Stormy Sea and Gonfu Tea

Today’s sketchbook page, as part of Liz Steel’s SketchingNow Sketchbook Design course.

Stillman and Birn Beta sketchbook, Schminke watercolours, Lamy fountain pens (Fine, Medium, 1.1 stub), vintage Eagle 4h pencil.

Paper Mate SharpWriter Mechanical Pencil

If you follow any makers on YouTube you probably saw this ugly yet somehow charming little mechanical pencil in action. The Paper Mate SharpWriter is a strange beast, full of surprises. It’s a mechanical pencil with a twist mechanism in the tip instead of a click mechanism under the cap, it actually has a serviceable eraser, and it’s non-refillable. It’s as if Paper Mate saw the “Think Different” ad and said, “yes, but how can we apply that to a mechanical pencil?”

Paper Mate SharpWriter.

First of all, you can buy the Paper Mate SharpWriter in many different widths, as long as they’re all 0.7mm. This has the added value of saving Paper Mate the need to indicate the lead width on the pencil, because there’s only one width to rule them all. I can’t honestly fault them for that. It’s a pencil that’s meant for students and bills itself as having less lead breakage, and so 0.7mm is the way to go.

There are some interesting things going on with the business side of this pencil. First and foremost, that’s where the lead propelling mechanism is, which caught me by surprise. It’s a twist mechanism, and it’s pretty sophisticated as it allows you to easily extend and retract the lead to suit your needs. The second part is the “lead cushioning mechanism” which means that the lead springs up and down as you right, preventing you from breaking it if you exert too much pressure. It works, but I’m not a fan as it makes me feel as if the lead is broken inside and I have to extend it to get rid of the small broken piece and reach the “real” lead left inside. It’s going to take some time for me to get used to it.

Writing and erasing sample.

The eraser is downright phenomenal, as it actually erases things quite well, and doesn’t tear into the page. The lead itself is a solid HB 0.7mm lead that is smooth and on the slightly darker side of HB.

The Paper Mate SharpWriter isn’t a pretty of fancy mechanical pencil, but it’s comfortable to hold, lightweight, and has a playful colour scheme that recalls a woodcase pencil. And like a woodcase pencil, it’s disposable, which is where my only real beef with this pencil lies. Yes, this is a student pencil, and so it’s likely to get lost or somehow broken (it’s far from flimsy, but where there’s a will, there’s a way), and if the pencil won’t be lost, the leads will, and yet… The last thing the world needs is more plastic waste.

So, do I recommend the Paper Mate SharpWriter? No, and not because there’s anything wrong with the pencil, it’s just that there’s very little justification for a disposable mechanical pencil when there are cheap, good and even great refillable options to be had in the market.

But I do understand the makers who have fallen for this ugly duckling.

Uni Pro M9-552 Mechanical Pencil Review

First review of the year! I bought the Uni Pro M9-552 mechanical pencil a while ago in London, I believe. Never having heard of it before, and noting that it was an inexpensive drafting pencil, I decided to give it a try. I wasn’t disappointed: the Uni Pro M9-552 has a terrible name, but it’s a very good drafting pencil AND a very good mechanical pencil, which is not the same thing.

Illustration of the Uni Pro M90552 mechanical/drafting pencil.

The Uni Pro has a plastic body, a knurled aluminium grip and an aluminium cap and clip. This makes for a light pencil that is weighed towards the tip, which is what makes this a good mechanical pencil and not just a good drafting pencil. It’s very comfortable to hold and write or draw with, even for long periods of time, because of the weight distribution and the knurling on the grip. The knurling provides excellent grip without cutting into your hands.

Illustration of the Uni Pro M9-522 with the pencil itself.

Like all drafting pencils, it has a long lead sleeve and a lead grade indicator. I like the touch of colour that it provides to this otherwise very utilitarian design. The cap has the lead width, 0.9, engraved into it, and under it is the usual refillable eraser. It will do in a pinch, when you don’t have a block eraser around and have very little to erase.

