Things To Do in the Current Pandemic: Testing Non-Art Papers for Mixed Media Visual Journaling

March 23, 2020
Brush pen and watercolor in a bookshop notebook—i.e., non-art paper notebook.

Last week I wrote the following blog post to my Patreon-RozInterim subscribers. When I started my subscription blog on Patreon I had no intentions to share any of the posts from that blog with a larger audience.

However the current pandemic has me bending the rules on this particular post.

This post deals with testing non-art papers for use with wet media for visual journaling.

I think a number of people might want to use these instructions with the materials they have at home right now. Something to pass the time with, something to keep them making art if only for a couple minutes a day, something to help them teach kids stuck at home about art materials.

Also, at the end of the post I talk about something we may lose sight of in a pandemic: attitude.

I hope you are safe and well at home with your family.


From Patreon/RozInterim

Recently in our Facebook discussion group there have been several questions leading to some lengthy replies from me about testing watercolors on non-watercolor paper.

If you look at my visual journal work you’ll see that 99 percent of the time my journal work is not on watercolor paper.

That means I’m working on paper that is insufficiently sized to hold the watercolor paint above the paper long enough for it to settle in “accepted” traditional ways, or even long enough to let it dry and keep it from seeping through the paper! Or the paper has been sized to have a slick surface that will work well with ball point pen and maybe, if I’m lucky, some other non-artist-type pens.

Why Do I Use These Non-Art Papers?

Well I’ve addressed this before: it’s comfort food for me. I used many of these papers or similar papers during my childhood.

Also you may have noticed that I’m interested in a different finish to my sketches and paintings than most watercolorists.

Many practitioners look for ways to hide the fact that they are using paint. They want the notion of the painted surface to disappear, creating an illusion of “reality” for the viewer.

I like to have the reality that this is all an illusion front and center. It’s why I use so many textures, lined and gridded papers, collage elements, and things like washi tape in my work. It’s FUN for me.

But it is also fun for me to not have paint or ink bleed through my pages.

So How Do I go About Testing Non-watercolor (Non-art) Papers for Wet Media?

I’ve made a list to help you in this blog post.

When working through all these tests LABEL EVERYTHING, you’ll never remember what is what. Also date your test. That will help with assessing longevity of some materials on certain papers.

Make notes about what you see on testing day because some inks change over time due to manufacturer’s changes and the availability of materials.

Test Ink Washes First 

I do this first because I do a lot of monochromatic work. If ink washes aren’t working on a paper I might as well abandon the paper. Also, I work directly in ink, so if a pen doesn’t work I need to move on.

Do This

1. In turn, for each of your favorite pens (including brush pens) hold their tips in place, touching the paper, but not pressing into it. (I usually do this at the back of a book; and not the end sheet which is glued down, but one of the last pages, as you want to be able to see the backside of the sheet when you’re testing.) Count to 60 slowly. Then move the tip to another spot on the paper. Count to 200.

Flip over the page and see if there are any bleed throughs at either point, and how bad those bleed throughs are. Some papers suck ink out of a tip, for others it’s a slow bleed.

2. Repeat with each pen you love to use— only this time sketch a pear or something simple, very small, one inch tall or less, on the page. Sketch using your normal sketching speed. If you stop and rest the pen on the paper normally, allow yourself to do it for the test sketch too. Don’t change your regular sketching method.

Flip the page over and see if there is bleed through.

3. Repeat step 2 but this time for each sketch take the water brush to it the sketch when you finish. This tests the ink’s water resistance on the paper you’re testing by brushing clear water over the drawing. DO NOT SCRUB.

Why not just use the sketch you made for step 2? You want to keep that clear for your records, to be able to look back at it. Also the slight bit of repetition gives you more experience with each pen you are testing on this paper. You don’t want to make a decision based on only one sketch. Note any information that is important to you about how the pen felt, the drag on the paper, the slickness of the paper, the texture of the paper, etc.

4. If you’re a scrubber when you apply washes repeat step 3, only this time on each sketch when you add a water wash, scrub. Remember you’re only using a clean brush and water here. You want to see how the ink resists water on this paper. (You need sketches from both 3 and 4 to compare and learn more about the paper.)

5. Make a series of straight hatches close, then growing apart, to test the feel of the pen on the paper and check whether the ink bleeds on the paper, simply in the action of touching the paper. Look closely at your line samples and see if you can see radiating veins coming off your lines into the fibers of the paper. This might indicate uneven sizing allowing the ink to get down to the fibers or it might indicate other treatments that allow only certain fibers to soak up the ink. Writing on this paper will always blur—is that a problem for you? Now you’ll know it can happen on this paper before you make your masterpiece.

Monochromatic ink sketch using brush pen and ink washes on a tan paper—Nideggen—in a handmade journal, with blue acrylic marker in the background. Nideggen happens to be a printing paper. It’s not a watercolor or wet media paper—but I paint on it all the time.

