Which Paper Will I Use at the 2016 Minnesota State Fair? Don’t Know—But I Can Tell You How I’ve Been Narrowing It Down

August 22, 2016

160718_StateFair_Paper_TestCRRectoLeft: My first runner-up for Fair Journal paper was white Stonehenge. Here’s a test piece I made while sketching from the TV one afternoon. It’s glued down to a larger page in my experiments journal.

 Which paper will I take to the 2016 Minnesota State Fair? I wish I knew. I have a vague notion.

Last week I had to cancel my trip north to Grand Marais (Lake Superior). I woke unable to sit for the 4 requisite transit hours and unable to hold a pen or a steering wheel (I was supposed to drive).

That means no donuts for me this year.

No “World’s Best Donuts” that is.

160718_StateFair_Paper_ThinkingThroughLeft: Detail from first image showing other plans about the Fair Journal that I made and then discarded. I think sketching things out makes me think things through. But also sketching out my little belt bag that I made for last year’s journal reminded me that I really wanted to work 9 x 12 inches regardless of weight or other conditions—sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants.

That’s the name of the donut shop up in Grand Marais and it really lives up to its name. The raised glaze donuts are something you leap out of bed for, drive down the road, and stand eagerly in line for, but only until Labor Day when the shop closes until spring.

I moped about for a couple hours the first day thinking about that missed opportunity. Then took myself for a long walk to shake it off. Saturday I even stopped locally at Mel-O-Glaze and that donut tasted flat and sad. Winter is definitely coming and it will be a long one without donuts.

But I snapped out of the donut regrets to unpack some of my art supplies so I could see how my shoulder and hand were progressing. (I have been living out of a suitcase for the past week because it’s easier than unpacking—since the strain of packing, as well as the errands I was running and extra work I got done before hand all made the shoulder flare up in the first place—I will learn, just not this year.) I've been staying off the computer, because people all expected me to be gone anyway!

Earlier this summer I knew binding a journal for sketching at the Fair this year was out of the question. (Though until this incident I did really believe I’d be binding books in September and there is a box of watercolor paper propped against the drawing table to prove it.)

To plan for the Fair I thought about what I wanted to do and how to best accomplish that. I waffled a bit as to medium, but I knew I wanted to work fairly large and thought 9 x 12 inch paper would be a good start. Having a ring bound journal like I did last year would enable me to disassemble each day’s journal and rebind them into one jumbo journal. 

I’ve been hankering to work with cream Stonehenge so I ordered some up. And I packed it for my trip where I would sketch and get a sense of what my goals and media would be for the Fair.

But I find I can’t always control how I feel about a paper. By the time I could pick up a pen again and do some sketching tests nothing I did on Stonehenge was working for me. Don’t get me wrong. I love painting and sketching on this paper, but it’s not watercolor paper and I’ve been sketching a lot on watercolor board since April.

What I really wanted to do was take gouache and some water and real brushes!!! But in an animal barn, with crowds squeezing past as I sketch…

I’m going to say it now. Sometimes you just have to decide what you want to do and find a way to do it and even fail to do it if it comes to that, but you’ll be happier in the long run.

Instead of being philosophical I thought about my shoulder and carrying stuff and holding stuff and came up with the brilliant idea to work on watercolor paper; 9 x 12 inch pieces of course. But which paper?

I had already purchased a bunch of different pens to use so the question was, which pens can I use on which papers and still use watercolor?

Here’s a reminder—just because a pen says it’s waterproof (or resistant) doesn’t mean it is so on a particular paper. Each paper’s sizing influences how it handles ink and paint.

Sizing is the substance used in paper making that changes the absorption of the paper. Some papers, like many watercolor papers, are sized both internally—sizing is added to the pulp used to make the paper; and externally—sizing is added to the surface of the finished sheet.

You can read more about paper sizing and the effect on inks here.

I didn’t want to use Fabriano Artistico watercolor paper, which is my typical choice. I had some Italia in a block, and some Schut watercolor paper that I thought would be fun to try. And then I thought, what about those two 9 x 12 inch pads of Plein Air Watercolor Boards from Canson that I bought a while back? Any choice I made would mean buying more paper, but this is the one time of the year I indulge. 

160819_1_Italia_testCRLeft: Italia watercolor paper from Magnani. My pen tests didn’t go well. All my pens bled right away. Even after waiting a little while they still ran.

I wanted to test what I had on hand so that I could keep the paper expenditures down!

