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 – Muji Bunkobon Notebooks (Thin/Regular)

I’ve had a couple Muji notebooks in the queue to review for quite some time now, and ironically it’s the product that I have most recently purchased that’s making its way to my metaphorical “review table” first. Muji has a reputation of being both minimalist and high quality, and Japan in general is often seen as being more focused on a good writing experience, but do Muji’s inexpensive Bunkobon notebooks live up to the expectations?

When looking at aesthetics, the exterior is about as minimal as one can get: a brown “craft” paper cover with a smooth (not glossy, but definitely coated) finish wraps the whole book, only interrupted by a barcode sticker on the back. Inside, the pages are blank with no additional features (no name page or back pocket) save a red ribbon bookmark.

The paper is a pleasant off-white with a very smooth texture. For how thin it is, it does a very good job of holding up. Almost any mark you make has “show through” where it can be seen from the other side of the paper, and with pens this quickly renders the reverse side unusable (I never use it anyway), but in most cases this doesn’t result in “bleedthrough” where marks appear on the next page. Gel and fountain pens work fine, but Sharpies and calligraphic pens are too much for it to bear (though only barely, it seems). The actual experience of writing on the paper is also quite pleasant, it’s got just a little bit of tooth to remind you that you are indeed writing, but most pens just glide across. For me personally, it sometimes feels a bit slippy or like I’m losing control, however, I have the same problem with the gel pens that everyone else in the world loves.

The book comes in two (very reasonably {but not proportionally} priced) sizes, regular with 144 sheets, and slim with 50. And the larger size would excite me more if I didn’t have a few issues with durability. These 4 1/8 x 5 ¾ book’s covers are only a piece of slightly thicker paper, and on the top this overhangs a sixteenth of an inch beyond the one side of the book with a deckled edge. This quickly creates bent corners and a curled-in top area (I unsuccessfully tried cutting this excess off my slim, and it now looks like I’d imagine it would after a little while of constant use), which might be overlooked if the cover itself wasn’t so fragile and easily bent. Even I, a man who is very careful with all of his possessions (because he doesn’t like them to look worn) bent and tore the cover while the bookmark unraveled itself. While the binding is very solid I don’t feel like the cover of this book will adequately protect it over a longer period of time or through rigorous use (so it’s out for frequent traveling), and I think that this problem will get worse with the larger size.

For the price of a couple dollars this is a very good notebook to write in. While there are some problems with cover and bookmark it makes a fine office or school notebook, or, if you aren’t a stickler for aesthetics, it’s a nice convenient size to carry around (though larger than that average pocket). If you’re looking for an inexpensive notebook upgrade or are just tired of people putting words or logos on your writing area these are nice, minimal and well crafted books.

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- Ritepoint Chromatic

Every once in a while I like to take a look at something vintage and see how well it stacks up. Plus I’ve got a soft-spot for slim, fine (line) writing pens. Now I’m not entirely sure as to the status of the Chromatic (or Ritepoint, or whoever) but it does seem these pens (and refills) are discontinued, but easy to find online. Is it worth it to snag one?

The pen body is very slim and stylish, reminiscent of the Cross Century. It’s a smooth cylinder, with a gold-banded break for the twist mechanism and tapers at the back and front. At the fron,t a third of the taper is in the form of a gold-colored metal cone, from which the point extends when the mechanism is engaged. The back taper terminates more abruptly and affixed to it is a fairly solid, basically flat clip that runs almost the length of the back section.

The action of the pen is strange enough that I’m not sure it’s working properly. Turning the back half of the pen clockwise a quarter turn will extend the ballpoint and lock it into place. From there twisting will do nothing until enough force is applied counter-clockwise and the pen “clicks” at which point the tip will slowly retract completely. It’s an interesting compromise system and it works quite well. It’s just that everything feels a bit still and awkward. I can’t quite tell if it needs oil, is broken, or that’s just how it’s supposed to be.

As for the writing, it’s quite good. My pen has a blue “microtip” cartridge installed. The ink is smooth enough coming out that I can write in cursive, though the lines themselves have some start-up and shading problems (oddly reminiscent of fountain pens). The line width is equivalent to, or slightly thinner than, most “fine” points and the ink properties are fairly standard. The only other function; the clip is better than average but nothing to write home about.

It’s a decent little interesting piece of history, but I wouldn’t say it’s essential for any collectors. And the impracticality of having to hunt down new-old-stock or second-hand refills or fashion your own out of whatever might fit makes it not a good choice for the regular user. If it sounds interesting to you I’d say go for it, but it’s nothing to run out and hunt down.

Book Review – On Empire (By: Eric Hobsbawm)

On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy is a collection of 4 essays that were originally speeches or lectures given by Eric Hobsbawm (which is a name I am constantly afraid of misspelling). The publication date on the book is 2008, so they’re a bit out of date, but they capture that post-9/11 world-feel that is present today, managing to still feel relevant even if the information isn’t quite as accurate anymore.


The layout and restructuring of the book is good, the text is readable and all the necessary changes to convert a lecture to a book are present. The 4 essays themselves are a bit scatter-shot, not really flowing into each other and repeating information (at one point I went through about 10 pages thinking I’d already read everything there), but they weren’t really meant to go together so that is forgivable. And they certainly don’t have the problem far too many books trying to illustrate a historic principle have of explaining again and again what the point is (not over-explaining or stretching out the explanation, but repeatedly stating, multiple times in each chapter the main point without it progressing over the book), which is wonderful. The short, concise nature of the book makes it very readable (and speakable).

Care is taken in accuracy as well; sources for statistics and the like are cited in the rather large (for a book of this size) appendix, and multiple historical events are given to “prove the point”. Though there are several types of people I’m always wary of, and in this book Hobsbawm is two of them: those who only identify problems without proposing solutions, and those who conduct their analysis from only one point of view. Admittedly both of these traits are shared by the majority of historians who write books; the view found in such works never veers much from what one can expect at the outset (after reading the first chapter). It becomes a rather boring read at times when you know much of what is going to be said (without the specific details). And that isn’t helped by the fact that I knew I would disagree with many of those points. I’m not in any particular position to say Mr. Hobsbawm is wrong, or that the basic premise (that it is unlikely the United States has the ability to or should create a world-wide “empire” for preserving peace and the American-way™ etc.) is flawed, as I agree with much of the information put forth. But in other cases I very much disagree, partially in the spirit of the act, that is, the problems without solutions I mentioned earlier. It is one thing to say that US foreign policy should shift from “what we say or war” to something else, but if you’re not going to propose even the smallest of alternatives I would ask why you even brought it up (the answer of course is because he was asked to speak and to analyze, not to solve). Everyone has their own agenda, and I get suspicious of those who aren’t trying to push theirs, and since it doesn’t take an expert to say there’s a problem, why have the expert opinion if it isn’t “more enlightened” than your own?

All that, though, is a bit of a digression from the main point of the book. And if indeed the book was set out to do what I think it was, it did it very well. The writing style is nice and moves things forward without much re-treading of old ground (at least in individual chapters), the facts are well researched, and the argument strong. I certainly enjoyed reading the book, and it was a nice change of pace from many long-winded or under-informed authors.