Tom Petty: 1950 – 2017

I’m not one to have heros or to worship celebrity.  But I am one who appreciates people who are the best at what they do and Tom Petty was one of those.  As I write this I’m listening to I Won’t Back Down, a tune that was meaningful to me at a time in my life when meaning was important and hard to come by.  I’m not much of a portrait artist but I felt the need to draw this.  Rest in peace Tom.

 

New Field Notes Format – Dime Novel Edition

Some know Field Notes as a company that produces thin, 3.5×5.5 notepads in a series of ‘themes.’  Most of the time these notebooks come with lines, graph or dot-grid paper but once in a while they produce a series with blank pages and these are great for use as small quick-sketch notebooks.  Most famous, thanks to Tina Koyama, is the Sweet Tooth series that had blank pages and came in red, yellow and blue paper books.  Tina has done, by my count, a zillion or so sketches in the red ones.

A recent release by Field Notes may be the most useful notebook yet for sketchers.  No, they won’t replace my Stillman & Birn books but for quick-sketches they’re just dandy.  The release is called the Dime Novel Edition and reflects the format (4.25 x 6.5) of dime novels of the early 1900s.  The paper is blank, except for a small page number in the upper right corner.

Instead of their typical staple-bound 48-page form, this book has three signatures (72pages) that are sewn together and then wrapped with a heavy cardboard cover.  To sweeten the pot, Field Notes uses really nice 70# paper that has just enough tooth to make it nice for drawing pencils and great for fountain pen.  I’ve only done a bit of testing but I saw no evidence of bleedthrough with this paper though there is a bit of ghosting.

I find the size ideal, mostly because it’s very thin – about 1/4″ thick, light and yet large enough that if you draw across the gutter you have a 6,5 x 8.5 page to work on.  Oh…and if you go through it, pressing each page open (the book handles this quite easily), it will also lay flat.

The 70# paper does limit what you can do with water, but if you don’t slop on too much water, you can use watercolor as well.  Watercolor pencils seem to work particularly well, but again, you need to keep the water applications light or you’ll get some buckling of the paper.

The books are sold as a 2-pack for $12.95.  Page count here exceeds the total pages contained in the 3-packs of the 3×5 Moleskine books that many use for this purpose and the paper here is far superior so if you carry such a notebook with you, give these a look.

 

Kaweco Lilliput – A Sketching Pen?

My new favorite store is Notabene, in Montreal.  I’ve talked about it before but today I want to show you a pen I bought there back when Liz Steel came to Montreal.  It’s the Kaweco Lilliput in aluminum.  You can buy it in brass and, I think, copper but the aluminum one is so light that I just had to go down that road as it suits my arthritic hands better.

To look at it though, you have to wonder whether such a tiny pen could be useful for sketching.  I’m here to suggest that it has both advantages and disadvantages as a sketching pen, but I’ll sort of give away the punch line by saying that I’ll probably be using this one a lot this winter.

Size

When it’s closed up, it’s really tiny, measuring only 95mm long and about 7mm in diameter.  Drop it in your pocket and you won’t even know it’s there, which can be good or bad depending on your view.

When open, however, it’s every bit as long as a Lamy Safari so you feel like you’re holding a real pen, which you are.

While the Safari weights 18g, the Lilliput weighs only half that (9g).  A feature I like as a street sketcher is the ability to post the cap and the Lilliput allows that like a champ since there are threads that let you screw the cap to the end of the pen.  Works great every time.

Ink storage

This is an area where pros and cons are dependent upon a person’s needs.  The Lilliput takes standard pen cartridges.  This translates directly to having a large number of inks available from a number of manufacturers.  Kaweco themselves make a bunch of them, including a really nice black and an equally nice gray that I’ve tried so far.  The downside of standard cartridges is that they hold less ink than, say Platinum or Pilot cartridges. Another downside of standard cartridges is that none of the truly waterproof inks come in that size cartridge, though aside from Platinum, that’s true for all of the cartridge formats on the market.

Kaweco makes a converter for this pen but by all accounts it’s a miserable design that doesn’t work well and actually holds less ink than do the cartridges.  I don’t find any of this a drawback as I can fill standard cartridges with any ink using a pen syringe, which is how I fill all of my pens anyway.

So how does it perform?

