Thursday, January 31, 2013

Roses Are Red.... (Tools of the Trade #6)

red may not be the first ink that comes to mind for image-making, but it can offer the artist a number 
of very interesting creative options (J. Herbin Rouge Hematite and opaque white on toned paper) 

This week I'm taking a look at 11 of the "warm" fountain pen inks -- ranging from red (5), to orange (2), to the earth tones (4). The list is by no means exhaustive but, hopefully, it will introduce you to some new choices and maybe even treat you to a few new facts about some old friends.

oops! despite a quick blotting of the heavily sized watercolor paper an 
accidental spill of a few drops of Pelikan Red left an indelible stain

Red -- the color of love, of heat, of passion, of blood. In politics red is the color of both communism and, in the U.S.A., state that vote predominantly for the Republican Party. (I know, I can't quite figure that one out either.) It's the color of Christmas. And in February red is the color of Saint Valentine's Day and love.

Among the colors available to fountain pen users red has the greatest reputation for staining, creeping and other cantankerous behavior -- and it may offer the widest range of color options.

I began my selection with the red that has been in my collection the longest, Levenger Cardinal -- a dark, very intense red with distinct magenta undertones. I find it a marvelous red to use -- but decidedly high maintenance. By that I mean this ink creeps (so expect to wipe your nibs clean frequently), it can permanently stain nibs, it crystalizes, and (if allowed to dry out in a pen) can be highly corrosive. (I learned the latter lesson a few years ago when I allowed a load of Cardinal Red to dry up in my Pelikan 200 Red Demonstrator and the results can be seen in the illustration below.)

the blue arrows point out the 3 largest areas of corrosion - the lowest one clear through the gold plated steel nib!

The second red in this review is what many consider the benchmark for this group and the "truest" red available -- Sheaffer Red. (Note: As mentioned earlier, you will frequently hear fountain pen users say that red inks tend to be the most staining, and that reds often demonstrate a great deal of nib creep. Sheaffer's vintage red definitely falls into this category. After a week I had visible crystal buildup in the area where the feed entered the collar on my Pelikan 200. And it took the better part of two days -- alternating between cold water and Koh-I-Noor Rapido-Eze cleaning solution -- to flush the last remnants of pink from the system.)

after week 1 -- no noticeable change

The third ink in this review is Pelikan Red -- more of a red-orange, intense, with strong staining power (as can be seen from what wouldn't blot up after my ink syringe hiccuped), and (as I discovered while cleaning up my mess) apparently consisting of a bright red die and an even brighter pink that seemed to glow! Warm and upbeat -- this is my first choice for Christmastime correspondence.

after week 2 -- the first signs of fading

the very thinnest areas of ink -- drips of Pelikan Red that had been 
blotted up (identified by blue arrows) -- begin to bleach out

Noodler's Widow Maker is (as the name implies) dark and bloody (although maybe if I didn't know the name I might describe it as a very pleasant, deep burgundy.

after week 3

J. Herbin Rouge Hematite is what I would call a compound color. If used in a pen than flows wet it will shade red in the thinner areas and shift to a yellow ochre in the thicker, wetter areas -- a real eye catcher in, say, a flex- or stub-nibbed pen. (It is also one of two colors specially formulated to celebrate the company's anniversary and, therefor, fetches a modestly higher price than most inks.) The earth tone in this ink tends to settle as sediment in the bottle (and maybe in the pen) if it sets for long and I'm not all together certain whether this is a pigment or a dye that behaves like a pigment. It seems to remix readily enough when shaken, and I have heard of no nib/feed fouling. However, I flush my pen after each filling is consumed and I would not leave the ink in any pen for more than a week (just to play it safe).

after week 4

Diamine Ancient Copper is another ink I chose to add to this review expressly for its shading qualities -- bright burnt Sienna with a distinctly orangey tone when thin, and a warm, dark brick red when thick.

trying out some holiday pen and ink options -- practice, practice, practice
I was surprised by how long the Widow Maker stayed wet. (see arrow) 

Noodler's Golden Brown is indeed golden or yellowish when thin and a neutral, darker brown in thicker applications. As can be seen from the color chart, this brown also offers remarkable shading potential.

