Stillman & Birn’s New Softcover Sketchbooks

I wrote my first blog post about Stillman & Birn sketchbooks at the end of 2011.  Back then I was a newbie sketcher, struggling to find the ‘perfect’ sketchbook.  At the same time, Stillman & Birn had only recently released a small line of high-quality sketchbooks and I was lucky to cross their path as it seemed I was buying a new sketchbook every week, trying to find one I liked.

Since that time Stillman & Birn has expanded their line of great sketchbooks, with their wide range of quality papers and formats.  And except for cheap notebooks I use for quick-sketching, I’ve used Stillman & Birn sketchbooks almost exclusively.  Most of the sketches on this blog were drawn in S&B sketchbooks.

So when Stillman & Birn announced the release of a new line of softcover sketchbooks, I got some immediately.  But there was a problem with the binding.  I called Michael Kallman (President of S&B) about this and I felt so badly for him as his shock could be heard in his voice.  But Stillman & Birn rose to the occasion, withdrew the books from the marketplace, and went to work to solve the problem.

I was both surprised and thrilled when Michael sent me a couple prototype books to test, one with their 150gsm paper and the other with their 270gsm paper.  I was thrilled to find that the binding problems had been solved and wrote about this on February 20th.

NewBooks

So What’s New Larry?

Two things have happened since then.  First, the softcover sketchbooks have been released to those of us who have been chomping at the bit to get our hands on them.  Second, I’ve gotten the chance to fill those two prototypes, allowing me to see how they hold up to my abusive behavior of throwing them into my art bag and carrying them everywhere I go.

I use 5.5×8.5 Alpha, 3.5×5.5 Alpha, and 8×10 Beta books and I love them all.  I’m not going to talk about the paper quality as you can find my comments on their great papers in my other posts and a simple Google search will yield many other artists singing their praises.  What I want to talk about is using them and how they wear because that’s what the prototypes have allowed me to experience that others may not have been able to do at this point in time.

Wear and Tear

UsedPrototypes

When you move from hardcover to softcover you do so mostly because softcover books are lighter (about half the weight of their hardcover counterpart), thinner, and typically a bit smaller because there is no cover overhang.  All of these things are true of the S&B softcovers (they do weigh about half the weight of the hardcovers).

The big fear, however, is that the softcovers won’t hold up under typical urban sketcher “throw them around” abuse.  I’ll be frank.  I didn’t have high hopes because I’m not kind to my sketchbooks, but these books hold up really well.   As you can see in the photo, these books look new in spite of having spent nearly four months being pulled in/out of my sketch bag almost daily.  Even the fact that the prototype books didn’t have their corners rounded as the commercial books are didn’t result in bent corners.

You might also note that the books aren’t swelled up from buckling.  This is a function of those great S&B papers, but  I was concerned that the Alpha book in particular wouldn’t flatten out as well as one with a heavy hardcover.  My fears were unfounded.

Softcovers In Use

ExamplePages

In use these books are a dream come true.  They open very flat – more so than the hardcovers.   I don’t work across the fold very much but it’s easy to do with these books, regardless of the weight of the paper.

This, and the fact that there is no cover overhang makes it very easy to scan sketches done in these books too.  I’ve fallen in love with the 8×10 format for this reason.  I have a hard time scanning 9×12 books, regardless of binding because they just don’t fit my scanner well.  The 8×10 books make it very easy and yet provide a nice size for larger sketches.

One thing that might be nice would be the addition of an elastic band to keep the books closed.  I  didn’t find this to be a problem with these larger books but with the 3.5×5.5, once you get into the book a bit I found that it doesn’t want to stay closed.  It’s not a big deal and I just used a rubber band but I thought I’d mention it.

Summary

I’ve been a Stillman & Birn fan for most of my short sketching lifespan and these new softcovers do what I didn’t think would ever happen.  It’s likely that I’ll stop using S&B hardcover books for the first time in five years.  I’ve fallen in love with these new softcovers.   Great paper.  Great format.  Light weight.  What more could a street sketcher as for?

