Review – General’s Compressed Charcoal

As I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t significantly used charcoals in my artwork for most of my “career”, but recently stepped up and created a couple series using charcoal almost exclusively. For this I of course had to purchase most of the basic supplies for creating a charcoal drawing. As it happens, General’s produces a wide variety of inexpensive and readily available art supplies and they were the first ones I ran into when looking for compressed charcoal. I expected them to work, but not be anything spectacular. Was I right?

The set contains 4 sticks of charcoal that have been broken down and then compressed with a binder in 4 different hardnesses (2B{x2, in my pack}, 4B, and 6B). Each creates a relatively smooth and richly dark line that is very easy to smear and blend but very difficult to erase. The softer sticks do indeed create a darker and more consistent line but unsurprisingly seem to disappear in your hand while you’re using them. When compared to the “natural” vine charcoal these darker and more difficult-to-erase lines serve a different purpose: they are for further on in drawing’s development, when you are beyond the sketching stage and have most of the structure of your image created.

In my experience, these General’s sticks performed adequately. They were certainly darker and smoother than cheaper ones found in “sketching kits” that you can buy at department stores. However, they do still go down in a bit of a “chunky” pattern and aren’t true black. There is also a bit of a problem with breaking, but that’s just par for the course with this type of product. If you’re used to crayons, you’ll have to be very careful when handling these, or you can be like many artists I’ve seen and “pre-”break them in half before actually using them, which also makes it easier to get in close and work on detail areas.

These guys pretty much keep pace with a lot of General’s products. They work well, are easily available, and don’t break the bank (though they’re actually closer to the top end of the price spectrum in this case). They are a fine solution for people at all skill levels with the studio space to set up and use charcoals.

Book Review – Acres of Diamonds (By: Russell H. Conwell)

Sometimes the reasons I pick up a book don’t bode well for the outcome. In the case of Acres of Diamonds, I knew nothing about it, but that it was in my collection for some reason, and that it was fewer than 70 pages (at the time I felt I needed something short for a quick read). So it was only after research, and from context clues, that I found out this book is the transcribed version of an inspirational lecture given by Baptist Minister and founder of Temple University Russell Conwell. Its message can be easily gleaned from the opening story that inspired its title: that of a man who sold his farm, left his family, and eventually died in his quest for diamonds, only to have the man who purchased his farm discover the greatest diamond mine in the world on that land. And if you get the picture there, is it really worth reading on?

Being based on a lecture, the whole thing is rather short (but, to me, who perhaps reads to slowly {carefully}, it seems quite a bit longer than one would actually want to stand up and speak), and, while the language construction is a bit dated and clunky, it is generally a fast read. The message is understandable, if sometimes overly worded: one does not need to start with a large sum of money to become richer; one need not move to the famous large cities of millionaires to make their fortune; and that using your own head and hands to make yourself rich is what God wants you to do. The idea is that you are constantly sitting on “acres of diamonds” within yourself that you simply need to tap into to be successful, and that enriching yourself in this way will not corrupt you. This is essentially the message that all inspirational works rely on, the sort of “American-Dream” ideal.

Of course, there is a big religious aspect owing, I’m sure, a great deal to the author’s ministry. Throughout the text it fights back against the idea that it is God’s will that one be poor (and perhaps stupid), and that to be pious and honorable you need to have no funds. To the modern reader it might sound at first as though it’s going to preach the prosperity gospel (*this work is associated with the prosperity gospel, and by definition, would be included in works of that category, but here I’m specifically referring to the modern “televangelists” and Christ-for-the-rich that is most often associated with those words these days), but within the confines of the text it lacks much of the skeeviness; it is unfair to the poor, but it does not attempt to take advantage of them. Spread copiously throughout are stories of men who started with nothing to gain vast wealth and assertions that “Ninety-eight out of a hundred rich men in America are honest”, otherwise why would anyone trust them with their money/business. To keep this perspective consistent of course the author omits any evidence that would be inconvenient, but that is a sin of every author attempting to persuade.

