Why Do I Use Stillman & Birn Sketchbooks?

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.

My Perspective

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.

Sketchbook Costs

[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

larry@larrydmarshall.com

Stepping Through My Sketching Process

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.

On Location PhotoFirst 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.

B&W sketch

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.

Toned sketchI 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 like color, though, so I broke out my W&N watercolors and applied a moderate amount of color to the sketch.

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

larry@larrydmarshall.com

36th Worldwide Sketchcrawl – Quebec City Style

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.

Portrait Sketching in Quebec City

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.

36th Worldwide Sketchcrawl – Quebec Style

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 drawntoquebec@gmail.com
or
Larry at larry@larrydmarshall.com (418-525-4985)

We’d love to know in advance if you plan to participate but drop-ins are also welcome.

Inuit Urban Sketching

Here’s something you won’t see in many urban sketcher’s sketchbooks, an Inukshuk.  The Inuit have used these for years to provide directions, mark locations, and even to aid in caribou hunts.  Because of this, you can find these human-like rock piles scattered across the northern parts of Canada… or in souvenir shops, as miniature versions are quite popular.

This one, however, is in downtown Quebec City, on the Parliament grounds.  I’d guess its height at ten feet.  Yesterday wasn’t the optimal time to sketch it as there are barriers up around the grounds due to construction so I couldn’t get as close as I’d like, nor could I view it from its front, the optimal way to sketch an inukshuk (“in-ooo-shuck”).  But, I was there; it was there; and I sketched it as, these days, I’m interested in rocks and how to depict them.

This sketch was done in a Stillman & Birn Beta (6×8) sketchbook, using a Pilot Prera pen filled with Noodler’s Lexington Gray ink. Winsor & Newton artist watercolors provided the color.  I REALLY like the Beta sketchbook paper.  So thick, so friendly to both pen and watercolor.  I’ve become quite spoiled by my Alpha series sketchbooks but the Beta series is yet one step better for the kinds of sketching I do.

Any inukshuks in your town (grin)?

Gardening Book For Sketchers

If you’re like me, you’re always looking for examples of OPS (other people’s sketches).  It’s how I learn.  How did they depict foliage?  How are they shading?  What colors are they using?  What are they doing to simplify complex objects?  For me, this part of the quest to be a good sketcher is a considerable chunk of the fun.

Town & Country GardeningAnd so, as I wandered a huge, ‘buy by the kilogram’ book sale yesterday, I was flipping through books on all kinds of subjects, looking for sketching examples.  It’s at such sales that I can justify paying a buck for a big book full of sketches about subjects that aren’t of particular interest to me otherwise.  And while all this page-flipping doesn’t often yield results, it’s sort of a treasure hunt for me and what young boy (I’m only in my 60s afterall), doesn’t like a treasure hunt.

And so it was, yesterday, when I came across the motherlode in the form of Town and City Gardening by Michael Miller, and more importantly, illustrated by Anne Ormerod.  the cover caught my eye immediately.  The book presents a lot of ideas for hanging gardens, gardens in very small spaces, and a lot of architectural things associated with small gardens.  And while there are photos, the book is heavily populated with gorgeous sketches of plants, gardens, windows, doors, and planters.  These are split about 50:50 between black and white and color sketches but all are magnificently done in ink, with watercolor washes when done in color.  I paid about a buck for my copy.  From what I can tell it’s out of print but the link above does take you to a copy for sale via Abebooks, for a buck.

Esthetics Vs Cheap: What We Are Missing

One of the things I’ve noticed since since I became a sketcher is that most man-made objects have short lifespans, and getting shorter in our disposable economy.  We really need to do something about that.

But architecture is the big exception, largely because buildings built before the 50s and 60s were built to last a loooooong time.  Construction was brick, with thick walls and roofs covered with metal.  And oh do they last…and last.  There are hundreds of buildings in Quebec City that were built in the late 19th Century and hundreds more built during the first quarter of the 20th.  Many remain have not been torn down to make room for the square box buildings we build today for one simple reason.  These old buildings were built to be as attractive as they were functional.  As I compare the beauty of these old buildings and compare them to the more modern parts of our city, it’s not hard to conclude that we’re sacrificing a lot in the name of build it cheap.

The Fire House Example

As in every city, in Quebec City things occasionally catch on fire.  And like other cities, we have a fire department and their facilities scattered around the city.  And if you look at the fire engines that arrived at fires in the early part of the 20th Century they looked like this.  Very cool and people now visit museums to see them.

