Stillman & Birn Sketchbooks: Excellence In Execution

I’m new to sketching, but  I’ve been doing it nearly six months and I am a paper and pen freak.  I just love them and in spite of hammering away on a computer all the time, I have at least a dozen pens inked up and various waterbrushes, brush pens, pencils, nib pens, and paint brushes in use regularly.  It’s nuts, I know, as my abilities with these tools are limited but, for me, playing with the tools is just as important as doing art.

My approach to paper has been different.  I’ve spent the last bunch of decades as a fountain pen user – almost exclusively.  Fountain pens require high-quality papers if you’re going to enjoy them to their fullest.  So while I’ve tried the ever-popular Moleskine journals, my requirement for a paper had been reduced to “Is it made by Clairefontaine/Rhodia?”  If it was, I was happy.

This didn’t work for sketching, principally because I needed a more absorbant, and thicker, paper so I could play in the watercolor pond.  So I started a quest for sketchbook/journals.  I just counted and I have NINE of them (remember, I’ve only been doing this for six months).  When the dust settled, I had fallen in love with the Stillman & Birn Alpha series sketchbooks.  The binding is bulletproof and the paper far exceeds expectations when it comes to handling lots of water while doing watercolor washes.  I reviewed the Alpha here, comparing it to my Fabiano Venezia sketchbook.  Here are a couple of the sketches I’ve done in it to give you some idea of how the paper responds.

And so I was like a kid at Christmas when the postman arrived with my order of new Stillman & Birn sketchbooks.  I wanted to a spiral-bound book for field sketching and while my pack can’t handle 9x12s, I bought the 7×10 Alpha for that purpose.  I like the idea of sketching without having a double-page spread to contend with, mostly because I’ve watched other artists working with spiral-bound journals in videos.

I also picked up a twin of my current 5.5×8.5 Alpha hardcover journal, though it’s not an identical twin.  Instead, this one is from the Stillman & Birn Epsilon series and while paper thickness (100lb) is the same, it has a smoother ‘plate’ finish.  The Alphas are quite smooth but, being curious, I thought I’d give an Epsilon a try because a couple artists I admire are using them with good results.  Of course, they could create great art on the bottom of a cafeteria table.  They say that watercolor tends to puddle a bit (the effect on all smooth surfaced papers) but that they actually like the results.  I’m excited to try the Epsilon.  You can find more info about these journals on the Stillman & Birn website.  Oh…and no, I don’t work for them.  I just like their journals.

It’s said that the scariest thing for writers and artists is the blank page.  In my experience, there’s some truth to that.  Somehow, though, I’m really excited about having a couple hundred blank pages to fill.  What are your favorite journal/sketchbooks?

Pilot Acroball: A Good Sketching Pen?

If you wander around the internet, spending time in places where people talk about ballpoint, gel, and rollerball pens, you’ll find discussion of “hybrid inks.”  These inks are stuffed into new versions of ballpoint pens in an attempt to cause ballpoints to write as smoothly as gel pens.  One of the pens that is often discussed is the Pilot Acroball, which comes with either medium or fine points.

I should confess that I have a fountain pen fetish and because of that, I’m mostly ignorant of things ballpoint.  I’ve been impressed by Uniball rollerball pens for years but I don’t really use them.  I use fountain pens for all my writing and sketching needs.  But many sketchers are reluctant to use fountain pens, seeing them as fussy, foreign devices.  They use needlepoint pens like the Sakura Micron, which are fine, archival-quality pens but their problem is that if you do a lot of sketching, you buy a LOT of them as they run out of ink or dry up all too quickly.

So, when I came across the Pilot Acroball in the mall the other day I bought one.  I bought the fine point, in black, as this would be the best form for sketching – at least my kind of sketching.  Frankly, I bought it with the notion of finding what was wrong with it as I’d never seen any sketcher talk about using one.

