Stillman & Birn Zeta: A Pen Sketcher’s Dream

S&B_ZetaBack in November of 2011 I bought my first Stillman & Birn sketchbook.  It was a 5×8, hardcover Alpha-series book.  I wrote about the Alpha Series here.   In that blog post I said that I liked it very much and I gave several reasons why I felt it outperformed the other sketchbooks I’d tried. I also ran out and bought several more.  But as I’d only had it for a short time I added the caveat that “It’s probably premature to draw conclusions that will stick.”

Well, nearly two years and ten S&B sketchbooks in use or filled, I think I can be a bit more definitive…but with another caveat.  Stillman & Birn just keeps getting better and better so who knows what ‘best’ will look like in the future.

I find the colors are brighter on Zeta paper, probably because they aren't absorbed into the paper as much.  Makes lifting easier as well.

I find the colors are brighter on Zeta paper, probably because they aren’t absorbed into the paper as much. Makes lifting easier as well.

As I filled sketchbooks, I tried the other Stillman & Birn papers.  For the pen & ink work I do, the Epsilon sketchbooks are wonderful to draw on.  It took me a while to get used to how the smoother paper accepts watercolor as they stay wet longer and sit on the surface more, which is neither good or bad but different from the more absorbent Alpha.  The best equivalency I know is to the differences between cold-press and hot-press watercolor papers. Both of these papers are 100lb papers that, while they outperform any papers of this weight I’ve ever used, they still have a tendency to curl somewhat when lots of water are applied.  You can see a bit of shadowing if you use both sides of the paper.

And then I tried Beta, S&B’s 180lb paper.  This is surfaced very much like a cold-press paper and provides a fantastic surface for watercolors but not as nice as Epsilon for pen use.   By the end of the summer of 2012 I wrote a summary post on these different sketchbooks.  I was completely hooked on Stillman & Birn papers and their amazing double-stitched bindings which are second to none.  But at the time I thought “They need thick “Epsilon” paper.

Notice how flat S&B sketchbooks lay once they've been broken in.

Notice how flat S&B Zeta sketchbooks lay once they’ve been broken in.

And this is the thing about Stillman & Birn.  If you dream it, they magically know you were dreaming and they make it.  The Zeta sketchbooks were release a few months ago in response to my dream.  I’m betting others were dreaming the same thing.

I use several S&B sketchbooks (different sizes and papers) simultaneously and when the Zeta series was released, I immediately started using one.  It quickly became a favorite for my kind of sketching (pen/ink and wash).  It’s a merging of best of Beta and Epsilon into one paper as it’s 180lb Epsilon paper.  I’m working in my second Zeta sketchbook and it’s hard for me to see any reason to use any other, if the size I want is available with this paper.

There lies the rub as I still use Alpha in 4×6 and 10×7 formats.  I will likely buy a 7×10 spiral bound Zeta as a substitute for my 10×7 Alphas but, so far, S&B haven’t produced a truly small sketchbook (thin, 3×5) – my current dream.  I hope that when they do it will contain Zeta paper (grin).

Do You Experiment With Sketching Styles?

In the two years that I’ve been sketching I’ve actually developed a ‘style’, which surprises me somewhat as it seemed not long ago I was wondering if I would ever be able to draw anything, let alone have a ‘style.’

I like my style, which is more ‘illustrative’ than artistic.  Some might even claim it to be cartoonish.  I sometimes call it that.  In any case, when I sit down to draw something, the resultant sketch reflects that style.

My style has two drawbacks.  The first is that those who don’t speak sketcher try to fit it into ‘fine art’ and, well, it just doesn’t.  Some day ‘finished’ sketching will be acknowledged by the art community at large but so far, it’s tough slogging.   The other drawback to my style is that it’s not ‘fast’.  My sketches take longer than those done by people using looser, less detailed approaches.  This is not bad or good but sometimes it limits my ability to quickly capture a scene.

So, I sometimes experiment with quicker, looser ways of sketching.  Of course I do a fair amount of quick-sketching of people but here I’m talking about sketching things.  Here are a few examples of those attempts.

2013-07-30QuickBuildingsI did this little sketch of a piece of the Quebec City skyline, experimenting not only with very quick (only a couple minutes) sketch but also with a washable red ink.  I kinda-sorta liked the result.  It’s no more than two inches square.

Using the same pen/ink combo I decided to see if I could grab enough detail from a very complex hotel facade in 3-4 minutes to make me happy.  Can’t say this pleased me much but maybe…with lots of practice… naw…not working for me 🙂

2013-07-29LeCapitole

2013-08-27QuickSketch

Here’s another experiment.  It’s only about 2×2 and my thoughts were to do a quick, small sketch that could be part of a journal page.  I really would like to start adding annotations to some of my sketches and to that end I sketched this tiny house in about five minutes, including the watercolor.

I was sitting in a park in ‘lower town’ of Quebec City and there’s a row of buildings that look down on the park, trees filling the area in between.  I decided to quick-sketch it.  Probably took me 10-15 minutes, which for some is not ‘quick’ but if I were to do this with my ‘style’ it would take at least four times that long.

