Stillman & Birn “Beta” Sketchbook

When I got interested in sketching I found it pretty easy to find good watercolors, brushes, pencils, and pens.  What was harder was finding sketchbooks that served my purposes as a pen/ink/watercolor sketcher.  I spent a lot of money and now own a bunch of sketchbooks with 2-3 sketches done in each before I rejected them.

Then a couple artists started talking about Stillman & Birn sketchbooks.  I bought one.  Then another.  Then another.  And I’ve never looked back.  They are simply the best I’ve found.  Mostly I’ve been using sketchbooks, both bound and spiral, from their Alpha series, which have nice, smooth, 100lb paper.  I’ve also tried the Epsilon series and while a bit smoother, I don’t really see much difference between the two but I’m a rookie so what do I know.

And over my few months of using them, lots of other sketchers have started using them too.  We’ve all reported to Stillman & Birn that their Alpha (white) and Gamma (ivory) sketchbooks can handle a lot more water/washes than their advertising suggests.  Many of us are as surprised as S&B are about this, as 100lb paper is about the minimum for doing washes in my experience.  But there’s something about the sizing of the paper that causes it to act ‘heavier’ than it is when accepting watercolor.

It’s not that you can’t buy heavier paper from Stillman & Birn.  They have a Beta (white) and Delta (ivory) series that contain 180lb paper.  But Stillman & Birn advertise these series as being “rough” paper and that’s the last thing one wants if you’re going to be pushing an ink pen over the surface.  So I’ve avoided them…until now.

I’m a curious kind of guy so I’ve now got 6×8 spiral sketchbooks from the Beta and Delta series and…shazaam…the paper isn’t rough at all.  In fact, it’s smoother than some cold-press watercolor papers I’ve tried.  These papers do have a bit more tooth than my Alphas but I got quite excited when I received them because the paper is very heavy, smooth, and inviting.

A quick test demonstrated that my fountain pens like these papers.  I tried a Kaweco Al-Sport, Lamy Safari, Noodler’s Ahab, Pilot Prera, and Hero calligraphy pens.  I tried Platinum Carbon Black, Noodler’s Lexington Gray, and Noodler’s Bernanke Black ink.  All the lines were clean and crisp.  It might be my imagination but I feel that watercolor washes are easier to do with these papers too but I can present no data other than ‘seems like’ to support that view.

And so this morning I got up, looked outside and saw the sun.  I headed out with my new Beta sketchbook in search of something to sketch.  This lasted about 15 minutes.  It was sunny, but ugh; it was cold… cold… cold.  Temps were only a couple degrees below freezing but the winds were howling and so being the sissy that I am, I hustled myself back home.

Not to be defeated by Mother Nature, I went through my photo library and came up with a photo of a sign I’ve been wanting to sketch.  It hangs high over an intersection in our downtown area and I love the flourescent pink lighting around its periphery.  I started sketching, not fully realizing that I had no clue how to draw flourescent lighting.

I’m going to really like this Beta sketchbook.  At 6×8 it’s a good size for portable sketching, though I’ve become quite attached to my 10×7 Alpha sketchbooks.  Here’s the end result.  I did this sketch with a Pilot Prera and Lexington Gray ink.

A Sign Of Spring In Quebec

The Internet has affected our views of the world and for the past month or so I’ve ‘experienced’ spring in many locations on our fair planet as people talk about flowers popping out of the ground, birds chirping, etc.  In Quebec spring is a bit different.  It’s a time when temperatures fluctuate a lot.  One day we’ll be in shirt-sleeves and the next we’re back in our heavy coats.  Spring is when the snow melts, though, and we’re left with a bunch of brown, matted grass and no green on the trees.  When the trees finally flush, it seems they do it overnight and summer begins.

So, while we “know” it’s spring, the birds haven’t shown up yet and there aren’t those flower indicators of it.  Instead, our indicators are big blue trucks.  All winter the city’s efforts to keep us moving involves regular gravel/dirt treatments of our roads and sidewalks.  Spring snow melt leaves a coating of the stuff everywhere and so the big blue trucks come along, with nice guys in orange coats who wash the sidewalks with power hoses.  later, other big blue trucks (actually streetsweepers) come along and suck up the gravel from the streets.