Nouvelle France People Sketches

2016-07-09-57TraitCarre2Yvan and I went to Galleria Margelis-Paradis in Trait Carre because the Charlesbourg Watercolorists were having an event to promote the gallery, their group, and their upcoming participation in Quebec’s annual Fete de Nouvelle France celebration.

2016-07-09-57TraitCarre1I’m not much of a people sketcher, particularly when the targets are moving, which was the case as the watercolorists were talking with visitors, showing them period items and paintings.  But, practice makes perfect and I’m sure I only need to draw a couple thousand more before I figure it out.  Anyways, here’s a few of the sketches I did that day.  All were done in a Stillman & Birn Alpha softcover sketchbook with my Platinum 3776 pointy device.

 

2016-07-09-57TraitCarre32016-07-09-57TraitCarre4

A Bright Idea From Bright Ideas

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

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

2016-05-31binding

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

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

2016-06-01test_sketch

 

 

Field Notes Sweet Tooth: A Sketchbook?

FNsweettooth

I confess that I’ve been a subscriber to Field Notes, a series of small (3×5) collectible notebooks, for the past year.  These are handy notepads but mostly they come with paper that’s too light for sketching, at least with fountain pens, and they generally come with pesky lines or grids on their pages.

A while back, though, they did one of their quarterly releases that included 70# white paper.  It did have a light grid but it could  be easily ignored and proved to be a useful sketchbook at least for those of us who like the convenience of having a small, light sketchbook with us at all times.  And Field Notes have done it again… sort of.

This time they’re released a set of three colorful notebooks (Easter colors??) with a couple significant twists on their typical approach.  This time, the 70# paper is BLANK… just like we like it.  And it’s RED, BLUE and YELLOW… which we like…err…uhm… I’ll let you be the judge.

2016-03-22lampWhen I received mine I was very unhappy.  Who the heck needs paper with these ridiculous colors.  I threw them on the debris field and this my desk and didn’t even open them.

Then Tina Koyama “experimented.”  She’s much smarter than I am and saw the potential.  You can see her results here, and here.  The results were undeniable; I had to try them.

Like Tina, I started with the red one.  I took it with me when I went to meet some people to attend a small art exhibition.  I stood outside and in spite of the cold decided that I should try to draw a lamp on red paper. This was not a great idea because my hands quickly became frozen and I was struggling to get the white Uniball pen to write in the cold.  Nevertheless, I had started my adventure down the small red road.

2016-03-23FNtestThat night I sat at my desk with a photo of a street lamp on my laptop.  I only spent a few minutes on it but the red paper made it a lot of fun.

The next night I was watching TV with my wife and as I’m prone to do, I got a bit bored not doing at least one other thing while watching the glass teat.  So, after checking my Instagram feed, becoming frustrated with vitriole on Twitter, and checking in to see what the Blue Jays are doing in spring training, I got my red Field Notes, my Platinum 3776 and I grabbed the glass container that holds my watercolor water on my desk.  Watching TV became more fun as I drew that container.

 

2016-03-23waterjug

I’m a guy who loves drawing lines more than anything else.  I’m drawn to watercolors mostly cuz everyone else is, proving that I’m as much of a lemming as anyone else.  But the red paper releases me from the thought of adding color so I can just enjoy drawing with my fountain pens.  It won’t be the only sketching I do as I’m not sure how well it fits into my urban sketching passion, but for sitting around the house drawing, it’s pretty sweet… or is that sweet tooth?

I did give the approach a try while I was at the museum and drew this interesting flask.  It’s a flask which was traditionally filled with perfume.  Egyptians gave these to each other as part of a New Years celebration.  This was fun and may show me the way to incorporate the toned paper into a location session as this only too me a few minutes between my normal sketching.

2016-03-23NewYearsFlask2016-03-24hydrantI was more doubtful about the other two colors but, again, Tina led the way.  This morning I decided I should try the blue book so I could post a result in this blog post.  I decided a fire hydrant might be nice and as I’d just filled a Pilot Metropolitan with Nooder’s Red-Black I started drawing.  Not good…really bad, in fact.  Noodlers Red-Black is supposed to be “water-resistant.”  It is not… not even a little bit.  I touched the drawing with a small brush with the idea of pulling a bit of shading from the lines and those lines just exploded.  Thank goodness I was drawing a red thing because I was in chase my tail mode trying to clean up the mess.  I wasn’t very successful and smarter people would probably not post this sketch.  Here it is.  Not the fault of the Field Notes but it’s a great example why I don’t use Noodler’s “water-resistant” inks.

