Giving A Lamy Another Try

Long ago I decided that the popular Lamy Safari was not the pen for me.  There are two reasons for this.  The first is that European XF nibs aren’t XF and to get a truly fine fountain pen nib requires purchase of an Asian pen.  The other reason, however, is my real problem with the Safari.  Its triangular grip may be fine for people writing with a fountain pen but I find it a real problem when I try to draw with it, mostly because I regularly move my hold point up and down the pen barrel and the triangular grip produces a lot of uncomfortable hold locations.

For some strange reason, though, I decided to try it again so I filled one with Platinum Carbon Black and went out walking.  We’re finally getting decent weather and I so thrilled with being out walking that sketching is taking a back seat.  The fact that my arthritis is causing my drawing hand to hurt may also have something to do with my reluctance to stop and sketch.

So when I was out I did a couple small sketches with the Lamy and my reassessment hasn’t changed my mind about it.  It’s not for me.  Here are the two small sketches I did.  The thick line and my clumsiness combined to create, at best, “ok” results.  It is nice to be able to be outdoors, though.

 

TWSBI Mini: The Ideal Urban Sketching Pen?

I’m a fountain pen geek.  Not in the sense that I spend hundreds of dollars to fill out my collection of exotic pens or anything like that.  But pretty much everything I write or draw on paper is done with fountain pens.  Besides the fact that we’re burying our planet in disposable pens, fountain pens are economical, practical, and fun

When I started sketching I began using a Lamy Safari.  They’re reliable and Lamy’s extra-fine nib is reasonably fine.  The Platinum Preppy is a surprisingly good sketching pen, though their caps are fragile so I stopped relying upon them for my street sketching.

I discovered Pilot pens, first the 78G, a cheap pen that isn’t imported into North America.  Then I bought a Pilot Prera and shortly thereafter I bought another one.  I love Pilot Preras.  Because it’s an Asian company, Pilot’s fine nib pens are much finer than are European extra-fine nib pens and the Prera is very well made.

It’s also the ‘right’ length and weight when posted.  Some pens, the Lamy is a good example, become quite tail-heavy when posted.  Of course, you don’t have to post a pen but when I’m on the street the problem of where to put the cap so it doesn’t get lost becomes a problem.  So I like to post the pen when it’s in use.  There’s one big downside of the Prera.  Pilot’s piston converters have a very small capacity.

TWSBIClosedComparison

Top: Lamy Safari, Middle: TWSBI Mini, Bottom: Pilot Prera

Enter my newest pen acquisition, the TWSBI Mini.  Wow…what a pen.  I’m not going to do a regular pen review.  For that I encourage you to watch Brian Goulet’s great video review and comparison to its big brother, the TWSBI 540.  Instead, I want to talk about why I think the TWSBI Mini will become my favorite street sketching tool.

TWSBIOpenComparison

Top: Lamy Safari, Middle: TWSBI Mini, Bottom: Pilot Prera

Let’s Talk Prices

As I know many people use Lamy pens, or have had them recommended to them, maybe by me, I think I should say something about price.  The Lamy is cheaper than either the Prera or TWSBI.  All I’ll say is that the differences aren’t that great when you look at a pen as something you’re going to use every time you go sketching.  If you look at street prices (I’ll use Goulet Pen’s pricing as my example) you’ll find these numbers:

Lamy Safari with converter: $34.55
Pilot Prera demonstrator: $56.00
TWSBI Mini demonstrator: $55.00
 
So, for the price of a very few lattes, you can buy some of the features I’m going to talk about here and I’ll say no more about price.

Pilot Prera vs TWSBI Mini

I’ll begin by telling you that it’s not because it’s so much better at making lines.  Both the Pilot Prera F and TWSBI Mini EF produce very fine, consistent lines.  The TWSBI isn’t quite as fine as the Prera and writes wetter, thus producing a bit darker line, at least with the Noodler’s Lexington Gray that I use.  The TWSBI is, likewise, a bit finer than a Lamy EF pen.  Both are smooth sketching pens, though my Prera is smoother.  This, however, may be because I’ve been using the Prera for along time and nibs do improve with time.

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I quickly did these two small comparison sketches – the Prera F (top) and TWSBI Mini EF (bottom).  These sketches are about two inches wide.  The dividing line between them was done with a Lamy Safari EF for comparison. Both were done on Stillman & Birn Epsilon paper.  I think they reflect the line differences/similarities of the two pens.

What makes a good street pen?

