Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Quick and Dirty Pen Review – Noodler’s Flex

Oof, apologies for the lack of posts this week! I’m leaving my job and preparing for yet another big move. So there’s lots of reflection and a¬†long to-do list on my part, but not a lot of blog-productivity.

Luckily, when my brain needs a break from job searching, I have the new Noodler’s flex nib fountain pen to play with. I bought this from Goulet Pens, and you can read Brian Goulet’s own review here. The unique thing about this pen isn’t a spectacular flex nib or beautiful design, but that’s it’s priced at $14.

Flex nibs for $14 just doesn’t happen, frankly. This is mainly because it’s incredibly difficult to mass-produce a flexible nib– it usually involves some hands-on work. Thanks, Capitalism, for leaving us with only vintage pens and expensive customizations as options for a flexible nib! And as far as I know, nobody’s quite sure how Noodler’s is producing these so cheaply. Brian’s hypothesis involves Oompa Loompas, and I’m just hoping that the secret is something like “patience and devotion to the craft” rather than, say, any exploitation here or overseas.

Although the flex factor isn’t drastic, this cute little nib definitely qualifies as a flex nib– as opposed to the nib on my Aurora Ipsilon, which most pen geeks would say “has some spring to it.” The difference is that when you’re writing regularly, the Noodler’s nib still responds to the slightest pressure change– whereas with the Ipsilon, you have to think about pressing down for flex.

Well heyyyy there. Hopefully you can see from my mediocre calligraphy skills that this flex is legit. In fact this is probably a great first pen for somebody wanting to get into calligraphy without the mess and supplies of a dip pen.

I tried to include three different writing styles so that you can see how this nib will work for varying handwriting. I saw the most shading on this third part, probably because I was writing faster and therefore the nib put down less ink on each letter. Compare this to the calligraphy, above, where I was writing more slowly and the ink color is fairly dark throughout. If you happen to write in all caps, a la The Pen Addict, you’ll get a bit of shading but will probably be annoyed by the responsive nib making lines widths inconsistent.

P.S. Credit goes to Rhodia No. 14 for the writing surface ūüėČ


Autumn Ink Reviews

Me in leaves, long long ago...

I’ll tell you one thing that ¬†I miss about the east coast: a real Autumn.¬†Colorado definitely has a “transitional period” of some kind, but it’s kind of spazzy, weather-wise. Although I’m missing the golds and reds and oranges of home, the one highlight in Colorado is the¬†bright yellow wash of Aspens in Fall.

I embraced the season instead by ordering some autumn ink samples from Pear Tree Pens. (A good excuse, right?) I can honestly say that I’ve never ordered anything from Pear Tree Pens except for their ink samples– they should play it up more. Like: I wish I could get larger-sized samples. Sometimes it’s difficult to suck anything up out of those tiny jars, especially with a larger nib.

I also wish I could get samples of the forebodingly-priced Iroshizuku inks… anybody want to split a bottle with me?

Noodler's Cayenne, Noodler's Habanero, Noodler's Apache Sunset, Rohrer & Klingner Goldgrun (with J. Herbin's Vert Olive for comparison), Noodler's Zhivago, Noodler's Burma Road Brown (V-mail series), and Rohrer & Klingner Solferino

Above, the samples are tested with two dip pens (an italic and a flex), which isn’t going to match how they’ll look in a regular fountain pen. I also got a sample of Noodler’s Bulletproof Black which is not shown above, and Vert Olive is there only for comparison.

Here’s the overview

Noodler’s Bulletproof Black. Tested in TWSBI Diamond, F nib. I’m pretty devoted to Aurora Black, but I needed a waterproof black ink and this one seems to be the standard. I can see more shading than with other black inks, but I also noticed that it’s the only ink that doesn’t feather on regular paper. I’ve used it in the office Moleskines and in my new leather-covered sketchbook with absorbent art paper, with no feathering or bleedthrough. Haven’t tested the waterproof-ness yet, so I’m planning a full review later.

Rohrer & Klingner Goldgrun. Tested in Pelikan M400, F flexible nib. I don’t know if I can say much about its behavior, because my Pelikan’s flex nib is very wet writer, which throws off the test. The color is a perfect match to the White tortoise exterior, though…

Goldgrun (top) compared to Vert Olive (bottom)

Goldgrun is much more subtle and muted than J. Herbin’s Vert Olive, which appears almost lime in comparison.