I personally tend to agree with the idea that many of a person’s problems can be overcome and a moderate amount of personal wealth accrued using one’s own mental and physical facilities, but a lack of acknowledgement for how crippling some forms of poverty can be, or that a great deal more than one percent of the wealthy probably have morality problems is a flaw of the book as far as I’m concerned. Still, the book doesn’t fail to be inspiring, especially if one is susceptible to its message. And as a speech I believe it would become more effective. The whole thing is quintessentially American, with its exotic mix of faith and self-reliance, spoken with that Baptist fervor.

At the book’s end, if you were at all taken by part of the message you are energized, or at least encouraged. And, if you do not find yourself convinced or entertained, the text doesn’t fall into the trap of other inspirational works that take too long to say nothing, being brief enough to not outstay its welcome (too long, for every word is past the “welcome period” for someone who has found they dislike something). It isn’t a perfect text or a perfect argument; indeed, its most useful feature is the many anecdotes it contains (for trivia and conversation purposes) but I’m glad to have read it. It is interesting, and seeing that the author was successful with a seemingly untarnished reputation reinforces its inspirational message.

Review – Muji Hexa Ballpoint (.25mm Gel Pen)

My handwriting is very fine, and I always gravitate toward finer and finer tipped pens in my quest to jam as much information on the page as possible. But there is a limit to how small the tip of any given pen can be. Too thin a felt-tip will simply break, and ballpoints or Rapidograph-style pens will either not allow ink flow or damage paper. Thus, even pens on the smaller end of the possible scale are hard to come by (being more expensive and relatively user-specific when compared to more standard sizes), with .25 being about as thin as one can find. Muji, in its characteristic minimalist style, offers a gel pen in such a small size. Is it a worthwhile purchase?

As with many Muji products, the pen is outwardly pretty simple. The hexagonal black body is a little larger in diameter than a pencil, and covered in a matte rubber that is only interrupted by two slits in the plastic near the front (for seeing the ink level) and a set of bumps with the slightest of step downs for posting in the back. After a brief clear plastic part, the metal cone in the front quickly brings us to a very fine protruding ink tube that’s about an eighth of an inch long. The clear plastic cap is also hexagonal, with an integrated clip and matching color insert that both covers the tip and displays the sizing information where it can be read easily from a pencil cup. Other than this, there are no markings on the item itself, as the label comes off, stripping you of all its information(in Japanese).

Performance is good. The pen is comfortable to hold and stays firmly in one’s hand (though the material can make capping and uncapping a bit more “frictionful”). When put to paper, ink flows relatively smoothly. At this size of tip, it is impossible to eliminate all of the scratchiness, but a good job has been done of controlling it. Likewise, another problem at this thinness is that a pen will tend to skip more if at any angle other than perpendicular to the page, but this too has been mitigated. I’d still recommend you write as straight as possible, but it shouldn’t have too great an effect on the writing. I don’t have much information on the ink, but I can tell you that it dries quite quickly (I almost can’t get it to smudge) and it’s waterfast and alcohol resistant (it does bleed a little, but remains legible, which is good for writing and bad for stains). Its spread isn’t too bad either, laying out on the average page about the same thickness as a .25mm (01) technical fineliner (though, with my handwriting both seem very close to a .7 ballpoint).

The pen’s a good one. It’s nice and sleek with a rugged body (I might be worried about the longevity of the cap. though) and a good writing feel. It’s slightly more expensive than a gel pen of comparable quality in the States (the price tag says ¥210, or about $2, but they sell it in the US for $3), but not enough to be out of their range. The tip is noticeably more fine than other ballpoints and gel pens you’ll find, but in my opinion almost awkwardly so (I’ve never been a fan of how gel pens look on the page {when written with my hand}), and there can be potential issues with the pen drying out. Still, if you’re looking for a functional and minimal super-thin writing pen (that isn’t as finicky or fragile as a technical pen) this is one to look at.

