Blackwing Sharpener Review

I just got back from a sketching trip to Montreal.  I’ll talk about that once I get a chance to scan my sketches but today I want to show you what I found while wandering around Mile End.  I went into a tiny store called Boucle & Papier.  l didn’t have high expectations as the place is full of greeting cards but they had Blackwing pencils, which was a pleasant surprise.

The BIG surprise, though, was that they had the hot topic in the pencil world right now – the Blackwing sharpener.  I was hot to get one of these but shipping costs really limit my ability to do so.  But I have one now.

Before I talk about it I need to provide a bit of sharpener history for those who are saying “it’s only a sharpener.”  In the pencil world, particularly the people that carry pencils wherever they go, have never been satisfied by the cheap sharpeners you can buy anywhere.  There are reasons for this but the big one is that these sharpeners produce a very short, high-angle tip and if you want to write/draw with a fine line, you’re constantly sharpening.  The long tip you get from a wall sharpener is what we want in our portable sharpeners.

There have been several solutions but the reigning favorite is the Kum Masterpiece sharpener, a 2-step sharpener that requires you to remove wood in the first step and then carefully sharpen the point in the second.  It works great, though the 2-step approach isn’t convenient.  More important, however, is that the shavings aren’t captured by the sharpener.

The Blackwing sharpener has come to the rescue.  If you haven’t been convinced by the cost of the thing, the packaging should give you the idea that you’re holding something special.  It impresses when you hold it in your hand as well.  Very solid and the black anodizing is beautiful.

The sharpener disassembles into three pieces.  You unscrew the top and then you can pull the actual sharpener out of the housing to empty the shavings.  The sharpener hole is offset to allow shavings to easily flake away from the blade.  Sharpening is done by simply holding it and twisting the pencil as you would with any simple sharpener.

Here’s a comparison of the results from the Blackwing and Masterpiece sharpeners.  Note that the exposed graphite length is very similar but the Masterpiece removes more wood.  The reason is that the Blackwing sharpener cuts the pencil into a curved shape similar to the Pollux sharpener that is popular with some, though the Pollux  has a reputation of being picky about what pencils it will sharpen.  I haven’t exhaustively tested different pencils but I’ve tried Ticonderoga, Blackwing, Tombow, Mitsubishi, Mars Lumigraph and even Col-Erase pencils and the Blackwing sharpener handles all of them well.

This is just a close up of the results.

In the end, this sharpener is now part of my sketching bag and I just love it.  A happy surprise from Montreal.

Edit:  Tina Koyama asked for a comparision to the Blackwing 2-step sharpener.  Here it is.  Top pencil is a Mars Lumograph sharpened with the new Blackwing and the bottom pencil is a Tombow Mono 100 sharpened with the Blackwing 2-step sharpener.

Doppelgangers, Look-Alikes and Soses

There’s a new exhibit at our Museum of Civilization that plays right into my new endeavor to learn how to use a pencil while drawing portraits.  It’s called Mon Sosis a 2000 Ans  which means, I think, My 2000-Year Old Double.  While there’s some variation in how it’s presented, most of the displays look like this one (left).  On the right is a head (or bust) from long ago and far away (many are Egyptian or Greek).   On the left is the result of scanning a person’s head and using the results to 3D print a mask of the person’s face.  The pictures above show you what the person looks like with a comparative photo of the ancient sculpture.

This presents to the sketcher an array of faces/sculptures to sketch.  The downside of the 3D masks is that the person’s eyes are closed and the top of their head is gone so there is no hairline.  Still, they don’t move which is a plus.

Here are a couple of drawings from my first batch of sketches.  I’m not very good at this but I’m determined to improve.

Struggling With Pencil And Other Laments

Pat Roberson wrote to me asking if she was somehow missing my posts.  I was glad she was missing my posts, but had to confess that they were being missed because I wasn’t writing them.  If I could write about CT scans, doctor visits, constant blood and urine testing, and a bit of depression, I’d have lots to write about.  As it is, however, writing about urban sketching would leave me empty-handed right now.

So, I’m going to talk about the little bit of sketching I’ve been trying to do, even though it’s sketching I’m unfamiliar with and even more problematic it’s being done with a tool I don’t understand at all … a pencil.

As the weather turned cold and my leg didn’t get any better I realized that this winter I was not going to be able to be an urban sketcher.  I decided to view this as an opportunity (I brainwash myself regularly).  I told myself that this would be a great time to set my pens aside and pick up a pencil in an attempt to master the tool.  Everyone else starts with pencil but I was a pen-driver when I came to sketching and so all of my art baby steps were done with pen.

Further I decided that I would learn my pencil skills by drawing portraits, either from photos or from plaster casts.  This was (is?) probably foolhardy because my least favorite sketching subject is people, but I need practice in this area too, so while the wind, rain and snow keeps me indoors, I might as well “get out of my comfort zone” and learn something new.

I started by drawing a bust of Mozart, a cast I picked up at a flea market in a small town east of Quebec City.  Only an artist drives along a road to a sketching location and has to turn around to visit the flea market because they saw a white head sticking up from one of the tables.

Anyway, it seems I got off to a bad start.  I made a rank beginner mistake.  “I was just learning so I don’t need good materials” was my thought and so I grabbed a pad of cheap watercolor paper that I’d rejected for use long ago and started drawing.  It was too grainy for a pencil drawing but it didn’t matter; I was “just learning” after all.  I struggled to get an even tone, partly because of my lack of skill but also because of that paper.  And then I realized that I’d drawn Mozart’s eye too large so I tried to erase it.  The paper immediately pilled and I had a REALLY rough spot where the eye used to be.  I tried to fix it but was a fool’s errand.

