Five Things To Do When You’ve Got Paper That’s Just Too Bad To Work With

December 6, 2017
Direct brush watercolor sketch on a 4 x 6 inch scrap of book board that was gessoed before sketching.

My recent series on Zeta paper in the Stillman & Birn sketchbooks generated a lot of mail about paper.

I know a lot of people get part way into a journal, find they aren’t enjoying the paper and feel constrained about wasting the paper by simply jumping to a new journal.

I think to stay working with a paper you don’t like, after you’ve given it a fair test and really tried a lot of approaches, is a mistake.

Sticking with a paper that doesn’t work for you and gutting it out leads to a decrease in momentum. That decrease in momentum can derail even the most established journal and sketching practice.

What Can You Do To Not Waste Paper and Keep Momentum?

Suggestion One

If you find yourself facing a book full of paper you don’t enjoy working on—take it to life drawing!

If you’ve been to life drawing you know that you burn through paper, especially in the early warm up poses. You will typically work with a favorite tool during that warm up period, so you will have a certain comfort level. Since the paper doesn’t work for you when you are making your best efforts and laboring with it allow yourself the freedom of working quickly and turning the page and starting again, and going, going, going.

I’m not advocating that you simply make one mark on the page and turn it. Give it a good faith effort but LET GO OF ANY EXPECTATIONS. Expect to make a mess!

Take other paper to the same session so that once you have hit your stride in your warm ups you can move on to paper that you really enjoy working on. Work with that for the remainder of the session.

Don’t look back at anything you’ve done while you’re still at the session. Just keep going forward. Once you are home, unpack your co-op bag and page through the “bad-paper” book. 

Remember this is paper you weren’t going to use any way because you were so unhappy with it. Look at it now and find the gestures and small bits and pieces that you were able to get in warm up that really shine. Savor those. You might even find some worth scanning and saving.

Repeat each week at co-op until you’ve filled the book. Then put it up on your shelf with a note about what you do and don’t like about the paper to REMIND yourself. You never know, sometime in the future you may change your approaches and if you leave a detailed note to yourself you might find your way back to this paper with a suitable project.

Suggestion Two

Follow Suggestion One, except use the book throughout the life-drawing session, changing out media as you go.

This is the perfect time to try new things:

a. Pens that friends and family gave you that don’t have lightfast ink—maybe a pen’s ink dilutes with water and gives you the ability to quickly add shading and volume to your 2 minute gesture sketches?

b. Dry media that is smudges easily—chalk, charcoal, graphite powder. All those media that you wouldn’t normally use in your sketchbook or journal. Use them now because you aren’t going to carry it around with you, you aren’t looking for a perfect page, you’re not wasting paper because you’re using paper that frustrates you (and you never know you might find the perfect medium for that paper!). Remember you’re experimenting.

End your session in the same way, savoring the good bits that pop out at you, and using the book each week at the co-op until you’ve filled it. Remember to write that note to yourself!

Suggestion Three

Follow Suggestion One, but this time take the book to the zoo or other destination that you can go to several times over the course of 2 weeks. Try to go four times for at least one hour each visit. 

During each trip use the book to make quick gesture sketches of animals or people. Use comfort media or experiment with unusual media. Play with page layout and design. Allow yourself to freely experiment. Embrace the mess.

Suggestion Four

Gesso is your friend! 

Get white gesso, tinted gesso, clear gesso, pastel gesso, or tint your own white gesso. (If you’ve never used gesso before I recommend you start with regular white gesso. If you like working with pencil and pastel pastel gesso is fun and I use color pencils on it. Some of the clear gessoes have a really gritting texture that is great for pencil and pastel—but clear gesso is really great when the paper you don’t like is a toned paper because you’ll still get to enjoy working on that paper color even when you gesso!)

Brush the gesso over each page of the book which contains paper you don’t enjoy using. 

Here is a detail from today’s painting. Gesso’s properties allow you to work in a very drippy fashion with watercolor and easily lift of areas if you paint over your highlights. Because you can push the paint around so much without damaging the surface as you might on a sheet of paper, you have infinite redos! Go ahead and move that nose a little to the left or raise that ear—whatever you want. Let you Editing Eye notice specific things that you can change to improve your sketch/painting. Then execute. It’s invaluable practice. Also with gesso don’t forget that you’ll have that delicious texture from the brush strokes you left when you applied the gesso. Those ridges will catch pigment in interesting and fun ways.

Use a large brush so that you can have “ridges” and strokes that will create interesting texture for the media you’ll apply when you sketch.

Or make smooth strokes, allow the surface to dry, sand it with a sanding block and extra-fine sand paper, and layer on another layer of gesso until you have the number of layers you desire.

It’s up to you.

You’ll have to wait until each page spread is dry before you flip over the page, but if you plan you can do several spreads with a light layer, one at a time, 10 minutes or so apart as you get ready for work in the morning, get ready for bed at night, or do other chores that can be broken up. When you have the number of layers (or pages) gessoed that you desired you’ll be all set to start working in the book. 

When you’re finished you now have a new surface to experiment with. Take the book to life drawing and experiment there. Or you can take the book out to the zoo or other live subject drawing location. You’ve created a new, customized surface for your experiments.

Suggestion Five

Play with Media and Grounds!