This isn’t a lead review so I’m not posting a writing sample, but I will say this – if you haven’t tried writing or drawing with a 0.9 lead mechanical pencil, I recommend giving it a go. You get most of the line variation and expressiveness of a woodcase pencil, but without having to stop and sharpen it all the time.

Closeup of the knurling.

The Uni Pro M9-552 is a good choice of drafting pencil, with its light weight making it a good choice for people with small hands or those that are looking for a drafting pencil that can also serve as a mechanical pencil (i.e. a daily writer). The Uni Pro 552 series also includes a 0.5 pencil (with a red lead grade indicator), 0.7 pencil (blue indicator), 0.3 pencil (yellow indicator), and even a 0.4 pencil (orange indicator, at a rare lead width).

Sketchbook Design Goals

My sketchbook design course goals, and a drawing of the Phoenix community garden in London.

The first week of Liz Steel’s Sketchbook Design course is underway, and so far I’m having a blast and drawing much more than I used to. I’m also learning a lot not just from Liz, but also from the other participants in the course. One of exercises this week was to create a page with our Sketchbook Design course goals, and here is mine. I also drew the Phoenix Community Garden in London’s West End to accompany my goals. Hopefully I’ll be able to return to it later this year.

Tools used: Stillman & Birn A5 Beta, Lamy Safari pens with J. Herbin Bleu Pervenche and Noodler’s Black, Schmincke watercolours.

Capitol Under Attack

US Capitol under siege.

I was very shaken by what happened on the US Capitol on the 6th of January. The images were scary, and so I sat down to sketch one of them, to get off twitter for a while.

Stillman & Birn A5 Beta, Schminke watercolours, Noodler’s Black (Lamy Safari fine nib), Uni ball Sign broad white.

2021 Yearly Goals (New Year’s Resolutions) and Theme

2021 has finally arrived! Every year since 2015 I’ve kept a list of yearly goals in a Baron Fig Confidant. I still call “New Year’s Resolutions” despite their being SMART goals and not pie in the sky resolutions. Over the years they have expanded to be ever more specific and quantifiable: I started with one page, and now have a main two spreads with related lists spilling out to adjacent spreads, and an entire notebook dedicated to capturing my reading goals.

2020 was a weird and challenging year, and it managed to land a large, hard hit on me on its very last day. These goals were written before I got bad news regarding the health of a close family member (Cancer, not Covid), which means that there’s a good change that 2021 will shape out worse than 2020 in terms of my goals. However, ever since 2018 I build my goals with those kinds of emergencies in mind, and so most of my goals, if not all of them, should be attainable.

2021 goals and theme in my Baron Fig Confidant

Some of my usual goals are off this list, because I’m afraid that Covid will not be over so soon. For the first time ever a significant chunk of these goals is professional. I’ve changed careers, and new opportunities have opened before me – creating professional goals makes sure that I take advantage of those opportunities.

My writing and journalling have taken a hit in 2020 (particularly the latter part). Hopefully with some concerted effort that will change in 2021. I’ve made significant progress in terms of fitness in 2020, and I plan on maintaining the course in 2021. I’m also putting some effort into taking time to enjoy my hobbies. If I don’t prioritize them, then they just get left by the wayside.

Finally, for the first time I’ve created a yearly theme, that is part of the yearly goals and yet also a separate entity. 2021 is the “Year of Clearing Out”. That means decluttering my apartment, pruning my podcast/book/viewership lists, and getting rid of some recently acquired bad habits (mostly doom scrolling on Twitter, but not just). This may end up being a theme that will spill into 2022, but the idea is to try and tackle it in 2020, to build a good foundation for the years to come.

What are your goals/themes/resolutions for 2021?

Happy new year!

