Aug 23, 2010
The Blackwing Returns
Some of my Blackwing pencils
NOTE Today I heard from two story artists simultaneously with exciting news via Mark Frauenfelder at boingboing.net: apparently that mighty elegant instrument, the extinct Blackwing pencil, is soon going to resume production. I wrote the post below ("Why My Blog Is Titled As It Is') in November, 2005, and it seems like a good time to give it an encore.
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 (dwindling supply), 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, from stubs to pristine unsharpened.
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.
There's an excellent review of an "old" Blackwing here. Very much worth a click.