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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 – 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.

Review – Mont Blanc Ballpoint Pen Refill (In G-2 Body) (Blue Medium)

In the past, I have looked upon the Pilot G-2 more favorably than some other online reviewers, but I’ve still never used one for any time beyond the review period, and it isn’t exactly a pen I would be recommending to anyone. The best things about it are that it’s cheap and well-built. So, of course, someone came up with the idea of combining those features with a better-writing tip. With a few simple modifications you can get the G-2 to accept Mont Blanc ballpoint refills, but is it worth the hassle?

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The actually “modding” process is pretty simple once you have the components. Remove the ink cartridge from the G-2 (obviously leaving the spring inside). Then open up your Mont Blanc pen refill of choice. These refills come with a plastic sheath to prevent accidental markings (and probably some damage); cut a thin, short tube out of this material and to slide around the refill like a collar. Then cut a longer tube out of the rest to fill in the space between the click mechanism and the refill (more detailed instructions can be found with a quick internet search). These two bits should ensure that the refill is long enough to work with the mechanism, and keep it straight enough to operate.

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In terms of usability, I like the Mont Blanc refill, but not as much as many others do. Comparing it to the G-2 is a little apples-to-oranges, since my refill is a ballpoint one, and the G-2 is a (gel) rollerball. While the G-2 with its liquid ink and precise point, could feel slippery, scratchy, and blobby, this refill is super-smooth and easy-to-handle. It is buttery, and much smoother than your average ballpoint, but that’s also its biggest problem. Sometimes it feels like the tip is holding you back, or you’re writing in oil. Other problems, like startup issues and some blobbing that are common to all ballpoints are present, but more minimal than you’ll find in pretty much any other pen. It’s a very good writing experience.

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If you want the nice feeling of a good Mont Blanc refill for a cheap price, this is about as low as you can go. The actually assembly can be a bit fiddly (there are a few places where the new pieces of plastic can scrape and lead to a sticky feeling mechanism) but at less than $30, even if you need to buy a cutting mat and hobby knife, it’s miles below the nearest Mont Blanc (and I don’t know any other pens that use the refills), with the G-2 still being a super sturdy and comfortable body for the refill to live in. If you don’t believe that Mont Blanc has the best refills ever (like me) or you’re comfortable with your Cross and Parker refill pens (also like me) then you needn’t go anywhere near this trick, but if someone hands you one to try out, I’d at least try it out.

Review – Tombow Mono Zero Erasers

A few years ago I was aiding my brother in the search for a good separate eraser to go with lead holders (that often don’t have their own erasers), and that lead me to review the Sanford Peel-Off Magic Rub, which is essentially a Magic Rub eraser in the same body Sanford uses for their Peel-Off China Markers. And to me that was the answer. I knew there were mechanical erasers, but they were mostly cheap little things, or not available in the stores I frequented. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I found the potential simple, high-quality solution of the Tombow Mono Zero mechanical erasers and I got them as fast as I could. Are they up to the task?

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The body is super simple, being a cylinder about the size of a pencil and a little over 3½” long. It comes in 2 different colors: silver for the round eraser, and black for the rectangular one (it’s made of plastic either way). At the front there is a step-down to the “lead-pipe” of sorts. This “pipe” being cylindrical for the round and flattened for the rectangular is the only other main physical difference between the two. The (lead/eraser) pipe is a nice, stiff metal that cleanly guides the eraser as it extends. On the back, there is a non-removable, simple push-click mechanism with an integrated clip. The clip is good but not superb at clipping, while having the advantage of being very structurally sound (something most plastic integrated clips are not). On the top of this mechanism is a sticker with the eraser’s sizes: 2.3mm in diameter for the round “small” and 2.5mm x .5mm for the rectangular “slightly less small”.

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Performance is good; the click mechanism is sound and has a satisfying feel, retracting and reloading are simple and both done from the front end (reducing the number of failure points but also making disassembly functionally impossible). The erasers are of the white variety and erase very well. They aren’t the absolute best I’ve seen and they won’t get rid of every single mark, but they are both quite tiny and precise, making them very useful in those fine detail areas other eraser wouldn’t even be able to get to.

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They are very good erasers, but more as a set to complement others than on their own. For writing, pocket and backpack sketchbooks, or those who do a lot of detail work, they will be fantastic, especially if one gets both to use in different situations. But for general use, they obviously don’t have the huge, quick-erasing capabilities of a standard eraser, and I’d imagine that in most people’s use cases they’d augment and not replace one. Still, I am one of those people who like to write and do finer-detail drawings more often than other types and they have earned a place in my pencil bag that I don’t see them moving out of any time soon. So if you’re looking for a fine mechanical eraser to easily carry around, fit in with your pencils, or do detailed work, I’d say take a look at these.

Review – Sharpie China Marker

A ‘china marker’ or ‘grease pencil’ is essentially a hard, fat crayon that is used mostly for temporarily marking nonporous surfaces like glass, plastic laminate, tile, etc. They are an item that used to be pretty popular but have since waned as newer products like dry erase markers for temporary work on board or laminate, and permanent markers for less temporary weather resistance have come on the scene. Yet they still can be very useful when working with glass or porcelain. This being the case I was not surprised to see some in the hardware store, but I was slightly surprised to see that they were ‘Sharpie’ brand. Do they hold up in comparison?

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The short answer would be “yes”. The Sharpie brand here is just an addition to an older, very standard design by Sanford. The body is just a version of their “Peel-Off” design. I have a fairly old (by surviving china marker standards, since using them destroys them) one that is almost identical in most ways. The body is tightly wrapped brown-ish paper that is sealed with a black, perforated coating. On this coating is all of the relevant information of the product, and beneath it is a small white string. Pulling on this string will create a tear in the coating that can then be used to tear off enough of the inside material to expose the tip if it is worn down. The tip begins exposed with a roughly conical spiral of the paper that provides a nice template when tearing off a bit later. While I do suppose that the item could be sharpened, it would be pretty wasteful and difficult which is why a system like this was developed.

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As for writing, I have a black version, and it behaves very similarly to a fat crayon. Line width and coverage are dependant highly on how much pressure is applied, but it almost never is a true “line” in that it doesn’t fill in the whole space when writing. It writes well on nonporous surfaces and often on porous ones, being again about as smooth as a crayon. For what it’s intended to write on it is relatively weather-and handle-proof (it can smear) but can be removed with a paper towel and some elbow grease. Nonporous surfaces are a bit more tricky, but in general there is a way to clean it off.

There are only two types of grease pencil/china markers: the mechanical version, and peel-off versions, this one being the latter. It is very hard to mess up a peel-off grease pencil, but it is also hard to innovate in that field. This shows neither. It was competently made, but not entirely ingenious. It lacks any innovation or improvement over the pervious generations, but it does mark what it was meant to mark (china) and more. The price and availability are also quite reasonable. If you desire to acquire a china marker, and don’t mind the fact that the “greasy” (waxy) tip is exposed, then this one will do everything you want it to.