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

December 1, 2017
Platinum Carbon Black ink fountain pen and watercolor, with acrylic marker background. Please see the detail image and related text in today’s post for specifics.

Today is part four of a multi-part series on the Stillman & Birn (S&B) smooth surface Zeta journals.

You can read part one here. This post deals with some mix-media approaches and some pros and cons I discovered about this paper.

You can read part two here. In this post I write a bit  more about mixed media and look at how some of my favorite pens react to this paper.

You can read part three here. I deal mostly with how watercolor works on this surface.

In today’s post I show some additional examples and wrap up.

Summary (in case you are exhausted from wading through this four-part review)  

If you’ve been reading along you’ll have seen a lot of sketches in different media from me in the book I purchased to test. I found that regardless of what medium I was working in this paper didn’t make my approaches easy. I won’t be purchasing these on a regular basis, there are too many other commercially available books available that contain paper I prefer working on. And I enjoy binding my own books with papers that I love to work on as well. 

I really wanted to stick with the paper and give it a chance so I kept working on it and I did manage to get some pieces out on this paper that I’m quite fond of, but that still isn’t enough to have me rushing back to the store. I can work less hard and have more fun on other papers. 

My four posts document how I found the paper for each of the media I tried. I   have tried to be as specific as possible in the reactions of the paper to my methods so that you can decide whether the paper will work for the way you want to work. 

If you work in pen and ink I think you may have a shot at enjoying this book.

What’s Left to Look At?

Color Pencil on Zeta.

I haven’t been using a lot of dry media lately, but before I left this test journal I wanted to work with color pencil. I have a friend who works with graphite and she likes to work on this paper. There is a little bit of tooth to the paper so I felt things would go well. 

My graphite tests didn’t extend to a sketch. I didn’t enjoy how the graphite felt against the paper. Often I work with smooth (plate) Bristol when using graphite so it wasn’t the smoothness of the Zeta that put me off.

If I hadn’t used up all the pages I might have tried charcoal pencil, or something very soft. But I’ll have to leave that for others to explore—I don’t use many soft media in my visual journals.

But I do enjoy sketching in color pencil and that’s what I did in the above example. With color pencil I found the paper less forgiving than something like Stonehenge for example. I found that using my lightest pressure to put in initial gesture lines the paper held on to the pigment so that working around it to deemphasize “errant” lines was more difficult on this paper.

I did find that texture of the paper, while smooth, also has a uniform tooth that helps you establish a clean line, see in particular the strokes in the blouse. And repeated layers of color can be built up as shown in the hair in particular. 

If you like to use a variety of media but are working in a watercolor book that doesn’t do your color pencil technique justice you might enjoy this book for mixed media approaches.

Mixed media sketch on Zeta—Pentel Dye-based brush pen, water brush, watercolor, acrylic marker background and collage. On most smooth papers I’ve used the dye-based ink of this particular Pentel brush pen lifts off well and creates interesting effects. That wasn’t the case on this paper. Lifting this water-soluble ink on this paper was problematic and even gentle attempts led to pilling of the surface.

I’ve already written a bit about doing mixed media work on this paper, and about using the Pentel Dye-based brush pen on it. I wanted to provide an additional example of both.

Please see the example at the left. 

I enjoy working with the dye-based pen in my journal because I can wash out the ink for nice shading possibilities. On this paper I found that the ink quickly sunk into the paper and made ink dilution and movement more difficult than on other papers you’ve seen me use on the blog. (If you would like to see examples of this technique please look up Japanese Lined Journal in my category list. Or look at this series of portraits made on the Japanese Lined Paper. I’m sorry that’s one of the pre-2017 posts that doesn’t blow up images, but they are large enough that you’ll be able to see what’s going on.)

On the Zeta paper you have to drag the washes into place and fight against streakiness. Additionally when you go in to layer additional “glazes” of ink to increase contrast the paper quickly gives out and starts to rough up. Even when you wait for everything to completely dry this happens, and still contrast isn’t reached to the level you’ll see on the linked examples—on those examples please see in particular the portrait of Brian Cox and the last image in the post which is a portrait of Charles Dance. In both of those portraits I worked while early layers were still wet and the paper retained its smooth surface texture. It even continued to float the final ink layers I added for contrast.

