This weekend I acquired a large quantity of vintage Prismacolor and Derwent colored pencils from a local printing company that used to do a lot of photo retouching work. I was asked “What’s the big deal with vintage Prismacolors?”
Besides loving the beautiful logos, the quality of the foil stamping and paint on the Eagle brand Prismacolors manufactured in the US is top-notch. But in terms of actual material quality, the cores are less likely to break, are more likely to be centered, and overall better quality. So, why wouldn’t I stockpile them?
There’s a lot of great colors in this grouping too.
I don’t have as much experience with Derwent colored pencils but these are all made in Britain/England and labelled “Rexel Cumberland” in various iterations. They are similar to a lot of the pencils I’ve acquired from clearance sales at work. I pretty much have enough of these now to build a shed in the backyard out of colored pencils. Or color in an entire city block. Either option sounds excellent.
Also included in the stash was a few miscellaneous China Markers (wax crayons), dried out ballpoint pens, a couple local advertising pencils, a couple Stabilo ALL pencils, a Hardmuth Aviator 3H pencil, and a few Berol-era Prismacolor colored pencils.
When I first saw it, I was immediately thrilled by the rich plum color of the new Plumchester Square Sketchbook – with a yellow-gold elastic and matching ribbon bookmark! I don’t know about you, but I don’t see nearly enough of the purple/gold complement anywhere, much less the stationery world. Let’s take a closer look, outside and inside.
Appearance and Features
The vegan leather hardcover has a smooth matte finish without the vague stickiness I sometimes feel on other synthetic leather surfaces. The corners are neatly rounded. Although I didn’t road test its durability, the cover resists minor fingernail scratches and looks like it would hold up well to daily-carry. The only branding is a white debossed logo on the back cover.
The elastic closure is significantly wider and heftier than what you’d find on a Moleskine – proportionate to the book’s 8.3-by-8.3-inch format. I wish the satin ribbon bookmark were wider – by comparison, it seems skimpy (however, the cut edge has been fray-proofed, so Ana would undoubtedly give that detail a bonus point!).
Other than its color, probably the most distinctive physical feature of the Plumchester sketchbook is its square format. Although an Internet search for square-format sketchbooks yields plenty of results, most are spiralbound or softcover, not perfect-bound hardcovers. The square format is one of my favorites for versatility – you can decide on your work’s format after it’s done, not be forced to conform to the format of your book. It’s also just right for sharing on Instagram, as Plumchester points out: “Snap a photo of your art on a square page and post it to social media using #plumchester.”
All of that caught my eye, but what held my attention was when I opened that perfect-bound hardcover binding – and how absolutely flat the page spreads open. As big a fan as I am of Stillman & Birn’s sketchbooks, I’ve looked askance at their claims that their hardcover books open flat – I have never been able to escape the telltale gray shadow at the gutter when I put a spread on the scanner. (S&B’s softcovers do, indeed, open as flat as any sketchbook I know.) The Plumchester, however, really does open completely flat. Since spreads closer to the middle of a book usually open flatter, I deliberately picked a spread near the back cover to scan the gutter. As you can see from my un-Photoshopped image, there’s no gray shadow. Based on all the hardcover sketchbooks I’ve opened, I had been convinced that it just isn’t possible to make one that opens completely flat – but the Plumchester proves it can be done.
OK, let’s get to the nitty-gritty – the 48 pages of paper. The smooth, bright white paper is 160 gsm (108 lbs.). Since I’m familiar with it, and it has a similar texture, I compared it to Stillman & Birn’s Epsilon series, which is 150 gsm (100 lbs.). While that weight difference is hardly noticeable in thickness, where it really shows up is in opacity. On an Epsilon page, the ghost of the image on the page underneath or on the other side is clearly visible, but I saw no ghosting at all on Plumchester pages, even when scanned.
I had a ton of fun throwing just about every medium I own onto those pages. Many sketchbook papers have a toothy surface that’s nice for art media, but the tooth is unpleasant with a fountain pen (my favorite writing tool), so I don’t enjoy writing on the same page I’ve sketched on. But the Plumchester’s smooth surface is a joy to use with everything from fountain and gel pens to fat, juicy brush pens.
The only media that bled through were an alcohol-based Zig Kurecolor marker, a Higgins Black Magic marker (wherever I stalled when writing, but not a scribbled line where I was moving faster) and a scribble of Liquitex ink where I sprayed it with water.