J. Herbin Orange Indien is a remarkable orange with slightly earthy yellow undertones. Slightly more orange than the Pelikan Red, this might be just the thing for correspondence during Halloween and the fall season to reflect the turning foliage. (It could also add a nice warmth or feeling of antiquity to sketches.)

Caron d'Ache Safron is, hands down, the most intense of the colors in this selection; this is decidedly orange and is the most transparent of the test batch. Interestingly, this ink seems to shift toward red en masse and looks rather like concentrated cherry kool-aid (a marvelous eye-catcher in my clear TWSBI Mini). I've also seen some wonderful things done with this ink when mixed with a hint of Noodler's Golden Brown.

Levenger Cocoa looks just like a rich milk chocolate, full of warmth and flavor (metaphorically speaking, I don't recommend ingesting ink). This is a great choice for Celtic, Gothic, or Roundhand calligraphy and handles flawlessly.

Sheaffer Brown is low in intensity when applied thin, dark (with some shading) when applied more heavily, and it possesses a strong olive or green cast. Although not a hue I would normally select, this color was part of a sampling of vintage Sheaffer inks I obtained and rounds out the brown range nicely.

I will update this test in future weeks with additional writing/drawing samples, and will report any additional shifts in the lightfastness test. I hope you'll stay tuned.



A February Challenge for Fountain Pen Lovers --

You say you really love using your collection of fountain pens? You say you'd like to use them every day but can't think of what to write or who to write to? 

Well, the fellas over at Fountain Pen Geeks may have just the thing for you: InCoWriMo 1. The First International Correspondence Writing (and drawing) Month is "the first annual group effort to write one letter (or note or postcard) each day for one full month." And this year it will run during February. For details check out the InCoWriMo site at 

You say there aren't enough addresses to write for a month (and you don't have enough to say to write the same person more than once)? Not a problem! Check out the pen pal forum (letters or postcards) at the Fountain Pen Network or Postcrossing (the free international postcard pen pal organization). 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Tiny Voices, Part I

Orange-crowned Warbler, Oreothlypis selata 

Winter is a delightful time to be a bird-loving naturalist in Texas! As with the rest of the winter-bound world, the deciduous trees have shed there leaves. It is much easier to see even the smallest species as they flit branch to branch, and even the softest of songs (no longer absorbed by the forest canopy) can be heard clearly. But in Texas, after no more than two or three days of overcast skies and maybe a bit of precipitation, residents can count on several days of clear skies and moderate to balmy temperatures. And if you're fortunate to awake at dawn on such days you're sure to be greeted by such brilliant sunlight and the sublime voices of a chorus of song birds that you may very understandably suspect that Spring has arrived early.

female Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

On such mornings I frequently begin the day with a ramble (usually accompanied by our Welsh sheep dog, Hannah) along the serpentine stretch of the Trinity that passes through a stand of old hardwood trees behind our house -- frequently stopping to search out the source of one birdsong or another, some year round residents, some winter visitors, and some transients just passing through on their way to their winter digs in Central or South America.

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

I travel light on these walks (a small pair of binoculars, pen, pencils, and a pocket-sized sketchbook/journal for line drawings and notation) -- limiting myself to slow, careful observations, line drawings, and notes about everything from coloration to song to flight patterns to food to how they move about on the ground (if they move on the ground). If color is added to a drawing at all, it comes after I return home (usually over a warming mug of tea).

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos 

I rarely get much of a physical workout on these excursions, but my mind is well exercised and my spirit salved. Life is beautiful and my little corner of the world is full of magic. (I hope yours is too.)

another Zeta double-page mockup (I'm loving this new paper!)

In Tiny Voices, Part II, I'll introduce you to some more of our winter-time avian visitors (this time with a focus on water fowl) and offer a few step-by-step tips on sketching your own winged wonders. I hope you'll join me then.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Zeta -- the sixth letter in the Greek alphabet, the middle name of my favorite Welsh actress, and now a new series from the premium artist's sketchbook publishing firm of Stillman & Birn.