Detail from the opening portrait sketch in this post. Here you can see in the eyelid and the edge of the nose where I tried to gently lift the watercolor pigment. The result was for the paper to immediately rebel and start to pill up, hence the spotting texture you can see in both those locations. Read more details in the text.

Zeta’s inability to support gentle reworking (lifting and repainting in an area) is one of my main disappointments in this paper.

That characteristic of Zeta can be seen in the detail at the left, from today’s opening image.

In the eyelid and on the edge of the nose I have gently lifted color. A spotting effect has resulted. This is often the result of such techniques on any paper regardless of the gentleness of your technique. What is troubling on this paper is that this is actually roughed up, no longer smooth, and now unworkable in those areas. To be a useful wet media or watercolor paper I believe that there needs to be a sturdiness and stability in the paper that holds up to lifting and reworking.

Parallel Pen sketch with water-soluble in, and additions of Pentel pigment brush lines.

In the above image I worked with a Parallel pen filled with a dye-based water-soluble ink that I could touch with a water brush and dilute and move about for shading. I used the dye-based Pentel Brush Pen to go in and state some areas of contrast BEFORE I wet the red ink, so there is some blending also of the black ink. 

One thing that I found really unusual was the way the black ink which is usually so responsive to lifting sunk immediately into the paper. In most instances I had to pull ink directly off the ink brush.

Detail from the portrait made with parallel pen and brush pen.

On the brim of the hat worn by the man on the right I had wet the red ink and knew immediately I wouldn’t get the darkness and contrast I needed so I put down some black ink. One large stroke right and another to the left to shade that area with dilute black ink and the paper was done. If you feel this spread with your hand you can feel the uneven surface of the paper in all the shaded areas.

Since I like to work, add bits, and work again on paper Zeta is simply not a strong enough paper for my needs.

On a happier note, if you look at the detail image for the parallel pen sketch closely (click on any of the images to scroll through them in larger format) you will see in the ear at the center and the nose on the left the paper is of sufficient thickness to hold up to my misuse of the parallel pen—it’s not meant to be turned on its side so you can carve out shapes and create thin sketchy lines in this fashion.)

Wrapping Up

The only media I haven’t tried in this book is gouache. I have one pre-painted spread that I haven’t worked on yet. My foot and ankle injury has reduced my mobility and ability to sit up for long spells and sketch.  I haven’t felt like squeezing gouache out tubes to do a full study.

Additionally the acrylic pre-painting on the page is more dull than on other papers I use—it has sunk in—so I wasn’t enthusiastic about it. But I will work on it in the future and you’ll see it here. I’ve no doubt the paper will stand up to gouache because it is so heavyweight. But that’s all I can say about that.

So what are you to make of such a mixed review, “gee it has heavyweight paper,” “Ah, the paper doesn’t stand up to gentle lifting,” and so on?

Some books contain paper that just doesn’t work for the way we want to work. In my case Zeta is one of those books. It may be that in my specifics you have realized that your approaches are so different that you think you’ll love this paper. It’s part of why I take the time to be specific.

If on the other hand you find that my work descriptions sound similar to your own I suggest you keep looking for another type of sketchbook. There isn’t a lot of fun to be had in this book.

On the plus side it’s well made, and the 8 x 10 inch size is my favorite size.

We can’t have everything we want. Sometimes we have to decide if there are enough characteristics of a paper that work for us that make the purchase worthwhile.

The book comes with a price tag of $26. I believe they are available universally. I purchased my test book at Wet Paint in St. Paul, MN because I like to support independent art supply stores. (I didn’t receive any sort of consideration, either monetary or in product, to write this review.)

What’s Coming Up?

Since I won’t be buying more Zeta journals what will I be using? 

Well, in the summer I started testing a lot of papers for the Minnesota State Fair Journal. Also I have reviews coming up on several other commercially bound journals in December.

In the new year, as I am able to start binding again and finish the #2017BigBind (you can see some photos of the early stages on my Instagram account), I will be using some journals made specifically so I could test some new papers. I look forward to sharing what I discover with you.