Noodler’s Apache Sunset. Tested in a Parker 45, M stub nib and Parker Vector, F nib. Ah yes, one of many ethnically-named inks which rely on our cultural stereotypes of color-associations. Juuuust sayin’. Nonetheless, word on the street is that Apache Sunset has some of the best shading around. Which is why I tested it in two pens, though I still think I’m not really highlighting its shading capacities. I wish I had a Pilot Parallel…

Drastic shading, Noodler's Apache Sunset

But you can still see the variation even in these two pens: the Vector, which is a much dryer writer, and the Parker 45 stub nib.

Noodler’s Habanero. Tested in Aurora Ipsilon, F nib. I’ve actually tried this ink before; I just wanted to compare it to Cayenne and Apache Sunset. It’s a beautiful bright orange with good wet flow and is more opaque than other oranges, like Herbin’s Orange Indien. It has excellent shading, although it’s hard to see in my Aurora’s fine nib.

Noodler’s Cayenne. For whatever reason I didn’t fill up a pen with this color! So, um, raincheck?

Noodler’s Zhivago. Tested in Lamy 2000, F nib, and Pilot 78G, B italic nib. A lot of people complained that you can barely distinguish Zhivago from plain old black, and ¬†this is generally true for fine nibs. In my Lamy 2000 F nib, the subtle variations in shading can only be seen close up (I’m interested to try it in a dry writing fine nib, though; because the wet-writing Lamy 2000 makes many inks appear darker). However, this well-flowing ink is pretty damn smashing in my Pilot’s B italic nib. It’s like a black, but a black with character. Click on the image below to view the shading full-size. And I love ¬†beautiful subdued colors like this one: a mossy green almost-black.

Zhivago, compared in two pens

Beautiful Neutral: Zhivago and Burma Road Brown. Notice the crazy feathering on Burma Road Brown!


Noodler’s Burma Road Brown (V-mail series). Tested in Lamy Safari, EF nib. Another lively neutral color, Burma Road Brown is a dark sandy brown, like very faded letter.¬†With regards to ink behavior, my first impression was that, hey, this ink is, um, really different from other inks. The first clue: it actually bled through Clairefontaine paper. (Wha..?) So then I tried it on regular crappy paper, and… zero bleedthrough. And zero feathering. Even in a Moleskine. (Wha…?) …Okay, there was bleedthrough in the Moleskine. But no feathering! Which is a pretty huge accomplishment. Like Bulletproof Black, I’m going to follow this up with a full review.

Rohrer & Klingner Solferino. Tested in a Lamy Al-Star, 1.1 italic nib. And thus we move from subtle neutrals to, um, blinding neon purple. Granted, Solferino becomes slightly less vivid after it dries, but only slightly. But I’m pretty fond of this color already: it’s great for calling attention to things in my planner, and it matches Daniel Smith’s Quinacridone Violet, which I think is pretty cool.


Rurality Online

Rural Recommendations

Browse: Farmgirl Fare blog has friggin’ cute baby donkeys, seriously delicious recipes, and beautiful quilts. To put it simply, this blog is good therapy after a long day of work.

Read: Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, is a rare example of a novel that confronts politics, money, and the environment without being, um, badly written. Which is quite a feat, given that environmental novelists like Wendell Berry and Barbara Kingsolver (as much as I enjoy them) quite often become preachy and one-sided. Refreshingly, Franzen has created¬†some of the most complex and engaging characters I’ve read in a long time. (And the book still manages to be a damn good exploration of the complicated political side to environmentalism)

In other news…

My alma mater, Kenyon College, just received a grant for a three-year project called Rural by Design, which focuses on a cutting-edge holistic approach rural sustainability. Over the past century, urban design has become accepted as a legitimate profession or pursuit, but this grant hopes to put rural design on the same page.

Speaking of rural design, check out these creepy aerial images of disconnected sprawl.

Grist posted this super-interesting article about the “war” between cities and suburbs—¬†which might as well be titled “a real-life enactment of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom”. Unfortunately, this so-called war between cities and suburbs is not about the benefits and drawbacks to each structure of living and communing, but rather about structural sustainability versus the infringement on personal liberty. You might notice that there’s a third party missing from this debate: rural populations.

