Color Spree

Color Spree
My favorite color is "all of them." What's yours?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Stillman and Birn Gamma Sketchbook

Stillman & Birn's Gamma Series sketchbook is the fifth of the beautiful journals the company sent me to try. Available in several sizes with either a hard cover or a wirebound hard cover, the Gamma Series has 100lb ivory vellum archival paper. It's a very light ivory, not so dark that white strokes show up dramatically. The color gives a warm glow to anything drawn or painted on it and the heavy weight allows a variety of mixed media uses.

The paper is the same as the Stillman & Birn Alpha Series sketchbook, its only difference is the ivory color. So I decided to test it again thoroughly with different mediums. Seeing how the ivory paper affects color in sketches and trying out a couple of dry mediums I didn't use in the Alpha for my review seemed like a good idea.

I trusted that it'd handle dry mediums well enough when I reviewed the Alpha. What I didn't realize was how great the surface was with them, whether I want broken color or blended smooth color areas. This paper, in both the Alpha and Gamma versions, shines for everything I've used on it.

I love the texture on the Stillman & Birn Gamma paper for drawing with Conte. Here's a sketch done with the traditional sketching colors, black, bistre and sanguine. I worked loosely, smudged, skittered the sticks across the page and got excellent broken color from the vellum surface. It's versatile. Not so toothy that I can't get soft blended edges or even use penwork, yet rough enough that broken color is easy.

I used SpectraFix casein fixative on this page. It's a good idea to use fixative on colored pencils paintings or drawings to prevent wax bloom. With pastels, pastel pencils or Conte drawings, even soft graphite drawings, fixative helps keep them from smearing on the facing page. At worst, smears on the facing page migrate into light areas of the drawing facing it.

For permanent storage, the hard cover Stillman & Birn Gamma sketchbook fits neatly on any bookcase and looks classy with its plain black binding. This is the type of bound sketchbook that gives an art journal a sense of special formality. I know in the past I was nervous about using hardbound sketchbooks at all for fear of messing up a page when it's so elegant.

Don't be afraid to experiment in the Gamma sketchbook. The strong Gamma paper stands up well to erasing and reworking for any dry medium. Any pages you're not satisfied with can always be reworked later or dated to show your progress.

One thing I like about the size is that the 8 1/2" x 11" Gamma sketchbook fits on a normal scanner unlike any of the 9" x 12" ones. That size range varies, but having a scanner sized sketchbook makes it much easier to post your pages online. If you don't have a camera tripod, it can be hard to snap photos of artwork without blurring. So having scanner sized pages makes it a lot easier to keep a digital record in case my sketchbooks are damaged by a flood or lost in a move.

Below is an oil pastel still life in my hardbound Stillman & Birn Gamma sketchbook. Oil pastels are a little different. Unlike Conte crayons, colored pencils or other dry mediums, they have mineral oils in them that never completely dry. Sometimes these oils can seep through sketchbook paper to appear on the reverse.

The strong paper with its sizing kept the oils in my oil pastels page from coming through at all. I could use watercolors on the reverse of this page with no problem. That's important to me because oil pastel is one of my favorite sketch mediums as well as a serious painting medium.

Because the hard covers are light proof, I can even use cheap student oil pastels in my sketchbook without worrying about fading. So I'm always on the lookout for papers that take them well. They're a portable, convenient color medium for studies in their cheapest form and it's a lot of fun to experiment, trusting that the paper will stand up to my experiments.

So if this paper stands up well to oil pastels and Conte crayons, I trust it'll be fine with colored pencils. It's toothy and should take some serious layering if you want to play with your Prismacolors on it. Stick to light applications till your final blending if you want to maximize layering though

Naturally I wanted to see how the Gamma paper holds up to light washes. Except that my example wasn't a light wash by the time I was done with it. I'd call it a heavy wash. I used Stabilo Point 88 fine tip watersoluble pens in a color set that came with my Carb-Othello pastel pencils.

Once I'd sketched the scene using half a dozen colors, I started washing by color area and pushing color around. I scrubbed hard in some areas to almost completely dissolve my pen lines, leaving only faint echoes if that. I dabbed color into damp areas from darker areas for wet in wet effects. What happened was some very slight curling at the edge when it was completely soggy and finished. That flattened out as it dried and the scanner finished flattening it to minimal.

This paper stands up to wet techniques and mixed media so well that I won't hesitate to use watersoluble pencils, watercolor sketching or any water media in it. The label says "light washes" but it stands up to some heavy washing too with minimal cockles. My main suggestion is to leave a bit of space between the edge of your painting and the edge of the paper if you're going to get really soggy, unlike what I just did. I'd rather have left about an inch but by then I had to keep going to get the composition right.

Stillman & Birn Gamma paper will put up with mistakes like that and come back strong. I'm happy with this beautiful sketchbook and know that I'll definitely replace it when it's full - these are a joy to work in and an inducement to sketch and paint more often.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

SoHo Urban Artist Gouache

When I reviewed my Ebony Splendor Brights brushes, I didn't realize that I hadn't already reviewed the SoHo Urban Artist Gouache that I tested them with. I used them with the SoHo Urban Artist Acrylics but didn't post that example - only the gouache painting I did with them. Well, here it is again in context.

This is an example of the kind of subtle mixing and texturing possible with SoHo Urban Artist Gouache. The set's regular price at Jerry's Artarama is $9.99 for 12 big 30ml pots of rich, highly pigmented designer gouache. Pigments are non-toxic and binder is gum arabic - this is traditional opaque watercolor suitable for any illustration uses, sketchbooks, art journaling, sign painting, color mixing and color theory courses, recreating medieval and Renaissance illuminations (the miniature artworks and borders in manuscripts, scrolls and documents).

Because lightfastness is not mentioned with this product, I do not recommend it for wall paintings that may be exposed to light. If you use it for those purposes, consider a UV protective varnish and glazing the painting with UV protective museum glass or acrylic. It's possible to preserve fugitive mediums and I expect the lightfastness to be better than children's products, but not up in the range of expensive artist grade gouaches like Lukas, Holbein or Winsor & Newton.

In fact, even in those top quality artist grade gouaches, it's important to check the lightfastness rating of the pigments you choose. That's only a consideration in one sort of gouache painting - those that hang framed on walls. For all other applications, this is excellent gouache and can be used for any design or illustration purpose. ACEO/ATC miniature artworks are normally kept in albums with UV-protective sleeves on them, so I don't concern myself with lightfast mediums when doing them other than to caution the buyer or recipieent that I may have used some fugitive colors. Don't display gouache paintings for a long time, store in cool dark places and enjoy.

This makes them perfect for art journaling since the bound artworks aren't exposed to light until you open the book to that page. I'd suggest using lightfast acrylics for cover decoration on art journals.

I've used gouache for decades. A good gouache is opaque but can be thinned till it behaves like watercolor, which takes a lot of water. It can be as runny as ink or used as a heavy body paint that even takes some texturing strokes with a bristle brush.

The quality and pigment load are comparable to Yarka/Richeson gouache, along with the price. Yarka's a couple of dollars more and the pots are 40ml instead of 30ml, making this set a little bit more compact. The quantity of paint for that price is excellent in both products. The mixing qualities are splendid.

The red is a good spectrum red that tints to clean magenta or rose with just a touch of violet. The blue is a spectrum blue that's very deep and dark, it reminds me of Prussian Blue and probably is. Cool it toward Ultramarine with just a touch of the deep brilliant violet. Yellow is a clean primary yellow that doesn't lean as greenish as lemon or as orange-cast as a Cadmium Yellow Medium. You can retain full saturation around the color wheel with just the colors in the set.

Three classic useful earths are included, a deep brown earth, Yellow Ochre and an iron oxide red. For landscapes it's very useful to have Iron Oxide Red as one of your hues, it'll balance the vivid greens and modulate them.

Gouache is the perfect medium for color studies. If you're a serious pastelist, it can be a wonderful underpainting medium and used by itself is the wet medium that comes closest to the effects of pastel. Use with a bristle brush to get strong textured strokes or a softer brush like the Ebony Splendor multi-media brushes when you'd rather blend smoothly.

If you're teaching a class in color theory, these inexpensive sets plus a couple of Ebony Splendor brushes are the perfect medium to have your class test mixtures, create color wheels, study any aspect of color and structure. You can mix all the secondary and tertiary hues from the primaries or use the included secondary colors to get vivid tertiaries.

Black and white allow for tints and shades to create good value map sketches in monochrome or tint and shade any color for an infinite variety of hues.