I sort of like the results.  The trees aren’t sufficiently developed for my taste and I hate restated lines on buildings (buildings aren’t supposed to look like they’re vibrating).  This one was done on two pages of a 3×5 notebook so it’s a bit larger than the others.

2013-08-16DeStRochParc

I’ll continue experimenting with different styles and approaches as I think I learn something every time I do it.  Who knows what my ‘style’ will be in another year.  Do you experiment with styles?

Sketching at Chute Montmorency

CMontmorencyChute Montmorency is a large waterfall just east of Quebec City.  It’s a major tourist attraction, a mini-Niagara Falls I suppose.  It has all the tourist amenities.  Large facility at the base of the falls greets tourists and there’s a large parking lot to accommodate a constant parade of vehicles.

There’s also a tram and a smiling attendant with their hand out.  You can pay the price or you can climb a veritable labyrinth of stairs up to the top of the falls.  We did neither.

Locals, wanting to get to the top take a metro bus that drops them near the top and next to a hotel that sits at the tram terminus.  There’s a wonderful boardwalk that tourists walk along to the falls and it provides spectacular views of the falls as well as the St. Lawrence River.  We took the bus.

I met my sketching buddy, Claudette, on the bus and we walked the short trail down to the west end of a large pedestrian bridge that runs right across the top of the falls.  The views are pretty spectacular from there.  So, what do a couple of urban sketchers do?  We set up at the end of the bridge and drew the bridge.  We’ll draw the trees, beautiful canyon, and the falls themselves some other day.  I guess it truly is a mindset as both of us did this without much thought.

I decided to work in a small format as I’ve been doing a series of smaller sketches.  I got out my little Moleskine watercolor sketchbook and started drawing.  Claudette did likewise with her 5×8 Strathmore 467-series sketchbook.  These are beautiful, brown-covered watercolor sketchbooks, though they are in landscape mode which is not idea in my view.

2013-08-24ClaudetteSketchingCIt seemed that we both finished our linework about the same time as I noticed that she was getting out her watercolors as I reached for mine.  She had hers. I did not.  I’d left my watercolor kit sitting on my desk.

While disappointing, it allowed me to stand up and move around, giving my old knees a stretch.  Then I sat down and did a quick, small sketch of Claudette working on her sketch.  Obviously, I added color to my sketches when I got home.

2013-08-24ChuteMontmorencyBridgeCClaudette composed an interesting view of the bridge, sort of zooming in on just the entrance area.  I decided to capture more of the entirety of the scene.  I like hers better.  I always do.

ClaudetteBridge

We wandered up Avenue Royale which is a very old street lined with older, though often completely renovated houses.  These are majestic houses with lots of what my dad used to call ‘gingerbread’ trim, large front doors and porch areas.

We only found a few dozen things we wanted to sketch but it was time for lunch.  Feeling recharged by good food and conversation, we returned to the falls area and I sketched this little snack kiosk, again in my 3×5 watercolor book.  Then, we hopped on the bus and came home.  Paraphrasing the Terminator…”we’ll be back.”

2013-08-24ChuteMontmorencyKioskC

Taxi Guys Need A Place Too!

Firemen have their firehouse.  Policemen have donut shops. Sketchers have libraries, coffee shops, and street corners.  And taxi cab drivers need a place too.  In Quebec it looks like this:

2013-08-15TaxiStandCAt least the one not far from my house looks like this.  I’m not exactly sure what they do in there but they have a washing machine outside.  I suspect it’s something of an oasis that lets the drivers get out of the car once in a while.  The bright yellow building and the orange background wall conspired to insist that I draw them, and so I did.  Stillman & Birn Zeta (5×8) using a Uniball Signo UM151 pen.  It’s hard for a fountain pen guy to admit it, but I love these pens and their waterproof ink.

 

This Is The Back Of The Building?

I was downtown Sunday, waiting for the Festivale de Nouvelle France events to spool up.  I was sitting in the courtyard in front of the Trinity Anglican Church and from there I could see this view of the back of large government building.  I think it’s the finance building.  I decided to sketch it.

I took a somewhat different approach, experimenting a bit.  I spent more time with a pencil, adding more than just layout lines.  I used my typical 3H pencil, but from these light lines, I laid in light color washes before I added any ink to the sketch.  This allowed me, or so I think, to use a lighter hand with the ink lines, which I followed up with more watercolor.  I think, if I knew anything about watercolors, this would be a good approach.  I know it works well for many other sketchers and I’ll continue to pursue it.

I did it in my Stillman & Birn Zeta (5×8) sketchbook, with a Pilot Prera and Noodler’s Lexington Gray ink.

2013-08-11Finance

New Restaurant In Quebec

I don’t have an official count but I think Quebec City has more restaurants per capita than most cities on the planet.   I pass no less than 9 of them on my way to a new one that has just opened and I don’t live in what one might call a dining hotspot.

But open it has, a new Vietnamese restaurant named Ubong.  If the outside is any reflection of the inside, though, I’m sure it will be successful as they’ve completely remodeled the building and painted it with this stunning yellow and green paint and trim.