Obama talks rural communities and energy challenges. I don’t have nearly the leisure time to blog about the question of energy in the United States (aside from the occasional rant about the coal industry), but extraction of natural resources should always be in mind when thinking about rural areas.

…speaking of which, the¬†coal industry is setting its sights on Illinois now that Appalachia is nearly used up and fucked over. Is anyone else reminded of that sleazy guy in college who was clearly dealing with his own insecurities by sleeping with one girl after another?

On the plus side, there’s finally going to be a study released about the links between mining and cancer! Except–oh, wait– we’ll only see it after it’s been reviewed by a mining industry group. Biased much?

Meanwhile,¬†a new study looks at the different lifestyles that young urban people want— and while cushy, it also sounds pretty sustainable…

Hooray, my mountains! The Blue Ridge Mountains preserve 58,000 acres


Natasha Bowens offers a solid critique of the white majority in sustainable agriculture.

In Ireland, recession is returning the economy back to its rural roots. More evidence to support my quiet hypothesis that underneath the fluctuations of money, rural living is the natural state of communities.

A Kentucky county finds that the Farm-to-School movement isn’t as simple as it should be. Having worked with local food programs at my own college, I know that these projects are¬†so exciting in those early idealistic stages, but are less easy to actually execute.

Native American Indian farmers have settled with the Obama administration after years of discrimination from the USDA.

Digital v. Analog

USA Today discusses the role that e-books have played in renewing people’s love of reading

…while the New York Times interviews college students about the same debate between e-books and hard copies.

Softcover Leather Sketchbook from ToBoldlyFold

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a paper or pen object!

Behold— the Softcover Golden Brown Leather Sketchbook from Etsy bookbinder ToBoldlyFold.

Handwritten thank-you notes and homemade packaging: the perks of buying handmade.

I haven’t had the time to bind my own books lately, but buying someone else’s handmade book is the next best thing. I put in some long research hours on Etsy, the handmade equivalent of ebay, before settling on this beautiful leather book from ToBoldlyFold’s Cyprus collection. Alas, if you do decide to shop Etsy for a journal or sketchbook, keep in mind that most Etsy bookbinders don’t provide detailed information on the type of paper that they use– for these sellers, I recommend messaging them to ask about their paper.

I’ve been dreaming of a leather sketchbook for a few months now. Not one of those Wiccan-looking leather sketchbooks (although they are friggin’ works of art) or one of those fake-wilderness, rugged-leather-but-I-really-live-in-downtown-LA sketchbooks. Just a simple, well-made, hand-bound leather book.

Oh, and I need the paper to take both watercolor and fountain pens (which, as it turns out, is no easy task).

A handmade leather sketchbook on Etsy is going to run you anywhere from $25 to $90, depending on the dimensions (and quality) of the book. Tiny books make my hands cramp so I ruled those out, but there’s no way that I can drop $70 for one of the beautiful journals from Moonbindery. But! Huzzah! ToBoldlyFold announced a birthday sale, which dropped her (already mid-price) books to an “Affordable Splurge” level for me.

So that’s the tale of how I found my newest book. But, as with any journal, the search is only half the battle. So let’s talk specs— and please feel free to ooh and ahh over this sumptuous piece of work.

I was hoping for a¬†warm brown leather cover, but I was intrigued by the 170g “artists” paper, which only available with golden brown leather.

Ain’t no tragedy. The golden leather with turquoise stitching makes a stunning combination.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about the button at first (I preferred the look of a wrap-cord), but it’s definitely growing on me. It reminds me of an old-fashioned pair of good leather boots, or a briefcase. It also reminds me of this adorable art print from Etsy seller Eva Juliet.

Many bloggers in the journaling/fountain pen community tend to dislike bulky covers, or covers that overhang the pages (check out this comparison from Notebook Stories). This is definitely not an issue with this book: the covers are cut square with the paper. The downside of this is that it doesn’t offer much protection– but leather sketchbooks are meant to be worn in, so maybe it’s okay if the edges of your pages get dirty.

