Friday, June 28, 2013

My Hero! (Tools of the Trade #11)

life-sized turkey poult
watercolor over Platinum Carbon Black ink on S&B Epsilon

Earlier this week I found myself with a bit of time to kill while my wife was undergoing a physical therapy session and decided to explore some of those "margins the lawnmowers can't reach" that attract me so. Well, I received a totally unexpected treat when I stumbled across a Meleagris gallopavo intermedia (Rio Grande Wild Turkey) and her four chicks (FYI, a turkey chick is called a "poult") just outside the therapist's office! The mother and three of the poults were very shy and took to the shrubs. But the forth chick chose to stay out in the open and posed while I tried out the Hero M86 my children gave me for Father's Day.

in a pinch, the M86's heavy (mostly metal) construction and unusual shape could do double duty as a self-defense device

The unusual "fude" nib requires a little getting used to for one who is more familiar with a conventional western nib but is amazingly versatile -- easily producing a wide range of marks from the finest hairlines to the a very respectable (and very wet) broad.

inverted, the pen may be held at a conventional angle

upright, the finest lines are achieved by holding the pen vertically -- like an oriental calligraphy brush

at this angle shading is clearly visible at the end of each stroke 

and at this angle the tap has really been opened up -- ink flow is phenomenal, 
feeling more like painting with a brush than drawing with a pen
(allow extra drying time for the "puddles" where you use the flattest nib angles)

The M86 writes well in all directions but -- at least until I have more experience with this nib -- I personally found it easier to flow from one line width to another (and back again) when writing/drawing from side-to-side rather than up/down.

The method for achieving thick-to-thin "flick"marks may, at first, seem counter-intuitive as it requires that you turn the thick area of the nib in the direction of the stroke and the tip of the nib away from the stroke (imitating, if you will, the way the thicker "belly" of a brush is on the upper side of a stroke while the smaller tip tilts downstroke).

The Hero comes with a very rudimentary, single o-ring, sliding piston converter. When filling by immersing the nib into an ink bottle it will take 7-10 rapid strokes of the slide to completely fill the converted. (I found that a single stroke of the piston resulted in an air bubble that took up about a third of the ink reservoir.) 

the converter plunger is straight push-pull

Alternately, the converter can quickly and easily be filled with the ink of your choice by using an ink syringe. And the M86 will readily accept a standard-sized international ink cartridge, which appears to have an ink capacity about 30% greater than that of the converter -- very useful indeed, given the Hero's propensity for ink consumption. But the inner cavity of the pen's barrel falls about 1/4 inch short of the length required to accept a long international cartridge. (And Todd Nussbaum, of, informs me that, unfortunately, even the less tapered barrel of the Hero 501-1 calligraphy pen falls just short of the length required to accept the international large.) 

cartridge/converter comparison

The Hero M86 calligraphy fountain pen will not be for everyone. The weight and unusual shape (more like that of a watercolor paint brush) may bother some; and the fude nib will certainly require some getting use to for many. But if you're looking for a fountain pen that can offer your a remarkable range of expressive line-making options without the potential risks use of a flex nib entail (i.e., catastrophic nib failure if flexed too far), and don't mind putting in a bit of practice time to master technique, this inexpensive pen may prove a remarkably creative, versatile, and useful tool. Not bad for $15 plus shipping & handling. 


Postscript (a note about pigmented inks and cleaning the M86) -- some concern has been raised concerning the use pigmented and other permanent inks in fountain pens: specifically that these inks might clog or otherwise permanently damage their pens. In producing the poult sketch for this article I kept the pen uncapped for a rather extended period. (If you enlarge the image you'll note that I made rather extensive use of stippling, which can be very time consuming.) At no time during this session did I encounter any kind of start-up issues, or any other signs that the nib/feed system might be drying out. 

The nib/feed are also friction mounted and easily disassembled -- so flushing and cleaning are very easy. (Care should be taken to avoid damaging the small breather tube on the rear of the feed as it must align with a small hole in the rear of the section. But, otherwise, the components seem quite robust.)

The cap, on the other hand, does not completely seal the nib. (Mild startup issues were encountered with non-waterproof ink after the capped pen had sat overnight in a horizontal position.) So, it would probably be wise to empty pigmented ink from the reservoir after a day of drawing and writing.  

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Hi! Ho! The Merry-O! A Bot'nizing We Will Go!

"Poppy, there's a water snake!" sketching at the FWBG (pen & ink over graphite on Stillman & Birn Epsilon paper)

This weekend my daughter asked me if we could go to the Botanical Gardens to do some sketching. (My little sweetheart! She knew that I was feeling stressed out, and knew exactly what would lift my spirits.) So, bright and early, off we went; sketch kits in hands and smiles on our faces.