6. Once you have done the above steps for all your favorite pens make a full-page drawing in your normal monochromatic style with your favorite pen. As you work you may discover that you have to adjust the water level because the paper is not drying quickly. Or you might have to adjust the water level because the ink is seeping through. (Dye based inks in washes tend to seep through more papers because they are more liquid; they don’t have pigment particles to stop the passage of the ink through the paper.)

7. Write about your experience working with ink washes on this paper. How was it to place additional layers of ink where the paper was already disturbed? How did the ink values look when the paper dried? Do you want to continue to work on this paper? If not, be explicit about why not. Later you may return to this paper for another medium, and you may not remember your reservations and restrictions.

8. In your tests don’t forget to try and add new ink from the same pen over areas that are still wet, almost dry, and dry. How does that work? Did the paper start to pill? If so, during which actions?

You may find the paper is fine for all your favorite pens or only two or three of them. But at least now you know how to work on this paper with each of your different favorite pens.

If you discovered that bleed through is a problem with the paper using any of your favorite pens you need to decide if it matters to you or not in general so that you never use the paper, of if you decide to use the paper for only certain pens and media.

Get over the idea that every paper you use must suit all your working methods. That’s too limiting.

Testing Watercolor Paint on Non-art Papers

Once you’ve done ink tests on a non-art paper it’s time to test washes of watercolor. 

Becaues of your earlier tests (outlined above) you now know which of your “water-resistant” inks are actually water-resistant on the sizing of your test paper because of your previous testing.  You’ll be able to sketch as usual, and concentrate on what the watercolor washes are doing to the paper, not what they are doing to the ink.

1. Start with light, diluted glazes of watercolor over the ink to see how watercolor sits above the ink lines. Use as little water as possible. See if the watercolor wash will dry quickly and not seep through the paper. (Even some paints containing heavy pigment loads will seep through a paper. But also important—many low grade watercolors contain fewer pigments or lesser quality pigments and the manufacturer boosts the saturation of their product by including color dyes in their watercolor. These will bleed through the paper. Watch for that.)

If you are really enjoying painting on your test paper but the paint seeps through the paper think about leaving blank pages between pages you’ve used so that ink and paint doesn’t seep through to your art.   

Do I do this (every other page thing)? Not usually. I don’t mind things seeping through.

But I’ve seen enough students freak out when this happens to give you a heads up that when you’re testing journal papers always scan a finished page, page spread, or sketch immediately—before working on the reverse side of the sheet where bleed through might occur, defacing your previous sketch.

You could also use collage on the page backing a watercolor sketch which bled through. Keep that in mind if you do a lot of collage.

2. Note down differences you discover between the front and back of a sheet of paper when you work on it. Note whether or not the paper surface matches across the spread. (You can read about this elsewhere on this blog.)

In this detail you can see me smearing paint around with a Niji Waterbrush that is almost empty and a paper towel. I’m too engrossed in what I’m doing to get up and refill the waterbrush so I have more water—but also simply enjoying the thick paint on the slip paper made for fountain pens. 

3. Next you’ll want to push the watercolor and see how much water you can get by with on this paper. (Some papers will actually start to dissolve. You’ll learn when the paper will start to pill. You will discover how correctable watercolor is on this paper— all those sorts of things. 

You “push the watercolor” by doing all the watercolor techniques you would normally use on watercolor paper, except now you’re doing them on non-wet media paper.

This means you work with your same timing before you go in for another wash; alternately you wait for things to completely dry before you add additional color. You do both of these things because the first tells you when and if the paper will start to pill or break down under intense wet circumstances; which in turn gives you information about how you can work on that paper, e.g., one stroke of limited water and that’s it… or…?

You do the second, waiting for the paper to completely dry, to see if you can stand using the paper.  If it is slow to dry in your normal working conditions and with your normal methods, that might be too much of an impediment to you if you’re a fast sketcher.

In the process of this step 3 you’ll also discover whether or not it’s possible to layer colors wet on dry, or if and when the paper starts to pill or break down in this process.

4. Next you’ll do whatever lifting techniques you currently use on your favorite watercolor paper. This lets you know whether or not you can lift in the same fashion you typical lift color off of watercolor paper.  Or this test will tell you if the paper pills or breaks down. Most important this test clearly sets out the LIMITS to which you can push when trying to lift color off this paper.

Together these watercolor tests will tell you the specific ways in which you have to alter your watercolor approach in order to work on the test paper.

Paper Buckling

Don’t worry if the paper buckles (even watercolor paper will buckle when painted upon if it isn’t stretched). Just go with it, expect the buckling. But when you paint on the reverse side of a page that has buckled note any differences in paper handling you encounter while working with wet or dry media on that buckled page.

