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.


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.


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.

Two Sketchbooks For The Price Of One

Since I’ve been in a ‘cheap sketchbook’ rut lately, I thought it only fitting if I were to let it run its course and describe another approach I’ve taken, for when being able to stuff the book in one’s pocket isn’t important.

Sometimes I want to do larger quick-sketches are possible in a 3 x 5 “scribbler.”  I could do them in one of my Stillman & Birn books but my quick-sketches are REALLY quick-sketches and typically they’re not very good, so I want REALLY cheap paper upon which to do them.  Also, as I’m not doing watercolor I don’t need the paper quality of Stillman & Birn.

You can buy inexpensive 5×8 and 6×9 sketchbooks that have 60lb paper and are fine for such things.  I’ve used Strathmore’s “Sketch” books for this purpose.  They’ve got paper covers and cost $6-7 here.  They’re fine.  They work.  Lots of people use them.  Canson has equivalent offerings.

But one day, while I was padding around the art store touching everything,  I saw 8.5 x 11, spiral-bound, hardcover sketchbooks (60lb paper) on sale for $8.

This is Fabriano's version of an 8.5x11 sketchbook.  I paid $9.99CDN for it.  Sometimes they're on sale.

This is Fabriano’s version of an 8.5×11 sketchbook. I paid $9.99CDN for it. Sometimes they’re on sale.

And I wondered.  I wondered enough to buy one.  I wondered enough to take it home and go into my dungeon, err, workshop.  I even wondered if I was nuts for doing it but a few seconds later I’d run that sketchbook through my bandsaw, creating two 5.5 x 9 sketchbooks.

If you don't own a bandsaw, I bet you know someone who does.

If you don’t own a bandsaw, I bet you know someone who does.

Cutting them does leave bare cardboard edges on one side of each book but that’s easily fixed with a fat Sharpie marker.  When bought on sale these cost me $4 each and provide 160 sheets of sketching fun.

One caveat about the cutting.  You can cut right through the spiral binding and it will generally work (depends on saw and blade I suppose but even my wood blades worked fine).  The potential exists, though, that the spiral will get bent at the point of the cut.  It’s really easy, though, to use some wire nippers to cut the spiral in the middle, removing a small section of it before cutting the book.  Otherwise, this is one of those no-brainer thingies that one can do to produce nice quick-sketchbooks in a more typical size than the ones I’ve been talking about recently.  Here’s some lines I made in such a book while watching Paul Heaston’s class on Craftsy.


Yvan and I use these all the time when we go to music recitals or quick-sketch in places where we’re carrying our art bags and don’t have to worry about being inconspicuous as we sketch.  Give it a try.

Field Notes Workman’s Companion Edition

I do a lot of sketching in tiny, inexpensive sketchbooks and ever since Marc Taro Holmes suggested using a Moleskine staple-bound notebook, I’ve been trying different notebooks in this 3×5 format.  I was very displeased by the Moleskines as ink bleeds through their thin paper.  So far, every book I’ve tried has that problem.  I’m not talking about ghosting, where you can see the sketch on the backside but ink that actually shows up on the back of the page.  While ghosting is also a problem in most of the notebooks, I’m more tolerant of that as my goal with these books isn’t high-quality sketches.

But FINALLY, I’ve found what I’ve been looking for and it comes in the form of the new Field Notes Workshop Companion issue.  Field Notes are fun because they’re sold in a variety of cover formats.  The problem with them is that they typically use 50lb, inexpensive paper and they’re just not fountain pen friendly.  If you draw with ballpoint pens, they’re fine and very convenient.  But I’m a fountain pen addict and it’s a no go as a sketching substrate.

The Workshop Companion books are different.  They  come with a new, 70lb paper that’s a higher quality than even the couple issues they’ve produced with 70lb paper in the past.   I find I can force ghosting to the point of being annoying but it requires that I really dump a lot of ink on the page.  So far I’ve yet to get any bleedthrough, even with brush pens.  I’ve even applied bits of watercolor to the paper and even that works pretty well.


My first test was a simple outline image, done with a Platinum Carbon Pen and Platinum Carbon ink.  This was a ‘soft’ test as most of these kinds of notebooks will handle this combination, though in this case there was no ghosting whatever, which was an improvement.