I needed to test my pens. So I gathered my pens and started to sketch random doodles. (I still wasn’t able to hold a pen “normally” at this point, but hey, I thought, why not focus positively on what I would do at the Fair instead of worrying about my hand not actually working.)

Next you’ll see my test on a 9 x 12 inch piece of Schut paper.

I had a block of Nobelesse Watercolor Paper purchased at Wet Paint (of course, I don’t know if they still carry it so call first—I know that’s telegraphing that I decided against it, but I know someone of you were already picking up your phones to try it).


Above: You can putter around the Schut test page and read the notes. I thought it was cool the way the Pentel Pigment brush pen (which has the gray squeezy barrel) was more waterproof than the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen on this paper. I also enjoyed the way pencil and color pencil felt on the paper, which has a slightly soft and yielding feel to it when using those tools.

I really enjoyed working on the Schut and felt that the colors were bright and vibrant. All my favorite pens worked on it. They might not have been waterproof immediately, but at the second test moments later there was little if any bleed from most pens.

Two tests? What am I talking about? Look I sketch really fast. This is not a good thing or a bad thing. It can be a good thing—you get a lot done in a day. It can be a bad thing—you feel like you’re sprinting a marathon an entire sketching day and I’m getting a little too old and injured to feel like that all the time; you feel like you’re impatient and meeting a quota when you don’t have to—hey I keep a time sheet on everything; and…

Before you start being worried for me or feeling sad that you think I’m not enjoying my life I’ll just say here as clearly as I can—I am totally enjoying my drawing life. I love sketching fast. It has kept me alive. And my approach to sketching has kept me on schedule with the family unit as we traveled (the family of origin family)—because I had, growing up, one of those parents who thought nothing of leaving you in a foreign country even if you’re under the age of 12 and don’t speak the language, simply because you missed the rendezvous. (Some say we’ll never know for sure how serious the "You'd better believe I will," was, but I wasn’t going to hedge my bets.)

All I’m saying, when I say sketching fast isn’t always a good thing, is that sometimes it is nice to slow down and not sprint.

Then of course I shake off that feeling and charge forward.

The point is, I’m sketching so quickly and then going immediately to watercolor washes and that’s a potential problem depending on the air temperature, humidity, and the angle of the sun. If you don’t hit it right and the ink isn’t dry—and this also depends on that “sizing” remember?—then your ink bleeds into your watercolor wash. A little bit of bleeding I don’t care at all about, but if you can see waves of ink spreading into the wash, yep not so keen on that.

So when I test pens on paper I do a little sketch. I then apply a wash, or clear water IMMEDIATELY over one area of the ink and see what happens. (I don’t scrub when I do this because I don’t scrub when I apply washes so why would I do that for this test?) Then I do another sketch, repeat, and by the time I get to a third sketch I go back to the FIRST sketch and wet another area of that sketch to see if when given more than 10 seconds to dry the pen’s ink is actually waterproof.

I do this because I tell myself I can slow myself down that much.

Of course the first 90% humidity day that all flies out the window and I sketch as fast as I usually do and rush in with watercolors and get bleeding of ink, and don’t care because IT WAS MY CHOICE.

(I really do love my sketching life.)

So that’s why each sketch gets two tests, if the first one shows bleeding.

Note: If you're wondering why I'm testing so many pens, well the tests aren't just for the Fair. I like to get an overview. But given my current situation I'm not sure which pens I'll feel like using on a given day. For instance the squeezy pens from Pentel are a favorite, but they give the pinched nerve FITS. And I really have to be careful how I hold the thick round 15 mm Montana Markers or my hand cramps up. I thought I had better test them all. 

After the Schut test I did a test of the Canson Plein Air Watercolor Boards. I enjoyed this test because the board was stiff and I kept telling myself “this will be really easy to hold when several exasperated women each pushing an infant and keeping track of 3 unleashed toddlers (I believe in leashing toddlers at the Fair), try to push past me in the poultry barn.”


Above: Canson Plein Air Watercolor Board pen bleeding test.

I thought too, “Hey, it has a great line for direct brush (orange bird top center.) And all the pens I love to use work really well on it almost right away." (Though the Sensei and the Platinum Carbon Fountain Pen both feel a little stiff on the surface.)

My mind flashed again on my desire to work in gouache. I don’t mean gouache you let dry in your pans and rewet—which you can do, and which I do all the time because of convenience—but the fresh gouache I get to use in the studio and have been spoilt playing with lately.

I put that aside, focusing again on watercolor.