There are pen features beyond what line it draws that are important to me as a street sketcher.  They are:

1) The pen must be absolutely reliable.
2) It must have a post-able cap.
3) It must not be tail-heavy when posted.
4) It must have a decent ink capacity.
5) The cap must seal well so the ink doesn’t evaporate.
6) I’ve got to be able to see how much ink is in it.
7) I simply have to ‘like’ it, whatever that means.

Let’s look at each of these things, by comparing the TWSBI Mini to the Pilot Prera.

Reliability (1)

My sketching pen has to write the first time, every time.  I don’t want to have to dip it in water to get it started, or draw a gazillion little circles, shake it, or anything else to get it to work.  I want to take the cap off and write.  My paper/ink/pen triad is Stillman & Birn paper, Noodler’s Lexington Gray, and Pilot Prera.  This combination meets that criterion.

So do my Lamy pens and the TWSBI.  I have many more pens that don’t meet this criterion and it’s by far the most important to me.  I hear people talk about how they ‘start’ their pens.  When I have a pen that needs ‘starting’, I get a different pen.  Putting the pen to paper should be sufficient.  Life’s too short.

Postable and not-tail heavy (2 & 3)

This is a bigger deal than it sounds if you’re a street sketcher.  If you can’t post a pen and you’re in a studio, you put the cap on the work table.  When you’re sitting on a stool in the middle of a sidewalk, what do you do with it?  I need a pen that posts well.

Both the Prera and Mini are short pens.  They are designed to be posted and be in balance when posted.  What puts the TWSBI Mini head and shoulders above the Prera in this regard is that the TWSBI posts by screwing it onto the back of the pen.  There’s no chance of it falling off.  It may be a small thing.  Some may not even like it.  But I’m downright giddy as a schoolgirl over this TWSBI feature.

Ink Capacity (4)

This is the Prera’s achilles heel and a fantastic feature of the TWSBI pens.  Pilot’s piston converter holds somewhere around half a milliliter of ink.  The TWSBI holds more than twice that much.  I find myself filling my Preras all the time and have even taken to carrying extra ink with me.  I’m going to enjoy not having to fuss over the TWSBI as often because of its larger ink capacity.

Cap Seals Well (5)

This is a big deal for me.  If the cap doesn’t seal well, you get evaporation.  If you get evaporation you not only lose ink volume, you increase ink concentration, affecting consistency of the pen.  I have no hard data to prove it but I think there is some evaporation from my Preras.  It’s also the case that a cap that doesn’t seal opens up the possibility of ink drying in the feed/nib and having the ‘start’ the pen as discussed above.

TWSBICapSeals

The TWSBI pens are truly amazing pieces of engineering.  While the Prera cap seal depends upon a friction fit between plastic and metal pieces coming together, and is better than most fountain pens, TWSBI truly addresses the problem with a first-class solution.  They provide two rubber seals and as you screw the cap on (a better seal by itself), these seals produce a two independent seal barriers between the nib/feed and the outside world.  This feature alone is enough to give high marks to the TWSBI in my view.

 Seeing Ink Supply

When it comes to buying pens I’m like a fish watching lures go by.  I’m attracted to the bright colors.  Just like the fish, I’ve learned that’s a mistake.  The best pens for sketching are clear.  You can see how much ink you’ve got.  This is particularly true of a piston-fill pen.  Though it’s a bit of a nuisance, I can unscrew my Lamy and look at the reservoir (that dumb little window is a completely failed experiment in my view).  While you can take the TWSBI apart completely (a great feature by the way), you don’t do that when it’s half-full of ink and you don’t do it while you’re sitting in a park somewhere.  I’ve come to love clear-body, or ‘demonstrator’ fountain pens.  I do find the bright red button on the end of the TWSBI cap to be attractive, though (grin).

Gotta Like It

What’s the point of sketching if you can’t like the tools you’re using.  If you  like your tools, you’ll use them more often and probably get a better result.  Both the Pilot Prera and TWSBI Mini are superb-writing pens that feel good in the hand.  I also like the looks of them.

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A small building sketched on Stillman & Birn Zeta paper (5×8), using the TWSBI Mini and Noodler’s Lexington Gray.

In the end, we all have to chose our own tools.  There is no one-size fits all.  I hope that by highlighting the TWSBI Mini, and why I feel it is a superb street sketching tool for me that you’ll gain some insight into your own choices while being introduced to this great sketching pen.

