Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Great Blue Challenge

I’ve recently had a bit of thing going for coloured leads, and blue leads in particular, so I thought it was time to do my bit for “art”? I have accumulated a fair few different blue leads and now its time to put them to the test, in the “Great Blue Challenge”.

The contestants are, from left to right:
Staedtler mars micro color – 0.5mm, blue
Pentel – 0.5mm blue.
Uni Color – 0.5mm blue. (Incorrectly labelled as 0.7 in the scans below)
Pilot Color Eno – 0.7mm blue.
Faber-Castell TK-Color – 0.5mm blue.

The Blues Brothers?

I feel it is my duty to uphold the Queen’s English and point out that, except for Pentel, every one of these foreigners have spelled “colour” incorrectly. Pentel have shown admirable judgement and avoided the word entirely!

So first thing I did was a bit of general scribbling and doodling with the leads. The Staedtler lead is very weak, and wore down very quickly. I had to make sure to only advance a minimum amount of lead out the tip, not press too hard and hold the pencil perpendicular or the breakages were just too many to bother with. On the plus side though, it does lay down a fairly good solid darkish blue line.

The Pentel lead is miles stronger than Staedtler and wears down much slower, but it lays down the lightest blue line of the 5 Blues Brothers.

The Uni lead is also strong and slow wearing. Its blue is a somewhat different hue to the others.

The Pilot lead is 0.7mm, quite strong as you would expect. It is also slow wearing. Seeing this is the only 0.7mm Blues Brother, I got out some Pentel and Uni –ish blue 0.7mm leads for a quick strength comparison. To my surprise, Pentel was the weakest, with Pilot and Uni being basically the same as each other.

For the Faber-Castell lead just read my comments for Staedtler again, although their blue is a fractionally lighter colour.

Next then a quick spot of erasing, using three test erasers – Staedtler Mars plastic (vinyl), Faber-Castell PVC-Free and Factis 36R (natural rubber). The results are rather similar for all three erasers, there’s no big difference to their performance, but if I had to choose a winner I’d say that the vinyl Mars plastic eraser was the best. There is though a big difference in the erasability of the different leads. The Uni is definitely the most erasable lead, erasing almost totally, similar to plain graphite lead. Next is Pentel and then the Pilot which both have good erasability but leave some residue behind. The Staedtler and Faber-Castell leads are considerably less erasable than the other leads, leaving a lot of blue behind, irrespective of which eraser used. Overall then, Staedtler and Faber-Castell are very borderline, getting close to being unusable because of breakages and fast wear, and having poor erasability. Pentel, Pilot and Uni are clearly superior leads, with acceptable strength so it’s mostly just a choice of which shade of blue suits you. But one Blues Brother must be the leader of the gang – colour, strength and erasability, for these reasons I choose Uni.

Now then, another aspect of blue leads is their use as non-reproducible leads in graphic work. I wanted to check this out, so enlisted the help of Glen who has previously contributed a guest posting on non-reproducible leads. So, I’ll now hand over to Glen…

Hi folks, Glen here to throw in my two-cent's worth on a comparison of the non-reproduction suitability of a number of different brands of mechanical pencil leads. What, you may ask, is non-repro? Well be sure to peruse this past post post haste to get up to speed on the nitty-gritty of the illustration uses of blue leads.

Are you back yet? Good... we can begin.

I started by scanning in a sampling of different blue leads kindly supplied by our host, and added two of my own. The Pilot Color Eno Soft Blue is the same lead as the Pilot Eno Blue provided by Dave, but, as the name implies, in a different hue. Much lighter and more turquoise.
Lighter is b.... well, I'm getting ahead of myself there. More on that later.

The Prismacolor / Sanford Verithin Non-Photo Blue is actually not a mechanical pencil lead at all, but a traditional pencil, and the standard to which I wanted to compare all others. If you want Non-Photo (the older name for non-repro) blue and like pencils - use this. But if, like me, you prefer mechanical pencils (and I think I'm safe in assuming such) then what comes closest? Read on fellow travellers and you shall see..... This first image shows the varying hues and darknesses of the different blue leads scanned in full colour. In itself not important (unless you're using blue lead for colouring purposes) but as we proceed you'll notice a correlation between the hue of blue (wasn't that a late 60's Pscyhe band?) and it's suitability for non-reproduction use.
As well please note the black ink lines of varying thicknesses, strength and size. We'll use these as guides to the amount of blue remaining for each different type of lead.