Now you’ll be able to decide if you want to continue to work in your test book or on that test paper.

A Caution Against Hoarding

The testing I’m advocating takes two or four pages in the back of your test book. I actually can get all the testing done in about half a page in most books because I know the very specific things I’m looking for and am willing to live with in a paper.

When you find a commercially bound non-art paper book that works for you there is a temptation to buy a bunch of them so that you don’t have to repeat testing. The temptation is also there to ensure a supply of books since production often stops on the things we love most.

In full disclosure I will tell you that for the books I find and like I tend to buy them in sets of 5 when I restock. Why? Well that’s a number I will work through quickly, but if I can’t restock when I have only 3 left I know I can have something fun to work on while I look for replacements. It buys me time to find alternatives but keep working, because I go through so m any books. It’s just my approach.

If you don’t go through 20 to 30 books a year with your sketching I suggest you only buy one extra book if you find a book you enjoy.

Also if you’re new to journaling and sketching and painting, just buy one extra. You’ll find lots of things you’ll probably enjoy working on better anyway should production of that book be canceled.

Be aware, that your favorite books can disappear at any time.

If you’re in a book store buying some of the odd notebooks they carry—but which have sewn signatures so that makes them candidates to test—and you think you’ve found a likely candidate I suggest you buy two, because when you come back in 2 months having finally tested the book the store will be out of stock and the book discontinued.

Buy Books with Sewn Signatures

Always buy books with sewn signatures if you like casebound books. Sewn signatures ensures a book can take hard wear while you work in it and be viewed for years to come.

Smyth sewing is the name for the mechanized method of creating  books with sewn signatures. 

The alternative is perfect binding. In this style of binding single sheets are gathered, knocked up at the spine edge, clamped down and GLUED together. The resultant text block is then inserted into a case. The problem with this type of binding is that every time you open and close it you work the glue at the spine. Over time the glue ages, cracks, or loses it’s adhesiveness and the pages simply fall out. Think of pads of paper, or mass market paper back books.

There’s another type of mechanized binding used to produce commercially bound sketchbooks. (I’m sorry I don’t recall the name for this process.) These books may look as if their signatures are sewn signatures—the fact that they have visual signatures if you look down at the head of the book and see the pages gathered into signatures will lead you to believe that.

However, rather than create a Smyth sewn book, manufacturers discovered that they could gather a book’s pages into signatures, clamp them together without sewing, ROUGH up the spine edge of the signatures (the folded edge where the sewn would have taken place) so that glue can be applied and see through the roughed-up edges and hold the pages in place. I don’t really feel this binding method is better than perfect binding. I advise you avoid it.

If you look down at the head of a book and see at the spine there are signatures making up the book how to you tell that it is really a sewn binding?

Looking down at the head of the book and seeing the signatures as a guide, open the book to one of the signatures at its center. This is where the sewing should be found—stitches running up the gutter.

Yes, some books are bound and compressed so tightly that you won’t see this center area. If that’s the case you probably don’t want that book anyway. 1. it is bound so tightly you won’t be able to scan it flatly (or almost flatly), and 2. chances are it’s not sewn but only roughed up.

Manufacturers Change Things

Remember, even if you have been using something “forever” the manufacturer can change it so that the paper is different or the construction of the book is different.

If you get a book you’ve had before and the paper feels different, redo your tests and compare the results to your original test subject. This is more useful than trying to reach the manufacturer for information they may not want to give out.

Papers for the Books You’re Binding

I’ve written about papers for binding on this blog. You can use the key word to find out about paper; and you can use the category “Commercially Bound Journals” to find my reviews of various commercially bound sketchbooks. In those blog posts you’ll see my posted journal images, and learn what criteria I like to look for in a paper.

For each of the papers I have ended up using for visual journaling I have done all the tests listed above.

In addition I have done binding tests on each of the papers I use.

This means I have bound the papers into the sewn signature books structures I like to make and use. There are different criteria here for me to judge a paper suitable. Obviously it must be a paper I enjoy working on, but it also must be a paper that can be folded well with the grain, and be tearable by hand (my preferred working method).

If it passes those tests but the paper doesn’t glue well at the points where the signatures of a book join in a text block at the spine, then, because of the way I line my spines during construction, and the wear I impose on a book structure, I won’t use that paper for a text block style binding.

If I really love that paper and still want to bind it and that’s the only impediment I will bind that paper into sewn on the spine structures. (I am teaching two more sessions of the Sewn-on-the-Spine structure in 2020 if you want to learn it.)

If you love a paper for all the reasons your tests make clear, but that paper isn’t bindable by criteria that matter to you—well there is always a loose sheet journal.

Keep Breathing, Have Fun, and Embrace Abundance

As you embark on this paper testing adventure, or take it up for hundredth time, remember to BREATHE.

