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Another Look at the Handbook Watercolor Journal

January 22, 2018
Pentel Brush Pen sketch with light washes of watercolor. Montana Acrylic Marker with a 15 mm tip was used to apply the background.

Things change over time. It’s a fact when you use art materials. Papers may be made for 400 years at a mill, but over your lifetime any paper you change will have subtle if not significant changes. The same is true for paints, and brushes. Some ingredients for paints might become scarce or no longer available. Global warming can change the quality of hair that animals produce—hair that is then used in brushes.

Because of the inevitability of change I think it’s good to look at products a second time after they have been around for awhile.

Detail of the first image in this post. You can see at the callout A that the ink bleeds a little on this paper. I work quickly and go right to watercolor. This ink pen needs more time to dry on this paper. At callouts B and C you will see how the texture of the paper, which is a cold press paper, will register a lovely broken line texture with the PPBP when you vary the pressure. Despite that I found that the paper works like a hot press paper with wash edges drying hard. (See between the eye and the nose, and also in the beard and lower cheek.) All of this can be adjusted for the more you work to familiarize yourself with this paper.

This past year I was able to take a second look at the Hand•book Watercolor Journal. (Note that this is NOT their DRAWING journal. This is their WATERCOLOR JOURNAL that I’m reviewing today.)

I first tested this journal in 2010 when they were introduced. I wasn’t a fan, as you can read in my review from that time. 

I felt that the book was expensive, and it warped when I unwrapped it. I also found the paper to buckle wildly and the Pentel Pocket brush pen was too draggy on the paper. 

Most unfortunate for me, there was an odor when the paper was wet—it was the type of odor that was a deal breaker for me.

You can read about my other findings at the link provided.

I went back to my handmade books and that was that.

For the past several years however, I’ve had a shoulder injury which has prevented me from binding as much as I would like to. I have been testing commercially bound journals again because I want to find books I can use when I can no longer bind at all. And I am hungry for books that contain actual watercolor paper, even if it is of inferior or student grade to the paper I bind into books. I want a paper to use with wet media.

Note: I apologize if some images have appeared previously on my blog. I worked  in this test book over several months while other journals were in progress and I’ve lost track of whether or not some images were used on the blog to post about some other art topic. Sometimes I post on Instagram way in advance of a blog post so there is a sense of déjà vu for me in seeing the image up.

I like to begin a test with a page spread where I try a variety of materials and approaches. 

Beginning the New Tests

As you can see in the image immediately above the heading I like to begin a test book with a bunch of media to see which is going to have the best chance of success or feel the best to use on that paper.

In that image the tea pot is in a water-soluble ink and I note that it bleeds out nicely on this paper—note that doesn’t mean it bled through the paper. What I’m referring to here is the way you can take the Pentel dye-ink brush, sketch, and then ease out shading from the ink you’ve laid down by using a water brush. 

This was the most promising tool on this paper.

Another favorite tool that I test immediately is the Staedtler Pigment Liner. It felt hard on the paper, i.e., the paper didn’t have any give that you might find on a 100 percent cotton watercolor paper or printmaking paper, but it felt good. This means it would be easy for me to write in the book. On this first day I didn’t like the hatching action of that pen on this paper.

On the left of the page you’ll see a dog’s face and a small round bottle with a pump top (the shorter bottle). Those were done with the Platinum Carbon Black Ink Fountain pen. I found the hard surface of the paper pushed back against the pen and made it not my favorite tool to use for this paper, but others might enjoy that push back. What concerned me was that I let the ink dry for an hour and then spritzed it lightly with water and it smudged when I moved my finger over it.

That means it’s also going to bled when I go to wash over a sketch I’ve made in the past few moments. At the time I wasn’t using this pen much so I didn’t really care about this aspect. Later as I worked through the book and used this pen more I found ways to go with the bleed of the ink into my sketches.

Of course I could slow down and let things dry more—but that’s not realistic for the way I work.

