Favorite Papers?…Buying Paper Samplers—It Just Makes Sense

February 27, 2010

Thoughts on finding the perfect paper.

Recently a reader wrote in to the comments section of one of my posts and asked if I had a favorite paper. Since I have been writing about Stonehenge and the limitations I find with it all week, and because not everyone makes it to the comments, I wanted to address this question in a post so that other people could understand my approach. (I actually get questions like this all the time.) So with a little bit of editing for a general audience here are my thoughts on "favorite papers."

I don't really have a favorite paper. Well I do, but it's discontinued so there is no point in talking about it—OK I know someone will write in and ask—it's Barcham Green's Turner's Blue Wove. Barcham Green's Lion's Cover and Dewint are close seconds, but also defunct, though I do have a few books left that I made with those papers. The OLD pre-2000 Folio paper is also a non-existent favorite.

I've spent a lot of time researching papers that work for the way I bind books (either sewn-on-the-spine or casebound). Also important to me is how those papers take the mixed media I want to work with in my visual journal. A paper may be a joy to bind up but if it doesn't perform when I work on it, then there isn't much point in binding it up.

As anyone can tell from reading through my blog posts or paging through selections from the journal gallery on, I have several favorite papers that I enjoy working on for different reasons.

When I bind books I always make several books at a time. Historically this is partly because I would always sell some books from each batch, but mostly I bind several books in a batch for economy of effort (and economy of materials—paper costs go down when 25 sheets or more are purchased); and just because it is fun.

Additionally I like to have a range of blank journals in stock so that when it is time to select a new journal I don't have to stop and make one. Having journals at the ready allows me to go to the shelf and decide, do I want a portrait orientation, do I want a square book, do I want toned paper, do I want white paper? What media do I feel I will be working with the most in the next few weeks? How much time do I have to fill this journal (i.e., is it for a trip and how long is the trip and how many pages will I need; is it the end of the year and I have to fill it in a couple days…)?

My tastes change over the year and I rotate papers depending on answers to questions like those above. Rotating papers I use to make journals out of helps me keep the play aspect of journaling going. And it helps me keep a variety of sketching and painting approaches alive.

This approach isn't for everyone. Some people like to look at a shelf and see the uniform covers of the last 20 years of Moleskine use. Others find that a certain size and format of book is all they want to use for the rest of their lives.

I believe that if someone finds a 90 lb. watercolor paper that she likes she can stick with it the rest of her life, changing only if that paper changes. There's no problem with that approach and people make great work with that approach, have great fun. But here's the rub: "changing only if that paper changes."

People, paper changes. If you aren't testing new papers at least once in awhile you maybe caught out when a journal (commercially bound) or a paper you use to bind your own journals becomes discontinued. I don't want to miss a day of journaling because I don't have a new "favorite" paper to move on to and start painting on.

Let's say you don't already have a favorite paper. Let's even say that you don't know what to look for in a paper. Well, you'll want to take some classes and learn how to bind so that you know a suitable paper when you hold it.

But even classes aren't going to be enough. Many bookbinders teach classes with papers that aren't suitable for visual journaling. It isn't something that is even on their radar. For those binders they may be interested in producing editions of letterpress books, or blank journals for writers. If they have a strong background in traditional binding you'll still want to take classes from them because it is in those classes that you will learn what matters in the structure of a book—and by extention you'll learn where you can improvise—essential if you are going to work with unusual art papers. You'll also learn about paper—how it's made and sized and finished and how to judge grain direction. A good bookbinder will be able to teach you all that because he will care about paper. No sensible bookbinder is going to waste hours of his life binding inferior papers. And even if he isn't familiar with the papers you want to use, his knowledge of paper will help inform your choices.

So once you have some bookbinding techniques and skills under your belt you'll want to start experimenting with papers. This is where Paper Samplers become essential (unless you're on an unlimited budget and if so why are you reading this instead of putting me on retainer to make books out of any paper you like).

Paper Samplers come in all shapes and sizes. Wet Paint has a watercolor paper sampler they make in-house out of 1/4 sheets (or variations, but the pieces are large enough to divide into smaller pieces and still be able to work well on them). They will also make custom sampler packets. I know this because they have done this for me for my classes—I select papers I want to expose students to and then give them a packet number divisble by 4 (if I want quarter sheets), 6, etc. You get the idea. (I have to plan in advance and often end up with extra packets, the cost of which I have to eat, but the benefits outweigh that as I get to expose my students to a variety of papers they couldn't afford to buy full sheets of. And there is really no such thing as an unused packet of paper here!)

I like to save my paper scraps to pass out to students in appropriate classes—to give them a taste of different papers, even if it is a small taste. Using these custom samplers I can expose students to papers that I might not enjoy working with regularly, but which nevertheless are important to the "paper discussion." This takes the luck factor out of it (luck that I'll have some of those scraps to give them). And it allows me to provide options to students who don't work in the same manner as I do (and that's really fun and interesting to nurture).

