spqrblues: (arch scribe)
[personal profile] spqrblues
Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbookI was planning to give a lukewarm-to-negative report on the Stillman & Birn Alpha softcover pocket sketchbook. A few pages in, the binding was fine, though the same could be said for the Delta sketchbook that after a few pages more cracked and tore between signatures. I tried brush pen and different types of pencils on the Alpha’s smooth white paper (there’s only the smallest bit of tooth to it), and the results were meh, both in the look of ink on the paper and the feel of working with it.

The Alpha is praised as excellent all-purpose (ink, pencil, wash) heavyweight paper (150gsm weight--but to quote artist Ursula Vernon (@UrsulaV): This cardstock is not "heavyweight." Heavyweight means I can beat a man to death with a pack.)

Stillman & Birn Gamma and Delta sketchbooksAfter a few sketches I found myself wishing I had gone with my instincts and returned the book to the store. I had been planning to when I discovered the Delta sketchbook had defective binding, but when I contacted Stillman & Birn about that, they insisted I unwrap the Alpha to check it too. So, I was stuck with it. They sent an extra pocket-size Gamma sketchbook along with the replacement Delta, but since it's the same paper as the Alpha in ivory instead of white, I decided I'd give the Gamma to someone else.

The first experience with the Alpha was like drawing on the cardboard inserts that come stuck in shoes or tights. There seemed to be no character to it; pen and pencil lines sat indifferently on the paper, dull, not looking their best. The customer service rep who wanted me to unwrap the Alpha was friendly, and the replacement Delta arrived quickly. But I didn't see anything special about the Alpha paper. It was adequate, but so is photocopier paper.

Last night I took another look at reviews of the Alpha, trying to figure out what I was missing in all the love, including a review showing an artist soaking the paper with dripping swashes of watercolour, pushing it to its limits. It didn’t seem like it could possibly be the same paper. So I tried some cautious watercolour swatches. The paper curled, but to be fair I had wet only one edge, so it isn’t strange that a paper this thin would roll right up. The colours looked pretty on the bright white.

multicolour Mus

line art Iusta, suitable for colouringThen I tried the 02 Sakura Micron Pigma pen instead of the brush pen.

Turns out that the Alpha is a nice surface for the sort of precise pen lines the Microns give (I first chose to draw SPQR Blues with Microns to get precise, Roman-road lines instead of varied brush-pen strokes). I still can’t say the Alpha paper has a lot of what I’d call “life,” but the ink goes down evenly. That is to say, the paper doesn’t “push back,” affecting the ink or the nature of the line. It’s hard to describe; but I feel that even a super-smooth Strathmore Bristol plate paper gives a little bit of pushback characteristic to the surface. That the Alpha doesn't is not a bad thing, just a different thing. I felt like I was drawing outlines for colouring book art when drawing on this paper.

I did a light, cautious watercolour wash over the inks. The paper warped a bit—it’s by no means lying flat, as in the YouTube demo, where the paper was taped down on all four edges as the artist worked; but I don’t expect to have to tape down the pages of an on-the-go sketchbook to use it. After a night flattening it under some big books, the pages are still warped enough that I wouldn’t want to draw or paint on the opposite sides unless I’m just doodling and not worried about colours pooling in the dips. If I used watercolour throughout the book, it would end up with that “Hobonichi” look of a well-used journal. Not necessarily a bad thing. I’d call that "character."

watercolour Iusta


Date: 2017-03-23 05:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] movingfinger.livejournal.com
I'm really puzzled as to why a company would decided that perfect binding (glued binding) is a good match for a sketchbook or pocket notebook. Apart from the expense of making a good notebook being greater than a cheap one.

Wondering whether one can take these crummy ones around to a bookbinding studio and/or copy shop, guillotine the binding off, and comb-bind them or something. Seems like the only way to rehab a bad binding on something intended for everyday but ephemeral use.

Date: 2017-03-23 07:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] meritahut.livejournal.com
I guess they were trying to match the binding in their hardcover sketchbooks? I haven't tried those, which are famous for withstanding any amount of being pushed flat or bent backward. The hardcovers are pricey, though, and my doodling and test sketches don't need that much investment :) It looks like the Alpha will get torn edges down the middle (where the glue pulls off the pages) if you try to lay it flat between signatures, but I think the company only makes the lay-flat claim for the hardcovers.

I wouldn't think it's worth the time and effort to rehabilitate the littler sketchbooks, since the pages are so small--though maybe I'd feel differently if I hadn't ended up with 4 sketchbooks for the price of 2. I'm using the Delta for colour swatches and waterproof-ink tests; the paper is sturdy and takes water and pigment like a champ. I personally find the ivory much too yellow, but all manner of paints and inks look vivid on it if you don't mind that undertone. I haven't done much with the replacement Delta yet to test the binding.

My overall conclusion is--for everyday but ultimately ephemeral use--better for me to use a cheaper sketchbook!

Date: 2017-03-25 05:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] corvideye.livejournal.com
Wow, I am shocked that was such a bad experience! I have a hardcover spiral bound gamma series, and consider it the best sketchbook I've ever owned... and I've owned a lot! I love the cushy texture, yet it takes heavy colored pencil layering without flaking. I've only used a little wet media on it, but thought it did fine. Due to the price, I save it for my more finished drawings.

That's a lovely painting of Iusta... looking more mature, very lady-of-the-house!
Edited Date: 2017-03-25 05:16 am (UTC)

Date: 2017-03-25 12:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] meritahut.livejournal.com
I don't think I've ever seen a negative review of the Stillman & Birn sketchbooks, except for the price. The softcovers seem to be relatively new, and the lower price is a plus.

Last night I drew and erased pencils for six tries at a Felix drawing, each time wondering when the surface would be compromised. It still looks perfectly fine. I'll update the review when I try inks and a wash on it, because that's a major plus if it can withstand that much fussing.

(On a side note about damaging paper: I saw a review with someone driving a car over the new Stonehenge paper then putting it through the washing machine and dryer, and it came through fine, and I don't think I can trust a paper that appears to be created through necromancy.)

Do you use both sides of the gamma paper? Getting a few pages into the alpha, I see a difference between the front and back of the sheet that I hadn't noticed yet, since I'd used only one side. The back has a toothier texture, and there's one signature folded so that the first half of its pages has the rougher front. I'm making the assumption that the "front" surface would always be the front in a spiral-bound book....

The (smoother) surface did make it easy to ink the Iusta art! I'll try layered pencils next. On both sides :)


"There's nothing I enjoy as much as a jolly catastrophe"
—J. G. Ballard

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