I bought the fine nib.  Kaweco also sells it with heavier nibs and even an extra-fine nib that is so fine that I didn’t see it as practical.  Here’s a quick comparison of Kaweco fine and a Lamy Safari extra-fine.  I tried hard to get this graphic to display in the size/contrast of the actual linework but I suspect it will display on most computer screens larger than it exists on paper.  Performance while inverted is excellent, by the way, and it doesn’t seem to dry up like many pens when used in this way.  You can see that Kaweco Fine nibs are fine, like most Asian fine nibs.

I started using this pen with a Kaweco Stormy Grey cartridge.  I decided that it wasn’t dark enough to make me happy so I switched to Kaweco Pearl Black.  Both of these inks performed well in the pen, though I noticed that the pen writes a bit drier than my Platinum and Pilot pens.

Then I filled a cartridge with Platinum Carbon Black.  This worked ok for a while but fairly quickly, the dry-writing fine nib and pigmented ink combination created some starting problems, though once started it seemed to work ok.  I really hate that, though, so I don’t find PCB a suitable ink for this pen.

I’ve tried my diluted version of DeAtramentis Document Black ink and that works great.  Just for this review, I ran some Noodlers Black through the pen.  This works fine too for those of you who find that ink suitable for sketching.

What I really like about the pen is the ability to start a sketch with very light, sometimes intermittent lines if I use a very light touch, and then, as the sketch develops, I can add emphasis and contrast by applying a bit of pressure.  Coupled with its light feel, it’s ideal for quick-sketching people.

So, is it a good sketching pen?  If you love big, heavy pens, absolutely not.  If you absolutely need to use Platinum Carbon Black rather than alternatives, I don’t think so.  If it’s going to be your only pen, probably not.  But this pen is now part of my arsenal because of its light weight and small size and because it opens into a full-size pen that feels good in my hand.  Here is a doodle page from my testing.

A Sneak Peak At Stillman & Birn Nova Paper

Did you get excited when Stillman & Birn announced their new Nova series of sketchbooks?  I sure did.  Most people know that I’m a fan of S&B but, like everyone else, when I wanted to draw on toned paper, I was stuck with 60-80lb paper with little or no sizing.  This stuff was ok for line sketching but any attempts at watercolor and the paper buckled, pigments dulled as they were sucked into the paper, and you couldn’t manipulate the watercolors the way you can on a better paper.

But one day I got a call from S&B, asking if I’d like to try out their new toned paper line.  I pondered my answer carefully.  Microseconds went by as I came up with my careful worded response.  “Heck yeah!  Bring it on.”  And they sent me some single sheets of their tan, gray and black papers.

Which brings us to now.  These papers will change the way watercolorists think about toned papers for two reasons, both having to do with the fact that physically these papers are like S&B Alpha white and cream papers.

They are much heavier than other toned papers.  I don’t have any data on these papers, but they are the same thickness as Alpha paper, suggesting they are around 100lb (150gsm).  In any case, the extreme buckling I’ve experienced from other toned papers just doesn’t happen.

The papers are properly sized, so you can actually work watercolors on them.  Those who have experienced Alpha papers know that large-scale wet-n-wet is probably not the idea approach but these papers can handle a fair amount of water.  The pigments can be moved around.  You can charge into another color. You can lift pigments from these papers.  The colorsl remain bright on these papers.

I started testing by doing what I typically do with toned papers, draw with pencil or fountain pen.  Very quickly I realized that  this was lots of fun but not really a challenge for these papers.  They were almost screaming “put some water on me,” and so I did.

I’d like to provide a detailed, blow by blow on the process of getting used to these papers but, for me, it was like working on my typical Alpha and Beta papers.  If anything, I might have used a slightly thicker mix to achieve the results you see but I’m not even sure that’s true.

Above you can see a bit of buckling. I soaked the area inside the building outline and applied the color wet-n-wet. Because the exterior remained dry this small amount of buckling took place. What I did here simply would not be possible with other toned papers I’ve used.

 

 

 

Stillman & Birn says that actual sketchbooks with Nova papers will be available sometime in August.  I don’t know if that means softcover, hardcover, or both but I know I’m going to get in line to get some.  Stillman & Birn will shake the world of toned papers with these sketchbooks.  Thanks, S&B.

 

 

 

 

 

New “Sketchbook” From Ottawa

When I was in Ottawa I visited a stationary/card store because, well, that’s what I do.  It was a delightful store, though their pricing on fountain pens was really high ($68 for a Lamy Safari) but it costs nothing to look.  There were several things I wanted to buy but I guess I was in a “do I REALLY need that” mood and I didn’t buy most of them.  The one exception was this tiny notebook made by Clairfontaine.  It contains really smooth, thin paper that’s not idea for drawing but gosh it’s cute.  I had to have one.

