Working on Both Sides of the Page in Your Journal

July 4, 2011

Above: Recent people sketches—the recent winner of Top Chef Masters and a judge. Drawn from TV using a Faber-Castell Pitt Artist's Calligraphy pen on the Arches Text Wove (Velin Arches) I used to make this 6 x 8 inch journal. Notice on the left page, at the top right of Floyd's head you can see an image from the previous page peeking through the lightweight paper.

Recently a blog reader wrote in and asked whether or not I work on both sides of a page in my journals. Yep. That's one reason why I like to make my own journals—so that I can work across the spread. [Note: This statement is confusing to at least one reader and I can see how it would be. I go from talking about working on both sides of a page, to working across the spread. You see you can't work across a spread if you don't work on both sides of your page. And it's the latter I'm focusing on in this post. So hang in there. I think all will be made clear! I've written other posts about working across the gutter or using the full page spread—this post isn't about that.]

But I thought it would be a good idea, since I have a page spread which speaks to this point, to take a moment to touch on this issue again, for people who are new to the blog, or simply on the fence. I've rewritten my response to the reader's comment (I don't think many readers get to the comments section) and made some additional points that I hope you'll consider.

I use both sides of a page in my journals because I primarily work in pen and ink with watercolor and those media simply are not smudge-able in general conditions. (In the past I often used colored pencil and had smudging problems and now only rarely use CP in my journals—just in my other art outside of my journals. I do not use spray fixatives of any sort in my journals so smudging is an issue for me.)

I typically suggest that people make their own books, because I make my own books and I love to do so, and it means I can control the paper factor in my books. I can select thicker papers that don't buckle and are opaque, if those issues bother me. There will always be some buckling with paper bound in a book and then wetted because it isn't held down (like watercolor paper blocks or taping watercolor paper to boards). Different papers will buckle varying amounts.

Strathmore's Aquarius II watercolor paper has synthetic fibers in the sheet which resist buckling when the paper is wet. It makes a great choice for bookbinding for a visual journal because of this. And as a lighter weight sheet it is substantially opaque (80 lb., only available as cold press, but it is a slightly textured cold press so don't be put off if you're a hot press person). I have written a great deal about this paper, including an article on it for Strathmore's newletter (follow the link). 

When might a journal artist decide to use only one side of the journal page spread? I think the considerations break down like this:

1. When the paper is lightweight and too transparent, allowing the artwork from the previous page to diminish the joy in viewing the current page spread.

2. When the medium you're using is prone to smudging. (My Daily Dots were done mostly in pencil and colored pencil and because of that I worked only on the recto page—a conscious choice I made at the beginning of the process. If your book is likely to be handled by many people then smudging might also be a large issue for you.)

3. When the paper you're using buckles so much, and doesn't relax when dry, that working on the flipside becomes a dangerous navigation of valleys and mountains instead of smooth pen streaking across an even plain.

4. When there is a different surface on each side of the sheet. Working across the spread may make the surface texture difference noticeable because of the media you are using, or such across the gutter work may require you to go to extraordinary lenghts to match your work across the spread because of the texture difference.

5. You simply like opening your book and always having your art on the right-hand page (or always on the left-hand page if you prefer) because it looks right to you and the blank page opposite creates a negative space that is pleasing to you.

As a journaling artist you get to decide what is a deal breaker for you—is a paper too "transparent," does a paper buckle too much?

I use lots of papers that you can see through—Arches Text Wove (now called Velin Arches, but I can't get ATW out of my brain) for instance. I have written posts about Arches Text Wove and how I still love it any way because of the surface of the paper. Today's image is from a book I made with that paper and my caption points out an area where the sketch from the previous page is visible through the page. Is this a deal breaker for me?

No Way. Use this paper just once and tell me that you wouldn't forgive it many "sins" just for the joy of working on it.

Nideggen is a toned lightweight paper I also have written about several times. It buckles a little bit when you paint on it, but it is very opaque for a thin sheet and I use it all the time in the books I make. I have also written about how I tear down and fold sheet of this so that I get matching surfaces across the gutter. (Some commercially bound journals have different surfaces across the gutter. It might not be a deal breaker for you. I like to sketch in the Exacompta Sketchbook 9920, and one page of each spread has a laid texture and the opposite page is a more felt like texture, and then there is a switch because of the way the paper is folded for signatures.)