One of the advantages of Gouache is that it's rewettable. Some types of gouache reconstitute better than others if dried. You can put some of this paint into a palette and create pre-mixed colors, even if they're dried into it you can rehydrate to thin or thick texture as desired.

Just like the Yarka set of gouache that I won in the 1990s for a medieval scroll painting competition, the jars don't have a perfect seal. The paint may thicken and crack, taking on a texture more like heavy mud or even drying solid. My set was slightly dried when I got it, some colors more than others.

Light goes over dark easily. This is one of the ways it's so good for creating studies to plan pastel, acrylic or oil paintings. Dry brushing can create broken color and interesting optical mixing. Loose marbling effects are easy to achieve by not thoroughly blending mixtures - drag a brush with one color through a patch of another on your palette, swirl once and mix on the painting. There is a reason gouache is beloved by traditional art schools and design studios - it's that versatility and opacity.

Here's where the quality of SoHo Urban Artist gouache really comes in. Rehydrating dried-up pots is a slow process. Add a little water and let it sit for a few hours or overnight. This softens the surface of the dried up paint and helps it rehydrate better. Then take a paint stirrer, can be anything, plastic, metal, a popsicle stick or toothpick, and stir patiently until all lumps have been smoothed out.

I've rehydrated two of the twelve colors now and the process went quickly. The dried paint softened in only a few hours and stirring the lumps away didn't take as long as I expected. So don't throw them away if you open a jar and it's dried up. Just put some water in up to the level the paint should be at, let it settle for a few hours and gently stir. Wipe any paint off the lip of the jar when you close it and out of the threads. This will both help keep too much air from getting in and also prevent a dried-paint seal that would make it harder to open later.

Of course, the sooner you catch the paint drying out, the faster and easier it is to whip it back to creamy smoothness. Texture should be something like thick house paint at its optimum. You don't need to lose even a speck of the paint. So if you like using pan watercolors, consider putting a good dab into the wells of a small folding palette to create a portable set. It'll rewet easily out in the field too when you want to do color studies for later studio painting.

These are great. Have fun illustrating your webcomic, illuminating an award scroll for any occasion, creating ATCs, art journaling and don't worry about it if your kids or grandkids want to join in. It's safe for grownups to share these paints with smaller loved ones. If your cat walks through it, just rinse his paws off in the sink. I still wouldn't advise eating nontoxic paint but it's a very useful thing to be able to illustrate with cat and kid safe supplies!

Ebony Splendor Brushes and Derwent App

One of the most useful items in the big box of review products Jerry's Artarama sent me is a seven piece set of Ebony Splendor multi media brushes. What I tried is the Brights set, but other sets are available - Filbert, Rounds with both long and short handle sets and Wash brushes with short handles. Prices for the sets range from $19.99 to $24.99 but these are a frequent sale item. Watch for bargains up to 50% off on individual brushes or sets in this series.

These are true multi-media workhorses. I used mine with gouache, acrylics and watercolor. It doesn't matter what consistency of paint I'm using. They're soft enough for watercolor and strong enough to shove around full body acrylics. You'll get more bristle texture from a stiffer nylon brush if you want them to look more like oils, but the multi-filament structure of these brushes stood up to my tests for use with both thin bodied and heavy body paints.

When I first opened up the package, my 32 year old daughter was thrilled with this brush set. I'm ordering another set because she definitely put these on her Christmas list, especially once I opened it and we tried them with watercolors and acrylics. I want the long handled round set and the Wash Set because these are such good quality that I feel a need to expand my range.

Below is a gouache painting I did using the smaller Brights. The smallest two sizes are good miniature brushes with excellent shaping and razor edges. The size 2 looks a little more than 1/16th inch wide - more like 3/32", definitely smaller than 1/8" and still a perfectly shaped small bright. The next up size is about 1/8" and so on up the line. The biggest is a convenient 7/8" bright, one that I reach for every time I look to wet the paper or lay in a big wash.

In painting, it helps to use the largest brush you can for the area or layer you're doing. The size range in these seven brush sets is excellent for that. I can work to any size in my comfort zone. Wash brushes are 1/2", 3/4" and 1" sizes.

The wooden handles are varnished with a mtransparent burgundy finish, very distinctive, with black dipped ends. They're not scraper ends but work well enough as scrapers with how thick the black enamel is at the end, easy to wipe paint off if you use them to sign or carve lines into the paint. The grip is pleasingly shaped, though of course the handles have gradated sizes and the big giant brush is a bit wide.

I'm fond of good synthetic brushes. These may not be "the butt hairs of an exotic male weasel caught in winter" as my daughter teases me about Kolinsky brushes, but they are reasonably priced and perform beautifully.

Right now these excellent brushes are half price - $9.99 for the $19.99 sets and $11.99 for the $24.99 sets. So if you miss this sale, watch for it again. They're definitely a high quality workhorse brush. You may want to get both the long and short handle sets though, because acrylic use over time wears out brushes differently than watercolor does and if you use any of them with oils, you won't want to use that brush again with watermedia. Grabbing a lot of them on sale is a good way to get around the demands of different mediums and always have the size and shape you need.

I did not test my Ebony Splendor brushes to destruction by letting acrylic dry in the hairs. By previous experience, you can sometimes revive a gunked up brush using a good brush cleaner/conditioner soap or dishwashing liquid. But it's much better to keep them wet while they're in use and rinse them immediately with the solvent for whatever paint you're using.

They've definitely become my favorite brights. While I do finger-shape them after washing, they dry perfectly into their original shape rather than splaying out the way some natural hair brushes do when they're dry. Some sophisticated technology went into creating the mix of synthetic hairs in these brushes.

They may not last as long as a Kolinsky sable, but there are uses for old battered fuzzy brushes too. I'll add notes on their condition when they start wearing out for a home test of longevity, but so far they survived their first few months of use in pristine condition. I do use The Masters' Brush Cleaner/Conditioner on all of my brushes, synthetic or natural, so this is qualified by "when well cared for."

Any brush, if you leave it hairs end down in a jar of water, will get hopelessly mashed and bent. Even the best brushes don't survive that treatment and having gobs of dried oils or acrylic sticking the hairs together is another brush-killer. These are strong for synthetic brushes and some of my other synthetics have showed wear under the same number of uses I've put these through. Definitely a bargain for a high quality synthetic brush, especially when they're on sale. Stock up on them to always have the size and shape you need for thick or thin bodied paint.

I also recently got an iPhone4. Not the latest-best 4S but the previous latest-best that's now half price. Of course I got some drawing apps for it that I'll review in a later article after I've learned to use the new medium. I'm reviewing the Derwent App first though, because I am so fond of Derwent's products and it's so darn convenient for checking up on them.

It's got Hints and Tips videos and articles embedded in it, plenty of the sorts of fun things you can find online at Derwent's site.

Easy to navigate, it includes a bar code reader so that the unidentified black pencil that still has its sticker on it and says Derwent, you can find out what it is and what it does, whether it's lightfast, which range it is and get some hints and tips on using it easily. Very useful if you're at a store, see some colorful new product from Derwent and want to find out a lot more about it using your phone than the display tells you.

The lightfastness charts and color charts arrows direct you to the Derwent site, which you can read if you double tap the screen to zoom in to a comfortable reading size. So it's not a big library of information right within your phone if you're not online, however you can copy these charts and turn it into one if you like. The videos link to YouTube.

It's a fun little app that puts the Derwent site into your hands for convenience without having to type the link in. Also you can add your art to your personal Gallery using the app, or contribute it to the Global Gallery, surf around and see others' artwork done with Derwent products.

It's free, it's fun and easy to use, so definitely worth a download if you like using Derwent's products. Just watch your data plan usage for the videos, see if you can download them rather than watch them repeatedly on streaming.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

SoHo Urban Artist Acrylics and Painting Boards

SoHo Urban Artist Acrylics are a bargain brand of heavy body acrylic paint with surprisingly good quality. Familiar pigments, consistent texture with good pigment load make these an incredible bargain at a very low price. Frugal artists, students, muralists and painters who do scenery for theatres should give these a try!

SoHo Urban Artist Acrylic paints have a good texture for heavy body acrylics. These aren’t the bottled acrylics for decorative painting, they have the texture of oils straight from the tube. Covering power is excellent on the Titanium White, though some pigments are by their nature transparent such as Dioxazine Violet.

The 24 color set provides an enormous range of choices for a new artist. The palette’s almost too generous for a beginner. Most painters will find their favorites in it. I found many of mine - Payne’s Grey, Dioxazine Violet, Sap Green, Prussian Blue as well as Pthalo Blue. My only staple pigment not represented is Permanent or Quinacridone Rose, though if I wanted a separate tube, Rose Madder is available in open stock.

