We test out the Nataraj Red-Blue Checking Pencils. From wartime map-making to book publishing to being every teacher’s favourite writing pencil, the checking pencil has an action-packed history. Now used by artists and comic creators across the world, the checking pencil has a strong personality that takes some getting used to. We find out if it’s worth it.
Reviewing the Nataraj Red-Blue Checking Pencil
Vishal: Hello and welcome to Stationery Test Drive from Inky Memo. Today we are going to be looking at a blue and red checking pencil. This one’s made by Nataraj, maybe you can find it by other manufacturers. We found this in our stationery store locally and we couldn’t resist because how often do you get something like this that is two ended? But before we look at that let’s introduce ourselves. I’m Vishal.
Samir: I’m Samir.
Minjal: This is Minjal.
Vishal: And we are artists and designers and calligraphers and what we do in this show is take these for a quick test drive. So Samir why don’t you tell us something that you’re working on before we get stuck in?
Samir: I’ve been recently busy preparing for a workshop which I just got done with. I guess by the time this comes out it will be about a month ago. So I do a lot of papercraft under the name Papernautic and I am going to be exploring more of that in the near future.
Minjal: Well I’ve actually just been reading some books on calligraphy and keeping myself busy just with that.
Vishal: And I’ve been looking through some of my older sketchbooks as well as some of my projects such as 36 days of type that I did this year. And videos for the same will be up on my channel which is @allvishal you can find me at allvishal.com and other places under that name and there’ll be links in the description for all of our various things.
What is a non photo or non copy blue pencil?
Now to the matter at hand which is the red and blue checking pencil. I’ll tell you my personal journey with this pencil, in that as I said at the beginning I found this in my local stationery and general goods store down the street. This is not a specialty item and I was intrigued by what it was because as an illustrator and especially someone who reads a lot of comics you realize, you hear tell-tales of of these things called non-copy blue pencils. And what they did is back in the day, the penciler which is the stage of the drawing that starts out the first. So if you’re thinking of someone named Jack Kirby or John Byrne or something they would mostly be pencillers and what they would do is they draw.
Let me draw a very quick and stupid Batman here. So they would draw everything in pencil, in a blue pencil, and you can’t really see much paradoxically and that is to your advantage because in real life I can see this perfectly well, but when it comes to copying, it’s a non-copy color or at least that’s what the original ones were. So people realized that you could do something in blue and since comics is kind of an assembly line this could then go on to an inker who would then ink directly over these blue pencils and then when they finally did the computer scanning back in the day but like the photo lithography or whatever all of the blue pencil gets erased, it just disappears. A non-copy blue pencil.
So people would use it for marks on the side of the page for corrections and things like that. The comics industry used it for actual illustration and so I’ve always been looking at blue pencils and I’ve picked up a few Prismacolor’s and things like that. But personally the reason I really like this one is that it behaves more like a pencil than a color pencil and since this is Stationery Test Drive we have all done a test drive. Minjal, yours is on the board already so let’s have a look at yours.
Lettering with the Nataraj Red-Blue Checking Pencil
Minjal: I really struggled with this bi-color pencil. I thought it was a color pencil and tried using it as one, I tried to color with it, sketch with it, also tried to mix it with water but gave up and I realized finally I’m going to use it for what it’s meant to be used for and wrote in cursive. I tried to use both the colors and I think that experiment was maybe a little successful.
Vishal: So you had trouble just putting down a mark that is dark enough?
Minjal: That and it was an upper body workout because the tip is really brittle and the pigment kept splattering on the page while I was trying to write, so I didn’t really have like a great experience using the pencil.
Vishal: So Samir tell me about it, it’s called a checking pencil, right? These are not, even though I talked about non-copy blue pencils, why are they called checking pencils?
History of checking pencils
Samir: Minjal actually dug up some research on this a few days ago and it has an interesting and a confusing history because I don’t think anyone’s quite sure where it started. So there’s two potential places it started. One of them is actually in publishing but not in the comic and graphical industry, just in general publishing, where editors would use the the two ends to go through a draft and figure out. All the mistakes would be crossed out with the red and all the positive additions or suggestions would be done with the blue.
Vishal: So you circle things, you’ll change, right.
Samir: So this was very much meant to be a quick way for an editor to go through a manuscript and mark things out so that the next draft could be made. That’s one place, rather one industry that claims that it started with them. There’s another even more interesting one which is that we came across a person in the military who said that this started actually for marking maps during war, which I think makes a little bit of sense. Because in an old school war, and we’re talking about early 20th century, having a pencil with both colors on it would have been so much simpler to use to mark out enemy territory being red, own territory being blue. It would have been so much easier to carry around than a pen or any other sort of marking instrument.
Vishal: Because pretty much any pen is a single color pen. This is before the age of those multiple ballpoint pens with three or four colours.
Samir: Right and not just that but if you had a piece of paper or you know heavy parchment or whatever that a war map would have been made on, this is not going to wash off.
Vishal: Right, it’s not an ink that is just going to be water soluble.
Samir: So on a battlefield I can completely understand why you would use this rather than anything else to mark out territories and draw out tomorrow’s plans.
Vishal: Now we haven’t been at war for a while at least most of us haven’t and I assume that right now the checking pencil is used for more academic purposes.
Samir: Absolutely, so I believe it started either with the military or with the book industry and then it slowly moved into academics and teachers and now it’s pretty much exclusively used by teachers.
