The “$40” Pencil
In this lesson and pencil review, we’ll take a look at Blackwing pencils. I had heard of these pencils and wondered what the hype was all about. They are clearly expensive, but is this added expense over other pencil options worth it?
I decided to order a few pencils and give them a chance. In this post, I’ll share what I learned. But before I get into the review, I’d like to share a little back story regarding these pencils.
Blackwing pencils have been around for a while – well one pencil in particular – the 602 pencil.
When this pencil was temporarily discontinued in 1998, it was rumored to be sold on Ebay for upwards of $40 – for one pencil. (This is according to the Blackwing website.) Now, that’s a lot of money for one pencil. And if someone is willing to pay this much, there must be something to it.
Blackwing also reports on their site that famed illustrator, Shamus Culhane loved this pencil so much that he requested to be buried with it. Now, this must be one amazing pencil – right?
Pearl, Matte, and 602
I ordered a three pencil set which included a “Pearl” pencil, a “Matte” pencil, and the famed “602” pencil. This pencil set wasn’t cheap at nearly $28, and I wouldn’t recommend spending this much for just 3 pencils.
Each pencil features a hexagonal body of standard length with a flat eraser at the end. The wood inside of each pencil is sturdy and hard, making sharpening with a blade or standard pencil sharpener easy.
The eraser is flat, which makes erasing a bit more precise. The amount of eraser material is generous, but what makes the eraser even more unique is its ability to be replaced. The eraser can be removed and replaced with a new one when it is used up. While this is nice, you would need to do quite a bit of erasing to take advantage of this feature. I would venture to say that most people would use up the pencil before needing to replace the eraser.
A drawback to this eraser shape is that pencil extenders cannot be used with Blackwing pencils. Because the eraser is flat, the end of the pencil simply won’t fit into a pencil extender. If you’re accustomed to using pencil extenders to prolong the life of your pencils, you’re out of luck with these pencils.
I tested each pencil on soft drawing paper and noticed some differences in each one. We’ll start by looking at the Pearl pencil.
The Pearl Pencil
The body of the Pearl pencil is white and the marks I was able to produce were similar to those that you would expect to see with an “HB” graphite pencil. Of the three pencils I tested, this pencil was the hardest. It kept a sharp tip for a longer period of time compared to the other pencils, but its range of tone was limited.
I could produce darker tones, but a bit more effort was required. Lighter marks were easier to produce, although I’d probably stick with an “H” or “2H” pencil for preliminary drawings over using the Pearl pencil.
See also: Artist Graphite Pencils Explained
The Matte Pencil
Of the three pencils, the Matte pencil was the softest. The Matte pencil features a black body and since the graphite is the softest, the marks were the darkest. This pencil is most similar to a “5B” graphite pencil. With heavier pressure, you can push the dark tones, but with lighter pressure, you can still achieve lighter marks.
Since this pencil is the softest of the three, it dulls the fastest. However, compared to other 4B-6B pencils, the tip stayed a little sharper for a longer period of time. This suggests that the graphite is slightly harder than standard 4B-6B pencils but still capable of producing darker marks.
The 602 Pencil
While the Pearl pencil and the Matte pencil seemed quite ordinary to me, the 602 pencil was clearly different. (Remember, this is the pencil that was rumored to sell for $40.) The body of the pencil is painted gray and its range of value is quite impressive.
This pencil is able to produce fairly light marks with light pressure, but also darker marks as well. While the Matte pencil produced darker tones, the 602 pencil wasn’t far behind. You could easily create a polished drawing using just this one pencil. I would estimate that the range of value you can produce is between a “HB” and “5B”.
The versatility of this pencil is an advantage, but what stood out the most was the feel. Most artist’s graphite pencils have some inconsistencies in the graphite. These inconsistencies are usually noticed when pulling the pencil across the surface. You may feel a bit more friction when making marks when you encounter these inconsistencies.
The 602 pencil felt super smooth. I didn’t notice any inconsistencies and the graphite felt smooth on the surface. I have used countless pencils, but I have never felt a graphite pencil feel so smooth on the drawing paper. The best comparison I can make is to a ball point pen. One of the reasons some artists love using ball point pens is the feel and feedback it provides when making marks. The 602 pencil felt similar to a ball point pen. While not exactly the same, it was fairly close.
See also: All About Drawing Papers
After using the 602 pencil, I could see why it has a devoted fan-base. It is a special pencil – especially if you’re looking for an “all around” great mark maker.
You can purchase the Blackwing 602 pencil through several online retailers. The following link is an affiliate link which means I make a small commission if you purchase at no additional cost to you.
Another “All Around” Drawing Pencil
The 602 drawing pencil is fantastic, but it is expensive. Some will find it hard to rationalize spending approximately $3.75 for each pencil (when purchased as a dozen). But when you compare this to $40, it’s a bargain. All joking aside, you’ll easily spend this much on 4 graphite pencils of various grades. However, one Blackwing 602 pencil may be all you need.
The 602 pencil does remind me of another all around pencil that is much cheaper. This pencil is the General’s Layout pencil. Like the 602 pencil, this pencil is quite versatile. The General’s Layout pencil is capable of making dark marks but also light ones, all while keeping a fairly sharp tip for a longer period of time.
The General’s Layout pencil is not quite as dark as the 602 pencil and more gray. The 602 pencil is blacker which leads to more realistic darks in drawings. The General’s Layout pencil also has inconsistencies which are clearly noticed when making marks. There is considerable friction felt when making marks with this pencil.
I feel that the General’s Layout pencil is a fair alternative to the 602 pencil, but the 602 is clearly in another “class”. Pricing reflects this as General’s Layout pencils can be purchased at approximately $1.11 each, when purchased by the dozen.
You can purchase the General’s Layout pencil online or at many of the big box art stores. The following link is an affiliate link which means I make a small commission if you purchase at no additional cost to you.
General’s Layout pencils are usually easily found at art stores, while Blackwing pencils may have to be ordered online. I have not seen the Blackwing pencils sold at any of the big box art stores.
A Drawing with Blackwing Pencils
After making a few marks with the pencils, I decided to create a proper drawing to evaluate them fully. This drawing was created as part of the course “Realistic Pencil Drawing”, which is available to members. In the series of lessons for this module of the course, I created a smaller drawing of a falcon on Canson Heritage Hot Press Watercolor Paper (140 lb.).
This soft paper worked exceptionally well with the Blackwing pencils. While all three pencils were used to create the drawing, I found myself favoring the 602 pencil. However, I was impressed with the Pearl pencil for dark marks that required precision.
Blackwing Pencils Review – Conclusion
Of the Blackwing pencils, I would consider the 602 to be worth the price. The Pearl and the Matte pencils were nice, but not worth the price in my opinion. I tend to use graphite in my drawings in different forms. Sometimes I prefer the traditional feel of a wooden pencil. Other times, I prefer to work with a lead holder with different grades of graphite. My choice depends on the subject, the surface, and my mood. For sketching, I prefer to use an “all around” pencil. For years, I have used the General’s Layout pencil for this. But moving forward, the 602 pencil by Blackwing will be my weapon of choice.
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