Part Three: Working in the Smooth Zeta Soft-bound Journal from Stillman & BirnNovember 29, 2017
Working in Watercolor on the Smooth Zeta Paper
I think it’s fair to say that most of my blog readers work with wet media—most typically with watercolor. It’s my own preference for working materials (watercolor and its sister gouache) so any review of a commercially bound journal is going to contain a look at how the paper works with watercolor.
In general I found the Zeta smooth paper, while listed as a wet media paper, didn’t respond well to watercolors. It tended to repel the light dilute washes, absorb too much of the water from those washes and dry slightly buckled, unusual in heavy weight papers.
As shown in the above image, I found that there are ways to work satisfactorily on this paper if you’re willing to adjust your approach.
I recommend giving up the idea of glazing—light layers building to dark layers, while allowing each layer to dry. On this paper I found that the second layers responded differently to the paper because the first layer had disturbed the surface too much to repeat. Obviously on any paper a second wash will be different, but there was such a noticeable difference I am mentioning it here.
You might want to persevere and find ways to alter your glazing approach to work on this paper. I would instead recommend that you try another approach instead.
Use spare washed of heavy pigment to fill areas of color as shown in the above image.
Allow washes to completely dry (this is a slow drying paper!). Then add one additional wash, with no fussing, get in, get out. Use less water than your first wash. Yes this is a variant of glazing, but it involves more pigment for each layer, and you’re not looking for rich depth, simply trying to model a little bit of form and shadow. (See also the detail image.)
My biggest frustration with this paper for watercolor was the way all washes, regardless of pigment, easily turned streaky.
If you have to work with a water brush I think you’ll find this effect increased. I got around it by working with a real brush and water—that allowed me to spread pigment rich washes over a large area and get a smoother effect.
In the third image of this post you’ll see a quick sketch I made directly with the Niji Waterbrush. (Direct brush painting means exactly that, no drawing with pencil or pen beforehand. I find this a fun way to sketch quickly.)
On most papers I use, when I work like this I find that I have longer open time to push the paint around to where I want it. Here the watercolor sinks in immediately. (It doesn’t bleed through so you don’t have to worry about that issue.) This is one of the contributing factors to the streakiness of the paint. The other is the small brush size of the Niji. But another factor here is the different way the paint is responding to the paper.
When working with these washes of sedimentary paint I found that I had to almost dab the paint on. Even when I let previous areas dry another application of heavy paint would push the other paint away. It just wouldn’t settle into the paper. This was used to advantage in a couple areas when I lightly rewet and removed color to get back some highlight areas, But I found that you couldn’t rub the paper at all aggressively in other tests and it only worked here because the paint was from the group of watercolors (sedimentary) that are the easiest to lift.
I found that to get the paint to the saturation level I desired (and never really achieved in this image) I had to DAB on the paint, almost in a stipple manner.
This may sound like a fun experiment, and if so I hope you enjoy doing it, but I would find this tedious page after page. I prefer a watercolor paper that is suited to watercolor and a range of techniques.
Comparing Smooth Zeta to Another Non-Watercolor Paper I Use Frequently
Frustrated early on in my Zeta test book I went back to a paper I use a lot—Stonehenge. Mostly I use Stonehenge in loose sheet journals. I like it with pen and gouache. Since it isn’t a watercolor paper and it requires that I alter my watercolor approach when I work on it I picked up a sheet and did a pen and watercolor sketch to IMMEDIATELY compare. (Same temperature, humidity, and warmed-up artist.)
As soon as I started to sketch I felt happy. There is a softer feel to Stonehenge’s surface even though it is a smooth surface, that I love to feel my pens move across. And when I put in my washes yes, the paint is difficult to move because Stonehenge isn’t a watercolor paper and doesn’t have that sizing that floats the paint on the surface of the paper—but still it was easier to smooth the paper about and minimize streaking for a much more pleasing softness. (I was using the Niji for this test as well.)
The washes dried more quickly on the Stonehenge in the same environmental circumstances, and the additional layers I put down didn’t mess with the earlier layers.
I have bound Stonehenge into journals, but some Stonehenge colors do not fold well even when folded with the grain (check out my category list to read many more posts about Stonehenge).
Because of that I tend, as I mentioned earlier in this post, to use it for loose sheet journals. When I can finish scanning my Bell Museum final journal (all loose sheets, many Stonehenge) you’ll see many more reasons why I enjoy Stonehenge for the many attributes it has. Do I love Stonehenge for everything. No. But I have come to love it for the things it does well. And of course the overlap of those characteristics with the approaches I enjoy using.
Depending on how you like to use watercolor in your journals you may find the Zeta smooth paper frustrating. For me, I’d prefer to work in watercolor on a variety of other papers and commercially bound journals before I would select the Zeta smooth for that purpose. I’ll be reviewing two watercolor sketchbooks in December.
In the meantime why don’t you get out some papers you really enjoy working on and during a working session ask yourself what it is you like about the actions you’re taking on the paper. Is there drag, too much drag, not enough drag. If you’re accustomed to working on a cold press watercolor paper any plate/smooth paper is going to give you pause. You’ll have to adjust. I’ve always enjoyed working on plate surfaces, including painting for 20 years on plate bristol. But with every paper I ask how each action compares to the same action on another paper.
When you have a list of “must have criteria” then it’s time to go shopping (or binding) for new journals with those characteristics.
I hope this posts helps you understand what’s possible in the Zeta.
I have additional reviews coming up showing the issues with lifting watercolor; working with color pencil; and even an more on mixed media. I hope you’ll stop by in the next few days and next week.
Because of the factors I select for when choosing a paper or a commercially bound journal this is not going to be a journal that I purchase frequently. I have too many other commercially bound favorites. And I do love to bind my own books with papers I select because they work the way I want them to work.
There are so many options on the market now, I hope this series helps you get straight what you need and what you want (because needs and wants can be mutually exclusive) so that you can find the commercially bound journal that helps you take your work to another level.