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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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 – 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?

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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.

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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.

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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 – 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?

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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.

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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.

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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 – Rosetta 4- and 3-Pen Cases

Well, here’s a bit of a blast from my past. This product doesn’t seem to be available anymore, but it can now at least serve as a cautionary tale about getting what you pay for. I’m talking about Rosetta “leather” pen cases that came in both 3- and 4- slot sizes. I acquired these back when I didn’t have an adequate way to transport multiple fountain pens for use (I still don’t, but that’s because I won’t fork over the money for a good case) and these looked the part (they’re modeled after the Aston Pen cases) but were about a quarter the price; was there really any value there?

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There isn’t much to describe about the look of the cases; each has a flat back that curls around the front at the top to form a protective flap which tapers to fit underneath a securing band. Stamped on the end of this “tongue” is the Rosette compass rose logo. Beneath the flap, a single piece of leather has been stitched down in several places to form either 3 or 4 rolls in which moderately sized pens can be inserted. Most of the surfaces have a smooth finish, but the unseen inside of these tubes is rough and unfinished feeling. Any edge where there would be leather is covered by a sealant-type goop.

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From a design standpoint, there isn’t any real problem here, they hold pens well in a relatively compact space while providing protection. The real problem here is the longevity of the materials. The quality of the leather here is so poor that I’d question if it really was leather if not for the unfished inside of the rolls. And the finishing where the pens are held is thin and flimsy, it cracks and tears as the clips roll over it (and the space is small enough that most pens won’t fit inside with their clips not over the lip). And the whole thing is dry enough that it’s started to tear around the stitches with time. This isn’t damage from a dry environment (they’ve lived most of their life in a humid one) or that could have been prevented with an application of leather treatment (the outside is “finished” and hardly takes oil, besides it remains “supple” in that it can generally flex and bend without problems.). This is just a problem of poor materials, thin leather that wasn’t meant to last.

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And so, as pen cases, they’re not really useful to me anymore. I know that with just a little more use they’ll come apart completely. And it would appear that this was a complaint others had, as I can hardly even find evidence that these guys were produced at one time, let alone still being sold. To me, they now serve as a reminder that there are budget options that are too good to be true, or aren’t’ really even worth the time looking at them.

Review – Exceed 5×8.25 Hardcover Dotted Notebook

I’ve previously talked about the Exceed brand and the increase in quality from generic Walmart notebooks, so when I saw a standard sized notebook from them in hardcover (my favorite style) with dot-grid (my favorite ruling), I had to pick one up. From a distance the book is almost indistinguishable from a Moleskine (in their standard size), but comes at a much lower price-point. Are the two comparable? And which is a better value?

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The size listed on the packaging is 5×8.25 inches, dimensions which reality bears out with the addition of a 5/8 inch spine (slightly thicker than that of the standard Moleskine). I chose the black cover, which is a nice “matte” pleather with a very fine grain, though it feels a bit rubbery and the cardboard structure is noticeably flexible. On the back there is a simple embossed “Exceed” logo which is nicely subtle, and the attachment points for the secure-but-dangly elastic closure band. Inside, there is an ugly page with several lines to write down your information and another “Exceed” logo at the bottom. This is followed by the 120 sheets of dot-ruled paper. Bound to the spine somewhere along the way is a flimsy, thin, black ribbon bookmark that nevertheless doesn’t have a propensity to unravel. Attached to the back cover of the book is your standard (at this point) pocket which… works, fine.

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The paper inside has a classic 5mm dot layout with no additional formatting, and a pale-grey printing that moves into the background even under pencil lines, while still providing a neat and versatile guiding structure. The paper is a noticeably yellow-ish off-white and is thicker than your average notebook of this size (which accounts for the differences with a Moleskine book while having the same number of sheets). The increase in quality that this little bit of thickness allows (at least, that is my assumption), is well worth it, though. While it might not be the best for fine-writing instruments (the texture can best be described as “toothy”), it is opaque enough to allow for writing on both sides with basic utensils such as ballpoints and pencils. Furthermore, technical pens, brush pens, fountain pens, rollerballs, and even practice calligraphy pens all usually result in only minor show-through (at the cost of some feathering). However, alcohol-based Copic markers, Sharpies, and many felt-tip markers are too much for the paper, sometimes bleeding through entire pages. And there’s no guarantee of archival quality.

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One could easily go out and find notebooks that are worse than this one. When compared to a Moleskine the paper and binding are superior, but it feels a little cheaper and there’s an increase in thickness. This isn’t an artist’s main book, it’s not archival and the paper feel isn’t inspiring. But it is a durable, inexpensive and widely available option that accommodates a wide variety of writing utensils. If you’re looking for a budget alternative in the “black-book genre”, these are definitely ones to check out.

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.