Our second image was scanned in the "Grayscale" mode. Grayscale scanning gives inked images a softer feel, with not only pure black and white reproduction, but shades of gray as well. I chose a medium setting for this test, with, as you can see, a wide range of results.
The Prismacolor Non-Photo pencil has disappeared completely, as has the Pilot Color Eno Soft Blue. But all others show at least some pencil marks under their ink lines.
The Pentel didn't fare too badly with the Uni following closely behind.
Should you choose either of these leads it's probable that some adjusting of the Histogram / Levels / Brightness - Contrast controls on your scanner or in Photoshop (or whatever other program you use for image manipulation) would be able to remove most, if not all, of the remaining pencil.
I'm afraid though, that the remaining leads I'd have to deem unsuitable for non-repro use in grayscale scanning. The Pilot Eno Blue (regular) and especially the Faber-Castell and Staedtler just aren't cut out for these parameters.

We shall move on....
The third image was scanned in Bitmap or Black & White mode. This method scans the image as either a black or white pixel, with no grey in between. Bitmap scanning works well when you want a crisp black line, suitable for paint bucket filling, and allows for a nice white background. Be aware that Bitmap images require higher resolution scans to achieve smooth lines though. Low resolution will show "staircasing"
or jagged edges.

Enough from Professor Flatbed and on to the test!

As you can clearly see Bitmap scanning is more forgiving to the blue leads, with three (The Prismacolor, Pilot Soft Blue and Pilot Eno) passing with flying colours (or should that be "flying black & white"!). Even the Pentel and Uni look good with only the slightest hint of pencil. The Faber-Castell and Staedtler are once again in the rear and apparently unsuitable in our task. Some adjustment of the Threshold level on your scanner is possible to help remove the remaining pencil, but there's not much leeway.

So in conclusion I'll state my laboriously exacting findings using this highly advanced mathematical equation...

Light Blue Lead = Good, Dark Blue Lead = Bad.

Or put another way, and not taking into account pricing, softness / break-ability, erase-ability or lead size, I'd recommend the Pilot Color Eno Soft Blue, with the Pentel next and Uni third. I'm afraid the Faber-Castell and Staedtler just don't cut the mustard when it comes to Non-Repro use.

I hope this helps if you were thinking of trying, switching to or experimenting with blue pencil leads. Give it a whirl - I don't use it for every job, but it sure comes in handy when you need it.

Over and out - Glen Mullaly
Right, it’s Dave back again. After Glen and I prepared all the above, we noted that some of it was inconsistent with Glen’s comments to his original posting, namely the scanning properties and erasability of Pentel vs Staedtler. Clearly a little more investigation was required.

It appears that heavy or light pressure when using the blue lead is an important factor. For scanning, Glen did some re-testing and is sure that when applied with light hand pressure, the scanning results are reversed to our heavy handed results above, namely with a light hand, Staedtler is better for scanning than Pentel.

We both also did some more erasing tests. Glen felt at light pencil pressure the Pilot Eno Soft Blue erased completely, the Staedtler mostly, and the Pentel poorly. At heavy pencil pressure the Pilot Soft Blue still erased well, but the Pentel and Staedtler switched places with the Pentel faring slightly better, but both the Pentel and Staedtler erased poorly, the Staedtler almost not at all. Personally I felt that at light pencil pressure the erasability of Pentel and Staedtler were similar, but markedly improved upon their heavy pressure performance. One thing I did notice though, at light hand pressure the Staedtler lead felt miles better than Pentel. Smooth soft even Staedtler line versus hard scratchy variable Pentel line. Very surprising to a Pentel fan like me.

Anyway, I guess what this all boils down to is that if you are using coloured leads you really do need to try a few out and experiment to find the best mix of paper type, hand pressure, lead brand and colour to give you the performance that you want.

(This might just be the longest posting to date!)