2015-06-24FN01I went out sketching and did these quick sketches.  My goal was to try adding some dark shading to see what happens.  This is where most books in this format fail, with both bleedthrough and ghosting.  Here there still wasn’t any bleedthrough and you had to look hard to see ghosting.  Scanning didn’t pick up any of the ghosting.

2015-06-24FN02No special tests here but I was drawing with my Namiki Falcon and De Atramentis Document Black and again, there was no bleedthrough and ghosting was hard to see.

2015-06-24FN03I was doodling while watching a baseball game and dragged this image up from my imagination.  It’s got enough darks in it to really test for bleedthrough and ghosting.  Ghosting can be seen but again, it’s minimal.


I thought I’d do the acid test.  I was watching some guys playing soccer and started drawing this building that was at one end of the soccer pitch.  I added some darks with a Kuretake #33 brush pen and then added some color.  Still no bleed through.  Ghosting is a bit worse but everything’s relative as the ghosting doesn’t get picked up when scanning the backside of this sketch.











In conclusion, I’m a happy camper and I’ll be ordered some more of these Workshop Companion books.  They’re wonderful.  I can shove them in a shirt pocket if I want but more often I have it in a front pouch in my sketching bag so it’s immediately available.

While I can sketch in these books fine, when sketching a 2-page spread it’s nice to have something to hold the book open and flat without having to fiddle around.  I solved that by cutting a small piece of Fomecore, which weighs nothing and I clip the book to this backing board.  It works surprisingly well and really makes holding the book a lot easier.



This is what it looks like when clipped to the board.  It becomes a single unit where you don’t have to worry about keeping the paper flat.



Tina Koyama Limited Edition Sketchbook

TinaBookI’m a lucky guy.  Tina Koyama sent me one of her small sketchbooks.  She makes these from light watercolor paper and endows them with creative covers.  Now that I’ve used one, I know why all photos of her exhibit a big smile.

I’ve only done half a dozen sketches in this 4×6 book but it’s really fun to use and the paper holds up nicely to my pointy devices.   It’s a single 5-sheet signature, providing 20, 4×6 sketch surfaces in a very small, light footprint.

2015-06-24artMy first use was to quickly sketch this odd metal sculpture.  I’m not sure what it’s supposed to represent but I guess it represents it.  No matter, it gave me a chance to scribble in the book and slop on a bit of watercolor.

And then it rained.  It’s still acting like spring here and I was cloistered behind windows, limiting both my spirits and sketching subjects.

2015-06-25diggerAcross the street was this digger, so I drew it.  I should have turned the book and drawn across the long dimension but I didn’t so this image is pretty small.  Still, it was fun to let the Namiki Falcon wander around for a while.

This last sketch was done while I was out for a long walk.  For some reason I was in the mood for a large scene when I walked through the park at Pointe de Lievre, so I plunked my butt on a picnic bench and quickly sketched this and used a waterbrush filled with dilute ink to shade it a bit.  I deemed it a good use of 15 minutes.

2015-06-26PointdeLievreI’m really enjoying Tina’s tiny sketchbook.  I’m not sure she has convinced me to spend a lot of time making my own as I’d need to make a lot of them given the way I use small sketchbooks, but she’s nudged me a bit closer to the edge.

My Stillman & Birn Quest

One of the expenses of living in Quebec City is shipping.  I have to order most of my art supplies online as there simply isn’t a place to buy what I need here.  So, when I get the opportunity to visit places like Ottawa and Toronto I’m like the proverbial farmer who comes to the big city.  I’m looking for stuff… lots of stuff.

At the top of my to-buy list this trip was “Stillman & Birn sketchbooks.”  Anyone who has followed my blog knows that I use them almost exclusively as I appreciate their quality.  In short, they make me look better than I am and I need all the help I can get.  One of my first stops in Ottawa was a big disappointment as the stored looked like they were going out of business.  If empty shelves can make a retail store money, they are doing great.

But Toronto is a different place.  It’s the location of two of the largest online art stores in Canada.  Both stock S&B sketchbooks and both have physical stores in Toronto.  I had a plan.  Curry Art Supplies is located only a 15 minute walk from our hotel so that was my first stop.  While they did have some S&B, they didn’t have the sizes and paper types I wanted.  Very disappointing.