Journal: unwrapped and exposed

When unwrapped, the soft pages easily fold under for compact writing, or spread out in an artsy fashion on a table. If this were bound with a thin paper, the soft leather cover wouldn’t provide enough support for writing– but the thick paper and sturdy long-stitch binding make it easy to write on laps or in trains. (Doesn’t it seem like one should be traveling on a sepia-tinted train when writing in this book?).

(The long stitch also means that every page lays perfectly flat. No exaggeration.)

But let's talk about the paper. 'Cause, uh, damn. That's some nice paper.

As it turns out, ToBoldlyFold mainly uses two papers in her books: 115g Rives BFK Lightweight paper, or another paper that she only describes as “High-quality, acid-free 170g artists paper.” I know from experience that the Rives paper is excellent, but I was intrigued by the heavier 170g paper, and hoped it would hold watercolor.

I still don’t know who makes this paper– I’m going to ask the seller and I’ll get back to you all with her answer. We know at least that it is cream-colored and 175¬†g/m¬≤. I tried to convert that to lb paper weight, but the internet is telling me that it translates to only 65lb, which seems awfully thin. This paper is definitely thick, creamy, and hand-torn for fashionably rugged edges.

Like all good handcrafts, this one is stamped by the maker.

two different italic/stub nibs

I did worry that the paper might be too porous for fountain pens and water-based inks. A quick test of all my fountain pens did show some feathering, but far less than I expected. In fact, dry-writing nibs performed pretty swell on this paper. The sample above compares my Pilot 78G italic nib (filled with J. Herbin Bleu Pervenche) with my Parker 45 stub nib (filled with J. Herbin Lierre Sauvage). The dryer combination of the 78G/Bleu Pervenche definitely out-performed the wetter Parker/Lierre Sauvage.

Lamy Safari EF with Aurora Black ink

By far, the best combination of Pen&Ink on this paper was my Lamy Safari (EF nib) filled with Aurora Black (at the top). This is kinda interesting because Aurora Black is a super wet ink, compared to Bleu Pervenche, which is quite dry but performed the second-best on this paper. It’s well known that Aurora Black is a super-lubricated ink, though, and I wonder if the greater surface tension kept the ink from soaking in and feathering on the paper. I’ll have to try some other lubricated inks and see if it’s a pattern.

In general though, this is a paper for dry nibs and inks. The good news is that this doesn’t mean you have to stick to fine nibs– one can still use a dry-writing italic nib with great results. Check the image below for other pen and ink combinations, with varying degrees of feathering.

Oh hey there, messy handwriting.

Of course, if fountain pens aren’t the biggest priority in your life (let’s hope not; they’re just pens, after all), then this is a fantastic paper for basically every other type of pen, as well as both wet and dry media.

watercolors and Pitt artists pens

Although this seems to be a fairly porous paper (i.e., it’s not coated like Rhodia/Clairefontaine papers), it’s definitely not fibrous. It won’t catch on your nibs or disintegrate with wet media.¬†You can see in the above image that Pitt artists pens didn’t feather at all, and watercolors also performed well.

Watercolors did absorb into the paper almost immediately, so you won’t be able to blend anything on the page itself. This is a paper more suited to glazing techniques.

Overall, this paper seems like it would make a perfect art journal: lays perfectly flat, strong enough to stand up to acrylics and pastels, sturdy enough for watercolors, and smooth enough for pens and fine nibs. Combined with a beautiful leather cover and beautiful stitching, this is a killer book and I’m excited to keep y’all updated on how I use it.

How to be a Starving Artist (with a Full Belly)

So, the Carnival of Pen and Paper is an ongoing series of… well, of pen and paper articles. It’s super-nerdy, and it’s hosted by a different super-nerdy blog every month. This past month, hosted at Daydreamers Welcome, JoniB departed from the typical nerditude for her “Editor’s Pick” choice, and featured an article by¬†Caitlin Burns called¬†10 Money-Saving Tips for Starving Artists.

I really enjoyed reading an article with a more accessible subject– so much, in fact, that I wanted to assemble my own version. Caitlin Burns’ article had some great ideas, but I want to elaborate some new suggestions and guidelines that incorporate this blog’s specific focus on rurality, art, and technology… and, you know the topic-drill by now. So here are my guidelines, to be customized as you see fit.

1. Don’t be picky.

I’m right there with Caitlin on this first tip: don’t ever think of yourself as “too good” for any art supply. Great art can be made from anything. In fact, you may accidentally say something really profound by using crayons and construction paper instead of oils and canvas. Probably something about childhood, if I had to guess.