The paper isn’t trying to fight you. It want’s you to discover what it is and what it is good for. It was made for use. You have to determine if that use suits your needs.

Let go of notions of scarcity—your internal critic might try these arguments:

What if I really love this paper will I want to use the book or save it? (Use it don’t save it.)

Why test this paper if it isn’t always going to be available? (Nothing is always going to be available. Test what you have so you can use it appropriately.)

Let go of notions of waste—your internal critic will tell you that you don’t have the skills to use a paper, or its favorite judgment against you might be:  “You’re using too much paper.”

If you have a daily drawing habit you can’t use too much paper—as long as you stay in budget—see how important it is to make a budget? If you currently don’t have funds for lots of paper get copier bond. Copier bond paper is inexpensive and works great with dry media and most pens. You can have a loose sheet journal of such pages.

Abundance does not mean only working on art papers.

Say that aloud five times!

Abundance means honoring your goals and intentions (and your budget) in your art practice so that you allow yourself to have your creative voice.

Abundance is not using only the best of everything all of the time.

Abundance is using what you have in order to work to become the best you can be.

Abundance is not about who has the best studio gear, desk, etc.

Abundance is using what you have or can scrounge up and cobble together in creative ways as needed so that you can can meet the demands and goals of your creative voice. (For instance abundance is not anguishing for the perfect drawing table; abundance IS using your knowledge to create a drawing station that supports your work efforts and allows you to work long hours without damaging your body with repetitive stress!)

(Don’t know how to scrounge? Watch “The Great Escape,” and see Hendley [James Garner] in action. Watch, “Flight of the Phoenix” (the Jimmy Stewart version), ‘nuf said. And of course, watch the first three to seven seasons of “The Walking Dead.” Spoiler alert, Glenn dies, but as long as Glenn is in TWD there is a lot to learn about scrounging. And abundance for that matter!)

Abundance is making creative choices that lighten your stress and propel you along your path, as defined by your goals and your intentions.

Abundance has nothing to do with the judgment and understanding of others.

Abundance is a sense of wholeness you generate for yourself because you are self-aware enough to know what you want for your drawing practice and are willing to work towards it.

Now that we are in a world-wide pandemic it is more urgent than ever that everyone grows up, hears the birds sing, realizes his actions have consequences, and sets about determining not only what type of person he wants to be in the world, but how he is going to be that person, and what part drawing practice will play in his life.

The mind hampered by an internal critic and resistance will now, more than ever, hear great screams of protest that now is not the time to draw, that drawing is unimportant, wastes money, wastes time…you fill in the blank.

Remember to say often, “For now I have chosen…” and then act on your choices.

Life may throw you things that take you away from drawing because of your responsibilities (not because of your internal critic and resistance). When that happens remind yourself “For now I have chosen…”   

But also remember, you can always choose 15 minutes, 30 minutes a day to draw and paint; or simply sketch with graphite if a pencil is all you have.

Attitude is reality. You can choose your attitude.

In the words of Glenn Rhee:

Doing great. Living the life!

    • Diane
    • March 23, 2020

    Thanks, Roz. Wise words—like those from Pluto.

    1. Reply

      You’re too funny. And you know I talk like Pluto too! High and squeaky!

    • KarlaRose Erhard-Hudson
    • March 23, 2020

    Thanks for the great reminder. Abundance is accessible. I already have it!

    1. Reply

      YES! That’s it exactly. Go, Go, Go.

    • Tricia Robinson
    • March 23, 2020

    Roz…. you never fail to amaze me with your writing. Thank you so much for your generosity. You are Fab.

    1. Reply

      Thank you for your kind words Tricia. I’m glad you found this post useful and appreciate you letting me know.

    • Rachel Kopel
    • March 24, 2020

    I love you abundantly.

    1. Reply

      Thanks Rachel for the lovely comment. I appreciate it.

    • Lisa
    • June 29, 2020

    Ok, you inspired me to fish out an old hard-backed book that was going to be recycled due it’s paper-thin paper filled with block text. But, you’re inspiring me to think “abundantly”, and perhaps see how I can transform it with transparent acrylic paint (for collage paper), or use it for bold, quick drawings in acrylic marker, where I will be free to create. . .because there’s absolutely NO PRESSURE to be precious about the paper.

    Love the idea of recognizing the abundance around us if we use our creativity and an expanded mindset.

    Thanks again for a great post, Roz!

    1. Reply

      Lisa, I’m glad you fished this book out. Something else to think about—if you have some gesso around you can also paint the pages with gesso and work on the pages with acrylics or watercolor! And if you have transparent gesso you can do the same thing, except the stuff on the page will come through. And you can tint the transparent gesso with a little acrylic paint if you want there to be acolor background, and, and, and. You get the idea. You have some fun today creating.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Close Cookmode

Pin It on Pinterest