So what is it?  At first blush, the Pilot Acroball is like any of the gazillion plastic throw away pens that are filling our landfills and creating floating plastic islands in the Atlantic.  We really need to start thinking about the effects created by seven billion people, each doing some little, inconsequential thing like buying disposable pens.  But this post is about the Acroball, not how we’re going to live if we continue to ignore the realities of our world.  In fact, when you look closely you find that this isn’t, or doesn’t have to be, a disposable pen in spite of its $2-3 street price as you can buy refills for it.

The pen is a ‘click pen’ – the tip being retractable.  It’s comfortable in my hand and the esthetics are appealing.  I’m not going to dwell on this stuff, though, as these are personal preference things.  I’m writing this post to talk about hybrid ink and how the pen draws lines for sketching.

Pilot’s hybrid ink causes this pen to lay down a very fine line VERY smoothly.  For its size, it’s less scratchy than most of the needlepoint pens; it acts more like a fountain pen filled with a lubricating ink.  I’ve tested it on Clairefontaine paper, Strathmore 400 series drawing paper, and in my Stillman & Birn Alpha sketching journal.  It performed better than I thought it would in all cases.  So what’s wrong with it?

According to Pilot, this ink is both archival (pH neutral) and lightfast.  I’d love to test their claim of lightfastness but this time of year we don’t have enough sunshine to do that effectively so I’ll take their word for it.  But I can report that it is waterproof, which for those of us who like to add watercolor to our ink sketches, this is important.   It’s at least as waterproof as my favorite sketching ink, Noodler’s Lexington Gray.  It just didn’t budge, no matter how hard I scrubbed with a waterbrush.  The ink is actually a dark gray, very similar to Noodler’s Lexington Gray.  The Pilot Prera fountain pen used for the comparison graphic was filled with Lex Gray.

The one thing I noticed is that the Pilot Acroball has the same demand of its users than all other pens reliant on a rolling ball to deposit ink; you have to press down harder than I’m used to as a fountain pen user.  Flexible fountain pen nibs disappeared from the scene when ballpoints came along because people, used to pressing hard with their ballpoints, were bending fountain pen nibs left and right.  This difference shouldn’t bother those who aren’t used to fountain pens but I found it a a slight problem for me.  As I haven’t done anything but doodles with the pen I dashed off this quick sketch of the closest thing at hand.  So, what’s wrong with it?  It’s not a fountain pen (grin).  But I’m going to start carrying it as a back up pen for sketching.

Buskers Have It Tough During Carnaval Du Quebec

Some of my fellow urban sketchers have chided me for being a sissy because I won’t go out sketching this time of year.  “Cold…I remember the time when the water froze on my palette and we were still….”  Well, you get the picture.  After I heard that enough times I actually put my palette out on my porch with a wash mixed up on it.  It took all of two minutes for ice crystals to start forming and within ten minutes it was frozen nearly solid.  I brought it back in for fear the cold would damage the paints.  I was right; they were wrong.  It’s just too darn cold to paint in Quebec in February.

But yesterday, it “warmed up”, a term I put in quotes because only someone who live here would think of the word “warm” and yesterday’s temperatures together.  And it was Carnaval du Quebec; the time of year where god awful horn sounds are blown to the tribute of the many people selling these sinister souvenirs (remember the soccer horn sounds that made news?).  It’s a time of snow sculpture competitions and spreading maple syrup on snow, rolling it onto a stick.  It’s a time for crazy guys to race in large canoes across a partially frozen St. Lawrence Seaway and for people to brave the cold by drinking Screech (a horrible concoction similar to backwoods corn whiskey) to keep warm.  And, of course, it’s a time when parents wear themselves out hauling their kids up the hill for another ride down …just once more dad.

And even I got up from my hibernation and went outdoors.  I was “warm”, all the way up to 6F for goodness sake.   And it wasn’t too windy.  I bundled up with the required 20 lbs of clothing and pointed my walking shoes towards the old city.  I spent the next couple hours walking fast enough that I didn’t get cold.  It was a good day to be me.  Did I mention how warm it was?

