Review – General’s Compressed Charcoal

As I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t significantly used charcoals in my artwork for most of my “career”, but recently stepped up and created a couple series using charcoal almost exclusively. For this I of course had to purchase most of the basic supplies for creating a charcoal drawing. As it happens, General’s produces a wide variety of inexpensive and readily available art supplies and they were the first ones I ran into when looking for compressed charcoal. I expected them to work, but not be anything spectacular. Was I right?


The set contains 4 sticks of charcoal that have been broken down and then compressed with a binder in 4 different hardnesses (2B{x2, in my pack}, 4B, and 6B). Each creates a relatively smooth and richly dark line that is very easy to smear and blend but very difficult to erase. The softer sticks do indeed create a darker and more consistent line but unsurprisingly seem to disappear in your hand while you’re using them. When compared to the “natural” vine charcoal these darker and more difficult-to-erase lines serve a different purpose: they are for further on in drawing’s development, when you are beyond the sketching stage and have most of the structure of your image created.


In my experience, these General’s sticks performed adequately. They were certainly darker and smoother than cheaper ones found in “sketching kits” that you can buy at department stores. However, they do still go down in a bit of a “chunky” pattern and aren’t true black. There is also a bit of a problem with breaking, but that’s just par for the course with this type of product. If you’re used to crayons, you’ll have to be very careful when handling these, or you can be like many artists I’ve seen and “pre-”break them in half before actually using them, which also makes it easier to get in close and work on detail areas.


These guys pretty much keep pace with a lot of General’s products. They work well, are easily available, and don’t break the bank (though they’re actually closer to the top end of the price spectrum in this case). They are a fine solution for people at all skill levels with the studio space to set up and use charcoals.


Review – Zebra F-701 Ballpoint

For quite some time now, my go-to ballpoint pen has been the Zebra F-301. I carried one around with me every day and have one in each of my various bags. To me, they are a very good compromise between writing performance, durability, availability, and expense. But recently I managed to crack off the plastic grip in my daily carry pen (in quite the unremarkable way, I just fidgeted with it too much and was popping the threads) and even though it is a problem that I’m not likely to replicate in the future, it set me on a quest to find an all-metal replacement that won’t have a similar problem. I’ve been fairly happy with other Zebra products in the past (with the exception of their fountain pen) and I ended up finding the “upgraded” version of the pen I was currently using, the F-701. This all stainless-steel pen with a knurled grip is supposed to be durable, elegant, and precise. Does it live up to its own advertising?


The body of this pen looks simple even when compared to the already minimal F-301. A 3/8ths tubular body uses more than 4 of the pen’s overall 5 ¼ inches in length. The last inch or so from the tip is very finely knurled to form the grip section, after which is a stainless-steel cone with some cosmetic step-downs. This cone screws off, providing the only access to the refill or inside the pen at all, allowing you to see that the walls of the body are about 2mm thick. On the other side of the pen there is a highly polished clip in the bent-spring steel fashion with “ZEBRA” and “F-701” stamped into it that is joined to the top of the barrel with the only bit of exposed plastic on the pen. Above this is a clicker button, which is, in fact, a plastic plunger with a metal sheath. You can theoretically remove this sheath, but there is no reason to (it doesn’t give you access to anything) and it doesn’t look like it will come off under normal conditions.


The refill is exactly the same as the refill for the F-301, which means it is fantastically smooth for a ballpoint, with a black that’s dark enough and generally resistant to wear (I believe you could also swap in one of their gel refills if that’s more your thing). This smoothness is added to by the weight of the pen, which is almost twice that of the 301, and it really shrugs off the common complaint that ballpoints require too much pressure to write with comfortably. I can write in cursive with one of these pens as fast and as easily as I could with any of my fountain pens and I get the benefit (or detriment) of that thin, precise line.  The clip is almost identical to that of the 301, but it seems to be attached more securely and doesn’t have as much of a problem with bending away and losing its grip over time (but this is still an area that can be improved: I wouldn’t clip on anything thicker than a piece of fabric). The knurling on the grip is superb, completely removing any slipperiness while being fine enough to not dig into the skin to be noticeable. This, combined with the larger size, will probably be good news for anyone who has cramped up trying to hold onto the 301 series. And finally, the click mechanism is very smooth with a nice amount of back pressure. Despite claims that it is “silent” there is still a noticeable click, but it is much less satisfying. The overall mechanism feels much more structurally sound and is nicer but ever-so-slightly more difficult to push.


