Review – Daler Rowney Willow Charcoal

For my foray into the medium of charcoal I wanted to try as many varieties as possible (generally how I treat every artistic venture I endeavor on) but had a limited budget. Fortunately, they sell “raw” charcoal at department stores these days, in the particular case under the Daler Rowney brand at Walmart. But how does this willow charcoal compare to some of the other charcoal products that I’ve used? Let’s take a look.


Inside the box, there are 3 bags, each containing sticks of similar size (the bags being for small, medium, and large) that are approximately six inches in length. Now, I haven’t used any other brand of willow charcoal specifically, so my comparisons here will be to the similar vine charcoal and to compressed charcoal. In that regard, it is more scratchy and harder than vine charcoal, putting down a less consistent black that isn’t quite silky smooth and which smudges to be a more pale gray. The benefit of this is that it erases fairly easily, either with a cloth or an actual eraser.


Beyond that, there isn’t much to mention about the sticks as there are many natural inconsistencies with products like this that take plant material and bake it. The sticks themselves are quite fragile, but that just requires some getting used to and many artists pre-break theirs before starting on a project (what’s left can effectively be turned into a shading dust).

So, despite being from a big-box store, this product is entirely serviceable for an inexpensive price (not that charcoal is particularly expensive in the first place). It’s easily accessible and gets the job done, even making a nice addition to the drawing kit as a lighter, more easily workable material for sketches or laying out a work. It isn’t my preferred type of charcoal, but for a beginner (and perhaps even an expert), it’ll be entirely serviceable.


Mini Review – Master’s Touch Tortillons

When looking at charcoals from afar, one of the last things you think about is how the necessary blending was achieved. Of course, there are many techniques for doing so on both large and small scales, with some being better than others. For those who want a simple replacement for their fingers and don’t have the patience to roll their own, packs of tortillons (rolled paper blending stumps) are available in most art stores or departments.


And really, there isn’t much to say beyond the fact that they do their job, and for a couple bucks you save the time of making them yourself (perhaps incorrectly). They’re one of my least favorite implements for blending and work best when you really don’t want to use your finger, and what you’re working on requires very fine detail (using a rag or a chamois is always preferable if you have the space).


While the paper isn’t of superior quality, it gets the job done, and the wrapping holds together through use and sharpening. If you’re looking for a blending stump there really is nothing else to it, and while someone somewhere likely has the best paper for the job, there’s nothing wrong with these ones.

Review – Dick Blick Medium Vine Charcoal

I must admit before I start here that I’m not really one for charcoal as a drawing medium. It requires a fair amount of space that it’s alright to be perpetually stained with black. So, you basically need studio space in order for it to be at its peak performance, and I do not have studio space. But, I can take art classes, and that is where most of my experience with vine charcoal comes from. There are quite a few places to buy it cheaply, and the manufacturing process is probably one where it would be difficult to weed out natural inconsistencies. From my experience with several different brands, I have a hard time really telling the difference; but the main ones I’ve gone with is a set from Dick Blick, mostly because they were the last ones I was able to try out.


Vine charcoal is a particularly finicky type of drawing medium that goes down smoothly with a rich black color, and wipes away to nearly nothing with a hand or a cloth (though, if applied directly to paper, even an eraser won’t be able to remove the last ghost of a line). The sticks themselves are essentially raw: they are just vines that have been charred. Most sets (including this one) give you a pretty good selection of widths, all at around the same length. Even the girthiest of these break quite easily and most artists break them down a more manageable size both for this reason and to make manipulating them easier (I personally don’t for the most part, but then again I am persnickety). This particular set performed well. I was able to sketch with ease and clarity, while erasing and blending quickly and as cleanly as possible (and the dust trapped in my cleaning cloth made excellent shading powder in other drawings).



Blick offers a wide range of relatively inexpensive products of quality along with their brand-name selection. These fit in nicely and will get the job done. If you’re already ordering art supplies and want some vine charcoal I’d certainly recommend this (or if Blick is actually your local store)(shipping would probably be too much to make this worth ordering alone). And while there certainly may be better charcoal out there somewhere, you won’t have any problems practicing or finishing drawings with this stuff (just be sure to get a fixative if you don’t want it to disappear).

Review – INC PenMark Permanent Markers

As someone who bolts to the stationery section of every store I enter, every once in a while I just have to dive into one of the budget options there (I say that like cheap crap isn’t something that I have innumerable piles of). And if you do this at Dollar General you’re very likely to end up with something made by INC, a brand I’ve looked at before that produces writing utensils that function. Is their current foray into permanent markers, the PenMark, any good?


The bodies are a simple design. The body is a cylinder with a foil label that has minimal information printed on it. The cap mostly continues this cylindrical motif until its end, when it slants off at a slight angle. The clip is plastic and unsurprisingly molded into the cap (for safe keeping). At the other end there is a hexagonal step-down for posting, which the cap nicely clicks onto. Underneath the cap is a series of 3 step-downs that lead to a metal tube with a small, stiff felt-tip.


The performance is as to-be-expected. They smell like permanent markers, and the line stays like permanent markers. The ink causes a lot of bleeding and feathering, even on high-quality paper; the result is a line considerably thicker than the “ultra fine point” stated on the package. The colors are all pleasant and readable, with the exception of yellow, which is, like most yellow, essentially useless, and they do stick to the paper and remain vibrant once applied. Water has no discernable effect on the markings, but alcohol does start to break down the dye/pigment. The lines will break down and feather under regular rubbing alcohol, and bleed through increases tremendously, but during my tests the lines actually remained legible.