Texture was the same across all colors that I used. I combined at least half of the colors in the box in my miniature, testing Yellow Ochre, Titanium White, Permanent Green Light, Sap Green, Alizarin Crimson, Dioxazine Violet, Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Yellow Hue, Lemon Yellow

Toxic pigments such as Cobalt and Cadmium are represented by Hues. Pigments aren’t listed by pigment number, but all the colors are available in open stock as well as the sets. Lightfastness is not listed on the tubes. It may be able to be derived by looking up the pigments. If you’re looking for an inexpensive acrylic paint to practice or do preliminary works, the price is right and the quality is good for student grade.

After I painted the red apple with Alizarin Crimson and Cadmium Yellow Hue, I recognized that this isn’t the fugitive traditional Alizarin Crimson that’s transparent, nearly black in mass tone and has an odd brownish undertone. It’s the brilliant, cool, purple cast Permanent Alizarin or a mixture and that bodes well for the lightfastness of the set. I’m pretty sure from the actual color of the paint that it’s more like a quinacridone and so it does superbly take the place of a Quinacridone Rose in my palette.

The price on all of the SoHo Urban Artist products is remarkably low for their quality. These acrylics are no exception, they’re comparable to Liquitex and other acrylics I’ve used. The big 24 color set is a starter with sample sized 21ml tubes. It’s a great bargain for a miniaturist especially, if you don’t use up much paint at a time they’ll likely last well or if you prefer thinning them to ink consistency for watercolor-like effects.

If you prefer working larger and bolder, all colors are also available in 75ml tubes, 250 ml big tubes and a 500ml jar. Muralists will be glad to know the regular price at Jerry’s is only $9.99 for the big 500ml jar, $3.99 for the giant 250ml tube or $2.97 for the full size 75ml tube. At time of writing they're on super sale $1.49 for the 75ml tube and the larger sizes are marked down too. Watch for sales.

The 24 color Value Set is only $19.99. Jerry's also carries a complete painting set with walnut finish table easel, 5-pack of painting boards, brushes, palette knives, 24 tubes, gloss and matte mediums plus an instructional DVD for $79.99. That one might make a great gift for a friend or relative who's interested in taking up painting. Non toxic hues and water cleanup mean the set's safe to purchase for your kids or grandkids.

Watch for sale prices if you’re planning a big project. These inexpensive good quality acrylics may be just the thing to paint large on canvases, walls, gessoed masonite or any other type of acrylic painting surface. Anyone painting flats for live theatre will be able to cut costs with those big pots.

It’s not hard to thin tube acrylics to the liquid texture of bottled acrylics for crafts projects. Just add a little water to achieve exactly the texture you want. Acrylics are the great mimic medium - you can use them for crafts like enamels, thin to transparency to use like watercolors, paint heavy bodied pictures as if they were oils and clean up or thin with water. Impasto mediums and special texture gels from Derivan and others extend the variety of effects you can get.

They dry quickly and leave little or no mess if you use a glass, ceramic or other non-porous surface. Gloss and matte mediums are available in the complete painting set but not listed separately at Jerry’s. These paints are compatible with other brands of acrylic paints and mediums, so using Liquitex, Golden or any other acrylic mediums with it should work just as well.

They dry to a very nice semi-gloss finish. If you want a gloss finish or matte finish, get some matte or gloss acrylic medium in any brand you like. Acrylic paints are compatible across brands. SoHo Urban Artist acrylics should work well with any acrylic paints you already have, whether bottled or heavy body tube paints.

A couple of tips for using SoHo Urban Artist Acrylics. Synthetic brushes are best for use with acrylics. Either use the stiff white taklon brushes that have a texture like bristle, or softer golden taklon or nylon brushes for a different look. The stiff ones will leave distinct brush strokes and painterly texture effects. Softer golden Taklon brushes can be used to smooth out all texture and hide your brush strokes for realism.

Don't use natural bristle brushes with any paint that thins with water. The flagged tips will soak water and degrade. The brush loses its stiffness and stops holding as much paint if it's soaked in water. Synthetic imitation bristle brushes stay good and firm and the hairs don't soak the water at all. They're also easier to clean if acrylic paint dries in them and cheaper to replace if ruined irreparably.

Keep your brushes damp at all times - they do dry fast and may stick in the brush hairs if you let brushes dry with paint in them. Rinse brushes in warm or hot water to soften clumps if you make a mistake and get bits of film on them, after loosening it up with Master’s Brush Cleaner cake or a gentle dish detergent. Likewise washing out a palette with warm water will make any dried paint peel up clean, while diluting and dissolving any paint that’s still wet. Don’t let large acrylic skins go down the drain or you’ll clog it though. Peel them off and chuck them in the trash.

Along with the SoHo Urban Artist Acrylics value set, I tested the SoHo Urban Artist Painting Boards that I also received to review. The surface is white, impressed with a very fine canvas pattern simulating portrait grain canvas on a sturdy 2.3mm board. They’re lightweight and didn’t warp while handling, something that can happen even with ATC size boards.

Sizes range from 12” x 16” to 2 1/2” x 3 1/2” ATC boards through several other common sizes including 11” x 14”, 9” x 12”, 6” x 9” and 8” x 10”. They’re sold in packs of five or bulk boxes of 120, 240 or 360. They’re inexpensive and convenient for a prolific painter, good for color studies, practice, display or framing. Prices range from $1.81 for the five-pack of 6” x 9” to $6.35 for the 12” x 16” so these are very inexpensive even in relation to canvas boards.

If they’re framed, it wouldn’t matter that the sides of the painting panels aren’t wrapped. It’s a small thing that bothers me a little about them but this is definitely a bargain product.

For studies, practice and frugal painters, they’ve got a good surface that takes the paint exactly as well as gessoed canvas boards. For ATCs, I might want to run a black or gilded marker around the thick sides to give the edges a nicer look. Testing that with a gold Sharpie, it didn’t take very well but using deep gold metallic gouache worked great. A bottle of metallic gold acrylic would work just as well.

If you want to paint a lot, the combination of SoHo Urban Artist Acrylics and SoHo Urban Artist Painting Boards is a good way to practice without spending a fortune. If you have big projects in mind, they may be a cost effective solution for murals, theatre sets and other very large works. Any frugal painter will have a good time with these products.

Don’t be afraid to botch anything you do with these acrylics because at this price, you can just redo it again and jot the date on the back to record your progress. Because lightfastness isn’t listed for the paints and acid free or archival isn’t listed for the boards, I’d recommend them for preliminary work, decorative work, illustration, practice, leisure painters and students.

Art journals are another excellent use for SoHo Urban Artist Acrylics. Any interior paintings aren’t going to get the kind of sustained light exposure as a wall painting in a sunny room. Another thing to remember is that while lightfastness isn’t listed, many times the non toxic hues are more lightfast than the traditional pigments they replace. They may have different qualities, such as cadmium hues sometimes being less opaque.

The colors mix beautifully, exactly as I expect for the listed pigments. Most of the named pigment colors are lightfast as far as I know, with the exception of Alizarin Crimson. It’s popular with painters but I prefer both the hue and the permanence of Permanent Alizarin Crimson. I was very glad this company's Alizarin Crimson is the modern pigment rather than the historic one.

What I’ve found as a serious painter is that being able to create color studies and preliminary versions of my paintings improves them dramatically. With art supplies, you get what you pay for. There is a reason to pay more for specialty artist grade acrylics with well known brands. Do you really want to spend that much to paint a stage set or a mural in your child’s bedroom? SoHo Urban Artist acrylics are good value for a very low price, enough to let any painter have uninhibited freedom to experiment. The best prices are on the 24 color Value Set and the biggest jars.

One last point. Sometimes even though for years I’ve been purchasing top quality artist grade supplies, I’ll freeze up and hesitate to use them or constrain myself to subjects and techniques I’m already confident with. These handle with the same consistency as other brands of heavy body acrylics, even the most expensive ones I own. When I want to cut loose and try something loony or fool around in my art journals, I’ll definitely reach for SoHo Urban Artist Acrylics. They’re priced for any budget and handle like the best.

It’s the same thing with the boards. Bulk boxes of SoHo Urban Artist Painting Boards means no need to scrape or paint over any failed experiments. Just date it, set it aside, try again and keep the series to appreciate your progress over time. There’s a lot to be said for bulk quantity in budget supplies to stimulate creativity. If you want to become a better painter, get a bulk box of boards in your favorite size. You’ll never hesitate to practice or experiment with that many chances to get it right.