Above Ground Art Supplies

But after a romp through the Silver Snail, a comic book store just down the street, we headed for Above Ground Art Supplies, another 15 minutes of walking.  Above Ground has got to be one of the coolest art stores on the planet.  It’s a large, beautiful, three-story house and each room of the first two floors is filled, floor to ceiling, with stuff. Cool stuff.  Great stuff.

S&B_BetaI was so excited that I nearly ran up the stairs to the second floor where the sketchbooks were located.  You have to see the sketchbook room to believe it.  They’ve got hundreds of sketchbooks.  They’ve got so many that their inventory spills out into a hallway and dribbles into a room containing modeling materials.  I’m sure I spent half an hour just looking at all the sketchbooks.  Most important, though was that they had the Stillman & Birn Beta series books that I was looking for.  I needed some to get me through the summer.   I wanted to buy them all but in a rare fit of rational thought, I limited myself to buying three of them.  I added some incidentals to my pile and checked out.  The credit card was only mildly warm as I left this great art store.

Pilot Oil-Based Drawing Pens

This is a just a quick note about the “new” (recently available on Jet Pens) Pilot oil-based drawing pens.  I bought the 01 and 03 versions of this pen as I was intrigued by the ‘oil-based’ approach.


I think it’s fair to say that the de facto standard in the nylon/felt drawing pen world is the Sakura Pigma Micron pen line and I’ll use them as a baseline because so many know these pens.

I must preface my comments with the realisation that most people don’t pay much attention to the actual sizes of tips of these pens and realize that a Micron 05 makes a thicker line than a Micron 03 but the actual thickness is not precisely indicated by those numbers.

So be it, but we also have expectations when it comes to this sort of labelling and expect that a Staedtler 03 won’t be too different from the Micron 03 in width.  That is the reason for this note.

PilotOil-BasedPensThis is displayed larger than life so that the line widths are easy to see.  I’ve left the Pilot pen lines unlabelled so that you can guess what I used to make them.  A hint can be found in my mention of which pens I bought 🙂

The thing is, these lines are from a Pilot 01 and 03 respectively.  You can see that they are much thicker than Micron lines labelled with the same numbers.  In fact, the Pilot 03 is so much thicker than a Micron 03 that it’s thicker than a Micron 08 as well.  This is no big deal if you know it to be the case before you buy but otherwise it comes as a big surprise.

Making A Small Sketching Binder

This is actually a follow up post from my last about sketching in small notebooks.  It’s the case that I kinda-sorta glossed over how to construct the binder I talked about.  Maybe I should do it more often as I got emails from a few nice people asking me questions about it.

So here is an explanation of how to make that small binder.  Clicking on the photos will enlarge them.  While the binder I showed was made from thin mahogany sheet, I’m going to illustrated the method using a couple matboard scraps.

gaffer's tape & materialsThe most popular question I got was “what is gaffer’s tape?”  If, as Red Green says, duct tape is the handyman’s secret weapon, gaffer’s tape is a modelbuilder’s friend.  My bet is that gaffers use it too.

It’s black.  It’s a fabric tape that comes in several widths.  It’s about as sticky as duct tape and it cuts cleanly.  Here it is, with two, notepad-sized pieces of mat board ready to be taped together.

The key to a successful binder is placing the two cover pieces up against one another as in the photo.  The outside surfaces should be facing downward.  In this way, when the book is opened, the two cover edges will butt up against one another, providing a built-in limit for the hinge and a stiff, single surface, just as when you open a game board.

inner binding

Cut a strip of tape that’s longer than the height of your covers.  I actually attach the tape to the table top just above the covers.  This allows me to hold the two covers together as I pull the tape down across their interface.  Use a razor blade to cut the ends of this tape flush with the cover surface.  DO NOT wrap the tape around to the other side or the hinge won’t work.


Insert one of your notebooks between the covers and squeeze this sandwich together.  Place a piece of tape along the face of one cover and, maintaining pressure on your sandwich, roll the tape over the hinge point to the other cover, smoothing out the tape on the back cover.


Voila, you’ve got a binder. You’re on your own for rounding the outer corners.  I just used a disk sander on my wooden one but it would be easy enough to cut them.

