Junk Journals, Trying Stuff, And Sketching Fun

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.

Here I was trying to figure out how to draw cylinders, with a bit of 'quick building' thrown in for good measure.

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.

Here I was responding to ideas from Artist's Journal Workshop on how to paint kitchen wall tiles and bricks, with some paint smears and smudges that I can't explain.

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.”

 

 

 

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

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?