I was walking back from a sketching session last week and I took a slightly different route. I found a new house I want to sketch and a nifty little restaurant that may become a future sketch. But the real discovery was a small “bouquinerie.” In French, a “bouquinerie” is a bookstore that sells used books and I decided to go in to see if they had any cheap books on Quebec architecture or history.
They did, but what really caught my eye was a small art section. Among the offerings, mostly in French, was a copy of Henry Pitz’s How to Draw Trees. This book was first published in 1956 and redone several times since then. It does appear to be out of print, though you can still buy used copies of it via Amazon, Abebooks and probably elsewhere but the prices run from $30-100. The one I was looking at cost five bucks. I snapped it up and it has launched a new sketching chapter for me, and I haven’t even read the darn thing yet. The sketches are cool, though.
I’m not sure how long that chapter will be or what story it will tell, but right now I’m having fun discovering trees. I’ve drawn trees in many of my sketches but I’ve never featured a tree in a sketch. I still have much to learn from this book as I’m still looking at the pictures, but I thought I’d share some of my meager attempts that have sprung from my new-found interest.
I started by doing some small sketches in a really cheap, blank notebook I picked up at the dollar store. Until Stillman & Birn decide to produce a small sketchbook, I’m stuck with this less than optimal paper as I really don’t like Moleskine sketchbook paper. Anyways, here’s a sample of my efforts.
Plains of Abraham Trees
The Plains of Abraham is a natural place to sketch trees – the park has a lot of them representing many, many species. I went there with the idea of capturing a couple ‘likenesses’ of these tall neighbors on our planet.
I started in a handmade sketchbook, with Canson Mi-Teintes tan paper. I think this sketch may be improved with a splash of color but for now, this is the result. Proud, but lonely, this tree stands in a very open area of the park. Click on this image for a larger image.
I got out my Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook (6×8) and moved to a comfy bench in the shade and I sketched this tree. Again, you can get a larger image by clicking on ths small one.
Some Misc Doodles
I thought that while I had my dollar store notebook out I’d show you a few examples of the doodles I do, often while watching TV. There’s not much to them but I thought some might find them interesting.
Anyone have a recommendation for a decent 3×5 sketchbook that isn’t made by Moleskine and is available (without paying as much for shipping as for the sketchbook) to those of us in Canada?
Cheers — Larry (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A couple weeks ago I was down at the Quebec City port and parked near the Louis Jolliet excursion boat dock sat a great little car, painted up as a race car. I don’t know if it was really a race car or why it was parked there. But I plucked my camera from my sketching bag and took a photo of it.
Yesterday I couldn’t go out sketching and I remembered that car. I brought the photo of it up on my computer and I sketched it. Though I’m not an accomplished sketcher, I have to say that I like the sketch better than the photo. Just a bit more personal I suppose, and now I know this car better than my own. Ain’t she cute? Are cars the ultimate ‘urban sketch’?
It bothers me how automatic “What can I do?” and “Citizens have no voice” rolls off the tongues of people in North America. We still outnumber our governments and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. Here’s a great story of some people who didn’t and they saved their post office from the budget cut axe. Earnest Ward tells the tale of how a bunch of artists saved their post office.
I’m a lucky guy. Laure Ferlita reads my blog. If you don’t know Laure, she is a VERY talented artist/sketcher whose work I admire a lot. She has her own blog and left a comment on my recent post about Stillman & Birn sketchbooks where she advocates the use of what she calls a ‘junk journal.’ You can, and should, read her blog post, titled “Pen Practice In My Junk Journal” on this subject.
In that post Laure advocates the use of a ‘junk journal’, a sketchbook that may be a cast off from buying an inadequate sketchbook, or maybe even bought as a ‘junk journal.’ While the name Laure gives to these sketchbooks comes from the notion that they might be otherwise thrown away, they are anything but junk, but rather a liberating and fun tool. A junk journal, in my view, is a crucial part of a newbie’s arsenal. While Laure, an accomplished artist, uses it to gain unfettered creativity in planning, playing, and enjoying her skills. I think we newbies have an additional use for it, which is that we’re trying to figure out how to do stuff and a junk journal is the best place to do it in my view.