Here's my example painting using SoHo Urban Artist Acrylics on an ATC size SoHo Urban Artist Painting Board. I worked from a photo of some fruit I took months ago back in Arkansas and cropped tonight to create a new ACEO.

Still Life with Violet Curtain by Robert A. Sloan.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Stillman and Birn Beta Sketchbook

Stillman & Birn's Beta Series sketchbook comes in four sizes like the other four archival sketchbooks in the series. The paper is ultra heavy natural white 180lb Rough texture. Compared to Rough watercolor paper I've used before, the level of texture is more like a heavy-texture Cold Press variation. The texture bumps are small enough not to preclude painting on a small scale but deep enough to make beautiful broken color effects with a dry brush or Conte stick.

The Beta is available in both hard cover and spiral wire bindings. I prefer the spiral wire binding, the covers are just as heavy as the hard cover version but I can fold the cover and used pages around to the back for scanning purposes. It's also easier to lay it flat for a two page spread.

The texture is the same as the equally heavy weight Delta Series sketchbook. It's beautiful paper. While it's listed as Natural White, it's a very bright Natural White comparable to some other papers' Bright White color. This gives true color to any transparent medium used on the Beta sketchbook.

I fell in love with this sketchbook and gave it a serious workout as follows:

This is a quick painting using Lukas 1862 watercolors. It's on the back of my self portrait, among other things it tests whether a heavy soaking will carry color through to the other side. It didn't. This painting didn't damage my self portrait and no trace of it shows on that page. No matter how much water I used on the self portrait, it didn't flood through to this side either.

Because the paper is so heavy, I used wet in wet techniques on the fruit and charged in more layers of soft-edged color several times. I deliberately rippled my first strokes on the edges of some leaves but you can see they're hard edged shapes, within them I swept several layers of color before they dried. Last, I did some dry brush bark texture in a neutral mixture.

I liked the results. The white background gave me true color and all of my mixtures came out as planned, though of course they dried lighter than they looked when I painted them in. So far so good. This sketchbook would rock for botanicals in watercolor and any watercolor studies. It didn't cockle but I was using small wet in wet areas nowhere near the edge of the page.

My next challenge was to paint very close to the edge using Derwent Watercolour Pencils washed. I created a watercolor pencil drawing and washed it thoroughly, scrubbing the marks out in several areas. While it was still drying I added watercolor accents. The page cockled slightly and dried completely flat for my self portrait. On the right you can see an area where I let color drip down the side and spread the drip out right to the edge to see if it would dry flat.

So now you know more or less how I look and that I need a haircut. :D

For my last test of my Stillman & Birn Beta series sketchbook, I wanted to see whether the Rough surface would still allow clean pen lines for pen and watercolor work. So I used a watersoluble black fine point pen to sketch my ashtray in stages showing contour lines, shading and finally a wash done with waterbrush. I was happy with the line smoothness even on Rough paper. I can use pen accents to my water media on the Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook and have fun with anything I want to draw or paint with on its super heavy, durable, archival paper.

So far I think the Beta Series is my favorite of these wonderful, archival sketchbooks. The white paper gives me the freedom of toning it or underpainting. The super heavy stock would respond well to gesso if I wanted to do oil studies or oil-style acrylic paintings or collage anything onto a page with gloss or matte acrylic medium. Colourfix sanded pastel primer would allow me to underpaint or tone a page and then turn it into a sanded page for pastel work.

I'm tempted to turn a Beta journal into a pastel journal by priming and taping sheets of glassine to the top of each page so it folds back or folds down over the finished art. If they bound in glassine pages over the super white paper, it could be used as a pastel journal without any more work or just with the priming. It's good for any multi-media use. Don't be afraid to get it soggy - it'll dry flat and gorgeous!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Stillman and Birn Epsilon Sketchbook

Stillman & Birn's Epsilon Sketchbook is another elegant hardcover artist's journal with fine white 100lb heavy archival paper. It's designed primarily for pen drawing with a smooth plate surface that gives a clean line.

Light washes aren't recommended. For light washes I'd recommend the Alpha or Gamma sketchbooks. For heavy washes and other wet mediums including acrylics and gouache the super heavy 180lb Beta or Delta sketchbook papers. Epsilon is a specialty book designed for fine pen drawing.

So naturally I tried it with a different dry medium to see how well it accepts hard pastels. I love using hard pastels or Conte crayons for sketching. My concern was that the plate surface wouldn't be able to handle pencil or sketching crayons because it's so smooth.

Not a problem. It may be a smooth plate surface but it has loads of tooth to accept dry smudging mediums. I used Derwent pastels on the Epsilon paper with great results sketching my cat from life. Given how well the pastels performed, graphite or colored pencils should go well on this paper. Use a light hand with colored pencils so that you don't fill the tooth too early if you're going to build up multiple layers of color.

Of course a sketchbook designed for pen drawing needs to perform well with a technical pen. I got out my favorite Pigma Micron size 05 and did some quick sketches of my cat, one more detailed and one fast gesture. Using loose lines and deliberately sketching with a lift, I got a bit of broken line. That was my technique though, rather than a quality of the paper. When I slowed down I got smooth clean lines.

The paper surface is perfect for technical pens. Fast or slow, pen lines lay down with smooth edges and don't bleed through. The natural white color is great for lines showing up and would respond just as well to color pen drawing.

Then I tortured the paper with Tombow Dual Tip Brush Pens. These are more like markers than pens. They're water based and very juicy. I layered color. I used the colorless blender pen to pull out soft edges in some areas.

When I put a third or fourth layer of color and blended with a heavy stroke, the paper surface came up a little and pilled. I was able to carefully pull those "pills" off with the colorless blender pen though and save this drawing of a wood duck. It was a slight effect easily repaired rather than a major problem.

Best of all, the very wet Tombow Brush pen marks did not soak through to the back of the page. This wood duck was on the other side of the Pigma Micron cat sketches before I drew or scanned them. There isn't a trace of color or darkening on the cat side of the page even though I rubbed the surface off in a couple of deep color areas.

The manufacturer doesn't recommend using markers on this paper, but if you're careful you may be able to make them perform on it. Just don't do much blending or layering as the moisture may start to weaken the paper surface. Other sorts of pens are fine, like the Pitt Artist Pens with their smaller brush tips.

The surface erases easily, so if you prefer to pencil sketch under your pen drawings there's no problem removing light or medium pencil lines. It's possible to make pencil lines so dark they won't come up, but on this paper I had no problem removing the pencil lines I tested - they didn't groove the surface. Colored pencil may or may not be erasable, it depends on how lightly you colored and how much patience you have with a kneaded eraser. If you'd like to erase color, use Col-Erase pencils.

Thumbs up on a beautiful, archival pen drawing sketchbook. I'm going to have a lot of fun with this one exploring different styles of pen work and may even color some of my pen drawings with my Tombow brush tips.

What I like best about all of these Stillman & Birn sketchbooks is that they're archival. I love looking at sketches by great artists of the past and have an idea that my grandkids and their kids may be interested in Grandpa's sketchbooks too. More than that, when I go back to old sketchbooks I find good ideas that I may not have had the skill to render at the time. They're well protected in sturdy hard covers whether wirebound or hard cover so they survive being knocked around in messenger bags, kicked off the table by my cat or tripped on in the dark. The quality is excellent and prices are comparable to other high quality archival sketchbooks.

I've got two more to test and describe. With how well these three performed, I'm looking forward to the others with delight!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Lukas 1862 Watercolors

Lukas 1862 watercolors are artist grade, pigment rich and lovely. They come in 12, 24 and 48 color half pan sets plus a 24 color full pans sets, available at Jerry's Artarama. The quality is excellent and the price remarkable compared to other artist grade brands. I'm not sure how Jerry's manages to price these as low as they do given the genuine Cadmiums, Chromiums and other expensive pigments involved.

The colors in the 24 color set I tested are well chosen and happily include several I consider essential. I get extremely frustrated if a watercolor set has no magenta or quinacridone red or permanent red, there has to be a bright cold red to make me happy. Fortunately, this set includes Magenta and also the Alizarin Crimson is brighter, more violet-cast and cleaner than most other brands' Alizarin Crimson. It looks more like Winsor & Newton's Permanent Alizarin Crimson than the sadly fugitive natural pigment we're all so used to in various paints.

Cyan is a good strong warm blue close to Cerulean, maybe a hair darker. I used the Cyan in my example for the sky color on the painting below. Payne's Grey is a color I find more useful and necessary than black, a cool darkener and a gorgeous monochrome color in its own right. For deep dark monochromes this set includes Raw Umber (nearly black), Paynes Grey and Ivory Black. If you're sketching in the field it can be very handy to have those darks. Deepening reds, blues, greens, it's easier to do that with a warm darkener or cool darkener - you can choose to mute them in darkening or not depending an which one you choose.

