Field Sketching Outfit

Field Sketching was originally a military skill developed to a fine art in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

In a time of hit-and-miss topographic mapping, field panoramic sketches drawn/painted from a known point on the map were invaluable for allowing officers to visualise the terrain they would be working in. With the advent of portable photographic equipment and aerial photography in particular in the early 20th Century, it started to become obsolete as a military skill. By the end of the 2nd World War, the fine art of field sketching had all but died out, although it has continued to be used by snipers, intelligence personnel and special forces to a far lesser degree.

A stunning WWI panoramic field sketch in watercolour painted by a member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Palestine in 1917. Image courtesy NZ Government Archives.

A stunning WWI-era military panoramic field sketch in watercolour painted by a member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Palestine in 1917. Image courtesy NZ Government Archives.

Field sketches were drawn and sometimes were painted in order to illustrate subtle details and changes in vegetation and terrain. Destined to be used once and then discarded, it’s a miracle that any of these field sketches have survived the rigours of time and neglect. We’ll cover the actual art of field sketching in a later post.

To bring the lost art of field sketching back to life, it all starts with the equipment. In this case, a Field Sketching Outfit. Inspired by expeditionary artist Maria Coryell-Martin’s field-appropriate Art Toolkit (http://expeditionaryart.com/shop/product/art-tool-kit/) and knowing a little bit about the methodology of military field sketching from various 19th and early/mid 20th Century manuals on the subject, I have put together a period-style field sketching outfit.

Field Sketching Outfit with accoutrements.

Field Sketching Outfit with its accouterments – a compass and case, field glasses and mini-tripod. Mini-tripod is entirely optional.

The outfit is based on an Australian-made 1943 vintage No. 2 Mk.I General Service map case and it’s turned out to be the perfect size for this purpose.

The map case open, showing the general layout of the paper and equipment inside.

The map case open, showing the general layout of the paper and equipment inside.

Inside the map case cover are sewn loops and pockets which now contain the following:

  • Tin of watercolour paints
  • Vintage celluloid protractor with string
  • 6-inch metal ruler
  • 3 x assorted brushes
  • An HB pencil
  • A 2B pencil
Watercolour paints tin along with spare brush, short metal ruler and a protractor.

Watercolour paints tin along with spare brush, short metal ruler and a vintage protractor.

Clipped to the map board are the following:

  • A cello bag containing a small supply of general purpose paper towels
  • A field message notebook – contains gridded pages which are great for noting down fine detail before transferring to the paper
  • An A5 spiral-bound book of 30 pages of watercolour/sketch paper
To the mapboard are clipped a notebook, watercolour/sketch paper and a bag of paper towels.

To the mapboard are clipped a notebook, watercolour/sketch paper and a bag of paper towels.

An acetate map overlay sheet covers and protects the paper when the case is closed up. On the back of the map board has been fitted a jury-rigged tripod mount for use with a standard photographic tripod, or in this case, with an Ultrapod II compact tripod spraypainted green. This allows the case’s map board to be mounted as a plane table for sketching and watercolour painting. I find working with the outfit on my lap while I’m sitting to be the most comfortable method in the field, but a tripod mount gives some more options.

Back of outfit showing tripod mounting block.

Back of outfit showing tripod mounting block.

Other equipment used with the outfit includes:

  • Prismatic Compass with case and lanyard
  • Map
  • Field Glasses
  • Mini Tripod (optional, but useful for OP work)
  • Shoulder strap

Next post in this series will cover the methodology behind an accurate field sketch.

The Bullet Pencil – A Timeless Love Story

Long before the very cool Fisher Space Bullet Pen, there was the bullet pencil. A masterpiece of simplistic and purely functional design, the bullet pencil was little more than a pencil housed in a spent rifle cartridge, traditionally a .303 British cartridge.

Shaped like some heavily-chromed art deco rocket, it writes underwater, upside down, in zero G... Inspired by the humble, old fashioned bullet pencil.

Shaped like some heavily-chromed art deco rocket, the Fisher Space Bullet Pen writes underwater, upside down, in zero G… Inspired by the humble, old-fashioned bullet pencil.

The first recorded instance of the bullet pencil appears in the late 1890s. With Britain’s various colonial adventures in Africa (South Africa and the Sudan) came a surprising new niche industry – the commemorative battle souvenir peddlers. Ghoulish opportunists picked over the battlefields at Omdurman or Ladysmith stepping over dead enemy and friendly casualties as they collected thousands of spent rifle and Maxim gun cartridges. These were sent back to Jolly Old England in bulk for processing into cheap writing instruments to be sold at a premium as battlefield souvenirs or whatever they called trench art prior to World War I.