Zeta -- Stillman & Birn's latest paper development (coming soon to a sketchbook near you)

While Stillman & Birn's widely acclaimed Beta and Delta Series have provided the artists community with two outstanding watercolor sketchbooks, Michael Kalman has stated that the company (not satisfied with merely resting on its laurels) is constantly evaluating the needs of artists/journalers and asking how their line of sketchbooks can be improved to better serve those needs. With invaluable input from experienced artists like Jamie Williams Grossman, it was decided that there was just such a need for a multimedia sketchbook with a paper weight similar to the Beta Series but with the pen-friendly surface of the Epsilon Series.

The folks at Stillman & Birn then turned to the same European mill that had done such a brilliant job of developing the papers for the company's five existing sketchbook lines and, after months of testing and evaluation, the new Zeta Series was announced.

In December  Michael Kalman asked me if I would be interested in trying out some of the pre-production Zeta paper. (I know what you're thinking -- artist auto-response: "Is this a trick question?") And, of course, I jumped at the opportunity! Michael promptly sent me a batch of 8 5/8" x 11" sheets that seem to me very similar in proportions to a two-page spread from the 5.5" x 8.5" sketchbook I tested previously (see Road Trips, Hot Rods... and a Road Test for my observations and images from that review). So, I decided to mock up a series of double-page spreads based on my recent trip to the Gulf Coast utilizing a variety of wet and dry media, including: pencils, fountain pens, fine liners, watercolors, and color pencils. What follows are some of those sheets, my notes, and observations. I hope you find them useful.

the mockup of the inside front cover of a sketchbook (I always begin each sketchbook 
with a quotation, this time from Ocean Springs' native artist/naturalist)

The Zeta Series paper is the same weight as that in both the Beta and Delta Series but, because it has been run between rollers, it is thinner. (The term "Hot Plate" has its origins in the practice of ironing the paper smooth or running the still-damp paper sheet between two heated rollers under high pressure.) Zeta is actually smoother than Arches HP watercolor paper, though not quite as smooth as a Plate finished Bristol paper.

the Mississippi Gulf Coast -- old tugs, sea birds, and the world's longest man-made beach

There is just enough "tooth" to the paper's surface to provide feedback and the paper responds wonderfully to the most delicate nuances with pencil. Graphite bonds well with the paper's surface but does not build up as rapidly as on the Beta. (When working across the entire surface of the Beta I found it expeditious to use a sheet of barrier paper between my hand and the graphite to avoid excessive smearing.) Thorough erasing was readily possible on the Zeta. A firm pressure on a vinyl eraser would remove all signs of a pencil's mark without disturbing the paper's fibers or marring the surface in any way. 

I used a wide range of pens and inks during my evaluation of the Zeta -- including four fountain pens loaded out with both water-soluable and indelible inks, and a variety of Micron permanent pens. As on the Beta paper, the Micron pens performed flawlessly and without fuss.

with careful pressure control, Zeta handles an amazing range of dip pen nibs 
(and Microns and fountain pen nibs with ease) 

If you read my Beta review you will know that one of my few concerns about that paper was that the toothiness of the hard Cold Press surface might be a bit too abrasive for long-term use with valuable (gold or platinum) fountain pen and dip pen nibs. Well, Stillman & Birn has certainly resolved that issue with the Zeta Series. (Viewed with the aid of a high-powered loupe, the surface of the new Zeta paper has a very fine, even felt-like appearance.) I got just enough feedback while drawing with a Pelikan 120 (the first pen I used) to feel free to use my widest pressure range -- producing delicate details and bold shadow effects. The paper also responded equally well to my semi-flex Eversharp Symphony -- the pen that raised concerns about excessive abrasiveness when used with the cold press Beta and Delta Series papers. (This time, no concerns.)

Emboldened by my results I achieved with fountain pens, I decided to push the paper to the max and see what could (or couldn't) be achieved with dip pens -- which, because of their general lack of any iridium tipping material, are notorious for burrowing into paper surfaces on upstrokes and occasionally even skipping and splatting ink during sidestrokes.

The first dip nib I tested was a  Hunt 512 "spoon" which, because of its curved nib, navigated the paper in all directions without fault or complaint. Next was a nice flexible Hunt 103 that did quite well as long as I used gentle pressure on the upstroke and "listened" to the nib's feedback. Equally good results were achieved with a stiff Hunt 102 & 101, and truly remarkable hairlines were obtained with the lightest of pressures using a Hunt 108 "wet noodle".