Dioxazine Violet is another essential color, especially for landscapes. Soft thin violet washes can push distant areas into the distance, deep violet accents under foliage can make greens less monochromatic and of course you may want to paint irises or other violet flowers.

These are moist pan watercolors that pick up easily with a wet brush. The sturdy enameled metal tin has a flip-out mixing area with ten slants, making color mixing easy even if you're painting in the car or out on a hike. For outdoor painting, the set also includes a handy thumb ring on the back. A generous gutter between the two rows of half pans gives plenty of room for a brush or two.

I tested it with my Niji medium tip water brush. Yep. The water brush fits neatly into the tin in that generous gutter. That can help a lot if you're using this outdoors and don't want to carry water with you.

One of the main reasons I prefer enameled metal watercolor cases to plastic is that the mixing areas wipe clean with less staining. Plastic is more porous and it's possible to leave patches of Pthalo Blue or strong red stains distorting the color of the mixtures you create in that area next time, or the value of the mixture you just did even if you're using the same color. So that personal little fine point is a big plus for the good strong metal tin.

The full range of 70 colors in Lukas 1862 watercolors are available in both pans and tubes, so as you use up the half pans it's possible to refill or replace them. The set is a great bargain for super quality. These are every bit as good as any other artist grade watercolors I've used, come in a great format and the price is extremely competitive. Any of the tin sets would make a good gift for an aspiring watercolorist.

Because these do use artist grade mineral pigments, some of them with known toxicity like the Cadmiums and Chromium Green, don't buy this set for a child. Get it for yourself and buy a Sakura Koi or Winsor & Newton Cotman set for anyone underage. When using Lukas 1862 watercolors, be sure not to point your brush with your mouth. Get used to the habit of pointing it with your fingers after rinsing and don't eat while painting.

Below is a landscape painted with 24 Lukas 1862 half pan watercolors in a large Moleskine watercolor journal. I loved how the color flowed, how strong and pigment-rich all of the colors were and how easy it was to mix on the palette as well as the paper. In a couple of areas I went stronger than I expected to because these paints are so good. Finer grinding and more pigment to binder ratio is what makes artist grade watercolor so much stronger than student grade watercolors.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Stillman and Birn Alpha Sketchbook

Stillman & Birn sent me five beautiful sketchbooks to review. I've been using the "Delta" as my current sketchbook because I love the heavy ivory color multimedia paper so much. It stands up well to everything I do in it and I'm still as happy with it as when I reviewed it before my move.

When I packed up my first batch of boxes to ship to San Francisco, I made sure to pack all my new review supplies! A lot of my old supplies are still in Arkansas but all these new goodies are in hand. My apologies that it took so long to get packed, travel, unpack and settle in before reviewing any of them.

Stillman & Birn's "Alpha" sketchbook is archival, neutral Ph and strong. It complies with international standards of responsible forestry and carries a Woodland Ecology and Conservation label. Rag content isn't listed, nor proportion of alpha cellulose. The color is a soft natural white, not the screaming blue-white of some white papers but white enough to give true color in any medium.

This sketchbook has splendid quality paper in a good hard cover binding. I think it'd make a great gift for anyone who likes to draw, sketch, scrapbook or otherwise keep an art journal. The only risk is temptation to pick one up for yourself when you're out buying presents. The cover has a nice faux leather texture with a paper strip showing what type of sketchbook it is. This one's got an example sketch by Michelangelo.

Stillman & Birn's Alpha sketchbook is suitable for all dry media and light washes. Naturally I decided to test it first with light washes and dip pens to see how well it stands up to water. I used my Daniel Smith Walnut Ink with a bamboo dip pen and then dipped into it with a Niji waterbrush for light values, let that dry and went back into it with a 1/4" Ebony Splendor brush.

I'll review the brush later on in its own post. Right now I'm happy to report this 100lb paper handled a soppy loose wash on the second batch of pears well. It cockled a little and dried nearly flat in both areas I swiped with the water brush.

The smooth vellum surface gives a clean line with Tombow dual tip brush pens or with the bamboo dip pen. Colored pencils would perform well on this paper, it's got plenty of tooth and I'm sure if I wanted to go nuts with Prismacolors that it might hold almost as many layers as Stonehenge. I can feel the tooth when I touch the page, yet it's fine enough that my pen lines don't get disrupted.

Overall, I'm delighted with this hardbound sketchbook. I usually choose spiral bindings but this hard cover Alpha sketchbook is one that I'll replace once it's filled. It's the sort of classy sketchbook to leave out in a formal living room along with a wood box set of colored pencils for guests to add their sketches. The size is convenient for my scanner, unlike 9" x 12" sketchbooks the entire page fits on the scanner bed.

My main recommendation is that if you use light washes, leave space between the painting and the edges of the paper. It does cockle but not nearly as much as lighter papers and it will dry solid. Laying something flat on the closed book can help flatten out the cockling too.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Gallery Artists Handmade Soft Pastels

Gallery Artists' Handmade Soft Pastels are the latest addition to the Mungyo Gallery line of reformulated soft pastels. I've tried the Semi-Hard sticks, the Soft Squares and Soft Rounds, finding each of these products to be far higher quality than their economical price suggests. On all these new lines, quality is consistent, the manufacturer claims lightfastness and the products are AP non toxic. It's safe to use them around small children and animals.

I really looked forward to trying the Gallery Artists' Handmade Soft Pastels. So when I received a 30 color review set, I was thrilled. No disappointment here! The color range in the 30 color set is complete with warm and cool primaries and green, a full spectrum, some extremely useful tints, a few of the most useful neutrals and some very useful darks - two dark greens, a very dark blue, dark cool gray and moderately dark reddish brown. Tints include pale blue, dusty pale violet, pale yellow a little darker than ivory, a good medium pink and a light orange excellent for portrait highlights. Whoever picked which sticks to put in this range was right on form to make it a balanced set for general use. Portraits, landscapes, floral still lifes, any subject I felt like painting would be possible just using this set.

Spectrum colors are clear, true and bright. It's much easier to scumble over spectrum bright colors to mute them, or use tints to mute and lighten them or darks to darken and mute them, than it is to try to create strong brights when you don't have them in the box. The colors are so rich and vivid that I've had doubts about the lightfastness, so they may have been finding ways of using Quinacridones among the pigments or some other modern lightfast bright red-violets.

Texture on the Gallery Artists' Handmade soft pastels is very similar to Unisons and a sample stick of Richeson Handmade that I've tried. They're in exactly that category. The sticks are larger than Unisons but smaller than the big Richeson sticks and much smaller than the giant Mount Vision sticks, the other pastels I put in this texture category. They're soft, fluffy, creamy and go on easily. They'll go over all the others adding more layers. It's possible to build up strong impasto effects much easier with these than the other three Gallery pastels. Texture is consistent across all the colors, a big help if you like predictability. None of the colors in this set crumbled or had trouble holding together.

These are finishing pastels. The price is significantly higher, matches the price of Richeson handmade pastels for the same reason. They're hand rolled. They take a lot more hand labor to create than machine-rolled pastels. Sticks are uniform in size for hand rolled, which is to say they vary slightly in shape and length. It looks like each one was made with the same size dollop of paste and the roller sometimes got them a little longer and sometimes a little fatter.

They can be used on unsanded pastel paper with spectacular results. I watched an Arnold Lowrey pastel video on ArtistsNetworkTV and decided to give this set a stretch on Canson Mi-Tientes to see how they perform.

Wow. I should've known. Every one of these has been sweet on my favorite inexpensive sanded pastel paper. Here's my version of the Lowrey demo seascape:

Following the demo, I used light applications, blended and layered. These pastels gave me more layers on Mi-Tientes than others I've tried. They're comparable to Mount Vision on unsanded paper and handled a lot like my Unisons. If you like Unisons, you may want to look close at the Gallery Artists' range for some of the bright colors missing in the Unison range.

Packaging is good too. Good slotted foam padding inside a very sturdy cardboard box slides into a lightweight cardboard sleeve that keeps the box closed and gives added protection, with another layer of foam on top. I'd trust this set to be tossed in its original package into my carry bag when I go out doing street art in San Francisco. Its compact box and good range for the number of pastels will make it a great set for taking out into the city for plein air painting.

Like the rest, these are available at Jerry's Artarama and ASW. Online price is $2.99 a stick, same as the Richeson handmade at Blick. I prefer these to the Richesons because everything else being equal, the color range in Gallery Artists' Handmade Soft Pastels is more evenly balanced with fewer near duplicates even in the full range 200 color wood box set.