Plumchester says the paper is ideal for “graphite pencils, pigmented ink, colored pencils, paint markers,” so it was no surprise that the paper buckled under watercolor or wherever I sprayed or washed the page with water. While I expected the buckling (most papers lighter than 140 lbs. probably would), I was a little disappointed that the sizing allowed most of my water-soluble marker and brush pen inks to sink in rapidly, which means that giving them a swipe of a waterbrush didn’t bring out a rich wash. Papers of equivalent weight such as Stillman & Birn’s Alpha and Canson XL mixed media do a better job of that.
Still, my pear illustration shows off plenty of bright, blended colors from Kuretake Zig Clean Color Real Brush Pens, so I can’t complain. My other fruit sketches show conventional colored pencils, watercolor pencils (activated with water) and watercolor paints, and the colors all look brilliant on Plumchester’s paper. As expected, the page buckled wherever I applied water, but nothing seeped through.
With all dry media the paper is pleasant to use, especially plain old graphite. I thought it might not have enough tooth to use with charcoal and other chalky drawing pencils, but even those look beautiful. With colored pencils I tend to prefer surfaces with a bit more tooth to pick up the pigment faster, but I still like the results on this smooth surface.
I think the Plumchester sketchbook would make an ideal art journal. The page spreads are generous, and the flat-opening binding is unsurpassed. The paper takes nearly every medium beautifully, as long as you don’t get carried away with water, and the pages are heavy enough that they could support collage, too. A bonus is the smooth surface, which is a delight to use for drawing and painting as well as writing.
The A5 square size is a bit too large for me to carry in my everyday bag, so I am really hoping Plumchester makes a smaller book in the same square format – 6 or 7 inches would be ideal. With the same purple and yellow color scheme, please!
Before I got heavily into colored pencils, watercolor brush pens were my coloring medium of choice. It’s hard to resist the huge range of intense, saturated colors many of them come in. Tombow Dual-Brush Pens were my gateway drug, and I managed to acquire quite a few of the line’s 96 colors before I discovered Kuretake Zig Clean Color Real Brush Pens. I decided that the “real” brush tips on the Kuretake pens were more variable and expressive, and they were my favorite for a long time (and yes, I acquired quite a few of those, too).
Eventually colored pencils suited my urban sketching needs better than markers, so except for black brush pens, I haven’t been using markers as much. Recently, though, I discovered Marvy LePlume II Double-Sided Watercolor Markers – and good golly, they come in an unbelievable 109 colors! Even more than the Tombows! Resistance was futile. I did, however, manage to resist getting all 109. In fact, my general tendency is to pick out all the brightest, most garish colors in any set, but I wanted to limit myself to about a dozen, so I showed some restraint and chose a relatively cohesive, subdued (for me) palette. I also got a blender pen.
Scribble and Wash Test
My initial scribbles were done on Canson 98-pound mixed media paper, which is sized for wet media. On the right I used the blender pen to test the wash properties and found the marks to be a bit scratchy looking – the blender brush pen’s strokes are apparent. On the left I used a Kuretake waterbrush and prefer the more watercolor-like effect of its wetter brush.
I have to say that I didn’t use the fine end of the two-sided Marvy LePlume pens except to write the color names and numbers on the left side of the page. The fine end is a firm tip suitable for writing and drawing, but not for coloring. When I’m coloring, I prefer the softer brush tip of the larger end, which is made of a compressed, slightly flexy material (not hairs). Like all brush pens, you can adjust the size of the mark the brush makes by changing the angle relative to the paper. I found it easy to color in larger areas quickly by using the broad side of the brush tip held at a sharp angle to the page.
Stillman & Birn Zeta Test
The next test was more fun. I’ve seen many adult coloring books lately with beautiful abstract patterns. To test out the markers’ blending properties, I did something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time: I made my own coloring book page. I did the line work first with a waterproof Sakura Pigma Micron pen in a Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook.
I’ve successfully used 180-pound S&B Zeta paper with traditional watercolors, so I assume the surface is sized for wet media. I tried to make gradient effects with single colors as well as with two or three shades, but they didn’t blend as well as I thought they would. On the Zeta paper, I found the blending effect to be better with the blender pen than the waterbrush, but when I scrubbed more to increase the blending, the Zeta’s surface started to pill a bit.
