Project Friday: Bienfang Watercolor Brush Pens

March 22, 2013

130226_15StephanRedBrush copyLeft: Fifteen-minute life-drawing sketch using a Beinfang Watercolor Brush Pen. Discontinued drawing paper is the center 8.5 x 11 inch sheet, with duct tape onto a piece of newsprint that is about 12 x 16 inches. Drawn on an easel.

This is a Project Friday post so in a minute I'll boss you around. But first…

The Product Review:

About a month and a half ago I needed to buy something from Cheap Joe's Art Stuff and while I was clicking around the site for something else I hit this product: the Beinfang Watercolor Brush Pen (Speedball's name is also on the barrel and I haven't been keeping track of which corporation is swallowing other corporations).

I love working with the Pentel Color Brush, but I've stopped using it because it isn't archival. A couple other companies have similar products available (though they seem to have disappeared for now) and I've always been leery of them because of the lightfastness issue.

Cheap Joe's ad copy and the other info I found from the manufacturer all state that these are permanent and lightfast pens.

With that in mind I bought a set and put up a color test chart of myself. When the chart has been exposed long enough I'll take it down and post about it.

For now—caveat emptor number 1: I'm not sure how lightfast these are and you might want to wait before you do your masterworks with them.

Caveat emptor number 2: Out of the 12-color set (it comes with an empty brush pen to make up the 13) THREE (3) of the pens would NOT START. They didn't start the day I got the set and they haven't started magically flowing since then. Of the remaining 9 colors the reds are so close in hue to each other and the orange that one wonders why they bothered to make them the way they did. The yellows are also very similar in color. There is no blue that isn't very greenish (which of course is a drawback for me). So useable pens in the set weren't great. Was it an anomally that I got three non-working pens in my set? I won't know until I purchase another set (or you write to me recounting similar experiences).

I do know that a couple years ago I picked up a very cool (in temperature) red pen from Bienfang that didn't have Speedball's number on it in the close out bin at Penco. It sort of worked when I got it home, for about an afternoon. Then it didn't work. I put that down to being "old" and therefore in the "close-out" selections. But I could have been wrong. I haven't tried to find these since. That red was a very Alizarin Crimson, and not orange at all, red, but alas it is not the same as in this set, so maybe it was a different "animal" all together.

Caveat emptor number 3: The product information lists the brush size as an 8 round. We all know (or you should know if you're buying brushes) that size varies from manufacturer to manufacturer and size designation is a rough guideline, sometimes just a suggestion. What you should know is this brush tip is on the small size, more in the range of a 4 to a 6. It's also a short brush which becomes important if you want to lay down a wide stroke of color—in other words it doesn't have much of a belly. (That will matter a lot to some of you and not at all to others depending on how you wield your brushes.) Just take note of this.

The Project Friday Project:

I've written many posts encouraging people to really dive into using one particular tool or medium until it feels comfortable enough that they are getting some results they like, or they realize they will never get the results they want.

Today's project is in that vein. I thought you might find it interesting to see, through examples of a couple sketches with these pens, how I worked out a working method that makes sense for me.

The sketch at the top of this post is the END RESULT and I quite like it. It was executed fairly quickly (a bit under 15 minutes) and I like working quickly. It also looks like the model, which is always a plus.

I was drawing from a live model—a model who has an interesting nose, and ears (though his hair was getting longer on this day and you don't see the ears much). He is a professional model so he was standing very still—well except for the fact that a couple of us who were sketching him were talking and making him laugh a bit—but that was our fault not his. I'll have more to say about how I did it in a moment but first…

What I hope you'll get out of today's Project Friday is the following:

1. Try new media multiple times to see how you can make it work for you.

2. If you get shit working with it change the circumstances in which you're working (which might not be possible on a Friday, but will be possible on a weekend, or week-long project. By this I mean either change the subject matter (still life to live model, photo to live model, etc.) or venue (home to zoo, etc.).

3. Change the paper or surface you're working on.

4. If things still aren't working you might try to incorporate the use of the new media with other media you're more comfortable working with.

That's the basic plan for this Project Friday.

So now, back to the beginning. The pens arrived and I tried to get them all to work (without success). I decided to go ahead and set up a color lightfastness chart. And then I threw the Sepia pen into my sack of life-drawing supplies.

130212_StephenBrownBrushPen copyLeft: 20 minute sketch on an 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of discontinued drawing paper. Drawn on an easel. (Same model as above.)

At life drawing on this particular evening I wasn't thrilled with the results of the sepia pen, but I was intrigued. I used the pen to lay down lines and then I used a regular watercolor brush to try and draw out some color from the lines, color that I could use as suggestion of shading.