I love sketching with the Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer watercolor pencil and leaving it dry. I didn’t like using that pencil on this paper at all for sketching, however I found that when I wet the watercolor pencil lines (see light blue area on top right of the spread) the flow and movement on the page was good—so watercolor pencils will float nicely on this paper and look rich. 

China Marker (red) with watercolor washes. Because the paper surface and sizing feel somewhat slick I am being careful to position my washes over other dried washes like little intense puddles.

I have a note that I enjoyed working with my Prismacolor pencils. I didn’t explore that more in this book.

I did sketch with a China Marker and then add watercolor washes. I found that worked well. You can see that in the dog portrait at the right. The texture of the paper gives an interesting texture to the China Marker lines.

Overall the first page spread gave me an idea of what I might be able to expect from this paper with my favorite tools.

While you can use gel crayons on this paper, like those from Tim Holtz or Faber-Castell, I didn’t find it fun to use them on this paper. The paper was so slick that the crayon skated along, and I like a little more drag. But this slickness made it easier to blend these crayons, so you’ll just have to decide which way you like to work.

I found that I didn’t like all of my favorite pens on this paper. I don’t enjoy working with the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen or the Faber-Castell Artist’s Calligraphy pen much on this paper. I do, however enjoy working with the Sakura Pigma FB solid tipped brush pen.  Click on the previous link to see a chicken sketch and dog contour that I made with that pen. In that example you will also see that I’m still getting used to the paint drying time on this paper. It has a longer drying time than I’m used to and this means extra care must be taken before going back in with additional washes. (Wet washes into a partially dry wash will push the paint of the first wash away and you’ll end up getting some splotchy washed out look that you won’t be happy with. See the comb 0n the chicken’s head.)

Once I started to get a hang of the paper’s drying time I found that it was possible to complete direct brush sketches even with the Niji water brush. You can see an example of direct brush sketching with the Niji water brush in this post.

Gel crayons didn’t impress me on this paper. I found the soft crayons too smudgy on this paper. They even blocked in the texture line more than the China Marker and the other dry media tools. 

One huge plus for this paper was that it took pre-painting well. I like to preprint with acrylic paints and do a variety of texture effects. This is particularly useful if you like to do collage and want to work on a colorful page. Or if you paint in gouache. I’ll show you an example of this later in the week.

Gouache worked well on the paper. The paper is stiff enough that it can support the paint. I found that Acrylic marker sometimes skated along the top surface as you can see below.

The paper will take some roughing up and some layers of mixed media. In this piece I did a quick sketch of a chicken using a Maped Gel crayon (magenta) and then added some quick strokes of gouache. To finish I added a background of Montana Acrylic Marker. You can see, especially in the right top corner, how the marker (a wide 15 mm tip) slides on the surface and leave streaks. There is enough sizing on the paper to float the acrylic paint from the marker.

Even though I was testing an 8 inch square book, which is my favorite size and the size I usually bind for myself, I found the book difficult to hold. I found that it is so thin it’s a bit floppy when I stand and try to sketch with it. For people who don’t stand when they sketch this shouldn’t be a problem.

What I Like Most About This Book and Its Paper

Pen and gouache worked roughly on this paper.

I did enjoy sketching in this book with the Sakura Pigment FB solid tipped brush pen. I found that over time I ended up doing some sketches I quite enjoyed. In an earlier post on a palette I was testing I posted a portrait of a bearded man. In that painting you can see how the slight cold press texture of this paper allowed the granulating effects of the Azure blue paint to settle in interesting ways across the portrait. (See specifically the neck.)

I found that working with mixed media on this paper could be quite fun, as you’ll see if you go to this post “Carl Has Come Home.”

It could be fun to use gouache on this paper in a quick sketch method as shown in the first image of this section. (Dark haired man with pink and orange face.)

Uniball Vision with Red-black ink and watercolor in the Hand•book Watercolor Journal. The ink from this pen floated on the paper’s sizing for a long time before drying so you can expect some bleeding into your washes if you’re a fast sketcher and use this pen on this paper.

