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.

Review – Dick Blick Medium Vine Charcoal

I must admit before I start here that I’m not really one for charcoal as a drawing medium. It requires a fair amount of space that it’s alright to be perpetually stained with black. So, you basically need studio space in order for it to be at its peak performance, and I do not have studio space. But, I can take art classes, and that is where most of my experience with vine charcoal comes from. There are quite a few places to buy it cheaply, and the manufacturing process is probably one where it would be difficult to weed out natural inconsistencies. From my experience with several different brands, I have a hard time really telling the difference; but the main ones I’ve gone with is a set from Dick Blick, mostly because they were the last ones I was able to try out.

Vine charcoal is a particularly finicky type of drawing medium that goes down smoothly with a rich black color, and wipes away to nearly nothing with a hand or a cloth (though, if applied directly to paper, even an eraser won’t be able to remove the last ghost of a line). The sticks themselves are essentially raw: they are just vines that have been charred. Most sets (including this one) give you a pretty good selection of widths, all at around the same length. Even the girthiest of these break quite easily and most artists break them down a more manageable size both for this reason and to make manipulating them easier (I personally don’t for the most part, but then again I am persnickety). This particular set performed well. I was able to sketch with ease and clarity, while erasing and blending quickly and as cleanly as possible (and the dust trapped in my cleaning cloth made excellent shading powder in other drawings).

Blick offers a wide range of relatively inexpensive products of quality along with their brand-name selection. These fit in nicely and will get the job done. If you’re already ordering art supplies and want some vine charcoal I’d certainly recommend this (or if Blick is actually your local store)(shipping would probably be too much to make this worth ordering alone). And while there certainly may be better charcoal out there somewhere, you won’t have any problems practicing or finishing drawings with this stuff (just be sure to get a fixative if you don’t want it to disappear).

Review – Copic Ciao Markers

Copic Markers are a professional artist’s staple and set quite a high bar in terms of how a marker performs. I personally don’t have the skill to utilize them effectively, but I have seen the wondrous products of many who swear by them. Getting to that level takes practice, and while one can learn with other markers, it’s never too soon to get attuned to the markers you intend to be using for a long time. That’s where the high price-point of Copic markers really starts to become a problem. To build up a library of the markers would cost hundreds of dollars, and when starting out one doesn’t know what tints and shades they need or prefer (the markers are refillable, thankfully, but that doesn’t change the upfront cost, just the upkeep). There is a budget option, the Copic Ciao, which at $4 are a dollar and change less expensive than their bigger brothers, but that price is still up there. Are they worth it?

The markers are roughly cylindrical with a ⅜” diameter. There is the smallest of bulges in the center for the purposes (I assume) of aiding grip and disincentivising rolling. On either end there is an inch-and-a-quarter long color-coded cap with a quarter-inch step down on the end that allows either cap to be posted on the other. Near the base of each of these caps there is a small nub that makes it easier to remove and also helps prevent the marker from rolling. Each tip has a butte-esque taper leading from the body to the felt “brush”. The chisel tip is molded in the same plastic as the body, while the brush tip (the one you’ll most often be using) is a darker plastic that extends to an easily visible band underneath the cap. Which ends are which, what color the ink is (both descriptive and in code), and every other needed piece of information is nicely printed on the sides, and it appears underneath a shiny finish to prevent wearing with use (after all, these markers can be refilled).

I’m not an expert when it comes to actually using these (or any) markers, but a quick search online of what people are able to create speaks for itself. What I can say is that the tips are well-made and hard-wearing (and they’re also replaceable, decreasing future expense). The chisel is sturdy and unyielding while the brush easily bends to create lines ranging from 1/32 to ¼ inch. The ink is alcohol-based and goes right through absorbent papers, feathering and drying quite quickly. It’ll still bleed through fairly heavy and high quality papers, but it doesn’t dry as quickly, allowing it to be blended more easily either with other colors or the colorless blender (which, as far as I can tell, just contains alcohol). Once down, the ink is essentially impervious to water and alcohol-based attacks, but they are sensitive to sunlight (as per their website) and, being solvent-based, aren’t the most “archival quality” things in the world.

