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).

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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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Review – Uni Kuru Toga Roulette

I’ve previously looked at one of the most liked (and according the to the Wirecutter the best) recent mechanical pencils, the UniBall Kuru Toga; I was under whelmed. Recently I was able to get a hold of the upgraded version, the Roulette. Is it worth the upgrade? Should you skip the regular model and get this one? Let’s take a look.

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The back end of the pencil is a plastic and metal lead advancer; it works and doesn’t dig into the skin. There is a rubberized ring around it for reasons I don’t quite understand. Removing the advancer reveals a super tiny eraser that won’t last long but does indeed erase. Below that is a clip, which is fit onto the barrel in a way that would allow removal, but with difficulty. Japan is stamped into the side of the clip, and the name and size of the pencil is written on the barrel just beneath the clip. The barrel is plain until one gets to the section, which is metal and extended, the bottom half is knurled, but not aggressively so; it provides a good grip. There is a small hole in the grip that allows one to see the fact that the pencils mechanism is turning (but no the mechanism itself). Down from that is a tip very similar to the regular Kuru Toga, but extended is some ways. On this model this oddly designed step down cap is still not necessary, but covers up an otherwise ugly portion.

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Now on to the part everybody loves, the mechanism. I mentioned that I was under-whelmed by this previously, and I still am, but I know why now. The window in the grip section allowed me to see clearly when the mechanism was turning and when it wasn’t. And while it was possible to do this in the cheaper versions I was a bit harder to see. The mechanism itself by the way, as far as I can tell, is identical in both pencils, but there is no way to open them and find out exactly without possibly rendering them inoperable. But the answer to when the mechanism was turning when I was writing with the pencil was… never. I tested it, the mechanism works, it just never moves when “I” write with it. My writing, and drawing, are much too light to get it to rotate the lead, and thus I never see the affects. The packaging (for the inexpensive one, my roulette came in all Japanese packaging) says that the mechanism helps with the point of the pencil, and to prevent breakage. I really have never had a problem with either of these things, partly because I flail the pencil around compulsively when writing and drawing, and that rotates it such that my lead is always at a point. Now I guess I know that I write far too lightly to have a problem with breakage. But man, if I write lightly, some people must really press down on the things. So yes, it works flawlessly, but if you write like I do it isn’t really a selling point. And finally I wouldn’t worry about the mechanism wearing out, it is extremely well made and there have been no complaints about such a thing occurring, so if it does by that time you’d be able to just get a new one, it’s popularity means it likely isn’t going anywhere.

So, it is a good pencil? Yes. Is it worth the money for the upgraded version? Yes, even without the mechanism. The pencil is solid, well made, and solves the comfort issues I had with the less expensive version. The weight is good, the feel is good, the metal gives one a good grip and the writing is nice and fine. And if one does press hard enough to activate the mechanism I’ve heard nothing but good things. I wouldn’t take it over my Graphgear, but that’s just personal preference. I like the thinner body a little better on that one. So if you write with a lot of pressure, the Kuru Toga is the pencil for you, if you don’t you have other equally good options within the price range in my opinion. Even then it’s definitely worth a look.

Review – Faber Castell Black Velvet Pencil

If you’re at a second hand place, or a garage sale, etc, and looking for art supplies, you might wonder wether or not a discontinued item you find is a good thing to pick up or not. This might be the case with the Faber Castell Velvet pencils, of which I am covering the black ones here.

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The body of the pencil is nice and round. Its a fairly solid piece of wood with a wonderful grippy, but unintrusive coating. There is a simple eraser on the end, which, if it has been stored poorly or even suboptimally, will quickly become useless. The size of the body is slightly thicker than many other pencils, making it easier to handle and more comfortable to write with. On the side, over the black all information is stamped into the side, with some covered in gold.

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The lead itself is a soft number 2. It shades well, and writes smoothly. Really, it is a very middle-of-the-road lead. It has nothing particularly special. It is of average diameter and isn’t prone to breaking. It is quite good for sketching, but might require several other supplemental pencils.

Overall I’d say that if you’re looking for a decent all-around pencil and can find these cheaply, they’ll do the trick. They aren’t up to the super-high-quality standards of modern Faber Castell products but they do work very well. They are more comfortable than most other inexpensive, school-like pencils and can do just a little bit more. Check them out if they seem reasonable.

Review – General’s Jumbo Kneaded Rubber Eraser

So what’s something every artist needs but no one talks about? If you answered eraser, congratulations! You get a digital cookie. Now then, let’s talk about a good eraser, a General’s Jumbo Kneaded Rubber eraser.

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Kneaded rubber erasers are really cool. They bend and twist into any shape you like, they don’t leave any shavings behind, and they can be used for a long time. They “clean” themselves a little when you knead them, allowing you to use them more regularly, and without smearing. They are rubber, so they come apart and back together. This particular brand comes in a nice square and works perfectly.

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All-in-all, even though there’s little to say about them, they are amazingly handy tools to have around, and much superior to any other eraser you’ll find, though much more expensive.