Review – Cross Jotzone Notebook and Pen

Notebooks are quite handy things, but most of the common ones look a little unprofessional. If the standard spiral and composition books won’t work for you, and Moleskine just seems a little cliché, maybe Cross has the answer for you with its Jotzone series of notebooks.

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I feel I need to put a bit of a disclaimer here at the front. I usually carry a notebook around with me and try to get through about a quarter of the pages before I do a review on it (that’s why I’ve done so few notebook reviews: it takes time), but on this one I certainly didn’t get anywhere close to that, for reasons that will be explained in a moment.

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The cover of the book is a nice, smooth faux-leather, black save for a triangle on the lower right of the front where the color varies (mine’s blue). It covers the full 5.5” x 7” paper part of the book, with a ½” extra bit around the spine, which is hollow, creating a “tube” where pens can be stored (it also helpfully says “Cross Jotzone™” on the spine) . “Cross” is nicely but subtly stamped both on the back and the triangle in the corner. An elastic band is attached to the back in a novel way, so that when it is being used to hold the book closed it lines up with edge of the colored triangle. Inside there is nothing special behind the front cover, but inside the back is a small, simple cardboard and paper pocket. It is attached so it is accessed from the top, a decision that with its small size seems to have been made only to avoid comparisons with Moleskine.

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The paper is very good, a nice 100gsm (70lb) that is smooth, but not too smooth in my opinion (it certainly isn’t as smooth as the Clairefontaine paper fountain pen people love). It handles fountain pens and liquid roller balls quite well; with minimal feathering and show-through under normal usage conditions (I’ve done no test with flex pens or triple broads) and the dry time isn’t that bad, though far from instant. The pages themselves are nice and white with a ¼” grey ruling that stops before the page ends, and a stupid grey triangle in the corners right under where the triangle is on the cover. This area helpfully says “Cross Jotzone™” on every page, and it’s supposed to be where you put your quick summary notes or something so you can easily riffle through the pages and find what you’re looking for. I think this is dumb (and I hate pre-printed words on the pages of my notebooks) but nobody asked me and the paper is good enough that I could easily ignore that (and the ruling that is far too large for me).

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But now for the reason I haven’t used the book that much, and wouldn’t buy another one. I admit it’s quite petty but I use my notebooks a lot, and I want them to look good. That’s why I still use Moleskine classic hardbacks, it’s very hard to find a notebook that resists damage (page corners bending, cover denting/ripping/bending etc) better than those books. And this one is, cosmetically speaking (it feels easily strong enough to not fall apart structurally before being used up) is the worst I have encountered. After sitting for a day or two in my bag, with the only other items in the bag being non-spiral notebooks the cover became covered (no pun intended) with irreversible scratches and scrapes that are quite noticeable. Basically, if you want to maintain the “Cross” professional look, it’s a desk notebook, and I have reviewed it like a desk notebook. It’s a pretty good if gimmicky one, but I personally couldn’t stand to look at the satin faux-leather cover getting so beat up over time (and I wouldn’t recommend using the spine pen holder, as its made out of the same, easily damaged material). I feel like it wasn’t really thought out, and is more of an “executive gift” that no one is expected to really use, and that’s a shame because it comes with a great pen.

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The pen is a very simple chromed metal pen (I would say steel from the weight, it’s quite heavy for a pen of its size) with a smooth cylindrical non-tapering barrel. There is pointed-ish cap finial at the back and a cone at the front leading to the point. It’s retractable, with a twist action, and there is a clear mark and band signifying where the pieces come together (and it is the smoothest action I have ever felt in a pen). The adornment and the clip are minimal, probably to be inexpensive, and while it’s a little ugly, the simplicity makes it easy to overlook. The cartridge is a short version of the standard Cross cartridge in a medium point. It, like most Cross pens, is very smooth, in this case especially when writing cursive. It does have some startup problems, especially when left unused for a time, but that problem can be solved by using it more or getting a new cartridge.

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In the end it’s an alright notebook, and a good pen. I wouldn’t purchase them for myself, but it does make a very nice looking gift, and it’s functional, with good paper and a nice writing pen. It’s a desk notebook, and a heavy desk pen (but I like the weight) made of good quality materials, but essentially with a disregard for useabilty. I can recommend them as desk materials, but not as daily users.

Review – Art & Parcel (September 2016)

Art & Parcel is a monthly subscription service for art supplies from H. Blyth & Co. It’s like a Lootcrate, but for art supplies; so it’s way better than a Lootcrate (my opinion). But with so many of these monthly-blind-subscription-service things around, what makes this one special enough to look at? (Answer: Art supplies) And is it worth it to get one?