Review – Tombow 2558 Pencil

The Tombow 2558 pencil was introduced to me as a “favorite” pencil, so obviously I had to pick one up. Still, when you first look at it, it’s a pretty unassuming thing. It looks like your standard yellow pencil, with something a little… “off”. So how is it different?

The body of the pencil is very similar to your average yellow (orangish) pencil. It is basically the same length: 7½” including the eraser attached by copper-colored ferrule. Like most, it’s hexagonal with the information stamped and printed on opposing facets. This information, rendered in a pleasant reddish-brown, is more than enough, giving you: the company (Tombow), the purpose (for General Writing), and the hardness (HB). But there is something to make the body of the pencil stand out: it is slightly thicker than your average pencil, about a millimeter more in diameter. Just enough that one can tell it’s different, but if they aren’t side by side you’ll scratch your head.

In practice this makes the pencil more comfortable to hold (more material means less hand cramping), and with its super smooth HB lead it really is a pleasure to write/sketch with. And this lead does feel a bit softer than I usually expect an HB to feel. It produces darker lines with seemingly the same pressure (and surprising ease), but that certainly improves the ease of writing with it. And the eraser functions well; it doesn’t remove everything, but it doesn’t vanish either.

This is, as advertised, a very nice pencil for writing. And everything about it is well-done. The finish is nice and evenly applied, the wood is sturdy as is the lead, and the ferrule is nicely fitted on a step-down so that it doesn’t catch and is unblemished by its crimping. If you’re a wood pencil person (I’m not as much) and are looking for something high quality but still standard looking, this is a nice option. It might not be a smooth as a Blackwing, but it’s surprisingly close, and if I’m ever using a wood pencil, it’ll probably be the one I reach for.

Review – Mont Blanc Ballpoint Pen Refill (In G-2 Body) (Blue Medium)

In the past, I have looked upon the Pilot G-2 more favorably than some other online reviewers, but I’ve still never used one for any time beyond the review period, and it isn’t exactly a pen I would be recommending to anyone. The best things about it are that it’s cheap and well-built. So, of course, someone came up with the idea of combining those features with a better-writing tip. With a few simple modifications you can get the G-2 to accept Mont Blanc ballpoint refills, but is it worth the hassle?

The actually “modding” process is pretty simple once you have the components. Remove the ink cartridge from the G-2 (obviously leaving the spring inside). Then open up your Mont Blanc pen refill of choice. These refills come with a plastic sheath to prevent accidental markings (and probably some damage); cut a thin, short tube out of this material and to slide around the refill like a collar. Then cut a longer tube out of the rest to fill in the space between the click mechanism and the refill (more detailed instructions can be found with a quick internet search). These two bits should ensure that the refill is long enough to work with the mechanism, and keep it straight enough to operate.

In terms of usability, I like the Mont Blanc refill, but not as much as many others do. Comparing it to the G-2 is a little apples-to-oranges, since my refill is a ballpoint one, and the G-2 is a (gel) rollerball. While the G-2 with its liquid ink and precise point, could feel slippery, scratchy, and blobby, this refill is super-smooth and easy-to-handle. It is buttery, and much smoother than your average ballpoint, but that’s also its biggest problem. Sometimes it feels like the tip is holding you back, or you’re writing in oil. Other problems, like startup issues and some blobbing that are common to all ballpoints are present, but more minimal than you’ll find in pretty much any other pen. It’s a very good writing experience.

If you want the nice feeling of a good Mont Blanc refill for a cheap price, this is about as low as you can go. The actually assembly can be a bit fiddly (there are a few places where the new pieces of plastic can scrape and lead to a sticky feeling mechanism) but at less than $30, even if you need to buy a cutting mat and hobby knife, it’s miles below the nearest Mont Blanc (and I don’t know any other pens that use the refills), with the G-2 still being a super sturdy and comfortable body for the refill to live in. If you don’t believe that Mont Blanc has the best refills ever (like me) or you’re comfortable with your Cross and Parker refill pens (also like me) then you needn’t go anywhere near this trick, but if someone hands you one to try out, I’d at least try it out.