I found that waiting to apply water meant that often my lines were too dry and I couldn't coax them to bleed color for me. (By contrast the non-lightfast dyes in the Pentel ColorBrush Pens bleed richly and vividly when you touch lines made by them with water, even days later. It's great fun to go into a PCB sketch with a waterbrush ladened with gouache and see the dye and the gouache mix and settle out in amazing ways. The Bienfang Brushes—at least the set I was sent—produce anemic looks compared to that.)

(Update: Since writing this post I purchased a Pentel Color Brush, which I haven't had for several years—it wasn't as juicy as ones I've had in the past, so they may have changed or the recent purchase is an anomally. All I can say is that in the early 2000s when I used them a lot the Pentel Color Brush bled color richly.)

But I was still interested in using the product because of the speed with which I could work.

130222AB_WCBrushRight: Two 8.5 x 11 inch sketches shown side by side, done on the same evening with the dark blue watercolor brush. Here I was working on vellum Bristol, seeing if I liked the effects better or worse than the other drawing paper I'd been using. Seeing how I needed to adapt my approach. Sketched while holding the pieces in my lap.

In the first "blue" image I was attempting to sketch very quickly and see if I could coax any color out of the lines. In the second "blue" image I was determined to make something more recognizable. And I added some gouache from my palette to the background.

I knew that I was going in the right direction but I also knew that I needed a paper conducive to wet media if I was going to get results that I liked. Even though I had a bout of vertigo coming on I was interested in moving forward with my experiments so I made another sketch, seen below.

130222C_DenverPyleLeft: 8.5 x 11 inch page; Richeson recycled watercolor paper. This represents my change in paper. (Lap sketch.)

The texture of the watercolor paper did fun things to the lines and because I was using a wet media paper I was able to coax more color out of the lines as they floated on the sized surface a little longer.

I was actually pleased with my sketch of Denver Pyle. I began to think "I can have fun with this pen."


130223A_ManWCBrushPenLeft: Blue watercolor brush pen on Richeson recycled watercolor paper—a change in method or approach. (Lap sketch.)

What I noticed when sketching Denver Pyle was that if I worked in an area with water as soon as possible I achieved richer color release. So when I worked on Ray Collins (Lt. Tragg; both are character actors from episodes of "Perry Mason" and I stopped my DVD at these poses so I could sit back in my chair and work—I've written about this a lot before) I shifted my approach.

With the Ray Collins image I would do very small sections and then draw out the shading by wetting the line with a regular watercolor brush dipped in water in my hand at all times.

Since I was working monochromatically there was no need to rinse the brush, in fact most times I wanted all that residual color. The downside to working this way was it was even more "dangerous" that I'd not end up where I wanted to be because I had to completely develop areas before moving away from them. I sketch starting in one point and working out, so I'm not unhappy with that, but I don't really dig in and develop the shading in an area until I get the whole on paper—typically. Here that wasn't possible. I'm pretty pleased with how it worked out but this is a VERY SLOW way to work and I found I was chaffing at the bit. Of course I tend to think I need to slow down so I shouldn't complain about that at all, but just so you know.

130226_14StephenRedBrushPen copyLeft: Approx. 10-minute life-drawing sketch using a Beinfang Watercolor Brush Pen. This is sketch 14 on the same night as the opening sketch in this post—in other words I completed this sketch immediately before the sketch which opens this post. Discontinued drawing paper is the center 8.5 x 11 inch sheet, with duct tape onto a piece of newsprint that is about 12 x 16 inches. I scribbled some Neocolor II around the profile and used my 3/4 inch wide acrylic marker (light blue) at the top and bottom, just to get a sense of the negative shape at the end of the pose, to check myself. (Easel sketch.)

A couple days later after the Ray Collins experience it was time to go to gesture drawing again.

I've written about this class a couple of times before. In it we do a lot of gesture experiments and short poses until the very end. Then we have two 20-minute poses that are typically the same pose. We can do two 20-minute drawings or one 40-minute drawing (with a break for artists and model in the middle).

I like to use those final two poses for portrait sketches because while I think it's challenging and fun to draw the full model, what really interests me in life is the face (of anything—person, dog, rock). 

On this day a funny thing happened—first, as is usual, everyone else is drawing the full nude model; but one student came in with a request that we have one long pose with the model drapped so she could work on a pose for an out-of-class project. No one seemed to mind, until the drape came out and we seemed to be spending a lot of our drawing time draping the model. People kept saying, "Is that going to work for you?" to each other. When I was asked I replied, "As long as you don't put the drape over his head I'm fine with whatever you do."

And so I got this lovely view of the model's profile.

Since I also knew going into this that I would have only 20 minutes with this view and the second 20 minutes would be a different pose I was working as quickly as possible. (Because of the draping we were going to do 2 different 20 minute poses on this day.)

