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February 1st, 2012

First Impressions Of The Icarus Drawing Board

written by Erica Walker,  CPSC Secretary-Treasurer

The Three Graces by Ester Roi

The first time I saw some of Ester Roi’s work one word came immediately to mind: “blazing.” Such colour! I’m never surprised by the idea that coloured pencils can do extraordinary things but in this case I was particularly impressed and curious to learn more of her technique. When I found out about her Icarus Drawing Board I thought I would love to try it some day. Then the day arrived in January, with a late and unexpected Christmas present. Hooray!

For those of you who may not have heard of it, the Icarus Board is a portable drawing board with a “warm zone” that can be heated electrically. The heated surface causes any wax-based media to soften or even melt; when returned to room temperature, the medium solidifies once more. It is suitable for artist crayons, oil pastels and, of course, coloured pencils. Roi has developed many techniques for her invention and her own radiant work shows what may be accomplished with it. My own experiences are extremely limited since I’ve hardly used it yet, but here’s what I have to tell you so far.

First, I was impressed by how well-packed it was. Long-distance delivery of anything that happens to be both breakable and expensive always makes me nervous, but this was reassuringly solid. Inside a large box it is protected with lots of very stiff styrofoam and is held quite rigidly. So rigidly, in fact, that I couldn’t pull it out of the box. After tugging gingerly at it a few times I decided it would be safer to push it out. When I opened the other end I discovered a little paper anxiously instructing me NOT to pull out the Board, but instead to open both ends of the box and push it out. As a matter of fact there were several of these papers in the box — they are obviously meant to confront the opener immediately at either end, but had slipped out of place during transit. You’ve been warned!

Once I got it out, the next step was to find a place to set it up. The (temporary) choice was the dining-room table. The Icarus Board sits on 4 rubber feet so that its heat won’t destroy whatever surface you’ve put it on (though I personally still would not risk it on anything really delicate). It is intended to lie flat. I don’t know if it would be safe to have it on a slanted surface, but even if it is, I imagine it would be very awkward. It comes in two sizes: 14×20” and 20×26”. I have the larger size, which was uncomfortable to carry, but it also comes with a handle that can be attached at either side, to suit both the right-handed and the left-handed. Or you can simply not attach the handle at all. The Icarus Board can also be turned to suit both right- and left-handed. The only real inconvenience for me so far is that the rubber feet make it a little too high for me on this table.

If you are afraid this contraption might be too complicated or involve too many safety precautions, set your mind at rest. It resembles a stovetop with a burner on one side, and could not be simpler to use. On one side is the “warm zone;” the other is the “cool zone.” All you do is plug it in, switch it on, and turn the dial to whatever heat level you like. (Heat levels are numbered from 0 to 10; Roi says that 6 is the usual level for most work.) Those of you who are worried about burns may be surprised to learn that it is actually quite difficult to burn yourself with this. The warm zone is surrounded by a frame of space that stays cool, so you can always rest your hands against the work surface. At level 6, I found that I could still keep my fingers directly on the heated surface, although it was a little too warm to be totally comfortable. Even at level 10 it is hard to burn yourself unless you do so deliberately. Roi herself advises placing a folded cloth (or even two) under your hand, which provides protection from the heat while shielding your work from the oils in your skin. Of course there are instructions on what and what not to do with it, but a lot of these are just common sense. Never get water on it, it might get inside the mechanism; never use a damaged Board; make sure you’re working in a well-ventilated area; etc. Remember, though, that it is not made for children, and that close supervision is recommended if there are children around.

Icarus Board

Icarus Board Zones

A few complementary supplies arrived with it: some coloured pencils (Prismacolor, Caran d’Ache Luminance) and some Caran d’Ache Neocolor wax-based crayons and pastels, as well as 2 sheets of Stonehenge paper. I confess that I have not tried any of the Neocolors –I was just too eager to break out the pencils! In the end I tried out eight different brands: soft (Prismacolor, Derwent Coloursoft, Caran d’Ache Luminance), medium (Faber-Castell Polychromos, Lyra Rembrandt Polycolor, Caran d’Ache Pablo), and hard (Prismacolor Verithin and Derwent Signature). Note that both the Faber-Castell Polychromos and the Lyra Rembrandt Polycolor are oil-based. Although oil-based coloured pencils are NOT included in the list of acceptable media on the Icarus Board web site, I still wanted to see how they would respond to the heat. Derwent does not currently produce its Signature line, but since many of you might still have and enjoy them, I wanted to include them as well.

