Do I actively seek out the most obscure commercially bound books containing non-art paper to test?
No, it simply seems like that sometimes.
I grew up with a small weekly allowance paid after the completion of standard house and family chores. That allowance had to stretch from candy to art materials.
Let’s just say I really, really like candy.
Now that I can afford quality papers to work on, and even bind my own books with those artist quality papers, I still pick up the odd non-art paper sketchbook now and then.
I believe it has more to do with the fun of testing than anything else.
Side Bar: Everyone knows I found the perfect paper in the late 1990s, let it sit in the flat file for a couple years, and when I finally used it and recognized what it was, there was no remaining stock to purchase. (The mill had literally gone out of business and Wet Paint had bought some unsold inventory from them but sold out their stash of this paper.)
Turner’s Blue Wove from Barcham Greene, because I know you’re going to ask.
You may even have some of it under your bed in a box, or in your flat file.
If you do please do not write to me because I couldn’t afford to pay you what you think each sheet is worth now that you know it is the perfect paper and believe you can cash in. Just use the paper and enjoy it. Don’t leave it in that box or drawer. You can do anything on that paper from dry media to wet media. Now is the time for you to learn to work with gouache because that paper is perfect for gouache as well. Seriously, go use that paper now. You lucky, lucky…
My point is, I never was one to look for the perfect paper and the universe slapped me in the face by taking it away from me just when I found it.
A colossal joke. Very funny.
Just like now, mill after mill is switching to vegetable sizing…alas.
But not another digression—I never sought the perfect paper, I enjoyed papers for what they would let me do with the materials I was using at the time, my skill level, and my goals.
I have been very content to move to another paper when one goes defunct—like the Old Folio which was also one of the best papers every made, which was “redesigned” around 2000 and is no longer the peachy cream, soft sheet of printmaking paper that was perfect for color pencil work and also watercolor, but is instead an almost garishly cream yellow, hard, and resistant sheet which I nevertheless have come to love because we are both in the world at the same time and a girl’s gotta draw.
How’s that for compromise? Don’t tell me I’m not flexible.
For me testing is a big game. What can I do with this unknown surface? What NEW things can I do on this different surface? (Because every surface is an adventure of finding new ways to make marks and create new approaches.)
There is also the question of adaptation—can I adapt my typical way of using watercolor on a gelatin sized sheet to the non-wet media sizing of a drawing paper or a printmaking paper?
“Yes I can,” I am always saying to myself as I head out across the sheet in search of adventure.
I like to share the game and the game’s results with you, because I’m betting some of you also enjoy the same game; others are sadly searching for the perfect paper and at least I describe characteristics instead of just pronouncing something good or bad so you might find, even in one of my reject papers, your perfect paper; OR your art materials budget is already strained so I save you some money.
Notice I didn’t say that I saved you any time with my reviews. That’s because it is everywhere implied in each one of these reviews, written or taped, that you are busy practicing and practicing your skills on the papers you have at hand. Practice is practice and you need to put in the real time.
My Love Hate Relationship with Amazon
I always prefer to purchase art supplies (and most things actually) from local independent vendors. But sometimes I purchase things on Amazon because it’s a slippery slope. I am on buying something I can’t get locally and then Amazon starts to get to know me and suggests other things…The next thing you know it suggests that I get a Twone Sketchbook with Kraft Cardstock Covers.
Sometimes I am actually simply looking for the fingertip Band Aids I use when my fingers crack in the winter, and then suddenly there’s this commercially bound journal at the side of the window. I’m curious. I go and look.
Here’s the thing—I go through a lot of sketchbooks/journals in a year; typically 26 or more not including the single sheets journal I do, or the special projects in a year. And while sometimes I only keep one journal at a time, there are times (and we’re in one right now) where I keep multiple journals going at the same time. The reason for this current multi-book situation is that I love, love, love working in the Hahnemühle Travel Journal with its drawing paper that doesn’t want to have anything to do with watercolor, but which I love to paint on.
Yet at the same time I like to be learning and improving and there are some projects I want to do in watercolor, so it’s a good idea I also have a journal with watercolor paper pages for working on the skills I need for that project.
And then I have never lost the childhood preference for painting and sketching and writing on lined or gridded paper, so I almost always have one of those journals going as well.
Since one never knows when a commercially bound book will no longer be available (several years ago my beloved Japanese Lined Journals were discontinued in the large size that is so fun to sketch in with the brush pen—and the smaller version, still available, has thinner paper—I measured it with a micron when I wasn’t getting the familiar results!), I like to test and keep a look out for something that might move up to replace a newly defunct sketchbook.
