Saturday, August 10, 2013

Experiencing Stillman & Birn's Zeta Series Sketchbooks - PART 1

When the Stillman and Birn folks asked a few months ago if they could use my hydrangea sketch on the cover band of their new 7"x7" Zeta series sketchbook, I was elated. What a thrill to think that artists all over the world would be seeing my artwork on an exciting new product from one of my favorite companies!

Ever since the sketchbooks came out, I've been wanting to take the time to play around with one of them, to see how my usual materials and techniques work on the smooth, bright white Zeta paper. So, I finally opened one up and started to play!

My first Zeta sketch, 7" x 7", Pigma Micron pen & watercolor

My first sketch (above) was a little like a roller coaster had its ups and downs and lots of crazy turns along the way. Drawing the sunlit farmhouse with a Pigma Micron pen was a breeze. The pen glided effortlessly across the smooth surface of the heavyweight 180-pound paper, and the drawing was finished in minutes. The watercolors proved a little more challenging, however. The paint tended to puddle on the paper without soaking in. Edges stayed hard, but when I attempted to soften them with a bit of water, the paint would flood into the newly dampened area, making a larger puddle. When I placed colors next to each other, they merged, blended and bloomed. Wet areas took a long time to dry, even though I was sitting in the hot sunshine. The internal and external sizing in the Zeta paper makes the ink and paint stay on the surface where all sorts of interesting things can happen.

I'm an impatient sketcher, and initially I was taken aback at how long the paint took to dry, but I've found that I can use that to my advantage in ways that I didn't foresee during that first experience with the paper.

The bright white paper is wonderful for showing clear, true colors. In this first sketch, it really helped accentuate the feeling of bright sunlight hitting the house.

So, my initial reaction to the paper was, "Wow! That was a crazy ride! Let's do it again!"

A few days later, I did this quickie sketch of our church sanctuary before everyone arrived on Sunday morning.

7" x 7", Pigma Micron pen & watercolor
I was learning to let the paint do its own thing in certain places, like the lavender and blue area on the center right. In other areas, I tried glazing/layering the paint, and found that I had to allow the under layer to dry completely before gently applying a second layer. Paint lifts easily on this paper, so layering has to be done with a light hand.

I tried out my Noodler's Creaper Flex Fountain Pen and Lexington Gray ink on this next sketch of a pretty wildflower with a not-so-pretty name, bladder campion. I found I had to rotate the pen and use the nib upside down to get the fine, delicate lines that I wanted for the flowers. On the Zeta paper, using the pen in the normal position gave me a heavy, wet line because the ink sat on top of the paper, rather than being absorbed.

7" x 7", Lexington gray ink & watercolor

Filling in large areas, like the pink background behind the flower, requires using plenty of paint to get it to move around the paper. It's difficult to describe exactly how the paint behaves. It might sound silly, but the best way I can describe it's grippy but slippy. The paper grabs the paint and edges remain hard, but when you get enough liquid on the paper, the paint slips and slides around.

For the two-minute sketch of my daughter's golden retriever, Daisy (below), I selected a Derwent chocolate #66 watercolor pencil. The pencil felt almost buttery on the smooth Zeta paper. It's very different from the toothier surfaces of the Alpha and Beta series papers which I've been using for the past year.

7" x 7", watercolor pencil + water

The pencil lines dissolved nicely when I brushed on water, but the resulting brown wash didn't flow much at all, and the edges didn't feather out. It's that "grippy" quality of the paper that keeps the water and/or paint in place.

I tried out a couple of other Derwent watercolor pencils on the next page (#68 Blue Grey and #54 Burnt Umber) and really enjoyed the interaction of the pencil, water, and paper. Doing the monochromatic sketches was a nice change from my usual colorful work. I'd like to spend more time experimenting with watercolor pencils, trying darker lines, crosshatching, using more water, combining colors, etc. 

7" x 7", watercolor pencil

By this point, I was really enjoying playing in my new sketchbook. In so many of my other sketchbooks I'm focused on making beautiful finished pages, complete with text, borders, and detailed paintings. In this 7x7 Zeta, I gave myself permission to get back to just having fun. I was sketching quickly and learning to let the paint do its own thing. These little experiments were teaching me to lighten up and loosen up.