But I did like the way this “paper” felt, so I did a test drive and turned on a bit of video of a rooster (in the poultry barn of course, from 2013).

160819_4_RoosterCansonFullTestCRBRLeft: Final Canson Plein Air Watercolor Board test, sketch from video. Rooster with Pentel Pigment brush pen immediately washed with watercolor. (Dark areas on beak are watercolor not ink bleeding.) Background color—15 mm Montana Marker. Notice the beak. This board releases pigment to scrub out highlights.

What did the test tell me? Well it told me a little bit about how I would like to work (size/scale), but know I won’t because I’ll be jostled too much—but hey one can always set one’s intention. And it gave me real time info on the ink bleeding issue. (Not an issue with this pen and I feel confident I can trust my other tests and make my pen choices accordingly.) And I learned that this board doesn’t like Nichiban artist’s tape. 

I’m still stunned by that last revelation. The tape was on the board less than 30 minutes. Four minutes or so to sketch and then 25 or so to paint—letting layers dry. I had to practice waiting patiently!

When I was finished and pulled up the tape—not having to wait for the Montana marker to dry because it dries pretty much instantly, the surface of the paper came up at the bottom right where you see some background edge tearing, and also over on the signature corner— if you saw it in person you could see some fibers were lifted and torn off.

The surface seems too hard to allow for this. On Magnani printmaking paper yes, but this?

Well it is what it is. I don’t know that I’ll be masking the edges, but it’s always good information to have.

So where am I in all this pre-planning? It’s not like I’m going to Mars right?!

I wish I could tell you. I have purchased enough of the boards so I could take them to all my Fair visits (there are two sketch out days, but I hope to go additional days). 

Note: How do I decide on how much paper I need per day? I rely on past averages from decades of data. But if this is the first time you’re going to an all day event think about this—if you sketch out with friends for 2 hours how many pages do you use? What’s your one hour page total average for those two hours? (And incidentally you do lose points for chatting and not sketching! But it’s your life.) Now multiply that one hour page count by the number of hours you’re going to be at the event. That’s the number of pages you will need to allow for at that event. Don’t deduct pages because you aim to eat lunch and dinner—you’ll find something to sketch then too. And trip adrenalin will probably keep you going. If you do end up with blank pages that’s better than running out of paper and you have new information on your stamina and totals and hourly averages over a full day at the end of the day. Over estimating page needs also leaves pages in your journal where you can put a few reference photos or friend photos when you return from the trip.

Now of course all I’m thinking about is how can I get by with working with an open water container in the barns because I need one, and real brushes, if I’m going to have fun with really fresh, tube fresh, gouache. (Which is a faster way of working than refreshing dried gouache, which I typically have to do when I travel, because of the venues I visit.)

Also around about this time I think about how much easier it would be if I were 20 years younger and had a working dominant shoulder. And then I start thinking how many extra hours I’d have to work to earn enough to hire a minion, i.e., someone to carry all my gear. Why didn’t I organize my life better on that front?

Ah, so many things swirling around in the brain right now.

A definitive idea on which paper I’m going to take to work on isn’t one of those things.

I know that I’ll go more than one day to the Fair so it may be that I take different things on different days. I’ve done this in the past. It seems a good approach. I always remind my students, “This is not the last time you’ll go on a sketch out.” And I know that to be true as well. However, in saying it, being me, Roz, who always thinks of these things, I do know, and can argue, with the best logic, that we all think that about everything until the time that it is the last time, of whatever it is we are considering, and then only later, much later in reflection, can we sit back and say, “Well that was the last time…”

But this is the FAIR folks, it’s sketching at the Fair. I know that with an injury or not I’ll go and sketch multiple times and while that may make it a little more stressful than I would like, it isn’t going to make it one little bit less fun, because after I sketch for 3 or 4 hours I’m going to walk out of that poultry barn and have a corn dog, a Dole swirl, and a peek at the crop art. Life is pretty darn good at the Fair.

As for art supplies I know my watercolor palette is all filled and ready to go because I filled it for the road trip that wasn’t.

I can fill a gouache palette in seconds and I have bottles for water and travel brushes if I want to really slow myself down (in a good way).

And my heart can’t stop thinking about the birds that will be there this year because we didn’t have a bird flu epidemic. I actually stopped typing for a moment just now and took a breath and I could feel my heart, full of anticipation, beating just a little bit faster like it does every time I’m about to go and see real life dinosaurs. What 8-year-old doesn’t love that?