This frustrated me to the point of giving up, realizing that I was fighting the paper more than the pencil.  So, here is my partially drawn Mozart, shown here with a black eye caused when he told Haydn that major-minor theme variations were silly.  I’ll have to draw him again.

 

Sketching Along The Riviere St. Charles

We are starting to get some outdoor sketching days and so you’ll start hearing me talk about my river as it’s one of my favorite places to be.  Its real name is Riviere St. Charles and it’s only minutes from my house, though the river is at least 50 kilometers long, running from Lac Beauport down to the St. Lawrence River.

Yvan and I were there on Saturday, at a spot that’s no more than a 15 minute walk from my house.  I was practicing sketching standing up.  This probably sounds crazy to many of you but I really struggle with it, though I may be getting closer to wrestling this bugaboo to its knees.  The thing is, I enjoy sketching while standing up.  It’s a more natural point of view than sitting low on a stool.

It’s also the case, because I hold the sketchbook relatively high and shoved into my chest,  I do a lot less head-bobbing than when I sit on a stool with the book resting on my legs.  I think this improves my accuracy because the sketchbook is easier to compare to the subject because the sight line is nearly the same for both.  I also find this approach easier on my back, though my legs get tired.  Win some, lose some.

Some other benefits to sketching standing up is that I don’t have to carry around that stool, cutting the weight I’m carrying in half.  I also feel more free to choose sketching positions.

You’ll think this next reason silly but people say it’s good to take a break every 15-20 minutes, just to remain fresh while sketching.  This is easier to do if all you have to do is start walking.  If I’ve got to get up from a stool, walk around and then sit back down, both my brain and my knees are reluctant to take a break.  I told you that you’d think it was silly.

I was also practicing the idea of drawing landscapes.  I don’t do it enough and I need a lot of practice with forest textures and such.  Anyways, this is what I did and I was generally happy with the results.  It’s sort of looking down on the river and up at the building, which made for an interesting scene.  I may add color but generally, once a sketch is a couple days old, I rarely go back to it.

Stillman & Birn Beta (8×10), 0.5 mechanical pencil, Pilot Falcon

The Virtues Of Sketching With A Pencil

People who follow my blog know that I’m a pen guy.  I used fountain pens long before I started trying to draw so it just seemed natural that I should use one as my drawing tool.  In fact, I was told that this was THE way to learn to draw by those who hung out in sketching groups.  Working with pen, it was said, would make me see better, make better decisions, improve my hand-eye coordination, and a whole slew of other great benefits.

Five years later I’m still using a fountain pen as my principal drawing tool.  More importantly, I can better assess all those well-meaning people who were advocating the use of ink to learn to draw.  And you know what?  I don’t think they were talking about ink at all.  They were talking about erasers.  They were talking about being sure about where you wanted to put a line before you put it.  They were talking about not spending a lot of time erasing and replacing lines.  When they said ink would improve my ability to see, they were really saying “If you know you can’t erase, you’ll pay more attention before you make a line.”

I suppose, they were right, BUT that is not the whole story.  There is room for pencil in the drawing process, even if you ultimately use fountain pens as your primary drawing tool.  For instance, I use a pencil when I start most drawings.  I use it to generate layout lines, to evaluation locations, major angles, and object sizes BEFORE I start thinking about drawing actual objects.  This is a step that pro artists may do in their heads but they are nevertheless doing it.  Less skilled folks, like me, need the pencil lines to evaluate those relationships and correct those they got wrong BEFORE they actually start drawing the outlines of the objects they’re trying to capture.  Most beginners skip this step completely.  I might talk about this at a later date but today I want to talk about a more fundamental reason to use a pencil to actually draw.

Using ink causes people to concentrate mostly on outline.  Whether it is buildings or people, basic lessons of contour drawing are very evident and, for the most part, that’s where the process of drawing ends for most people.  They may follow up with watercolor or maybe even hatching but these are done as after-the-fact processes once the contours are all drawn.

But if you draw with a pencil you start thinking more about form and less about outline.  Folds in clothes become areas of tone rather than a single line.  Curves become gradients of tone, or they should as the surfaces change their angles with respect to the light.  If you’ve ever tried to turn a circle into a sphere with a fountain pen you know how difficult this is, but with a pencil it’s a quite natural thing to do.

Because of this, drawing with a pencil will teach you more about seeing and creating tonal variation than will using a fountain pen.  You’ll concentrate more on 3-dimensional form rather than outline.  In short, you’ll start seeing in a different way and in doing so, even your fountain pen drawing will improve.

Because of this, I try to draw something in pencil every once in a while.  I always find it a struggle because I’m a left-handed sketcher who drags his hand across the drawing as I draw.  The smudging that results is not pretty.  The fact that I don’t do it as much as I should also limits what I can achieve, but each time I get a little bit better and I see just a bit better.  I also gain a keen appreciation for the pencil as a sketching tool.

Here’s a drawing I did of a statue in our museum.  I did it with a 0.5mm mechanical pencil which is a convenient tool, but probably not optimal for doing pencil drawings.  Please excuse my smudging; I’m just a lowly pen driver afterall.  Do you ever draw in pencil?