2. Do It Yourself.

Hooray! The importance of¬†DIY for artists has been a focus of mine on this blog for a while. And this will absolutely save you money (until you cross the line of too-many-mistakes, where you keep having to buy more supplies and surpass the original cost of the pre-made item). But just as important as saving money is the fact that DIY will connect you to centuries of trades-people and crafts-people, to times where an “Artist” was just another type of tradesperson, like a carpenter or a blacksmith. Plus, learning skills like bookbinding, carpentry, or glassblowing will absolutely enhance your artistic skills. There are some mind-blowing artists out there (like Micheal A. Cummings’¬†art quilts) who are breaking down the barriers between “Art,” “Trade,” and “Craft.” And you can be one of them!

Here are suggestions for DIY projects for artists: Stretch your own canvas. Bind your own sketchbooks from your favorite paper, and customize them in your preferred dimensions. Learn to mix your own paints. Create a travel palette from a mints tin. Learn how to use a table saw and start making your own frames. Buy some padding compound and make your own watercolor blocks.

3. Invest Strategically.

Here’s where I depart a bit from Caitlin’s list. Because unfortunately, I can’t advocate shopping at Wal-Mart with a clean conscience– but wait! I swear this isn’t a privileged “fuck the corporation” rant. This advice¬†will actually save you money in the long run. Here’s the thing: Wal-Mart will never give you a discount on anything. Even if you build a¬†great relationship with a Wal-Mart employee, they still can’t violate corporate rules and let you try a pastel sample for free, or order a special supply for you.¬†Building a relationship with the folks at your local art-supply store, on the other hand, will totally pay off.

For the times when quality really doesn’t matter (for example, as Caitlin writes, when a black craft paint is equal an expensive acrylic black), there are far better¬†options than going to Wal-Mart (see Number 4). Plus, I have a suspicion that those fluorescent lights can actually drive you insane.

Most importantly, make sure you know the difference between when to invest and when to buy cheap. In many cases, cheap art supplies will lose you money in the long run. Not only can they can hold back your skills as an artist (cheap paints will blend into a muddy mess, and cheap brushes will quickly shed bristles into your painting), but replacing cheap supplies will eventually cost more than the nicer version in the first place. I think fashion magazines are always giving this advice as well: invest in a few staple items that will never go out of style (like well-fitting jeans, little black dress, rain boots…). So, the same goes for your art supplies: investing in a nice palette or high-quality brushes is totally worth it, when you make them last a lifetime. Which also means take care of your supplies when you have them. I’m totally guilty of forgetting to wash my brushes, and that will shorten their lifespan.

Here are some situations to opt for cheaper: Caitlin mentions that art board is the same thing as masonite, which can be bought for much less from any hardware store. Drafting tables, which are super-expensive in art stores, can often be found at salvage yards, on Craigslist, or from architecture firms who are updating the furniture. In fact, most storage and containers, from palettes to pochade boxes to shelves,¬†can be found for less money in different markets: try looking in hardware stores, beauty supply stores, gardening centers, or browsing the medical supplies category on ebay (you might have to explain that last one to your spouse/friend/parent). You can use any large piece of hard material as a drawing board, provided that it does’t have any sharp edges, so browse the hardware store for plastic laminate or search for ¬†scrap construction materials. This post is full of more suggestions like this from various alternative sources.

4. Dumpster Dive.

Yes, that might mean literally. I’ve found some beautiful old cigar boxes in dumpsters that now house my paint tubes. But in a more general sense, this just means¬†learn how to scrounge. So start browsing Craigslist and join your local freecycle network. Another benefit of this method is that you’ll become hyper-aware of how wealthy our society is, and how oblivious we must be to throw away perfectly useful things. Talk about building character.

5. Mailing. Lists.

Two words that artists should never forget.

I once heard an artist say that she would wait until Jerry’s Artarama or Cheap Joe’s was having a big sale, and then stock up for a supply that would last her several years. You can’t really do this with paints, which will go bad after a certain point, but this is a great method when you can’t afford to invest at your local art supply store.