 

Sketching Other People’s Art

Last Sunday Yvan, Pierre, Celine and I headed to the Musee de L’Amerique Francais because they were launching a new display of art done in Quebec long ago and donated to the Catholic church who kept the collection in their museum.  We didn’t know what to expect but since it’s still too cold for outdoor sketching, what the heck, we were going sketch art.

Much of the art in this collection is religious art, not my favorite way to use display space.  I find most of it too gawdy and repetitious.  But one room was filled with some amazing Quebecois pieces, many that would be considered ‘urban’ art today.  I was looking for a new challenge, something different… at least for me.

2013-03-10BronzeStatueAfter looking around, I settled down to sketch a bronze statue of a woman carrying a heavy bucket.  I was struck by how well the sculpture captured the physical effort and body/arm positioning to maintain balance with a heavy bucket in one hand.

This was a considerable leap for me as I’m not good at drawing human forms and I had no idea how to make one look like a bronze statue.  Still, it was fun.  I drew it in a Stillman & Birn Epsilon (5.5×8.5) with a Pilot Prera and Lexington Gray.  I used watercolor pencils to fake the bronze look.

There were many paintings that seemed worthy of turning them into a Larry sketch but one in particular caught my eye.  It was a painting of a 19th Century seminary courtyard, a courtyard that was actually just next door to the museum.  I went outside to look at the real thing and found what a hundred years can do.  The basic building layout remained.  In fact, on one edge of the courtyard, the end where the artist stood, there exists the remains of an old wall, clearly a very old wall.

Aside from that, everything had been remodeled and updated.  The two main buildings had an extra story added to them and all the windows had been modernized.  The stairway was gone adn the entries had modern doors.  It definitely looked cooler in the 19th Century so I went back indoors where it was warm.

2013-03-10SeminaryCourtyard800
I’d never sketched an oil painting before and converting it to my cartoon sketching style did present some challenges, but it was fun, too.  Done in the same S&B sketchbook but with a Lamy Safari as my Prera ran out of ink .   I’m not sure I’ll add color to it as I like it au natural.

We’ve vowed to return to sketch some other pieces, particularly some of the sculptures.   A great day was had by all, but every sketching day is a great day, isn’t it?

Lamy Safari vs Pilot Metropolitan for Sketching

Since I posted my review of the Pilot Metropolitan and talked about its use in recent posts, I’ve had several people ask me questions that all relate to the same thing: how does it compare to the Lamy Safari?  I make no claims to doing exhaustive reviews of pens but I thought it might help some if I talked a bit about how I see the differences.  Obviously I can’t do that objectively; every word of such a discussion is steeped with personal opinion.  But maybe I can isolate some concepts and let you evaluate my biased analysis.

Esthetics and Feel

Metro-Safari-closedWhile esthetics and feel are mostly personal parameters, it is safe to say that the Metropolitan is a cleaner, more traditional design.  Some people complain about the triangular nature of the grip on the Lamy and while that’s not a problem for me, the Metropolitan grip is smooth and round.  Both pens are quite tail heavy when posted and both long enough to write with comfortably without posting.

The Safari offers more color choices, and availability of colors changes regularly.  Lamy is about to release a flourescent yellow version which has me saying “WHAT are they thinking?” but some might like it.  The Metropolitan comes in black, silver and gold, with some subtle trim choices.

The Lamy can be converted from cartridges using Lamy’s Z26 converter while the Pilot pen uses the CON-50.  In my opinion, The Z26 is a bit nicer but as I fill all my pens using a pen syringe it doesn’t really matter to me.  Any tube in a storm, to muck up a metaphor.

Metro-Safari-openThe Safari is a fatter pen which may make a difference for those with small hands.  The Metropolitan is made of brass while the Safari is plastic, though you can by Lamy’s All-Star if you want an aluminum pen.

One thing that might affect sketcher choices is that we like to turn our pens upside down to get a thinner line.  Doing this with the Safari completely changes the feel of the pen, but not at all for the Metro.

I own three Lamy pens and only on Metropolitan but the Pilot nib seems smoother on papers I use.

Operation/Internals

Safari can be bought with a variety of nibs and it’s easy to buy and replace nibs so you can have one pen and swap out the nibs if you like.  Metropolitans come in only medium, though from what I can see, Pilot also sells a Cocoon pen that seems identical to the Metropolitan but it’s available with a fine nib at more than twice the price of the Metropolitan.  I don’t know why.