I use both 140 and 90 lb watercolor papers of all sorts,

And so it goes.

For me it is more important that the surface of the sheet is something that I enjoy working on. I like paper to buckle as little as possible so I've sought out papers that are within my range of acceptability. Ditto for show through (which is different from bleed through which is unacceptable to me regardless of a sheet's other qualities).

Short answer: How you work in your journal—whether you work on both sides of a page—is going to vary from artist to artist.

If you are worried about ecological and economical issues of waste which the original reader who wrote to me about this was, then I think you've pretty much answered your own question. You would be more comfortable working on both sides of the sheet.

But remember not all papers are the same on both sides of a sheet, so working will be different. Do you enjoy working on it on both sides? If not, it really isn't waste to not work on the side that isn't fun to work on. It's an economical use of your time and artistic pursuits to leave the blank page and keep on working.

So now you're back to square one.

Ultimately only you can decide. And you'll go through many journals making that decision. That's the fun part. Setting out to make a decision and wandering down all sorts of experimental paths.

For people new to working in journals if you are concerned about these issues I would recommend that you scan your images as you go. If you put a dark matboard behind the pages as you scan you'll minimize the scanner's ability to pick up the previous page's art.

And after you've filled a book using all the pages decide how comfortable you are with that. Do it differently in the next book. Try a new type of paper in the next book—whether it's a commercially bound journal or you learn to make books yourself. It's part of the fun of keeping a visual journal—discovering what works for your particular approach and vision. Don't miss out on the fun.

    • Cate
    • July 4, 2011

    Darn it, Roz, now I’m confused. I interpreted working on “both sides of a page” as working on the front, then flipping over and working on the back of the same sheet—as opposed to working on the left and right hand sides of a spread. So you’ve got paint on the front and the back of the same leaf in the journal….But in essence since you’re doing spreads, I suppose the answer is the same anyway, because if you didn’t work on both sides of a leaf, you’d have to leave every second spread blank. Or am I going nuts? haha

    I wondered about this too, because I’ve always fretted about smudging and bleed-through. Now I’m using watercolour and waterproof ink, so smudging is no longer an issue, and the paper in my current journal is heavy enough for me to work on both sides, that is, the front and the back.

    As always, I am so glad to discover that I am not the only one who puzzles rather obsessively over such things! 😉

  1. Reply

    Hi, Roz. I was a student in your visual journal class and there is one more reason to not use both sides of the paper. When the finished page is so awful you can’t bear to see it ever again, you can just cut it out and you won’t lose any artwork on the other side. I’ve ordered more journals and inks so someday I can use both sides with confidence:)

    • Leslie Schramm
    • July 4, 2011

    I’m happy on both sides all surfaces and pretty much anywhere on the page, sometimes not even the same orientation. Sometimes it’s one-sided only. I got “gifted” ( I think it meant they tried and didn’t like it either ) heavy and very rough textured watercolour paper. The rough front, was horrible, the back of the page was just perfect, for those abstract moments, and I;ve used lots of it. The gifters reply was “that’s the wrong side!!, you can’t paint on the wrong side” Paper has a back and front, enjoy finding out. As for the pages that go wrong, it’s all learning and improving and I put a little mongram in the corner “NROJ” have fun guessing,lol.

  2. Reply

    MOLLY————————NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! You have me tearing my hair out. Please don’t tear pages out of your journal (or cut them).

    I would never advocate that and hate to think you might be doing that.

    Pages are never that awful. You can learn from any page. And every page is part of the record of your development.

    Please don’t even joke about tearing out pages!

  3. Reply

    Leslie, I knew you’d go with the flow! I’m happy you had such a great gift of paper! And thank you for reinforcing the idea of not tearing out pages. We might have to go and do an intervention at Molly’s!