In my opinion, even forgoing the financial difference, the size and shape of these smaller Ciao markers is just more comfortable and easier to use. And they allow an artist to build up a collection of various colors in a much more consolidated space if they are willing to lose the color labels on the end. But they’re still expensive, and getting them won’t make you a better artist or a blending magician (as I can attest to). If you’re unsure if you want them or can utilize them I’d recommend starting out with only a few (greys would work best in this scenario) and getting more as you need them or improve your skills (the sets are quite expensive, especially if you end up not using them). But the bodies will last forever and the refills/replacement(s) (felt tips) are fairly easily available and extend the life of the marker significantly. This is a fine (and for some superior) version of a marker that is trusted by professional illustrators around the world.

Review – Staedtler Mars Lumograph Pencil (F)

“I use these specifically, because I like the nice blue,” is a bit of a paraphrase from a former instructor of mine when discussing what pencils to get for sketching or other artistic purposes. The main gist of this discussion was that it really comes down to personal preference, since there are so many different pencil brands that all make quality products. Aesthetics are important, and Staedtler is known for their deep blue coloring (as well as their quality craftsmanship), and that’s part of what makes the Mars Lumograph iconic, but is it what you should be using (specifically in “F” hardness because I like my pencils a little bit on the hard side)?

The body is a standard hexagonal shape, with a similar size to your average writing pencil. A deep blue covers almost the entire pencil, save an end cap that is black and a white band just beneath it. On the end cap the hardness is stamped in a silver ink on all 6 facets, and the main product information is rendered in the same color on the back two thirds of the blue area. Opposite this facet a product number and bar code are printed in white.

This pencil doesn’t really have any fancy features; like most sketching pencils, it doesn’t even have an eraser. But what it does have functions superbly. The wood is light but sturdy (no splintering) and the lead well centered (no weird angles or breaking because of sharpener issues). The lead itself is wonderfully smooth, even with my preference for firmer feedback.

And that really just affirms the idea that started this off. The Lumograph is a good pencil, it can take a beating and keep on sketching. The materials are good, and the assembly is what you would want. But, aside from it being good quality and easy-to-find, there isn’t a real reason to recommend this over another drawing pencil. If you like the blue, definitely go for them. If you think blue is better than the other choices (black or green in most cases), also take a look. If you’ve been with the brand forever or just find there’s something about the feel that you really enjoy, there’s no reason to turn away.

Review – The Fine Touch 3-Brush Set (1-,2-, and 3-inch Flat)

I’m not a painter, or at least, not very often. Painting is expensive, time consuming, and space requiring. But nowadays there are budget products that are easing the “pain” a little bit. Bopping in to your local superstore and buying a set of brushes with a canvas or two for less than $20 is incredible. And “The Fine Touch” is one of the more visible brands (in my area at least) selling inexpensive painting supplies, like a set of three 1-inch increment synthetic brushes. Do they really work though?

Despite the common wisdom for years being that natural hair brushes are superior to synthetic nylon ones, they have made some improvement in quality over that time. I don’t know if the best synthetic brushes are better than the best natural ones, nor would I claim that these are better than any other brush, but I personally prefer the little extra “bounce” the nylon provides, and they’ve worked quite well for me over several painting projects.

The basic structure is the same as virtually all paint brushes: a wooden handle with information printed on it (varnished in this case) shaped like a paddle with a ferrule on one end that holds in a set of bristles. Conveniently, these also have a hanging hole at the end for easy storage. Everything about them is cheap; the wood is lighter than the bristles, with brush strokes in its finish and burs on the drill holes; the ferrules are a flimsily metal (which will likely rust) that has either cracked or slightly splintered each handle in the fastening process, and the bristles have a bad habit of falling out during the first few uses.

So obviously they aren’t “forever” brushes, but for what they are (cheap superstore brushes) they are entirely adequate to paint with. If you only have a couple projects, just want to get some paint down, or feel the need to ease into things you might not know you want to do “forever”, then they will work just fine for that. You won’t become a master using these, and you might get frustrated with the bristles in your paintings, but they work, and for just getting started, that’s enough.