A quick word about nibs is in order.  Lamy is a European manufacturer and uses a European sizing scale for its nibs.  Pilot is an Asian company and uses an Asian scale.  For any particular nib ‘name’ (eg – F), the Asian system will be finer than the European system.  When comparing my XF Safari nibs to the M nib of the Metropolitan, I find that the Metropolitan M lays down a line just a tiny bit THINNER than my Safari XF pens.  That said, my Lamys have been used a lot while the Metropolitan is fairly new.  The Metropolitan is very near that of a Sakura Micron 02 if you’re familiar with those.

It’s a small thing but I find Lamy pens to be a bit more ‘sloppy’ when filling them by dipping into an ink bottle.  They must be plunged deeper than Pilot pens.  As I don’t do this at all I simply avoid the problem.

Misc

Lastly, the Pilot Metropolitan ($20) is cheaper than the Lamy Safari ($25).  Thos prices are from Goulet Pens.  Converters for them are about the same price.  Safari has ubiquitous support; it’s every seller’s ‘beginner pen’.  While Pilot pens are readily available, the sheer numbers of Lamy users gives ‘support’ to the Lamy pen.

If you have any questions about either of these pens, or any pen for that matter, I’d be happy to discuss it with you.  I was a pen junky long before I became a sketcher.  You can also see how these pens write (in the nib nook) and even buy them at Goulet Pens.

Conclusion

In the end, choosing a pen comes down to a bunch of personal preferences.  For myself, I use a Pilot Prera (F) as my every day sketching pen.  I like its fine line, smooth and flawless operation, and I like the fact that I can post the pen and, being short, the balance works out ‘just right.’  This is a bonus to me as a street sketcher as I don’t have to worry about losing the cap.

But lately the Pilot Metropolitan has become my pen of choice for quick-sketching people, something I’m doing a lot of lately because it’s so cold outside.  Its slightly thicker line works better for this purpose and the fact that it’s inexpensive makes it a happy replacement for my Lamys, which remain in my arsenal but, by comparison, they’ve lost a bit of their charm for me.  Well, except for my lime green Lamy which is the greatest color ever (grin).

 

Sketching At The Library

One of my many struggles as a sketcher is that I am slow, very slow.  I love to get into a subject and spent an hour or two sketching something.  But many times, I just don’t have that much time, or the scene I want to sketch is just too transient, or I’m with other people who don’t want to wait around for me to spend an hour sketching.

So, one of the things I vowed to do this winter was to work on my quick sketching abilities.  Quick sketching people is a good way to improve (develop?) those skills, of course, and it fits well with our harsh winters because I can be do it inside.  I went with Yvan, an amazing quick-sketcher, to our main library and we sat for a couple hours doing quick sketches, or in my case attempting to quick sketch people who were sitting/standing in the library.

2013-02-15QS1

Here is one of two spreads of these sketches that I did.  You can see some abject failures.  You can see evidence of where I started to sketch someone just as they got up and walked away.  You may also see a sketch or two that actually looks, kinda-sorta like a person.  At least I hope you do (grin).

Of course, being the building guy that I am, I couldn’t resist doing a quick sketch of a piece of the building across the street too.  Very quick and about as loose as I’ve ever tried to sketch a building.

2013-02-15QS2_1

All of the sketches were done in a Strathmore Series 400 ‘gray’ sketchbook using a Pilot Metropolitan (M) with Waterman Absolute Brown or a Lamy Safari (XF) with Private Reserve Velvet Black.  Both of these are washable inks and I used a waterbrush to create a bit of shading here and there.

It’s interesting to compare the Pilot Metropolitan, with its “medium” nib to my Lamy Safari “extra fine” nib.  The Metropolitan is finer, illustrating clearly the differences between Asian and European sizing nomenclature.  Between the museums and the library I continue to be a busy location sketcher in spite of the wind and cold outside.

On Nait Tous Artistes!

On nait tous artistes (We are all born as artists) is what is written on the sides of a tiny Fiat car owned by DeSerres, our local art store.  They have just opened a new store within walking distance of my house which was event enough but in the parking lot was this really amazing Fiat, it’s paint scheme that of a young child drawing herself I suppose.

Anyways, I just had to sketch it but it was far too cold to sit in the parking lot to do so.  I took a couple photos, came home and sketched it off my computer monitor.  I guess that disqualifies it as a true ‘urban sketchers’ sketch but this one deserves an exception.

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Stillman & Birn Epsilon (5.5×8.5), Lamy Safari, Noodler’s Lexington Gray. Faber-Castell watercolor pencils provide color.

Adventures Of An Urban Sketcher

Thursday morning I decided to walk south and visit an industrial area near a railroad yard in Quebec City.  I’m something of a train nut and I thought maybe I could sketch some trains.