I doubt many of you will have heard of today’s notebook. And if you’re sensible you’re already using the Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media Soft-covered Journal or one of their 400 series Toned Mixed Media journals; the Hand•Book Watercolor Journal (either the 90 or the 140 lb paper versions); Hahnemühle’s watercolor journal or one of their wet media toned paper journals; or even the Seawhite Watercolor journal. (I say “even” because it’s difficult to get the watercolor version of that journal in the US, but who knows what you might be able to get where you are.)
Keep using your watercolor journal, whether you made it yourself with your favorite watercolor paper, or you purchased a commercially bound one. Your watercolor technique will continue to grow and you’ll be a happy camper.
But if you enjoy working on non-art paper from time to time, or you wonder what I do to test whether a book is going to work for me or not, you’ll want to watch today’s video. Then you can decide if you want to put it in your own testing queue.
The video below runs for 1 hr and 13 minutes. It is a reduced time version of a 2-hour session. I sped up those bits where I wasn’t talking or doing anything crucial to get the time reduced for you. You still get to see the whole drawing process, you just don’t have to wait for paint to dry. There are also a couple cuts when I look for a particular pen or pencil, or reach for something. No need to keep that in.
One thing that I found interesting in the editing is that when I sped the video up (800 percent for the first two—but I decided that was too fast) and then 400 percent for the rest of the sped up portions, the sound of the pen is really fun—it sounds mechanical, very regular. I really do get into a grove when I’m sketching.
Reference Images Used in Today’s Video
If you would like to have the reference image I was using open on your screen while you watch this video, use the following links to find them. They are all from the Museum App, which used to be known as Sktchy.
Photo reference 1 from Jacob Palmer
Photo reference 2 from Jacob Palmer
Photo reference 3 from Jacob Palmer
Photo reference 4 from Garrett Scafani
Photo reference 5 from Raeanna Olivares
The graphite and color pencil sketches were just doodles from my imagination.
The main take away from today’s video is that the paper in this book has an odor that I find unpleasant.
I would describe it as a flora odor with some industrial chemical overtones.
What you need to know is that I am very sensitive to odors. And I’m allergic to a lot of things. This reality has only intensified as I have aged.
While I love the “bunny glue” smell of gelatin sizing, anything flora brings on an instant headache and sometimes worse—wheezing, the need for an inhaler…
So like everyone else there are particular things that bother me, that don’t bother others and vice versa.
Natural smells like urine are not pleasant to me, in that I don’t seek them out, but they are not in anyway offensive to me. I can sit in a room of urine-soaked old aged pensioners and be perfectly content playing bingo. I can’t ride two floors in an elevator with a socialite doused in perfume.
Spend 6 hours in the Poultry Barn at the Minnesota State Fair? No problem. Shake hands with someone who has used hand lotion or used their hands to apply fragrance or aftershave and I’m sick in 30 seconds and my vision starts to shut down.
So when I talk about odors I try to be specific about what they smell like. And then I ask a less sensitive person to tell me what he or she smells and how it effects them.
That’s the only way I can break it down for you. If you have any doubt over whether or not you’ll be bothered by the odor of a book I review, and you’re on any sort of allergy or asthma medication, or migraine medication, I would suggest you give the book a pass.
Today’s book has only a mild odor. It’s too much for me and I had a headache and wheeze within two minutes, but I was able to work with it for the full two hours.
How The Odors of Other More Well-known Sketchbooks and Journals Compare
Sometime in the early 2000s I bought a very large watercolor Moleskin. Most people reading this post will know what a Moleskin is and what their drawing book with thicker pages is like, and also their watercolor paper books.
I didn’t have any trouble with that book from 2000. I did a fake journal in it in 2013 I think. I was going to buy more of them but heard on the internet that they had changed the paper. I went to Wet Paint and purchased a new small one. Sure enough, not only did the paper not work the same as my original watercolor journal from them, but it had a horrible odor.
The odor was so strongly chemical that on opening the book I had a headache in less than 10 seconds and had to put the book in the back storage room to air out (I leave them lying open to the center). It never did air out. I came back a month later, half a year later, 1 year, 2 years…I gave it to a friend.
(Many cover materials can have an odor—this was not that. The odor was coming from the pages. I eventually cut them out and aired them separately to test that. Why? Because if it had only been a cover odor issue I could have simply cut out the bookblock and rebound it. It wasn’t so I couldn’t.)
The same thing happened with Moleskin’s thicker drawing paper.
Additionally with both papers my hands felt funny after touching the paper. It was as if my fingers had something on them. A dryness. I could feel my fingers swelling.
