Have Fun By Working on a Different Surface

August 12, 2018
Pentel Brush Pen (pigmented) and watercolor (with a little bit of white gouache) on untreated chipboard. (9 x 12 inches)

Sometimes it’s fun to work on a toned surface, whether you create that tone (or texture) yourself by preprinting the surface, or your work on a surface that comes toned.

Typically I’ll work on toned paper but I had some chipboard in the studio for another project and grabbed a piece to sketch on the other day.

If it gets to be the end of the day and I haven’t been able to sketch, or I’ve sketched too much, or it’s the middle of the day and I need a break, I’ll grab what’s at hand. 

On this day I had my Winsor & Newton tube watercolors for my landscape palette out in an airtight palette. They were still buttery soft. And I had this chipboard and of course the Pentel brush pen. I used a Sktchy muse photo for reference because there was no one around and I was stuck at home recovering from bronchitis.

Below you can see the pen sketch without color. It was quickly done. The brush pen moves quickly, with a little bit of drag, across this surface. 

Pen Sketch. It was fun to sketch on this board as you have to work quickly or the ink starts seeping into the surface. But there is a nice bit of drag too. I fussed with the closed eye too much—so it was definitely a “go in and fix that with color” moment.

I fussed too much, as you will see in the sketch, on the eye on the right. I then decided I’d grab that left over paint and start making some corrections (covering lines with paint.

Painting on chipboard is a bit tricky and if you haven’t done it before I recommend you do a tester board to work out your water to paint ratio before jumping into a sketch you really like.

If you use too much water the water seeps away from the paint and leaves the surface discolored, at a distance from where the paint is deposited. Scale back the amount of water that you have on your brush and in your paint when you pick some up onto your brush. You might want to hold a towel against your brush at the point where the hairs dive into the ferrule. A dry cloth or paper towel placed there will wick away excess moisture before you apply your color to the board. 

You’ll know you used too much water if you see the water expanding outwards through the board. Then scale back.

Detail of the brush lines on this chipboard.

Since tints in watercolor are made by adding more water but on a dark colored surface you wouldn’t see a light watercolor tint I used some white gouache to mix my tints. For some colors I used a light yellow in the mix so I could avoid the white paint.

I like to work with filberts and flats. I find these brushes are more snappy than most rounds and they allow me to stroke in a lot of color at once. I also find it easier to do dry brush effects with them across other areas of color like the forehead of the man in this sketch.

Detail showing how the watercolor covered the board and pen strokes when I wanted them covered.

As you can see in the detail of the finished color sketch I also used dry brush in the beard area along the cheek line, and in the shadows and highlight areas of eyelid.

You can take time to blend your watercolors, but I like to see my brush strokes. It’s part of the fun for me.

Of course you can use gouache on this type of board. I would still watch your water usage. For me, there was already a lot of really great paint out so why not use it up.

How Stable is Chipboard?

Chipboard is the type of board you see used for the backs of padded paper, or for cartons. Generally it’s not archival by any stretch of the imagination. Generally it will be already deteriorating by the time you get it.

But the craft industry is interesting, it has created a market base of millions of crafters who like what they like, and to meet that market suppliers often tweak their products to be pleasing to that hard to please group—Scrapbookers. 

Scrapbookers what everything to be archival and acid free because they are putting together memory books they hope will be passed down for generations. Yellowing tape and crumbling adhesives and brittle board and paper are their worst nightmares.  

If you look around you can find papers and boards that mimic the look of chipboard and other toned products and improve upon their archival characteristics while mimicking their look and textural appeal.

Not everything you’ll find is going to be archival in all the ways you want it to be—so buyer beware. Ask manufacturers and vendors questions, read descriptions. I’ve found chipboard that is acid free. I’ve found toned “kraft” papers that are acid- and lignin-free. Even in quality art papers that are listed as archival when it comes to color in the sheet that color is not always lightfast—so ask questions of the manufacturer and do tests!

For me, if it’s quick study work, the archival nature of the materials is not that important to me. If I were planning on selling a work, I’d look for the best substrate I could find, and if it weren’t archival I’d certainly let the buyer know that. But a lot of times we simply want to work on the surface we want to work on, and the original piece is not what matters. Once the piece is finished we can scan it and use the digital for all the purposes we wanted.

Don’t tie yourself up in knots over these types of issues. Work with what is fun, have digital “originals,” and let your art buyers know what they are buying. 