2020 Yearly Goals (New Year’s Resolutions)

2020 was a pretty terrible year for most people, which is why I debated whether to even go over my 2020 goals or just talk about my 2021 ones. In the end I decided to talk about them, because 2020 really stress tested my system of yearly goals/resolutions.

At around March I thought that I’d have to trash the whole thing, as we went into our first lockdown of the year. My travel plans were cancelled. Any option to meet friends went out the door. My plans to change careers were at risk. I couldn’t even run, because the first lockdown involved extremely strict rules and the police were constantly around my house, yelling at people to go home and fining people. My writing was on the rocks, my drawing course was cancelled, and for the first time in my life I spent Passover alone.

Journal spread with my 2020 goals filled in with my terrible handwriting.
How 2020 looked like.

After some debate I reminded myself that my goals were built with failsafes in mind, since my 2018 annus horribilis, and so I had a chance of completing most of them, even if I’d miss any “stretch goals” that I had in mind. The basic goals were there to keep me focused, motivated and moving in the right direction. In the end they worked. The got me working out when I couldn’t run, running in circles (literally) when I could only move in a 500 meter radius from my house. They got me to keep on reading, keep on writing (not as much as I would have liked, but I’ll take it), and to dare to make the career change that I promised myself.

I hit most of my basic goals, missed a few completely, and got a few more partially. Yet the point of this post isn’t to brag, as my year could have shaped out worse than it had. The point is that I would have given up on myself if I didn’t have a plan that I thought that I had a fighting chance to accomplish, given the circumstances. I couldn’t participate in any races, but I enrolled and ran in several virtual races. Races keep me motivated to run, and running makes me feel better and gets me out of the house. I couldn’t go the gym, but I could do NTC workouts at home, so I had a chance to get that in. Reading provided me with an escape, and my reading goals and reading journal provided me with motivation to read, and to read books that were challenging as well books that were comforting. I couldn’t meet up with friends to play tabletop and RPG games, but thanks to Discord, Steam and Zoom we could still play together.

All of these things required extra effort in a year that really did its best to convince me that it would be a good idea to give up in advance and write the year off. The infrastructure that my goals provided kept me on track, and helped me salvage something of this terrible year. They also taught me how to structure my goals for 2021 better, but more on that in a separate post.

Sketchbook Design: My Tools

I’ve enrolled into Liz Steel’s Sketchbook Design online course, as I like the way Liz designs her notebook pages and I’ve taken an Urban Sketchers workshop (in Porto, 2018) which was excellent. Liz sent the first intro videos to the course to her newsletter subscribers, and so I decided to pick a sketchbook for the course (which starts on January 4th) and draw the tools that I plan on using in it.

The sketchbook that I chose is a Stillman and Birn Beta softcover A5 sketchbook, because it has watercolour friendly paper and I wanted to try that paper out. Here’s a sketch of my tools done with a Lamy Safari Petrol fine nib fountain pen and a Lamy Safari Dark Lilac medium nib fountain pen, both with Noodler’s Bulletproof Black.

I got carried away with the lines when drawing my palette, so I decided to roll with it and just use it to write down the paint details.

Here it is after applying watercolour:

It’s not perfect, but I like the way this page looks.

Here’s my Winsor & Newton Travel Watercolour box, filled with Schminke watercolours (some of them on their second or third refill from the tube). I love this paint box so much that I used my previous one until it fell to pieces. This is my new one, and it’s holding up well so far.

The fountain pens that I’ll be using: Lamy Safari Petrol F nib with Noodler’s Bulletproof Black, Lamy Safari Dark Lilac M nib with Noodler’s Bulletproof Black, Lamy Safari Charcoal EF nib with J. Herbin Bleu Pevench, Sailor Fude MF pen with Noodler’s Lexington Grey (Bulletproof ink).

My non fountain pens are my beloved Saedtler pigment liners in 0.3 and 0.7 and a Uni-ball Signo broad white.