7" x 7", ink & watercolor (5 minutes of drawing, 5 minutes to paint)

For the hydrangea sketch above, I dug out my old crow quill pen from my college days. Its sharp, pointy nib, which often snags on rougher paper, moved effortlessly across the plate-like surface of the Zeta paper. I drew carelessly, freely, instinctively. It was so much fun! I splashed on watercolor and allowed it to mingle and flow. The Noodler's Heart of Darkness ink that I used is waterproof when dry, but when I began adding paint before some of the heavier lines had dried completely, it softened them in places. I had originally planned to go back in and add more details to the flowers to define the blossoms a bit, but in the end decided to leave things loose and undefined.

A water-soluble Precise V5 Rolling Ball pen was the next tool I tried in my new Zeta book. I sketched my sleepy grandson from the back seat of the van (below) as we headed off to a 4th of July picnic. (Clutching his toy, binky in place, twirling his hair - he's all set for a nap.) The pen rolled smoothly and freely over the paper, but because the ink sits on the surface and takes awhile to dry, I had to be careful not to smear my lines as I drew. In the end, it really didn't matter though, since I dissolved them when I applied water to wash in the shadows.

7" x 7", ink + water (10 minute sketch + a few minutes to add water)

The permanent Sharpie Ultra Fine Point pen used in the sketch below dried quickly on the Zeta paper. Drying time wasn't an issue at all, and the ink lines didn't budge when I watercolored over them. I used a Niji waterbrush to apply the color, and had to continually squeeze the barrel to push more water onto the paper and allow the paint to flow. You have to keep things juicy on this paper.

7" x 7", Sharpie pen & watercolor

This picture strayed far from my usual style, but there's something about the Zeta paper that makes me want to paint splashy and bold.

A few more points...
  • The heavyweight paper curls a bit when it's flooded with water but never ripples or buckles. When dry, a slight curve sometimes remains but flattens out in a closed sketchbook.
  • None of the materials I've used so far has caused any show-through on the back side of the paper, a nice feature which allows you to use both sides of a sheet.
  • Pencil lines erase cleanly with a kneaded eraser or click eraser with no noticeable change in the paper surface.
  • Marker lines stay crisp and sharp with no bleeding or feathering.

Join me tomorrow for PART 2 of my Zeta review when I'll be sharing a variety of watercolor techniques and how they behave on the smooth, heavily sized surface of the Zeta sketchbook paper.


    1. Thank you for the detailed review and examples. I just bought one of the S&B journals and was wondering how to test it!

      1. Which type did you get, Kathy? Be sure to read my next post tomorrow where I'll be showing several techniques to put a new paper to the test.

    2. Oh thank you for the detailed review! I have heard good things about these sketchbooks, but can't decide which one would work best for ink and watercolor sketches. Sounds like the zeta would be a great one to try!

      1. I've used the Alpha and Beta, too, Rebecca, and I'd say the very best for ink and watercolor would probably be the Beta. It has heavier paper than the Alpha, and although the paper has some tooth to it, it still works fine with pen and ink. The Alpha takes washes really well but is thinner, so you get a slight tendency to wrinkle. The Zeta is the same weight as the Beta, but its slick surface makes it more challenging (for me, anyway.) It would be nice for you to try them both. Email Stillman and Birn for a sample packet. They'll send it out right away.

    3. Beautiful work, and great review! I like the square format.

      1. This is the first time I've had a square sketchbook, and I like it, too.

    4. I've been wondering about what type of journal to get for "to go" journaling. This sounds like a good candidate! Thanks for all the detailed information.

    5. I have been considering a Zeta for some time but hadn't purchased yet. I appreciate the thorough review you are doing which will guide my purchase decision.. I already want to try one for myself and look forward to the rest of your review

      1. Check the blog archive for the other two parts of my review, Marcia. And remember, you can request a free paper sample packet from Stillman and Birn to help you decide if you'd like to purchase a Zeta.

        Glad you're enjoying the review!

    6. Excellent review of how the paper reacts to different media. Thanks.

    7. Thanks for the wonderful review.

    8. This is very helpful. I have a Gamma and will be wanting a Zeta sometime, too. Thanks so much for this review

    9. Amazing sketches on this nice paper. Really great review.
      And how totally cool that YOUR sketch is on their label......Wow!!! Congratulations!!!
      <3 J

    10. Thanks for this very helpfull review, since i was hesitating between Beta and Zeta series.
      I do enjoy particularly the ink and watercolour hydrangea sketch: sponteneous and fresh.

    11. The country farmhouse is my favorite. I had never heard of this brand of sketchbook until I discovered your blog. Would love to experiment with it. Having your artwork featured is really fantastic.

    12. Excellent review. It helps me understand S&B journal (zeta) You described it perfectly.


    Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...