Now all you’ve got to do is find a notebook that is happy with whatever pointy device you use.  I mentioned last time that neither the Baron Fig or Field Notes notebooks are happy with fountain pen inks, though if you use Microns, Sharpie pens (not markers) or ballpoints, you’ll have good luck, with the potential for a bit of ghosting.  With fountain pens, however, or even using Micron/Sharpies to fill in an area with a dark field of ink, you’ll experience bleed through, potentially ruining the backside of the page.  I thought I’d share some of the tests I’ve done.  Keep in mind these are 3×5 sketches.


Here are two quick sketches I did of people waiting for the bus.  The one on the left wasn’t too bad.  There was a tiny amount of bleedthrough from one of the dark heads.  For the second one, however, you see that I filled in some areas using the Sharpie Pen and most of those areas showed significant bleedthrough that would prevent drawing on the backside of the page.


2015-03-21skaterThe last example I’ll show you is this skater.  He was on a poster advertising a crazy event they have here called Crashed Ice, where skaters race down a curvy downhill course, complete with jumps and, well..more than a little bit of crashed ice.  You can see a bit of ghosting from the previous page but I don’t find that objectionable for this purpose.  This experiment is interesting because there was no bleed through.  All of the pen work was done using my Pilot Falcon (fine) and De Atramentis Document Black ink.  I expected some bleed through in the cross-hatched areas but I didn’t get any, probably because I didn’t let the pen stop moving.  So I went one step further.  I did some shading with a Tombow water-based brush pen.  I’ve found that water-based brush pens (the brands I’ve used) don’t penetrate the way most solvent-based brush pens do (the brands I’ve used) and I was pleasantly surprised that the Tombow worked just fine in the Field Notes book.

In the end, I’d sure like to find a 70-80# paper staple-bound notebook that would eliminate the bleedthrough problem.  I’m still on the hunt.  In any case, I hope I’ve answered the questions about creating the binder.




Sketching In Small Notebooks

It’s officially spring in the northern hemisphere.  I wonder.  In Quebec City, it snowed last night and it’s currently -17C with the wind chill dragging it down to -27C.  Is that REALLY spring?  I don’t think so.  I’m staying inside today and thought I’d begin the day with a blog post.

I’ve been on a quest ever since I took Marc Taro Holme’s online course, People in Motion.  During that course he introduced the use of a “scribbler” – a small notebook in which you are supposed to draw constantly.  The idea of a small notebook for all the time drawing was not new to me.  Yvan Breton got me doing that a couple years ago.  I’ve been using notebooks that I bought at the dollar store.

What sent me on my quest was Marc’s use of a Moleskine “Cahier” as his scribbler.  These are very thin, staple-bound notepads, much thinner and lighter than my notebooks.  Of course I had to try it.

And I didn’t like it.  There were a number of reasons.  Like my notebooks, there are problems of ghosting and bleed-through but, while it can be annoying, for the purposes of capturing scenes and people quickly, it’s a mnor problem.  They don’t take color well either.  But the real reason I didn’t like them was that they are floppy.  I need all the help I can get when I put pen to paper and a hardcover backing is important in that respect.

But I couldn’t get the idea out of my head.  I reported on Baron Fig notepads as I investigated this further and I’ve filled one of them.  As a post-review follow up, I found the covers to be a bit fragile for someone shoving these books into his coat pocket.  Paper is nicer than the Moleskine, however.


Lately I’ve been drawing in a Field Notes notepad.  These have the virtue of being beautiful.  They release new colors and styles all the time, but the base idea is a 3×5 book with decent writing paper… as long as you don’t use fountain pens.

2015-03-20Old Eaves

This sketch was done with a Platinum Carbon fountain pen without much bleed-through so very fine fountain pens work.


This last part is a glitch for a fountain pen guy like myself but for this purpose I don’t even mind switching to a nylon or ball-point pen.  In many ways this is preferable as I can just shove a single pen into my coat pocket along with the notepad and don’t have to dedicate a fountain pen to the process.  I’ve been using a Sharpie, refillable pen (not the markers).  But that floppy problem…what to do.

THree Field Notes notebooks and a Moleskine Cahier.  Either works well if you avoid fountain pens.

Three Field Notes notebooks and a Moleskine Cahier. Either works well if you avoid fountain pens.

It required considerable communication between my three neurons but once a plan was formulated it took only a few minutes to create it.  My binder is nothing more than two sheets of 1/16″ mahogany (any thick cardboard would suffice) cut to the size of a Field Notes notebook.  I then laid them, butted against one another, and taped them together with gaffer’s tape.