I would consider the 701 an upgrade in almost every way. It is heavier, thicker, and more expensive. But the all-metal body is (even more) rugged, and the feel of the writing experience from click to page is smooth and seamless. My complaints are limited to the clip still being a problem if bent out even just a little, and the habit the shiny metal body (especially the polished clip) has of collecting scratches (some people might also be displeased about the grip being not-grippy enough for them, or the body feeling cold/heavy because of its metal construction). For the price, I’d say this is the best you could do for a ballpoint, and I might even go so far as to put it up as one of the best ballpoints I’ve ever used.

Review – Tombow Airpress

My Tombow Airpress was presented to me in Japanese packaging, and, as such, I had no idea what it was supposed to do. Upon careful inspection of the pictograms, I came to a conclusion that was reasonably close to the correct answer of: it is a pressurized ink pen (so it can write upside down or underwater and such {think: space pen}), but it only gets pressurized when you depress the click mechanism. If or why this would be an advantage over regular pressurized systems I do not know, but the pen does come with a set of other features to make it more usable in the rugged outdoors and whatnot, so maybe you’ll get a greater value out of it. I’m probably not the target market here (my pens lead a very relaxed life), but let’s take a look anyway.

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The body of the Airpress is cigar-shaped, with a rubber coating, and quite short at less than 5”. An eye-shaped indent in the middle of the pen and six plastic flutes on the section expose the inner mechanism so that you can see a little bit of what’s going on inside. At the front, there’s a removable cone (which is where the pen gets refilled) that tapers down to where the ballpoint gets exposed. Up near the back is a plastic area, attached to which is a weird-looking wire clip (with a plastic end for extra grip), and protruding from it is the click-button. Sitting opposite the clip is a clear-plastic lanyard hole. The identifying markings are hard to find, with “Airpress” being molded into the rubber and “Tombow” “Japan” very minute in the plastic around the mechanism. Still, there is enough there for refills or replacement if you need it.

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The tip is a little finer than the average medium ballpoint and writes smoothly enough, though I do find it has a problem with blobbing or bits of dried ink on the end like many of the pressurized ink cartridges. It is indeed capable of writing upside down (or without gravity) and underwater (which also proves that the ink is waterfast) with no noticeable effects on performance. The body is rugged and tough (though I don’t put my pens through terribly destructive situations) and the rubber coating allows you to maintain a solid grip throughout use. The clip is quite grippy, with the plastic attachment having several ridges that catch as it clips, and the wire design allowing it to open to almost a 45-degree angle without deforming or breaking. (I haven’t “tested” the lanyard hole, but it seems to be fine)

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Everything about this pen is pretty solid. It’s easy to write with, easy to hold (it’s quite chunky and a little thicker than I like my pens, but some people prefer that and it’s better for the use case of this pen in particular), and well built. The clip and the click mechanism are both satisfying to use and the rubber is solid while lacking that sticky-feeling rubber can sometimes have. All of this comes in a very portable package at a decent price (cheaper than your average Fischer Space Pen), which makes it something ideal to look at for someone in one of the various “rugged” professions or as a reliable EDC (everyday carry) pen.


Review – Kuretake No.14 Brush Pen

I think an ideal gift is one where you receive something that is useful or interesting to you, but from a direction you would have never looked yourself. Such was my case with the Kuretake brush pen number 14. For personal use, I’ve basically settled on my brush pens, and wasn’t really on the lookout for another, but I was still quite glad to receive one of these little guys as a present. Let’s see how it performs.

