Lightfastness Test: Bienfang Watercolor Brush Pens

July 12, 2013

130708BienFangWCBrushLeft: Lightfastness test chart for Bienfang Watercolor Brush Pens. Strip on the right is the exposed strip. On the left is the one which was stored out of the light. See the paper shift in color. The paper actually seems to have bleached out a bit which totally surprised me. It's Arches Text Wove (Arches Vellin). Read below for more details.

Besides the test I showed you on Wednesday I made another product test in February: Bienfang Watercolor Brushes. (Cheap Joe's is the only one I know carrying the 12 pen set. Look around.)

Let's just say this. I love brush pens. I was head over heals in love with the old Pentel Color Brush which came in many colors, was very juicy, and was NOT lightfast at all. (Even the black. You can see my tests at the Color Brush link provided.) 

Note: Yesterday Jet Pens sent out a newsletter which included Pentel Art Brush Pens. From the description they look exactly like the old Pentel Color Brush. You can read my review of the old Pentel Color Brush at the second link. At the first link you'll see the new product in one color and can poke around at their site for all the other colors. As you read below they are still selling the "Color Brush" in four-brush packs that are marketed towards manga artists (an empty water brush is included). I asked Jet if the Art Brush Pen was pigmented and they replied that it was dye-based and not lightfast so I personally don't see a difference between the Pentel Art Brush Pen and their Color Brush I wrote about in January 2009. If you don't care about lightfastness I'm sure you can have some fun using the Pentel Art Brush Pen because the Pentel Color Brush (either in the 3 colors marketed together or as the OLD Color Brush Pen were great fun—as long as they haven't been left in a drawer unused for several years!) Think this is confusing—I'm working on a future post about another Pentel brush pen that has "color brush" on its package, comes in black only, and has pigmented watersoluble ink. EEEE. It has a gray barrel but otherwise looks just like a Color Brush. And it has sisters with non-lightfast dye ink in black that have different sized brush nibs. EEEE. (They don't have gray barrels.) I wish they would do their labeling differently.

Recently I've started using the Pentel Color Brush again because it is available locally in black, grey, and sepia in a 4-brush pack (which includes an empty waterbrush) and those are fun colors to sketch with and sometimes I want something that is watersoluble and don't care if it's lightfast.

If you go to this recent post about my use of the Gelli Arts Printing plate in my 2013 fake journal and scroll to the bottom of the post you'll find a sketch of a man's face I did with the Pentel Color Brush, sepia. Fun right? You put it on, you move it all around.

Well I still do dream of something more permanent, so when I found these Bienfang Watercolor Brush Pens at Cheap Joe's in January I got them and thought well at the very least I can just do gesture sketches with them.

I was very pleasantly surprised to find that they didn't fade. (Note, the orange/reds are all so close in color in life that you can't tell them apart very well—but no fading on those. I hope they will bring out a cool red that's a little different.)

You'll remember that I did a Project Friday: Bienfang Watercolor Brush Pens in March of this year. At that time I told you I was using them for sketching in life drawing.

Now that the lightfastness test has been up for awhile I can say I'm happy enough that these won't fade on me if I use them.

What remains are the following two caveats from my original review:

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.

I have been using these pens quite a bit in my sketching, though I don't have any scans to show you today—You'll see some in the coming weeks. Because of this extended use I have the following additional comments to make which may help you decide if you want to try them or not.

1. Besides some of the pens not working at all upon receipt (see Caveat emptor 2 above) they are NEVER as juicy and free flowing as the old Pentel Color Brushes. So DO NOT expect that. You'll only be disappointed.

2. Because the brush size is rather small your strokes might not be as bold as you'd like. I know mine aren't.

3. Some pens flow much more readily than others. My dark green pen in my first set flows so juicy that it actually seeped through a page in my Fabriano Venezia journal. Something that typically doesn't happen with any medium on that paper for me. So there is inconsistency.

4. Because they aren't always that juicy the paper you use them on really matters—if you want to wet them and move them around like watercolor. So for instance, if you want you can use watercolor paper and that might work just fine, but I've used Strathmore 400 series Mixed Media paper in life drawing with mixed results with this pen and that's a wet media paper. (Not the 500 Series mind you, which Strathmore uses to make their own version of their hardcover casebound and wire bond books and which I use sheets of as one of the papers I use to bind my own journals.)  Then I've used regular notebook paper from a variety of sources and been able to gradually move the paint around (so it floats on the surface long enough to allow me to do that). My favorite gridded paper, Quattro, is smooth and slick and I didn't think there would be any problem moving the paint around on it, but it sunk right into the surface and wouldn't budge. So just beware—what you think might happen on a given paper might not happen. Test first.