The "Omdurman" propelling pencil souvenir, created from a .303 rifle cartridge apparently used during that battle in the Sudan in 1898. Source - http://www.vintagepens.com/Omdurman_pencil.shtml Link is worth a read if you're curious about British colonialism as it relates to early 21st Century conflicts. Beware, your googling will probably lead you to adesire to watch "Khartoum" or one of the many cinematic adaptations of AEW Mason's The Four Feathers. Don't say I didn't warn you...

The “Omdurman” propelling bullet pencil, created from a .303 rifle cartridge apparently used during that battle in the Sudan in 1898. Source – http://www.vintagepens.com/Omdurman_pencil.shtml . Link is worth a read if you’re curious about British Imperialism as it relates to our own early 21st Century conflicts. Beware – your googling will probably instil in you a desire to watch Khartoum or one of the many cinematic adaptations of A.E.W. Mason’s The Four Feathers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

The cartridge cases were cleaned and polished, while special sterling silver or nickel-plated brass “bullets” were cast. Into these nonfunctional projectiles were initially were set one of a variety of propelling pencil mechanism.s To use, one simply removed the “projectile” from the cartridge, reversed it, advanced the graphite “lead” and wrote, sketched or scribbled to one’s heart’s content.

The Omdurman pencil configured for use.

The “Omdurman” propelling bullet pencil configured for use. Unwieldy, unbalanced and inelegant compared to later versions.

The next time we see the bullet pencil is 1914. As Britons prepared for what must surely be the end of the war at Christmas time in 1914, Her Royal Highness The Princess Mary was preparing her own special Chrissie prezzie for every man who “wore the King’s uniform”. This special Christmas gift took the form of a comfort package packed inside an ornate brass box issued to every British and Dominion serviceman and woman. Contents varied, but the standard box contained – a packet of pipe tobacco, a packet of cigarettes, a  Christmas card and envelope, a photograph of Princess Mary and a pencil made from a spent .303 cartridge case.

A composite 1914 Princess Mary gift box. Image from - http://militarychristmas.tripod.com/marybox.html

A typical 1914 Princess Mary gift box. Image from – http://militarychristmas.tripod.com/marybox.html

The Princess Mary bullet pencil was much-simplified when compared with the turn-of-the-century models. Although it also used a spent .303 cartridge case as a base, it used a bomb-proof half-pencil set into a decorative “bullet”. There were no moving parts, nothing to rust or corrode and both the cartridge case and the pencil could be replaced very easily, even on the front lines. Befitting a royal gift, the cartridge case was highly polished, lacquered and monogrammed with the Princess Mary’s seal while the “bullet” was pressed and formed from a sheet of solid sterling silver. Shorter than the earlier versions, the Princess Mary bullet pen was the perfect size for carrying in a trouser or shirt pocket under the combat conditions seen on the Western Front prior to the 1915 stalemates that led to a 3-year-long trench warfare meat grinder.

The 1914 "Princess Mary" bullet pencil as included in the Christmas 1914 gift tins for Commonwealth troops. Simple, clean, easily refillable... Although you have to wonder how many ended up being accidentally chambered in a Lee Enfield rifle or a Vickers Gun.

The monogrammed 1914 “Princess Mary” bullet pencil as included in the Christmas 1914 gift tins for Commonwealth troops. Simple, clean, easily refillable… Although you have to wonder how many ended up being accidentally chambered in a Lee Enfield rifle or a Vickers Gun.

WIth the idea of an ever-so-useful pencil made from a cartridge case deeply ingrained in the consciousness of millions of British Commonwealth Great War Veterans, it was just a matter of time before the concept was exploited commercially on a large scale. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, trinket manufacturers in the United States sold hundreds of thousands of bullet-style pencils made from brass or aluminium and plastered with labels advertising everything from hot dogs to sports teams to agricultural equipment to funeral homes to national monuments. These were often handed out as freely as business cards are today.

1950s-vintage commercial bullet pencil advertising an American paint company.

1930s-vintage commercial bullet pencil advertising an American paint company.