I also know that whatever I decide to take I’ll come home with tons of messy pages, full of observations and insights that will keep me warm through the long, donut-less winter that is coming.

So that’s the paper selection process for 2016. I’ll have an update after the Fair of course.

Don’t worry, I love Stonehenge remember? I’ll have no problem using that Stonehenge I bought for life drawing and for portraits of friends, when I can sit at a table, with my water bottle, fresh gouache, and real brushes.

I hope that your Fair plan is all set and that you’re ready to hit the ground sketching.

See you at the Fair!

Go to this link now to read about the EIGHT GREAT MINNESOTA STATE FAIR SKETCHOUT dates and times and map of the meeting place. 

    • Diane
    • August 22, 2016

    Wow, I am exhausted just reading this! I was chastising myself for making a big deal about which sketchbook to take on an exciting upcoming trip we are taking. One had too many pages, another not quite enough. Two, big and fairly heavy, another might not be rigid enough. Loved the paper in all. And then of course which tools to take? But I can see I am an amateur compared to you. Have fun at the fair!

    • Kathy D.
    • August 22, 2016

    Hi Roz,

    Can I ask how you manage to hold your sketchbook and paint palette (are there any photos anywhere on this blog demonstrating how you manually juggle it all)? I’ve done outdoor drawing but the thought of the manual dexterity involved in juggling a mini palette and brush and sketchbook while standing intimidates me to no end.
    I suppose I should just get off my duff and try it a few times, but if you have any advice I’d love to hear it. (Apologies if you’ve already addressed this earlier in this blog — I failed to find it if you did).

  1. Reply

    Kathy, I don’t remember if there are any photos of me holding my palette on the blog or not. I don’t recall posting any, it would be way back in 2008 or so.

    In my drawing classes in both Sketchbook Skool and Roz Wound Up there are videos of me holding my palette.

    I was asked last winter for a photo for someone writing a book and we couldn’t think of when one was taken.

    Dick goes one Fair trip a year with me to take demo videos and I’ll definitely ask him to take a photo.

    With the little palette it’s pretty simple, I just hold it up at the top of the verso page and the edge of the book rests against my lower ribcage.

    I do the same thing with my larger square palette or the small rectangular one (which is NOT LONG). But with both of those they have a thumb ring on the bottom, ditto my Whiskey Painter’s palette, so they are no problem to hold up there, along with my paper towel.

    I am not well-endowed—I have average sized breasts—so they do not get in the way. I have friends who are well endowed and a bit nearsighted who rest the tail edge of their open book on their bosom.

    You’ll have to hold pressure from your non dominant hand through the book to your torso (wherever you rest it) and keep your wrist loose so you can hold the book at the head with your little finger and ring finger, and have the palette in your thumb and index finger. The paper towel is tucked into the back of the palm so it sticks up just from behind the book, at the hand, so you can manipulate the brush with your fingers if necessary.

    But it’s really a matter of practicing something so that you find what works for you and is comfortable and safe (for you, your journal and the animals —you don’t want to drop stuff they might eat).

    Don’t be intimidated. Take your journal to the zoo today (if you have time or this weekend) and take three page spreads that will be your test and go for it, testing different positions for each.

    I use a Niji water brush. So I don’t have to contend with water, etc. Which is a shame as I miss it and “real” brushes as you can gather from this post.

    If I’m using a dip pen I have a book mark container that’s hard to describe, that I made for field work, or a small clip on “ink well” that attaches right to the book via the clip—something suggested to me by a teacher who works in oils at the Atelier, because it’s a container normally used for whatever it is oil painters use to thin their paints.) (I’m not an oil painter.)

    For the boards I’ll have to come up with a slightly different way to hold things as the piece won’t “Bend” at the center like a journal, which makes the journal easier to manage (I think). We’ll see.

    So practice a bit and you’ll find something you like. Have fun sketching!!!

    • Diane
    • August 22, 2016

    Taking your advice about a trip debrief I found a sketchbook of a similar type trip we took two years ago. I started looking through it and immediately could see improvements I could make to enhance and clarify both my sketching and writing. These are things I have learned since then (taking your class!) and might have automatically used in my upcoming travel sketching. But actually seeing my older book and taking notes (better late than never) should really help me with upcoming sketches both everyday and on the trip. Great idea about the debriefing but for me the passage of time allowed me to look at the old sketchbook with new eyes and to actually have a better idea about how to make them better.

  2. Reply

    Diane, So glad the suggestion of the debriefing was helpful.

