On Testing and Experimenting with Art Supplies and Papers—and A Little More on the Hand•Book Journal

February 4, 2015


Left: Pentel Pocket Brush Pen sketch in my 8.25 x 10.5 inch Hand•Book journal. Color added with Montana markers. This is a quick sketch of the young actor who plays Rusty on Major Crimes. There are some ink lines in the background that are covered up by the background paint, they aren't show through or bleed through lines, just a different position I started with that didn't give me the shape of his head or neck. Nothing to do with the paper.

Even though the title is a bit different today is Part 4 of a 4-part review of Hand•Book Journals (the drawing ones, not the watercolor ones they make. If you want to read my review of the Hand•Book watercolor journals you can do that here. I am not a fan of their watercolor journals.) My emphasis has changed today and you'll see why in a minute.

You can read Part One which talks about some basic issues I have with them and the paper quality here.

You can read Part Two which talks about my experiences using wet media in these journals here.

You can read Part Three which talks about line and the use of pens in these journals here.

You can see other artwork that I've posted from this test journal, throughout December 2014, and January and February 2015.


Left: One of my favorite sketches from this journal. I thought I had posted it already, but then didn't see it in a post when I scrolled through. If I have posted it before I apologize. I enjoy it. One of my favorite actors. Also from "Major Crimes." I used the thick tipped dye-based Pentel Color Brush for this sketch and I rolled the brush on its across the texture of the paper to get the shaded areas. It was a ton of fun.

If you've just arrived at the blog today I recommend you read the posts that form the beginning of this review. In them you'll find out what I like and don't like about this Hand•Book Journal.

Today's post I just wanted to wrap up and say something about testing paper and testing art supplies in general. I feel I have to write about this because it's tough love—I see students struggle with this in every class I ever teach; I see it in every art group.

Artists are individuals. Each has his favorite tools and media. Each has learned a variety of ways to apply them to paper. Over time the artist learns which papers work well for his favorite methods.

And then there are some folks like me who like to experiment. I like to test new things. I do it in part because I would get bored if I didn't and I never get bored. As Dick likes to say: Always in motion, not a good dancer. 

I also test a lot of papers and materials because I like to be able to help my students find what will suit them and give them the best opportunities for success. 

And I test a lot of papers and materials because I like discovering new ways to put marks on paper, but then this cycles back to the whole anti boredom stance and you get that already.

Not everyone likes to test things so I put my test results up on my blog for far-flung students and non-testers who read the blog.

I always buy my own materials to test (or if not make a clear indication of what was given to me). The Hand•book and the materials used were all purchased by me. 

I try in my reviews to be very explicit about what I encounter so that you can look for it and replicate it. I'm also clear on what is a deal breaker for me (i.e., something that makes a product non-usable for me) and what isn't.

For instance the paper in the book under review is thin enough to allow bold ink lines from the previous page spread to SHOW through the page. This is not a deal breaker for me. Bleeding through the page is a potential deal breaker (I've made an exception for some particularly fun papers I like to use so I can't say it's a total deal breaker).

The reason I'm explicit about my likes and dislikes and "deal breaker" status is that what I like or dislike might be the EXACT opposite to what a reader likes or dislikes. Someone reading these reviews will know that while I don't like this paper for certain things if they don't use those same things the paper could be great for them.

My point is it's helpful to read reviews when people give you details and not just that they like something. But it's also important I think, at least for me, to include some comments on how much fun a paper or material is to use. I just can't help myself. I am all about the fun factor. Mainly because life is short and there are a lot of papers and materials out there and you shouldn't be using something you aren't having fun with because if you are you are probably not reaching your full potential.

So when you read one of these reviews and look at your dwindling supply budget don't think about running right out and buying something because someone used it and it had a high fun factor or not buying it because someone used it and said it sucked. Look at what the reviewer was saying and ask yourself "How does this relate to my art, my mark making, my focus, my criteria."

Because the real reason I write all these product reviews is that I want you to think about YOUR CRITERIA. Your UNIQUE criteria.

Because if you don't start thinking about your unique criteria you will never explore and develop and even worse you won't be in a position to judge for yourself whether or not the paper sitting in front of you is going to work for you or not and what you are about to do to it. And if you can't judge that then you are pretty much throwing your art budget money away.