For myself, I have a ‘junk journal’, though it isn’t one of my rejects. Instead, it’s a 9×12 Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook that sits, open on my desk, all the time. It’s where I do tests of new materials. It’s where I try to replicate a technique or idea I’ve gleaned from the many bright folks that inhabit the Internet. It’s where I try to improve my drawing and painting techniques. This sketchbook is crucial to my learning process as I feel the notion of learning by doing is a good one, there are different kinds of doing and separating my ‘learning’ (junk journal) from my ‘doing’ (creating the best sketch I can) helps me a lot.
When one tries to learn piano one doesn’t just try to play a Chopin sonata over and over again. One plays scales, plays Chopsticks, Twinkle-Twinkle-Little-Star or whatever. In short, if sketching buildings (my thing) is what you like, you don’t want to mess up a nice sketch of a building trying to figure out how to indicate snow against its wall. You need a ‘junk journal’ to figure out that 1) drawing a line to indicate snow is a bad idea, 2) that negative painting that snow line is far superior and 3) get some practice doing it in small, insignificant vignette sketches.
I’ve made it pretty clear in my S&B post that I’m an advocate of using first class paper all the time. I tried to indicate how little more it costs to do so in that post. But I think Laure’s views on a junk journal and mine are not so different. Rather, I think there are two components to ‘junk journal’ and they should be addressed separately. They are:
1) You need a sketchbook where you can play, with no expectations of drawing anything you’re going to frame or post on the Internet – the junk journal that Laure advocates.
2) You need to decide whether you need cheap paper to be liberated as in 1) or not.
I think, without a doubt, Laure is right about the first thing for all the reasons she argues on her blog AND as I’ve just argued, it’s probably more important for new sketchers to have such a sketchbook.
For the second thing, however, I think it’s not so clear. While Laure’s idea of using an existing, and rejected sketchbook seems very logical, and certainly frugal, it was afterall, a rejected sketchbook. You’ve said, “Yuck!” for a reason. And if your junk journal is to be used to try new techniques, experiment with ideas, and generally aid in your learning the craft, wouldn’t it be better if the paper in that sketchbook be of a quality similar to what you use when you actually do a so-called ‘serious’ sketch or journal entry?
Of course this is true so the big problem is whether you can get past the notion that paying an extra few cents for a blank page on which to scribble is a good idea.
I find that by using a first class sketchbook is worth it to me because I’m testing techniques, not just ideas. Further by using much larger journal than my carry-everywhere sketchbooks I cut the cost of the play even more. I scatter experiments and sketches over a 8 1/2 x 11 page, done in the size I’d do in my normal sketchbooks, and I can fit 4-6 ideas on a page, sometimes more. I’m not trying to produce a ‘real’ sketch, remember. And so, while my large S&B Epsilon costs $22, there are 100 pages on which I can doodle/test/sketch and even at four ideas per page it’s only costing me a nickel per idea. Pretty cheap to have the knowledge that the paper won’t bleed, buckle and that anything learned will translate well to my ‘real’ sketchbooks.
In summary, following Laure’s recommendation is probably the most important thing a newbie sketcher can do to help develop technique and style. Whether it is ideally done on cheap paper, is, however, more a function of getting past the notion that you’re worth a few nickles (grin).
And now I’ve done something I thought I’d never do – show people pages from my junk journal. I feel like Hagrid, in the Philosopher’s Stone movie when he kept giving privileged info to the kids, followed with “I shouldn’t have told you that.”
I’m reluctant to endorse products as I feel that sketching is a personal thing with as many ways of doing it as there are people. But I sketch and I post my sketches in several places. I always list the materials used as I remember when I was getting started, and the frustration I felt when I was searching for information on the materials other people used.
Now that I’ve been sketching for ten months, I have people asking me about the Stillman & Birn sketchbooks and why I use them. I’m not alone, of course, as many sketchers are singing the praises of these sketchbooks but when I’m asked I try to provide a response. I’ve found myself doing that enough times that it was time for a blog post to show you, and tell you, why I love these sketchbooks so much.
Don’tcha hate it when someone says “use this – it’s great” only to find that they have no experience with any other product? And how can you evaluate someone else’s comments about a product without knowing how they work, what they expect of a product, etc. So I thought I’d start this by answering those questions.
I’ve mentioned that I’ve only been sketching for ten months. I’m a newbie. It’s said the Renoir, on his deathbed said, “It’s a pity; I was just figuring it out.” I understand those words as any creative form takes a long time to learn and I’m still in the beginning stages of learning to sketch. That said, I may have more experience than some with the various products on the market as I’ve always felt that beginners, more than experts need to use the best materials (for them) that money can buy. Experts can evaluate a material and adjust to it. We beginners have no idea whether our successes or failures are due to our lack of ability or the materials themselves. I’ve always felt that eliminating poor materials as a factor, I gain confidence that my efforts can lead somewhere.