Bidwill's Coral Tree -- my mystery plant (watercolor and pen & ink on Stillman & Birn)

We arrived around 7:30 a.m. and found most of the gardens still in shade, a refreshing cool breeze blowing gently throughout... and not a single other visitor in sight. With several gardens to choose from I left the decision to the lass that brought me. (She chose her favorite: the lilly pond garden.) And the next two hours were sublime -- sketching plants that were a complete (and colorful) mystery to me, and my daughter sketching the flora and fauna of the lily pond.

Oh, just before going to press some very knowledgeable friends in the Botanical Artists Group on Facebook helped me to identify "my" plant as a hybrid cross between Erythrina herbacea and Erythrina crista-galli, first obtained in New South Wales by William Macarthur and named in honor of John Bidwill. (Thanks Shevaun, Maria, and Giovanni!)

Life is beautiful.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Botanizing (and Other Adventures)

yet another Blue-eyed Grass species -- this one Sisyrinchium atlanticum
watercolor over ink on 90g Clairefontaine paper

This morning (as has been my practice for the past few weeks) I took a walk around our pond and across the field, observing the day-to-day growth of this year's crop of wildflowers and watching for any new (to me) "minuscules" that might have popped up overnight. I was rewarded with a lone plant of about 7.5 cm high with asymmetrical violet flowers and thick, spear-shaped leaves.

the minuscule that began this week's voyage of discovery 
watercolor over ink on Clairefontaine 90g paper

Well, after I had completed my sketches and notes, I headed home and began my research into the identity of my little mystery plant. A quick check of my favorite online reference sites informed me that my "discovery" was Wright's Scullcap (Scutellaria wrightii) and that it had first been identified by one Charles Wright shortly after the establishment of the Texas Republic.

the intrepid adventurer himself
ink on G. Lalo laid paper

Well, given my penchant for tangents, one thing led to another. And, before long, I was researching the life of this "adventure botanist" and thinking to myself, "Wow, this guy was a 19th century Indiana Jones!" The highlights in brief: after completing his studies at Yale Mr. Wright started out as a teacher for a plantation in Natchez, Mississippi -- only to see the plantation fail two years later. Mr. Wright then traveled to Texas, where he collected botanical species from 1837 to 1951. It was during this period that Asa Gray (the renowned Harvard University botanist) secured Wright a position as botanist with a military expedition scheduled to explore the Rio Grande Valley. During the expedition's voyage from Galveston to San Antonio to El Paso, Charles Wright actually walked 673 miles and collected 1,400 specimens (which he forwarded to his friend Gray).

In 1851 Wright joined the survey of the Mexico-US boundary (as the expedition's "botanist and assistant computer"). In 1853 he joined the Ringgold North Pacific Expedition for some botanizing in Madeira, the Cape Verde Islands, the Cape of Good Hope, Sydney, Hong Kong, coastal Japan, the Bering Straights, and along the California Coast. After the conclusion of the North Pacific Expedition, Wright traveled to Nicaragua (where he once again indulged himself in a bit of botanizing) before returning to his family home in Wethersfield, Connecticut, for a "rest".

Wright's final botanical adventure took him to Cuba in 1856... and lasted for the next 11 years! (Definitely not your average sketchcrawl.)

And, after reading about all that, I came away with the Indiana Jones theme song stuck in my head and wondering: if we taught our children more about the exploits of people like Charles Wright (or Alexander von Humboldt, or Jeanne Baret) could we perhaps stimulate a new generation's interest in science?

Yellow Woodsorrel and Field Madder
watercolor over ink on Moleskine w/c paper

Postscript: I began work on a two-page spread of minuscules this week and mentioned on Facebook that my first find was a Yellow Woodsorrel, which can be boiled down to produce a fine orange dye. Well, serendipitously, my second find turned out to be Field Madder, which can be rendered into a rosy red dye! (Stay tuned for an update to the post just as soon as the second half of the spread is complete.)


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Penmen's Journals -- TWSBI

the TWSBI comes with a black leatherette cover (embossed with the company's distinctive logo) and black elastic 
close (the red logo was my feeble attempt to match that of my Mini with a bit of Golden Pyrrole Red acrylic paint) 

Following the end of what might be labeled the Golden Age of Fountain Pens in the late 50s and early 60s many paper makers turned away from the production of fountain pen-friendly stationary and notebook journals. However, with the rebirth of interest in nibbled writing instruments more and more of paper mills -- both large and small -- have seen a new demand arise for papers that would "play nice" with vintage and new fountain pens alike.

fountain pen enthusiasts now have an extensive range of sizes and paper finishes to choose from, including: (A) Fabriano Artist's Journal with toned, laid paper, (B) TWSBI Notebook with lightweight wove paper, (C) Moleskine landscape format with heavyweight (watercolor) paper, (D) Exacompte Sketchbook with G. Lalo laid paper, (F) Clairefontaine's softbound sketchbook with intermediate paper (which complements their Rhodia and Quo Vadis hardbound lines), and (G) Stillman & Birn hardbound journals with wove paper (available in a variety weights, finishes, and light tones) 

The newest fountain pen-friendly journals to arrive on the scene enter a field already teaming with high quality competition but brings a few unique qualities that the pen-loving community may find of interest: it is the only company that comes to mind that currently offers both pen-friendly journals AND manufactures its own highly popular line of fountain pens; and the new journals contain what may be the lightest fountain pen-friendly paper in the mass produced, modestly priced range.