    • Cate
    • July 5, 2011

    Thanks, Roz. I was having a thick moment there! hehe

    As for tearing out pages, I share your horror. Molly, why not do what I do with hated pages: instead of ripping them out, cover them up, in whole or in part, either with a coat of gesso or some collaged papers. Sometimes a layer of tissue can change a hated page into something you can’t wait to work more into.

    Cate in Dundee

  4. Reply

    Cate—-NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! Seriously, you two have me down to one braid of hair left.

    DON’T COVER UP YOUR WORK (and certainly don’t tear it out)!!!

    Simply ENJOY IT!!!!!!!!!! It’s where you were at that particular moment and nothing could be more perfect!

    • E-J
    • July 5, 2011

    I used to be like Molly, and now I’m like Cate! I wasted so many years of potential sketching time feeling upset about the awfulness of certain pages – not infrequently, a crappy sketch would stump me and stop me from drawing anything at all. There was no “enjoy” – far from it. Now, faced with a drawing that’s rubbishy, my approach is to cut out, paint or paste over it (or a combination of all of the above) until I get something I’m happy with. Sorry, Roz!!

    Sometimes I’ll do a sketch which is so awful I can’t contemplate leaving it visible – because I was too rushed, too stressed, not focused enough when I did it – but more often it’s to do with the writing in my journals. Writing is the big block-creating thing, for me; my personal source of anxiety. And often I find that if I can use gouache to paint over parts of the page, or cut something away and paste in coloured paper to replace it which I then use with media I might not otherwise have thought to use in the page, then the results can be pretty cool – and even better, they’re way more experimental than I would otherwise have been. That said, I don’t try to control and overpaint *every single page*: a rubbish sketch here and there I can deal with. But that “page loathing” phenomenon can be a real block to further creativity, and so I have learnt to embrace anything that gets me past it.

    I work on both sides of the page because I use a Canson HP watercolour book for my sketchjournalling, and that takes most media. So far, the only thing I’ve found that bleeds through the pages are the thicker brands of marker, like Sharpies (and it’s always the ones that smell really bad, for some reason, so I avoid them). I’m starting to find that it’s much more satisfying to create a double-page spread than to restrict a sketch to either the recto or the verso page. I don’t mind having two completely distinct subjects/mediums/dates facing one another, but to me the pages are so much lovelier when that isn’t the case – when the creative flow has taken me right across the spread.

    What a great discussion!

  5. Reply

    I work on both sides of the page in sewn journals and work on only the right hand side in spiral journals and sketchbooks. The spiral binding is uncomfortable if I try to work on the left sheet and there is too big of a gap for my taste to work across the spread in a spiral bound book, anyway.

    • Tom Winterstein
    • July 6, 2011

    I am a sketcher and not a journaler so I’ve always thought of my sketching as practice. Sometimes it turns out and sometimes it doesn’t, particularly if I am trying a new medium or combination of mediums. As a result I don’t worry if my drawings turn out or not. This attitude shows up in my choice of sketchbooks–I generally use the one available, sometimes picking up a partially used sketchbook that I had last used a couple of years ago. I generally like spiral bound sketchbooks because I can fold the cover back and sketch on a pad. I always turn the sketchbook so the wire binding is on the left, so every other page is upside down. Because I have sketched like this for years, even when I have a bound sketch book, I never draw across the gutter.

    Years ago, when I first started sketching I was admonished by friends for drawing on both sides of the page because I was ruining the lovely drawing on the other side. So for a long time I drew on only one side of the page. However, since I never tore the drawings out of the sketchbook I eventually started drawing on both sides of the page because it made the sketchbook last longer. However, I rarely use watercolor or washes in my sketching, preferring a pen or pencil, so buckling isn’t a problem with my sketches. (I do tear out pages when the subject of the sketch realizes they are being sketched and ask if they can have the sketch.)

  6. Reply

    Tom, thank you for sharing your sane approach with people (I’m practically bald now from tearing out my hair and it will be quite a shock to you when you see me next). I guess I must be more of a sketcher than a journaler though I have always referred to myself as a journal keeper. Like you I don’t worry if something turns out or doesn’t. In fact some of my favorite sketches are the ones that very clearly didn’t turn out. They tell me something about myself—that I wasn’t paying attention, that my glasses needed a new prescription, that my shoes were too tight!