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The body of the pen is a black-flecked maroon, slightly-soft plastic that looks and feels a bit like ebonite. The cap is uniformly thicker than the barrel with a black cylinder protruding through a diagonal cutout for the top quarter-inch. From this comes a simple but functional spring-steel pocket clip. The barrel has no decoration save gold-imprinted Japanese lettering (that I can’t read) and an Arabic numeral “14”. The butt end is a similarly simple black convex disk. The section is made of the same piece as the barrel, and aside from a sealing ring for the cap, has only a single small step-down before a black plastic cone leads to the incredibly small “nib”.

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The little felt tip is only two millimeters long. And, despite many of the online references I found referring to this pen as “hard”, the line produced easily moves from half a millimeter to three millimeters. The ink is fairly black but not particularly dark, and it has a tendency to fade or split during long or fast strokes. It also bleeds/separates/fades when exposed to water. It’s not super runny but most work will still look ruined (it plays nice with alcohol, though). The feel of the grip section is nothing special but I have no real problems with it, and with the cap posted it is quite well balanced (the cap does feel like it might have a cracking problem with prolonged use, but the pen is disposable). Unfortunately, despite this, I just can’t seem to shake the feeling when using the pen that I’m not in control. Brush pens don’t play well with my style at the best of times and this guy can really get all over the place quickly.

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I’m not sure this pen would be useful as a serious artists’ tool: its ink doesn’t take traditional washes, the ink flow is sub-par, and the tip is imprecise. But as a portable sketcher it has a resilient body, a good clip and a wide range of possible expressions. It isn’t inexpensive, but it isn’t egregiously costed. This isn’t the be-all end-all of disposable brush pens, but id does make for a fine introductory pen or a “backpack beater” as it were.


Review – Muji Hexa Ballpoint (.25mm Gel Pen)

My handwriting is very fine, and I always gravitate toward finer and finer tipped pens in my quest to jam as much information on the page as possible. But there is a limit to how small the tip of any given pen can be. Too thin a felt-tip will simply break, and ballpoints or Rapidograph-style pens will either not allow ink flow or damage paper. Thus, even pens on the smaller end of the possible scale are hard to come by (being more expensive and relatively user-specific when compared to more standard sizes), with .25 being about as thin as one can find. Muji, in its characteristic minimalist style, offers a gel pen in such a small size. Is it a worthwhile purchase?

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As with many Muji products, the pen is outwardly pretty simple. The hexagonal black body is a little larger in diameter than a pencil, and covered in a matte rubber that is only interrupted by two slits in the plastic near the front (for seeing the ink level) and a set of bumps with the slightest of step downs for posting in the back. After a brief clear plastic part, the metal cone in the front quickly brings us to a very fine protruding ink tube that’s about an eighth of an inch long. The clear plastic cap is also hexagonal, with an integrated clip and matching color insert that both covers the tip and displays the sizing information where it can be read easily from a pencil cup. Other than this, there are no markings on the item itself, as the label comes off, stripping you of all its information(in Japanese).

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Performance is good. The pen is comfortable to hold and stays firmly in one’s hand (though the material can make capping and uncapping a bit more “frictionful”). When put to paper, ink flows relatively smoothly. At this size of tip, it is impossible to eliminate all of the scratchiness, but a good job has been done of controlling it. Likewise, another problem at this thinness is that a pen will tend to skip more if at any angle other than perpendicular to the page, but this too has been mitigated. I’d still recommend you write as straight as possible, but it shouldn’t have too great an effect on the writing. I don’t have much information on the ink, but I can tell you that it dries quite quickly (I almost can’t get it to smudge) and it’s waterfast and alcohol resistant (it does bleed a little, but remains legible, which is good for writing and bad for stains). Its spread isn’t too bad either, laying out on the average page about the same thickness as a .25mm (01) technical fineliner (though, with my handwriting both seem very close to a .7 ballpoint).