A couple days ago they came and while they weren’t in one place long enough to sketch, I took a couple photos and did this quick, for me, sketch of the activity.  We like it clean in Quebec City.

Stillman & Birn 5.5×8.5 Alpha; Lamy All Star w/Platinum Carbon Black ink; W&N artist watercolors

 

The Russians Are Coming…

When I came across this house in Quebec City, I had to sketch it.  I wonder if the Russian Czar who must be living there had a pool table under that dome or a ballistic missle.  It didn’t matter; it was just plain KEWL!

I set up across the street and went to work, sketching the bones in pencil and then doing the ink sketch.  I’m pretty slow as a sketcher and so this took me more than an hour but the time passed without notice.  When it came time for color, the waterbrush came out and… I realized that my watercolors were sitting on my desk at home.  So I shot this photo, packed up, and headed home.

Once at home I vowed to make up a second palette of watercolors so that I could keep it in my sketching satchel.  I had a W&N Cotman Sketcher palette that I picked up on sale and so I popped out the Cotman watercolors and filled the pans with Winsor & Newton artist-quality watercolors.  I’m still experimenting with color palettes and mostly working with little knowledge.  This is what I’m using right now, though.

 

I decided to go light on the color for this sketch; it just seemed to call for that approach, with all the emphasis on the building.  I hope you like it.

It was done in my Stillman & Birn 10×7 Alpha sketchbook, using a Hero 578 Calligraphy pen and Platinum Carbon Black ink.

Cool Spring Sketching Isn’t So Cool: It’s Cold!

I’m so excited that it’s finally spring in Quebec City.  I got interested in sketching last fall, just before it started getting cold here, and so I’ve been trying to get out sketching as often as I can.  I may be premature in that because Quebec spring is still pretty cool, and often windy.

A few days ago when I’d made the decision to go sketching.  The temps were just above freezing and it was quite breezy.  But I went anyway.  I headed downtown, looking for something to sketch, my face and ears screaming “Are you nuts?” to my stubborn sketcher brain, as the wind defoliated my skin.

I set up next to a wall that blocked most of the wind. It was across the street from a dental clinic that seemed worthy of sketching.

I start these sketches with pencil and  I have two goals.  I want to get the perspective right and I want to locate all the foreground thingies that determine where the background lines start and stop.  I don’t worry about drawing the details at this point, but I’m slow enough as a newbie sketcher that this takes me longer than it does for most sketchers.  I’d been sitting for about 45 minutes and I was beginning to empathize with popsicles and dream of fireplaces.  I called it a day, packed up, and went home.  This was the state of the sketch at that point.

Later, in the warmth of my home, I inked (Hero Calligraphy pen w/Platinum Carbon Black ink) the sketch, added some details, and used Winsor & Newton Artist watercolors to give it some color.  Hope you like it.

By the way, the more I use it, the more I’m enjoying my Stillman & Birn 10×7 Alpha.  I’ve been using Alpha’s for a while now and love them and spiral format is really convenient for outdoor sketching…even when it’s cold.

I went out this morning to sketch some more.  I headed to the marina, expecting that some of the winterized sailboats would be back in the water.  It was spring, afterall.  Turned out that, once again, I had been overly-optimistic as the marina is still covered by ice.  Spring is here, but not really.

 

 

Adventures Of An Urban Sketcher

Thursday morning I decided to walk south and visit an industrial area near a railroad yard in Quebec City.  I’m something of a train nut and I thought maybe I could sketch some trains.

I was walking to the freight yard when I happened upon this scene.  I liked the yellow wall, juxtapositioned next to the brown train car and the harsh shadow between them, so I decided to sketch it.

I set up to the left of where this photo was taken, on a sidewalk, with the street behind me.  My WalkStool was actually straddling the railroad track.  Those railroad tracks crossed the street and went somewhere.  I didn’t pay much attention.   I remember chuckling to myself that at least this subject wouldn’t drive away like a car I was sketching earlier in the week.

