Of Pencils, Pads and the Road.

At Home Kit
This essay is from Wayne H. W. Wolfson. It is a detailed musing on writing and drawing kits that will surely facilitate the formulation of Kits for Comrades everywhere. I, for one, am rethinking the use and contents of my vintage (it was my Dad’s) US Army Map Case…

I groped for the idea from last night which I planned on using for a story. Like a fisherman who spots something just below the surface of the water, its shape making it seem worthwhile to go after while still not revealing exactly what it is. Usually I have my trusty pad next to me in which I could have quickly jotted it down. But having gotten in late last night and somewhat whammied by jetlag, I had not unpacked my book bag. It would come back to me, its temporary absence spurring me on to unpack.

To varying degrees all artists are pagans in that we all seem to create little rituals which superstitions then attach themselves to. If I feel a story percolating but not quite there yet or I am unsure of what I want to draw next — If I then go out without a (sketch/note) pad then I know inspiration will hit or I will encounter subject matter whose presence is fleeting and cannot necessarily be returned to the next day, when better equipped. As inconvenient as this may sound, it can actually be worked to one’s advantage too, knowing the cause and effect, choosing to go out unequipped, so as to bring things to the surface.

For the most part though, I always have some manner of pad and pencil on me. What I am equipped with depends upon where I am. Around where I live is easy, as I know I am close to my studio with my paints and table. So I only need to be able to jot notes or sketch when out and about. Two reporter style pads, a rollerball pen and mechanical pencil. On the road is trickier and it took me a while to perfect it. Even now, my travel kit varies depending upon the length of the trip and where it is.

Anything more than a week and I must factor in my watercolor paints and all of their accoutrements. A longer trip and I know there is only so much I can economize on bag space. The fact that I know I will need several pads always makes it easier, since that leaves less things to have to choose from, to have to leave behind. The shorter trips were initially trickier, as I wanted to be able to maximize my creative options yet not have too large a portion of my bag taken up by art supplies.

For pads of paper, style-wise, I prefer the reporter type. Size-wise I do not like to go too much bigger than 4×5. This size allows me, whether it is a still life, landscape or portrait, to create fully realized pieces, yet still be able to put the pad in my coat pocket should I decided to go out without my book bag. I prefer using a refillable holder as it seems to give a little added stability if I am drawing without the benefit of having a table to lay the pad upon. I also think it gives a modicum of extra protection against the elements or anything with which one might accidentally baptize it with at a bar or café.

Through much trial and error I have learned a short list of attributes that everyone should consider when creating their own version of a sketch travel kit. The quality of paper of course is important, but attached to this factor is affordability and availability. I can go through a notebook fairly quickly; so to get the best paper merely to have on me for daily use and not for a specific project can rapidly become cost prohibitive. On the other hand, I do not want to compromise quality to save a few dollars either.

I generally use for my pocket pad Quattro which is made in Kansas City, MO. They measure 3.4 x 5.5. and come eighty sheets to a pad. They do not specify the paper’s weight, but it has a nice heft to it, and should you need to take an eraser to a page, it stands up to it, being none the worse for the wear. Quattro offers an artist blank, a grid and a lined version. For covers it is leather-like material in black or a carmel brown, both with a pen loop located on the side. I use the brown for my sketchpad, and the words go in the black one — so that I have never grabbed the wrong pad by accident. The paper is not the best I have ever used. When pad size is not an issue and I am at home I prefer the French made 65 lb Canson 5.5 x 8.5, although availability and price still factor in to the equation. However, Quattro performs well regardless of what pencil, pen or even marker and Ink Brush pen I use it with.