    I usually find that debriefings like this have a little time between the event and the review, but I typically go with two days to 2 weeks depending on the “thing” i’m looking at. Done at this distance of time I think you get a different and equally unique look at things that as you say, you’ll find helpful.

    While I might see this as more of a self-evaluation of your practice, both then, and the intervening time, I believe that seeing all the things you did then and how you can enhance certain approaches and avoid unwanted ones is a fantastic way to take off on a new trip!

    And a great addition to your practice!

    I’m so glad you did this.

  3. Reply

    Wow, I’m impressed and amazed by your process and your continual quest for experimentation that makes the materials search important. I, too, like to experiment, but at a place like the fair, I try to balance that with simplicity of materials. I also have to balance all of that with allowing time to eat deep-fried Snickers bars. 😉 It’s almost time! See you Saturday!


    • Sharon Nolfi
    • August 22, 2016

    Roz, do you use the Stonehenge paper that comes in pads, or do you buy big sheets and cut down? Is there a difference in the paper? Some artists say yes, but I contacted Legion and they told me it’s the same paper. Also, I never knew it could be used for watercolor. I’ve only used it for colored pencil work. Will try WC on it. Take care and feel better! I’m looking forward to your online class in September.

    • SusanLily
    • August 23, 2016

    Roz, you are a whirlwind of inspiration! Although I hope you find relief from your injuries soon, I am always motivated by how you prioritize your artwork and experimentation through pain, mishaps, chaos, and everything else life brings your way! I would love to read your autobiography. Sounds like you have led a fascinating life.

  4. Reply

    Tina, I agree, simplicity is always best. Experimenting and preplanning are how I achieve simplicity on the day. It leads to the most amazing discoveries, such as how I want to approach this event, or any event, how I want to set my goals. I’m excited now to get to the Fair and see what will happen.

    See you on Saturday. I’m so glad you could time your trip so you could join the sketch out!

  5. Reply

    Sharon, The folks at Legion are right when they say it’s the same paper in pads. They aren’t lying. HOWEVER, padding paper (or putting it into blocks like a lot of watercolor paper is sold) changes the surface of the paper. It’s the pressure that is needed. It’s extra pressure the sheets don’t get. I notice a difference in how sheet paper and padded paper of the same type respond to various media. Sometimes it’s not pronounced enough to matter to most folks, other times it’s critical to performance expectations for certain media. I recommend that you start paying attention to this because it is particularly CRITICAL for anyone working in color pencil. That’s how I first experienced the revelation—I used to do a ton of work in color pencil.

    I tend to use Stonehenge in sheets because of the above. But for some special needs, such as not being able to cut the paper myself right now because of injury, or because of needed something wire bound, I’ll buy a paper in pads, aware of what I’m doing as far as surface goes. The Stonehenge wire bound books I bought that I’ll not be taking to the Fair will all be used at life drawing and all with media that it will be fine to do so. I’m not concerned.

    You can use just about any paper with sizing for watercolor, but it might not give you the result you want.

    Check out the categories list for “Japanese Lined Journal.” There you’ll find example after example of me doing stuff on a paper that should not be treated the way I’m treating it. But it loves it (in my opinion) and so do I. Here’s just one link for you

    Stonehenge is a printmaking paper. So it has been sized to accept printing inks in that process, but like many printing papers it’s great to draw on. Artists everywhere love to draw on Stonehenge.

    But unlike watercolor the sizing is different. It doesn’t have the type of sizing watercolor paper has that keeps that paint floating above the surface longer to have the paint look dazzling, and also allow you to move it around as you traditionally expect to move paint.

    If you’re willing to experiment with how you use your different media you can use papers for a wider range of media than they were intended. Check my blog for other posts on papers, in fact poke around in the categories list and you’ll find out so much more about this as it’s one of the main things I write about.

    Stonehenge is great for painting. I make books of it (though not all colors, again, see this on the blog) and paint on it in watercolor and gouache.

    It means I have to change the way I handle the paints and water (different from working on regular watercolor paper) but the fun factor is high and well worth it. Here’s an example of gouache on Kraft (brown) Stonehenge (which incidentally is one of the colors that doesn’t fold well with the grain so you can’t really bind with it—again, more on the blog about that, try key words “cracks when folded with the grain.”

    Have fun experimenting with your papers. And thanks for the well-wishes.

  6. Reply

    Susan, you’re too funny. But thank you. I do like to encourage people to work regardless of the circumstances they find themselves in because we can’t always control those circumstances but we can change our attitude about them and still have fun.

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