It is in our nature to hold onto things once deemed valuable. We convince ourselves that this object will increase in value, or may someday "come in handy". In some cases this is true, but more often times than not, the objects value will decrease, it will become irrelevant, or become unusable. Yet, the object will remain in the home, occupying valuable space, or collecting dust somewhere, only to be forgotten. In rare cases, the object that collected dust for so long may actually be something awesome. Take for example, the knee-high maroon leather boots my mother wore in the 1970's; she retired them to the bottom of her closet after having children, and there they sat for two decades. Today, the boots fit me like a dream and match most of my winter wardrobe. Score.
I am absolutely guilty of hoarding old art supplies. Supplies can be very expensive. I often convince myself that someday, a scientist will invent a magic serum to rejuvenate ailing products, like dried out acrylic paint and ink. My optimistic outlook is enough to cause me to hold onto old paint for way too long.
In a recent workshop, a student asked what calligraphy supplies will need to be replaced, and when to know when they should be tossed. I compiled a short list of supplies that stand the test of time, and those that need to be discarded and replaced.
Supplies to keep:
- Vintage inks - But inks dry out, don't they? Yes, some do, but others do not. Take, for example, the collection of calligraphy inks my aunt saved for decades. She used to handwrite correspondences with dip pens, and over the years, she amassed a sizable collection of inks, pen holders, and nibs. Some of the inks are still in their original packaging with their original price sticker affixed to the box. Most of the inks are in small glass jars, but others are in plastic; I infer that they all survived 25 years without use due to gentle handling, tight cap sealing, and room temperature storage. If anything, keep them because they are an interesting conversation starter, and they photograph well.
- Pen holder - Depending on the type of pen holder you use, you may have your holder forever. I don't use anything fancy — my go-to is a basic, straight pen holder. It is plastic, which is basically indestructible, unless you run over it or snap it out of frustration. Ideally, expensive artisan holders made of wood will last a lifetime; however, the wood can split and cause splinters. Discard the holder if this happens (calligraphy shouldn't be painful).
- Small jars - Little containers make excellent ink wells, and can also be used to hold water or nib cleaner. When the water or cleaner becomes dirty, simply rinse out, or clean it with soap. When cleaning an old ink well, use soap, warm water, and a Brillo pad.
- Scraps of paper - Paper with errors, rips and tears can make excellent sketch or test paper. I have an entire box full of "happy mistakes", and I use the scrap to sketch, test ink flow and color correctness, or to remind myself of the stroke thickness of a particular nib. It is also better for the environment if we use every inch of paper, especially for practice.
- Sketch books + old work - I used to throw out my old sketches and earlier work because I was embarrassed of how elementary the illustrations and calligraphy appeared, especially when I was just starting out and hadn't drawn or lettered in a long time. It wasn't until my better half suggested I hold onto my sketches and use them as a point of reference for my artistic progression. Old sketches can spark inspiration, and early work can act as a visual aid to show you how much you have improved [through diligent practicing].
Supplies to toss:
- Old ink - But I thought we were keeping old ink? There is a difference between "old" and "vintage" ink. Old ink can be slimy, goopy, or crusty. If you use your ink frequently, and expose it to oxygen, it will dry out eventually. Some of my wells have morphed into a living haven for slimy, sludge-like ink. "Just add water" is not the solution to this problem. Adding water doesn't do much, other than dilute the ink opacity. After a lot of use, the sides of your ink well will begin to harden with dried, crusty ink. This isn't a reason to throw away the ink if it's still flowing as it should, but know that before you refill the well with more ink, the "crusties" should be removed with soap, water, and a Brillo pad. A clean ink well is a happy one!
- Warped nibs - Eventually, all nibs have their dooms day; the tip of the nib will no longer be so sharp, and the ink will not flow out correctly. The tip becomes a bit dull after frequent use, and depending on how much pressure you exert when writing, the tines will become more flexible and may break apart. The nib itself may not break, but instead of the tines being close together, a hairline space between them may form, or one tine overlaps the other. (The latter is caused from holding the pen incorrectly, tilting the nib at an angle.) Most pointed pen nibs cost between $.50 and $2, so rest assured knowing that you are not "throwing away" an investment. I discard the nibs I use most often about every six months, sooner or later, depending on their condition. With all this bring said, if you have a nib that is expensive (a Tachikawa for example), you may want to hold onto it, and use it to create a less than perfect calligraphic design (like Ralph Steadman for example). Alternatively, you maybe very talented and have thought to incorporate it into a three-dimensional artistic piece...If that is the case, I'd love to see it!
- Nib cleaner - Higgins Pen Cleaner comes in a 2.5 oz. bottle and can be found at local art supply stores or dickblick.com (but oddly enough, not at Paper and Ink Supply). The bottle should last several months, as only a few drops of the cleaner mixed with water are needed to clean a dirty nib. The cleaner + water solution can be used up to seven days before needing to be discarded and replaced with fresh solution. (This is a good place to mention that nibs can remain in the solution for up to eight hours. Be mindful of how long the nib is in the solution because if left in for too long, the nib oxidizes and rusts. Eek!) If on a tight budget, a Windex + water solution works just as well.
- Gouache paint - Gouache is "water-based"; therefore when exposed to oxygen, the paint dries quickly. Be sure to secure the paint cap when not in use, avoid storing in sunlit areas, and try to keep the paints in room temperature. Extreme heat or cold is the Waterloo of gouache.
When the time comes to assess the condition of your supplies, keep these tips in mind. Of course, not all of these tips will apply to you, as different calligraphy styles, frequency of use, and general artistic habits, are different for everyone. When you've decided to throw something away, just do it. Remember, what you throw away needs to be replaced, which means new, unadulterated supplies! Yay!