I was having a really nice time as the sun felt good, it was quiet, and the sketching was going well.  I’m a really slow sketcher so I’d been there more than an hour and I was intently adding color to my ink sketch.

I was so concentrated on the work that I didn’t even hear it… until a guy walked up to me and his shadow crossed my paper.  “Qu’est-ce que tu fait, Monsieur?” (What are you doing, Mister?)   I looked up to see a guy in overalls and a baseball cap staring down at me.  And then I saw IT.  It was an EMD SW-1500 switch engine, idling no more than ten feet from where I was sitting – on the railroad tracks.

I told him I was sketching and showed him my sketch.  I stood up as I did and he told I’d have to move.  As I was packing up he walked over to the derail (that yellow thing clamped to the track), disengaged it, and motioned to the engineer to move forward.

By then I was taking photos of the engine.  I did mention that I’m a railroad geek didn’t I?  Once they’d engaged the boxcar, the guy dropped off the engine, walked back to me, and asked if I could show the engineer my sketch.  I was both amazed, excited, and nervous all at once.  The sketch you see below bought me access to the cab of that engine, which for a railroad geek is a really big deal.  And then they hauled my boxcar away.  And that, my friends is what I call a great day of sketching.

Here’s the sketch.  I still have to add the white letters on the boxcar and I’ll probably do that with a colored pencil.  This sketch was done in my Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook (10×7), using a Lamy Safari XF and Platinum Carbon Black ink.  Color is W&N artist watercolors.  Has anything like this happened to you while you were sketching?

 

Sketching Quebec City, One Building At A Time

A couple things have happened recently that are causing me to rethink what I post on this blog.  The first was an email I got asking me why I wasn’t posting more of my sketches here.  The other thing is that Facebook is continuing to march out its horrible Timeline format, which makes posting sketches on Facebook very difficult unless you’re happy with postage-stamp size postings.

I started this blog to promote my mystery novels and I’ll continue to use it for that.  But, because I love fountain pens and because I’m learning to sketch, I’ve started doing posts about those topics as well.  As the email suggested, though, I have not posted most of my sketches here.  That’s going to change and while I’m not a prolific as a lot of sketchers, I hope I’ll be posting sketches regularly.  I’d like to hear any comments regarding my art, or what you’d like me to talk about as we head through spring and into summer sketching season.

To start that off, here are a couple of my latest building sketches.   Both were done in a Stillman & Birn Alpha series sketchbook.  I’ve been using these sketchbooks for a while and I love them.  These sketches were done in my new 10×7 (landscape format) spiral-bound sketchbook, though I generally prefer hardbound journals and S&B make some of the best.  But for outdoor sketching I really like the spiral-bound approach as I can fold it back, plunk it on my lap and draw.

Chez Madame Charlotte’s Restaurant

This has got to be one of the cutest restaurants in Quebec City.  Everytime I walk by it I think of Gary Larson cartoons.  The stairway of this sketch was the real challenge and having done one, if I’m made king I will ban them from my kingdom.

Stillman & Birn 10×7 Alpha; Lamy Safari w/Platinum Carbon Black; W&N watercolors

Les Colocs Restaurant

This is another restaurant in Limoilu, one of the older parts of Quebec City.  You can’t help but notice its colorful facade and this is the second time I’ve sketched it.  I was trying out a new pen, a Hero Calligraphy pen.  Works great but I used Noodler’s Black ink which, in spite of its ‘bulletproof’ label, is not waterproof enough to apply watercolor washes on top of it.

Stillman & Birn 10×7 Alpha; Hero Calligraphy pen w/Noodler’s Black; W&N watercolors

I hope you enjoy these and those I’ll be posting in the future.  Are you as excited as I am that the snow is gone and we can get out sketching again?