Anyways, I came across this busker, who demonstrates the resilence of Quebecers when it comes to cold.  It far exceeds my own.  I’m an Arizona boy, after all.  Bundled up and wearing big heavy boots, this busker stood outside the information center in the old city (a walled city officially founded in 1608 and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site).  As anyone attempting to play a saxophone in these temperatures would freeze their fingers in minutes and possibly permanently attach them to their metal saxophone, he had an interesting solution… don’tcha think?

And no, I didn’t sketch him.  It was too cold.

 

See The World One Sketch At A Time: The Art of Urban Sketching

Once upon a time there was a boy who live in Spain.  His name was Gabi.   One day, while walking home from a bullfight, he noticed a newspaper headline that read, “The Greatest Coffee in the World” and being a curious lad he wondered what could make coffee the ‘greatest.’

It’s unclear to this day what caused it to happen but Gabi became obsessed with understanding who created the greatest coffee and how they did it.  He soon discovered the answer to the who question.  It was a company called Starbucks, a name that reminded him of Moby Dick, not great coffee.  He found that Starbuck’s headquarters were in Seattle, Washington and, determined to follow this quest, he boarded a plane for Washington.

Upon arrival, and ever hopeful, Gabi went immediately to the nearest Starbucks to taste some of that ‘greatest coffee.’  And there he learned the secret.  You take plain old coffee,  let the consumer make many choices so they feel good about themselves, and you charge them four bucks for the ‘greatest coffee in the world.’

***************


If I’m completely honest I don’t have a clue how Gabriel Campanario came to reside in Seattle, Washington but I’m a writer; I make stuff up.  What I do know is that Seattle is the better for it as Gabi writes a sketching column for the Seattle Times.

He’s touched the rest of us by creating urbansketchers.org around the concept of urban sketching – drawing on location in an urban setting.   The organization has chapters all around the world and explains itself by “See the world one sketch at a time.”

And Campanario’s new book,  The Art of Urban Sketching, brings this idea to print in an exciting and educational fashion.   You can find many of the sketches between its covers on the Internet if you surf around long enough.   The book, however, brings context to those sketches.  It does so in a variety of ways but principle among them are thoughts of the artists themselves.   Also, each of the sketches comes with a statement of what materials were used in their creation – vital statistics for those of us trying to achieve the high quality of the included sketches in our own.  It’s 320 pages are a bargain at its $17 street price.  Anyone who has even the slightest interest in sketching needs a copy of this book.

The book itself is divided into three sections.  The first section is an introduction to urban sketching, with discussions of what it is, what its challenges and rewards are, and what materials are most often used.  Some examples are provided but the points are not belabored.

The second section of the book is the majority content.  It takes you on vacation, or rather on lots of vacations.  Over 50 world cities are represented, each with artists and their sketches representing their special nature.

The eye-candy is amazing, of course, but much can be learned about art, artists, and cities from these chapters.  Best of all, you can curl up and let Gabi and his fellow artists take you places you’ve never been – maybe never heard of before.

The third and final section of the book talks about the various types of sketches done by urban sketchers.  We’re a strange lot as while we will sketch broad vistas and large spectacular buildings many of us are drawn to the more mundane.  We find it fun to turn lamp posts, streetlights, fire hydrants, or even a mailbox into art.

This is one book I can recommend unequivocally.  And it’s not that much more expensive than going to Starbucks (grin).

 

 

My New Favorite Sketching Pen: The Pilot Prera

I’ve been married for 23 years.  Aside from my winning personality and my wife’s infinite patience and tolerance, there is one reason why this is so.  I’m not nearly as fickle about women as I am about fountain pens.  Once I found a wife that would tolerate me, even my cooking, I held on for dear life.  Not so my choice of fountain pens.

I’m new to journal sketching but not to fountain pens.  I’ve been using the later since high school, long enough ago that events of the time are showing up in history books.  But I’ve only been sketching for three months.  When I started my favorite pen for sketching was the Lamy Safari.  Inexpensive, more reliable than any other, and you can get it in a variety of colors for color-coding the inks you’re using.

Since October, however, I’ve purchased a Kaweco All-Sport, a really fine, tiny (short word for great portable sketch kit pen) reliable line-producer.  Not quite as fine a line as the Lamy but still a great pen.