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The pen’s a good one. It’s nice and sleek with a rugged body (I might be worried about the longevity of the cap. though) and a good writing feel. It’s slightly more expensive than a gel pen of comparable quality in the States (the price tag says ¥210, or about $2, but they sell it in the US for $3), but not enough to be out of their range. The tip is noticeably more fine than other ballpoints and gel pens you’ll find, but in my opinion almost awkwardly so (I’ve never been a fan of how gel pens look on the page {when written with my hand}), and there can be potential issues with the pen drying out. Still, if you’re looking for a functional and minimal super-thin writing pen (that isn’t as finicky or fragile as a technical pen) this is one to look at.

Review – Tombow 2558 Pencil

The Tombow 2558 pencil was introduced to me as a “favorite” pencil, so obviously I had to pick one up. Still, when you first look at it, it’s a pretty unassuming thing. It looks like your standard yellow pencil, with something a little… “off”. So how is it different?

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The body of the pencil is very similar to your average yellow (orangish) pencil. It is basically the same length: 7½” including the eraser attached by copper-colored ferrule. Like most, it’s hexagonal with the information stamped and printed on opposing facets. This information, rendered in a pleasant reddish-brown, is more than enough, giving you: the company (Tombow), the purpose (for General Writing), and the hardness (HB). But there is something to make the body of the pencil stand out: it is slightly thicker than your average pencil, about a millimeter more in diameter. Just enough that one can tell it’s different, but if they aren’t side by side you’ll scratch your head.

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photo 3-63In practice this makes the pencil more comfortable to hold (more material means less hand cramping), and with its super smooth HB lead it really is a pleasure to write/sketch with. And this lead does feel a bit softer than I usually expect an HB to feel. It produces darker lines with seemingly the same pressure (and surprising ease), but that certainly improves the ease of writing with it. And the eraser functions well; it doesn’t remove everything, but it doesn’t vanish either.

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This is, as advertised, a very nice pencil for writing. And everything about it is well-done. The finish is nice and evenly applied, the wood is sturdy as is the lead, and the ferrule is nicely fitted on a step-down so that it doesn’t catch and is unblemished by its crimping. If you’re a wood pencil person (I’m not as much) and are looking for something high quality but still standard looking, this is a nice option. It might not be a smooth as a Blackwing, but it’s surprisingly close, and if I’m ever using a wood pencil, it’ll probably be the one I reach for.


Review – Staedtler Mars Lumograph Pencil (F)

“I use these specifically, because I like the nice blue,” is a bit of a paraphrase from a former instructor of mine when discussing what pencils to get for sketching or other artistic purposes. The main gist of this discussion was that it really comes down to personal preference, since there are so many different pencil brands that all make quality products. Aesthetics are important, and Staedtler is known for their deep blue coloring (as well as their quality craftsmanship), and that’s part of what makes the Mars Lumograph iconic, but is it what you should be using (specifically in “F” hardness because I like my pencils a little bit on the hard side)?

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The body is a standard hexagonal shape, with a similar size to your average writing pencil. A deep blue covers almost the entire pencil, save an end cap that is black and a white band just beneath it. On the end cap the hardness is stamped in a silver ink on all 6 facets, and the main product information is rendered in the same color on the back two thirds of the blue area. Opposite this facet a product number and bar code are printed in white.

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This pencil doesn’t really have any fancy features; like most sketching pencils, it doesn’t even have an eraser. But what it does have functions superbly. The wood is light but sturdy (no splintering) and the lead well centered (no weird angles or breaking because of sharpener issues). The lead itself is wonderfully smooth, even with my preference for firmer feedback.

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And that really just affirms the idea that started this off. The Lumograph is a good pencil, it can take a beating and keep on sketching. The materials are good, and the assembly is what you would want. But, aside from it being good quality and easy-to-find, there isn’t a real reason to recommend this over another drawing pencil. If you like the blue, definitely go for them. If you think blue is better than the other choices (black or green in most cases), also take a look. If you’ve been with the brand forever or just find there’s something about the feel that you really enjoy, there’s no reason to turn away.