I’ve only done a couple sketches in it but it’s fun to draw this small on occasion.  I think I’ll get $4.00 worth of fun from it.

Platinum Khaki Black As A Sketching Medium

Platinum has just released six new inks and you’ll probably be hearing about them over the next few months.  They will catch the eye of sketchers because they are iron gall inks that are fountain pen-friendly.  Iron gall inks have the virtue of being “waterproof” and those of us who like to slather our drawings with watercolor always pay attention when that word is thrown about.

I’ve found it odd that one could produce colored (besides brown or gray) iron gall inks because creation of iron gall inks is an old way of making ink, combines tannins with iron to create them.  Nevertheless, lots of inks are coming on the market and labeled “iron gall”, whether they’re red, blue, or purple.  Better living through chemistry, I guess.

In the case of these Platinum inks, however, the naming convention caught my attention as every one of them is named Platinum (some color)-Black.  I didn’t know what that meant but was excited enough to buy a bottle from Wonder Pens, who got it to me quickly.  This is a very pricey ink (roughly $30/bottle) so Wonder Pens’ low shipping costs was appreciated.

I’m not here to review this ink.  Lots of people who collect or write with fountain pens will do that so a search should yield reviews.  I find the ink great to sketch with, though, and have it in a couple pens right now.  But I want to talk about the waterproof attribute, or lack there of.  As it turns out, the “black” portion of these inks seems quite waterproof but the tint that generates their unique color does not appear to be…at all.

Notice the small sketches in the graphic below.  The one on the right reflects the color of the ink after it has dried for a while (it darkens as it dries).  On the left is what happens if you wipe a waterbrush over it.  As you can see, the brown tint disperses, leaving behind a dark gray outline.  This particular sketch was done on inexpensive paper.  On good watercolor paper the results are even worse.  So be warned, waterproof in the pen world doesn’t mean waterproof in the pen and wash world.

A Bright Idea From Bright Ideas

20160531_BrightIdeasSometimes you just want to draw on colored paper.  Maybe it comes from the days when we were kids and had piles of “construction paper” in all colors of the rainbow.  Whatever its roots, sketchers like to shun the white and walk a bit on the wild side, if only once in a while.

A company called Bright Ideas has a solution and it’s called the Bright Ideas Journal.   This is a 5×7 book with 408 pages.  I suppose you could get away with very light applications of watercolor but the paper isn’t heavy enough for the serious watercolorist.  As a substrate for pencil and/or ink drawings, however, this journal is pretty sweet.

2016-05-31binding

It’s thick (about 1-inch) compared to most sketchbooks because of its 408 pages of paper in ten different colors but a big plus is that this book lays flat, very flat because of the open spine binding.   Some may grumble because each page has the name of its section printed in the lower right corner.  What purpose this could possibly serve is lost on me but I don’t find it objectionable for my ‘small sketches’ needs.

201605-31opensflatI haven’t had much chance to experiment with it but the paper takes ink very well, with no feathering, no bleedthrough and ghosting only if you hold up the sheet to the light.  I think I’m going to have a lot of fun with this book and I thank the Bright Ideas folks for their bright idea.  I ran down to the local park and did this quick test sketch so I’d have at least one ‘test’ that isn’t a bunch of scribbles.

2016-06-01test_sketch

 

 

Stillman & Birn Softcovers: An Exciting Announcement

Via Giphy.com

I am so excited to be writing this post.  As many know, Stillman & Birn, my favorite sketchbook company, released a line of softcover sketchbooks not very long ago.  Sadly, what most also know is that there were manufacturing problems with those books and they had to recall all of them, at great expense, from around the world.  I applauded them for this as it hit their bottom line hard, but they didn’t want we artists to bear the pain of the problem.

Excepting the manufacturing problem, these softcover books looked like a dream come true.  Available in all of Stillman & Birn’s great papers, in a variety of sizes, and with cover colors that reflected the paper type.  The covers had an almost suede-feel to them.  They weighed only 55-65% of the weight of the equivalent hardcover and they were much thinner.  A dream come true for someone like me who carries several sketchbooks and walks a couple hours a day to sketching locations.