That's a wicked temptation. At only $499 it's a glorious big full range set for anyone who likes having a great range of tints per hue in an evenly balanced range without any major gaps. I'm impressed by the color range Gallery produced in these handmade pastels. Excellent all around, Gallery Artists' handmade soft pastels might become my workhorse pastels for street sketching.

I'm relocating to San Francisco at the end of the month. Updates might be a bit irregular since the move has me very busy, but I have lots more good art supplies stacked up to review - four more Stillman & Birn archival journals, Lukas Berlin watersoluble oils, SoHo Urban Artists products, great new brushes and much, much more. Even a Charvin premium linen canvas and set of top quality artists' oils. Of course I'll have to demonstrate the SoHo Urban Artist stuff with urban scenes! Good thing I'm moving somewhere that I can't turn a corner without seeing something paintable!

Sometime in late August or late September, I'll get my license from the San Francisco Arts Commission and pick up my old Street Sketching career. Back when I lived in New Orleans, I was one of the artists who set up in the French Quarter painting outdoors all day and selling off the easel. For more information and articles about my move, see my other blog, Robs Art Lessons. As I pack up my studio, relocate and set up to do my old gig again, I'll describe everything from how to paint for tourists to how I relocate across the continent with all of my kit and get set up again for the job I loved best - street art!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Stillman and Birn Delta Series Sketchbook

Stillman & Birn Delta Series Sketchbook is a top quality, archival, super tough all-media art journal with teeth! If there's a Bruce Willis of sketchbooks, I think I just met it. This handsome 6" x 8" double wire bound multi media book stood up to everything I tried on it and just kept asking for more. Begging for more, no matter how much I soaked it, the rough tooth ivory paper kept its grip on pastel and watercolor pencil marks until washed or smudged.

Recently I received five beautiful sketchbooks from Stillman & Birn, one each of all five Greek letter archival sketchbooks. Each one is archival and top quality, what varies is the type of surface - rough, medium, smooth, the color and the weight of the paper. Each of these top quality sketchbooks is best for different types of media but all of them seem flexible and tough enough for a wide variety of uses - including my favorite sketch and wash. So let's start with the Delta.

The first book that attracted me is the Stillman & Birn “Delta Series” with extra heavy weight rough ivory paper. The color’s very pleasing, a light soft ivory that’s just dark enough a white accent would barely show up, giving a warm cast to any colors I put on it. The paper is super heavy - 180lb or 270 gsm. Thicker than standard 140lb watercolor paper, its enhanced wet strength is suitable for mixed media rendering.

I wanted to know if it would stand up to anything I threw at it.

My first test page has a sketch of a white horse done with Derwent Watercolour Pencils and washed. The rough, toothy paper took the color as strong and deep as the Aquabee Bogus Recycled Rough paper, it’ll be wonderful for pastels, pastel pencils and oil pastels. I added several layers in some patches for mixed color before washing them, felt as if I could’ve added even more if I wanted to.

I washed that with a wet Niji waterbrush, squeezed heavily and gave it quite a bit of water in some spots. No cockling, no trouble, the paper absorbed the water easily and nothing bled through to the other side. I love this paper!

Below the horse picture, I chose a dark purple pencil and tested how well the multi media paper erases. I went very heavy, achieved full deep coverage quick because the rough toothy paper held the color easily. This will be great for colored pencils sketching even with the softest pencils like Coloursoft or Prismacolor.

I had no doubt graphite would come up easily, so I picked the toughest pencil to erase and lighten - dry soft Derwent Watercolour pencil. I used a Faber Castell pencil eraser to cut through the color all the way down to the paper.

Wow. It did erase completely where I gave it the most work. The paper surface doesn’t feel damaged in the erased patches either, even though I went heavy with the eraser using one that often damages weaker papers.

Delta Series paper is extremely tough. I love it. But I’d only washed it with a water brush. What would happen if I wanted to do big soggy wet in wet washes in my journal? Clouds with dropped in color or splashy drips and backruns?

I used a 1” flat brush to soak the back of the white horse page up to 1/2” from the edges. Had water floating on it and shiny at first, then got out Daniel Smith watercolor sticks and doodled into it.

My, the Delta has thirsty paper. No sooner had I started sketching than the big soggy initial wetting sank in and I was working on barely-damp paper. That was surprising, but gave me a chance to see how the toothy surface handled DS Watercolor Sticks. I love it. I got good strong color.

Slight warping occurred in the heavy washing, but it flattened out again pretty fast. With the same big brush, I laid in another big wash area above and below the ammonite doodles, then picked up color from the ends of Ultramarine and Sap Green Daniel Smith Watercolor Sticks to add swirls and swooping soft-edged watery shapes. THis worked, I did get some soft edged passages especially putting color into an area that already had two water washes and a color stroke. It still soaked up the water fast!

Last, to see how pastel pencils responded on the dried surface, I added a few linear and smudged elements with Carb-Othello Stabilo Pastel Pencils. Color laydown was as fast and soft as with the Derwent Watercolour Pencils and smudging to softness as easy as a quick swipe with my fingers. The multimedia test doodle is 100% successful.

I can do whatever I want on this paper. It’s perfect for mixed media. I’d have no hesitation at gluing in photos or clippings, carving it up with a razor blade to get sparkles, splashing it with acrylics or repeatedly melting areas with a spray bottle. It just keeps taking the punishment and performing beautifully. All that washing didn’t reduce the tooth one bit.

Remember the Eraser Test in the earlier image? I did that before turning the page to drown it before doing my Ammonites Doodle, Looking at it now - exactly the same. No matter how much I poured into it, the paper didn't get damp enough on the side previously used to activate the watercolor pencil eraser test. It's still dry on dry. I can be fearless about turning the page and using both sides even if I'm using watersoluble mediums and want to keep them dry or undisturbed.

This art journal is perfect for outdoor sketching in watercolor or anything I feel like using. Even heavy washes don’t bleed through to the other side of the page and the cockling is minimal - it took a good third of a cup of water to begin to make it cockle. There was none at all from just using the Niji water brush.

This super paper is 87% alpha cellulose, not a rag paper but plant fiber nonetheless. It's forestry certified for woodland ecology and conservation. Highly uniform fiber distribution means there's tooth but no distracting texture like a rough watercolor paper often has - fine clean lines in pen or wash and smooth hard edges are easy. Internal and external sizing is probably why my purple watercolor pencil erasing experiment didn't get wet from the super soaked Ammonite Doodle. At 180lb, it's beefier than standard artist's weight watercolor paper and cockles less.

I'd have no trouble gessoing a few pages to do oils in the field or just doing acrylics right on the paper. This really can take whatever I want to do with it and I know with this archival quality, my color studies and field paintings will still be good years later when I want to do studio paintings from them. I used artist grade supplies because I know the paper will last.

The Stillman & Birn Delta Series Sketchbook is a top of the line artist’s grade sketchbook or art journal. Tough, beautiful, sturdy multi-media paper within heavy board covers in a spiral binding, the Delta is my choice when I want to be able to choose what to use on the spot. So far it stands up to anything I throw at it with so much tooth that oil pastels, pastel pencils or dry pastels would behave just as well with it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Gallery Mungyo Soft Square Pastels

Gallery Mungyo Artist's Soft Pastel Squares are about half the price of the soft round pastels. At that price, I didn't expect to like them at all and didn't bother to buy them even though I liked the Soft Rounds and Semi-Hard pastels. They couldn't possibly be that good at that price, they must be something horrible, right?

Well, I was pleasantly surprised when a friend of mine gave me a set of 48 soft squares. No, they aren't on a par with Art Spectrum, Rembrandt or Unison, let alone the hand-rolled pastels or Senneliers. You do get what you pay for.

But for a bargain pastel these are very sweet. I should have remembered how much I liked that little 64 half stick set. They're a lot like those - bright, soft, consistent in texture, easy to handle and sweet on unsanded paper. They're great sketching pastels and best of all, so inexpensive you can just go ahead and fill huge sheets of newsprint or sketch pads with them.

They aren't as pigment rich as the soft rounds, but they're not bad either and have a good texture. Reasonably soft, they go over hard pastels well. Texture is consistent across all the colors. The narrow wrapped sticks are easy to handle and give color name and number for easy replacement of most-used colors from open stock.

These are available in open stock from Jerry's Artarama or ASW, also at some chain hobby and art stores. Moderately priced, these are great for color studies, sketching, goofing around and having a lot of fun.