6. Share/Collaborate/Commune.

Needless to say, the benefits of being in a community go far beyond sharing art supplies. If you’re able to live in an area with a thriving artists’ community– where they really do hang out together– that’s great. Opportunities to share and trade are at your fingertips. If you live in a more rural area, take advantage of the online opportunities for community. You can start an artists trade with somebody across the the world who has access to different types of art supplies (I’ve always wanted to do a trade with someone in Tokyo, personally), or you can get instructions on how to construct your own pochade box. You can also search sites like Zapp and Art Fair Calendar to see if an art fair is coming to your area. Instant community!

7. Be a networker.

I know that many artists (including myself) can have some anti-social tendencies. Or, to make a more general statement, artists tend to be really bad at marketing themselves. But here’s a good reason to exercise your social skills: it will save you money (at least, indirectly). Last summer I worked for a guy who would often let artists stay on his farm for a few days, join the family barbeque, and paint the beautiful area. The more you network, the more likely you are to meet people like that. Another good tip is to have a computer geek friend, especially one who works for Apple (hel-lo, discount Adobe).

8. Get your paycheck from within the field.

Until your art takes off and makes you Super Rich And Famous, it’s a good idea to work somewhere that benefits your cause. Working in an art supply store or a hardware store will get you some super-helpful discounts. Working in a gallery, on the other hand, will help you with the whole networking thing (see previous note). And don’t rule out working a different trade– working as a glassblower or in a print shop will also help your career in the right direction.

9. Live Simply

or, “Starving Artists Can’t Go Clubbing Every Night”

This is a hard tip to write without sounding preachy… but hey, I already bashed Wal-Mart, so it can’t hurt now! Plus, I know this one from experience: if you’re a college student and an artist, don’t expect to be able to pay for drinks/concert tickets/karaoke every single weekend. You never be able to invest in that Winsor & Newton palette you’ve been drooling over. And despite the (greatly-exaggerated) myth of the drunken and/or insane artist, living a crazy, elaborate, high-maintenance life will take your energies away from making art.

10. Practice over Theory

or, “Put It All to Use”

All the supply-collecting in the world does you no good when you can’t decide what to pack on a weekend trip. The biggest waste of money is letting materials go bad because you’re not using them. Which will happen, especially with things like paints or mediums. Plus, if you’re not using your supplies, you’re missing out on the opportunity to make money off (gasp!) your art.

The Tools of Our Culture

One of my first posts on this blog was a book review of Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves To Death,” one of my top ten most influential books. The context for the review was “rurality” –a way of thinking derived from rural culture, which questions our relationship to technology and to the earth. I’ve also recently discovered Nicholas Carr, who thoughtfully critiques the internet just as Postman examined and critiqued the television. (Both highly recommended)

All of this is to say, just published an article by Trevor Butterworth that mentions both of these writers in the first paragraph (brownie points!). The topic of the article turns out to be–surprise!–fountain pens. Click on the link to read the original article (and credit to Amateur Economist for the heads-up on this article).

It’s fascinating to me how this tiny writing instrument has offered a way for people to contemplate technology and digital culture on a larger level. Writing with a fountain pen has become a metaphor for our larger fears about losing contact with the Real, Breathing World– and it offers a tangible way of reconnecting.

Compared: Water-Soluble Mediums

Gentian at Drawing With A Squirrel recently posted a delicious review of Faber-Castell Aquarelle sticks, and it reminded me that once upon a time, I had put together a comparison/review of water-soluble mediums lately that I never got around to posting.

I don’t know what it is about water-soluble mediums that I like so much. There’s something satisfying about the visual transformation from dry to wet, and the unpredictability of applying these mediums wet just turns me on, in an artsy sort of way. From watercolor pencils to water-soluble pastels, these tools are extremely versatile– a handy quality for any artist.

I decided that a good basis for this comparison would be, ahem, “regular” watercolors. My very first recommendation for anyone wanting to work with water-soluble art supplies is to play around with watercolors first. They’re of a much higher quality, and they offer a subtlety and spontaneity that pencils and crayons simply can’t provide. Water-soluble pencils and crayons should not be treated as an “easier” option for those who have difficulty with watercolors– they should be an extension of the skill and instinct that only gets built by using watercolors.

