Review – Daler Rowney Willow Charcoal

For my foray into the medium of charcoal I wanted to try as many varieties as possible (generally how I treat every artistic venture I endeavor on) but had a limited budget. Fortunately, they sell “raw” charcoal at department stores these days, in the particular case under the Daler Rowney brand at Walmart. But how does this willow charcoal compare to some of the other charcoal products that I’ve used? Let’s take a look.

Inside the box, there are 3 bags, each containing sticks of similar size (the bags being for small, medium, and large) that are approximately six inches in length. Now, I haven’t used any other brand of willow charcoal specifically, so my comparisons here will be to the similar vine charcoal and to compressed charcoal. In that regard, it is more scratchy and harder than vine charcoal, putting down a less consistent black that isn’t quite silky smooth and which smudges to be a more pale gray. The benefit of this is that it erases fairly easily, either with a cloth or an actual eraser.

Beyond that, there isn’t much to mention about the sticks as there are many natural inconsistencies with products like this that take plant material and bake it. The sticks themselves are quite fragile, but that just requires some getting used to and many artists pre-break theirs before starting on a project (what’s left can effectively be turned into a shading dust).

So, despite being from a big-box store, this product is entirely serviceable for an inexpensive price (not that charcoal is particularly expensive in the first place). It’s easily accessible and gets the job done, even making a nice addition to the drawing kit as a lighter, more easily workable material for sketches or laying out a work. It isn’t my preferred type of charcoal, but for a beginner (and perhaps even an expert), it’ll be entirely serviceable.

Book Review – All the Knots You Need (By: R.S. Lee)

All the Knots You Need is a 1999 book by R.S. Lee about, surprisingly enough, knots. It is a fairly short and heavily illustrated guide to the knots most people would need in their “day to day” lives (quotes because I rarely need knots and I probably will only need a bowline and a square knot in my life) and it took me way longer to finish than it should have. But that’s not the point here; “did it teach me how to tie knots?” is the point.


The book has around 60 knots that it shows you how to tie, give or take 10 for similarities, like the knots being “the same” but in slightly different configurations, and how you want to count them as “individual knots”. Each one has between 1 and 4 illustrations associated with it, mostly on how to tie it, but sometimes with what it looks like tied. These illustrations are very simple, and clear, but do have more of a flair than just a line telling you what to do (they actually look like rope). They suffer from what all “how-to” books suffer from, they don’t quite explain exactly what to do in a 3-dimensional space. Even with the worded explanations provided I found myself having to try knots again and again with slight adjustments and reviews of the diagram. Since most of the images are singular they don’t provide the proper context for the “process” that is tying the knot, and even the multiple images convey motion very poorly. But that could also be a function of how “knot-illiterate” I am.

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Included in the book along with these knot-tying instructions is information about materials, the parts of a rope, rope repair, rope care, and a glossary of terms related to ropes and knot-tying. All of this information is presented in easy-to-read and understand ways, with minimal but well-written (and drawn) text and diagrams. Almost everything is easy to understand (once you get the hang of it or are interested in an application) and nothing superfluous is added to inflate the book’s length. That being said, some of the sections were incredibly boring to a person (like me) who wouldn’t have a need for those knots on a regular basis (the fishing knot section comes to mind) and if one doesn’t closely follow the instructions it isn’t hard to get lost. But, as I said, I’m not one who needs many knots; the fishing, hoisting, farmwork, and sailing knots aren’t of particular use to me, and the sections aren’t “enthralling”.

For a newbie like me just starting to really learn knots (I didn’t retain much boy-scout knowledge) this is an unintimidating way to get started. The knots you really need are present and presented in a generally understandable format. It is worth mentioning that you pretty much need a rope or the described tying device (fishing line in some cases, or a frayed rope to whip and mend) to get the full effect. And reading this book is almost useless without a lot of practice during and afterwards. Knots aren’t just things that you throw in your brain and then can do perfectly. They need to be practiced in order to be effectively executed. But while the book can’t do that for you, I’d say it’s a good place to start.

Review – Yellow Dollar General HB No.2 Pencils

By: Austin Smith

All right, on to the art-making things. Let’s start with pencils, specifically HB or No.2 pencils. The ones I’m reviewing today are from dollar general and are 10 cents apiece. So they’re the cheap, starting pencil.

The pencils are small and light, roughly 6 and 3/4 inches to start, with about a half inch eraser. The wood is cheap, it’s splintery and rough. The paint is applied poorly, with parts flaking off and wood showing through, but it does its job and the letters are easy enough to read. The eraser is all right, it erases, but not all the way. Usable for sketches and writing. The eraser is hard and sometimes smears the graphite instead of erasing.

But that is all roughly cosmetic. One can get other erasers and the paint does its job. It’s really about the graphite. And that’s hard to screw up. HB’s are a fairly hard pencil, really medium, leaning to the soft end. They’re easy to draw with and give a large amount of control. The lead is not brittle, and stays in its wooden case. The pencil is suitable for sketches and of course writing like its main use in schools.

The wood being cheap makes it difficult to sharpen, making it lean more to one side or the other, the lead is also slightly off center. It’s cheap, but usable.

This pencil is a nice cheap way to sketch. And is useful in creating a draft for a sketch to be inked later. It being cheap it is available but it is also cheap, not the best pencil available. It does its job but it’s nothing spectacular.