Daniel Smith also has sample packets using FULL sheets. This is obviously more convenient for them (nothing to cut and package) and it is more expensive for the customer (because you are getting a full sheet of each paper in the sampler). But I still believe this is a great deal. Their watercolor paper sampler is $69.95 and contains 16 sheets with a list price of $118.44. (That's 40 percent off list price!) They have a printmaking sampler that is $79.95 and contains 32 (that's right thirty two!) different printmaking papers. Their Japanese paper sampler is also a great deal at $59.78 for 16 types of paper.

I am particularly gung-ho about Daniel Smith's full-sheet sampler packs because by buying full sheets you can see the sheet size, find the grain direction, and test the paper—ending up with a lot of information about the sheet, and about how it suits your needs. (Of course you are going to start taking notes as soon as you open the shipment aren't you! Copious notes!)

Legion Paper sells boxed samples with the paper cut into 8 1/2 x 11 inch pieces. This is less ideal because you don't get the full sheet to work out grain direction on the full sheet (important for planning your book structures), but you do get enough of a sample to see how it folds with the grain and whether or not you enjoy working on it with your different media. They have sample boxes for Japanese papers, drawing papers (two volumes), watercolor papers, and eco-friendly papers. You can find the Legion Paper boxed samplers here. The boxes I mention range in price from $9.50 to $17.50. They represent a totally affordable introduction to a vast range of papers.

Talas also sells paper samples. These are in the form of swatchbooks. Don't put your nose up at small swatches. You can still learn a lot from them—how the paper folds (whether the paper is too thick and cracks), and how the paper takes your favorite media. You only need a small surface, used wisely, to judge possibilities—from there yes, you'll have to invest in full sheets but it won't be a crap shoot. We can't just sit around waiting for invitations to go to Ruscombe Mill! (Which is the swatchbook link I provided you with—don't those papers look yummy!)

Speaking of mills, write and ask for swatchbooks from them. The internet makes it easier to locate them and request a sample price list. I found a mill in France the other day on the internet (can't locate it now—but they are out there). You bet I'll be ordering a swatch book. We can always dream.

By now those of you on budgets are groaning—"that's a lot of money spent on samples." (By which I mean you are all groaning because we are all of us on budgets! And if you aren't, remember what I said about putting me on retainer!)

Nonsense, that is not a lot of money spent on samples.

How to you think I've ended up testing over 70 papers for bookbinding? I bought samples and tested swatchbooks and then bought full sheets, and finally after binding and using the sheets I discovered not only which papers I liked to use, but also more about how I work (which is invaluable). (And sadly I've seen a lot of papers die, but at least I met them before they disappeared.)

Also while it may seem like an expense to buy the samples it is actually a great savings of money and time. I heartily recommend it. This is part of the adventure of keeping a visual journal—saving up for the desired paper, binding it, using it, and deciding that the home-grown, inexpensive paper works best after all. I call it the "Dorothy Experience."

If all of this seems too open-ended for you then I suggest you go back to October 2008 when I started this blog and scroll through my posts. (You can't just click on "Paper" in the categories list because I am an imperfect being and I sometimes make paper comments in non-paper posts.) By reading the past posts on my blog you'll see what I'm doing on various papers, what I like to use on various papers, what I don't recommend anyone try on certain papers. You will find papers that perhaps speak to you not because of what I've done with them and on them, but because my post has given you a glimpse of the texture of the page and the fleck of fiber and frankly you're smitten. (Falling in love with paper is a lot like falling in love with a person—sometimes it only takes a quick glimpse, and your life changes.)

If you're new to visual journaling then my comments about the media I use on a given paper will provide a starting point for your experiments.

But ultimately you're going to have to decide. You are going to have to ask yourself, "Am looking for one paper that does x, y, and z?" or "Am looking for a group of papers that does a variety of things?"

In either case you will have to define for yourself what "x, y, and z" are or which variety of things interests you. Based on those types of questions your search will be fruitful.

That's also where the adventure of visual journaling lies. No one can do it for you. But then they can't take it away from you either.

Finally, keep this in mind. There are ALWAYS other papers to try. This is because there are new papers coming out every so often, and also this is because papers change. (I'll have more to say about this in some upcoming posts.) You will want to try other papers every so often just so that you can keep your options open should your current favorite disappear or change beyond recognition or usefulness.

Order some sample packets today—let the adventure begin.

Note: I am not connected with the suppliers mentioned, except as an enthusiastic customer. Perhaps you'll find other suppliers that may be better suited to your needs. Let me know.

  1. Reply

    I am always changing what my favorite paper is and I can’t even explain why this is. Perhaps it is the alignment of the starts but for this reason I loved getting the paper sampler from legion. I cut some of the paper and used them in a loose leaf book to try them out.

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