 

Make Cathy Johnson’s Nested Water Container and Spray Bottle

Those of us who want to sketch outdoors using pen and watercolor have a basic problem.  How do you carry water without it becoming a burden.  On its face, the problem is pretty easy.  You can always use a waterbrush, but painting with these is not as nice as with actual watercolor brushes.  But lots of people carry water bottles with them, even while running, hiking, etc.  What’s the big deal?

Cathy Johnson's nested bottle set up

Cathy Johnson's nested bottle set up

And when you think about it, it’s not the water that’s the problem.  It’s that what we watercolor types want is a, in addition to water, we need a place to dip/rinse brushes and a way to spray the water we carry.

Cathy Johnson, author of Artist’s Journal Workshop came up with a great solution by nesting a small spray bottle in a slightly larger container such that the two nest for travel.

The only problem with this idea is that it’s hard to find bottles that will nest.  Even Cathy has said that she can’t find another set and many of us have been searching for just the right combination to replicate her system.

The three bottles on the left are the travel set; the right shows an art store spray bottle

The other day I was wandering through a dollar store, looking for things I could repurpose into art goodies., and I found a ‘travel’ set of bottles.  Contained within it was a small spray bottle.  The best news is that since then I’ve found other travel sets containing the same small bottle so I don’t think this was a once in a lifetime find.  And, to make a long story short, this smaller spray bottle is just enough smaller in diameter that it will nest in the bottom of the ‘standard’ size spray bottle that’s available in any art store.

Once obtained, it’s a simple matter of cutting the bottom off the larger bottle.  I then turned it upside down on some sandpaper and sanded the edge smooth.  I do wish I’d cut a bit higher on the bottle you see in the photo.  It would provide more water volume for rinsing a brush.

In the end, I have a great little travel reservoir and spray bottle and, if I like, a couple extra bottles to carry more water.  Hope this helps others who, like me, were trying to replicate Cathy’s system.

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?

Fire Hydrant Addicts Anonymous

Me: “Hi, everyone.  This is my first meeting.  I’m am a fire hydrant addict.  I need help…”

Everyone: “Hi Larry.  Welcome to Fire Hydrant Addicts Anonymous.”

And so it went at my first meeting.  Nice bunch of folks, and an intimidating number of dogs.  All are very understanding of those who spend a lot of time looking for fire hydrants.

I reported on my sketching of fire hydrants here.  But that was just the tip of the iceberg.  Once I ‘discovered’ fire hydrants I started noticing their differences.  And now that it’s winter people watch with suspicion as I brush snow off a hydrant and take photos of it.  I think what freaks them out the most is that I act so excited.  Fortunately, they don’t see the time I’ve spent on firehydrant.org, a great site for fire hydrant addicts.  They haven’t seen me on hydrant manufacturer sites, looking at exploded parts diagrams of the various models.  Yes…I have a hydrant problem and I hope that Fire Hydrant Addicts Anonymous can help me.

Until the addiction intervention is accomplished, though, I’m compelled to draw them.  Quebec City provides some fun variation in shape, color and vintage and, well, they’re just cool.   Do you have a sketching obsession?

Drawn in a Stillman & Brin Alpha (5.5×8.5) using a Lamy Safari and Noodler’s Lexington Gray.  Winsor&Newton watercolors.

Cheers — Larry

When Was The Last Time You Looked At A Fire Hydrant…

… really looked?  Me neither…until I got interested in sketching.  Even then I didn’t give them a glance until I found the sketching work of Pete Scully.  Pete is a master urban sketcher, mostly doing sketches of buildings in the US Davis area and mostly of the buildings there in.  I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration from his work.

One of the things Pete is known for are his fire hydrant sketches.  He’s found some of the most wonderful fire hydrants in his travels and he’s made a point of sketching them.  This caused me to look at the fire hydrants we have here in Quebec City and I was surprised to find that ours are pretty cool too.  They are mostly a pale red (sun bleached?) and yellow but their shapes vary as they represent vintages that probably date from the Victorian era to the present.  I had fun drawing this one and so I share it here.  One in a Stillman & Brin Alpha journal using a Noodler’s Ahab flex pen and Winsor & Newton watercolors.