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

November 28, 2017
Mixed media page on the smooth heavyweight Zeta. This page has acrylics pre-painted on the background, more acrylics stenciled on the background, collaged pen sketch (lined legal pad paper), some water-soluble crayon (turquoise), and white poster paint pen.

This is part two of a multi-part review of the Stillman & Birn (SB) Smooth Zeta Soft-bound journal. You can see part one here.

Today I wanted to look at two approaches for which the smooth heavyweight Zeta is suited.

Mixed Media

Because of its weight the paper is particularly suited to collage and mixed media.

When working on the first piece posted in this review I found that the paper held up to layering mixed media. 

Because the layers were added one at a time and allowed to dry completely before I continued the paper stayed flat. Water use was also kept to a minimum in each layer. And the water-soluble crayon was smoothed on dry, and not activated with water. 

I found that my acrylic treatments on this paper went differently than on the watercolor, printmaking, and drawing papers I typically use for these techniques. The paints had a duller look on the paper which might mean they are absorbing more deeply into the paper. (Printmaking papers absorb in this way, but on printmaking papers I use I find that moving the paint without streaks is typically easier.)

But there was no bleed through. The acrylics I used for stenciling formed more of a slick surface than I find on other papers I use for these techniques, even when layering. I’m not sure why that was. I think it’s more an acrylic issue than a paper issue. (By that I mean I might have been more conservative with water on this paper because of other tests which will appear in other reviews.)

The real benefit of working on this paper however, was that it took the repeated layers and the collage well. 

If your methods involve multiple layers without scrubbing techniques I think you might enjoy working on this paper.  (I will deal with scrubbing in a future part of the review series, and also see part one—I don’t recommend scrubbing and lift out techniques on this paper.) 

How Pens Work on Smooth Zeta

While working through the journal I purchased to test I used pretty much all the pens I love working with from the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen (and other Pentel family brush pens) to my Staedtler Pigment Liner, to fiber-tipped brush pens. 

Using the Sakura Pigma Professional Brush pen in FB on the smooth Zeta paper. The lines are crisp, the pen is a bit draggy on this surface.

Overall I find the bright-whiteness of the paper is a great accompaniment to any sort of pen work.

I am particularly fond of using the Platinum Carbon Black fountain pen on this paper as you can see in this previous post.

There you will see that even with repeated hatching from a sharp, fine-tipped pen the paper held together well. Even in the areas where I built up to more solid blacks the paper had only minimal roughing up.

As with all the pens I used on this paper I was surprised by the amount of drag on the smooth surface when compared to other smooth papers I routinely use. However, many artists like the increased drag. And for some pens I too enjoy it.

Writing and drawing on the smooth Zeta with the Pentel dye-based brush pen.
Detail from the above image using Pentel dye-based brush pen. The ink has a dull surface on this paper. There seems to be a soaking in or settling of the ink at the edges of the strokes. This isn’t bleeding through the paper or spreading out on the surface of the paper. It might even be a quality some artists will enjoy employing. I prefer the crisper effects of this ink on other papers.

When using the brush pen (Pentel Pocket Brush Pen or their dye-based brush pen as shown in the image above and in the detail image) I found that the lines stayed mostly crisp (read the detail caption). The smooth texture of the paper allows for a smooth application of ink but there is enough subtle texture to the paper that you can get some individuality to your line if you desire it. I did find that while the dye-based ink didn’t bleed through the paper, it did have a dull surface look when compared to the use of that ink on other papers I use.

I avoid more tests in the sketchbook on this day and instead turned to Post-it Notes™. See the handwritten note on the right.

Throughout work in this test book I never found one pen I preferred on this paper over others. That’s unusual for me. With most papers there is a clear winner. I think that the lack of a favorite here can be explained by the dullness of the ink on the finished sketches on this paper and in some part because of the drag issue I experienced with all my pens. Five spreads into the test book I found myself avoiding the book and working on Post-it Notes™. I know this because I stuck those sketches onto a page spread and wrote “I like Post-it Notes™ more than this paper.” 

When I look at these quick thumbnail sketches made while warming up (I ended up painting on watercolor paper later) I can see a speed and fluidity in my line that I don’t get on the Zeta paper when working with the same tools.

The  amount of drag any individual artist feels between tool and paper will vary based on working methods (pressure, speed, line quality desired) and sensitivity to such issues. I mention the difference here so you understand why I won’t be adding these books to my usual roster of commercially bound journals and sketchbooks. I have too many other papers and commercially bound journals that I enjoy working in more. For me it always comes back to “fun factor.”

But our choice of journal or sketchbook is something that is based on many factors. For many artists the heavyweight qualities of this paper will make it ideal for collage and mixed media. For others the bright white color of the paper will make it useful to many pen and ink artists. 

In part three of this review series I’ll look at how watercolor works on this paper.









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    • Elaine
    • November 28, 2017

    Hi Roz. Agree with you completely about this paper: it made my paint and ink duller than I liked. I would speculate that it doesn’t have the same sizing as the beta and epsilon series. I was disappointed because I was looking forward to pushing my paint around. I do like the soft cover and the beta series though so I will be moving on to a softcover beta when I finish my zeta. Meanwhile I think this book is best suited for inky washes with my kuretake brush pen and waterbrush although I am continuing to use it with watercolor as my favorite medium.

    1. Reply

      Thanks Elaine. I’m glad it confirmed your findings. I don’t use the Beta and Epsilon Series so I can’t offer comparisons, but Tina has written in the comments to part 3 of the review, about her experience with other S&B papers. I’m glad you have found some of your tools will work with it. Thanks for writing in.

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