Illustration art with the Nataraj Red-Blue Checking Pencil
Vishal: Right, so a teacher will come in mark a pen, a paper with a pencil rather than those notorious Reynolds Red Ball Pens which we have done an episode on so check that out on our channel for more traumatic memories but also some good art. Speaking of art, I used it as an illustrator, of course, and every problem that Minjal had with it, is something that I did not have, in fact quite the opposite.
The reason I love these and I’ve got a whole box of them, is because I use them to draw. I use them in a way where I put down light, preliminary drawings and then build up to this kind of thing. So this is three or four passes of drawing rather than a single one like that. And yes, this is the best, I don’t know if it’s technically non-copy blue, but this is the best drawing pencil in this colored style that I like. It’s not quite a graphite pencil.
Graphite pencils give you a good deal of other range but this one you can get a good line. I find you have to sharpen it down and just use it once in a while in stages. I start off with as blunt a tip as possible. I use it with a pencil holder. This is the same kind of pen but as you can see my blue pencil has been whittled down to almost nothing and it fits in here and I can use these quite well, I would totally suggest one of these, we might even do an episode on these pencil holders.
Samir: First off that’s a beautiful drawing.
Vishal: Thank you.
Samir: But also to clarify this is in fact not a non-copy blue. It’s not the right shade, which is why you can actually see it on the camera fairly easily. This is actually a pigment blue which is a much darker shade than the normal blue but because these pencils are so easily available a lot of artists now do use as a non-copy blue.
Vishal: Because historically whatever I could find, Prismacolors or all those non-copy blue pencils are extremely expensive if you’re outside the US like we are. It does not and especially now in the age of computers where you’re not doing a photo chemical process but you have so much more leeway after you scan what colors you can remove. Like sometimes I do it with just regular graphite pencils, I can still remove stuff. So this just allows me to go in quicker and isolate blues and take it out but I think process aside it looks really nice when you use it as a finished medium as well. So Samir show us yours, which you also did an illustration.
Figure sketching with the Nataraj Red-Blue Checking Pencil
Samir: Yes, I think this actually shows some of the issues and some of the strengths of this pencil, the range of things that we have done with it. I think Minjal is very right in that it is very much designed to write with and to have a clean line with, which is why it kind of helps when you do something very illustrative like this and when you want to put in like a flat shading.
What I tried to do is to go completely the opposite direction which is what Minjal had trouble with, which is using it as very much like a sketchy color pencil. I definitely think that you can use it that way but you need to use it in a much looser, less controlled fashion. This was done straight with the blue and the red pencil with no construction lines, no graphite pencil and you just kind of live with the rough stroke that you get and I kind of like the energy of that, in this case. But I definitely wouldn’t use it to get perfectly smooth rendered colored pencil kind of looks.
Vishal: Tell us about some of the places where you mix the two pencils?
Samir: Yeah I think it’s nice to have these two colors in one pencil because it just lets you do that kind of dual color mixing a little. Now because of how waxy this pencil is you can’t you can’t mix it to the level that you would something like a Prismacolor, where you get this perfectly smooth gradation. But I think it’s just useful to have two colors in your hand at the same time so that you can switch at any time. It’s more of an overlap than kind of a blending that you would get with a smooth pastel kind of colored pencil. But I quite like the effect it has.
Vishal: So overall the two illustrators here at least seem to love this pencil. Minjal you are conflicted about it?
Minjal: No I may actually try it out, because these are very encouraging results. So I will probably go back and make something.
Vishal: And we have talked about this in our other episodes that the paper quality does matter a lot for this. This is a very smooth paper it’s made for calligraphy, it’s made for ink.
Minjal: That’s right.
Samir: And I would not have been able to get this result with this paper. This is a fairly toothy cartridge paper and that’s what helps get some of that.
Vishal: By comparison this is probably a 60 gsm copy paper, so you can still get something out of it but in the copy paper it is affecting it a lot. So here you can see three different kinds of paper and how it will work with it.
Samir: And having seen Minjal’s results I would actually try writing with this more because this is really nice and clean.
Vishal: Yeah, I love the different weights of color and saturation that you’re getting across the letter forms which you don’t get in a pen and you rarely even get in a graphite pencil, so this is something that is unusual and unique to this that I’ve seen so far and it doesn’t work quite like a very waxy or very brittle color pencil for me.
So, yeah this is an unusual pencil. I love it, I think I’ll continue to use it in various ways even for finished things because this is actually the first time I’ve done something finished with this and I like the interplay of red and blue for these figures. I think that is generally our thoughts and our test drive with the Nataraj checking pencil. You might find some other brands in your area but I suggest just going out and getting these, looking for these because you can do some unusual interesting things with them.
Vishal: Before we go let’s just tell everyone again where they can find us. Samir tell us about Inky Memo itself first of all.
Samir: So Inky Memo is accessible at inkymemo.com, we also have a YouTube channel which we are slowly growing, we have an e-newsletter which you can sign up for also at inkymemo.com and we’re on Instagram where you can see what we’re up to on a more regular basis.
Samir: I think two is enough for now. Check out the the origami workshop Samir did. It’s linked on his Papernautic Instagram account and the entire video is in fact on the Classmate by ITC account which is a major stationery manufacturer here in India. Minjal tell us about where we can find you on Instagram and social media?
Samir: We’re all lazy about our websites.
Minjal: But, yes, that’s where you can find me.
Vishal: And you can find me on most social media @allvishal and at allvishal.com which is in fact a site that is 20 years old this month so there’s a post there about my bumbling journey around those 20 years, do check that out and check us out again on this channel in this very same place for more videos about stationery and pencils and more test drives. So until next time Samir what should we do?
Samir: Use that stationery!