25 May 2014

[art] The Legend Of The Blackwing 602

Now, I'll start this out by saying that my jones for art supplies exists on a level second to nobody's. If I actually created as much art as I know I can with the supplies I have stocked up, I could fuel several musea for rather a few years. And I like what I like, like many aspiring self-made creators; it's hard to explain, but some things just work where other things … well, not so work. There are some tools and materials that, when I see them, my mind's all DADDY LIKE!!! and I have to use them somehow.

For writing I've always preferred pen (up until now the Pilot Precise V5 but I'm going in on my Cross Classic Century ballpoint in ways that bemuse me) because I like the tightness of the line and I love ink. The last time I used pencil for any extensive writing was during high school. And my compulsive diary-writing knows nothing but ink's unique benediction.

Still, even someone as preference-oriented as I continues to scratch my head at the religious intensity a certain pencil has inspired amongst literary, musical, and screenwriting titans. That talisman has a name: Blackwing 602.

The shape is the thing that originally gets your attention. The ferrule uniting the eraser with the wood case is unlike anything you've ever seen before. This is no Ticonderoga, you know this going in.

Above: The Palomino Blackwing.
Below: The Palomino Blackwing 602, a horse of a different color.

The ferrule flares and turns into something of a rectangle to support a uniquely-shaped (for the end of a pencil, anyway) eraser. 

About two weeks ago now, when we stopped by Muse to watch Meredith Dittmar work her mojo, I noticed a new display stocked with small, elastic-band notebooks and these interesting pencils. The ad copy on the side boasted devotion from unnamed screenwriters and Pulitzer winners, opting for the appeal to unknown authority and a flavor not unlike the campaign that got the Moleskine into the mass-market consciousness about a decade or so ago. 

Claiming credentials like those certainly piqued my interest. One shouldn't throw such support around in vain, so I looked into them, and the names of the people who would use them was simply stunning and as iconic as promised; Stephen Sondheim, Quincy Jones, and Vladimir Nabokov would apparently use nothing else, and John Steinbeck was quoted as exulting I have found a new kind of pencil -- the best I have ever had! upon discovering it. 

The general trajectory of its history has it born in the 1930s, produced by Eberhard Faber and then by its successor Faber-Castell until 1998. In 1994, the custom machine that created the unique ferrule was discovered to be broken, and in the merciless bottom-line accounting of the time it was presumably deemed that there was no percentage in repairing it. The backstock of necessary parts lasted another four years until the pencil was discontinued entirely; despite appeals from the creative elite which doted on it, proving that prestige doesn't always win the day.

Bona-fides established, I was intrigued enough to purchase two of them … the original Palomino Blackwing redux, and the Palomino Blackwing 602. They are available by the each not only at Muse but also at I've Been Framed in not only the original and 602 versions but a third version called Blackwing Pearl.

There's an interesting sensation in picking up a wood-cased pencil after years of using anything but. I felt as back in grade school … I never knew what the year would bring but there's something about about-to-be-used school supplies that suggests possibility. Smell, sensation, feel (and taste, if you're so inclined) … there's a gestalt going on there that's powerful good.

But I was going for the practical, not the poetic. I sharpened the two pencils and got down to my favorite thing to do in the library; writing in my diary. Here's the results:

Page one.

Page 2
That was quite an experience, actually. I prefer mechanical pencils, markers, and pens precisely because you don't have to spend time sharpening them. I like the tightness of line that never lets up. So writing with a pencil you have to sharpen induces a different set of perceptions: awareness of the dulling of the tip, awareness of having to sharpen, the tactile sensation of the graphite transferring to the paper, the visual sensations of the not-always-crisp line.

As far as the quality of the graphite, they are of a decent quality; I found the writing to be smooth and really quite silk. In particular, the redux Blackwing has a very soft lead; it doesn't stand up for long under pressure, at least my pressure, and I switched over to the 602 much sooner than I anticipated. The 602, on the other hand, was a much better writer than the basic Blackwing, with a firmer lead that still marked nice and darkly. It also required a finesse I didn't use much. The iconic tagline Half The Pressure, Twice The Speed, sounds a nonsensical as it scans memorably, but once I got on the pencil's wavelength, I found a bit of truth in that; it did require less pressure to make a satisfying mark, and I was able to write a bit quicker.

The detachable, replacable
The eraser, I found, is replaceable. Funny, no? The eraser itself, a rectangular object reminiscent of a bit of Chiclet gum, is held by a small metal clip which one inserts into that unusual ferrule. They sell extra replacement erasers; the reason I find it funny, I suppose, is because you're going to be using up that pencil. But then maybe the creators who are fans tend to use erasers faster than they use the pencil up. Seeing as one of the famous Blackwing fans was animator Chuck Jones, there's a case for that.

The Blackwing 602 was a more exultant writing experience than I thought it would be. It hasn't dissuaded me completely from my habituation to pen and ink, but it's a pencil I'd keep around for note-taking and art. The quality is high, and it's manifest. And, as a funky bit of 20th Century creative America it's, at the least, most delightful.

For further delectation, here's an article from The Hollywood Reporter that delves deeper into the legend: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/blackwing-602-why-is-hollywood-600265, and there's a whole website devoted to the pencil … The Blackwing Pages … here: http://blackwingpages.com/

If you can't get to Muse or IBF to buy some (what a shame that would be) you can, as just about everything short of the human soul these days, buy them online. $20 the box.

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