Pencil portraits

Stationery stores are one of life’s small pleasures, and I particularly like shopping for pencils.  This is a short guide to pencil spotting in the wild, illustrated with plein air paintings of some of the species I have encountered on the hunt.

BlackwingThe Palomino Blackwing 602 is the modern remake of the venerable Eberhard Faber Blackwing, which went out of production in 1998.  The original Blackwings had a pink eraser, and the modern ones have dark grey erasers to match their slick paintwork.

Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dalton Trumbo etc. etc. used these pencils, and the paean to the Blackwing in Henry Petroski’s book The Pencil helped make it a much sought after classic.  Must confess I think any decent 2B does much the same job for far less money, and the bulky eraser makes the end of the pencil lurch about alarmingly.  I certainly am not about to pay $40 for one of the originals on ebay.

By the way, ‘Blackwing 602’ has to be about the best possible name for a pencil.  Eberhard Faber’s naming department also came up with the ‘Mongol 482’, which is the focus of Leonard E. Read’s jaunty hornpipe to free markets ‘I Pencil’.  I do not agree with everything Read says, or indeed much of it, but it is thought provoking to realise no single person knows how to make all the parts of a pencil.  The essay is free online (natch), and I recommend it to you.

Columbia alternativeAny person who went to school in Australia pre-digital will recognise the chocolate top and scarlet body of the Columbia Copperplate.  A very good HB and at one time the only pencil manufactured in the Southern Hemisphere.  Sadly no longer made in Australia, these now come from Indonesia, and the red is less orangey-scarlet and smooth than it used to be.  Are they also smaller?  Or are my hands just bigger?

Tasted delicious when you chewed the end: woody high notes with a refreshingly astringent, bitter after-taste.  If they had not meant you to eat them, why did they make them look so edible?

Staedler TraditionThe Staedtler Tradition Eraser Tip.  I was surprised when I painted this just how nearly orange the eraser is.  I had thought it was pure pink, but I was wrong.  I was also surprised by how extravagant the ferrule is when you look at it up close.  Like everyone who has tried to erase something with the ‘eraser’ on one of these pencils, I can only assume it is intended to be decorative rather than functional.  All it did was spread the mistake around the page and surround it with a hazy pinkish halo.

I once read a Richard Price novel that likened a woman’s nipple to an eraser tip.  I have not looked at these pencils the same way since.

Staedtler is from Nuremberg, which means it shares the same hometown as Faber-Castell – on which more below.

Taste terrible and the eraser sort of crumbles in the mouth.  The ferrule is hell on the teeth.  Maybe this is why children have milk teeth – so they can learn what not to do with their permanent teeth.

Faber Castell 1222The Faber-Castell Goldfaber 1221 has an aristocratic bearing and is, so far as I know, the only graphite pencil with a picture of jousting knights impressed into its side.  Originally known as A.W. Faber, the manufacturer of these pencils became Faber-Castell after Baroness Ottilie von Faber married Count Alexander von Castell-Rüdenhausen.  The Count had to renounce his title in order to marry and carry on the pencil business; as a noble, he was forbidden to traffic in commerce, so a morganatic marriage was not on the cards.  Later the former count was granted a new title of Count von Faber-Castell.  There is a Faber-Castell castle, which looks just like it belongs on the lid of a box of pencils.  How romantic this all is.

One of the Faber family scions moved to New York to make his fortune.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, he chose to make … pencils.  He built his pencil factory where the UN building now stands.  This was John Eberhard Faber, and his company was called Eberhard Faber.  And if you have read this far, you may remember that Eberhard Faber made the Blackwing pencil, and so this post draws a full circle.

Still life with lemons and police helmet

The visual complement of lemon yellow is, I understand, deep blue.  So when painting a still life of lemons, it seems only natural to place them next to a dark blue police helmet.  Right?

I am painting on MDF off-cuts from the local hardware store.  I cover them with acrylic gesso and take it from there.  It is cheap and the surface is a delight.  If this hadn’t become a painting, it might have been the door on somebody’s kitchen cupboard.

Lemons and Police helmet

Utzon vase and mandarins

Lin Utzon studied sculpture at East Sydney Tech, whilst her father, Jørn, was designing and overseeing construction of the Opera House – until he quit in frustration at a government that neither understood nor deserved his talents.  Jørn maintained that the most important part of a glass vessel was the space inside it.  That may be true for a drinking glass, but thankfully Lin Utzon focused on the exterior of this vase.  It is – I think – a perfect sculpture.  Here it is with some mandarins.

Incidentally, Jørn based the shape of the Opera House on the segments of an orange, so citrus seems the right choice for this still life.


Utzon vase

It’s nucleation, and it’s minty …

I initially called this painting of Diet Coke and Mentos ‘The calm before the storm.’  Then I discovered the Diet Coke/Mentos geyser effect only really works if you drop Mentos into the bottle.  It won’t happen in your stomach, or not much.

The geyser of bubbles is produced by nucleation on the surface of the Mentos.  In the absence of a Mentos, presumably your teeth supply the required nucleation for bubblation to occur.  It makes you think.

Diet Coke final

Orange is the new orange

The southern edge of Australia is sliding into the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.  The sun is maturing from bright yellowy white into orange.  It is getting colder.

Three slices of orange on a blue plate, as a languid Easter holiday afternoon draws to a close.


Chrome dome

Window shopping late at night, I saw this menacing chap in a shop that seemed to sell only bags and headphones.  Perhaps they were bags to put headphones in?

Shiny head

In the forest dim

Light and wind can be flukey on the forest floor.  Even when all is utterly still and silent, a single leaf starts to tremble wildly.  Or a speck of sunlight can choose to make just one leaf glow.

This is an oak leaf catching the sunrise near the Yarra River trail.

leaf 2