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(Couple of notes here: I got this parcel for free {and even though I got to pick one, I didn’t get the one I picked, so the picking part won’t influence the review} for review, and I live in the US where the “subscription” part of this service is unavailable. From what I can tell that means that I would have to pay up front as a lump sum to get my parcels, instead of being able to pay by the month, this also means that shipping cost is terrible to get them here, £16 (About $20) is a steal for these products, and the shipping in the UK is a great deal too, even throughout the rest of Europe it doesn’t exceed the price of the items like it does coming to the US)

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The one I am going to be looking at today is September’s parcel, which is focused mainly on colored pencils, but first I’ll talk quickly about the packaging. Mine was shipped in a bubble envelope, inside of which was a very nice cardboard box that was very well sealed with brown tape. On the top the Art & Parcel logo is printed very plainly, and on the bottom in pencil there is the month. (My box was a bit dented, but this is likely from the post office as, due to my schedule, the box had to be sent through the post twice) Inside is a nice packing slip that explains everything that is in the box along with its regular retail price (if that’s anything to go on you save a pound or two from buying the items individually in this set). All of the materials are neatly and securely wrapped in a newsprint/tracing paper that is sealed with a sticker of the Art & Parcel logo. It is all very well executed and nothing got damaged.

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The first items in this box were four Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils. I am no stranger to these pencils (they were the subject of one of my first {and not as well written} reviews), though I don’t have these particular colors: Naples Yellow, Light Phthalo Blue, Chrome Oxide Green Fiery (wonderful name that), and Red-Violet. I think the choice of colors is a bit strange, but they are definitely useful, and give a better representation of the pencils abilities than a plain RGB or RYB would have. There’s not much more to say there since they are some of the best colored pencils around. One thing I do really like about them is the fact that they layer so that some colors can somewhat be on top of other colors, unlike the cheaper colored pencils where they’re pretty mutually exclusive.

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Next is the KOH-I-NOOR Hardtmuth Magic pencil, which is basically a fat colored pencil that has a “lead” made up of the 3 RYB colors. This means that as you write or color with the pencil it changes, and the colors mix together to create a nice gradient effect. In practice the yellow mixing with both the red and blue works great, but the purple almost looks black and rarely shows up, and getting a nice solid version of one of the primary colors is very difficult, so the gradient looks more green and orange than anything else. I would bet that with some practice and odorless mineral spirits with a blending stick that it could produce wonderful effects, but I would still have trouble finding a use for it.

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Third up is another Faber-Castell product; one of their Pitt Artist Brush Pens, another item I’ve looked at in the past, though this is a different version. It’s a “big brush” and the body of the pen is over a half inch in diameter, a bit chunky for me but still very easy to hold on to and surprisingly comfortable. The color is “Cold Grey IV” which seems to be in the middle of the grey family, and the brush is very fat, going from lines of about ½mm to almost 5mm. It’s also got all of the stuff you want out of an ink: waterproof, lightfast, and archival quality. But I’m not really sold on how it fits with the rest of the stuff here. It is a grey, which makes it more like a pencil when sketching, but going over the same place multiple times does make it darker. It’s just strange to me, but then again I have a very different style to most people, and playing around with a new brush pen is always fun.

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And the final item included is a 10-sheet pad of watercolor paper. It’s made by Fabriano but has the Art & Parcel logo again on the front. It’s A5 size, which is about 6” x 8” and is a hefty 300gsm. It handily took everything I threw at it without flinching, bleeding, or feathering. Sharpies, calligraphy pens, and brush pens push most papers to the limit, but this stuff is truly meant for paint (watercolor at least), which I don’t have too much of lying around (in accessible areas, I did have some tempera and it handled that very well), but it seems easily capable of handling it. A liberal application of water will turn it in to one big slight buckle, but that’s about it. My only complaint is that there are only 10 sheets.

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Overall I’m very satisfied with this box. It’s well worth the money and provides several products that work in tandem, allowing you to start creating right out of the package without having to look for more materials. From what I can tell, this is true of the previous parcels as well, but each one comes based in a different medium. The subscription would be relatively inexpensive way to try out something that might not be in your comfort zone without having to do a lot of research or spend time picking out and ordering products. It was honestly really hard for me to try and pick out a parcel I wanted. The recent ones at least were all super cool (and they can be purchased even after the subscription goes out, so nobody needs to miss out like with other sub boxes) and I’d be signing up right now if shipping to the US didn’t more than double the price (damn the postal service(s)). I really like this box. It’s given me a bunch of cool stuff to play around with (and a Haribo candy to eat*) and if the idea of getting a bunch of high quality art goodies in the mail every month appeals to you I would recommend it.