I closed the binder around a notepad and while holding it firmly together, I put gaffer’s tape on the outside of the hinge area.  Now, when it opens, it forms a stiff platform that’s 6×5.  Works like a champ.  I hold the book in place with very thin hair elastics that I picked up at the dollar store.  Rubber bands work but they generate a bump under the paper.

These books will lay flat, so drawing across the fold is feasible.  I’ve just started using this so only time will tell whether it’s viable but it seems workable to me.  If so, it’s a cheap, very lightweight way to have a sketchbook with you at all times.  If you wanted better paper, of course, you could always make your own for a binder like this one.  I may do it myself as I investigate this further.


I did this sketch while looking out the window of a coffee shop. Will it ever warm up?


Sketching In A Baron Fig Apprentice Notebook

One of the highlights of this otherwise miserable winter was taking Marc Taro Holme’s People in Motion class.  During the class Marc suggests that you get a small, cheap notebook and sketch in it constantly.  He recommends the Moleskine Cahier (same paper as the Moleskine notebooks but without the hard cover).

I think the idea of a small, cheap notebook that facilitates sketching everywhere and all the time is a great one.  On recommendation from my mentor and buddy, Yvan Breton, I’ve been doing this for a couple years and it’s done more for my ability to draw than anything else I do.

What I hadn’t tried was the Moleskine Cahier so I bought some.  They come in a 3-pack for about $12 around here.  I was very disappointed because of bleed-through and lots of ghosting when I used my fountain pens.  I complained about this here, and included a bunch of sketches to illustrate the problems.

But what I really did like about these little books was how small they were.  My typical small book has a hard cover and 96 cheap-paper pages.  These books are 5.5 x 3.5 x 0.5″ while the Cahiers are only 48 pages with a thick paper cover and are thus about 1/8″ thick.  Very portable, very light in the hand.  If only….

There are alternatives and I’ve been trying them.  Tina Koyama motivated me to try Baron Fig‘s notebooks, and I think I might be falling in love with their little Apprentice notebooks.

While the typical small notebook is 3.5″ x 5.5″, the Baron Fig is 3.5″ x 5″.  When I received them this threw me off a bit as I was more used to the other size but now that I’ve used it a bit I find that I actually prefer it.  It fits my hand better and certainly fits in a pocket more easily.  Size does matter.

Baron Fig

The books are 48-pages of white (an improvement over Moleskine) paper and cardstock cover.  They are stitch-bound rather than stapled like most of their competition.  It’s a nice touch and the stitching is perfect.

While they can be had with lines, grid or blank paper, I bought a pack of their standard gray notebooks (3 per pack) and a pack of their “limited edition” Time Travel series.  They cost only $10 per pack so, $3.33 per notebook.  Not bad even if you do use a lot of them.

All this is great but the proof is in how they handle ink.  For me that means fountain pen ink.  Typically I use fine nib pens in my small notebooks because of the small format and a side benefit is that it places lower demands on the paper when it comes to bleed-through and ghosting.

But what happens if you do use a lot of ink on Baron Fig paper?  The results are better than I thought.  I decided to try Tina Koyama’s favorite pen, the Sailor Fude pen.  This pen can lay down a lot of ink or a little ink depending on the nib angle.  Here’s the result of this experiment.


Baron Fig Apprentice, Sailor Fude pen, De Atramentis Document Black

Of course the “proof in the puddin” is to look at the back of this sketch.  Here it is (on the left):


As you can see, there is some ghosting but not much in the way of bleed-through.  We’re not talking about doing drawings that you’re going to frame so, to me, this is acceptable.  The sketch on the right was done with a Namiki Falcon SEF.  This is my typical nib size for these and the ghosting on the back of this sketch is negligible.

But what if you wanted to use the Sailor pen and also wanted to draw on that ghosted page?  Could you do it?  Sure, the ghosting wouldn’t distract from your sketching.  It might, however, not look as nice as you’d like when you scanned it to send it to your favorite social media group.  But, with the magic of Photoshop (or some other graphics program), you can easily remove this ghosting so that it looks like this:


These results are the same as I’ve gotten from the paper in my cheap hardcover books so I’m thrilled and the paper in the Baron Fig as it looks better and feels better.