The manufacturer claims highest lightfastness for them but this hasn't been tested elsewhere as far as I know. I'd be very interested if someone in a sunny climate set up a year-long home lightfastness test with swatches of these and other Gallery Mungyo pastels by putting swatches in a sunny window and checking them against swatches kept in the dark for fading.

Watch out for fluorescent colors, by definition those are fugitive. The fluorescent effect is created by the pigment degrading, so they will fade rapidly and be dramatic until they do. Anything else though, the manufacturer's claims are worth something at least. They could be facing truth in advertising lawsuits if they can't show the pigments are lightfast, though not all testing is done with the pigment combined with the binder.

For something at this price range to claim lightfastness is pretty impressive. I know there are some modern pigments that are more lightfast than their original counterparts, like Permanent Alizarin Crimson vs. original Alizarin Crimson. So that to me is a point in their favor. If something came out really well using these, I wouldn't feel bad about selling it.

As opposed to certain other cheap brands of pastels that I have not reviewed because I didn't keep them or like them. You don't see negative reviews here mostly because I'm starting with the supplies I like and haven't kept the ones I couldn't stand. I hated ALphacolor pastels and almost gave up on the medium because those were the first ones I got. These are much better and very reasonably priced.

Here's a scene that I did with them on brown Aquabee Bogus Recycled Rough Sketch Paper. They perform beautifully on rough unsanded paper. It was easy to get broken color when I wanted it or layer a bit and fill the tooth. Colors are vibrant, consistent and easy to blend using sticks. I didn't finger-smudge anything on this one but on another sketch, they smudged fine.

Geese on the Water by Robert A. Sloan, 6" x 9"

Friday, June 10, 2011

Derwent Onyx Pencil

Derwent Onyx Pencils are another specialty pencil from Derwent. This time it's a pencil blacker than 9B graphite. The set comes with two Dark and two Medium Onyx pencils, a hand sharpener and a little white vinyl eraser on a bubble pack card. Very convenient little sketch set.

Onyx pencils are wide barrel, painted in environmentally aware matte black water based lacquer and dipped with a shiny black end and green slant band. They're easy to tell from your other Derwent pencils in a jar.

I love a good soft, dark, high B grade pencil whether it's a 6B, 8B or 9B. That's my favorite for sketching and drawing. The darker the better. Most of the very soft B grade pencils also smudge easily. Derwent Onyx, oddly enough, doesn't. It will smudge but not with the extreme loose messiness of a 9B graphite pencil, where I'll do half my work by reduction with an eraser. It smudges more like an HB or a B - moderate smudging, but not something like the H range pencils that scarcely smudge at all.

This is great for getting controlled texture effects and keeping my drawing clean. The main drawback to the super soft dark graphite pencils is that if the side of your hand brushes any finished part of the drawing, clouds of smudges will start to appear everywhere. I wind up spending half my time lifting those out with a kneaded eraser and carefully working around details to get them to the right value again.

Onyx pencils produce a clean, crisp line with a good texture. I did a couple of shading bars, one with the Dark Onyx and the other with the Medium ONyx. The difference is a bit more distinct in person than in the scan. Both of them get a good deep dark at the end of the shading bar, comparable to a black colored pencil more than any graphite pencil. Yet it's still got a little graphite sheen and in the mid values handles pretty much like a graphite pencil.

It's not as soft as I thought. The advantage is that the Onyx will hold a sharp point better than a 9B while giving a deep dark in your graphite drawing. The disadvantage is that it's not going to be as easily smudged for a quick line-and-smudge sketch comparable to pen and wash sketching. Each pencil has its own character and the Onyx has a unique feel and style.

Because it's more firm than the dark B range pencils, I can get crisp lines and clean value shifts when I want them. It gives very good light marks as well, shown in the wombat's highlights. I did little or no erasing on the wombat sketch, but where I did decide to lighten a highlight the Onyx lifted much more easily than a black colored pencil such as the Derwent Artists' or Coloursoft.

The only comparable products I've ever used are Design Ebony pencils. They too produce a very dark line or tone yet hold a strong point. I've enjoyed Ebony pencils for years. I got my first one in high school and loved it, better than any normal graphite pencil I'd ever had. Derwent Onyx is like that, but more so. I've got plenty of Ebony pencils now but the deep darks I got in my wombat sketch and shading bands are visibly darker than I've gotten with Ebony pencils.

These are wonderful tools for anyone who enjoys drawing or sketching in graphite. They're good all by themselves or you can combine them with Derwent Graphic graphite pencils for a full range of graphite values. Once again, Derwent is pushing the boundaries of what pencils can do, something that's all to the good for any sketcher!

Of course the final test for any type of pencil sketching is how well it shows up in a scan or a photo. Graphite drawings are notoriously difficult to scan. Either you have to darken the scan till the highlights are medium gray to see the lines, or you lose all your light values entirely. I'm happy to report the Derwent Onyx is a lot easier to scan than comparable graphite pencils. My medium and light values did show up in this scan without darkening it too much. I deliberately did the little weeds behind the animal lightly to see at what point the line drops out in scanning.

Onyx stands up to the test, which makes it a very good pencil for drawing and posting your work online. It's a good thing the blister pack has two of each because I know I'll be using these pencils a lot!

Wombat study in Derwent Onyx pencils on Derwent Soft Cover Journal by Robert A. Sloan.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Aquabee Co-Mo Sketch Pad

Aquabee Co-Mo Sketch Pad is an 80lb double-sized multimedia pad available from Bee Paper. Anything with "Aquabee" in it is designed and sized to be used with at least light washes.

The paper is a Neutral Ph, Natural White sheet made with 20% post consumer waste fiber by its cover description. I'd call it more of a Bright White in person. I love the clean bright surface of this paper. It's also micro perforated for easy removal of sheets, whether that's because someone bought your sketch, you hated it and wanted to chuck it or you wanted to cut it up to use in a collage. Listed for use with Pencil, Pen and Ink & Light Washes, it's good for all three and a few other mediums besides.

Described as "Toothy, textured surface with excellent erasing qualities," it has a fine grained texture almost like cold pressed watercolor paper in miniature. The hills and valleys aren't so huge that they'll break pen lines done on the surface, but pencil lines will break up very nicely and so will pastels. Below is a pastel pencils sketch done on my 5" x 7" pad.

The texture of the paper has very narrow horizontal lines as well as a nondirectional "cold press" type of texture. It works very well with broken color and gave the water area a little more of a horizontal feeling when I went lightly. On the rocks, going over it with three or four layers of pastel pencils eliminated the texture. It held up well to multiple layers, although I was going lightly since this isn't a sanded pastel paper.

It's as good as any drawing paper for use with pastel pencils or hard pastels. Sketch mediums like Pastels Carre, Conte crayons and other hard pastels should go very well on this paper and it stands up well to wash techniques for watersoluble pencils and perhaps oil pastels.

So let's have a look at pen drawings with watersoluble Tombow dual tip pens on this interesting new paper.

These sketches were done loose and light with Tombow dual tip brush pens. I used two or three layers of color in some areas but didn't scrub the surface or try to blend out any soft edges. For sketching and doodling, the paper's excellent. I got good crisp hard edges when I wanted them and the surface encouraged that loose, playful approach to sketching.

This landscape, also created with Tombow Dual Tip Brush Pens, had a few problems. It may not be visible in the scan, but some areas where I blended out color with the colorless blender became oversaturated and the surface pilled. Also in the dark mountains area, where I toned colors with six or seven layers in some areas, I got some pilling and areas wearing off. It dried nice and flat though, even though it cockled slightly while I worked on it. I stopped working on any area where the surface texture got damaged, so the painting still worked overall.

Then I checked the back of the sheet for this page, the one I seriously battered with layer after layer and scrubbing with the colorless blender. To my pleasant surprise, there's no ghost image and no color bled through. The double sizing prevents bleed-through, so it would be very easy to work on both sides of these pages even though they're relatively lightweight for watercolor or multi-media paper.

Student watercolor paper is usually 90lb and that's considered very lightweight for watercolor papers. The only other sized paper I've tried that flattens out this well is the Strathmore Aquarius II specialty watercolor paper, which is very thin and still handles watercolor well without cockling.

So let's see how a light wash looks on this paper. First, a watercolor pencil drawing:

Pencil handles very well on it. I used Derwent New Formula Watercolour Pencils, which have a soft, consistent texture similar to soft graphite pencils and most good artist grade colored pencils. Again, the paper texture gave a delightful look to my dry sketch. It would be very easy to do tonal sketches with any soft pencil on this paper. The slight horizontal line texture gives overall unity to middle pressure tonal layers where it shows up most.

