Sunday, August 11, 2013

Experiencing Stillman & Birn's Zeta Series Sketchbooks - PART 2

After playing around with Stillman and Birn's new Zeta series sketchbooks for a few weeks (see PART 1 of my review here), I decided it might be worthwhile to do a few pages of test samples to see how various watercolor techniques work on the Zeta paper.

In the sample strip below, the first two mixtures of wet-in-wet color combined as expected then slid on the slick surface to one side of the puddle and dried, creating a darker area. The cobalt teal blue and viridian hue in the sample on the right stayed completely separate, even though both were very wet when I applied them side-by-side. Things aren't always predictable when painting on the Zeta surface with watercolor.

I was able to achieve a dry brush stroke with a 1/2" flat brush, but not with a round brush.

Hard edges are the norm with watercolors on Zeta paper. Softening them with water gives mixed results.

With some paints or colors, it softens beautifully, like with the burnt umber on the right, above. With others, like the ultramarine blue on the left, the paint doesn't want to move much when water is applied to an edge. On the rose violet sample in the center, the water flowed back into the pink paint, causing a bloom, rather than the paint moving out into the clear water. I usually like blooms in my watercolors, so that isn't a problem for me. If you want control on the Zeta paper, it's best to paint drier, with hard edges. If you like spontaneity and "happy accidents," use lots of paint and water and let them do their thing.

One place where Zeta excels is in its liftability. A dry tissue easily lifted off most of the wet cerulean blue paint on the left side of the sample below, and a damp brush brought back the bright white of the paper on the right.

Dried paint is easily lifted, also. In the sample below, I used a dampened #4 round brush to lift the paint on the left side, then a 1/4" flat to lift the squares in the center and a dampened tissue to make the cloudlike shapes on the right. I also swiped across the right edge to show how you can soften an edge slightly after it's dried.

Watercolorists love Mr. Clean Magic Eraser pads for their ability to lift dried paint, and they perform as well on the Zeta paper as they do on traditional rag watercolor paper. For my sample, I first taped off the parts of the dried watercolor that I wanted to save, using painter's tape.

Then I wiped across the paper with a damp Magic Eraser pad. The green paint lifted very well, but I had a little "oops!" moment when I started to lift the painter's tape before the paper had dried. The tape stuck to the paper and began to tear it. When I saw what was happening, I stopped peeling up the tape and waited for everything to dry completely, then peeled up the tape from the dry paper without any problems at all. 

The Magic Eraser also worked well at lightening the area on the right when I lightly stroked across it.

Scraping away wet paint with a tool is another way to recover the white of the paper. In the sample below I used a piece of plastic cut from an old credit card to scrape through the wet paint, pressing down firmly. The paint tended to seep back into the white area I had cleared away. I let the paint dry for a few minutes, then tried again on the right. The results were much better, with the paint scraping away cleanly on the smooth Zeta surface to reveal white paper.

I used an Xacto knife with #11 blade to scratch lines into wet paint in the first section of the sample below, giving a grass-like effect. Next, I tried the end of a paper clip, giving a slightly heavier line. After the paint dried, I made the last two sets of lines by scratching across the page with the Xacto knife. The vertical lines offer a great way to indicate light-colored weeds or branches on a dark background, while scraping horizontally across a page can add sparkling highlights to water. 

A really cool technique that I should remember to use more often is sprinkling salt into wet watercolor paint. I love the texture it gives, and I think the results are even more pronounced on the Zeta paper than they usually are on textured watercolor paper.

Left: chunky kosher salt, right: table salt

Dropping clear water into wet or damp paint also gives a beautiful textured effect with amoeba-like shapes.

Spritzing alcohol into wet paint on Zeta paper gives a similar effect, but the droplet marks usually tend to be more rounded.

The surface feel of the Zeta sketchbook paper reminds me of hot press watercolor paper or Bristol paper, but whereas Bristol is not recommended for wet media, Zeta is made for multi-media use and performs beautifully with watercolor. It's fast becoming one of my favorite sketchbooks.

Watch for PART 3 in my next post, where I'll be spritzing, sprinkling, and spattering my way through more sketches in my Zeta sketchbook


  1. Great analysis of what the Zeta does and doesn't do!

  2. Thanks for sharing this info! Just starting in this medium I find it interesting how all the different papers and journals perform! :)

  3. Thank you so much for all your information

  4. There is so much to learn about watercolor.

  5. Very revealing results. I heard one other artist get some of tha same results although she was not so comprehensive as you have been here. Thank you.

  6. Good info, thanks! I think I want to give it a try, looks fun.

  7. Thanks for the continued demos. Your explanations and pics are so clear!!

  8. Again, thanks for the details regarding watercolor issues and the notebook.

  9. Hi, Leslie! Love your blog, I check it every day:). The sketchbook looks tantalizing, challenging and most of all, seems to take you in different directions. I love that it loosens your work up...I struggle with that, too. Thanks for the info. I haven't sketched since I was at Summerhill (a long time) since my husband's EOA accelerated shortly after that, but one day I will! Think of you often. Mickie

    1. Mickie,
      It's so nice to hear from you. I've thought of you often, too, and wondered how your life was going. Maybe sketching could be a way to help cope with the stresses of your life? I'll say a prayer for you and your husband. Please keep in touch.

  10. Thanks for this terrific evaluation!! It's so helpful having such great photos to see and compare.
    <3 J

  11. Isn't watercolor FUN? Love all your demos. Such a nice feminine touch in your art.

  12. I absolutely love the Stillman & Birn journals.......all of them. I'm finding my favorites to be Alpha, Beta, and especially the Zeta!!!!

    Love your site and love your work!

    1. Those are my three top picks, too, Susan. Love 'em!

  13. Thanks for the scoop on the Mr. Clean erasers (I have those in my cleaning drawer) though I've never used them to lift paint from paper!! I'm currently trying out my S&B Zeta journal & stumbled across your blog post...and yes! I'm finding these same qualities, too..and trying to decide if I like them or not. or...perhaps it's just different than what I'm used to & just an interesting quality all its own!! Thanks again!


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