May The Gods Be With You

If you’re at our Museé de la Civilisation they most certainly are with you, or at least their stone faces are everywhere.  Weather predictions suggest we’re in for a week of rain.  The proverbial “April showers bring May flowers” are running late, like everything this spring.  I hope we get those flowers before it starts snowing again (grin).

I’m spending my mornings drawing up a storm, trying to figure out how to use pencils.  Great learning experience with lots of fun and some frustration.  This drawing is, I guess, a generic ‘god’ as he bears no name.  I’d sure like to know more about how sculpters worked.  There are stylistic similarities and differences that suggest many artists but all working to a common set of guidelines and goals.  The exhibition is a spectacular place to work on one’s ability to see half-tones, mentally follow complex hair and beard patterns, and generally to be able to sort out the proportional demands of these subjects.  I’m not quite up to these tasks but it’s fun to try.  This drawing was done on Strathmore ‘vellum’ bristol paper.  I tried Faber-Castell 9000 series pencils on this one but I’m far to ignorant of pencils to actually see a difference between these and my Staedtler pencils.


Museum Sketching With A Pencil

It’s a balmy 41F here this morning, with the promise of rain.  Mr. Weatherman is promising something called “sun” about mid-week so maybe, just maybe, I’ll get to sketch outdoors this week.  Hope so.

Since I am limited to indoor sketching, though, I thought I might use the time to do something I’m really not good at – use a pencil.  When I started sketching it just seemed natural to use my fountain pens so I skipped the traditional ‘use pencil first’ approach to drawing.  I think there were virtues to this approach as I had to concentrate on seeing relationships before I put anything on paper.  The drawback, I think, is that sketching with pens emphasizes contour more than masses.  It’s also rather silly, and sometimes embarrassing, for a sketcher not to know how to use a pencil.

So, when I went to the museum yesterday I was determined to use a graphite pointy device to make a drawing.   I decided to draw Athena, with her leather helmet pushed back on her head.  She’s a reminder that strong women were very much a part of the Greek religion.   The daughter of Zeus, Athena was the goddess of reason, intelligent activity, arts and literature.

I did this drawing on Stillman & Birn Alpha series paper.  While I love the paper for my pen and ink drawings, I have no idea whether it’s good or bad for pencil.  It seemed to work.  I used Staedtler pencils.  I always have fun drawing on location but admit that a pencil felt clumsy in my hand.  I think I learned a lot but I’m not sure what at this point (grin).


How Do You Use A Pencil?

Long before I decided to learn to draw I was a fountain pen guy.  I’ve always loved the feel of a nib running across paper.  So when I started trying to learn to draw, I used a fountain pen.  It’s still my tool of choice some two years later.

Some would argue this is a good thing as it forced me to look a lot and draw a little as erasers weren’t part of the process.  I think this is true and that it has helped me acquire a rudimentary ‘artist’s eye’, though that eye is still ill-developed.

But at the same time, I missed out on the more typical starting point for someone learning to draw – graphite or charcoal.  The pencil remains a very popular drawing tool and I’m completely ignorant of its uses.  I do carry a mechanical pencil but it’s full of 3H or 4H lead and I use it just to draw a few guidelines to block in a drawing and I quickly switch to pen for the rest.  So I’ve decided that I need to learn a bit about 2B, HB, and 4H pencils and how to rub them around to create value.  I also need to learn what you do with a kneaded eraser.  It’s a very clumsy process.  But I’m trying, mostly with little scribbles and doodles.

Monday I went with Yvan to the nearly hidden ‘museum’ at the university.  It holds the contents of the long defunct natural history museum, the university insect collection, and roughly 300 plaster casts.  These were given to the university sometime in the 19th Century, when art departments thought it wise for their students to learn to draw.  When they decided that you didn’t need to draw to be an artist if you were going to paint with a roller, spatula or by throwing paint at the canvas, all the casts were, well, cast off.  Only the insight and diligence of Madame Wagner, the curator of the ‘museum’, saved them from becoming so much broken plaster.

And so little old me has access to some 300 plaster casts of hands, feet, ears, noses, busts of famous people, and many, many full-size statues.  It makes even this street sketcher say KEWL!  I chose a poet named Benivieni as my first subject.  It wasn’t due to any affinity for him as I have no idea who he is but I liked his hat (grin).

