It’s half universal truth and half industry punchline that veteran artists often lament that “they just don’t make art supplies like they used to”. Younger artists usually roll their eyes, but just wait about 1o years, whippersnapper. When some art supply or tool that you have been using for a long time suddenly becomes discontinued or the manufacturing process with it changes so it doesn’t perform as you have been used to, it can drive you crazy. Creating is a personal process and there is nothing more frustrating than when something you previously relied on to do this suddenly refused to do it and instead does that. It derails the entire creative flow when you are forced to struggle with some mechanical hurdle.
Pen nibs are a great example. There is a famous story in the cartooning industry about Charles Schulz, creator of “Peanuts”, and his favorite pen nib. I’ve found sources that say this was the Speedball C-5, and while he might have used the C-5 at one time or another for lettering I have it from some a few who knew Sparky personally the nib in question was the Esterbrook Radio #914. This was the nib he exclusively used for inking Peanuts, and when he heard in 1971 that Esterbrook was going out of business he called them directly and bought every last box they had in stock. He claimed he’d retire when he ran out of that nib, rather than try using another. Another pen nib story comes from my good friend, mentor, longtime MAD artist and current MAD art director Sam Viviano. Sam was partial to the Gillott 303, but at some point Gillott changed the nib from a bronze finish to a blue steel finish, and Sam found it made the nibs far less reliable. He went around to art stores and bought up all the old stock 303s he could find, and he saves these for use when he is inking something that needs special attention. There are many similar stories. Suffice it to say when an artist finds a tool that works great for them, they become very unhappy if that tool goes away.
Which brings me to a personal gripe about the spiraling quality of previously reliable art supplies… namely the venerable Strathmore bristol board.
I used to exclusively use Strathmore 500 series Bristol board, 3 or 4 ply weight in a kid (cold press or textured) finish. I found these boards to be nearly bulletproof… they took all the penciling, erasing at inking you could throw at them and still the surface would take subtle washes if you wanted to add them after all that abuse. Great stuff, or used to be.
Lately I’ve gotten a number of bad batches of Strathmore bristol. The problem with them was they bled. Inking on them with a dip pen resulted in your line getting fuzzy and hairy-looking. Totally unusable. At first MAD sent me some boards that did that, and I couldn’t use them. I wrote it off as an anomaly… maybe somebody at the Strathmore plant spilled their Pepsi into the bleaching vat during that batch or something. Then I ordered a pack of 25 sheets of 4 ply 500 boards from an online art supply house, and all 25 boards did the same thing. Bled all over the place. I managed to use these boards anyway by spraying them with a photo-retouch fixative that is used to spray photographs so that someone can add painted tints and colors to them directly on the photo’s surface. This was an expensive solution, not to mention that aerosol can of fixative was so toxic I had to spray it outside while holding my breath and then run away. I am sure there is a hole in the ozone layer directly above my house.
Just the other day I got a pack of 25 sheets of 500 series from Dick Blick. Fortunately before I spent a lot of time penciling on one of the new boards, I tested it with the ink. It bled like a stuck pig. That’s three batches from three different sources in about 18 months that was bad. That’s not an anomaly, that’s a trend.
It’s frustrating because that stuff isn’t cheap. I paid over $140 for those twenty five sheets including shipping. Returning them will be no fun, but worse is how do I order them with confidence again? I can’t. There are few places in the Twin Cities that stock this kind of board where I can go and buy a sheet and test it first before buying up any stock. Frustrating. I’ve found this applies only to the 500 boards, and the lesser quality 400 boards are still usable (so far).
My apologies for the rant. I could go into how they don’t make movies/TV/music/donuts/etc. like they used to anymore, but I have to go outside and tell some kids to get the hell out of my yard.
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