So this is what I would suggest to you if you have not had "the talk" with yourself:

1. Sit Down and Work Out an Art Supply Budget 

This is essential. It will prevent you from splurging on every new art supply or paper that someone in your art comment group discusses. This wasteful spending is just another form of procrastination. Instead of making art you're amassing STUFF and sooner or later the stuff will just crush you.

People also become addicted to accumulating art supplies. I know you don't believe it happens in the world, or that it can happen to you, but if you have even one set of something sitting idly by, not being used, then you have to ask yourself "Why did I buy this and why isn't it being used?"

Instead, sit down and work out what you can really afford to spend on art supplies in a given month, year, whatever. You know your income, your life's expenses, etc. No more impulse shopping.

To help stay on budget think about conditions for moving on to another supply: e.g., I can't get QoR watercolors until I use up my Holbein; I can't get X-paper until I finish using the 25 sheets of Y paper that I bought on sale. (Something you bought on sale that you aren't using is taking up space and weighing you down and if it goes unused more than a few weeks you probably shouldn't have bought it.)

Here's an easy one: You can't buy another journal until you fill up all the empty ones you have. There are tons of creative ways you can get through those journals and some of them involve speed drawing and being messy and all would enable you to improve your journal habit so get on it!

Once you have a budget and an idea of your "conditions." Make a list of the things you think you would like to try. Organize and prioritize which you would like to try. 

Ask yourself if realistically you need to try them. Don't you already have perfectly serviceable watercolors? (for example) If so why buy new ones? (More on this in a moment but get all this down on paper.)

Take a hard look at your art goals and see why you might need those supplies and what else you might need to do BEFORE buying those supplies. For instance you might be better served taking an expensive art class that eats your quarterly art budget (and then some) so that you can develop new skills and strategies, than buying more supplies. Think about all this and write those goals down. Research those classes, they don't have to be expensive ones.

I would also encourage you to pay cash for art supplies. Of course cash seems to be a thing of the past since people use credit cards for every transaction. What I am saying is if you put something on the credit card you are going to pay it off at the end of the month. No art supplies on credit. Debt will kill your creativity and push you into stress, procrastination, and a lot of ugly behaviors, so just don't do it.


REPEAT AFTER ME: There is no perfect paper. A magical pen or pencil does not exist. There is no such thing as a perfect art tool or supply.

Any artist you might admire has develop his or her style by working and working and working.

OK, now you have your budget, your goals, your wish list. Here's what you do…

2. Test and Retest the Materials You Already Own 

Instead of buying more art supplies, look at the stuff you already have and make a plan to use it. No new supplies until you use up old those old watercolors (or whatever it is). If you have huge stock piles of supplies chances are you aren't putting enough time into your art practice. It's time to use up some of what you already have so you'll know what you have, what you don't like about it, what you do like about it, and have a better idea of what you might be looking for. At the very least you'll jumpstart your art making with a flurry of activity which will help ensure any new products that come into the house/studio get consumed right away. 

Read my Project Friday posts for ideas on how to set up an art weekend to immerse yourself in using one type of paper or supply. Immersion is the best way to really get a feel for how it works.

Two or three weeks of daily use is even better. If you have made art plans before and they have fallen through, then give up the notion that you're going to do an art blowout on the weekend and paint for three hours. If you do that great, enjoy it, but don't count on that. If your life is like pretty much everyone else's that afternoon of art you scheduled for Saturday will be spent running the dog to the emergency room, having the car towed, or cleaning the house because your mom has decided to make a spontaneous visit.

Thirty minutes a day spent with any paper or art material is going to do you more good even if you only have "unfinished" work at the end of 30 minutes, than any art blow out you actually make happen.

Find the combination of planning, scheduling, and habit building that works for you and employ it religiously over and over until you use up all those art supplies!

Exception: If you have student-grade supplies and you test them and give them a real work out and see that you still can't make them do what you want them to do, chuck them. (That's right don't even give them to someone else to struggle with.) OR if you have student-grade supplies and you have been working diligently with them but are struggling and feel your progress is stagnating, don't do more testing, just chuck them. Then use your list and goals and items gathered in step 3 below to make a considered buying plan to upgrade.