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*I ate it; it was good (like a softer laffy-taffy).

Review – Alvin Isometric Graph Paper (8½ x 11)

One of the hardest things in art and design is getting perspective down. And while many organic things can be fudged to look fine, there are some times where a more precise and technical perspective must be used. That’s where isometric graph paper comes in (at least for 2-point perspective), with rulings that serve as guides for simple-but-precise shapes rotated at 45 degrees (or hexes). The particular brand I’m looking at today is Alvin.

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The paper comes in a pad of 30 sheets with a cardboard back and cardstock cover. The “spine” is simply glue that allows pages to be easily torn off. The paper itself is a pretty standard 20 lb weight that resists bleed-though on ballpoints and smaller felt tips. Rollerballs, larger felt tips, Sharpies, and the like will bleed, but not terribly. Show through is pretty bad, and the second side has no graph so I can’t recommend the back for use.

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The graph has a ¼ to ½ inch border around the edge with some basic information printed on it. The graph is just under 10 ½ inches by 8 ¾ inches, with lines coming from the border at 30, 90, and 120 degrees every quarter inch. The lines are a light blue and will not show up on simple scanner, and very faintly on more modern scanners when set to greyscale. Still, they can be easily removed and don’t photocopy well, meaning the drawing or diagram can stand on its own.

The grid is very helpful in creating simple outlines for 3D shapes and places, or hexes for board games and tile patterns. The paper is pretty unspectacular but it’ll get the job done. I have no clue about its archival properties, but since they aren’t advertised I’d say they’re minimal at best. They’re a fun thing to mess around with and a useful classroom tool, but they might be left behind for more serious art and design.

Review – Huion 17.7” Light Pad (L4S)

There have been some huge leaps in lightbox technology in recent years. I’ve owned 3 lightboxes in my time, one being a repurposed dental x-ray box, the second being a traditional style box and the third being this which I bought as a possibly temporary replacement for my more traditional-style box. But I might not be swapping back so soon.

Their photos look a lot better than mine

Their photos look a lot better than mine

The Light Pad itself is a rectangular prism that measures 17 7/8” diagonal and 14 1/8” x 10 5/8” x 3/16”, meaning it covers quite a large area, but is very slim. The workable white/translucent area has markings on the side indicated in centimeters 12 ¼” (31cm) x 8 ¼” (21cm) with a ½cm margin. The non-workable black margin is about ¾“ all the way around the pad and it’s only features are the power button and a logo. On the side of the device next to the power button is a micro USB port that is only used for power (this version has no internal batteries), and a red LED will come on when the device is correctly connected. On the back of the device there is some modest information and nicely padded feet that prevent the pad from sliding around when being used.

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Using the Light Pad is a breeze. Simply touching the power “button” lights up the entire workable area to the highest brightness setting (which isn’t very bright, and being shone through a white plastic makes it much less glaring on the eyes). Touching and holding the button will start the pad lighting up, and releasing the button during this will keep the pad at the current brightness setting. This setting is remembered and the next time one starts the device it will light up at the chosen setting unless you hold the button down again. The working area accommodates A4 and Letter sizes well, and the light on the brightest setting easily works with 2 sheets of 110lb cardstock. The plastic the surface is made from is very smooth, but resists sliding and scratches. The feet are also very nice and the device is stiff enough that it doesn’t bend around them under normal use (I still wouldn’t go stacking things on it).

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I don’t think I’m going to be going back to the more traditional lightboxes anytime soon. In my opinion the only advantage they offer is an angled working surface, which is a feature I never really used. The Huion Light Pad is a great lightbox; it’s sufficiently lighted and durable enough to be easy to work with, thin enough that is stores easily, and draws very little power. Its overall workspace footprint is very small, and its job is done almost flawlessly. I do find the red LED indicator light to be annoying but I can’t think of a better way to do things and it is much less troublesome than other indicator lights I’ve had to deal with. I also have no use for the multiple brightness settings but I suppose it’s better to have it than not. Still, the device has become a permanent feature of my workplace and I would recommend anyone looking for a lightbox to look at these cheaper and thinner LED alternatives to the traditional boxes.

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