Note: Last night (this post was written last week and set to post today) I started a new journal and it's a Strathmore 400 Series WATERCOLOR paper Hardcovered journal (casebound, not wire) and I'm enjoying the Bienfang Watercolor brushes on that paper. The paper floats the watercolor from the pen long enough that you can dilute it and blend it around, though still not as much as on some other non-watercolor papers so you do have to test which papers are going to work best for you and watercolor papers aren't going to be a "slam-dunk." The other advantage I found with the Strathmore 400 Series Watercolor paper is that it's a tough paper. I've been scrubbing back on it and it hold up. It's too textured for me for general work, but it makes a fun and interesting change.

5. I find that the slow charging of the brush slows me down, hurts my thumb (you have to squeeze it hard, repeatedly), and causes more wear on the brush because it's often a dry brush you're pushing around. Towards the end of each brush's life I have found the the tip is pretty worn out, which means that the final sketches made with this brush pen don't have the crispness that the earlier ones have, made as they were when the brush was fresh.

6. (Added after the original post went live because when I proofed it this morning I realized I'd left this very important point out.) These pens have a tendency to leak. I found this out the hard way by reaching in to my upright, open topped pencil case I carry in my backpack and pulling out another pen which had red ink on it, and so my hand had red ink on it. The red Bienfang Watercolor Brush I'd been carrying around upright, had leaked. I don't really know how this happened, but it looks like ink pooled around the brush tip and slid out the cap and down the body of the pen where it deposited on other pens and my pencil case. I caught it early enough and there was just some finger-staining and my pencil case cleaned out OK and protected the other stuff in my back pack. Be aware of this however. I now no longer carry these routinely in my pack, but only carry them when I'm going to life drawing and know I'll use them or want to sketch out with one on a given day.

Even with these "drawbacks" I have to say the fun factor is pretty high with the Bienfang Watercolor Brush Pen, I enjoy using them. I'm sure I'll continue to do so. Since they aren't very expensive I'll probably always keep a set around even if I continue to lose three out of every twelve that I buy, right off the bat through factory failure.

I have made limited experiments with them painting and blending as you would with regular "watercolors." The tip of the brush going on second always gets stained and dirty, which requires cleaning and wastes the paint and wears out the brush, and well, that's what pan or tube watercolors are for. Use them together, sketching with the brush pen and then painting with your regular watercolors.

Because I have marginalized them into a "technique" I doubt I'll do a lot of final art with them, but I know I'll continue to use them in my journals and for life drawing.

I would think that calligraphy artists would enjoy doing lettering with these pens. I hope this is helpful and you have some fun with these. You'll see them crop up now and then in my work and as usual I'll let you know in my captions, what I'm working with.

(And I'm not in anyway connected with Bienfang/Speedball [because Speedball is on the body of the pens in my sets] or Cheap Joe's.)

NOTE: I write about brush pens all the time but only decided today to create a category. If you would like to see some of my other brush pen posts I recommend you use the blog's search engine and look for keywords like Pentel Pocket Brush Pen (my favorite), Brush Pens, Watercolor Pens, and so on.

    • Helen
    • July 16, 2013

    Just bought these and am really looking forward to trying them out. I also want to say how much I enjoy reading your blog. So much useful information and eye candy. Thanks for all your hard work!

  1. Reply

    Hi!! You know Cheap Joes will replace defective merchandise up to a year after purchase. I have a couple of paint brushes they are replacing when I take a class in May…bought them last October when I took another class…they are lose at the ferrel. Expensive sable brushes…BUT at least I know they will be replaced!! Hurrah for Cheap Joes who bytw is a lovely guy…he was in our class too in October!

  2. Reply

    Margaret, thanks for mentioning this, yes I did know that. The problem is that for some things of certain value I accept the loss and don’t want to deal with the frustration of sending things back and forth and paying more postage than the items are worth.

    If they were items that were not “consumable” in this same quick way, like the sable brushes you mention, or items of greater value that would justify the extra time and the extra postage costs, then I would have pursued that. I don’t hold Cheap Joes responsible for this, it’s a problem with Bienfang’s product. I accept it as part of the reality of using the product.

  3. Reply

    Just an update on these — I’ve been looking for something water-soluble and lightfast. Cheap Joes doesn’t carry them any more (at least that I could find — I searched their site for Bienfang and only found paper), but Amazon does.

    Looking forward to trying them out, problems and all …

    1. Reply

      Well they probably had returns since even some that I’ve received have not been useable, but it’s been worth it to me. I read what people said about them on Amazon and have to laugh. These passed my lightfastness test, but someone there thinks Koi are artist grade paints. Sigh. I hope you enjoy them. Watch for leaks. I’ve loved them.

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