If you've already looked closely at the first photo you know that I'm talking about TWSBI's new notebook, which is currently available in three sizes (3.75"x5.5", 5.25"x8.25", and 7.5"x9.8") and three "options" (blank, lined, grid). I recently had an opportunity to "test drive" one of the medium-sized, blank versions of the TWSBI notebook and would like to share my initial impressions with you.

the structure's design facilitates the book lying completely flat when open (ideal for working on double-page spreads)

First, the notebook is softbound in a black leatherette that is embossed with the company's logo on the front and back, and with the company's name on the back. It sports a permanently attached red ribbon bookmark, and an expandable pocket (with sturdy red fabric accordion side panels) inside the rear cover. The individual signatures of the structure are securely stitched together using a heavy double thread and cheesecloth has been adhered to the paper spine to protect against damage due to repeated openings and closings over time. The front and back covers are adhered to heavy (almost card stock) end papers that have then been partially glued to the first and last page of the structure. The cover spine is not attached directly to the structure spine and this acts to facilitate the notebook lying completely flat when open.

the paper is translucent enough to allow use of a line guide when writing

while I, personally, would not opt to work on both sides of the notebook's sheet, bleed-through was nil

some minor smudging was experienced during clean-up with an eraser about an hour after penning this sample -- not completely surprising considering the amount of sizing a lightweight paper might require to be rendered pen-friendly (in future I'll just let it set overnight before do any clean-up)

It's my practice to begin each new sketchbook with a favorite quote. And, in this case, I chose a short poem by Robert Service, which I penned with my Eversharp Symphony loaded out with J. Herbin Éclat de Saphir. With virtually no pressure applied the pen glided smoothly across the paper and I experienced no signs of feathering. Upon inspecting the reverse side "show-through" was quite clear due to the thinness of the paper but there were absolutely no "bleed-through" areas to be seen.

TWSBI Mini EF with Noodler's Cactus Flower Eel

For the second writing sample I switched to my TWSBI Mini loaded out with Noodler's Cactus Flower Eel, and again the writing experience was a smooth one with no feathering or bleed-through evident.

watercolor over Sakura Micron pen

As stated previously, this paper is unique in its light weight -- falling somewhere, I believe, between that of Moleskine pocket notebooks (which do not have a reputation for fountain pen friendliness) and the legendary (and rarely seen in North America) Tomoe River paper. So, I figured even the lightest, driest application of color washes would constitute something of a "torture test". Some buckling was experienced while applying wet over dry, but the fibers remained intact and undamaged. Wet-in-wet and scrubbing/color lifting were not attempted as I think it would be totally unreasonable to expect such a lightweight paper to withstand such abuse and I'm pretty sure the outcome would be a foregone conclusion.

pen & ink, TWSBI, Sakura Microns, and watercolor (the paper handles light washes beautifully)

The last of my "first impression" tests was a straight writing/line drawing field exercise -- drawing another one of my botanical studies on location. Once again the paper handled very well and offered no unwanted surprises, and even the most minute details were captured crisply and with ease.

A clarification and a few reservations

Shoppers may find the TWSBI Notebook's web pages a bit confusing. On one page it is stated that the sheets in all three notebook sizes are perforated (this is incorrect), while in the more details/more info area it is stated that only the small size is perforated (which is correct).

While most (if not all) paper manufacturers today are up front with details concerning specific weight (in pounds per ream, grams per square meter, or both), acid-free status, pH level, fiber type, chlorine status, sustainability, etc., this information (any of this information) is surprisingly absent from TWSBI's website and FB page. I know that archival quality may be of little interest to some users, but to many in both the writing and art communities these are critical considerations. I have enquired regarding these points and am hopeful that TWSBI will be as forthcoming with this information as they have been with all other aspects of customer service in the past. (I'll let you know as soon as I hear anything.)

Update: Philip Wang, at TWSBI USA, returned my email this morning and let me know that "the paper is just between 70 and 80 pounds" but was unable to answer the other questions at this time. Given TWSBI's outstanding reputation for responding to customer feedback (and allowing for the fact that they are the first pen company to venture into the field of paper and notebooks) I wouldn't be surprised if the other information was made available soon.