This is why I like to point out it's good to change venues and approaches and papers, etc. Because I was in a different venue and back to drawing a live model, and because I had limited time to get things right, I picked up my Niji waterbrush and held it in my non-dominant hand and essentially toggled between the watercolor brush and the waterbrush. At several points I actually drew with the waterbrush in my non-dominant hand because I wanted to work quickly.

This allowed me to get enough "shading" out of the color lines I put down. 

I started too big (in my excitement to get going and go fast) so I ended up going off the small paper onto my newsprint. I grabbed some duct tape that is used to mark the model's positions between breaks, and used it to attach it to the back page so I could keep working.

The colors around the profile were actually put there for two reasons. I went in so fast that I was at the point where I'd start fussing if I didn't distract myself. So I worked on the outline edges. I even left the room to get more water for my waterbrush. I was letting time run down.

I liked this piece because of all of its horrible-ness—the crappy paper, the duct tape, the scribbled external color. When the pose was over I was looking forward to having another go in a different pose.

I like this piece because I learned something. I saw something.

You have seen my final drawing from the evening at the top of this post. I started too big again and went off my original paper. By this time that didn't bother me at all. At one point I even contemplated adding another piece of newsprint below (sort of draping it onto the lower edge of my easel) and continuing the drawing by working down the rest of the figure. I abandoned that idea because it would have been all on newsprint (which didn't appreciate the waterbrush at all) and there was no backing to press against.

The whole experiment was very fun and I reached a point of knowing how to get the Beinfang watercolor brush to do something I both enjoyed and liked the look of. I actually find myself looking forward to using it these days and have more experiments planned with it (in the mixed media path). (I haven't even considered using the colors blended together yet—perhaps because the colors in the set aren't ones I usually have on my palette—but that's definitely another experiment for another day.)

That's what I hope you get out of this week's Project Friday. It doesn't matter if you're using the product that I used (Bienfang Watercolor brushes); or use something that I've written about before (like the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen); or if you use something that is totally alien to me but which you are intrigued by (white out correction pens perhaps).

What I'd like to encourage you to do is to try something multiple times and to keep pushing it and changing your approach, your paper, and your circumstances so that you can really give the new media a chance—or rather, give yourself an ample amount of opportunity to discover something about the medium you're working with.

Have a great Project Friday!

    • Jill Lee-Jones
    • March 22, 2013

    Hi Roz, I bought one of those Bienfang brushes a while back. But I think it has ink in it…Lamp Black. Well the darned thing leaked all over while I was carrying it in one of my sketch bags so I stopped using it. It now sits top up in one of the jars on my desk. It also puts out too much ink to really get any fine lines (this was before I tried and fell in love with the PPBP–at your suggestion). I may pick it up and give it another try…maybe just to use it up. Love your drawing looks like David Carradine from ‘Kung Fu’… : )

  1. Reply

    Jill, was it more than a couple years ago that you got that brush? I wonder if it was before they were taken over by Speedball or vice versa. And I wonder if it just means that quality control is just crummy on this product, because NONE of the pens I got that would eventually start working could be described as flowing too much. I practically have to squeeze with a whole hand to get any ink to flow in most of them.

    I’m glad you are enjoying the PPBP which of course is the Best thing ever!!! (But it is fun to have watersoluble lines for a variation.)

    I don’t recall David Carradine well enough—so I had to go look him up. I did find one photo of DC where there is a resemblance, there’s something about the mouth.

    But in life the model doesn’t look at all like DC, especially in profile. The model who comes in has a much more interesting face—happily.

  2. Reply

    Thanks Terry for the feedback on these pens. My dark green (which I bet was Sap, it’s not sitting next to me so I can’t read it) didn’t work either!

    I haven’t looked at the blender brush, but I can say that even if there isn’t a lot of space in there for ink I did get quite a few drawings with the red pen, and with the blue one I’ve been using. Now I’m going to try the Sepia and the Magenta.

    I’ve had fun with them so that’s a good thing, but with all the malfunctions and ones that can’t be used it becomes rather expensive.

    I wish they could be purchased in open stock so I could just get the ones I like, try them right in the store and if they didn’t work, leave!!!

    Anyway I appreciate the feedback.

    • Jill Lee-Jones
    • March 23, 2013

    Roz, yes it was more than a couple years ago and the handle has no mention of Speedball, also no cartridge on it, the whole handle holds the ink/paint. It has kind of dried out a bit but still makes interesting lines. I’ll play around more with it. When it’s completely dead, I’ll take it apart and see what the guts look like. Maybe it can be resurrected as a water brush or ???? Hmmm….

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