Follow Up Article - Lightfastness or Fade Testing of Blue Leads


Anonymous said...

Great article David. I've been using the UNI leads, both in the light turquoise blue and the darker shade with limited success, but I'm definitely going to give some of the others a try now. To be honest I didn't realize there was such a choice available.

Julia said...

I'm an old newspaper editor, so as soon as I read the first line of this post I thought, "I wonder whether they could be used for non-repro editing purposes?" What a lovely surprise to find my question answered so thoroughly by you and Glen. So rest assured that although the post was long, at least one of your readers was hooked all the way to the end!

Of course, my second thought was that at least at the newspapers I worked at, pencils would not have been suitable regardless of their invisibility in repro, because what I was marking up was actually a stiff glossy paper like photo paper (in fact, just what is was, as it was spit out by imagesetters that reproduced the newspaper pages as photographs, essentially). We always had to use a non-repro blue felt-tip marker to make edits.

Anonymous said...

Not trying to be an ass, but have you actually listed the leads in order from *left* to *right*, not right to left as stated? Took me a few to match up the pics with the list until I realized I was going backwards....

Kiwi-d said...

I must have gone mad for a few moments. Right to left, thats just crazy. Thanks for pointing this out. I will now change the posting so that the leads are listed left to right in the "normal" fashion.

Pattern and Perspective said...

Where is the best place online to buy Pilot Color Eno Soft Blue? Is this the same's mechanical, though?

Kiwi-d said...

Hello Ethereal Bliss - well I can't say where the best place is, but your link is to the Pilot Color Eno refill leads and also to Eno mechanical pencils pre-loaded with leads. I believe the "light blue" will be what Glen is calling "soft blue" in our posting.

Glen Mullaly said...

Sorry for the delay on this. E.B.
"Soft Blue" is the actual name of the colour, the other blue is just "Blue" , at least in the Pilot Color Enos that are sold in these parts. Here's a photo of the packaging from a random site...

Speaking of these parts... I don't know if it was coincidental but the link you provided was to one of the two bigger art supply stores in my home base of Victoria, B.C. It and the other art store, Island Blue Print, both carry the Soft Blue in their stores, but I couldn't find them listed on their site.
Many other online stores do list it though.

Good Luck!

Anonymous said...

Dave, this is a great write-up! I was researching to find out how well the blue lead tips fare, especially how easy (or tough) are they to erase. Your review answered all my questions.

One suggestion, if you still have, can you link your scans to high resolution images? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you! I was searching the vast sea of world knowledge for info on non-repro blue lead refills to use for sketchwork that will be scanned and finished on the comp, to see if I can cut down on the amount of clean-up effort from rough drafts... You two answered all of my questions, and even covered erasability (helpful in the event I feel like working again). To show my immense gratitude, I'm donating a hundred theoretical dollars to you, to spend at your leisure.

Anonymous said...

I'm a french reader ; last time I get totally enthousiast about discovering drawing with blue after bought Staedler ones ( 4.40€ for a pack of 12 piece ). I found your article after start to be annoying with the break of them.... Always & Always.
So Thanks for your so full & deep test ; this is really interessant and make win time & money to a lot of drawers ! 5 *****

Kiwi-d said...

Hello French-Anonymous. Glad to have been of help.

Anonymous said...

Very helpful review! I've long wanted to use blue leads but only knew of Pentel, which is too light for me. Have you found similar results for the different makes of red lead refills? I personally don't care about erasing but do need something more visible than the Pentel.

Kiwi-d said...

Sorry Wendell, haven't done any comparisons of red or any other colour except blue.

Anonymous said...

Have you come across this lead? If so, have you tried it? If not, will you compare it to the others?

Anonymous said...

Okay, ignore that. They're 2mm and you've mentioned that that is too big by your preference.

Anonymous said...

I found the complete line of Mitsubishi Uni Color and Pilot Enro Color at a Japanese bookstore. The differences between the brands are consistent, with the Pilot being softer and darker. Only the blues of the two are close. The Pilot Violet is particularly dark. Now all I need to do is find some Staedtler to compare!

Jiahe said...