And so, when I started sketching I tried dozens of pens, bought artist-grade watercolors, and stocked up on erasers (grin). And I bought sketchbooks. Oh, did I buy sketchbooks. I found that finding a sketchbook that fit my needs was, by far, the most difficult task. Not only are they the most expensive component, once you’ve bought them you feel you should use them, even though they aren’t what you’re looking for. You could spend a lifetime using up purchased sketchbooks with the hope of eventually you’d buy one that would work the way you wanted. Not me…I just kept buying and trying. I have a LOT of sketchbooks with only a few sketches in them before I concluded that it wasn’t up to the task. Until I got my hands on a Stillman & Birn sketchbook. My search ended; my dream came true.
My requirements start with my passion for pen & ink. Specifically, I use fountain pens and I needed a paper that was relatively smooth (many cold-press papers are too lumpy for pen & ink) and a paper with enough sizing that the inks wouldn’t feather (fuzzy edges). I also like the idea of using watercolors in my sketches so I needed a paper that was heavy enough to let me wet out a sky area and then start dropping in a wash. And I wanted a paper that wouldn’t buckle under such a treatment. I wanted a paper that wouldn’t bleed through to the back side. And I wanted that paper in an easy-to-carry sketchbook; a sketchbook that could sit on a shelf once I’d filled it.
These are my current sketchbooks and the ones upon which my comments are based. They aren’t an exhaustive representation of the Stillman & Birn line of sketchbooks but, aside from their ivory paper equivalents, they are a pretty good cross-section as it turns out.
A) is a 10×7 spiral-bound Alpha series book. I love it when I want something a bit larger than my 5.5×8.5, which is my carry-everywhere sketchbook.
B) is a 9×12 hardbound Epsilon series book. This sits, open, on my desk and I use it to try new techniques, when I have a few minutes to doodle, or whatever. Mostly it’s a compendium of failures on my part but I love to flip through it as it’s also full of memories, even after 10 months.
C) is a 5.5×8.5 hardbound Alpha series book and it’s my carry-everywhere sketchbook. This one is nearly full and will be replaced by another just like it, or maybe a Beta in this size.
D) is a 6×8 Beta series book. Stillman & Birn says this is “rough” paper and I completely ignored this series for that reason until one day someone said, “It’s not rough at all; I love the Beta paper.” So I asked S&B if they’d send me a sample of their Beta paper. To my surprise, they sent me an entire sketchbook and the paper is truly amazing, though I’ve only done a few sketches on it.
So there you have it…my perspective and a bit about my experience. I’m no expert, nor do I claim to be. But I have used a sketchbook or three…or dozen.
Stillman & Birn paper
I quickly learned that if you want to use wet media, you need heavy paper. You’ll hear people saying all the time, “use at least 140lb watercolor paper” and that’s not bad advice and that advice certainly fits most of my experience with sketchbooks.
BUT…great big ‘but’ here, my experience with Stillman & Birn suggests that’s not the whole story. I’m not a paper expert so I’m treading out onto a thin limb here but it seems that how the papers are sized (chemicals added to it) is just as important as paper thickness. What I ‘know’ is that Stillman & Birn papers are double-sized, meaning that sizing is added to the paper mixture and also added to the surface of the paper as it’s made.
I’ll leave the technical details to others and they’re not really that important except to say that Stillman & Birn’s 100lb papers (in the Alpha, Gamma, and Epsilon series) hold up to watercolor washes at least as well as most 140lb watercolor papers and far better than other 100lb papers/sketchbooks I’ve used. Let’s just call it ‘magic’ but what’s important is that it’s true.
Alpha Series paper
Many sketchers have reported being surprised by how the 100 lb paper responds. I know I was. I use the Alpha series 100 lb paper. There is simply NO buckling of the paper when applying a wash. I find that if I really wet the paper it will sort of ‘curl’ a bit along its long axis but not a hint of buckling. Once dry, however, even the curl goes away. There is no bleed-through at all, regardless of what you apply. I’m one who sketches on only one side of the page but I often make notes about the sketch on the backside of the preceding sketch. This is not a problem when viewing sketches. S&B’s Gamma series is the same as the Alpha only with ivory-colored paper.