Stillman & Birn sofcover prototypes

Stillman & Birn sofcover prototypes

Well, they’re BACK!!!  Or at least almost back.  Stillman & Birn says they should be available ‘real soon’ and they sent me a couple of their prototype books to get my opinion about whether the problems are fixed.

To that I can say, they are fixed and then some.  I’ve gone through both of my prototype books, one page at a time, and the problems we saw with the initial release are gone.  But it’s better than that.  These books lay flatter than their early softcovers and certainly better than the hardcovers.  I didn’t have to bend them backwards as you do with the hardcovers to get them to lay flat.  They just do, though I still recommend going through each page, folding it out flat before using the book.  I do that with any sketchbook, regardless of brand.

As I said, the books they sent me are prototypes.  They came with Delta and Gamma paper so I could check both the 150gsm and 270gsm binding.  The covers are the same material as the production versions but these aren’t color-coded; they’re prototypes.  Still, they are amazing books and I’m downright giddy that I have them to use.  I was planning to get somewhere to do a sketch for this blog post but a snowstorm prevented that.  Truth is, everyone knows how great Stillman & Birn paper is so I decided it was more important to get this announcement into the ether.   So here it is, without a sketch.  Here’s the money shot of the books laying flat. Ain’t they gorgeous?  Coming soon to an art store near you.

Stillman & Birn softcovers, laying flat.

Stillman & Birn softcovers, laying flat.

 

Cheap, Small Sketchbooks – Another Solution

I go through a lot of small sketchbooks because I’m constantly scribbling in them.  I have one where I watch TV, one in my office, one in my coat pocket and at least one in each of my sketching bags.

I’ve tried using Field Notes notebooks.  I use the ‘mustache’ notebooks I wrote about at one point.  These are wonderful because of their toned 4×6 paper that take fountain pen ink well.  But for my sketching bags I like to have something that’s just a wee bit bigger, with a spiral binding so I can fold everything back and have just the sheet I’m working on in front of me.  It still has to be cheap, fountain pen friendly, and of a practical size.  For that I’ve been cutting 9×12 spiral-bound, 60# sketchbooks that I cut in half, creating 80-page 6×9 books that cost me less than $4.  All of these solutions suffer when I try to add even light washes of watercolor.

What is a problem is that while I like the cheap Fabriano paper in those 6×9 books, they’re just large for the purpose, being too large and too heavy because I’m also carrying my regular S&B sketchbooks.

CansonXL_inhalf

So, when I saw Canson’s XL Multi-Media book in a 7×10 size, I knew I’ve found my answer.  Cut in half (I just run it through my bandsaw), it provides two 60-sheet 5×7 sketchbooks and the best part was that the paper is 98lb paper that takes watercolor washes quite well.  No, I’m wrong.  The best part is that these books only cost $3.50.   I put one of my sketches on the front just to spiff it up a bit.

5x7sketchbook

Review: Stillman & Birn Softcover Sketchbooks

When I got into sketching, about four years ago, I found it pretty easy to find quality pens, pencils, brushes and watercolors.  What was harder was to find a sketchbook that could accommodate pen, ink and watercolor.  It seemed that I was buying a new sketchbook every week in an attempt to ‘try another’ in my quest for the perfect sketchbook.

My first post about Stillman & Birn sketchbooks was in December of 2011.  A few other artists had discovered them and were really excited by them.  I’d just gotten one and was very new to sketching so it was hard for me to evaluate it except to say that I liked it.

My first real discussion of S&B came in March of 2013, after I’d had some time to fall in love with their products.  At that point I’d done a lot of sketching on their Alpha series paper and had just bought one of the Epsilon series sketchbooks.  If you read that post you’ll get the impression that I worked as a sales rep for S&B but I do not.

In the future my daughter is going to be faced with the task of taking my sketchbooks to the landfill. When she does this, I suspect my pile of Stillman & Birn sketchbooks will be even larger. These are the ones I've filled in the past 3 years.

In the future my daughter is going to be faced with the task of taking my sketchbooks to the landfill. When she does, I suspect my pile of Stillman & Birn sketchbooks will be even larger. These are the ones I’ve filled in the past 3 years.  Several others are ‘in progress’.

Since then I’ve been filling S&B sketchbooks at an alarming rate.  I’ve tried not only Alpha and Epsilon papers but also their Beta, Zeta and Gamma sketchbooks.  You can find reviews of these sketchbooks if you search for those words here.  I have a lot of experience with Stillman & Birn products, and I can’t imagine using anything else.

