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What To Do Now That There’s No 5-Ply Plate Bristol?

March 11, 2013

Recently a reader wrote in lamenting Strathmore’s decision to discontinue 5-ply Plate Bristol. She wondered if I had found a product to replace it.

Well she was right to ask me because Strathmore’s 5-ply Plate Bristol was a favorite of mine for decades. I loved painting on its ultra smooth surface. And pen and ink work was a joy on it. I don’t know when they discontinued this product but I know early in the 2000s I started having difficulty purchasing it. I was going to do a project which required more that the 5 or 6 sheets I had in my flat file and I couldn’t get it anywhere. So I started looking for something else. It made the eventual demise less painful. One thing we can’t get away from is that papers will come and go in our lifetime. 

So for other people who miss painting on this surface I have some suggestions for you today. 

  1. First off—Strathmore’s 500 Series Illustration board is also the same surface as the 500 Series Bristol paper. So you can still have this surface and have it mounted on board which will still give you the stiffness needed. (The boards come in plate or vellum so you can have your choice of smoothness, plate of course being smooth, and vellum being a bit more toothy [and great for pencil work].) The board core is archival.
  2. If you are simply looking for papers that will be heavy enough to take mixed media work you could always use 300 lb. watercolor paper, which is what I do most of the time. I actually now have several series I do only on such paper (such as my rock paintings). If what you miss from the bristol surface is the ease with which paint could be lifted you might start your experiments with Arches 300 lb. watercolor paper. It takes quite a beating and because of the sizing you can lift up a little better than some of the other wc papers. You might also try adding a bit of gum arabic into your paint mixes or wash water when you paint. Additional gum arabic makes lifting easier. Be careful however as too much gum arabic leads to paint which doesn’t dry, or is a brittle film, and in some situations creates a varnished sort of glare.
  3. Coating any stiff paper with clear gesso or white gesso (depending on the “color” you want and how much you want the paper to show through) is also a good option. I do a lot of loose work on gesso coated paper and it makes lift up easy. Here’s a pelican painting I did on gesso-coated paper. I left the strokes of the gesso visible so the paint could settle in the groves and make interesting textures.
  4. Claybord™ Textured is now Aquabord™. I use it for a lot of gouache and watercolor projects. Lift up is very easy on its surface. You can even take a wire brush to it. You should check out Charles Ewing’s book on working with this surface, “The New Scratchboard.” (The book is currently out of print, but should be available in libraries or as a used book.) In this painting of a tick all the reflective areas were lifted off after the entire subject was painted and dried. I was able to control the lift off so that I could retain areas of lighter color or go all the way back to the white board color. (I LOVE THIS SURFACE.)
  5. Yupo is also a surface that is easy to lift from, but it’s also a bit hard to develop a knack for getting the paint to stick in the first place. Here’s a coyote skull I painted on Yupo with watersoluble crayons—adding dry pigment, wetting, moving around, rubbing back off, adding more dry, blending. I’m not using Yupo enough for paintings to keep up with any archival concerns or assurances, so before you spend lots of time working up new techniques for Yupo, make sure it meets your other artmaking criteria. For me it’s a fun surface. 
  6. If you are looking for a paper mounted on a board you can always try working on Strathmore’s 500 Series Illustration Board for Wet Media. This board has the paper you’ve seen me write about so frequently attached to a wet media board. (I make my own books using Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media paper and you can now buy commercially made books from Strathmore with this paper.) The boards are a lovely surface on which to work. (While there are other illustrations boards on the market I only use the 500 series boards from Strathmore which are archival. Be sure to check that the board on which your paper is laminated is archival if that’s your goal.) 
  7. Since Strathmore still makes up to 4-ply 500 Series Bristol you can still purchase the thinner plys of the plate bristol from them and mount a sheet to a stiff board. By making your own board-mounted paper you’ll have the surface you want, in the size that you want, on a board. (I recommend masonite or hardboard which you can get at most hardware stores. Also many hardware stores are happy to cut a larger sheet down into several panels for you.) I begin by treating the board surface with at least 2 coats of sanded gesso—to remove bumps in the gesso and seal off the board from the paper. I then glue the paper to the board with either a gel medium or with PVA. To ensure smooth contact between the sheet and the board I use a roller to apply the glue. I then place the paper, cut slightly oversized, so it hangs over the edges of the board. I put protective sheets of clean bond paper on top of the paper and burnish it in place (you don’t want any air pockets). I use one of those 3M plastic burnishing tools that look like a credit card—so that I get even pressure and no impressions you might get with a thinner bone folder. I remove the burnishing paper and place the board/paper piece under weights until the glue is completely dry. When it’s dry I flip the board over paper side down onto a clean cutting mat. Using the edge of the board as a ruler I run the X-acto blade around all sides of the board cutting the overhanging paper to the exact size of the board. This method of adhesion ensures that all my paper edges will be glued down right to the edge of the board. And I don’t have to fuss trying to match a paper size to a board. I will use this procedure on lighter weight papers on which I want to work while having a stiff backing. Many companies like Ampersand (who makes Claybord™) now sell cradled hardwood (“framed” edges) boards and the same technique can be used to apply paper to their surface.
  8. Fredrix makes a wonderful watercolor canvas board that I use for gouache paintings. For an idea of how easy it is to lift colors off you can see this painting of “Gooser.” There’s a lot of letting paint simply run along the surface before rubbing it back in areas and working it up again. (Fredrix also makes watercolor canvas in rolls and pads, but I like having the stiff surface of the board to work against, so I typically buy it as boards.)

I too was sad to lose the 5-ply smooth 500 series Bristol from Strathmore. But papers come and go in the art supply world. We have to learn to adapt. I embrace that adaptation as part of the fun of painting. It’s a sane move too since I don’t have control over discontinued papers and I don’t have the budget to buy up enough of any paper to “last” my lifetime.

And I wouldn’t want to, because I’d miss out on all these fun adventures.

I hope some of these alternatives will work for you too. And I hope along the way you discover whole new methods of using your painting surface.

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