False Economies

December 6, 2008


Left: Global Classic Leather Pencil Cases as seen at Blick; available also at Wet Paint, Cheap Joes, and many other vendors.

Seems to me things always happen in groups, maybe pairs, often in threes, but things just keep coming up. It isn't surprising then at this time of year, when people are asking me about gift options for the artists in their lives, that the care and feeding of pencils (graphite or colored) comes up.

People ask about type, brand, the relative qualities, and of course they ask about price. Price is something we all need to be aware of. But people usually don't ask me about CARE. I have to bring that up.

Think about the pencil for a moment. It's a rather fragile tool. Unless you're using a woodless pencil all you've got is a bit of wood casing around a thinnish lead. Sharpening that lead can cause twisting and cracking, dropping that pencil can cause cracking. Pressing too hard can cause cracking. The lead needs to be protected. (And if you have woodless pencils that goes without saying as there is no first line of defense.)

With some brands of colored pencils now costing as much as or more than $4.00 a piece care of those pencils should be a prime concern of the artist. You wouldn't take a $90 Kolinsky sable brush and store it tip down in a jar would you?

My colored pencil students typically bring their colored pencils to the first class in one of two ways: 1. the original packaging, or 2. a large decorative tin that once held cookies and was a favorite of Aunt Kay and has sentimental value because Aunt Kay was the only one who ever took their artistic ambitions seriously.

Neither receptical is suitable for your colored pencils. Start thinking about your pencils as the valuable art tools they are and treat them with R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Any container you put them in when transporting them should have padding and keep the pencils immobile. You can put them in a tin if you then jam bubble wrap all around in the surrounding spaces, but that's still pretty iffy. Every time you reach in to get a pencil you're knocking them against each other, shuffling them around and increasing the opportunities to drop them.

No pencil brand on the market has great packaging at present. If you love Prismacolors you have to deal with the cardboard box which contains a tier system. (Well good luck finding the tail end of that Indigo pencil as it disappears between the divider of the row in front! And don't be surprised if your bag gets turned around and all your pencils clump together. And what's that chunk, chunk, chunk noise as you walk? It's the pencils going up and down in the box!) Derwent tins are attractive but why doesn't anyone think to put a latching system on them? (Cost of course!) Go ahead and hold it with a rubber band. Chances are that band will rot and burst just about the time you pull the tin from your satchel at the bus stop. Say good-bye to your pencils. Even if you can find them all without being the center of attention in a vehicular pile up your pencil leads are toast. And so it goes with all brands. 

There are a number of pencil cases on the market but the one which I have found to last the longest and protect my pencils the best is the Global Classic Leather Pencil case. These cases are padded leather outsides with a stiff suede inside that has loops of elastic sewn down to the inside in rows. These rows of elastic hold your pencils. You can see this in the open case in the photo above. Depending on the size of your pencils each paired set of loops will hold two or three pencils. (If you are using fat art pencils, and some brands have large diameters, you need to figure on only getting two pencils in each partition.)

Another great advantage to this type of pencil case is that your
pencils are held apart and their leads are not mussing up the inside of
the loose case you might have them in. When you reach for a pencil the
barrel is CLEAN, not covered with pencil dust. Your hands stay clean.
Your work stays clean.

Once your case is organized you can stow it in a purse or pack easily. These cases, besides being nicely padded also have a slim profile. You can pack in the pencils in a case which doesn't eat up all your pack space!

The zippers in these cases stand up to wear. I have cases that have been in heavy and constant use for over 7 years.

I have cases filled with different brands, but I also have a sketching set (some graphite, some Derwent Drawing, a mechanical pencil; the types of pencils I would take for a quick sketching trip or to life drawing). I have a set of "must have pencils" and then I have "complete sets" each ready for the type of work I might need to do on my outing. I have a watersoluble set that mixes brands and has only 12 pencils. I also have cases that are only one type of watersoluble pencil. Basically its about preparation. I can just grab what I think I'm going to use or want to use: no more, no less.

If I am buying a new set of colored pencils I factor in the cost of a new pencil case to house them. That total cost is the cost I have to budget for before I buy those pencils. If I don't buy a case then I could just as well stand at the side of the road and throw my money into the traffic.

Whether you are buying pencils for someone else or for yourself I want to encourage you to think through the necessity of the right type of pencil case.

If you never go anywhere with your pencils and only use them in the studio, there are many stands and holders you can get or make yourself that will protect your pencils and make them readily available to you. Knock yourself out. But if you are traveling out with your pencils please give some thought to getting the longest life (and most value) out of this great art tool. Use Aunt Kay's cookie tin for cookies, or better yet, a collection of letters from her praising your artistic endeavors.

  1. Reply

    I have kept my Prismacolors in one of these for years and haven’t had any of the problems that others complain of (leads breaking, etc). I have the brown case that holds 48…it is very high quality.

    • Nina
    • December 7, 2008

    Thanks for this post, Roz!
    And what are you using to hold the rest of your equipment?

  2. Reply

    Nina, I am not sure what you mean by the rest of my equipment. Do you mean for colored pencil work when I’m out and about?

    If so the only other thing I carry is a small plastic bag with a pencil sharpener. The sharpener has two receptacles to hold shavings but it (and all the others I’ve tried) still leaks a bit, hence the plastic bag.

    If you’re asking about other journaling supplies, then everything goes in a small, soft sided (i.e., will compress and take up only a little space, depending on what it contains) pencil case with a zipper. It contains the various pens and brushes I take when I go out. (Recently I started carrying a smaller bag and found the pencil case was a tad too long so I actually have my pens and brushes in a ziplock plastic bag when I use that bag!)

    The small pencil case is also able to accomodate the two kid’s palettes that I’ve adapted with gouache and watercolor paints. I tend to travel very light!

    If I am doing a lot of sketching and going to the zoo, or some place special I’ll throw in one of my travel palettes which are about 4 x 5 inches (watercolor or gouache).

    Hope I understood the question.


    • Nina
    • December 7, 2008

    Thanks a lot, Roz! Sorry about not formulating my question clearly! You understood it right. This post was very interesting as I know that you are trying to keep things light and cases might make them heavier.
    I am working on making my “always with me” set lighter at the moment as I realized that over a course of a few days I tend to gather more and more things and end up with a couple of pounds easily 😉 I wanted to learn more from you – as someone who tried to keep things simple, light and safe.
    – I knew that you are traveling light and was interested in how this “light” is packed.

  3. Reply

    I talked about traveling light in my State Fair talk, which of course you couldn’t come to! But I have some powerpoint slides I made of my kit. I’ll do a post sometime soon, with a visual that I think might help you.

    We all need to guard against that accumulation of tools to carry. The more you carry the less likely you are to have your book and primary tool with you all the time.

    Of course, constant weeding out at the end of the week could help too.


    • Nina
    • December 8, 2008

    Could not agree more with the weeding idea! Thanks a lot for your answer and I am looking forward to your post with slides!


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