Review by Tina Koyama
Back in the day, graphic designers and printers used “non-photo blue” pencils. Certain shades of blue that could not be detected by camera film (or copy machines), so rough drawing lines or notations could be left on the art and would not appear in the final form. Modern scanners can see that blue, so non-photo blue pencils are not effective in the same way anymore. However, image-editing software can be used to manipulate the contrast or hue of the blue so that it can be made invisible digitally. Non-photo blue pencils still have life – but in a different way. (I’m not digitally geeky enough to explain further than that – heck, I still use Photoshop Elements to edit my images! – so I hope Ana will correct me as needed.)
Editor’s Note: You can scan an image that has non-photo blue pencil along with black pen and ink using the RGB mode. Then open the image in an image editing application like Photoshop and go to the “channels” palette. The blue channel will show your black lines and not your pencil marks but the red and green channel will not. You can select that channel, make a layer, and fill with that data only. For a visual demo, check out this video.
I’ve never worked in graphic design or printing, and I don’t use sophisticated image-editing apps, so I had no practical use for non-photo blue pencils. Coincidentally, two people I am currently studying with both recommend the non-photo blue pencil, so I was tickled that this old-school tool has yet more life – this time in an analog way.
My first influence is cartoonist Lynda Barry, whose how-to books I have been voraciously devouring of late. (I don’t think cartooning is my bag, but I have been wanting to develop my imaginary drawing skills, and I love her approach to teaching.) She specifically recommends the Staedtler non-photo blue pencil.
The second influence is an instructor at Gage Academy, Kathleen Moore, whose subject area is about as different from Barry’s as you can get: drawing and painting nature. I’ve taken several classes from her, and in the current one using colored pencils, she, too, recommends a non-photo blue pencil.
Both artists use a blue pencil for lightly sketching the initial line drawing before inking (in Barry’s case) or using colored pencils (in Moore’s case). Their reasons are similar: While not invisible to modern cameras, non-photo blue lines are so subtle and pale that they tend to magically blend and disappear once the final medium is applied. In addition, lightly applied pale blue pencil is easily erased. Moore demonstrated another practical reason: If an initial drawing is made with graphite, almost all of it must be carefully erased before applying colored pencil. If any large particles of graphite remain, they could smudge, muddying the colors.
With two respected teachers telling me I should get a non-photo blue pencil, I had no hesitation. In addition to Barry’s favorite Staedtler ($3.50), I also picked up a Prismacolor Col-Erase ($1.10), a contemporary Prismacolor Verithin ($1.10), and a Caran d’Ache Sketcher ($5.95). In my own vintage collection, I had an old Eagle Verithin, so I added that to the lineup. Although any light blue hue would probably work for this purpose, I stayed with ones that had “non-photo blue” (or “copy not NP blue,” in the case of the Col-Erase) in their names, just to simplify the options.
First, I tested them on my Col-o-Ring Oversize pad, which is slightly toothy. Erasing tests were done with a Tombow Mono Zero and a standard gray kneadable eraser. The second (scanned) image shows the differences a bit better, since they are all quite pale.
Next, I tested them on a sheet of Strathmore Bristol Smooth paper, which has a very smooth surface.
The Col-Erase is the palest and hardest, followed closely by the contemporary and vintage Verithins. Not surprisingly, the Caran d’Ache is the softest, which is true of most Caran d’Ache colored pencils. What did surprise me was the Staedtler, which was the softest after the Caran d’Ache. Most Staedtler graphite pencils are quite a bit harder than other pencils of corresponding grades, so I was expecting this one to be on the hard side, too. All erased easily and cleanly on both types of paper, especially with the kneadable eraser.
If I were making a drawing in which it was important for the initial lines to disappear completely, I would choose one of the Verithins for being a good balance between paleness and visibility – at least to this artist. The Col-Erase is easily the palest, but I can barely see it! If I don’t mind the lines showing, I would choose the Staedtler or the Caran d’Ache, since they are easier to see (and I generally prefer using a softer pencil).
For Mother’s Day, I felt like honoring my mom’s memory by making a drawing based on a photo that was taken in the late 1930s around the time that she and my father were married. I made the initial drawing with the Staedtler and remembered to scan it before I got too far with the final coloring with Prismacolors. I didn’t erase at all – most lines disappeared under my final coloring. In the small areas where the Staedtler lines are still visible, I could easily erase them, but I don’t mind their presence. Non-photo blue pencils for under-drawings are now a permanent part of my sketch kit.
Incidentally, the drawing was done on Stonehenge Lenox Cotton. It was one of the papers in the Stonehenge Legion sample set I reviewed recently. I typically use Strathmore Bristol Smooth for colored pencil drawings, but I liked the Lenox Cotton sample so much that I bought a pad. Compared to Bristol, it has a light, fine tooth that takes colored pencil pigment beautifully.