It had taken me some experimentation to arrive at my preference, with plenty of misfires. Moleskine is a well-known brand with a cultish following and a list of those in whose pocket one could be found that reads like a who’s-who of artistic greats (Picasso, Hemingway, Matisse et al). The company started out based out of Tours (France) supplying stationers all over Paris with their familiar little black books. The true Moleskines which were only referred to as such after the fact, being named so in a book by Bruce Chatwin (The Songlines 1986). They went out of business in the mid-eighties. In the late 90s, an Italian company brought the company back. They emphasize the moleskine’s rich history, Chatwin’s name for them now being the official one. Most of the paper is manufactured in China or Vietnam. This could be a matter of cost effectiveness for the company or to be able to allow them to keep up with demand. They have done a great job in terms of availability not merely to be found any longer in just stationers or the odd art supply store. However, unless one is a casual doodler or going to jot down an occasional note, the paper is not really great to use. They are also are not inexpensive. Someone who fills pads up relatively quick can find themselves easily doling out $50 a month for what may only be studies or ideas for a piece.

I got a Midori Traveler (Passport sized) notebook, wit which people seem to be even more cultishly obsessed with than Moleskins. The idea is good, a passport sized “cover” which comes in black or brown leather. There is an elastic loop which attaches to the back of the cover that holds the whole thing closed when not in use, and then another band which goes down the middle. You can put up to five pads or so in, depending of course upon how thick each pad is, all attached by the elastic(s) going down the middle of each book. The appeal of the Midori is how customizable it is. You can get different colored elastics that hold it closed, and you can attach all kinds of charms, clear plastic pockets (inside) and pen loops. There are also leather embossing stamps to use on the cover too. You can also mix and match what pads you load in: address, lined, blank etc. Admittedly, I did not delve deeply into the Midori subculture. I found the Midori pads which came with my traveler holder only had twenty pages per book and they managed to feel cheaper and flimsier than the Chinese made Moleskine. I also could only find the pads online and not in any store. On the plus side though, once I figured out the proper dimensions it was easy to go to an office supply store and buy a tabletop cutter, and, getting a larger pads of different styles of the Canson which I prefer, cut down the paper into booklets which work perfectly. I used three different types of paper and got some colored heavy stock paper to serve as a sort of coded covers (Orange= multi medium paper, Blue= Sketch, Purple= Velum) Then it was just a matter of using a normal stapler while watching bad movies.


What I do like about the Midori is the ability to load different types of paper in, so that I do not waste watercolor paper on a mere sketch or so that I can do a wash piece on location on the proper paper. I have found that if I keep it loaded to a minimum of two or three pads I can easily fit it in my pocket, even a back pocket. The cover is very soft, and the whole thing does not feel particularly substantial. You would definitely need a tabletop to use this.

I have always said that cooking, painting and jazz are alike in that people who are good at any of these things usually have a concept in mind beforehand yet leave room for some “in the moment” improvisation. A factor of being a fan of an artist is that they possess a discernible voice. An interesting effect though, especially with musicians, is that the voice remains the same. Yet, depending upon which of their instruments they use, there is a variation. The effect is akin to hearing the difference in a friend’s voice, whether happy, sad, angry or aroused. So it is with pencils for me.

I have always mostly used mechanical pencils, only recently delving into the traditional “needs to be sharpened” genre. The first mechanical pencil that I had was a cheapy plastic yellow Pentel 9mm. I brought it around the world with me, sitting in cafes all over Europe doing sketches on the sly of my nearby neighbors. In general, I do not switch around pencils in the course of one piece but just muddle through with whatever I am using. I experimented with different leads and pencils over the course of a year. It is worth paying the difference between what an inexpensive mechanical pencil costs and what one of the better brands go for. Especially as I have yet to see one of “the best” brands going for more than $20, and even that is on the high end. Whether on a short or long trip I have a black global pencil holder. It basically looks like a giant wallet which unzips to two flat sides with elastic loops into which the pencils slide into, each side holding eight pencils. I now prefer 5mm or occasionally 7mm leads. I use the same soft B Pentel Hi-Polymer lead in all my pencils regardless of the make. The softness of the lead allows me to do shading and blending. I have tried other leads, but they just did not seem to work the same. I have found that what brands one may prefer is definitely dictated by how often they use them, but also what paper they use, as each pencil seems to work better with specific papers. I have a stable now of favorite brands. Every other day or two, I change up what I use as to not have an aspect of my chops dependent on specific tools. It is for this reason too, once a week or so, I will purposely use bad paper, a ballpoint pen borrowed from a waitress, as to allow me to be able to improvise something beautiful when on the road and bereft of my own equipment during an improvised night out.