And so I had to try again so I could provide something…anything in the blue book that looked ok.  I did this quick architecture/landscape sketch from my limited imagination.  Hope you like it.

2016-03-24house

 

Stillman & Birn Softcovers: An Exciting Announcement

Via Giphy.com

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

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

Stillman & Birn sofcover prototypes

Stillman & Birn sofcover prototypes

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

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

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

Stillman & Birn softcovers, laying flat.

Stillman & Birn softcovers, laying flat.

 

Cheap, Small Sketchbooks – Another Solution

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

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

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

CansonXL_inhalf

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

5x7sketchbook

Review: Stillman & Birn Softcover Sketchbooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

S&Bsoftcovers

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

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

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

Hardcover        Softcover

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

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

3x5portrait

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes It’s More Than Sketching

The change of seasons, for me, means transition from street sketcher to museum sketcher.  It’s a sad time, but also an exciting time. There’s so much shape variation in museum exhibitions.

Our Musee de la civilisation has a new exhibit just opened that presents Australian/New Zealand aboriginal art and as I play didjeridu and love aboriginal art, I’m quite excited about it.  Most of the exhibit is paintings, rugs, and such but there are some statues and masks that I’ll be taking advantage of this winter.

I was there a few days ago, drawing a large wall-hanging mask.  So were a bunch of kids on school outings.  The kids were great as they’d come to see what I was doing and when I talked to them I got half a dozen more coming to see what was going on.  This begat more and more kids to the point where I was mostly just talking to them about the watercolor pencils, waterbrushes, and how much fun it is to draw.  Kids “get it.”  They haven’t learned the feelings and emotions about art that adults somehow acquire.

Eventually they wandered away, though, and I got back to drawing.  I was really enjoying the music and serenity of the room.  A mother and her two young daughters (I’d guess they were 4 and 6) came by and, again, the kids were interested and, as is often the case with parents, the mother told them to leave me alone.  I told her it was fine and I showed them what I was doing.

The older girl had some sort of writing/sketching book with her and started to draw with me.  The younger one, of course, wanted to draw too, which sent mom scrambling for paper and pencil.  She found some paper but had only a Seattle Seahawks pencil with her and it needed sharpening.  I sharpened it and we chatted as I did.  They were on vacation from where some of my favorite urban sketchers live – Seattle.

The kids drew a bit and I finished my sketch.  The older girl came over to show me her drawing and I asked her if she wanted to use my watercolor pencils to color her drawing.  Her look was priceless and I loaned her one pencil at a time.  The same thing happened with the younger girl.  We had a regular sketchcrawl going on.

I wish I had been smart enough to take some photos.  Sadly, all I can share is the sketch I did, but it was the most insignificant thing that happened on this day.

aboriginal mask

Stillman & BIrn Beta (9×12), Namiki Falcon, De Atramentis Document Black, Albrecht-Durer watercolor pencils

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.

2015-01-22hatching1

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.

Walking Through The Park

Summer means a lot of walking for me.  I’ll regularly walk a couple hours a day and often those walks take me to the largest park in Quebec City, Battlefield Park, or what most still call the Plains of Abraham, after a farmer who tilled the area before British and French soldiers stomped around in the fields.

These days, the park is more tranquil, with rolling hills, lots of grass, lots of shade trees.  Oh…and lots of stuff to draw, including this building, which serves as something of a service center for the park.

While I was drawing I was approached by a tourist from Peru.  We tried our best to have a conversation but my Spanish is worse than my French and English and so we were limited, mostly,  to smiling at each other but somehow we managed to communicate.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.  You meet the nicest people while sketching.

Stillman & BIrn Beta (6x9), Namiki Falcon, De Atramentis Document Black

Stillman & BIrn Beta (6×9), Namiki Falcon, De Atramentis Document Black