Here’s my first attempt at doing a bust with a pencil.  It’s not perfect but it does, sorta-kinda, look like him so I was both surprised and happy.  I do have to work more on that ‘artist’s eye’ as seeing the half-tones is a challenge, but I think I’ll go back next week.  Those art students don’t know what they’re missing.

Stillman & Birn Alpha (9x12) with pencil.

Stillman & Birn Alpha (9×12) with pencil.

Faber-Castell Perfect Pencil

I have to confess up front that I’m not a pencil guy.  I might even want to be but I enjoy pushing pens across paper so much that it’s hard for me to use anything else.  And so I carry a single 0.5mm mechanical pencil with 2H or 3H lead that I use to quickly block in a subject before I start drawing it.  As I said…I’m not a pencil guy.

PerfectPencil_blisterSo it’s odd for me to be talking about a pencil but Faber-Castell’s Perfect Pencil snapped my head around when I heard about it and double-snapped it when I found one in an Ottawa art supply store last weekend.  It’s just plain cool, even if it is a pencil.

I also have to confess that I love wooden pencils.  They just feel good in my hand.  I also like that you can use the side of them, use them dull, or sharpen them up for fine details.

I don’t use them, though, for a couple reasons, mostly stemming from the fact that I do my drawing on the run as a street sketcher.  This, for me, makes (or made) wooden pencils impractical.  Here’s why:

1) You have to sharpen them and the tiny portable pencil sharpeners produce a short, stubby tip.  Yes, I can use my pen knife, which is very Bohemian, but also rather impractical when sitting in a music recital or riding a bus.

2) The tips break unless protected.  Yes, I can keep them in a case but then they’re not available.  A lot of my sketching is ‘grab the book and draw’ sorts of sketching.

3) The length becomes a problem as the pencil is used.  And yes, I could buy an extender.  Something else to carry.

What makes the Perfect Pencil so perfect is that it solves all THREE of these problems.  The Perfect Pencil comes with a sharpener, and not just any sharpener.  It’s a sharpener that produces a nice, long and sharp tip.  The Perfect Pencil has a cover for the pencil tip, a cover that has a clip just like my fountain pens so it’s easy to carry.  And when the pencil becomes short, you can stick its rear end into the cap, which acts as an extender.  Best of all, you get all this for the price of one of those high-priced coffees where you get to feel empowered while making all those mind-bending choices.

PerfectPencil_explodedI can’t say much about the pencil that comes with the Perfect Pencil.  It seems like a Faber-Castell HB pencil but it’s round rather than hexagonal.  That said, you can replace it with any standard-size pencil.  I’ve tried other Faber-Castell pencils (including watercolor pencils), Staedtler pencils, and Blackwing 602s.  The 602s defeat the extender function because of their square eraser but otherwise they work fine.  I might become a pencil guy yet.  In any case, I’ll be carrying my Perfect Pencil when you see me on the street.

Sketching in Pencil

I met Claudette this morning for a sketching session at the Musée d’Amerique Francophonie.   I want to say this is a tiny museum but it’s actually a fairly big building/facility.  They just don’t have much in it 🙂  But there were a couple pieces that Claudette wanted to sketch so that’s where we went this morning.

I wandered around, looking for something to sketch.  We’ve done group sketching events there on several occasions so I was very familiar with the displays.  So, after wandering a bit, I finally settled on a statue (former mayor I think) as my subject.  Since we’ve been discussing pencil drawing in one of the Facebook groups, and since I know nothing of pencil drawing except that I tend to smear everything I draw, I decided to do this sketch with an HB mechanical pencil.  Definitely a KISS principle drawing.  It’s also a sketch that demonstrates why I use my fountain pens (grin).  It was done on a light gray Canson Mi-Teintes (6×9).


Drink And Sketch, Drink And Sketch

On my way back from a discussion with a bank manager I stopped into a place for a cup of tea and the possibility of sketching an interior scene.  It wasn’t the Taj Mahal but what the heck, it was great practice.  Here’s the result, done in a Stillman & Birn (4×6) Alpha sketchbook.  I used a TWSBI Mini as my pointy device.


