Review by Tina Koyama
If I had to choose two of my favorite types of sketching materials, I’d have to say brush pens and colored pencils. You can imagine my thrill when I opened the July ArtSnacks box and found a Pentel Duopoint Flex Double-Ended Brush Pen and two Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle colored pencils! In addition, I got a Derwent HB Graphic Drawing Pencil and a Derwent 2-in-1 Eraser/Sharpener. A bonus was a 15 percent discount coupon to Artist & Craftsman Supply (online or in store). A&C is one of very few remaining brick-and-mortar art supply stores in Seattle, so I’m happy to take my coupon over there to shop (Ed note: There’s also an A&C in KC and one of my favorites as well!). My box also contained a red-hot Atomic FireBall and a much-loved ArtSnacks sticker.
I’ll start with the items new to me. First up is the Derwent HB Graphic graphite pencil. The barrel has a nice matte black finish printed in silver and with a shiny black end cap and Derwent’s trademark diagonal stripe. (The attractiveness was slightly marred by the huge barcode, but at least it’s a sticker and not permanently printed.)
I’m used to drawing with softer pencils, so this HB felt hard and a bit scratchy to me, but it holds a point well and erases cleanly. Although I tend to go straight in with ink, it would be a good lighter grade pencil for an initial sketch to follow with inking or coloring. Because of its point retention, I think I prefer this pencil for writing rather than drawing. With no ferrule or eraser, it’s very lightweight and has a nice balance in the hand.
Next is the Derwent 2-in-1 Eraser/Sharpener combo – a convenient multi-tool that takes care of both needs that any pencil user has. The capped white eraser is thick and broad, so it’s ideal when you have a large area to erase (but difficult to use if you want to erase only a small spot).
It leaves long strings of erasure crumbs, which are easy to clean up. I tested it on a variety of graphite and colored pencils, and it performed about average for a plastic eraser (and certainly better than any eraser on the end of a pencil).
The sharpener, too, is about average, and I got a decent, clean point on the Derwent Graphic pencil (especially considering that I sharpened right through the barcode sticker, which I didn’t mean to do but apparently got excited about sharpening!). The single hole can only accommodate conventional-size pencil barrels, however.
The fun part was trying to figure out how to empty the shavings. The red circle in the center is a pivot, and the entire red section swivels in either direction. This enables you to turn the hole end around to the inside, keeping any stray shavings or graphite bits from falling out – very tidy! (Imagine a bookcase in an old horror movie that swivels around to a secret room.) I like that feature a lot, since many portable sharpeners have exposed holes that leave a pile of crumbs in the bottom of my bag pocket. After I realized that swiveling doesn’t empty the chamber, I just pulled the hole end straight out like a drawer. (Be sure to do this while standing over a wastebasket; as soon as the drawer starts to pull out, the shavings are no longer contained.)
Although neither the eraser nor the sharpener is the best I’ve used, it’s convenient to have both in one tidy, compact tool when you are trying to pack lightly – the spork of the stationery world.
The Pentel Duopoint Flex Double-Ended Brush contains water-based, water-soluble black ink. The narrow end has a firm fine tip for writing and outlining.
The wider brush end has a solid, spongy tip rather than bristles. The tip can impart a wide range of marks, depending on the angle at which the tip is held to the paper. In ArtSnacks’ teaser video promoting the July box, the Pentel Duopoint’s wider end was shown flexing dramatically with pressure, and I was intrigued by the brush tip’s base, which looks like it has accordion folds. Although I haven’t used it long enough to know for sure, I would bet that those flexy accordion folds help keep the brush’s tip from mushing down prematurely. (I have a relatively heavy hand when drawing, so my brush pens often end up with flattened tips long before the ink is gone.)
In my 4th of July sketch, I used the fine point to outline the flag and the brush end to draw the bunny, which shows the line variation I can get from it. I’m looking forward to putting this brush pen to work as a daily-carry to see how well the tip holds up.
I’ve saved my favorite July product for last – Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle water-soluble colored pencils. I received Ice Blue (185) and Violet (12), and I was pleased to see the color names are now printed on the pencil barrels. I have been using Museum Aquarelles for several years now, and the older ones I own only have color numbers printed on them. Like Ana, I get annoyed when a colored pencil’s entire barrel isn’t the same color as its core. That said, Museum Aquarelle barrels have an elegant dark gray matte finish and a dipped end cap showing the core color. A strong plus is that the end cap accurately reflects the core color (not true with some colored pencils I’ve tried).
For urban sketching, my hands-down favorite coloring product is water-soluble colored pencils (also called watercolor pencils) because they are so portable and easy to use in the field, even while standing. I’ve tried many different brands over time, and Museum Aquarelles are easily my favorite because of their soft cores, rich, intense hues and ability to dissolve completely.
When I test watercolor pencils, I look at several factors: how well they apply to dry paper; how easily and completely they dissolve when water is applied (wet-on-dry); and how saturated the color is when applied by “licking.” By that I mean using a waterbrush to “lick” pigment from the pencil point, and then using the brush to apply the color to the paper the same way you’d use traditional watercolors. I also test by applying pigment to dry paper and spraying that with water to disperse the pigment; wet the paper first and run a dry pencil through it (dry-on-wet); and finally, flick a waterbrush against the pencil point to spatter pigment. Museum Aquarelles pass all tests (ahem) with flying colors.
In my heirloom tomato sketch, I used what would probably be considered the most formal and easily controlled techniques for watercolor pencils (though also the most time-consuming). Working relatively quickly, I first applied a fairly light layer of color to the drawing, including blending some colors. (I didn’t have to be careful and neat with this layer because the pencil strokes don’t show after water is applied.) Then I applied water evenly with a waterbrush and dissolved all of the pigment. After that was completely dry, I applied more colors, wetted some parts and left some areas dry. After several such cycles, intensifying colors each time, I sharpened the pencils to put in final details and texture. (Please note that to apply multiple layers of pencil and water, you must use paper strong enough to support all that friction and fluid – ideally at least 140-pound watercolor paper. For this sketch, I used a Stillman & Birn sketchbook with 180-pound Beta paper.)
For a less controlled but faster and infinitely more fun approach, take a look at my maple tree sketch. First I simply put down lots of color scribbles on the paper (Canson XL 140-pound watercolor paper) for the foliage, blending as desired. Museum Aquarelles contain so much pigment that you don’t have to work very hard to get lots of color applied. Once I decided I was done with that, the real fun began. I put my paper down on the ground, and using a small water spritzer (a purse-size perfume atomizer) held at about arm’s length from the paper, I misted the foliage lightly. The already-intense Museum Aquarelle pigments burst into even brighter spots of color wherever the water droplets hit it!
The single drawback to Museum Aquarelles is that the barrel is slightly larger than conventional pencils, and I’ve had a heck of a time finding sharpeners to fit. Out in the street, I use the smaller hole of a Kum magnesium 2-hole sharpener. At home I use a Bostitch QuietSharp 6 electric sharpener or a knife. Despite the sharpening issues, these pencils are worth the trouble.