Canson Mixed Media Test
I did a third test using Canson 98-pound mixed media paper (the same kind used for the scribble/wash test). This time I thought the Marvy LePlumes blended much more easily and with less scrubbing whether I was using water or the blender pen. The blender pen still shows brush strokes more than the waterbrush, but they are not necessarily objectionable – just a slightly different effect. It’s a matter of personal preference, but I like the look of these markers and their blending qualities better on the toothy Canson paper than the smooth Zeta paper. I’m not sure whether it’s the texture or sizing or both, but as usual, the particular paper used with a pen makes a big difference in the effect.
I know that brush markers are popular among coloring book enthusiasts, and I’ve sometimes wondered whether the types of paper coloring books are published on are suitable for wet markers like these (let alone blending their colors with a waterbrush). If you’re planning to use them in coloring books, I’d buy just a few pens and test them out before investing in all 109 colors (which is the kind of crazy thing I’d be likely to do without testing first).
One thing to be aware of is that some Marvy LePlume colors are much juicier than others, and when I pulled the caps off, they actually spattered ink on the page (I circled the spatters on the S&B Zeta page).
I didn’t intend this to be a head-to-head comparison review, but since I just happen to have a good supply of the afore-mentioned Tombow Dual Brush Pens, I decided to do a mini-test of their blending qualities on Canson paper, just for kicks. The Tombows are comparable in that they also have a broad brush end and a fine, hard-tip end. With a waterbrush, Tombow ink makes an almost seamless wash that looks very much like watercolor. With the Tombow blender, blending gradient colors was a bit easier to do and showed fewer brush strokes.
While I found no fault with the Marvy LePlumes, they didn’t distinguish themselves much from other similar markers I’ve used, and I think I prefer the Tombows when color blending. (What a relief – now I won’t have to run out and get the rest of the LePlume colors!) They did remind me, though, of how much fun it is to use watercolor brush markers, and I’m going to get them out more often again.
This week, Art Supply Posse broadcasts without me. And it is the start of the new (and improved version) of Art Supply Posse). Heather is joined by her new co-host, Kathy Campbell. They reflect on 2016 and plan their artistic ambitions for 2017. This is the last episode of 2016; Art Supply Posse will return on January 11th.
Moving forward, I will no longer be a weekly contributor to the show in order to spend more time here on the blog and pursuing creative pursuits and maybe, just maybe… sleeping. I am so thankful for the opportunity and support from everyone who has listened to the show and wish success and continued support to Heather and Kathy as they move forward.
To listen to the episode and see the full show notes, visit the web site here.
Comic book artist, family man and all-around good guy Mike Hawthorne kept Heather and I laughing with his wit and wisdom this week on Art Supply Posse #27. Mike illustrates the wonderfully bawdy Marvel comic book Deadpool and our conversation may also include some PG-13 language. (You’ve been warned.)
All pertinent links and shownotes on Art Supply Posse.
Within the brush pen series (Part 1: Waterproof Felt Tips and Part 2: Water-Soluble Felt Tips), the type of pens I’m reviewing today are probably the ones I use most often – hairy, bristle-tip brush pens containing waterproof ink. Designed to simulate sumi brush pens used for traditional Asian calligraphy, the bristle-tipped pens take a little more practice to manipulate compared to their felt tip counterparts, but the line variation they impart can be very expressive. If you are used to handling paint brushes with ink, these will feel familiar.
As a general rule, bristle tips last longer than felt tips without mushing down from pressure, and their flexibility gives the widest range of marks. For example, I’ve been using the same Kuretake No. 13 Fountain Brush Pen for several years now, and its synthetic brush is still going strong. When I eventually upgraded to a sable hair Kuretake No. 40, thinking it would be even better than the 13, I have to say I was disappointed. The brush performs well, but it doesn’t seem to warrant the price difference compared to the No. 13. In fact, I find that the No. 40’s tip spreads out when pressure is applied and doesn’t pull back into a sharp point when the pressure is released the way the 13 does. I have to roll it against the paper to get the point back. Maybe a painter accustomed to handling natural hair brushes would have better results from it.
All the other brush pens reviewed here have similar synthetic bristle tips to the Kuretake No. 13 without much distinction. The exceptions are the Pentel Tsumi Tip (labeled FL2U on my chart) and the Pentel Suki Tip (FL2V) Brush Pens, both of which are capable of producing particularly thin lines at their very points. See the man wearing headphones that I sketched with the Pentel Suki? I was able to make that very thin line defining his nostril with the tip – it might have been a single hair! You have to hold the brush nearly vertical to the page to get that hairline, so it’s a bit tricky, but it has a beautiful range.
