I've been creating and teaching art for several years and love helping new artists grow and find their own voices.
Derwent Inktense Blocks
Derwent, formerly called Rexel Cumberland, is an old, old UK company that more or less invented pencils and to this day creates more variety, inventiveness, and sheer colorful weirdness in pencils and pencil-related products than any other art supply manufacturer. The mad color scientists at Derwent come up with something new all the time to zap my savings.
First, it was the water-soluble Derwent Inktense Pencils, originally available in 24 colors, later expanded to 72 colors. These pencils wash like any sketch and wash pencil but become extremely strong and intense when washed. A little goes a very long way; in fact, I could hardly get light tints without pre-mixing them and washing on light washes till I got used to them. Once dissolved, Derwent Inktense ink is waterproof and permanent, unlike most watercolor pencils including Derwent's related line, Derwent Watercolour Pencils.
Derwent has now created a new, related product that's even more portable and convenient than Inktense Pencils. Inktense Blocks are woodless, so they are extremely economical. It's all pigment, right down to the last little crumb you can grind up and turn into a beautiful ink wash.
They've also created two accessories to use with Inktense Blocks: a set of three rubber Grippers so that you can keep your hands clean and a Grate 'n Shake jar with a grater top under the lid. You can grind off the ends of Inktense blocks to a powder (or Inktense pencils) with the Grate 'n Shake, add a little water, shake and have strong ink washes in any color you have available in blocks or pencils.
I didn't manage to get the Grippers or the Grate 'n Shake, but both are good ideas. You can get the same effects wrapping a bit of tape or paper around the stick or using an Intus pastel holder sized for small square pastels—the Derwent Inktense Blocks have the same width as most hard pastels, a little fatter than Conte crayons but about like Nupastel or Derwent Pastels. Tells me the rubber Grippers are good for pastels and other stick-shaped art supplies too. If you have a porcelain palette, you can use an art knife or a bit of sandpaper to grate a bit of powder off to mix with water for a liquid wash.
Remember, the liquid wash will not be rewettable. That's its great advantage for laying in details you don't want to move in later glazes, either with ink or with watercolor. It's important to keep your brush wet at all times, don't let Inktense dry on any brush—like any ink, it'll stain it unless you rinse off before it dries.
Also, make sure your hands are dry while handling the sticks or you could get somewhat lasting stains. If your hands were dry, any smear washes off very easily though. I got my hands stained doing my first test of these and washed them up easily with soap and water.
Colors and Texture
The 24 colors in the range of Derwent Inktense Blocks are well chosen. There's warm and cool yellow, orange, red, violet (depends on which you count the magenta as, either red-violet or cool red), a strong violet, warm and cool blues, several warm and cool greens plus several really good earth tones, a dark brown Bark that makes a good warm dark, a Charcoal that's cool like Payne's Grey and black and Antique White.
I found the Antique White particularly useful. It's not very opaque—these colors are very strong but transparent, like ink. You can see on the chart that I drew it over some black inked lines, and it partly covered them dry, then almost vanished when washed.
The Antique White is spectacular for being able to scumble over an area you painted too dark in ink or watercolor when you want a soft, misty fog effect. In landscape painting, it's very easy to get a distant mountain or patch of blue-green evergreens too dark in relation to the rest of the painting. If it's in Inktense, you can't lift to lighten at all; in watercolor, you may change the texture by lifting. Just scumble over with an Antique White Inktense Block and it will soften, lighten, and cool perfectly while still maintaining its color.
The dry texture of these sticks is somewhere between hard pastels like the Derwent Pastels and waxy colored pencil sticks like Prismacolor Art Stix. Much to my happy surprise, they felt a little softer than Prismacolor Art Stix, even though Prismacolors are one of the softest colored pencils I know.
Derwent Inktense Blocks have a slightly more "dry" feeling but are very soft, almost a cross between the softness of Coloursoft and the softness of pastels. Their unique texture makes scumbling and broken color applications very easy, while heavier pressure will give a deep, strong coverage used dry.
Beware that if you're washing, heavy coverage will not necessarily wet through completely. Going over a heavy thick area again with water may melt some more of the color and bring that color into adjacent areas. Test it before you pull a stroke across.
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If you're using it for its waterproof effects and non-mixing with later water medium layers (acrylic, watercolor, watercolor pencils, etc.), then either use very light applications and wash thoroughly or mix liquid washes, or pull color off the sticks with a water brush.
Sketch and Wash With Inktense Blocks
Before I created the Inktense video review, I did a small landscape of winter trees around a lake using Derwent Inktense Blocks. I should have snapped a photo of the sketch when it was dry. I loved the way the strokes looked—the blocks made it much easier to get loose, expressive pastel-like effects with broken color. They have a unique dry texture that goes on smooth but breaks color easily if you go lightly on paper with any tooth at all.
I washed the sketch using a water brush and had some of my usual surprises with just how strong some color areas became. Less is more using this medium! Don't grind it in with heavy pressure, and then wash unless you want a big pool of strong color to come out of that area. Practice makes perfect with Derwent Inktense Blocks or Derwent Inktense Pencils.
By feel, I think they had to slightly change the core material formula to get it to work well in a stick—it seems even softer, and that slight "dry" feeling is pleasant, leaving them halfway between pastels and colored pencils in feel. I didn't try smudging them dry, but I think that'd probably work well enough with a tortillon or Colour Shaper.
Many artists and crafters find Derwent Inktense extremely useful for fabric painting. I've heard from some crafters that it'll stand up to the wash if heat set with an iron, but I haven't tried the experiment. I'd suggest trying it at home and ironing one test swatch on a pocket handkerchief or rag while not ironing the other to find out if the heat setting does help with permanence. Silk painters love the liquefied Derwent Inktense ink and also sometimes work dry-then-washed to get some linear designs and washed areas.
Expressive, versatile, colorful, and compact, these new supplies have shot up onto my list of personal favorites. I'll try to get hold of some Grippers and the Grate 'n Shake; later on, those look like conveniences I'd love to have.
Below is the landscape painting I briefly displayed in the video.
In the "Clematis" painting below, you can see how vivid the strong colors become with Inktense Blocks. I used more muted colors—the earth tones and a couple of blues—on the landscape, but this has violet, bright blue, a yellow-green, leaf green, and magenta washed in along with the Antique White scumbled over some dark areas, dry over a washed area that was dried.
Linda Blume on October 03, 2013:
Would like to know how they differ from pan watercolor, except for the permanence.
Lilly May Rose from Australia on December 10, 2011:
Thanks for the info on these. I use the Inktense pencils all the time but I'd love to have a go at the blocks - they look great!
Wayne Tully from United Kingdom on April 07, 2011:
It's great to see the pieces of art from your video close up and some more thorough information on these Derwent blocks. I have a box of these already and although I haven't used them yet I will soon.
Kathi Mirto from Fennville on April 07, 2011:
Thank you for sharing your knowledge Robert and your beautiful artwork!
Paradise7 from Upstate New York on April 05, 2011:
They look like a LOVELY present for my artist sister! Thanks for a great hub.