If you are not bothered by the odor of a Moleskin then you won’t be bothered by the odor of today’s sketchbook because it is much lower on the odor scale.
I don’t use Stillman & Birn books but I know many people do. I find the paper in those books has a slight odor I can work through if I had to, but I don’t have to, so I don’t, life is too short. Additionally I don’t like the way the paper feels to my hand when I turn the pages; and I don’t like how my favorite pens and tools work on their papers.
If Stillman & Birn is your go-to line of sketchbooks then you won’t have any problem with today’s book.
I hope this helps give you some bench marks for assessing the odor ranking.
And Just an Additional Note on Paper
I have found that paper from China is a problem for me 99 percent of the time. It all has an odor—probably related not only to the fiber content but the water used and the manufacturing process.
More and more companies are having their paper made in China, so it’s something that I have to watch carefully. A sketchbook that might have been fine for me for years, suddenly makes me wheeze. And when I read the product information I discover the paper is now made in China.
In general I don’t have this problem with papers made in Europe and the US. But I also realize that over time those European and US manufacturers may switch where they make their papers. It’s something to be aware of. Always read your labels if you’ve identified something that “repeats,” like a bad reaction to paper made in China.
Funny story, a few months ago a package came from Amazon. I brought it in held at arm’s length and said to Dick, holding it out to him,”URghhh, they’ve switched to boxes made in China, I can’t stand it. Smell it!”
He wasn’t very happy about that because he was making his lunch sandwich, but he agreed it did smell, but wasn’t sure it was made in China.
“I bet you $10,000,” I said, which is my go-to opening negotiation line when I’m convinced I’m right, and because I’m not allowed to bet more than a nickel (because I’m right so often, just saying).
I opened the box and the corrugation was flaccid, without strength or cushioning, the color had a muddy dullness to it. And of course the odor of chemicals and certain species of trees grown in China wafted up to my nose.
Inside was a bright, cheery note asking me how much I “loved the new boxing material” because in efforts to keep costs down and transport weights down Amazon was switching to this style of box. It was more environmentally friendly (they didn’t say why besides the transportation lightness, but it was probably because it was made in China and not the US environment). Yada dah da da.
The note ended with the statement that the boxes were from CHINA.
We had a good laugh about this.
I buy heavy art books. You know the type—four color, glossy pages, doorstops in weight. They would tear through such a box in about 30 seconds.
I started imitating Jim Carey in “Pet Detective” (the opening scene, check it out).
Look, I know change is coming. The bottom line for companies like Amazon is always shifting away from any real concerns the consumer might have. But since that day no other such boxes have come to the house from Amazon—perhaps because of the weightiness of what I purchase? And the weightiness of what others are purchasing? And the rising number of returns and damaged goods?
I have found it necessary in the past two years to buy a couple things from Wayfair. These have always come in boxes made in China, all with the limpness and the odor of chemicals and trees a lifetime and half a world away. All things I’m probably allergic to because of some childhood exposure.
A lot of things from Wayfair arrive damaged.
Good Uses for This Book
If mild floral/chemical odors don’t bother you you’re in luck because this book is inexpensive, has a ton of sewn pages, opens flat, and takes all the media I used “after a fashion.”
By which I mean, it isn’t a wet-media paper but the watercolor goes on it and doesn’t bleed through. This means that if you have a direct method of painting in watercolor and don’t rely on lots of reworking and lifting you can do watercolor sketches on this paper. They will look a little flat to you as the colors won’t sparkle on this paper unless you use almost no water.
But for a run around town, quick sketch book; or as a book to take to life drawing; or as a note book for lists, and plans and thumbnails; or as a book for graphite or color pencil (you’ll see I almost pass out at the end of the video when I used the graphite on the page)—then this could be one of your books.
What Media Works Exceptional Well On This Paper?
Color pencil or graphite. I wrote that at the end of the last paragraph. I mean it.
When I did those quick little sketches from my imagination my hand and eye were enjoying the feel of the pencil on the paper; but my heart sank a little because I knew this was a paper I was never going to be able to use because of the odor.
And it should be stated again, though it’s stated in the video: I bought this book and this is a totally independent review. The manufacturer doesn’t know me and I have received nothing in return for this review.
Looking for More Sketching with Some Helpful Discussion?
And last, if you enjoyed watching me sketch and would like to see me do more of it, and hear me talk about pigments, papers, other media and tools, and basically everything like that, come and subscribe to my Patreon/Roz-Interim blog. There’s tons of fun stuff there.
Thanks for the links to the reference images. I was thinking it would be nice to see them and perhaps draw along with you. I just might have to watch the video again and do that.