Other art media and grounds will change the surface of your paper as well.

Golden sells an absorbent ground that dries to a porous, paper-like surface. It might be a paper surface you like better than that unlikeable page you’re working on!

Painting and Gel acrylic medium—there are all sorts. You might get some modeling paste medium that has the ability to take a bit of “structure.” Stencil it on the page!

You might use gel medium to “glue” down some collage materials, or simply to lay down a piece of paper you do like over the complete spread!

If you’d like to add color to your medium use fluid acrylics. They have the highest pigment load. When you mix them with a medium that is white they will appear a more saturated color. 

Don’t forget to try things like clear tar gel! You can color it and create all sorts of interesting effects with this self leveling gel!

Click here to see the many gels, pastes, and mediums Golden has. (Don’t forget to explore their site for gessoes!)

And check out other brands as well. I’m not connected to Golden it’s just that their products are the one’s I’ve found have the lowest odor, so I’ve experimented with them the most. (Beware of any acrylic products that are “slow drying” or “open.” They all tend to have high ammonia levels and strong odors!)


Don’t Stop There…

What if you have a lot of small scraps of book board from a big blow-out binding session? What if you purchased a box of 22 x 30 inch sheets of mystery paper because at 10 cents a piece it was too cheap to pass up?

I’ve done both of those things. Gesso will make binder’s board scraps useful for watercolor, pastel, acrylic, or oil painting. You might even create some little gems! And those large mystery sheets I purchased? I’ve painted numerous paintings on them and really enjoyed getting to go large without the need to plan I might exercise when using paper that costs $6 to $10 dollars a sheet.

Why Do Any Of These Things?

I’ve already told you it’s all about momentum. Bad paper can stop you in your tracks. So transform that paper or transform your attitude about that paper, and keep the momentum going.

Try any of the above and by the end of a month or less you’ll have a full book for your self (containing a note about that paper’s characteristics) AND you’ll have pages of practice work. That practice work is pushing you toward your drawing goals. 





    • Tina Koyama
    • December 6, 2017

    You’re so practical — what great ideas!! I don’t have too many books/papers I hate, but I often try pens (suggestion 2) that aren’t right (brush pens that are too gushy or have unpredictable flow, or pencils that are too soft/smudgy for normal use), and I like using them up at life drawing. Interestingly, I sometimes grow to love them there; a few have become favorites at life drawing after previously hating them. Maybe it just means I didn’t give them enough of a chance before!

    – Tina

    1. Reply

      Thanks Tina. I think using up pens that don’t quite work is perfect for life drawing. Like you I’ve actually had some pens I treated that way and they instead became favorites!! I just needed to sit with them longer. (But none of them were gushing!)

      I think that it’s not just about giving paper or tools enough of a chance, I really think that sometimes you have to give something a couple chances. Come back to it after a break.

      I didn’t like the watercolor paper in the Hahnemühle Watercolor journal and left it for several weeks. I came back to it after the Zeta journal, which you know I didn’t care at all for, and I started seeing all sorts of good points in the Hahnemühle Watercolor journal. I just needed to step back a bit. It’s why I like to test over a slightly longer period of time typically.

      Life drawing is wonderful for so many reasons, but perhaps the best reason is because we have time to sit for hours with something we might not typically use, and at the same time work through it quickly.

      I can’t wait to go back to life drawing!!!!

    • Kelly O'Keefe
    • December 7, 2017

    “Comfort Media” is my new favorite term! Thank you for these great suggestions as I stare down the 11 x 14 S&B Alpha that I bought a few months back…

    1. Reply

      Thanks Kelly—I was very hungry when I wrote this piece and my mind when I’m laid up always goes to comfort food!

      Got into that large S&B and have at it, then paint, paint, paint. Get some great work done.

    • Kathleen
    • December 7, 2017

    Wow. Thanks for all the suggestions, looking forward to using some of them.

    1. Reply

      Kathleen, I’m so glad that you found them helpful. Happy experimenting!

    • Adrianne
    • December 7, 2017

    Excellent article. Lots of good suggestions…

    1. Reply

      Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for letting me know!

    • Lina
    • December 12, 2017

    I didn’t know you could paint with watercolor on gesso! Can it be any kind of gesso?

    1. Reply

      Yes you can. Depending on the watercolors you use and the application and also the gesso product it may appear more diluted than you are used to seeing because the pigment doesn’t “stick” as well to the gesso (which makes this great for lifting off color). But you can still achieve a full range of values if you adjust your pigment load, and are careful with how you glaze color on earlier dried layers.

      Have you painted on Yupo? It will be easier than that!

      Can it be any kind of gesso? Well I haven’t tried every gesso there is. I use Golden Gesso and have always been happy with the way it works, and have used the other Golden Products listed in the post.

      I have also used Daniel Smith Gesso, both white and some tinted (Venetian Red). It works on both, but you really have to use gouache on the Venetian Red for anything to show because it’s such a dark color.

      I don’t use other brands of gesso, but it should work if the company makes a standard gesso.

      I have friends who used a gesso made in the traditional way (as for oil painting); I’m not sure of the process but I think it involves using animal hides. I’m not familiar with how to do that (and I am a carnivore so I don’t have a problem with it being done), but I can tell you they have worked on it with watercolor as well.

      Hope this gets you an answer to your question.

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