3. Keep a Review File 

If someone like me writes a review that you find interesting, book mark it or file it digitally some way that works for you. Watch to see if that person continues to use that paper or media over time, or later changes his or her mind about it.

Don't buy into Scarcity. If someone writes about a particular art material and it is hard to get or no longer made but "floating around," resist the urge to even put it on your list for possibles.

I hesitate to even post artwork I do with my Stabilotones (the now defunct 60 some colors of wax soluble pencil that have been reconfigured as an 18 color range Woody). The reason I hesitate is every time I do at least 50 people write to me about the product wondering where they can get it, or telling me that they found a 60 piece set on eBay for $400.

Look I love the stuff. I think it can safely be said that I know how to use them. I am not going to spend $400 for a set. 

Life is too short, I am not going to tie my development as an artist to a defunct product.

This doesn't mean that I don't think you should take up lost or almost forgotten or rarely practiced art methods.

I spent a whole two months experimenting (daily) with painting on untreated fabric to work out a lost 19th century illustration technique. (Befriending textile artists and historians helped me understand how lost and how toxic [because of the chemicals] my quest was.)

Also I know how to scrimshaw. (Yeah I also say Arrgh a lot! Want to make something of it!?)

The difference is I know when to stop (the textile quest) OR (in the case of scrimshaw) I can get all the materials I need. Any time I spend on scrimshaw skills will be useful development and supported by available supplies.

Don't add extra burdens of hard to find supplies to your art adventures. 

4. Don't Buy Sets of Art Supplies 

OK, let's say you've followed all my advice and have a budget, schedule, habit, and list of reviews and goals and you're ready to buy something NEW to you… 

Don't buy sets. Why? Because 99 percent of the sets out there don't make any sense, either from a color theory point of view or an economics point of view. If you don't know color theory then you should learn more about it before you buy a set of any color medium because otherwise you'll not only buy the set but won't know what to do with it and will then buy all sorts of extra tubes (or sticks, or pencils) to get at some way to cover your ass with selections since you can't concoct color options with what you've bought in the set.

Read this: The Elephant in the Room: Why Don't You Understand Color Theory?

All you need to test a new paint is 3 or 4 tubes of that paint. Pick a red, yellow, and blue that you love. (If you don't paint enough to know what you love there are plenty of articles on the internet to help you decide. It isn't life or death. Even if you don't pick the ideal 3 primaries you'll learn enough about the paint that you can make a decision on whether or not to buy more of that line.) Depending on how you paint and what type of paint it is you might also want a white or black. 

The same thing applies to color pencils, watercolor pencils, markers, anything that comes in a set.

If you are comparing them to a supply you already have get colors you have in your existing set so you can COMPARE the new supply with a supply you are familiar with. (If you aren't familiar with what you have don't buy the new set, return to STEP 2.)

So if you are trying color pencils get your favorite blue, red, and yellow and compare them in stroke and lay in tests on the same paper with pencils you already have. Compare them also in quality (are they made with pigments or dyes, are they lightfast, etc.) Comparisons may tell you that for some supplies the fun factor is so high when you use them that even though they aren't archival they really are the best fit for you. (Tip: This is never the case with cheap watercolors. Always buy artist quality watercolors. The gulf between student grade in watercolor paints and in color pencils is so great as to suggest they really shouldn't be called the same thing!)

If you test the new product against your own and don't like it you're out the price of 3 to 5 tubes of paint. (Or 3 pencils if testing new color pencil brands.) Chances are you'll have spent less than the set. But here's the thing, if you spent more than the set it is still more economical to buy this way and test. Your time is worth something. Having a set of worthless colors you can't compare to previously used supplies, or having colors you can't or won't use is all false economy.

Once you've done your test return to the goal setting phase and decide how and when you can afford new stuff and which you'll buy first.

Exception: if an artist whose work you admire puts a set of paints together and you look at the set and realize it contains new colors to you and no repeats (or few repeats) or contains colors you feel you could use (I hate sets with black paint in them), and you have in place on your schedule time to daily use those materials go ahead and buy a set. Jeanne Dobie used to have a set with Daniel Smith and I really had enjoyed reading her book and bought some of the colors in her set (I didn't buy the whole set) and it introduced me to the Quin colors I love so much from Daniel Smith.