I was walking to the freight yard when I happened upon this scene.  I liked the yellow wall, juxtapositioned next to the brown train car and the harsh shadow between them, so I decided to sketch it.

I set up to the left of where this photo was taken, on a sidewalk, with the street behind me.  My WalkStool was actually straddling the railroad track.  Those railroad tracks crossed the street and went somewhere.  I didn’t pay much attention.   I remember chuckling to myself that at least this subject wouldn’t drive away like a car I was sketching earlier in the week.

I was having a really nice time as the sun felt good, it was quiet, and the sketching was going well.  I’m a really slow sketcher so I’d been there more than an hour and I was intently adding color to my ink sketch.

I was so concentrated on the work that I didn’t even hear it… until a guy walked up to me and his shadow crossed my paper.  “Qu’est-ce que tu fait, Monsieur?” (What are you doing, Mister?)   I looked up to see a guy in overalls and a baseball cap staring down at me.  And then I saw IT.  It was an EMD SW-1500 switch engine, idling no more than ten feet from where I was sitting – on the railroad tracks.

I told him I was sketching and showed him my sketch.  I stood up as I did and he told I’d have to move.  As I was packing up he walked over to the derail (that yellow thing clamped to the track), disengaged it, and motioned to the engineer to move forward.

By then I was taking photos of the engine.  I did mention that I’m a railroad geek didn’t I?  Once they’d engaged the boxcar, the guy dropped off the engine, walked back to me, and asked if I could show the engineer my sketch.  I was both amazed, excited, and nervous all at once.  The sketch you see below bought me access to the cab of that engine, which for a railroad geek is a really big deal.  And then they hauled my boxcar away.  And that, my friends is what I call a great day of sketching.

Here’s the sketch.  I still have to add the white letters on the boxcar and I’ll probably do that with a colored pencil.  This sketch was done in my Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook (10×7), using a Lamy Safari XF and Platinum Carbon Black ink.  Color is W&N artist watercolors.  Has anything like this happened to you while you were sketching?

 

What’s an Eye-dropper Pen?

Several people have asked, in response to my post titled My Ideal Idea Book: What’s Yours post, what an eye-dropper pen was and how to make one.  I dropped the reference into that post without realizing that I was talking to people who don’t hang out in the fountain pen world and I apologize for not providing a more complete explanation.

The typical, modern fountain pen uses an ink cartridge.  These are convenient, but they do have a few drawbacks.  They contain very little ink, typically half a milliliter or less.  You are also limited by the colors and kinds of ink available in cartridge form.  Cartridges are also the most expensive way to feed a fountain pen.

So, many people replace the cartridge with a converter that allows you to suck up ink from a bottle and so your choices improve and your costs drop considerably.

What is not solved by this approach is the amount of ink stored in the pen.  But, what if you could fill up the entire barrel of the pen with ink?  A $3-4 Preppy pen barrel will hold 4-4.5 milliliters, or about nine times as much ink as is contained in a cartridge.

And so the “eyedropper pen” is born, taking its name from the way you fill the barrel of the pen – with an eyedropper.  Here is my editing pen.  Everyone knows that editors use a lot of red ink so it’s a natural for eyedropper pen conversion.

To do the conversion you need several things:

1) A pen that has no holes in its barrel.

The popular Lamy Safari is an example of a pen that won’t work without modification as there are large holes so you can see how much ink is left in your cartridge.

2) small rubber washers

You can buy these at Home Depot but what they have available are thicker than is generally desireable.  While they will work, they create an unsightly lump along the body of the pen.  I bought a bunch of proper-size washers from Goulet Pens for a buck.  These are very thin and don’t protrude once you close up the pen.

3) silicone grease

Some say you don’t need this.  When it comes to ink I want everything I can get  between it and my fingers.  This grease comes from Goulet Pens as well.  Might cost $1.50 for a lifetime supply of the stuff.

4) a few seconds of your time

I mention this only to emphasize how easy it is.  Here’s what you do:

1) open up the pen, discarding the cartridge

2) slide a washer onto the threaded portion of the pen, seating it where the barrel and pen head come together.

3) coat the threads with a small amount of silicone grease.  Less is more in this case.

4) fill the barrel with your favorite ink.

5) Put the pen down so you don’t poke yourself when you pat yourself on the back.

It’s quite likely that you’ll have to wait a bit for the ink to find its way up the feed and to the nib.  If you need to write immediately you can just dip the nib into the ink bottle to get things started.