    And of course our attitude makes it so easy to experiment. I’m trying to convince the others but it seems they are dug in and want to cut out or cover their “bad” sketches.

    As to the point your friends made—that you were ruining your drawings by drawing on the other side. Well you went to the Titian thing didn’t you? There was a page out of one of the artist’s journals/sketchbooks that was worked on both sides—and displayed on a stand between two pieces of glass. He even had bleed through to contend with and I don’t think he ruined either drawing one bit!

    Thanks again for weighing in.

  7. Reply

    Sigh. Please read Tom’s comment in this list of comments. There are no “rubbishy” drawings. Who’s going to care? If it’s just you (and that is ultimately the audience for our journals) then you can find a way to embrace that “rubbishy” sketch if you just allow that you are where you are NOW, for NOW. And it’s an important place to be. They show us where to go next.

    I don’t want you to be stumped at all. And you have a way that works for you so that’s great. But I also want you to move in a direction where stumping isn’t even possible! That’s what I want for you.

    So maybe, just maybe, You, Cate, and Molly could all agree to leave in one “rubbishy” drawing now and then, for me!

    I would love it if you could all embrace the fact that sometimes you sketch when you are “too rushed, too stressed, not focused enough” as you say, but YOU SKETCHED ANYWAY! When you tear out or cover up those sketches you’re obliterating the evidence that you worked ANYWAY, despite what life had to throw at you. And that’s the bottom line important thing. Working anyway, regardless of what is happening around you.

    And so instead of being “rubbishy” those sketches are actually a testament to the nature of your creativity. They say that you are showing up to do your work.

    I haven’t ever use a Canson HP watercolor book. I only know their Montval (sp?) books and those are cold press. I don’t use those except for testing paints, because their are only 20 sheets in them. I will have to look for them. Do you have a product number or anything on the back or one of your books?

    Thank you for writing E-J, even though I am now practically hairless!

    • E-J
    • July 6, 2011

    Sorry about the hair, Roz, truly! I can only say that my loathing of bad pages is not as much of a problem now as it used to be … but it’s still verging on an OCD thing (lack of privacy for my writings and drawings in childhood being the culprit). And though I always have the desire to sketch, my feelings towards my current sketchbook vary according to how I feel about the last sketch I did – and I can’t see that changing soon, though I do see the value in what you’re saying.

    This is the sketchbook I use: I’ve only seen it available on the Great Art/Gerstaecker website and in the Sennelier shop in Paris. I love this sketchbook, but it only comes in landscape; if a portrait format was available, it would constitute my perfect book. As it is, when I’m through with this one I intend to try the Fabriano Venezia (having made sure I’ve got a couple of Cansons stashed away!).

  8. Reply

    E-J, thank you for sending the link. Actually I have tried one of those and I’ve begged various suppliers to carry it here in the US (to no avail). It would be wonderful if it came in portrait! The FV has it’s good points and bad. I’m loving using my PPBP and my calligraphy pen in it.
    As for the issue of covering and tearing out pages, well I know everyone comes at these things with different issues. As an adult, however, you can control the privacy issue, so that might be one way in which you can begin to reclaim all your pages. I hope so!

    • Cate
    • July 8, 2011

    “…find a way to embrace that “rubbishy” sketch if you just allow that you are where you are NOW, for NOW…When you tear out or cover up those sketches you’re obliterating the evidence that you worked ANYWAY, despite what life had to throw at you. And that’s the bottom line important thing. Working anyway, regardless of what is happening around you.”

    Now I get why you were tearing your hair out, Roz—I’m almost tearing mine out now! haha

    This bit of your reply to E-J is going into my journal because I want to have it in front of me all the time. Whenever I am tempted to cover up something I don’t like, I’ll simply inscribe it “for Roz”, and turn the page.

    Again, thank you for turning on yet another light for me.

  9. Reply

    Thank you Cate, I’m actually working on a post about this to combat the dwindling hairs, so I’m glad this portion of my response resonated with you! I’m glad you’re going to keep those pages. It makes me very happy.

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