Beta Series paper
I actually have the least amount of experience with this paper but I REALLY like it. This is thick stuff – 180 lb stock. There is slightly more tooth to the Beta paper than the Alpha but it’s still plenty smooth enough for my fountain pens and while I’ve compared ink lines using a magnifier, I can’t see any differences in feathering.
What I do see is that this ultra-thick paper is fantastic for someone wanting to slop water all over a sketch. While the Alpha series papers hold up well, the Beta-series papers remain dead flat no matter what you do to them. It’s likely that I’ll switch to this paper as I fill my Alphas. The one downside, of course, is that thick paper means fewer sheets per sketchbook. My Alpha has 124 pages; the Beta equivalent only 52 so it’s hard to decide which is the better way to go. The Delta series is the same 180 lb paper as the Beta only it’s ivory-colored.
*** And guess what? The postman just arrived and I’m now the proud owner of the NEW HARDBOUND version (5.5×8.5) version of this series. It’s rare to find paper this thick bound into a hardcover and, until now, even S&B only had it available in spiral-bound form. Not any more as you can get it in this size as well as large size hardbound form.
Epsilon Series paper
The Epsilon series is unique in that it comes in white only. Its finish is called a ‘plate finish’ and smoother – you might say very smooth surface. Certainly this is the one to choose if you’re doing pencil work. But, like the Alpha series, its 100 lb, double-sized paper, handles watercolor washes well. What the smoother plate surface does, however, is cause the watercolors to skate around on the surface longer, which can be good if you do a lot of wet-in-wet mixing or bad if, like me, you’re a newbie and not well-versed in chasing watercolor washes. Personally I prefer the Alpha and Beta series to this one but some swear by the Epsilon for their watercolor sketching.
Stillman & Birn Bindings
When I show people my 5.5×8.5 sketchbook they often say “I have one like this.” But they don’t. They typically have one of the less expensive, and less good, generic black sketchbooks. The black binding is a tradition, it seems but I wish my S&Bs weren’t black – weren’t like those lesser sketchbooks. It would simply be easier for people to understand the differences.
Whether spiral-bound or hardbound, S&B sketchbooks have very hard, thick covers. I like this as I’m unkind to my sketchbooks. They get banged around, find themselves laying on the ground, and I’ve even sat on them, though that was by accident.
The spiral-bound books have double-ring bindings that I haven’t managed to squish (a technical term) like I have some of the lesser products. It’s the hardbound sketchbooks, though, that are the true marvel. These sketchbooks are double-stitched and just like ‘double-sized’ I don’t know what that is but I know what it means. It means they won’t come apart and you can get them to lie flat, two virtues that most sketchers appreciate.
You must ‘break in’ an S&B sketchbook to get it to lie flat and if you’re used to lesser products, you’ll find it scary. As with any book, the road to getting it to lie flat is to open it, a few pages at a time, and bend it open, generally such that the covers are lying flat on a surface. With S&B sketchbooks, though, you can fold them well beyond fully opened without cracking the binding or breaking the stitching. It’s a marvel to see it done for the first time. But notice, in the photo above, how I’ve bent back my Alpha series sketchbook to take the photo. This is pretty extreme but the sketchbook is no worse the wear for it.
[climbing onto soapbox…gosh that’s hard on my knees] I know…I know…you’re just a beginner and don’t feel you should use good paper or good sketchbooks. I hope you’ll reconsider. Do the arithmetic. Buying first class sketchbooks rather than lesser versions costs what, maybe $5-8 more? Divide that by the 124 pages of an Alpha series sketchbook and what’dya get? At $8 that’s 6.5 CENTS more per page. And $8 is less than the price of a single movie ticket (2 1/2h of entertainment?) – less than three lattes. Yet those 124 pages will provide hours of enjoyment and the confidence that comes from using first-class materials.
My first hardbound sketchbook cost me $10. The street price of an S&B Alpha series of the same size is $15 or roughly $5 more. I made a few attempts at pen/ink/watercolor sketches in that first sketchbook, the paper was horrible. I gave up. I’ve nearly filled the S&B sketchbook this summer…100 hours or more of fun. Which one was cheaper? You decide.