Here’s something to consider if you travel: I carry all my usual sketch gear with me when I fly. Although I’ve heard various warnings, usually related to leaking fountain pens, the only time I’ve ever had any kind of leakage problem was with reservoir-type brush pens such as the Pentel Tsumi and Suki and the Kuretake Zig Cartoonist Brush Pen No. 22. They are prone to making a huge mess! This goes for driving to high altitudes, too, not just while flying. Believe me, I only made that mistake once! Wrap carefully if you plan to take them with you.
Ink Color & Permanence
As before, water tests were done on 98-pound Canson mixed media paper. Most of the inks are waterproof as soon as they dry, within a minute or so. The exceptions are the Pentel Tsumi and Suki, which remain water-soluble for quite some time. Two weeks later I tested again, and they were permanent. I started using both the Pentel Tsumi and Suki pens as if they were water-soluble inks, washing lines for shading. I wouldn’t use them with watercolors or even with a gel pen, however, since those products would become muddy when mixed with the inks. If you’re planning to wait a while before painting, however, these inks could be considered waterproof also.
Those two Pentels were also the only ones containing inks that looked slightly gray to me compared to the true black of the others.
All inks behaved well, as expected, on Field Notes 60-pound Finch Opaque Smooth paper. The only spot that bled through slightly was where I had made an especially thick line with the Kuretake No. 40 (containing Platinum Carbon Black ink).
It’s important to note that the Kuretake No. 13, Kuretake No. 40 and Pentel Kirari Pocket Brush Pen can all be refilled just like fountain pens. They come with waterproof ink cartridges when purchased, but you can install a converter or simply syringe-refill the used cartridges with whatever ink you want. My favorite waterproof fountain pen ink is Platinum Carbon Black (*Editor’s Note: Mine too!), which puts out an especially rich, black line in all of these refillable pens. I have a second Kuretake No. 13 that I fill with water-soluble Diamine Chocolate Brown ink. So although I’ve classified these pens as waterproof, the type of ink used is up to you. (However, I recommend sticking with one type of ink per pen, since the brushes are difficult to clean.) Since the bristles have proven to last a long time, their refillable quality makes these pens a particularly good value.
The Kuretake Zig No. 22, the Pentel Tsumi and the Pentel Suki can all be refilled with proprietary cartridges. (Actually, the cartridges look like they can be refilled with fountain pen ink too, though I haven’t tried it.)
That makes the Kuretake Bimoji (medium), J. Herbin CreaPen Pinceau and Copic Gasenfude the only disposable pens in this bunch. I try to avoid pens that must be tossed after their inks are gone, so that puts these otherwise good brush pens at a disadvantage. A couple of things to note: For some reason, the J. Herbin CreaPen ran dry after only a short time, despite being stored horizontally. And the Copic Gasenfude, despite bearing the Copic name, contains ink that is nothing like the alcohol-based markers most people think of when they see the name Copic! This is very important to me, as I can’t stand stinky markers.
If you’ve read my other reviews, you know I get cranky about caps that don’t post as expected. In this group, only the Kuretake Bimoji has a cap that must be reversed to post (and yes, it still annoys me). All other caps posted properly and securely.
Reviewing bristle-tip pens right after all the felt-tipped brush pens drove home an important point: Bristles are far more durable and able to withstand pressure while continually bouncing back compared to felt tips. It occurs to me that this is the reason most of the felt-tipped brush pens are disposable – the tips wouldn’t last beyond the initial ink, even if they could be refilled.
For my money, that makes the refillable fountain-pen type brush pens the best value as well as the hardiest performers. However, they make a very different type of mark from the felt tipped pens and require more control, so value isn’t the only factor to consider. Personally, I carry at least one bristle tip and one felt tip at all times because I like the variety of marks each type offers me.
There’s only one part left in this series – bristle-tip brush pens containing water-soluble inks. That group contains a huge variety of form factors! Stay tuned.
This week on Art Supply Posse, Heather and I spend the episode trying to describe bookbinding basics using hand gestures and rattling tools you can’t see. So we’ve got lots of links to videos to help illustrate our points. We also talk about the best basic tools for bookbinding like paper, string and pointy things. All super technical. Show notes are available here.