Papers typically don't come in sets, but they do come in loose sheets. I prefer loose sheets in general to padded paper because it hasn't been compressed as much. I recommend when testing paper that you go to a paper store and buy individual sheets, take the sheets home and tear them down into quarters, labeling each quarter on the back (so you always know which is the front without guessing, and because there aren't that many watermarks on a sheet). Then test your materials on the sheets and keep notes about what you like and don't like.

When you do find a paper you like find ways to buy it inexpensively. My local art supplier gives bulk deals that are better than the mail order deals, when shipping is taken into account (and sometimes even without that). So do you need 25 sheets of a paper you really love? (That's where the first price break usually is.) Well go back to STEPS 1 and 2 and work out your goals and usage and if you can't meet the discount purchase amount/minimum maybe a friend would buy 12 sheets and you can buy 13. Work it out. Or budget for the single sheet price.

But whatever you do don't just buy boxes and boxes of paper that are going to sit around unused.

Yes, paper is going to change, paper is going to disappear forever (Barcham Green), but that doesn't mean you should put yourself in hock to buy up sheets you couldn't possibly store.

5. On Buying Discontinued Paper

I have one exception to buying paper: discontinued paper. But it's complicated.

If you learn that a paper has been discontinued don't just gobble it all up, even if it's a paper you like.

If you have never used it and want to by all means buy a sheet and test it immediately. Then if you love it, buy more, but pay cash.

And know that you will use it, not horde it, and when it's gone it's gone, and you won't pine for it.

Papers come and go all the time. Ask any artist who has been working for more than 5 years—the stuff they originally made art with is no longer available. It's a fact of life.

6. Be Ready To Use What You Buy

If you do end up buying something employ this final check: Will I be able to devote REAL time to testing and using this supply/paper in the next two weeks? If the answer is no, don't buy it. Wait until you have set time aside to actually use it.

7. Which Brings Us Back To Experimentation

If you work your way all the way through this list and get to STEP 7 you may have realized that life will never be static in the art world. The simple fact is that paints and papers come and go every day. You'll need to budget both some of your time and some of your money to EXPERIMENT, to try new supplies and new papers, if only to continue to work in the ways that are most productive for you. You will need to find substitutes for existing favorites or you will need to discover exciting and useful approaches for what's left.

There is no escaping this.

This process is the way you invest in yourself as an artist.

It's one of the main reasons, already stated, I like to experiment. 

REPEAT AFTER ME: There is no perfect paper. A magical pen or pencil does not exist. There is no such thing as a perfect art tool or supply. There are a lot of fun ones out there, but none are perfect.

Don't spend your valuable sketching and painting time looking for the perfect anything. Love the one you're with.

    • Julana
    • February 4, 2015

    Wonderful post. You should write a book. This should be required reading for Sketchbook Skool.

    • Tina
    • February 4, 2015

    So much wisdom here! Thank you! I second Julana’s opinion that you should write a book — but then you’d have to battle with annoying editors with their own opinions, plus it would be a lot more work. On your blog, we get undiluted Roz, so this is much better for your readers’ sake. Unfortunately, there’s no profit for you, except knowing that your readers are grateful. Thanks again!

    – Tina

  1. Reply

    A fantastic blog post Roz, thank you. The procrastinator in me tries to get me to spend money on supplies rather than working on my skills. I get better at ignoring the tempter- the same way as I do not allow myself to buy/hoard toiletries and makeup. NO BUYING NEW STUFF UNTIL ALL THIS IS USED UP. It is good to have reinforcement from a respected teacher though!

  2. Reply

    Excellent post! This very morning I was thinking about this topic in relation to International Fake Journal Month! So excited for it. I was thinking of making a goal of IFJM to only use stuff I have. It is fun to pick up stuff I had forgotten about and use it in new ways. I might even make a book. Thanks Roz for the constant inspiration!