Then I chased the notion of a “flex pen.”  I had nothing but trouble with my standard Noodler’s flex and while I’ve also had a few glitches with my Noodler’s Ahab, it’s a pretty nice sketching pen as well.  I have a hard time getting as thin a line as I’d like, however.

And so my quest continued.  At each of these junctures I returned to my Lamy but I was determined to find a fountain pen that would draw as fine a line as a Pigma Micron 01.  I avoid disposable pens; there are simply too many billions of them floating in the Atlantic for me to want to add to the pile.

And so it was when I sent off a paltry sum for a Pilot 78G.  In fact, I bought two of them because they were so cheap.  When they arrived I was impressed.  The 78G  produces a very fine line – just what I was after.  Using either Noodler’s Lexington Gray (my favorite waterproof sketching ink) or Platinum Carbon Black, the Pilot 78G writes very dry.  I wouldn’t say it skips on me as that wouldn’t be true, but it sure feels like it’s about to when I use it, particularly if I start cross-hatching.  The 78G is also an opaque body pen so I can’t see how much ink you’ve got which is a problem for me as I want to take itto do field sketching.  It doesn’t come with a converter so you have to add $6-7 to the price to get one (The Con-50 fits it).  I found the cap threads to be sloppy and some have reported the cap coming off.  Mine have certainly loosened on their own.

And so it was that I decided to bite the bullet and send my $50+ to Goulet Pens for a Pilot Prelude.  Of the pens I’ve mentioned, this is the most expensive.  And now that I’ve had it for a couple days I feel it’s worth the price.  Most say that the nib on the 78G and the Prera are the same.  I sure can’t see a visible difference except that the 78G is gold-plated.  But when I put them to paper, my Prera is much smoother than my 78Gs.  I leave it to pen experts to debate such things, though.

The Prera is much more solid in my hand than the 78G, which feels like the ultra-cheap pen that it is.  Some say the Prera is ‘too small’ but I’m a pretty big guy and find that with the cap posted, it feels very good in my hands.  I bought one of the “demonstrator” models to get a clear pen body, though Pilot is wise in coloring both ends of these pens so some ability to color-code multiple pens is still a possibility.  The Prera comes with a converter so there’s no extra purchase necessary.  At this point I’ve only put Noodler’s Lexington Gray through it and the Prera likes it just fine, whether I’m writing on Clairfontaine paper or drawing on watercolor paper.  It’s my new favorite pen.

So if you’re looking for a truly ‘fine’ line you could do worse than to look at Pilot pens.  A price comparison between the Prera and 78G favors the 78G  but the price you pay for cheap is significant in my opinion.

78G:  $14 + $7 for converter = $21 from Jet Pens

Prera:   $55 (clear models) from Goulet Pens and doing business with Rachel and Brian is priceless.

 

 

Fire Hydrant Addicts Anonymous

Me: “Hi, everyone.  This is my first meeting.  I’m am a fire hydrant addict.  I need help…”

Everyone: “Hi Larry.  Welcome to Fire Hydrant Addicts Anonymous.”

And so it went at my first meeting.  Nice bunch of folks, and an intimidating number of dogs.  All are very understanding of those who spend a lot of time looking for fire hydrants.

I reported on my sketching of fire hydrants here.  But that was just the tip of the iceberg.  Once I ‘discovered’ fire hydrants I started noticing their differences.  And now that it’s winter people watch with suspicion as I brush snow off a hydrant and take photos of it.  I think what freaks them out the most is that I act so excited.  Fortunately, they don’t see the time I’ve spent on firehydrant.org, a great site for fire hydrant addicts.  They haven’t seen me on hydrant manufacturer sites, looking at exploded parts diagrams of the various models.  Yes…I have a hydrant problem and I hope that Fire Hydrant Addicts Anonymous can help me.

Until the addiction intervention is accomplished, though, I’m compelled to draw them.  Quebec City provides some fun variation in shape, color and vintage and, well, they’re just cool.   Do you have a sketching obsession?