Thanks to the weight of the paper are the uniform strength of its sizing, the buckling or warping of the paper experienced after the application of watercolor washes was minimal.

dyes are much more notorious for staining than pigments but still lift well on Zeta paper
(the Carbon Black and Micron are permanent pigmented inks)

One cautionary note: Zeta is a marvelous paper for what it is. It's pH neutral, acid free, chloride free, and 87% alpha cellulose. It's archival and it's resilient. But Zeta is not long fiber rag paper. And I discovered (during a "lift test" of permanent inks) that it doesn't take much scrubbing with a watercolor brush to start lifting small (actually very small) fibers from the paper's surface. So, when "lifting watercolor or water-soluble inks I recommend caution. And, at the first sign that the paper may be starting to break down, you might want to stop.

On the plus side, the paper seems to be so heavily sized that -- once dried -- the tooth of the paper was only raised slightly (to about that of Arches HP paper) and the integrity of the paper did not seem to be compromised. (However, I prefer to err on the side of caution and would not try lifting color in the same spot a second time.)

The paper's heavy sizing also meant that lighter inks, like the vintage Sheaffer Peacock Blue, sat on the surface and retained their full brilliance, while the lack of feathering meant that a line laid down by an Extra Fine (or finer) nib remained equally fine as it dried.

results after a single wetting and lift in the center

I also performed a lift test with a selection of my watercolors (not an exhaustive selection, but a good cross sampling of artist's grade pigmented colors) -- and I wanted to determine if my choice of brushes might have had anything to do with the paper lifting that was experienced during the ink lift test. So, for this test I applied color with the same water brush I'd used for the ink lift test. But, instead of using the water brush to lift as well, I switched to a soft squirrel mop to re-wet the center section of each color sample and then used a clean, dry rag to mop up the color. The results were truly remarkable -- and no fibers were lifted this time.

The Zeta Series is set to be offered in the same sizes and binding options as both the Beta and Delta Series, although I'm still holding out hope that at some point in the future S&B will decide to add a hardbound landscape format as in the Alpha Series. (What can I say? I think there's a great deal of creative potential for the "oriental" elongated horizontal or vertical double-page format.)

Zeta is brighter and cooler than Arches HP 

The Series was originally scheduled for release in mid-January 2013. However, Michael recently stated that, due to certain unforeseen circumstances (given that Stillman & Birn's offices are located in New Jersey, I wouldn't be surprised if Superstorm Sandy was one of them), distribution might be set back to sometime in February. Either way, it's not too early to check with your favorite art supply dealer and see how soon you can place your order for a Zeta of your very own; you're certain to enjoy the results!

And, until next time, happy sketching everyone!  


Blue inks update: the blue ink test samples that have been in the north-facing window for 4 weeks now are still showing no marked fading (quite remarkable). But I do have one unusual development to share with you this week.

old ink (red arrow) appears black straight-on but has a red sheen if viewed from an angle, while the new ink (blue arrow) is more intensely blue (both the "old" an "new" are from the same bottle)

During a routine writing test of Waterman's vintage Florida Blue I discovered that (as my test pen neared the last of it's ink) the writing got darker and (when dry) develops a noticeable reddish sheen. This phenomenon was observed and recorded while I was in the midst of writing a letter. Mid-word I ran out of ink and noticed, upon refilling the pen and resuming my writing, that it looked like I was using two completely different inks. I can only speculate that, over time, the dyes that make up Florida Blue separate out in the pen's bladder. (It is worth noting here that the pen in question was obtained with a brand new ink sac installed and Florida Blue is the only ink to date that it has been loaded out with.)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

And the Winners Are... #4 & 5

OK, we did the blind drawings on Friday, notified our winners yesterday, and they've both emailed me back. So, without any further ado...

[Virtual drumroll]

The winner of the Noodler's Ahab Burmese Ruby fountain pen is Serena A. in Minnesota.

And the winner of a copy of The Handcrafted Letter is Cindy B. of New York.

I'd like to thank everyone who participated in this contest. I hope you all had fun and that you'll join me for another giveaway soon. In the meantime, please join me in congratulating our lucky award winners. (Ladies, your prizes will go out in tomorrow's post.) And stay tuned for a new article (with new art and a new product review) shortly. (I think you'll find it interesting.)