Whether you bind your own journals or work in commercially bound journals I hope that you will continue to explore sketching with joy and enthusiasm, listening to your own process so that you can discover which paper and tools work the best for you.

In fact, you could do a Project Friday…well I’ll leave that for another day, just be sure to get out and sketch this weekend.










    • Susan
    • December 1, 2017

    Roz, thanks so much for this and other comprehensive reviews. In addition to information I find that they also provide much needed perspective. When things don’t work out the way I expect in a journal I automatically attribute the problem to my lack of skill (yes, i.c. at work). It’s so helpful to read your reviews and find that sometimes it’s the paper, not me.

    1. Reply

      Yes, sometimes it’s simply the paper!

      Skill levels always play into our enjoyment with any tool we use—there is always a learning curve. The reasonable response to that is always practice and more practice (which of course can be great fun when focused). But as we develop our approaches, our process of working, and our understanding of all our tools we are better able to judge what is a skill we need to work on and a tool we need to change out.

      Learning more about paper and what the different papers can do is an important part of being an artist working in 2-d. It actually makes the adventure of new papers exciting and not disheartening.

      Sometimes you have to simply trust your gut. In the first part (I think it was in the first part) I mentioned that I got to spread 5 in this book and was feeling grumpier and grumpier. I actually had to stop myself and look at WHY?! I’ve been doing this a long time, and I let the smoothness of the paper lull me into not thinking pointedly about my interactions with it. So it’s an ongoing process.

      I see too many students in my classes working with a paper that doesn’t do anything to help them build their skills, something they are fighting against every time they work on it, and we have to sit down and have a heart to heart.

      Lee Trevino is a legendary golfer. There is a story, I don’t know if it is apocryphal or not, but it’s said he took a bet that he could play a round under 100 strokes using a Dr. Pepper Bottle.

      When you have great skill you can do something with anything just as he is said to have done.

      But that doesn’t mean you should make it a habit!

      The sooner we mere mortals realize what our process is and what stops us in that process, the sooner we can get on to choosing materials that support the art we want to make.

      I’m glad that you see how your internal critic has been at work in part here and I’m so glad that now you’re going to be starting a journey to learn more about all your materials including paper. Your fun factor will jump immediately!

    • Tina Koyama
    • December 1, 2017

    Thanks for a great review series, Roz! I like your “fun factor” criterion. Every paper works best with some media and not others. I don’t like to use multiple sketchbooks simultaneously (chronological continuity is important to me), so at some point I decided to settle for the one that’s pretty good with almost all media — but not the best for any of them. It’s a compromise, but that’s just the choice I’ve decided to make in the interest of chronological continuity. Every now and then (like right now), I start drifting off with other sketchbook papers that are better with certain media, but eventually it bugs me to have so many sketchbooks scattered around, and I pull back again. I guess that’s just my rhythm, and I’m OK with that. If the fun ever stopped, then I’d know something was wrong! Appreciate all your work on thorough reviews.

    1. Reply

      Tina, I like to work through one book chronologically as well and so I do the same thing—I pick a paper that I believe will allow me to do the most of what I love doing. And sometimes month to month what I want to do changes too—so I change paper often. But papers I don’t like don’t go on the rotation list.

      Knowing your rhythm and keeping the fun alive is what it’s all about!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the series!

    • Paul
    • December 2, 2017

    Thanks for this Roz. I especially LOVE your coloured pencil and parallel pen drawings here, just spectacular!!! You are so right about finding the paper that work best us. I am slowly coming to the realization that the most popular/best selling sketchbooks are not necessarily the best ones for me. Your reviews and approach to materials evaluation are helping me narrow the selection of papers that best suit me. Thank you so much for your continuing herculean efforts on our behalf :o)…

    1. Reply

      I think Paul that since you have a very tight and detailed style you need to be extra careful in selecting a commercially bound book that works for you. You need tooth for your color pencil use and you need smoothness as well to get all that detail in. And yes, the most popular commercially bound journals are not good for everyone. There are a lot of people suffering through using the Moleskine sketchbook simply because artists they admire are using them (often with different media) simply because they think they “should” be using them. And they are doing themselves and their art progress no favors. I’m glad posts like this help you focus on what’s important to you in a paper.

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