Treating Boards and Papers that Are Not Archival

What if you want to work on something that isn’t archival but you want to improve it’s archival properties?

I’ve written a lot about working with non-archival materials on my blog, but the most complete post on it can be found here.

In that post I give you suggestions on how to prepare your surfaces to keep the acid in the substrate from seeping into and damaging the rest of the layers of your artwork.

Keep in mind that the drawback with these methods is that they all alter the surface of the material. We no longer have the fun paper texture, we now have the texture of the treatment material.

Photo showing the wide difference in “Kraft” toned papers available. A: Bazzill Kraft; B: Cricut Kraftboard Natural; C: Recollections Signature ™ Special Cardstock 12 x 12 inches; D: Bogus Recycled Rough Sketch 70 lb.; E: Bold Bogus Rough Sketch 120 lb.; F: Speckletone Kraft Cover 100 lb.; G: Speckletone Kraft Cover 80 lb.; H: Recollections Signature™ 8.5 x11 inches 110 lb.

For many people that’s ideal because all they wanted from the substrate was color and perhaps they prefer the texture of other media too. For instance if you want to retain the toned surface of chipboard but improve the longevity of your piece, coat it first with clear gesso (as discussed in the linked post). You’ll still see the paper color coming through. You’ll work on the clear gesso surface and that will take it’s own adjustment, but it’s all doable.

Ask yourself what matters—the fun? the longevity? Ask what is fun for you—the paper texture, the acrylic medium texture covering the paper? It will be an individual choice for everyone. You’re just going to have to try some approaches to see what you like.

You might even find that what you like is to work digitally and have your digital piece layered onto a “chipboard” or other toned surface digitally!

(When using textures digitally be sure you have created your own texture or are using copyright free textures. Remember, for instance that marbled paper is considered an original work of art and for each sheet the artist has created a new piece. When purchasing marbled paper be sure you have permission from the artist to use his work in your digital piece, every artist will have a different policy. The same caution goes for other textures you might find on the internet.)

Finding Toned Papers and Boards

A few weeks ago several people wrote to me and asked me what types of toned papers I liked to use for my watercolor, gouache, and acrylic work. I made a PDF of some of the most recent papers and boards I’ve been using. (I listed the recent ones because I know they can still be found.)

This isn’t an exhaustive list. It’s just my recent usage including some archival art papers I think you need to consider as well.  You can click on this link to download a PDF of the Toned Papers List.

I hope that gives you a helpful starting point.

Sketching on toned papers and boards is a lot of fun. Don’t let archival issues keep you from having fun.

    • Frank Bettendorf
    • August 13, 2018

    Roz, I want to try Strathmore sketch paper but the only one the local art store had was Vellum in the 400 series Mixed Media. Should I buy or keep looking for a different surface in the 400 series? Thanks.
    Frank B

    1. Reply

      Frank I’m not sure which paper you’re asking about. Strathmore Mixed Media paper isn’t their sketch paper.

      If you’re going to try Strathmore Mixed Media then get Strathmore Mixed Media 500 Series paper. It comes in 22 x 30 inch sheets, and in soft and hard covered journals, and in their wire-bound art journaling series (that’s the 500 series in those books.) There may also be pads. Just make sure it says 500 series on it.

      If you want to use their SKETCH paper, I’m not sure what you’re looking at or looking for. Their 500 series paper is going to be the best paper in any paper line they do. I’m not sure that they put it in any books. I believe the drawing paper in their journals is the 400 series, but I do not buy any of those so I’m not sure and labeling on them should tell you, or you can ask your store clerk or check their website.

      As to the use of the word vellum, that leaves me wondering if you’re looking at their Bristols??? They use vellum to describe those. They have plate and vellum bristols available in their wire bound art journals and both are great to work with, though they aren’t the 500 series. (They might be the 300 series.) Strathmore’s 500 Series Bristol is the one I love to use in either plate or vellum depending on what I’m doing with it.

      Hope this helps a little. You’ll need to clarify what you’re looking for if you need more info.

      Hope you find a paper you enjoy working with and get busy sketching.

    • Frank Bettendorf
    • August 16, 2018

    Thank you for the, as usual, clarifying answer. I look for the Mixed Media in the 500 series at a larger art store.
    Your answer encourages me to look for the 500 series but also to give Vellum a try. I’ve read only a small bit about Vellum but know that many use it for pencil drawings so it would give me a chance to broaden my skills, which I enjoy doing.
    Thanks for your help.
    Good wishes to you.
    Frank B

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