Stillman & Birn “Beta” Sketchbook

When I got interested in sketching I found it pretty easy to find good watercolors, brushes, pencils, and pens.  What was harder was finding sketchbooks that served my purposes as a pen/ink/watercolor sketcher.  I spent a lot of money and now own a bunch of sketchbooks with 2-3 sketches done in each before I rejected them.

Then a couple artists started talking about Stillman & Birn sketchbooks.  I bought one.  Then another.  Then another.  And I’ve never looked back.  They are simply the best I’ve found.  Mostly I’ve been using sketchbooks, both bound and spiral, from their Alpha series, which have nice, smooth, 100lb paper.  I’ve also tried the Epsilon series and while a bit smoother, I don’t really see much difference between the two but I’m a rookie so what do I know.

And over my few months of using them, lots of other sketchers have started using them too.  We’ve all reported to Stillman & Birn that their Alpha (white) and Gamma (ivory) sketchbooks can handle a lot more water/washes than their advertising suggests.  Many of us are as surprised as S&B are about this, as 100lb paper is about the minimum for doing washes in my experience.  But there’s something about the sizing of the paper that causes it to act ‘heavier’ than it is when accepting watercolor.

It’s not that you can’t buy heavier paper from Stillman & Birn.  They have a Beta (white) and Delta (ivory) series that contain 180lb paper.  But Stillman & Birn advertise these series as being “rough” paper and that’s the last thing one wants if you’re going to be pushing an ink pen over the surface.  So I’ve avoided them…until now.

I’m a curious kind of guy so I’ve now got 6×8 spiral sketchbooks from the Beta and Delta series and…shazaam…the paper isn’t rough at all.  In fact, it’s smoother than some cold-press watercolor papers I’ve tried.  These papers do have a bit more tooth than my Alphas but I got quite excited when I received them because the paper is very heavy, smooth, and inviting.

A quick test demonstrated that my fountain pens like these papers.  I tried a Kaweco Al-Sport, Lamy Safari, Noodler’s Ahab, Pilot Prera, and Hero calligraphy pens.  I tried Platinum Carbon Black, Noodler’s Lexington Gray, and Noodler’s Bernanke Black ink.  All the lines were clean and crisp.  It might be my imagination but I feel that watercolor washes are easier to do with these papers too but I can present no data other than ‘seems like’ to support that view.

And so this morning I got up, looked outside and saw the sun.  I headed out with my new Beta sketchbook in search of something to sketch.  This lasted about 15 minutes.  It was sunny, but ugh; it was cold… cold… cold.  Temps were only a couple degrees below freezing but the winds were howling and so being the sissy that I am, I hustled myself back home.

Not to be defeated by Mother Nature, I went through my photo library and came up with a photo of a sign I’ve been wanting to sketch.  It hangs high over an intersection in our downtown area and I love the flourescent pink lighting around its periphery.  I started sketching, not fully realizing that I had no clue how to draw flourescent lighting.

I’m going to really like this Beta sketchbook.  At 6×8 it’s a good size for portable sketching, though I’ve become quite attached to my 10×7 Alpha sketchbooks.  Here’s the end result.  I did this sketch with a Pilot Prera and Lexington Gray ink.

When Sketchers Look Up

Once I made a couple of sketchbooks with toned paper, I started looking for something to sketch in them.  This search coincided with my looking up as I walked and the result were these two sketches.  Both were made on Canson Mi-Teinte colored papers.  Not as nice for washes as the Stillman & Birn sketchbooks I’m used to but I still had a lot of fun creating these sketches.  Hope you like them.

One of the many turrets that grace buildings here in Quebec City. Canson Mi-Teintes paper (5x7), Hero calligraphy pen w/Platinum Carbon Black ink. W&N artist colors

One of the things I learned from doing these sketches is that looking up to sketch is difficult.  Not only is there an extra perspective dimension to deal with, but just the head bobbing up and down seemed to make it harder for me to create the sketch.

I found this cluster of transformers and their associated wires interesting. Canson Mi-Teinte (5x7), Hero pen with PCB ink.

Making Sketchbooks With Colored Papers

There are dozens of videos and blog posts demonstrating how to make sketchbooks.  This isn’t really one of them.  Then again, it sorta, kinda, is.  I’m writing it because I mentioned that I’d made a couple small sketchbooks using brown paper in the Facebook group, Artist’s Journal Workshop.  One of the regulars in that group asked if I could show how I made them.  This post is what you might label a “Cliff Notes” (does that date me too much?) version of how to make a simple sketchbook.  I encourage you to surf through the YouTube videos for better explanations.

What are we talking about here?

These are the two sketchbooks I’ve made.  Both are identical in construction.  Both are 5.5×8 in size.  The one on the left contains brown pages, cut from plain, cheap postage wrapping paper.  I find this paper works well for pen drawings and you can even add light washes but it’s not very happy with too much water, however.  The cover of this sketchbook is made by cutting a file folder to size.  The benefit of this approach is that it’s already folded and the material is designed to act as a cover.  In short, it’s ideal and easy.  The binding tape (optional) is gaffer’s tape, a black, a fabric tape used to hold everything and anything together.  Think of it as a heavy-duty masking tape, which could substitute for this purpose.

The second sketchbook is composed of several colors of Canson mi-teintes paper.  I believe this is listed as a pastel paper but people use it for pen and watercolor sketches as well.  It’s not quite as smooth as the brown paper but it’s much thicker.  The cover comes from a 12×12 sheet of heavy, patterned paper I got in the scrapbook section of the art store.

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Besides the paper materials, what tools are required?