Drawn in a Stillman & Brin Alpha (5.5×8.5) using a Lamy Safari and Noodler’s Lexington Gray.  Winsor&Newton watercolors.

Cheers — Larry

When Was The Last Time You Looked At A Fire Hydrant…

… really looked?  Me neither…until I got interested in sketching.  Even then I didn’t give them a glance until I found the sketching work of Pete Scully.  Pete is a master urban sketcher, mostly doing sketches of buildings in the US Davis area and mostly of the buildings there in.  I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration from his work.

One of the things Pete is known for are his fire hydrant sketches.  He’s found some of the most wonderful fire hydrants in his travels and he’s made a point of sketching them.  This caused me to look at the fire hydrants we have here in Quebec City and I was surprised to find that ours are pretty cool too.  They are mostly a pale red (sun bleached?) and yellow but their shapes vary as they represent vintages that probably date from the Victorian era to the present.  I had fun drawing this one and so I share it here.  One in a Stillman & Brin Alpha journal using a Noodler’s Ahab flex pen and Winsor & Newton watercolors.

The Internet Art Community Is Special Because…

… it’s full of friendly and talented people.  But more important, it’s like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.  And once in a while a piece of art shows up that causes one to feel…deeply.

And so it was when I first saw Dominique Eichi’s pen & ink drawing of her grand niece.  She so captured the wide-eyed and curious nature of young kids that I couldn’t help but stop and stare.  It’s sad that most of us have lost those feelings of wonder.  We go through our adult lives, in adult fashion, or as we believe adults are supposed to act, and we no longer “stop and smell the roses”, “take time to ponder”, or chase bubbles “just cuz it’s fun.”

Aldous Huxley once said, “Children are remarkable for their intelligence and ardor, for their curiosity, their intolerance of shams, the clarity and ruthlessness of their vision.”  Wouldn’t our world be a better place if we all acted a bit more like children?

Dominique Eichi has a great blog called Dancing strokes.  I encourage you to go there, if only to look at this great drawing in its full glory.

Why I’m A Loyal Goulet Pens Customer

Are you loyal to ANY store?  I don’t mean that it’s the first place you go to buy something because they have a large selection.  I mean, are you loyal enough to a store that you go out of your way to buy from them because you want them to grow and be successful?

I’ve watched as the retail industry has become more and more nonchalant about customer service.  I’m regularly frustrated by stores with clerks who know nothing of the products they sell, online sellers who charge outrageous amounts for shipping and won’t answer emails.  I had a local bookstore owner tell me he had to let one of his favorite (among customers) clerks go because ‘she spent too much time talking with customers.’

And that’s why I’m so loyal to Brian and Rachel Goulet of Goulet Pens.  They’re SO different in this regard.  I thought I’d tell you about an email dialog I just had with Brian as just one example of how different they are from the rest.

I wanted a bottle of Platinum Carbon Black ink.  Goulet Pens indicates on their website that they are out of stock and so I wrote to Brian (who doesn’t know me at all) and asked, “Will you be getting any PCB in stock anytime soon?”

He wrote back, knowing it would not make him a sale because he had to say, “Our order has been back ordered for a loooonng time….”  He went on to say “You should buy it wherever you can find it as PCB is in short supply right now.”  I thanked him for his quick response, which had come within an hour or two of my email.

He wrote back later telling me that they had one “sample” left in stock.  One of the great things GP does is make samples of all their inks available.   Now you could interpret this as him taking an opportunity to sell me something.  This sample sells for the vast sum of $1.75 and I’m sure most of that goes into the labor of creating the sample.  No, he was just trying to be helpful.

But, that’s not all.  Even later he wrote back to me and said, “I just got notice that our order has been back-ordered yet again.  I thought you should know.”  Again, no potential for a sale of any kind but he took the time to write and tell me that.  Do you know any other business who would do this sort of thing?  I sure don’t.

So, what did I do.   I ordered that sample, and two pens.  Thanks Brian and Rachel.  You’re the best.  Oh…before I go I should mention that all this occurred one day before Rachel gave birth to the cutest little girl you’d ever want to meet.  Her name is Ellie.  Visit her here.