Part Three: Working in the Smooth Zeta Soft-bound Journal from Stillman & Birn

November 29, 2017
A pen sketch (Platinum Carbon Black Fountain Pen) with watercolor wash in the smooth Zeta soft-bound journal. Read the text for more details.

This is part three of a multi-part review of the smooth Zeta soft-bound journals from Stillman & Birn (S&B). You can see part one here. Yesterday I posted part two here.

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.

Detail from the first sketch in this post. You will see that the second forehead wash, even though it was put down with less water, after the first wash was completely dry, and not brushed aggressively there is the beginning of pilling on the paper causing pockets of pigment to deposit.

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.)

Direct brush sketch with sedimentary watercolors, a red earth, and a brown, along with sepia.

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.

Detail of the direct brush approach on smooth Zeta. “A” shows streakiness. “B” shows how minimal rework starts to pill the paper. “C” shows lifting out of the sedimentary color. “D” shows pushing of paint to the hard edge while doing a light lift off. And “E” shows how I had to dab paint on in areas.

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

Pen and watercolor wash on Stonehenge. See comments on the page and in my blog text.

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. 

Detail of the pen and watercolor wash sketch on white Stonehenge.

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.



    • Cathy
    • November 29, 2017

    Thank you for your review! I now have more questions to ask myself when using new paper, or any new sketching tool. I’m looking forward to your next reviews, lifting watercolors and mixed media. I’d like to know more about watercolor pencils and I currently lift my watercolors to get the effect I’m after.

    1. Reply

      Thanks I’m glad you enjoyed this and found it helpful to get you generating the questions you need to ask about your process and the papers you’re using.

      I’m not doing a lot with watercolor pencils at the moment so they aren’t covered in my review of this paper. Based on how watercolors worked on this paper, and how many brands of watercolor pencil need a little bit of pushing as it is, I don’t think it would be a good match with this paper, but you could try it. If you lift out with using your wc pencils then no.

    • Frank Bettendorf
    • November 29, 2017

    Roz, Thanks for the in-depth review since I’m always looking for a usable sketchbook your comments are helpful. You mention watercolor sinking in on printing paper rather than remaining on the surface and I’d like you to comment on another printmaking paper Somerset. My w/c looks dull on Somerset and my ink tends to pool if I linger while drawing a line so I’m wondering if this is the reason. Is this a characteristic of all printmaking paper? I look forward to your response. Keep up the postings as they are helpful as well as thoughtful and interesting. Stay well.
    Frank B

    1. Reply

      Frank, in general printmaking papers are not going to be “hospitable” to watercolors because they aren’t sized on the surface the same way as watercolor papers.

      Watercolor papers have sizing on their surface that is meant to FLOAT the ink for a little while as it dries so that it stays on the surface. That way we look through the transparent paint to the white of the paper and the light does the same thing, hitting the paper and bouncing back to our eye. It’s what gives us that sense of transparency and brilliance with watercolor paints.

      Printmaking papers are sized to keep printing inks from soaking into the paper (otherwise it would just be expensive blotter paper) but it doesn’t hold the paint up in the same way.

      Every printmaking paper I’ve used (and I’ve used probably 50, many of which are not available any more) for watercolor results in a duller look to the watercolor because of this.

      HOWEVER I still enjoy painting on printmaking paper because some of those papers (including Somerset) are the nicest papers for color pencil work and 30 years ago I used much more color pencil in my sketches and mixed media work.

      In general I feel that if you watercolor on a printmaking paper you have to adjust your water levels to less than you would use on watercolor paper. You also need to realize that while there is sizing on the paper, there is not the type of sizing which will allow you to indefinitely push a wash around on the paper. You need to change the approach to a “get in and get out” attitude if you don’t already use that. Obviously everyone says watercolors look FRESHEST when you don’t rework them, I’m not talking about that. What I mean is that when you put a wash down on watercolor paper you have a few moments when you can swish back and forth without losing the freshness and while distributing the paint. But when working on printmaking papers that I’ve worked on you don’t have that option and laying a wash is more like deciding exactly where you want it to go, starting at one point and PUSHING it there. There will be much more drag, and this can result in streakiness which you’ll have to learn to cope with on a paper by paper basis.

      I routinely paint on the following printmaking papers: Stonehenge, Folio, and Rives BFK. I have also worked on Somerset, several different surfaces and also a Somerset that was sized for digital printing. All worked great with a bit of adaptation.

      I couldn’t find the dog painting on stonehenge with watercolor I wanted to show you but here is one in light washes of gouache.

      There you can see that I am working deliberately to drag those washes through an area in one stroke with a large brush. It’s the best way to go on this type of paper.

      The following image is from my last post on the old site. It’s brush pen and watercolor on FOLIO. There you can see that you can build up a richness pushing washes around, but by first starting with some light washes just as you might on watercolor paper and then when it is all dry going in with other washes. (Most printmaking paper will get roughed up if you work to strenuously wet-in-wet on it.)

      With careful arrangement of values I think you can still get a lovely contrast that appears “bright” even if the colors are more dull than on watercolor paper.

      And sometimes the best thing you can do if you have printmaking paper and want to use wet media is to work in GOUACHE!!!

      As for your ink pooling, I’m not sure if you mean it’s being sucked out of the pen and into the paper when you rest the tip on the paper or if it is creating a puddle of ink. I haven’t seen the latter on printmaking paper. The first option is pretty normal. It speaks to the type of sizing that is missing from the top of the paper. Pen inks if pigmented are more apt to bleed down than printing inks on such a paper because they are less viscous than printing inks. And if you’re using a dye based ink, well that’s so liquid it can bleed right through a printmaking paper. And that’s going to be true on all the printmaking papers I’ve used but to varying degrees.

      I’d still wouldn’t give up any of the papers I listed.

      Thanks for the good wishes. Keep sketching Frank.

        • Frank Bettendorf
        • December 1, 2017

        Another outstanding review in the last part about S&B Zeta paper! I appreciate the time and effort you invest. Thanks Roz for your detailed response to my questions and I’ll follow the recommendations to see what happens. The “pooling” occurs when I pause with the point of the pen on the paper as your said. I can try to control it better.
        Let me know how things are going as winter comes in the door.
        Frank B

        1. Reply

          Glad you enjoyed the series Frank, and that I guessed right about the pooling issue. You can of course try to move the pen more quickly and minimize that seeping of the ink into the paper at the stopping point, but it might be fun to just let it be.

          I had a paper a while back that I enjoyed the seeping with because it told me where I paused very clearly, while I was sketching. And that can be fun.

          No winter here yet—I am out of my mind with frustration because of missing all these final cycling days!!!

    • Tina Koyama
    • November 29, 2017

    Thanks for your thorough testing. I’ve had the same experience with Zeta and have been disappointed by the way it responds to watercolor. Even water-soluble markers, when washed, do not look rich and bright as they do on S&B’s Beta or Alpha papers (both of which I really like).

    – Tina

    1. Reply

      Thanks Tina for the info on how the markers look washed on the Beta and Alpha papers as I don’t use those either. It’s helpful to have a comparison on papers from one manufacturer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

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

Close Cookmode

Pin It on Pinterest