Nov 27, 2005

why my blog is titled as it is

a flock of Blackwing pencils

They don't make them like this anymore. Really--they don't make these at all; production ceased in 1998, apparently.
I love these pencils--they're a joy to draw with, although I rarely use them now(a good 2B or 4B will do the job)...but their real attraction is the association they can't shake for me--that of the Disney studio of the 50s, of sketch artists and draughstmen and designers working on immortal projects, not only at Disney feature animation but all over Los Angeles: the maitre'd at Musso's taking a reservation for four in 1933; a script supervisor working alongside Preston Sturges making notes during takes of "Sullivan's Travels"; a student at Chouinard toiling on a design project in 1961; Henry Miller, or Bob Clampett, or Clarence Darrow or Ward Kimball or Ernie Kovacs or Raymond Chandler. Who knows how many yet remain in the musty drawers of retired writers and artists all over the city, from Arcadia to Malibu?

I first saw one of these on the desk of an animator at Disney's in the early 80s, and later on the desk of Cecil B. DeMille(untouched since his death in the 60s); there were some among T. Hee's studio ephemera, given to us at CalArts after his death. I ordered an entire box from the redoubtable Cartoon Colour Company of Culver City, many years ago. Little dreaming of its eventual demise, I recklessly scrawled away, and now my Blackwings constitute barely a fistful(none to share or sell, sorry).

It's a thoroughly romantic instrument: sleek and silvery, fast-moving and easy to sharpen, with a curious back end--a golden holder encasing a silver clasp cradling a removable eraser, the better to extract, flip and so extend its usefulness.

Among both pencil enthusiasts and stubborn pencil-wielding animators, it fights for prominience with the fat, round, green Blaisdell Layout, most famous as the longtime-preferred pencil of Glen Keane. I have a stub of a Blaisdell somewhere--really, a stub, barely two inches long. It's easy to see why it's so appealing, as it skates smoothly over the paper--best used as a blunt instrument with its wide smear of soft lead.
But I still swoon for Blackwings--surely the only pencil which bears its own motto--in quotes, no less--across its length: "Half the pressure, twice the speed". And it certainly seems to be so. A sorry world where such treasure is allowed to pass away. I am old enough to know it's the little things in life--particularly in an artist's life--that immeasurably enhance the day to day grind.

So, the Blackwing: I look over my shoulder and admire the gleam of the golden lettering on my desk. A glorious instrument with all the possibilities that art provides at its tip. And thus the blog moniker.


Unknown said...

Lovely artworks your have!! I miss those pencil too!! totally related to your experience with those pencils :)

Jenny Lerew said...

Thanks for the kind words! yes, it's really too bad--and very frustrating--that any writing instrument like this that has a decades-long following would be seems the consumer always suffers, doesn't it?

J said...

I recently got to see one for myself. My friend Nick, of Firehouse Stomp fame, has one. They look marvelous.

Ginger Mayerson said...

Blackwings were good for writing music, back in the day. They gave you good dark noteheads and clean lines with reasonable pressure. I miss them very much.

mark kennedy said...

Great post. Other great art supplies that ceased production: the blaisdell layout pencils (of course) and the Berol China Markers and Prismacolors, which are still made by Sanford but not nearly as good.

I pestered the Sanford company to find out how they changed the formula and messed up their pencils but they deny that they are making them differently than Berol did.

It's almost like they don't want to make a product that people like.

Also, Crayola has changed the way they make crayons, I swear. They're all wax and no color now. No fun to draw with anymore. Pity today's children! My kids draw with oil pastels instead.

mark kennedy said...

oops, silly me, of course you mentioned the layout pencil, how did I miss that?????

Sorry, too much OT. My mind is going.

Andreas said...

I am still trying to find myself a Blackwing. I talked about them one day with my mother, and she said she used them in the animal hospital she worked in in the late 50's, early 60's. She said they were a fabulous pencil. Until I can find myself one at a decent price (is under $25 for a single too much to ask?) I will just lust for them as some forbidden fruit. Currently, of all the current, in production pencils I have tried out, none give me as much fun and thrill as the black with gold lettering, and gold and cream striped Tombow Mono. I envy my friend that is in Japan at the moment (for a whole month), as I am sure there are under tapped art supplies to be found in that island nation.

Kent said...

I remember reading an article about Stephen Sondheim a while back that mentioned that the Blackwing was his preferred pencil when he wrote his lyrics.

Anonymous said...

Man. Those pencils look super cool (I love the eraser shape, so unique). Oh, if only they kept making them.

Any love for Sanford Ebony Pencils?

:: smo :: said...

being of the sad position of coming into my first real animation job in 2006, and in new york no less...where every seems to be digital: today, through this blog, is the first time i even HEARD about blackwings. it's a sad state of affairs and it's always tragic to get excited about something that's no longer readily available [but hey i'm an animator because i love cartoons from the 30's and 40's i guess it makes sense] but i do really appreciate this little writeup and your homage. thank you for enlightening me!

i used to be stuck on the col-erase blue pencils, and do use them often still. i rather thought of as "animator pencils." though i went to a less traditional animation centered college than cal arts [RIT] and didn't get a lot of that hand me down know how i might have otherwise. i more recently have been using a 6B or sometimes a 4B [this st├Ždler mars lumograph seems to be alright...] but i haven't really claimed a specific champion yet.

do you find these days a certain pencil makes it to your desk more often than others?

Anonymous said...

As a small lad I would watch my father using these pencils on his advertising sketches not knowing of his accomplishments with these until I was older. When he gave me a part of his large collection of these pencils he said to me "You can't get these any more. Plus people will turn heads when you use them." Now I to use them while working on my designs in school. After looking them up on Google images just for fun and finding this article do I realize what these tools of the past mean to me receiving them from my father. I am now down to 10 out of the 20 or so he gave me. I think I'll save them for the really important projects. thanks for this post. - G.K.

Anonymous said...

My mother was a storyboard/layout/design artist in the animation industry years ago. I always used a Blackwing pencil my entire life until we ran out of our stash sometime after college. My classmates always made fun of my black pencils, but boy, they didn't know what they were missing. Finally, I had to resort to the yellow #2 pencils. What a horror!!

My mom passed away a while ago and as I am sorting through her artwork and supplies, I am now finding a few Blackwings tucked away in her drawers and they are a joy to behold.