No longer made from actual spent cartridges, the US bullet pencils retained a superficial resemblance to a .30/06 cartridge fitted with a round-nose projectile. Considered cheap and nasty at the time, many of these cheap, commercial bullet pencils were so well made, and constructed of such durable materials that they have survived well into the second decade of the 21st Century. Indeed, this writer has been lucky enough to have bought a bulk lot of vintage bullet pencils, which is sufficient as a lifetime supply. Original metal advertising bullet pencils from the 1930s, 40s and 50s can be had very cheaply if you’re in the right place at the right time. Check eBay or Etsy for bargains.

A 1940 US patent drawing describing a bakelite-cased bullet pencil.

A 1940 US patent drawing describing a bakelite-cased bullet pencil… the beginning of the end.

The commercial bullet pencils advanced the design to its pinnacle in the 1950s by the addition of an eraser stuck in the end and a detachable pocket clip. With the advent of mass-produced moulded celluloid and other early plastics, the stage was set for the fall of the mighty bullet pencil.

Modern sports-industry, mass-produced plastic bullet pencil

Modern sports-industry, mass-produced plastic bullet pencil

Although highly popular with farmers and golfers, the bullet pencil found its niche in the United States through its adoption by Baseball, Basketball and Football umpires as their industry-standard, in-game writing instrument. The bullet pencil was the perfect shape and size to be carried unobtrusively in the front slash pockets of the umpires’ horrible black polyester trousers. The umpire’s love of the simple, but effective bullet pencil sucked the mojo right out of it. Brass and aluminium was replaced with soulless white plastic, and the pencils became mass-produced in automated Chinese sweat shops. The time of the bullet pencils had come to an end, and the original vintage metal commercial pencils became sought-after collector’s items.

The modern Midori raw brass bullet pencil

The modern Midori raw brass bullet pencil

Instructional diagram which comes with the Midori brass bullet pencil.

Instructional diagram which comes with the Midori brass bullet pencil.

Then came the Renaissance. Japanese stationer to the hipster masses, Midori plugged into the nostalgia surrounding the bullet pencil and released their own version. The Midori bullet pencil echoes both its military and commercial bullet pencil heritage, wraps it all in some clean, elegant and minimalistic industrial/military-chic packaging, then sells it to you at a stupid-high premium.

Buffalo Bullet Pencil made from a Penn State Industries kit and finished by Duke's Custom Works. Image from http://dukescustomworks.fatcow.com/hand-made-pens-and-pencils.html

Buffalo Bullet Pencil made from a Penn State Industries kit and finished by Duke’s Custom Works. Image from http://dukescustomworks.fatcow.com/hand-made-pens-and-pencils.html

Buffalo Bullet Pencil Kit component diagram. To complete the kit, you simply add a sleeve of your preferred material - turned wood, bone, antler, durable compressed kraft paper, brass sleeve made from a .303 rifle cartridge...

Buffalo Bullet Pencil Kit component diagram. To complete the kit, you simply add a sleeve of your preferred material – turned wood, bone, antler, durable compressed kraft paper, a brass sleeve made from a turn-of-the-20th-century .303 British military rifle cartridge…

Midori aren’t the only modern manufacturer attempting to revive the bullet pencil. Penn State Industries in the USA have been selling their Buffalo Bullet Pencil Kits (http://www.pennstateind.com/store/PKBFPCLCH.html). Great looking kits and some of the pencils made from them by talented and skilled artisans are stunning. Besides the awesome cherry wood example from Duke’s Custom pictured above, you can find examples put together from walnut burl, corn cob, deer antler, old ivory and even stacked leather washers just like a Ka-Bar Mk1 utility knife. My only issue with the Penn State kits is that they are too long. Ergonomically, they are probably fine, but they defeat the purpose of the bullet pencil, which was a compact writing instrument able to be carried unobtrusively and comfortably in a front slash trouser pocket so as to be close at hand at all times. I’m thinking of picking up some Penn State Kits and shortening them by about half an inch for my own creation – a pair of custom triangular micarta bullet pencils.

Back in the 1990s, the Fisher Space Pen company tried to revive the concept of the bullet-format writing instrument with its bullet space pen. They were moderately successful and the Fisher Space bullet pens remain available for sale to this day and are very well regarded by outdoor enthusiasts and “cool guy” stationery aficionados alike.

The Fisher Space Bullet Pen writes underwater.

The Fisher Space Bullet Pen writes underwater.

...so does a pencil. Therefore, a bullet pencil is at least as awesome as a Fisher Space Bullet Pen.

…so does a pencil. Therefore, a bullet pencil is at least as awesome as a Fisher Space Bullet Pen.

I prefer a pencil.

The next post in this series will look at restoring a vintage brass or aluminium commercial bullet pencil.