While the counters, coffee and tea didn’t move, the people did as one after the other, a person came to the counter, paid for something, and left.  I’ve been asked several times about how I set up a sketch like this and I thought it might be time to oblige.

It’s fashionable in internet-land to proudly state that one doesn’t use pencil.  Ink is the only way to go.  Well, I’m an ink guy and most of my sketching is done in ink.  But I’ve also learned that laying down a few bones beforehand allows me to concentrate on the drawing of each section of a sketch and prevents my ideas from running off the page.

2013-11-20PicardieSillery_layourSo, I start with a pencil, a 3H pencil to be exact.  I draw lines to represent the major vertical and horizontal components.  I’ve indicated the pencil work for this sketch in red.  Once done, I can look at the paper space and compare it to the scene, ensuring that things are going in the right direction.  Note how few lines are actually required.  This is not drawing; it’s organization.

In this case I also wanted to place a person and I could use counter height and the verticals to locate her.  I’ve indicated three small pencil lines in yellow that define the top of her head, her shoulders as well as the bottom of ‘her’ coat.  The reality is that the coat was drawn mostly from the first customer but also the second, who contributed the legs/shoes.  A third provided the head, but as I had these little lines in place, it was easy to cobble together a person for my scene.  Given how light the pencil lines are, I rarely see a need to erase them when I finish so no eraser was harmed in the creation of this sketch.

Could I do this with dots from a pen?  Sure.  When I did Brenda Swenson’s 75-Day Challenge (limits you to ink only) that’s exactly what I did.  But it’s far easier to see the scene structure with some lines than with a few dots and a .5mm pencil isn’t that heavy so I carry one for this purpose.  Besides, if layout underpinnings was good enough for the master artists of the 18th and 19th Century, why shouldn’t it be good enough for me (grin)?

2013-11-21Brulerie3rdAve_72The next day I was meeting a friend for tea at one of my favorite haunts and this guy, all scrunched down in his chair caught my eye.  I sketched him and then just kept going, ending up with this scene.

Capturing The Motion Of A City

I’m primarily a building sketcher.  I don’t have to worry much about my subject walking or driving away.  But I’m also an urban sketcher and things do move in cities.  Trains, planes, and automobiles are constantly on the move, as are buses, construction equipment, and parade floats.

How do you capture complex objects that won’t sit still?  You can use photos but I’m not that fond of sitting in my office drawing pictures.  To be honest, I have difficulty drawing from photos.  I’ve spent enough time field-sketching that I just ‘see’ so much more in real life than I can see in a photo.

I did a spur of the moment experiment and I thought I’d share it with you.  I was walking along ‘my’ river and at one point there’s a train bridge that crosses the river and heads into the downtown train station.

As luck would have it the train from Montreal pulled across the bridge and stopped.  It does this because it has to wait while they throw a bunch of switches so it can back through a wye (trackage to turn a train) so that, ultimately, it can back into the station.  In less than a minute the train backs out of the scene.

I decided to sketch it so I got out my Stillman and Birn Zeta (5×8) and a pencil.  That’s right, a pencil.  I quickly drew a long box to represent the train, the slope of the nose of the train, and several lines indicating where the major parts of the bridge intersected with the train.  Then, the train was gone.

I got out my pen and started drawing the bridge.  I thought my brain was going to melt at times while trying to figure out all the angles of the steel-truss bridge but it was also fun.  I left the site with a bridge with a big, long empty box inside it.

VIA2When I got home I sifted through my photos, surfed the internet, and ultimately found a picture of the ViaRail train engine, taken from its left side.  This gave me all the detail information I needed to complete my sketch.  I did have a bit of difficulty envisioning the proper perspective but most of what I needed to add were squarish panels, so it wasn’t too bad.  I liked the result.  I have captured a train.


 I suppose an urban sketcher purist would take issue with my use of a photo this way but, to me, the hard part of this sketch was done on site and I am now looking for other ways to capture moving objects.  Next stop…to sit across from a metrobus stop, drawing a bus; the buses arrive/depart every 10 minutes.  Only a few seconds per bus but there are lots of buses.  Wish me luck (grin).

This Is The Back Of The Building?