  3. Reply

    Tina, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Battling editors is something I have to do in my regular work all the time and it isn’t that bad. You aren’t quite getting undiluted Roz here at the blog. (You’d have to ask one of my in person students about that.)
    Thanks for reading!

  4. Reply

    Thanks Alison, I’m glad you enjoyed it.The urge to buy supplies and procrastinate is very wide spread, but because YOU KNOW this is happening you are able to work on this in a mindful way, and it will get easier and easier.

    So next time you notice that it’s happening, grab some supplies that are on hand and sit down and spend 15 to 30 minutes just using what’s at hand and just getting something down in your journal and work through that “feeling” and pretty soon that impulse to procrastinate in that way will be turned around. You’ve done the biggest piece by recognizing it!

  5. Reply

    Claudia, using only stuff you have is the PERFECT way to approach IFJM. Your character might actually discover new approaches because of those limitations. Go, Go, Go. (IFJM is getting close isn’t it? I suppose I should start thinking about my own fake journal.)

  6. Reply

    Roz : I placed my comments in the prior post commentary by mistake! AAAAAA! You’ll get my drift there…..

    • Miss T
    • February 5, 2015

    Roz, that is a truly marvelous sketch of Provenza.

  7. Reply

    Ellen, I caught on. Thanks for commenting with your sensible pencil purchasing!

  8. Reply

    Thanks Miss T, I’m kind of partial to it. I’m glad you like it!

    • Lynn
    • February 5, 2015

    Hi Roz, New follower here. What a great post and wonderful advice! I definitely have been buying art supplies willy nilly. I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts – and playing with what I do have in my sketchbooks rather than pining for one more thing. I have a lot to experiment with already. I’m enjoying your Sketchbook Skool klass so much – there are weeks’ worth of instruction and inspiration in it. I know I’ll be going back to it and working on it for quite a while. Thanks!

  9. Reply

    Lynn, welcome. I hope you find a lot of stuff to entertain you and help you experiment. The Project Fridays can be found using the category list or the blog’s search engine, and they’d be a nice place to start. Just under 1900 posts and counting so there’s a lot to poke around in. Have fun. And keep sketching! Thanks for stopping by.

  10. Reply

    Hi Roz
    I totally agree with this post, all except about chucking the student grade papers. I have saved all the inexpensive paper I started my art practice with—the stuff that comes in a pad with a funny name on it, the paper my family bought me at The Dreaded Walmart, 5 and dime papers that were on sale. Never used much of it because early on I learned about good papers, but since I rarely throw art supplies away, I hoarded it. Now I am short on cash, so dug out the cheap stuff for life drawing class. You know what? I’m able to work with that paper. It’s not as nice as my beloved Arches #300 hot press, but it works for 20 1-minute poses. And it’s definitely got some possibilities.

  11. Reply

    Maggie, guess I didn’t make this clear, I said to chuck student grade paints and such.

    Elsewhere for papers I advocated that you use up all the paper, quickly if necessary even with quick drawings.

    I NEVER chuck paper out.

    You can always find something to fill it with. Paper must be used up. And if you have dubious paper what better to use to test new materials on.

    In life drawing I often work on Newsprint—nothing cheaper than that, and it’s great for charcoal.

    Sorry for the confusion. We don’t have any disagreement here.

    • Marysu
    • April 25, 2015

    Best advice ever!! Roz, you are such an inspiration in more ways than I can count!! I am printing this one out to have a hard copy to refer back to often. I am in love with your tests which drive me to make my tests. One thing I have learned is that I can do things to make bad paper usable but not crappy paints, pencils, whatever. Toss ’em or let my grandson have a go with them but free the studio space for what works and I use. I am setting up a monthly plan for prepping surfaces and going crazy with a supply until I know in my heart I positively adore it or I need to give it away to someone who will adore it. I know I LOVE my water colors, there is my long term commitment. And you have really helped show me the way with them. I am in my golden years so less money but more time and my spirit of adventure is soaring!! Thanks!!

  12. Reply

    Marysu, I thought I’d sent a response, but it seems not—thanks for writing in. I’m glad you found this helpful in setting up some tests for yourself and a plan. It will stretch the money a lot further. I hope your spirit has fun soaring!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Close Cookmode

Pin It on Pinterest