I’m sorry you didn’t see the links before watching the video since you wanted to draw along. You might dig out a paper you want to test with multiple pens and then work on that paper if you decide to watch again and sketch along. Multitasking! Have fun Trudy.
There is so much to say about this video (all good), but what I loved most is hearing when you were having fun and when you weren’t. It reminded me of the benefits of paying attention to my feelings and why this is important to keep us sketching. Having fun keeps us sketching; the results and improvement will take care of themselves. Thanks so much!
Susan, I’m glad you enjoyed the sketching review of this book. What’s really sad is I was only not having fun when the odor gave me difficulty breathing. Otherwise it’s always pretty fun, even if there is something difficult or a problem arises. I think of it all as little puzzles to solve and so it all remains fun. I think that is a huge thing and try to encourage that in all my students because the more fun practice is, the more you’ll practice, and the results will come as you say! Happy sketching! (If you get one of these let me know what you think of the paper.)
There are images of this sketchbook, or a similar one, that show a business card in the slot on the cover fold-in. Or a place to slip lists or notes? But then one cold use the book itself I suppose.
Susan, I think that’s a great idea, someone can tuck a business card in there. It’s not really clear to me. Typically when I see slots in a dust jacket they are for tucking a flap in and these are definitely not for that. THough one could cut the actual cover into a tab an have part of it lace into the back and front of the dust jacket, if you weren’t going to take it off. Hmmm. Anyway, since the paper odor was too strong for me it’s a problem for the non-odor challenged friend I gave it to… Thanks for stopping by!
Hi there, what would happen if you left the book outside to air out? Have you tried that with other books?
Carmen, in the post that accompanies the video I mention that I’ve used the airing out approach with other brands and lines of sketchbooks. It really depends on the paper whether I try to air it out or not. Sometimes airing out works in a couple weeks or a month; then other times, like the Moleskin paper described in the blog post, it never airs out no matter how long you set it out (even for a couple years!). (Did the Moleskin mentioned smell less than it did when I first got it? Yes, two years or more later it did smell less, but it was still too pungent for me to work with it.)
Inside or outside airing out doesn’t really make a lot of difference. Outside, depending on the environmental conditions might seem to help things air out more quickly, but when a book is brought inside again, over time the true smell of the paper will usually reassert itself.
Additionally, leaving things outside leaves them at the mercy of the weather and any birds or animals that might be about. Having guano in my book would be a deal breaker for me. (I don’t have a screened porch to leave things out in.)
Over decades I’ve developed a sense of what will and won’t air out. It is in part what the initial smell is, the component parts. You learn to tell whether or not you are smelling the sizing on the paper, the fibers of the paper. It’s sort of like smelling a cookie and breaking it down into all the component parts of the cookie so you can make that exact cookie. (Except that I don’t want to make paper I just want to use it.) A wet test is also very important to me because it releases different odors that provide additional information.)
Based on this experience gathered over 5 decades and a lot of paper samples I know pretty much if something is going to air out in a reasonably short period of time to make it available for me to use.
Based on that experience I can tell that this particular paper isn’t going to air out to be useful to me.
But if you find a paper that really works for you and your favorite materials, and you aren’t sure it will air out, I encourage you to put it somewhere clean, dry, and out of the way (so the odor won’t bother you in your day-to-day life). Leave it open and let it be for a week, then a month, then…until you get the answer that you nose gives you.
Over time, if paper odor bothers you enough to impact your ability to work with that paper, you will develop a sense, from the moment you smell a paper, of whether or not it will air out for you sufficiently to be usable.
If I had seen this book in person before purchase, I wouldn’t have purchased it as I would have just known from the initial odor it wouldn’t work for me. This is the drawback to buying things online. And it’s one of the reasons that when one of my students finds a new book they enjoy using I ask then to describe in detail, the odor of the paper, then look the book up online to see where it’s made, what fibers were used, etc., and then make a decision to “risk” it or not.
I’m not averse to taking the risk as I know there are some great papers out there that would be fun to use which I haven’t tried yet. But I’m also not as interested in testing new papers as I was when I was even in my 40s. I look for different qualities in a paper, have seen so many favorite papers die, and I’m not interested in testing for testing sake.
Frankly, if I had not just had dental surgery and been at a slight loss because I couldn’t get back to work right way, I wouldn’t have been tempted by this book. But it gave me a way to pass a couple hours without thinking about my mouth.
Good luck in your paper adventures! I hope that through your own testing you find papers that work for you and which don’t have odors which give you a headache or make you wheeze. Along the way you’ll discover a system that works for you to identify such papers.