I was downtown Sunday, waiting for the Festivale de Nouvelle France events to spool up.  I was sitting in the courtyard in front of the Trinity Anglican Church and from there I could see this view of the back of large government building.  I think it’s the finance building.  I decided to sketch it.

I took a somewhat different approach, experimenting a bit.  I spent more time with a pencil, adding more than just layout lines.  I used my typical 3H pencil, but from these light lines, I laid in light color washes before I added any ink to the sketch.  This allowed me, or so I think, to use a lighter hand with the ink lines, which I followed up with more watercolor.  I think, if I knew anything about watercolors, this would be a good approach.  I know it works well for many other sketchers and I’ll continue to pursue it.

I did it in my Stillman & Birn Zeta (5×8) sketchbook, with a Pilot Prera and Noodler’s Lexington Gray ink.


Sometimes You Just Need A Challenge

ArtisticLicenseIf you know Brenda Swenson’s “75-day Challenge”, you know the concept of casting aside the pencil, even for organizational purposes and sketching directly with pen.  It’s said, and I believe it to be true, that doing so for a lot of sketches, will improve your ability to see and put what you see on paper.  The process moves a lot of thinking to early in the process, ensuring that when you do lay down a line it’s in the right place.

I do a lot of ink work but typically use a pencil to lightly outline main masses and relationships in a sketch.  But sometimes a guy just needs a challenge and I was feeling like one when I started looking at this railing and post.

I set up to sketch it (Stillman & Birn Zeta -5×8, Pilot Prera) and decided to do it ‘ink-only’, though I confess that I drew a pencil horizontal line at the top of the railing and a vertical line at the inside of the post.  Then I got out my pen and stared.  And then I stared some more, measuring, seeing, and occasionally putting a dot on my paper.  Then I drew the lines… and the curves.  For me it was a struggle with all the curved wrought iron to render.  And there are screw ups… there are always screw ups.  It’s my signature move.  But generally, I like the results and had a lot of fun with the process.



What’s The Best Mechanical Pencil For Sketching?

Obviously I can’t answer the question that is the title of this post.  There are too many personal choices involved in the answer, including how the pen feels in your hand, whether the eraser fits your use of it, price, availability, and the most important attribute of all – color.


But I think we ignore our mechanical pencils, using them day after day without thinking about whether there is a better/different one that would provide different results.  At the same time, we burn endless amounts of time, energy and ink talking about sketchbooks, pens, and even the containers we use to carry our stuff.  Why not our pencils?  I thought it time to talk just a bit about the mechanical pencil when used by a sketcher.

First, a couple of caveats.  I’m a sketcher who shuns the great modern wisdom that anyone who uses pencils in advance of their ink drawing is a sissy.  I work directly with pen for a lot of things but for anything detailed I’m going to use a pencil to rough in the drawing before turning to ink.  I must say that I’m glad so many of the classic ‘greats’ of the artist world didn’t get the memo about avoiding pencil.

On the flipside, I’m not a pencil artist.  I ONLY use them for laying out a drawing.  If you’re someone who does complete, shaded drawings with pencil, I sometimes envy your mastery of pencil shading.  You’re probably using 2mm or larger leads if you use a mechanical pencil at all.  I apologize but I can’t speak to this form of pencil use at all.  Here I’m talking about pencil use for either quick sketching or for roughing out more complex sketches.  A man’s gotta know his limitations.

Which lead?

This is definitely a “different strokes” thing but I open with it because something must be said.  “Standard” mechanical pencil lead is generally HB.  Whether that suits you or not is probably as much dependent upon the paper you use than anything else.  Those using smooth papers may lean towards softer leads (2B?) while rough papers call for harder leads (2H?).  For myself, I use 2H or 3H leads on my smooth papers as I want very light lines while organizing what will be an ink drawing.  If I were using the pencil to quick sketch (I use ink) I’d probably switch to 2B.

The other issue is diameter of the lead.  Most mechanical pencils range from 0.5 to 2mm leads, with the vast majority of them being 0.5 or 0.7mm.  In that range, it really becomes a personal preference.  I use 0.7mm mostly because they break less.  I’m a klutz; what can I say?