But today modern fire equipment are marvels of engineering, far more capable at quenching the flames.  Far more expensive too but we spend the money because they do a better job.  As a fire hydrant sketcher, I know there are some fire engine sketches in my future but it’s the fire houses that have caught my eye.  I’ve seen several here that can only be described with a single word – KEWL!

And so this past weekend I sat on the sidewalk across the street from this majestic building and sketched it.  It was done in a Stillman & Birn 10×7 Alpha sketchbook, using a Pilot Prera (fine) pen filled with Noodler’s Lexington Gray.  Aren’t I right?  Isn’t it KEWL!  Why don’t we build buildings like this anymore?

 

 

The Day It Rained On My Parade

****

Into each life some rain must fall – Henry Longfellow

I wonder if Longfellow was thinking of plein air sketching when he wrote that famous line.  Probably not.  But as spring came to Quebec City it came in couplets, a a day of sunshine followed by a cold, rainy day.  And I was poised with sketchbook, wanting to hit the streets to do some sketching.

And so it was when I woke to a ‘to do’ list that said, ‘go sketching’, but the day greeted me with cloudy skies and cool temps.  I’d made that appointment with myself and I wasn’t going to let a few clouds prevent it, no matter how ominous they looked.  And so I headed out, hopping a bus for the downtown area.

Though it was a bit cool, I was having a great sketching session as I sat on my Walk Stool, capturing one of the many interesting buildings within my habitat.  As the Urban Sketchers say…show the world one sketch at a time.  I’d gotten the sketch to the point of adding details when it started to rain.  In atypical fashion, I’d actually anticipated the need for an umbrella and I got it out, opened it, and decided that I should take the proverbial ‘location shot’ before I left for the day.

Aside from the fact that the umbrella was one of those small things that are too small to truly protect humans my size, I bumped against another problem; I didn’t have enough hands.  If evolution was so smart, we’d have three.  I only have two.

I needed to hold the sketchbook up so the photo would include both the sketch and the actual building and, of course, I needed to hold the camera.  I could put the umbrella down but then the sketch would get wet.  And so it was that I was trying to hold umbrella AND camera in one hand, the sketchbook in the other.

I had looked relaxed and confident while I was sketching.  Now I looked like some sort of contortionist.  Trying to hold camera and umbrella while looking through the viewfinder, while holding the sketchbook out in front of me was, well, trying.  And then there was the problem of having a free finger to push the button.  I gave up on trying to look through the camera.  I shot several quick photos, hoping that one of them actually included sketch and building.

Somewhere along the line my oldsheimers caused me to forget this sketch and a couple weeks has gone by.  I ‘discovered’ it as I was flipping through my sketchbook and I decided it was overdue for completion.  This is the result.  Hope you like it.  Have you ever been caught in the rain while sketching?

Like all of my sketches, this one was done in a Stillman & Birn Alpha (10×7) sketchbook.  I used a Lamy Al-Star and Platinum Carbon Black ink to finish it.  I may have used the same pen when I started the sketch too but oldsheimers strikes again.  Color is Winsor & Newton Artist Watercolor.

What Makes A Sketching Day Fun For You?

Spring is still struggling to show its head here in Quebec.  It’s raining here today,  but yesterday was gorgeous.  Heck, we got all the way up to 68F!  So I grabbed my sketchbook and headed out to wander the back streets, looking for something new to sketch.  I went to an area I hadn’t been before.

It was a residential area, constructed during the early 20th Century.  Many of the buildings had a lot of peeling paint and some even had molding pieces missing or damaged.  But there were some gems too.

But I was drawn to a fairly small, simple house, mostly because of its bright colors and absolutely immaculate condition.  I think someone must dust the exterior regularly.  Obviously its residents cared about their home.

I set up across the street and started drawing it.  Here’s what my finished sketch looked like.  I hadn’t carried my painting gear with me so I added color at home, after dinner.  The sketch was done in my 10×7 Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook using a Lamy Al-Star and Platinum Carbon Black ink.   Here it is with color added.

One difference you’ll see between the finished drawing and the actual house is that the shade is pulled in the window on the right.  During my session, that shade went up and a little, round-faced old lady looked out at me.  I envisioned the dialog.  “Hey Clarence, there’s a guy out there staring at our house.  Looks like he’s making something in his lap.  Should I shoot him?”

Alas, there were no shots.  this is Canada, after all (grin).