The most important things to look for with a mechanical pencil are the smoothness of how it feeds the lead, advancing it as you create. Another factor is the ease of reloading new leads. Is it a matter of just popping in three or four leads and then clicking down on the top a few times before it once again begins advancing, or as can happen with some of the cheaper pencils, is there shaking involved, blindly trying to get that first lead into some inner hole as to start advancing it, the whole process becoming some sort of rigged carnival game? Comfort is a factor too. The grip part where the finger and thumb hold and move the pencil, I prefer to have a diamond cut pattern, as I feel it prevents finger slippage. It also allows one to not have to hold the pencil as tightly, which makes longer sessions at the table less fatiguing. One of the exceptions to this rule is the Uni Kuru Toga. The barrel just has a slight indentation where you hold it but no kind of specific grip. The thing which sets this brand apart is that it has an internal spring clutch which rotates the lead so that it does not start to wear itself to a point as happens with most mechanical pencils. This makes a huge difference once you have used one for a while. When I first tried The Kuru Toga, after all the reading about the clutch, I thought I would feel something dramatic upon initially putting pencil to paper. It was not until I had used it for a week, stubbornly not doing my usual switching about of pencils, that I noticed something. When I finally returned to using the traditional gravity fed pencils again, I noticed how much the clutch facilitates a fluidity of touch. Aesthetically, even within one size, they seem to constantly be changing styles from the color, to the actual barrel materials. I have a black metal one with diamond grip which I enjoy, the likes of which I have not encountered again. More often than not their materials of choice lean towards plastics. At this point I have 5mm and 7mm ones in an array of colors and materials all of which are easy to use.

Also always in my pencil case is a TK-Fine Vario 5mm by Faber Castell. Weight wise, this is a heavy pencil whose barrel is hard green plastic and silver metal on the bottom quarter of it, utilizing a series of deeply carved and equally spaced out rings in lieu of a diamond grip. From above the lead type indicator, where the fingers go is subtly hourglass shaped, the top of the hour glass flare is straightened out as it melds into the barrel. This houses the biggest eraser of any mechanical pencil I have used, which is fed upwards by twisting the bevel located above the silver clip. This pencil utilizes an interesting option of offering two settings which effect the lead sleeve. The barrel twists between two settings: hard and soft. Hard would be used more for drafting type of jobs, the lead being rigidly held in the sleeve as it is fed. The soft setting allows for somewhat a springy give to the lead. There is also a lead type indicator window, which is good if you use more than one type of lead in your arsenal of pencils.

I received a Pentel GraphGear 1000 5mm pencil and forgot about it until I was cleaning out my art bin box before moving. At first I hated the aesthetics of it, as the diamond grip has clear silicon bubbles in rows of four around the entire grip section, ostensibly to make it easier to hold. The lead feed is smooth as is changing in new leads. What won me over is that it has the unique design that when you push in on the clip the entire lead sleeve retracts into the barrel leaving just the normal blunt click-pen looking section from which it protrudes by pushing down on the top. It may not seem like that great of an innovation but I have had times when I had my Midori pad in my back pocket and did not feel like bringing my book bag and had the lead sleeve of my pencil poke through the pocket of my shirt or in trying to avoid that had it bent by trying to carefully place it in a pants pocket. With the retractable lead sleeve I can carry it in my shirt pocket without fear of being stabbed or ruining a shirt. I still use plenty of traditionally designed mechanical pencils, and I do not notice any benefit of the silicon welts, feeling they would be fine with only the partially covered up diamond grips.

I get back from all the mundane errands associated with returning home after having been away for a while. Like a last wave goodbye, jetlag bubbles up once again. High priest of myself, I lay out lucky pen, note pad and bottle of mineral water on the night table, put on some Lester Young and let my American Sleep take me.

Thanks again to Wayne for this excellent Gear Essay!

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