The Secret Lives of Colour

Happy new year to you all! I was hoping to get a couple of posts up before the year was over, but they ended up in the Drafts folder as I feared, as the past week has been particularly busy. It has been a bright and sunny Christmas and New Year’s down here, there is no snow and no hunkering down in the cold, and children are on summer vacation. We spent New Year’s Eve at the beach. It is all very pleasant but I have a sneaking feeling that the season in the northern hemisphere is more suitable for some quiet reflection at year’s end, the turning of pages, and (most important) the ceremony of starting a new diary.

Kassia St. Clair’s new book, The Secret Lives of Colourhas kept me entertained throughout the holidays. It’s a collection of short essays on 75 colors (pigments, dyes and even shades associated with precious metals or stones, like gold or amber), laying out the history and interesting facts about each, such as when it was fashionable and why it was prized. When I first started buying colored pencils, it was their mysterious, romantic names as much as their shades or manufacturing history that captivated me: Naples yellow, heliotrope, celadon green, Prussian blue, Payne’s grey. The book is by no means exhaustive, as a color is sometimes allotted only a couple of pages. But if you have ever found such names beautiful, and if your interest in stationery and the larger world has an anthropological bent, you might find it worth reading. The hardcover is only available in the UK at the moment but comes out later this year in the US.

Lyra Super Ferby Duos

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A quick post just to show how these bicolor pencils look like, since John has mentioned them in a comment. Lyra is a very exotic brand for me and I am not really familiar with their lineup, but I have loved the fat Ferby ever since I laid eyes on it and I still have a soft spot for anything Ferby-shaped :) These are wonderfully creamy, vivid colored pencils. I find the color combinations fascinating!

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Thank you Gunther for sending these hard-to-find pencils my way!

Some More Red-and-Blue Pencils (3)

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My first red-and-blue pencil was the Mitsubishi 2637/2667. Now, after trying many other brands, I realize that the Mitsubishis were actually on the softer side of the spectrum; on the other end are the vintage American colored pencils (such as the Eberhard Faber Colorbrite and Eagle Verithin), which are specifically formulated for writing and therefore have harder and stronger cores.

Tombow bicolor pencils (second and third from top in the picture above) seem to offer a good compromise between these two extremes. I assume that the regular Tombow 8900 V/P and the Ki-Monogatari natural-finish bicolor pencils share the same cores, since I could not detect any meaningful differences; both are very good. The Ki-Monogatari has painted bands at the ends, which make you hesitate with the sharpener – another instance of the ephemeral luxury so often associated with pencils.

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The Kitaboshi vermilion-and-Prussian-blue pencil (the top pencil in the first picture) was one of those lesser-known and seldom seen (at least outside of Japan) pencils that I would have loved to have “discovered” for myself, but it was disappointing. It is harder and fainter than the Tombows.

The 9608 bicolor pencil from A. W. Faber, and its modern successor from Faber-Castell, are both wonderful. I especially love the older, chubbier 9608; its “red” core has a bright fuchia tone to it that doesn’t show up well in pictures but sets it apart from the other red-and-blues (the blue is less inspiring).

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I was able to try the handsome modern 9608 thanks to Gunther :) May its production be assured for decades to come!

Staedtler Mars Lumochrom Colored Pencil Set

Here is a beautiful colored pencil set from Staedtler, to see the new year off to a good start :)

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I love the cover illustration – it gives you a very good idea of what Lumochroms were supposed to do, in those days.

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Pulling on the strap makes the tray stand upright. This mechanism has its disadvantages though – the edges of the tin are very sharp, and the prongs jut out of the frame. Tetanus shots necessary!

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One color is missing from the set, namely the 2618 (red). It’s interesting how Staedtler numbers the colors; the order doesn’t follow the modern rainbow pattern that progresses from shades of red through yellow and green to blue.

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I found that there were more variations to the older Lumochrom printings than I thought. Three examples are given below.

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Eagle Verithin Colored Pencils

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Nowadays colored pencils are used mainly for coloring, and come in soft and blendable textures. But since I began this blog, I’ve discovered (belatedly, because I wasn’t the kind of person who wrote with colored pencils) that in the past, colored pencils with harder cores were widely available for office use. They performed the functions that would have been done with colored ballpoints or gel pens later on. Vintage ads promote the Colorbrites, for instance, as the “thin colored business pencil” that keeps a sharp point for a long time, and which needs only a “feather-light touch” to write with. Visual cues help differentiate coloring pencils from writing pencils: the former is usually (well, not always, but usually) round-bodied and often oversized, while the latter is hexagonal, has thinner cores and is of the same thickness as regular graphite pencils.

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The Verithins are alive as part of the Prismacolor colored pencil line for artists, whereas most of its competitors seem to have disappeared.

The below is a Canadian specimen I scored at a local art supply shop; it has a very faint “Made in Canada” imprint and the same “Flexible Lead” mark as found in the older Verithins. I have no idea what “Flexible Lead” means, or why colored pencil lead should be flexible. Must look into it sometime.

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(Added Aug. 23, 2016)

A reader has sent me some pictures of a wonderful Verithin display case. Thank you, Sue! 

The Mars Lumograph (And What Came Before)

The other day I received a delightful package from France.

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I wonder how these three particular pencils came to be packaged together. The box seems to be original to these pencils, despite the fact that it doesn’t carry the Staedtler logo, because the three pencils fit so snugly inside. Maybe it was a gift or sample package of some kind?

The crisp gold letters and the vivid paint, combined with the lead quality, show that German pencilmakers were really at the top of their game. I love the exquisite lettering, in particular what I privately think of as the “rainbow over Bavaria”:

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The way they are sharpened is also very interesting. The shapes are all different (and I think all are factory-sharpened):

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The Mars 1225 is known as the precursor to the Mars Lumograph. It was produced from 1908 to 1930, after which the Lumo took over. (I don’t know exactly when the imprint changed from “Made in Bavaria” to “Made in Germany”. )

Until very recently, I had made the mistake of judging all pencils based on my personal tastes; specifically, how a pencil performed for someone with a moderate to light grip, who wrote quick, loose cursive on lightly coated paper. But as I get to know more and more pencils, I realize that many of them (especially older ones) are made with a specific purpose in mind, and that is the standard by which they should be judged. If I haven’t been totally satisfied with the Lumograph in the past, it is because the Lumograph wasn’t made for ordinary people like me. Instead, we should ask (as with all draughting pencils worth their salt)*:

  • Does the pencil make a crisp, even line, unvarying in width, when ruled from one end of the paper to the other?
  • Does the graphite stay where it should, or does it smudge and soil the paper?
  • Is the lead break-resistant?
  • Are the lines opaque enough to allow for clear reproductions?

And this is where the Lumograph delivers. Talking about this pencil, I sorely feel the lack of an architectural or engineering background – the only pencils I am probably qualified to judge are the “general writing” pencils. Dear Lumo, I hardly knew you, let’s start over again!

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*I am indebted to the journalist Tsuchihashi-san, especially to his book on long-selling stationery items, and Gunther for the insights contained in this post. Gunther’s blog is a treasure trove of information, particularly on Staedtler history. I strongly encourage anyone interested in Mars pencils to read through his posts (and Google does a decent job of translating from German to English).