It’s on a well-traveled street and every once in a while I’d have to stop as a truck or bus blocked my view and there was a steady stream of pedestrians, some of whom stopped to say hello.  I really enjoy this part of street sketching.  It was sketched in my Stillman & Birn Zeta (5×8) and I used a Uniball Signo UM-151 (.38) in black, followed by drawing the window and door frames using a brown-black version of the same pen.  W&N artist watercolors added a bit of shadow and color.

2013-08-06UBONGC

The Thrill Of The Chase

I’m a sketcher… a street sketcher.  What excites me about sketching is the process, not the results.  I love the feeling I have as I sit, studying a subject, drawing lines – oblivious to everything around me.  I love people who stop and ask questions.  Often they’re the same questions (eg – Do you sell these?  Did you go to art school?  How long have you been doing this?) but there’s always a smile attached and some simple chit-chat that connects me to my fellow humans.

And part of the process, for me, is finding something to sketch… the thrill of the hunt.  It’s pretty rare that I plan to go some particular place to sketch some particular thing.  That takes half the fun out of it for me.  I like to just strike out, in any direction, looking for something that catches my attention.

The other day I did just that.  I walked to a main intersection near my house.  There were metro buses that head east/west/north/south and I decided to hop the first one that came along.  I found myself heading east and, once I had passed areas I knew well, I got off the bus.  I continued, walking east until I came across a small park.

I walked into it and sat on a bench.  I looked around.  There were ravens in one end of the park and I thought about sketching them.  There were swings, slides, and what looked like a hamburger that kids could ride.  It sat on a large spring.  These would make a nice sketch, too.

Then I noticed a small mechanics shop stuffed between two larger buildings.  I walked to that corner of the park, picked out a shady area, plunked myself down on my tripod stool, and started this sketch.

My hunt was a success.  I spent a blissful hour while my pen entertained me as no television ever could.  Life is good.

2013-08-02MechaniqueC

Stillman & Birn Zeta (5×8) sketchbook; Pilot Prera pen; Platinum Carbon Black ink; W&N artist watercolors

Big Building In A Little Town

Quebec City is not an industrial town.  We have no massive factories except for our paper mill.  Rather, we have government…lots of government as we’re the capital of the province of Quebec.  And we have the oldest walled city in North America and cruise ships visit us regularly.  We do tourism.  And so we have lots of politicians and tourists.  We also have UbiSoft, the video game manufacturer so we have animators…story-tellers.  In short, no big factories to sketch.

But we are also a port and the largest building around that port is a huge grain elevator and ship loading facility along the northern side of our marina.  Lots of train cars and boats visit the place as grain is moved onto awaiting ships.  In short, it’s a big, intimidating building to sketch 🙂

I took it as something of a challenge and so became my sketch of the Bunge grain elevators. Done in a Stillman & Birn Zeta (5×8 x 2) sketchbook with a Pilot Prera and Platinum Carbon Black ink.  W&N watercolors give it a bit of color.  Click for a larger image.

2013-07-31BungeC

While Walking Through The Park One Day….

Yvan and I planned a sketching session on St. Denis street and we were to meet there.  This street has many majestic residences and a large grassy area in front of them so it’s an ideal place to sketch.

As I arrived I realized that I’d forgotten my WalkStool.  This is a big problem as my knees and me don’t much like sitting on the ground, for fear that we’ll never be able to get back up.

And so the search began for a sitting place with something in front of me to sketch.  It’s not really rocket science but I wandered around for a while before finding such a combination.  I ended up in the Parc des Governeurs, a small park between the Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City’s tourist landmark and the American consulate.

2013-07-20GovernorsPark

Both of these buildings are great sketching subjects but I chose this more humble structure that sits in the park.  Yvan suggested that it was once a toilet but these days it looks to be used by maintenance people.  In any case, it had a bench, in the shade, and so I sketched it in my Stillman & Birn Zeta (5×8) with a Pilot Prera and Platinum Carbon Black ink.  I used Lexington Gray for the stairs in the background.  I’m enjoying the contrast between these two inks.  As always, I used Winsor & Newton watercolors like crayons to add some color.

Ferry Dock Sketching

I use any excuse to take the ferry from Quebec City to Levis, which is on the other side of the St. Lawrence River from us.  I do it because 1) I like boats, 2) my bus pass makes it free, and 3) did I mention that I like boats?

On this day, I did it because Yvan wanted to sketch the ferry station, which is an old train station that’s been sort of messed up by neglect and its conversion into a ferry dock.  But they’re planning on tearing it down and he wanted a sketch of it.  Seemed like a plan to me.

But when I got there, something about sketching the station just didn’t turn my crank that morning so I found an alternative, this building that was probably a hotel at some point and may still be.  I like the way the cliff jutted up above, dwarfing what is actually a very large building.
2013-07-18LevisBuildingC
It was done in a Stillman & Birn Zeta (5×8) sketchbook with Pilot Preras and Platinum Carbon Black and Noodler’s Lexington gray inks.  Hope you like it.  It was sure fun.