But there’s been one sketchbook format that S&B hadn’t provided me, until now.  I’ve whined to them about it enough that you’d think they would have made some just to shut me up.  It’s a small (3×5) portrait format book that has paper good enough (interpretation = Alpha paper) to accept my scribbles and watercolor smears.  Because this has not been forthcoming from S&B, I’ve been making do with crappy books from the dollar store, Field Notes, small (?) Visual Journals, Moleskines, etc.  At this point I’ve filled 27 of the darned things.  You’d think I’d know how to draw by now with all that scribbling.  Maybe in another 20 years.

S&Bsoftcovers

Anyways, Stillman & Birn has just released the solution to my small sketchbook needs, and then some.  The photo above shows just a few of the many format/paper combinations available in this new series.  All of the S&B’s paper types are available and each has its cover color-coded for that paper type (Alpha = burnt sienna (red?), Beta = blue, Epsilon = gray, Delta = green, Gamma = brown, Zeta = black).  They’re available as 3.5×5.5 and 5.5×8.5 portrait or landscape format and in 8×10 portrait format.

I like the cover material.  It feels almost like leather, though it is obviously not.  It’s stiffer than the Strathmore softcover books, a plus for a street sketcher like me.  The papers are the same great papers you can find in their hardcover books so I’m not going to talk about them.  You can find my opinions by searching for the reviews on this blog but so far I haven’t found any that I don’t like.  I use Alpha and Beta almost exclusively though.

Stillman and Birn have obviously tried to provide lighter and thinner sketchbooks compared to their hardcover books and in that they have succeeded in a big way.  Here are a few comparison numbers:

Hardcover        Softcover

Alpha 5×8       419gm              232gm
Beta 5×8          354gm             267gm

The thickness of a 5×8 Alpha hardcover is 18mm while the Alpha softcover is a svelte 10mm.  In short, these new books are much lighter and thinner than their hardcover counterparts.

3x5portrait

Here is my favorite.  I’m showing it before I took the shrinkwrap off because now that I’ve opened it there is some drool on the front cover.  It’s a small, Alpha-series portrait-format book.   Many who use the Moleskine watercolor books have complained that Moleskine doesn’t produce it in a portrait format.  I used to be one of them, but no more.  I now have my small sketchbook need satiated, or at least it will be when I place an order for a bunch more of these little guys.

Do you need/want the softcover versions of Stillman & Birn sketchbooks?  It depends.  It depends upon whether weight matters to you.  If you carry a single sketchbook and not very far, then giving up those nice hardcover bindings might not make sense.  I carry several sketchbooks and regularly carry them during two-hour walks so cutting the weight nearly in half is a big deal for me.

Are you ever bothered by the thickness of your sketchbook, say when you’re trying to draw along the edge where you have no support for your hand?  Do you wish the book were thinner when trying to draw across the gutter during early or late sections of the book, where one page is bent downward to reach the table due to the thickness of the book?  If these things bother you, maybe having a book that’s half as thick would make you happy.  Beware, though, this comes at a cost.  While the covers reduce the thickness, the softcovers are also made thinner by a reduction of page count (in Alpha the hardcovers have 62 sheets while the softcovers have 48).  I find this a small price to pay to get what I want in the small-size book.

There is one downside to these softcover books.  They use the same double-stitched, glued bindings of their hardcover counterparts and the glue sometimes wicks between the signatures (the small groups of sheets that are folded and sewn together) and they tend to stick the base of the two pages between two signatures together.   I don’t find this to be a problem with Alpha, and probably not with the other 150gsm paper books.  Their pages fold open just fine.  But with the Beta (270gsm) and probably Delta and Zeta books, the paper tends to separate slightly at the gutter when you fold open a section where two signatures come together (6 places in a Beta series book).  This separation is very tight in the gutter of the two-page spread and if you’re working on either side of the gutter, it’s not a problem at all.  But if you want to do a two-page spread, it can create an ugly gutter seam.

I’m thrilled with these new softcovers.  I’ve only drawn a couple things in them thus far but I know the papers well and have documented their use in pretty much all the drawings presented on this blog.  The softcovers, like Stillman & Birn’s hardcover and spiral-bound books, are great options for the urban sketcher or nature journalist.  I feel lucky to live in a time when we sketchers have so many great choices, and all from one company – Stillman & Birn.