If you’re looking for an assortment of permanent marker colors on the cheap, these technically fulfill that requirement. The bodies are cheap, the nibs are brittle, the ink bleeds and is more-than-likely not archival quality. But they provide a mark that is suitably permanent on household materials (paper, tin cans, and plastic containers; they will fade, but they will leave behind a water-resistant mark) in a skinny, portable body which fits anywhere your average pen will, with a clip that holds them in place.

Review – Speedball Elegant Writer Calligraphy Pens

It has been some time since I really practiced my calligraphy (and I only know how to do “gothic” because it’s the coolest-looking one). I really got into it for a moment a few years back, but for whatever reason I never really kept up. I write an alphabet or a quick note every now and then, but refilling fountain pens or cleaning up dip pens is such a hassle. Somewhere along the line, I picked up a set of Speedball Elegant Writer pens, which are more of a learning tool than anything else, but they do provide quick and easy access to calligraphy by removing the cleanup (and some of the drying-out problems). Does that make picking up a set worth it?

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The bodies of the pens are a very bland-looking, vaguely-pearlescent plastic cylinder that tapers out toward the cap. The top and bottom have little rings of black plastic and the cap has a cheap-feeling molded-in clip. Printed blockily on the side is all the information one would need to reorder or look the pen up. The grip section has a noticeably sharp step-down from where the cap covers it, and then a few more step-downs in front of the fingers leading to a small felt-tip nib (the size of which is marked on the side; my set contained two 2mm pens, a 2.5mm, and a 3mm).

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The nibs are a bit scratchy when writing, and lack that sharp edge you really want when calligraphing. They do a fine job for the material they’re made out of, but they certainly aren’t professional quality. It’s worth noting that the pen is super light, and posting the cap doesn’t affect the balance at all; whether or not that’s a problem depends on what kind of user you are (but it does make them feel cheap). The ink is black enough, but on closer inspection has noticeable shading. Most people won’t think anything of it, but again, it isn’t professional quality. On the page it behaves well, with minimal feathering and bleed-through even on copier paper, but it has no fortitude and easily washes down to a purple smear when exposed to water (I suspect no better results in the sun). It just isn’t meant to stick around for too long.

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Really, the worst thing I can say about these is that I think they’re over-priced. If you’re just learning letterforms or want to practice and remember them, these pens are more than adequate. They’re cheaply made with a non-permanent ink, but the tip is well-crafted and the plastic can actually absorb some shock. I keep them kicking around to keep my hand able to sculpt the correct letterforms (though they are just this side of larger than I prefer) and I’m not unhappy with them; they are entirely serviceable.

Mini Review – Pen + Gear Blank (3×5) Index Cards

I’m not sure I need to explain the usefulness/necessity of index cards to you. I’m also not here to try and figure out what the best index cards in the world are (does Clairefontaine make any? If yes, then they’re probably the best). But WalMart does sell reasonably priced index cards under their in-house Pen+Gear brand (which is a poor name, but that’s not relevant, and I’m here to take a look at whether or not those are worth purchasing if you’re just looking for some (whichever) index cards.

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(Note: I got blank cards, so I can’t remark upon anything concerning the ruling)

The dimensions of the cards themselves seem to accurately reflect the labeling, which is a good start. The paper is a bleached-white with a slightly pulpy texture that makes me think that over time or in sunlight these will become yellowed and brittle faster than your average paper products. This texture does make for a pleasant writing experience that is mostly smooth with a hint of feedback. Its ability to take ink and potential damage from eraser is about what you’d expect. Permanent markers, alcohol markers, and fountain pens will all bleed through, while even thicker fineliners (felt pens) don’t show through, and erasing doesn’t cause significant damage. If fact my only real gripe (though it is a big one), is that they are quite floppy for being “cards”. They’re flimsy, flappy, and easy to tear if handled frequently, meaning they would work poorly if one wanted to use them as say… index cards. Not only does this lack of stiffness detract from their main purpose, but it negates so many of the other things that index card were useful for in the past, like being structurally integral parts of craft projects. (Unfortunately, this can only knock the product down so far as, recently, I haven’t seen a brand of index cards that maintains the proper rigidity, so the best bet there is to make your own from card stock, I guess).

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If you’re looking for small cut pieces of paper for various reasons, like taking quick notes, testing swatches of ink or paint (though they may buckle), or organizing recipes that you don’t handle often, these will work just fine. And even though they won’t really work for maintaining a card-catalogue (who even has those?) they aren’t exactly anything less than I expected for the price.


Review – 25-Piece 1” Foam Brush Pack (Walmart)

I’ve been experimenting with some new (to me) “craft-y” techniques using paints and glues and such. Since I’m simply performing tests and I wanted an inexpensive way to acquire enough brushes for my purpose that didn’t necessarily need to stick around (not that foam brushes are known for quality or longevity). I quickly solved this problem at my local Walmart with their large pack of 25 one-inch foam brushes, and really there isn’t much to say beyond that description.

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These brushes are a ¼” wooden dowel of the cheapest and lightest variety, with a poorly stamped “not for lacquer or shellac” “warning” on the side, that are attached by a plastic tongue to a sponge too delicate for kitchen work with a wedge on one end. Since the price is only a few dollars for two dozen, none of the materials here are of notable quality, but they do hold together long enough for one to get a few uses out of the things. I’ve found that after 3 glue applications (uses, not individual coats) and subsequent washes, these brushes begin to disintegrate, but this doesn’t affect how they work for at least a few more washes (and paint is obviously a little less harsh on them than glue). Even with foam brushes not being the highest quality at the best of times (where would one even acquire “high-quality” foam brushes?), these do seem to break apart fairly quickly, though not more than I would expect for the price.

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I don’t see much of a reason to fuss about which foam brush set to pick up. The nature of foam is that they are inexpensive and allow for easy application of media in exchange for their own durability. This set is a cheap way to get a lot of brushes that will get the job done. If that’s what you need, they’re easy to find in most places.