primary triad has got me thinking. . .

I have pulled out colors from my water-soluble pencils as close as I could find to the Prismacolor triad. Looking forward to giving them a try on location!

Friday, June 18, 2021

Bellevue Botanical Garden


6/17/21 volunteer gardeners

After last Sunday’s drizzly start to the return of USk Seattle, yesterday’s outing at Bellevue Botanical Garden felt like a well-deserved treat. With temps in the low 70s and sunshine all day, it was ideal sketching weather!

Dazzled and overwhelmed by the layers and layers of green everywhere, I decided to warm up with a few gesture sketches of some volunteer gardeners who work hard maintaining the beautiful plants and grounds. The sketches are not too flattering, but their poses made me appreciate their back-breaking work all the more.

I took my time strolling up and down the many gently sloping paths through the shady gardens. Newly liberated in my post-vaccine life, I still marvel at the joy of wandering around maskless and not having to think about being too close to others. Finally one of several moss-covered stumps caught my eye long enough for a sketch.

Yao Garden

With less than an hour left before the throwdown, I wandered into the Yao Japanese Garden. Enough of leisurely lazing; it was time to tackle the jungle of greens. A few Japanese maples in the distance reflected the noon sun, and I heard Kathleen Moore’s mantra in my head: “If you can’t see it when you squint, don’t draw it!” Yes, ma’am – nothing but values of greens here!

Summer doesn’t officially begin for a few more days, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s here – and it’s as good as outdoor-sketching weather gets. Bring it on!

Edited: I meant to look up the last time I sketched at Bellevue Botanical. . . it was nearly eight years ago! No wonder it all seemed new to me. And just as overwhelming as ever!

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Homework Break


6/15/21 Maple Leaf neighborhood

This is my final week in Kathleen Moore’s class in drawing nature with colored pencils. I am overjoyed that we are required to do this week’s studies in the field! Our record-breaking rain earlier this week had me worried that I wouldn’t have many dry opportunities to complete the homework, but Tuesday dawned partly sunny. I went out shortly after breakfast for the first study.

While I enjoyed working on a challenging study of a Japanese maple (I’ll show it soon as part of the classwork discussion), something right across the street from the tree caught my eye. Wrapped in yellow CAUTION tape, its shovel in repose, an excavator looked like it was there for the long haul.

After I finished the tree, I took a break from my assignments. And none too soon: A work crew arrived and started moving the cones away, and a second excavator arrived on the scene. So it wasn’t there for the long haul, after all.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Patio


6/14/21 Columbia City's Patio

Although a friend and I are both fully vaxed, we still feel more comfortable dining outdoors rather than inside restaurants. When I learned from Kate about Columbia City’s Patio, it sounded like exactly what we were looking for.

I had never heard of it (as you know, I haven’t gotten out much the past 15 months), but it isn’t new – it’s been open nearly a year. Shared by a variety of nearby venues, the community seating is covered by a large tent on a closed lane in the middle of the Columbia City neighborhood’s business district.

On a warm but rainy Monday, the lunchtime wait would have been 45 minutes at popular Geraldine’s Counter if we had wanted a table inside; many people were waiting outside the door. To be seated in The Patio, however, all we had to do was walk right in, place our order, and carry our takeout to the table of our choice. Good food, outdoor seating, and no wait. Triple win!

I arrived a few minutes early so I could make a quick sketch. (The drizzle was no match for my hardy, waterproof Expedition!) All the “Do Not Enter” signs and traffic cones may look forbidding, but they are there just to make sure cars don’t get confused. We enjoyed a pleasant lunch even in the rain.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Traffic Control


6/12/21 U-District farmers market

The same sax busker I sketched a couple of weeks ago at the U-District farmers market was there again on Saturday. Like last time, he was in the closed street just outside the market entrance, where the guy with the counter manages shopper traffic.

It’s harder to sketch at the market now because lingering is discouraged, and there’s no place to stand without getting in the way of shopper traffic flow. Busking is prohibited inside. Still, on a gorgeous morning, my shopping bag full of farm-fresh asparagus, strawberries and tomatoes, I was happy to sketch from the fringe.

Monday, June 14, 2021

It’s Good to Be Back

6/13/21 Gas Works Park

Something I missed during the pandemic that no amount of Zooming or Facebooking could replace: sketching with my USk Seattle homies. For the first time in 15 months, we were back in action – at my favorite park!

Although the weather media had been giving dire warnings of “tropical storms” and 98 percent chance of rain all day, urban sketchers obviously live charmed lives, because we barely felt a drop or two all morning. I probably spent as much time catching up with friends as I did sketching, yet somehow I managed to capture four views of Gas Works Park – two facing the Space Needle and two thumbnails inside the old pump house. Being with my tribe is apparently inspiring.

This was as “normal” as I’ve felt in a long, long time. It’s good to be back.

It's good to be back!

Sunday, June 13, 2021

An Infinite for Ballpoint Pen Day


6/10/21 Observing National Ballpoint Pen Day on trash day
Last Thursday was National Ballpoint Pen Day, which I have observed each year since I found out about it. On June 10, 1943, Hungarian brothers László and György Bíró became owners of the patent for the ubiquitous pen type that most of us associate with cheap disposables and promotional giveaways.