Choosing A Pencil

As I’ve indicated, there are a lot of personal things that go into this choice.  I won’t address any of them.  You know if you need an exposed eraser or one that’s capped.  You know if you like the feel of knurled metal grips or not.  What I want to talk about are three unique mechanical pencils that address issues that may not be quite so obvious to the casual pencil buyer.

Before doing so, however, I’ll make a couple basic comments.  There are differences in pencil quality and one could spend an endless amount of time comparing and contrasting the various makes and models. I’ll boil it down to a single sentence – buy cheap, buy twice, or three, or four times.  There are roughly a gazillion mechanical pencils that are priced between $2 and $6.  They’re made of plastic and corners are cut in many parts of the mechanism that either shorten their lives or make them sloppy at holding the lead.  I’d avoid them, though I’ve bought my share of them.  If nothing else, wiggle the tip with the lead exposed and see it if moves.  If it does, buy something else.

Most pencils I’ve tried in the $7-15 seem well-made and it really does come down to those personal preferences when making a choice.  Anything over this price range falls more into the “ain’t that cool” category and you won’t gain much functionality, but you may become the cool kid with the fancy pencil in your group, which is never a bad thing.  I’ll show you one exception to that below in the form of the Caran D’Arche pencil.

Zebra ‘el cheap’ pencil


This is the bottom rung of mechanical pencils and, oddly enough, unique and useful for sketchers.  You can pick these up in many stores for the princely sum of 50 cents.  They’re meant to be a disposable pencil that sort of looks like a pencil.  But you can refill them.  I doubt you could find replacement erasers for them.  As far as I know, they are all 0.5mm.

What’s really nice about them is that they are shorter than your typical pencil and they are VERY light.   If you’re traveling, hiking, or wandering around town doing urban sketching, these are great pencils to carry with you.  I carry one as my back up pencil.

Uniball Kuro Toga


This is a unique mechanical pencil.  Some even talk of it being revolutionary.  Its mechanism is an attempt to solve an age-old problem for pencil sketchers, and that is the ever-changing shape of the end of their lead.  As the pencil is used the lead becomes rounded and you get a thicker and thicker line.  This is as true for mechanical pencils as it is for wooden pencils.

The Kuro Toga solves this problem as it actually rotates the lead 1/4 turn every time you advance the lead so you always have a ‘new’ edge on your lead.  How cool is that?  It does take a bit of getting used to as if you’ve been using mechanical pencils for a long time it’s likely that you automatically rotate your pencil, always chasing a sharp edge.  You have to retrain yourself not to do that as the pencil is doing it for you, and doing it better.

These pencils come in two forms – metal and plastic.  The street price for the metal pencil is $16-17, while the plastic one show above is around $7.50.  They’re available in 0.3mm  and 0.5mm and both versions can be had in a variety of colors.

Caran D’Arche Pencil


At first glance this French-made pencil looks like many others.  It is extremely well made, with a lacquered metal body a clip that, while removable, also snaps in place if you do use it.  It has all the features of a superbly made mechanical pencil.  Thank can be said for other pencils as well, though, and that’s not why I’ve included it here or why it’s become my ‘go to’ pencil.  Rather, this choice is all about balance.

That’s right…balance.  Have you ever thought about it with respect to a mechanical pencil?  If you actually check the balance of mechanical pencils you generally find that they balance either at the mid-point or a bit in front of it.  How far this is from the point, of course, is then dependent upon how long the pencil is, which varies somewhat.

Is that optimal?  Maybe, maybe not.  For those of us who use fountain pens, or even posted Pitt or Sakura pens, we’re used to pointy things with a balance point behind the mid-point.  We’re used to the weight being born mostly by the fleshy lump between our thumb and forefinger.  So, to match that, we’d need a mechanical pencil with its balance point behind the mid-point, just like our pens.

Well, shazaam…that’s exactly what you get with the Caran D’Arche mechanical pencil.  Those French think of everything.  I just love this pencil for that reason – it feels like a fountain pen.  It’s also very nice if you want to lightly shade something as the tip can be floated over the paper much easier.  If there’s a downside to this pencil it’s that Caran D’Arche has spared no expense in producing a very precise, metal-bodied pen with a super finish, and you get to pay for the privilege of owning one.  I paid $28 for mine and consider it money well-spent.

What’s important to you when it comes to mechanical pencils?  Which is your favorite?