My cheap book sketches rarely see any color, simply because I’m generating lots of sketches as I wander through my day and so there’s no time for color.  But, for this post I decided to add a bit of color to see how that worked.  I kept the washes light and didn’t expect to move them around much.  I was surprised at how well it worked.


Baron Fig Apprentice, Namiki Falcon, De Atramentis Document Black

This is definitely not watercolor paper but I was happy with the results.  This does increase the ghosting a little bit but surprisingly little, as long as you wait for the paper to dry.  This definitely opens the door for me to use my gray and brown waterbrushes to shade drawings on the fly.  If you’re looking for a small, very portable, sketchbook solution, the Baron Fig Apprentice might be what you need.


De Atramentis Document Ink: Creating A Grey

The new De Atramentis Document inks (not to be confused with other De Atramentis inks) are a dream come true for those of us who sketch with fountain pens and want waterproof inks.  Before they came along, color choices could be described pretty much like Henry Ford described color selection for the Model T Ford – “any color as long as it’s black.”

The current elephant in the room question is whether we’re going to have a ready supply of these inks over time.  De Atramentis is a one-man operation and Goulet Pens, to my knowledge, is the only source for them in North America. Their last shipment came in and went out before some people had a chance to even see them show up.  Brian has said their current order is very large.  I hope so.

I was one of the lucky ones.  I’ve had De Atramentis Document Black and Brown for a while now and was able to fill in the other colors during the few hours they were available at Goulet Pens.

The potential to create any color I want now exists, except for one thing.  De Atramentis sells a solvent for their inks and proper dilution should be done with that solvent.  These inks are pigmented inks and every ink have a particular chemistry to give them the flow and paper interaction properties of a particular brand of ink.   The proper solvent should be used to provide the proper lubricant, stabilizer, and maybe anti-fungal agent in their proper proportions.  The big deal here is the lubricant as this generates proper flow through the pen.  Too much lubrication and you can get feathering, nib creap, and slow-to-dry inks.  Too little and you can get a dry-writing ink, though it may actually dry more quickly.

So before I continue, there’s my caveat.  If you fear doing anything that might be referred to as an “experiment”, read no further.  This is an experiment.  I’ve mixed up a grey ink using the brown and blue ink in this line.  It creates a very dark grey, not unlike Noodler’s Lexington Gray  but a bit darker.  I wanted to lighten it up, but the solvent isn’t available to me, so I used water.  Worse still, throwing caution to the wind, I used plain old tap water to thin the ink.  Here’s what I mixed:

De Atramentis Document inks, not to be confused with other De Atramentis inks:

Brown:  3 parts
Black:    2 parts
water:    3 parts

That works out to 60% water, which is a lot but I found that when thinning other inks I had to add a considerable amount of water to lighten their color.  This proved true for the De Atramentis Document inks as well, maybe even to a greater degree.


grey2As you can see, I got a decent dark grey.   I may want to play a bit with the blue/brown mix or maybe try a green/red mix but this is just about what I want on a tonal scale.  Just enough to take the harsh black edge off my sketches.

The real point of the experiment, though, was to see how diluting with water would work.  I’m surprised to say that even with this extreme dilution, the ink holds up nicely.  There is no feathering, the line remains consistent and there are no flow problems with the Pilot Prera (fine nib) that I used to dispense it.  I wanted the sketch to reflect the tonal differences between the black and gray lines so I used De Atramentis Black to do all the shadow lines on the right side of the bottle.  After scanning I quickly slopped watercolor all over it and can report that the waterproof nature of the ink is retained.  All of this is being done on cheap sketchbook paper.  Just to ensure that it wasn’t the result of the paper, I did a bunch of scribbles on Stillman & Birn Alpha series paper and those were were waterproof as well.

By the way, there’s been some discussion of a Fog Gray color being added to the De Atramentis line.  Those few who have had access to it have found that it’s really more of a grey blue than a true grey.   Given that it’s easy to mix our own greys, though, it hardly matters.

For me, the experiment was a great success.  To be honest I’m still a bit surprised because in my experience, dilution of pigment-based products (wood stains I’ve used) with water are very limited and things tend to fall apart once you get past 10-15%.  Here I’ve more than doubled the volume of ink with water..and it still works.  Go figure.  I still wish I could get access to De Atramentis solvent but until that time…I’m going to go draw a few shades of grey.