So what did I do? Scribbled and played around a bit — nothing serious. Nor did I test every pencil from every brand, so keep in mind the variations that exist even within each brand — one might react quite differently from another. All of the tests I did were at about heat level 7. With a cloth under my hand, I found this perfectly comfortable.

My impressions were as follows:

ALL of the pencils I tried were distinctly softer on the warm zone, though they retained their original hardness too. By that I mean that a heated medium pencil was still harder than a heated soft pencil and softer than a heated hard pencil. The creamiest pencils were softer even on the cool zone than the heated medium and hard pencils.

It was easier to lay down colour on the warm zone, and it does take noticeably less pressure to get complete coverage. What a blessing! Anyone who works heavily or burnishes a lot knows how hard it can be on your hands and wrists, and some pencils seem to release colour more reluctantly than others. For example: Prismacolor’s Black is one of its harder, scratchier pencils, and seems to fight you when you pile it on heavily. But here I was almost unconsciously using less pressure — there simply wasn’t the need for it. The exception was the Derwent Signature: although it did spread more easily in light layers it still protested loudly against heavy pressure, resisting all the way.

Many colours became brighter and/or more translucent when heated. I took colours from all of the different brands and tested them, first on the warm zone and then on the cool. I used heavy pressure, so as to completely obliterate the paper texture. The oil-based pencils I tried changed in temperature as well as brightness.  The colours of Faber-Castell Polychromos colours on the warm zone actually got a bit warmer!  With the other brands it varied: some were distinctly brighter, some slightly brighter, some seemed the same. The brightening was wonderful for achieving intense vivid colours, but I was a little disconcerted to see my favourite darks get lighter. At the moment I’m trying to figure out how to compensate.

I noticed that when pencils are used with heavy pressure on the warm zone there’s a lot of shed pigment to brush away, more than when they’re cool. The brand that seemed to be least affected in this area was the Prismacolor Verithin, which, although somewhat softer, still stayed “neat” and hardly shed at all.

The web site states that there must be a lot of pigment present for many of the warm zone techniques to be really effective with coloured pencils. I found this to be quite true: when I applied ONLY thin or delicate layers I did not find that the heat made much difference, other than making them easier to lay down.

The instructions state that the machine takes about 10 minutes to warm up properly. Again, this is true, but I personally found it more and more effective the longer it stayed heated. It might be simply that I became more used to it.

River Pebbles No. 2 by Ester Roi

You may be wondering if the heat damages or causes any kind of detrimental change to the support. I tried several kinds of surfaces on the warm zone: Arches, Stonehenge, Canson Mi-Teintes, Terraskin, matboard, and museum board. None of them seemed affected in any way. The web site states that some light warping of the paper may occur from heat (it did) but that the paper will return to normal when cool (it did). I don’t know if matboard would warp — I only had it on the heat very briefly. Putting paper under a heavy book overnight can help, so perhaps one could do the same with matboard.

Although keeping the support clean from all those little bits of pigment is always high-priority for the coloured pencil artist, bear in mind that this is twice as important when working on the warm zone … because they won’t just smudge and smear, they’ll melt.

Finally, remember that I have only just begun to try this out! You may make very different or even contradictory discoveries. The Icarus Board is something that has to be experimented and played with a great deal to really understand its potential. It might not suit every coloured pencil artist –for example, those whose technique requires them to work only with extremely sharp pencils. But it would certainly be an advantage to those who love a rich painterly look and who habitually use a great deal of heavy pressure.

The Icarus Board comes with a 1-year warranty (applicable only in the United States and Canada). Service was very friendly, encouraging both questions and requests for help. The web site provides many photos, a lot of information, and several excellent instruction videos — it’s particularly helpful to be able to see what kind of pressure Roi is using. Visit:

(Images used with permission.)

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