I hope this answers those who ask why I like the S&B sketchbooks. I’m not affiliated with S&B except that I’m a devoted customer. If you try their sketchbooks, I suspect you will become one as well. You can find more information Stillman & Birn sketchbooks from their website at: http://www.stillmanandbirn.com/
Cheers — Larry
Patrick Ng presented one of his sketches by showing us all the stages of development in a series of posts in the Facebook group, Artist Journal Workshop. I thought that was a great idea and so I’m going to do that here. Click on the photo to get a larger image.
First stage occurred on a hot day, in front of the Quebec City train station. I decided to draw a building that sits at 363 Rue St. Paul, partly because it was a great subject and partly because there was a shady spot where I could sit. I didn’t quite get the drawing done in that first session as it still lacked the foliage, though that had been penciled in early in the process so I’d know what parts of the building would be covered by leaves.
Once I finished adding the foliage and touching up a few of the details it looked like this. I did this at home.
I decided to add shading with early morning sun as I thought it would be better than the mid-day sun I had when I did the sketch. So, I went back to the site, plunked myself on my Walkstool and went to work.
I now use a small chunk of 8B Derwent Graphitone pencil, stuck in a half-pan, for my basic shading. This has some interesting virtues. First, I can use it just like a cake of watercolor, using a brush to pick up pigment and mix up washes of any density I need. Second, it’s much smaller and lighter than the dilute india ink solutions I was carrying for this purpose. AND, the important thing is that once Graphitone been exposed to water and then dries, it won’t mix with watercolors I put over it. The end result of this stage sometimes causes me to wonder whether I need color at all. This may be because I’m not all that versed in or experienced with watercolor (grin).
I used a Pilot Prera fountain pen with Noodler’s Lexington Gray ink to do this sketch. In my opinion, the techniques are made possible, or at least easier, because of the fantastic, double-sized papers of the Stillman & Birn sketchbooks I use. I can’t say enough good things about them. If you find these sorts of posts useful, let me know and I’ll do more of them.
Cheers — Larry
Last Saturday I and a group of more talented sketchers took to the streets of Quebec City as part of a worldwide “sketchcrawl”, to spend the day sketching our fair city. I could tell you all about it. I could show you pictures. But that’s already been done better than I could at the Drawn to Quebec blog so click thee to the photos and discussion.
I’ve been sketching for about ten months now. When I started my goal was to be able to draw some of the unique buildings here in Quebec. That is still my goal and I’ve been happy with my progress. Heck, I’d be happy with any progress as I spent most of my life believing you had to have special talents to draw.
I’ve approach that goal in single-minded fashion, first drawing a gazillion boxes and finally buildings. It’s only been recently that I’ve even added trees and such to my building sketches. I think that trying to keep it simple has helped me considerably as I climb the learning curve.
But I’ve met a group of sketchers that have me conflicted over my approach. They meet once a week and draw portraits. They are Yvan, Denis, Jean-Marc, Sylvie, Katherine, Catherine, Han, and Celine. While their names don’t mean much to you, take my word for it; these are some of the nicest, most talented people you’d ever want to meet.
I met some of them during our recent sketchcrawl, and I decided to attend their portraiture session last night. I didn’t sketch. As I said, I’m trying to stick with buildings and while the US Government can decide that corporations are people, I have a hard time convincing myself that people are buildings.
But the ‘esprit’ of that evening session, and the enthusiasm of its participants, is infectious and I’m afraid I have been infected. I shouldn’t. I know I shouldn’t. Stick with the plan, Larry. But…but…I feel the need to participate. My only participation last night, aside from being amazed by the sketches done by these artists, was to pose for a 20-minute session. It was fun. I hope to do it again. If you’ve ever wondered what I look like, this sketch by Yvan is a very good likeness.
In conjunction with the Worldwide Sketchcrawl effort on July 14th, We’re having a sketchcrawl here in Quebec City. I hope you’ll join us for some sketching fun.
Date: July 14th, 2012
Time: Start at 10:00 AM
Location: Meet at the Plains of Abraham’s Jardin de Jeanne D’Arc (corner of Rue de Bernieres and Avenue Tache)
Cost: Free; but you will have to provide your own materials. Bring your favorite pointy devices and sketchbook. Also, we will picnic at lunch time so bring food and drink. There are water fountains on both ends of the garden and restrooms are available.
If you’d like more information, please contact:Bethann at email@example.com or Larry at firstname.lastname@example.org (418-525-4985)
We’d love to know in advance if you plan to participate but drop-ins are also welcome.