Then I used a wet watercolor round, not dripping but thoroughly damp, to wash my drawing. I dragged color around, let it puddle in some areas to get a smooth wash of color and used all my favorite watercolor pencil techniques except painting right out to the edge. I was fairly sure it'd cockle at that light 80lb weight if I did a big wash edge to edge and wanted to see if it'd dry flat with a moderately strong wash puddle in some isolated areas.

It dried good and flat. My scan shows a little cockling because it wasn't completely dry when I scanned, just touch dry. Now that it's sat in the pad for a few days, it's completely flat and I'm satisfied the cockles don't last.

The pencils performed beautifully and the wash just enhanced it. This paper is good for sketch and wash, pen and wash, pencil and pen sketching. It handles wet effects well until you scrub the surface, when it turns out to be a bit more delicate than sturdy, heavier watercolor papers. Lifting without scrubbing won't wreck it, I lifted some areas on this cat sketch successfully.

Erasing was as easy as any other paper, I had no trouble lightening or picking up color with my favorite kneaded eraser.

I'll definitely pick up some more of these pads for general sketching. The wire binding at the top is convenient and lays flat in my scanner. The back board is sturdy enough that I don't need a drawing board with it and the paper quality is excellent.

This is the second time that a Bee Paper product turned out a lot better than I expected. The Aquabee Bogus Recycled Rough sketch pad became one of my favorite unsanded pastel papers for sketching. With two successes so far, Bee Paper is becoming one of my preferred paper companies. I hope to try some more of their modestly priced, good quality products.

Aquabee Co-Mo Sketch pads are very inexpensive. The 30 sheet 5" x 7" pad I tested is $2.99 at Dick Blick. 6" square, 9" square, 9" x 12" and 11" x 14" pads are also available ranging up to $6.49. If you like sketching in a variety of wet and dry media, these inexpensive pads are a great resource. Try a small one and see if you like it. I know I did, despite the pilling when it's overworked.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Joe Miller’s Signature Travel Kit

Joe Miller’s Signature Travel Kit is a luxury, not a necessity unless you don’t already have a plein air watercolor kit. If you do, it’s still a wonderful luxury item with a well designed real leather case, steel water bottles and collapsible water cups, a metal palette box, travel brush, elastic loops for more brushes and tools plus a postcard sized Kilimanjaro watercolor block. It contains everything you need except paint.

I didn’t realize until I had it in my hands that the metal palette box has a design on the lid. It’s ornamental and old fashioned, reminiscent of Victoriana or Old West saddle ornaments, any 19th century decorative elements. That gives me a little lift, makes me think of the days when adventurous people carried small watercolor sets across the globe instead of cameras. Like the leather and metal, it’s a small luxury element, something not necessary but very pleasant that gives me a feeling of prosperity and ease.

I waited for quite a while before purchasing it because I already use my Winsor & Newton Field Box whenever I go out to paint - or go out for anything, because I might get a a chance to stop and paint. But this small extravagance turned out to be more useful than I thought it would be.

For someone disabled who has mobility impairments as I do, taking your supplies to the living room or another room may be a plein air trip in itself. What’s convenient for hiking may also be convenient for someone working an office job who’d like to use lunches and breaks to improve their watercolor painting. The kit is well designed, classy and would not be out of place in a high end business environment, provided you’re willing to let your coworkers know you’re a painter.

The leather case is quite small, only 2” deep by 6” wide and 6 1/2” tall, external measurements. The shoulder strap is very long and can be shortened. Two side zipper pulls bring the front flap down. Elastic bands keep brushes and tools in place on the flap and on the back of the case, the only loose things in the bag are the postcard sized watercolor block and the palette box. The water bottles fit into pockets on the back with the two collapsible water cups between them in their pockets. This design keeps all the contents organized. Brushes don’t fall out and neither do any sketch pencils or other tools you want to tuck into the row of elastic bands on the flap.

The tall narrow water bottles hold quite a lot of water. So do the collapsible steel water cups. They hold firm when pulled up tightly, yet collapse again easily after emptying. Put in a pocket pack of facial tissues for cleanup and you can wipe them out on the spot in a lunch room, especially if you don’t fill them very deep. There’s room for that pack of tissues along with the original items, also for a pocket Moleskine or other small conveniences.

Because it’s so organized, I found myself using it often when I don’t feel like getting up to get water. The elastic band slots became a place I could always find my good travel brushes. The only improvement I’d suggest is replacing the small travel brush included with a larger round travel brush that has a cap. I keep the original Joe Miller one in an elastic band rather than inside the palette so that I don’t accidentally turn it hairs end down while it’s wet and destroy the brush. But a travel brush with a cap that fits inside the palette or a retractible brush like some travel brush models could sit in the palette in front of the half pans.

A waterbrush like the Niji Waterbrush or the Derwent Waterbrush would make this little kit even more convenient for someone who's convalescing or disabled. It might make a very good gift for crafty or artistic friends in the hospital, but I'd add a waterbrush to it along with a dozen tubes of good artist grade paint to make it a complete set.

The metal palette box is not enameled inside. It comes with 12 empty half pans to fill with your favorite tube watercolors. I chose 12 of my Daniel Smith watercolors to create a transparent palette, a little different from my other 12 color watercolor sets. Since then I’ve found myself using that little palette a lot more.

Refilling this palette can be a serious bargain and also give you more choice of colors than any 12 color pocket watercolor set. I chose Quinacridone Gold and Quinacridone Burnt Orange instead of Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna, both colors are much more transparent. Then added Sodalite Genuine, a mineral blue-black like Paynes Grey with a pretty texture instead of the usual Ivory Black. I could also load it with different seasonal palettes, switching out some colors for others to reflect changing sky and land hues.

It may help to tuck in a folding plastic palette for mixing on a white surface. I mixed in the metal lid of the little palette box and got good mixtures though. Otherwise you may want to add one of the inexpensive folding plastic palettes available at Blick or Daniel Smith, if you don’t like mixing on a shiny metal surface.

Either a waterbrush or a larger watercolor travel brush would be a good addition though. While the included pocket brush isn't as tiny as the ones in Winsor & Newton Field Boxes, it's still only a size 2 round. You may want to have a larger round such as a size 6, 8 or even 10. I added a size 8 round and a very large squirrel mop, both of them pocket brushes with caps, so that when I'm doing loose styles or large washes on the block I'm not struggling to do it with a detail brush. The case has extra loops for brushes so any short handled brush will fit in those loops or pockets. There's a perfect size pocket for that squirrel mop, which is so fat it's like a little metal cigar.

Because it’s so compact, well organized, convenient and decorative, Joe Miller’s Signature Travel Kit has inspired me to use it more often. Its convenience works either for lazing around without getting up for water or for going out when I don’t want to carry much weight. Its luxury materials and old fashioned design give me a lift whenever I look at it, which gives me an itch to paint something representational.

The collapsible cups are incredibly handy. My grandmother had a plastic one designed like these that she kept in her purse. I can remember her using it at public drinking fountains, amazed that it collapsed that small when she’d finished drinking to go back in her purse. It was a neat little gadget that I thought went out of style and got forgotten in favor of thermal travel mugs and other more modern conveniences. Now it’s back in an even more elegant form, the stainless steel ones are more durable and their shiny texture makes them good still life objects.

So are the clean cylindrical water jars with their knurled lids. Set these objects out on any surface and you have something cool to paint as well as all the things you need to paint it with. The literal beauty of these tools is something inspiring in itself. It’s one of the main reasons I bought the kit and one of the big reasons I don’t regret it.

If you like vintage things, if you like old watercolors and Victoriana, small gadgets that are genuinely useful, then this is an extravagance that could pay for itself if it encourages you to paint more often.

Get it if you like it and don’t bother if it’s not your style - there are other good kits just as well organized if you prefer a more modern style in plastic. Me, I love the steel and leather, also the way the steel and leather doesn’t stain like plastic. Some of my plastic watercolor pan sets have gotten a bit colorful and grungy over the years, scuffed and banged around.

The price is reasonable at $49.99 but watch for sales. It’s comparable to other products and the quality materials with good design make it very worthwhile. If you are just starting out and don’t have a field kit of any sort, this can be very cost effective since artist grade tube watercolors cost much less than half pans and give you much more paint.

I don’t regret it at all. This little kit hangs on the back of my chair when I’m not going out, or sits on the bed in reach. I use it often often when I’m art journaling. Treat yourself if you like the style and especially if you prefer choosing your own colors in a 12 color pocket set. Other 12 color metal palette tins aren't that much less without the leather case, water bottles and all those perks.