  • straight-edge
  • knife (Xacto, roller, or paper cutter)
  • measuring device
  • something to poke holes in the signatures (the folded paper) – I used a compass point
  • large needle
  • thread (see below)
  • scissors

Cut and prep the paper

To make a 5.5×8 sketchbook, you need a bunch (I used 6) of paper squares cut 11×8.  I’ll leave you to your devices to achieve this.  Then you need to fold each sheet so that you have a two-page signature leaf that’s 5.5×8 inches.  Use something hard and with an edge to crease the fold as tightly as you can.  I found it desirable to actually iron (low heat) the brown paper pages as the paper came off a roll and tended to retain that curve.

Once you have these pages, simply stick them, one inside the other, creating a single, 12-page (or 24 if you count both sides) signature.  The inner pages will stick out slightly beyond the outer pages.  Trim them if this concerns you.

Cutting and prep the cover

If you’re using a file folder for your cover, just cut it to fit around the paper.  Otherwise, fold your cover stock in half and cut it to fit around your paper.  That’s all there is to making a cover.

Sew it together

There are lots of fancy ways to sew up sketchbooks.  This ain’t one of those ways.  My goal wasn’t to replace my beautiful double-stitched Stillman & Birn sketchbooks.  It was to tie a few pages of colored paper together so I could sketch on them.  So…easy-peasy…we don’t do hard.

Before we get started, notice that there are three holes in the spine of this sketchbook.  These are punched before we sew.  Make the holes a bit larger than your threading needle to make the sewing easy but not so large that things get sloppy.  Punching those holes could be considered the ‘hard part’ but remember, this is easy-peasy sketchbook making.

Get out your phone book and flop it open on a table.  Open your sketchbook to its middle and stick the spine into the centerfold of phonebook phone book.  Take your sharp thingie (you chose your tool), and stab through the entire sketchbook halfway down from the top and through the fold of the sketchbook.  The phone book will hold everything in alignment and provide a place for your sharp gizmo to exit.  Easy peasy.  Now repeat that process an inch from the top and an inch from the bottom.  Voila, the “hard part” is done.

Let the sewing begin.  Use whatever thread you like but it should be fairly thick.  There are special bookbinding threads available but I just used several strands of cheap embroidery thread and a large embroidery needle.  There isn’t much to this…really.  It’s harder to explain it than to do it.  I’ve made a crude drawing of the thread path as an attempt to eliminate the proverbial 1000 words a picture replaces.  The green arrows are when the thread is outside the book; the red arrows indicate the thread inside the book.

There is one thing to note.  The thread going into the center of the book, and the thread coming out of the center of the book, should be on opposite sides of the long run of thread that goes from top to bottom on the outside of the book.

Once you do this threading, just grab the two ends of the thread and pull everything tight.  Then, tie a double knot in the two ends.  Notice that this will cinch down on that long thread running along the spine.  That’s why the ends need to be on opposite sides.  I hope that is more clear than it sounds (grin).

Cut off at least one of the loose ends.  Whether you cut the other end depends upon whether you want a long end to wrap around your sketchbook to keep it closed.  I did this for my mi-teinte paper book because this thicker paper doesn’t want to close completely flat.  I cut both ends on the brown paper sketchbook and then covered the entire spine with tape.  I think this actually provides a better, cleaner solution but to each his/her own.

So there you have it – how I made a couple of quicky sketchbooks.  Hope this helps someone.

 

 

A Sign Of Spring In Quebec

The Internet has affected our views of the world and for the past month or so I’ve ‘experienced’ spring in many locations on our fair planet as people talk about flowers popping out of the ground, birds chirping, etc.  In Quebec spring is a bit different.  It’s a time when temperatures fluctuate a lot.  One day we’ll be in shirt-sleeves and the next we’re back in our heavy coats.  Spring is when the snow melts, though, and we’re left with a bunch of brown, matted grass and no green on the trees.  When the trees finally flush, it seems they do it overnight and summer begins.

So, while we “know” it’s spring, the birds haven’t shown up yet and there aren’t those flower indicators of it.  Instead, our indicators are big blue trucks.  All winter the city’s efforts to keep us moving involves regular gravel/dirt treatments of our roads and sidewalks.  Spring snow melt leaves a coating of the stuff everywhere and so the big blue trucks come along, with nice guys in orange coats who wash the sidewalks with power hoses.  later, other big blue trucks (actually streetsweepers) come along and suck up the gravel from the streets.

A couple days ago they came and while they weren’t in one place long enough to sketch, I took a couple photos and did this quick, for me, sketch of the activity.  We like it clean in Quebec City.

Stillman & Birn 5.5×8.5 Alpha; Lamy All Star w/Platinum Carbon Black ink; W&N artist watercolors

 

The Russians Are Coming…

When I came across this house in Quebec City, I had to sketch it.  I wonder if the Russian Czar who must be living there had a pool table under that dome or a ballistic missle.  It didn’t matter; it was just plain KEWL!

I set up across the street and went to work, sketching the bones in pencil and then doing the ink sketch.  I’m pretty slow as a sketcher and so this took me more than an hour but the time passed without notice.  When it came time for color, the waterbrush came out and… I realized that my watercolors were sitting on my desk at home.  So I shot this photo, packed up, and headed home.

Once at home I vowed to make up a second palette of watercolors so that I could keep it in my sketching satchel.  I had a W&N Cotman Sketcher palette that I picked up on sale and so I popped out the Cotman watercolors and filled the pans with Winsor & Newton artist-quality watercolors.  I’m still experimenting with color palettes and mostly working with little knowledge.  This is what I’m using right now, though.

 

I decided to go light on the color for this sketch; it just seemed to call for that approach, with all the emphasis on the building.  I hope you like it.

It was done in my Stillman & Birn 10×7 Alpha sketchbook, using a Hero 578 Calligraphy pen and Platinum Carbon Black ink.