Ever since a few InkTobers ago when I committed to giving ballpoint a serious try, the basic, cheap Bic has been my first choice for drawing. Despite its lowly reputation, Bic ballpoints contain a unique type of ink that is ideal for building layers of subtle values, just like graphite. Although I’ve tried, I’ve not yet found an ink in other pens that responds in quite the same way. The gloppy, viscous ink in Bics that is not pleasant to use for writing is exactly what makes it great for drawing.

On Thursday, however, I thought I’d try something new: a Caran d’Ache Infinite. At six bucks, it’s pricey for a plastic-body ballpoint but very inexpensive for anything made by Caran d’Ache! It’s a fantastic writing pen – smoothly flowing with the gentlest knock I’ve ever used. Alas, as expected, the ink doesn’t layer the way a crappy Bic does. The thin, smooth ink is very nice for writing but just doesn’t have the same oomph. I’ve found this to be true of high-quality Japanese ballpoints, too, like the Uni Jetstream: The sad paradox is that if it’s good to write with, it probably isn’t as good to draw with.

I popped the Infinite into my bag for quick jots, which is what it was made for. As for drawing, I’ll stick with Bic Stics.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Pampas Grass and Other Challenges

6/9/21 pampas grass, Maple Leaf neighborhood

A few days ago I showed a homework assignment for my Drawing Nature class this week. Here are the rest – more studies in capturing textures, patterns and all-important values with colored pencils. In her demos, Kathleen Moore made a variety of small studies – sea grass, moss, bark, distant trees – and encouraged us to try as many as we could from life.

The most challenging I tried was the pampas grass, above. The slender, blade-like leaves were bright yellow-green in the sunlight; the feathery plumes were nearly white. The base of the plant was dark under the leaves. I tried to get the base as dark as possible, but that muddied the bright green leaves, and it was difficult coloring in the narrow spaces between the leaves. To make the whitish plumes show, I used a dark-green background and almost lost their feathery texture. I hope I retained enough to evoke pampas.

6/7/21 moss on our rockery

The small lumps of moss (left) were challenging in a different way. First was finding the fascinatingly complex mix of hues I could see – I used nine pencils, none of which were “moss green”! It was relatively easy to capture the soft, fuzzy texture with colored pencils, but the actual hues were much richer and deeper. If I kept blending to make deeper colors, I was afraid I’d lose the texture. Most interesting from a natural perspective were the long, reddish threads above the moss that I had never noticed before.

For the Japanese maple study, I recited Kathleen’s mantra: “Analyze the simple, overall shapes and patterns – not details. If you can’t see it when you squint, don’t draw it!” Squinting wildly, I tried to evoke the patterns of light and dark as well as the pointy shapes of maple leaves while resisting the temptation to draw each leaf.

6/8/21 Japanese maple

The two single-leaf studies below were for the purpose of trying specific techniques she demo’d. In one demo, as an alternative to using mineral spirits, she painted a light wash of watercolor to give her sample an initial base of color before applying colored pencil. I used watercolor pencil, which I activated and then finished with dry pencil. I also practiced making pencil strokes to indicate shape. These techniques are part of my regular practice and were not new to me, but I did enjoy watching her demo using watercolor paint. (My assessment: Why get out paints when colored pencils are already in your hand?)

watercolor pencil activated with water; dry pencil applied over; pencil stroke direction indicating the leaf's curves

The second leaf study (I found a dead one in the wastebasket after Greg had cleaned up our bedroom plant) was an experiment with embossing. I didn’t have the embossing stylus that she had recommended for this purpose (a tool that Crystal Shin also uses), so I used a freshly sharpened white Verithin instead. It was a bit too sharp, and the point snapped off as soon as I began using it, but otherwise, it worked well for this purpose. After impressing white lines into the paper to emulate veins, color applied over the lines will skip over them, leaving them white. The white pencil gave me another idea – retaining the white of the paper for the highlights at the bottom of the leaf. The white waxy pigment acts as a resist for color (lightly) applied over it. It was effective as a resist, but I think saving out the white of the paper the hard way looks better.

embossing with a white Verithin and using white pencil as resist

Although I didn’t have time to make studies for the other techniques she demo’d, I made small swatches to sample them (below): erasing out highlights, using a Sakura Gelly Roll for white lines, and sgraffito using the dull side of an Exacto blade. The latter technique is fraught with peril: If done gently, scraping off a bit of color can be an effective way of recapturing small white lines or marks, but it’s easy to damage the paper’s surface. I’d do this only as a last resort.

samples of erasing, Gelly Roll, sgraffito

Using an eraser for highlights works beautifully with graphite, but it’s iffy with colored pencils. A good plastic, kneadable or electric eraser can take out light layers of colored pencil, but multiple layers (as in my swatch) will likely be permanent.

Finally, here’s the Prismacolor palette I used for all of these studies. As I’ve learned many times, despite how many green pencils I may have, I never seem to have enough of the right greens. Some are useful for recycle bins and Seattle street signs but are not even close to what I see in nature (at least Pacific Northwest nature).

Prismacolor palette used in these studies

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