The pencil I will use is a vintage Eagle Turquoise “Chemi Sealed” H drawing pencil. I just love everything about these pencils, and I really wish that they were still in production.

My brushes: a Raphael round travel brush, I’m not sure what size. There’s a good chance that I’ll replace it with a better round brush as the course progresses, as I’m not enamoured with it. The black brush in the middle is a Winsor & Newton Series 7 no 2 Kolinsky sable brush. The white and silver brush below is a Rosemary & Co R12 Sable/Nylon Dagger brush, and it’s a brush that I haven’t 100% mastered but that I’m growing to like with use.

That’s it for my tools at the moment. I’ll update this blog with my progress as the course takes place, and I’ll be sure to note if my tools change throughout.

New Reading Journal

Yesterday I finished my fifth reading journal, and so I thought that it would be a good opportunity to write a post about how I set up my reading journal.

I use my reading journal to keep track of what I read and to encourage me to read more. This is the journal that I’ve just finished, a Moleskine Two-Go:

Moleskine Two-Go. The perfect size and format for my needs.

I used to use a Field Notes Arts and Sciences notebook for my reading journal, but once I got back to reading more it made sense to move to a larger journal. For the past three years I’ve used the Moleskine Two-Go, and I fill one book journal a year (70 books are logged in each notebook).

Start and end date for this reading journal.

This is the setup in my old reading journal. Three pages of index:

First index page. Red checkmarks for books that I’ve read.

The Moleskine Two-Go comes with pages that are blank on one side and lined on another, which is perfect for my use case, except for the second index page, which I need to rule myself:

Ruled second index page.

I missed a line on the second index page, so the index numbering came out a little wonky. It’s only for me, so I don’t mind.

Off by one error in my index.

Here’s a sample of a complete page. I talked more about my thoughts behind the design in a previous post, but you can get the gist by looking at this sample. I like drawing something that captures the book for me on the opposite page, which is why I love the Moleskine Two-Go format.

I remember really not liking this book, and this is a reminder of why.

At the very last page of the journal I keep a log of how many books I read that month. It’s ten books so far for December, but the month isn’t done yet so that line isn’t filled.

Number of books per month tracker.

Here is my new reading journal, a Moleskine Two-Go, this time in green (my previous ones were in light grey, dark grey and navy):

Front cover.

I love the texture of the fabric colours on this, and the shade of green is interesting. The two contrasting bookmarks and the endpapers are grey.

Back cover

The first page, marking when I started the notebook and which journal number it is. This notebook doesn’t leave my desk yet I still write my name and email in case I misplace it somehow.

Front page

Next comes the index page. Since this is my third Two-Go reading journal I already know to number the pages until 139 (I number odd pages only, since my reviews are on odd pages), which comes out to 70 books.

Index page.

I rule the second page, because I tried just winging it on the first year and it didn’t come out great.

Spoke pen for the win.

On the last page I create my books per month tracker:

Zebra mildliner highligher smears gel ink, but I still like it.

I number all the pages of the index, but only the first 25 pages of the actual book journal. I will continue numbering pages in batches as I add books to the journal. The great advantage of using a completely unstructured book here is that I can do whatever I want with it, including starting the numbering after the index pages and not on the first notebook page.

These are the pen and pencils that I’ll be using in this journal. The Rotring 600 is a ballpoint, and the only ballpoint that I regularly use. The Caran d’Ache Bicolor has been my companion in these notebooks for several years. I use it to highlight things, and sometimes in my book scene sketches. I used the Blackwing 611 in my previous reading journal, and this time I’ll be using the Blackwing 4.

Caran d’Ache Bicolor, Blackwing 4, Rotring 600 ballpoint.

The first non fiction book in this journal:

The Good War

The first fiction book in this journal:

Cloud Atlas. ToB means Tournament of Books.

That’s my new reading journal all set up and ready to go. I hope that this inspires you to keep a reading journal of your own, one that will encourage you to read more and help evoke the memories of reading a specific book.