Schmincke Horadam Aquarelle

I use Schmincke Horadam Aquarelles. They’re extremely pigmented, have a thick, consistent texture, and a superb range of colors. I only use the pans, so I can’t say how the tube paints differ (though Handprint Review found them to be syrupy and sometimes separated). I’m hoping to try Daniel Smith watercolors, which have been excellently reviewed.

When it comes to the subtleties of blending, you can’t beat traditional watercolors. Other types of water-soluble drawing supplies leave marks on the paper even when wetted and blended– this won’t happen with watercolors. Traditional watercolor painting is also much more organic, and can range from the most delicate application to the most intensely rich styles. With a rigger or liner brush (a long, thin, flexible brush), you can achieve the same precision in line work as with pencils

The downside is that they don’t have the portability of pencils or crayons– although, with 24-pan travel palette, I’ve never had a problem taking them with me. The other thing to remember is that they require practice (doesn’t everything?). If you’re not very patient, this may be a downside for you as well. Varying the amount of water can lead to a smoother or a rougher application, ¬†but because they don’t apply dry, traditional watercolors are not the best for mixed-media, collage techniques.

Watercolors have excellent transparency, so they can be beautiful layered in delicate glazes. However, they’re not permanent– they can be “re-worked” with a wet brush after they’ve dried. Also, you can’t use lighter watercolors to “cover up” darker layers underneath. So, consider layering and opacity when you choose to use traditional watercolors.

I won’t expand too much on watercolor technique– maybe in another post. But for the purposes of this comparison, watercolors rock. And none of these other products have as rich a tradition as watercolors, as Wikipedia’s article will attest.

Caran D’Ache NeoArt Watersoluble Wax Pastels

These fat, chunky pastels are the lesser-known older sibling to Caran D’Ache Neocolor II pastels (reviewed below). The big difference is that these pastels are wax-based, not oil-based like the Neocolor II’s. This means that they “spread” much more smoothly than the Neocolor II’s.

Mixed Media Artist¬†Kelly Kilmer uses them a lot in her work– so needless to say, they’re good for mixed media work. They can be “smooshed” (Kilmer’s phrase) into the page as a foundation for working on top of, and I’ve seen artists scratch into a layer of them with a knife to create a textured/aged look. They dissolve easily, and can be blended out into more transparent layers. However, they’re definitely semi-opaque enough to layer on top of each other

Applied to a wet page

Applied to a wet page, they become much softer, but still opaque. The NeoArt pastels will last forever, and are definitely¬†worth the initial cost (about $3 a pastel). The downside to such a chunky pastel is that they’re not great for detail work– but excellent for large work. One other thing to note: these pastels are not available in a wide color range– only 60 colors, maybe half of which are widely available on US websites.

Faber Castell Aquarelle Sticks

Unfortunately, these are discontinued, so I won’t spend too long reviewing them. (However, they’re still available on Cheap Joe’s Clearance section, so I thought they would be worth including). As a pastel, they’re most comparable to the NeoArt pastels– very chunky and bright, though it seems like the Aquarelles are slightly less pigmented than the NeoArt pastels (though this depends on the color– I found the lighter colors to be much less pigmented than darker ones).

I can’t for the life of me find out whether these are oil-based or wax-based. I’m going to guess wax, based on their similarity in performance to the NeoArt pastels. Still, they apply more like crayons than pastels– i.e. their consistency is waxier than the NeoArt. I think they’re more useful wet than dry– they dissolve easily, and are more transparent than NeoArt Pastels. They can be layered and blended quite easily.

Applied to wet paper

Applied wet, they don’t transform quite as much as NeoArt pastels. However, they do become brighter and smoother. Albert at Lung Sketching Scrolls has done extensive reviews on these pastels, so I’ll leave the demonstrations to him.

Caran D’Ache Neocolor II Artists Crayons

The product name describes them well– they look like crayons, feel like crayons, but are softer, extremely pigmented, and versatile in application. The fact that they’re oil-based makes them harder to writer over than the wax-based NeoArt pastels, so keep that in mind if you like to art journal. They’re available in a super-impressive 128-color range, including metallics. Unlike some of the other products reviewed here, the Neocolor II’s don’t become brighter with water; they’re equally pigmented whether wet or dry. And just to emphasize, the Neocolor II’s are extremely pigmented.