I find that it is also possible to lift color off this paper, though you have to be careful to work carefully. This paper doesn’t have the strength of more expensive, thicker papers you might be used to working.

In the detail image from the “Jester” painting you can see on our left there is an area of lifting on the ear flap that has been too roughed up. Lifting on that eye lid has worked better. In general I’d recommend that you try to reserve your paper white when working with this paper, but you can lift on it.

But really, it’s hard to not like a paper when you can have that much fun on it.

There are additional positives to this book. The paper no longer has the odor when wet that put me off 10 years ago. The covers didn’t warp when the packaging was opened.

For most people one of the best features will be that the book opens completely flat. This makes scanning page spreads a snap. It also makes painting across a page spread simple and straightforward.

In places where the signatures butt next against the next signature at the spine you will find that the glue used to join the pages there easily delaminates even with light and gentle use. I am not horribly concerned about this because the glue used there is very shallow so it doesn’t disrupt the look of the spread much, and the book’s spine is shallow and seems to have some sort of backing so we’re not seeing through the spine and the sewing to the book’s cover at the spine. (Really aggressive use and wear and tear may see separation at these points.)

In fact, I think that for a commercially bound book the sewing is tight and sturdy. As with any sewn signatures you can get some seeping of paint through the sewing holes if you allow paint to puddle near them, but I found it to be less of an issue than in other commercially bound books I’ve used.

And one of my favorite things about this book?

It has a REAL FABRIC cover.

The boards are covered with a sailcloth style b00k  cloth that has a lovely textural weave to it. I looks sharp, even if you are a sloppy painter and soil the cover; and it hides soiling from handling the book in the field. Most of all it simply feels good when you hold it.

In a world where commercially bound sketchbooks and journals are all being covered with faux fabrics, resin impregnated papers, and faux leather, it’s a joy to stand up sketching and hold this book.

The low page count of 60 pages makes this a pricy book costing over $20. But it is in line with other watercolor books currently on the market, so people will have to decide if it makes sense in their budget.

Will I Use More of These?

I will certainly buy another one of these books. In fact I have a couple on the shelf, empty and ready to go because I bought several on sale when I bought one to test. 

I will not use them regularly. I find that because I can’t use all the pens I typically like to use in this book I got frustrated half way through and actually found myself not taking it with me for sketching, and not picking it up in the studio. It actually took me five months to fill this book. (For comparison I just finished filling a 64-page book (with 59 useable pages that I bound myself), in 20 days. This is my typical time in a book of that size, and I was testing a new paper in that book and not particularly fond of it, yet I kept picking it up—so it’s a good comparison.)

I know I would not take this book to the Minnesota State Fair. I actually tested it beginning in June last year, specifically for that task. While it felt good in the hand, the paper didn’t work for the techniques I wanted to use at the Fair.

I see this as a serviceable book that can be used if you want water media paper but don’t want to bind your own books or use something like the Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media book. (See the category list for blog posts on that sketchbook.)

For many artists I think they will be able to adjust their watercolor techniques to this paper and use this book with great success.

I can also see I might grab one of the extra books I purchased if I suddenly had to take off on a quick trip. Taking two or more of these for a week of travel sketching would be simple because they would pack well and not add a lot of weight to your pack or purse.

I hope my look at these has helped you formulate some tests that you might do in these books yourself to see if they work for you. The good news is that my main objections for construction and odor are gone, so it’s just a matter of adapting techniques to the paper. The paper still buckles when wet heavily, but it flattens sufficiently for good scanning. And the buckling doesn’t impede your work on the flip side of a page. It’s still a stiffer paper than found in many commercial journals so it comes out favorably when compare against them. The stiffness of the paper also  makes it usable not only for wet media but collage.

More and more I find that when I can’t bind I’m happy with simple pamphlets I make myself out of the same artist quality watercolor paper I enjoy using also in the studio. For people who don’t bind their own books this watercolor journal deserves a test drive.

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