Hey! Cool review! I've actually bought the Pilot Color Eno Blue pen and used it. But now I realised a problem..... it's actually fades with time! And it's fading fast. My notes can "disappear" within 3 weeks "exposed" to air!! So would like to ask if you have done any "fading" comparison test with it and let me know the results? haha :P I just want a "fade-proof" pencil!! And I will buy whatever you have recommended :P

Kiwi-d said...

Hello Jiahe. Well thats news to me. No I haven't done any longevitiy tests. I never thought about fading. I can't give you any recommendations about that at all.

Anonymous said...

Dave, I was in Dymocks Superstore in Sydney just the the other day and I clearly remember reading the box that came with the pilot color enos warning of lighfastness issues when exposed to light -"this product will fade when exposed to light" or words to that effect.

2 1/2p

Kiwi-d said...

Yep, you are right. I just checked my conatiner and there is that warning on the back. Why I have completely ignored and forgotten about that I don't know. It's faded from my memory :)

Jiahe said...

Ya, it said that on mine as well. And didn't expect it to be that "bad". haha!! Anyway, I am not able to find all the brands of different colour leads in any 1 particular shop, so can't go in and do my "test" at 1 time. Would like to ask if you can do the test on my behalf? It's simple. Just take a piece of paper, colour it within a small box, then take a photo every 3 days. The test should be complete in 1 month at most.... haha, a bit long but I guess it's worth it (for the benefit of mankind's knowledge that is :P)

and it's not just light that will cause it to fade.... I place my notes in my room, the only contact my lead has is with "air", and it fades so much in just 3 weeks!! Here's a picture for you to compare.

Taken on 25 Feb 09

Taken on 08 Apr 09 (about 1 and a half months.

Kiwi-d said...

Hi Jiahe
OK, well, no set in stone promises, but I'll see what I can arrange for a fade test.

Jiahe said...

Thanks man!!! Ya, just take your time when you feel like doing it :)

Anonymous said...

Dave, you'll probably curse me for giving you this link but this site is Numero Uno among watercolorists world wide for technical issues - just check the "Lighfastness Testing" section as an example.

2 1/2p

Kiwi-d said...

OK, well samples are taped up in my window, getting their dose of the autumn sun. Ahhh, if ever anyone needed proof of madness...

51rocks said...

Wow... haha!! Thanks Kiwi D!
Oh, ya, maybe also add one more... the one in normal "room exposure". The results would be good as well as we don't usually take our writings under the sun. And for my notes, I put it "exposed to air" and it's gone as well -_-"
Ok, thanks for the effort made!! I know this is very troublesome to take note of every now and then. Appreciated it lots :)

Northorn said...

You can get the UNI .5mm leads in soft blue also.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much!! This is incredibly useful!

I wanted to finally try to rid myself of the drudgery of erasing all of my pencil lines before scanning in the finished artwork, but could find VERY little information about mechanical colored lead until now. I can't stand to use regular pencils any more.

simplesime said...

Thank you for taking the time to post this information - I've been very annoyed with the Staedler blue 0.5 leads I've been using - to many breakages as you've mentioned - glad to have it re-inforced and I really want a strong lead - so now i've bought some 0.7 Pilot - looking fwd to using them - I wish that someone made a 0.9 or 1.3mm- maybe in the future........

Neill said...

Wish I had read this post before buying the Staedtler 0.5 blue. Not particularly cheap and absolutely awful. I very rarely break a normal lead but these just seem to fall apart with only minimal pressure.

Anonymous said...

There is a 0.9 and 1.3 colored leads from pentel
check out these links:

Anonymous said...

This was so amazingly useful, thank you so much for this run through!

I'm passing it on to my artist friends too :)

Dark Iris Design said...

Quick message to say thanks - I do this kind of research myself and its great to have someone else do it for me! - I've just purchased the Eno Soft Blue from Cult Pens and i'm eagerly waiting to try it out - no more sharpening the light blue Faber Castell pencils! Cheers! Wendy

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,
Just wanted to let you know Staedtler used to manufacture a 0.5mm non photo blue from 85-95.These leads are very different from the one you are using,they are extremely rare,and hard to find.There aren't even any examples on the web,however there is a tube on ebay right now!