For some reason, I find that I use a wet brush on the crayon more often than applying them directly to the page. They apply a little like gouache– thick and opaque.¬†Much of the time, the pieces that I create with Neocolor II’s end up looking like oil-paintings– they’re great, creamy texture, and blend beautifully. I would recommend blending rather than layering them, due to their opacity.

Applied to a wet page

Applied to a wet page, the Neocolor II’s become incredibly soft–perhaps as much as the NeoArt wax pastels. It seems like this product is one of the most popular with artists– I’ve seen some incredible techniques with these things, from melting them on quilts to scraping and engraving with them.

Water-Soluble Colored Pencils – Albrecht Durer and Supracolor

Watercolor pencils have the most similar application to traditional watercolors– very transparent and blendable. However, they often lack the pigmentation of traditional watercolors, or they fail to apply well as regular colored pencils. I’ve found two brands of watercolor pencils with great pigmentation and excellent application wet or dry: the Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer and Caran D’Ache Supracolor Soft Aquarelle pencils. I think I prefer the Caran D’ache only slightly; both are very smooth and pigmented. Unfortunately, the Supracolors have only an 80-color range, compared to Albrecht Durer’s 120-color range.

The great thing about watercolor pencils is that they can be used for much more detailed work than pastels. You might even be able to aim for (gasp!) realism. The most common technique is to lightly color a drawing, then brush over it with water. More densely colored penciling will create more pigmented washes. But however you use them, keep in mind that their transparency is comparable to traditional watercolors– so you can’t “hide” a layer by coloring over it. This will just create a wash.

Applied to a wet page. (Note the precision!)

I don’t really understand the technique of picking up color from the tip of the pencil with a brush– you might as well use regular watercolors. I suppose it would do in a pinch, if watercolors aren’t available, though. One useful thing about watercolor pencils is that, after drawing, wetting the drawing, and waiting for it to dry, you can go back and add even more subtlety with the dry pencil, using it like a regular colored pencil.

Caran D’Ache Museum Leads

Has it become apparent that I love Caran D’Ache products yet? They’re smoothest, most pigmented, generally lightfast, and…well, you get the picture. However, this means that they’re going to be more available online and in art supply stores, not in the “art supply” aisle of regular stores. Anyways.

I haven’t heard much about Museum Leads in the artist’s blogosphere– I received these as a birthday gift from my mother. These are 3.8 mm colored leads (to be used with Caran D’Ache’s Fixpencil 44 leadholder) which become drastically more intense when wetted. They dissolve instantly with water, and won’t leave behind any of the texture that the pastels sometimes will. Sure, they’re leads. They offer the precision of a colored pencil, and they can be applied like a colored pencil… but that’s not where this product shines. Despite only a color range of 18, the intensity of these pigments plus the unique shades offered allow for endless combinations and possibilities.

This is the only water-soluble medium in this review that is permanent when dry. At first, this was irksome because I kept thinking they would lift and blend like watercolors. However, I’ve found that the permanence actually allows for a whole new range of uses. The Museum Leads are highly pigmented, but also very transparent– and because they’re permanent when dry, you can create amazing glaze techniques. Instead of blending two shades, you would apply one, let it dry, and apply the second color overtop. The result is an amazing, luminous color, like stained glass. I’ve also broken off the last half-inch of every lead, and rolled them onto a wet page with my fingers– super cool abstract results.

Applied to a wet page. (Note the precision!)

I would suggest downloading the brochure from the Caran D’Ache website. It contains some amazing images of artists working with this medium. I have yet to try putting them on a page and misting them with water… but then again, I can’t afford to replace them every time I break them apart. However, taking a small section and dissolving it in water creates a permanent wash that can be applied traditionally with a brush. I’m still experimenting with these, and I promise future posts with demonstrations!


Phew. This review kind of burnt me out on art supplies… I may have to return to politics and farming for a few posts after this.

The big summary is: If you desire precision, go for Museum Leads or Watercolor Pencils. For subtlety, use traditional watercolor, or watercolor pencils. All of the pastels, both wax- and oil-based, are excellent for art journaling and collage techniques. Their opacity definitely creates a different style, though, so if you’re looking for transparency in glazing and washing, I recommend watercolor pencils, museum leads, or traditional watercolors.

Now gather ye spray bottle, brushes and paper, and be off! Experiment!

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