July 2015 Smart Art Box, Part 3: The Project is Complete!

Originally published on February 8th, 2016, at SharondaWoodfin.net.
Edited and republished at Sharonda.net on March 6th, 2017.
Added to SMWoodfin.WordPress.com on October 31st, 2017.

While most of our friends likely spent last evening either watching or actively ignoring the Superbowl, my wife and I sat down at the dining room table, and we got our ink on! We had finally found the time to complete the suggested project from the July 2015 Smart Art box that we ordered in January. After the pure fail that was my attempt to carve the chop included in this box, we were excited to get on with the less dangerous aspects of the project.

But it did not get off to a good start:

Fiber pulling away from handmade paper
A bit of fiber pulling away from the handmade Nujabi cold press watercolor paper. Pro-tip: This bit was just from using a pencil on the paper, but pulling on it makes it worse!

The paper was the first thing to make me a bit worried about the fate of our Smart Art Challenge. A bit of fiber snagged during the very first phase of the project: penciling the outline of a circle. Pulling on the fiber just made it worse, and I ended up trimming the errant bit with a pair of scissors. I was concerned, because if lightly sketching on the paper with a pencil caused a snag, surely a sharp Speedball nib would hang like mad!

That didn’t happen, though. Minus that initial hangup, this paper performed like a champ through both nibs and washes, neither hanging nor buckling as I worried it might.

My inky fingers
Ink is messy! Just opening this bottle of ink was messier than it should have been!
(Photo by Linda Mah. Edited by me. Used with permission. [And I cleaned all the brushes and pens, so it was an even trade.])
The next bit of unpleasantness came from the Speedball ink.

Ink bottles generally aren’t the neatest, cleanest things to open. But instead of the tough, foil-like sealer that I remember from the last several bottles of Speedball acrylic ink I’ve opened, this bottle of Speedball India ink came with a rather tender, foam-like sealer which came off in several pieces and left me with ink all over my drawing hand.

And, while I’m complaining about ink packaging:

Different ink bottles
One of these bottles is more conveniently designed for using watered-down inks. I’ll bet you know which one it is!

The instructions for completing the suggested project from this Smart Art box include mixing the ink with water. Of course, that’s always easier – and less messy, and more precise – to do with an eyedropper. But this ink didn’t come with in an eyedropper bottle. No eyedropper was included in the box, at all.

But why? Surely it’s obvious that a kit like this, designed to introduce people to different art tools and to show them how to use them, should choose the option (in this case, an eyedropper bottle) which is most likely to lead to a successful experience for the buyer?

My guess is that Smart Art opted for the wide-mouth ink bottle so that the “giant” bamboo sketch pen could be dipped into it. Or maybe Smart Art just loves Speedball’s “Super Black” inks as much as I do.

I think, though, that if I had been curating the box, I’d have gone for an eyedropper bottle – even one filled with less-black ink – and a smaller bamboo pen.

Linda’s first time drawing with a dip pen
This is Linda’s first time drawing with a dip pen! My heart grew five sizes!

Linda loved working with the smaller half on the TaDa! 2 in 1 Brush Set, but she wasn’t nuts about using the Speedball dip pen. Despite her lack of enthusiasm for the pen, teaching her to use it – and how nibs work – was one of my favorite parts of this project. It was nice to be able to share something that I really do love with her, and I suspect she’ll enjoy it more if she tries it again.

(Especially if she tries it on smooth paper. We used smooth Bristol scraps beneath our paintings to protect the dining room table from stray ink. Seeing her learn the difference between working on a smooth, heavy board, and a textured paper was one of the highlights of my evening. I don’t think I’ll ever have to explain the need for a particular type of paper again!)

Bamboo pen nib structure
The structure of the bamboo pen’s nib only became clearly defined after it was dipped in ink.

One part of this Smart Art box that Linda and I both loved was the bamboo pen! That makes sense, for me, since I love dip pens, anyway; but I’m not sure why my wife felt more comfortable with this than with the Speedball pen. I suppose it could have been that the bamboo pen came with fewer warnings from me about damaging nibs. It could have been that the line from the bamboo pen is less variable than one a from a Speedball nib. Hell, it could have even been the circumference of the bamboo.

For me, though, I think the primary enjoyment was in the simplicity of dipping a piece of wood in ink, then making lines with it. Art really doesn’t get much less complex than that.

Our finished ink paintings
Our finished ink paintings, complete with simple, fake “chops”. Linda’s art is on the left and mine is on the right.

Despite my complaints about this particular Smart Art box, the positives outweigh the negatives. I got tools I will definitely put to use: the bamboo pen and two standard pen nibs that I didn’t already have on hand. More importantly, though, was the little bit of technique I learned from the instructions on painting bamboo leaves. I’ll take useful pieces of art education where I can get them, and that was a useful piece.

My favorite part of this Smart Art Challenge, though is that – as always – my wife and I spent an hour or two being creative together, learning things together, and that we’ve come away from the experience with material reminders of the whole thing. It’s amusing, to me, that the differences in our finished paintings reflect actual differences between the two of us: She is thinner and more subtle than I am, generally. Her bamboo is thinner and more subtle, too. (My bamboo looks like it wants to be an oak!)

The plan is to mount both of our ink paintings, side-by-side, in one frame. But that’s only a plan. When/if it actually happens, I’ll update this blog with a photo of them framed and hung.

Linda also documented the process of this Smart Art Challenge. If you’d like to see her take on the project, check out her Instagram account.

PS That chop I tried to carve? It was not included, at all, in the actual Smart Art Challenge for this box!

Also: Paste ink is kinda fibrous and gross.