Thursday, April 25, 2013

Fun with Stillman & Birn Sample Sheets

Stillman & Birn ( is a company that not only makes what is likely the best sketchbooks out there, but their customer service is a pleasure to deal with too.  They know the papers they bind into their sketchbooks are top-grade and speak for themselves, and it seems for that reason they provide to any who ask, free of charge, a packet of sample papers containing each of the papers in their sketchbook lines (4x6").  I recently requested and received a sample packet, and I want to share with you my ink & watercolor drawings I made on each of the papers I received.

The paper types they have are Alpha, Beta, Delta, Gamma, Epsilon, and now Zeta.  Alpha, Gamma, and Epsilon are their lighter-weight papers, but differ in color (Alpha and Epsilon are white, Gamma is Ivory) and surface (Alpha and Gamma are vellum, and Epsilon is smooth, like hot press watercolor paper).  The heavier-weight papers are Beta (white cold press), Delta (Ivory cold press), and Zeta (white smooth, like hot press).


I was already familiar with their Alpha paper because I purchased an Alpha 5.5x8.5 hardbound sketchbook to use on my trip to Australia, but I went ahead and painted on the sample for completeness (blueberry drawing above).  I loved this paper, I loved the sketchbook!  It was rugged, the paper held up to all my watercolor washes, and yet was smooth enough to be a pleasure to draw on.  Yes, there is a bit of waviness to the paper after the watercolor washes, but I don't find that to be a problem at all.  I can absolutely use both sides of the paper; there is not one iota of bleed-through, and I really can't even see the painting from the backside unless I hold it up against a light.  Another thing I love about the Alpha book is that it has so many pages!  Because with the Alpha you've opting for thinner paper, you get more sheets, so this is really a cost-effective sketchbook.  For such great quality of paper and construction, this is a great value.  I plan to use Alpha sketchbooks again in the future, but I was curious about the other papers...


When I got the sample packet, the first paper I tried was the Beta (a thicker version of the Alpha).  The first
thing I noticed as I drew the image of the butterfly with my fountain pen was what a pleasure it was to draw on Stillman & Birn paper (since I returned from Australia I had been working in a homemade sketchbook with Strathmore Aquarius II paper, and that paper is not as pen-friendly).  I didn't want to stop drawing!

But the Beta paper is renowned for handling wet media and alas it was finally time to put the pen down and paint.  Wow, can it take the watercolors!  I look now on the other side of my sample sheet and I see virtually no evidence there is a painting on the other side.  As the painting was drying the paper did curl, but now that it's completely dry, it's very flat.  In a sketchbook I expect the paper to especially be flat.

I really liked my experience sketching on the Beta paper, and I think I will indeed splurge on Beta someday.  It's more expensive per page than an Alpha, but it may well be worth it.


Zeta is the newest paper in the Stillman & Birn lineup, and I was particularly curious about this one.  I don't have much experience painting on hot press paper, but I do enjoy painting on yupo tremendously, so I thought I might like the Epsilon and Zeta papers.

Well, if I thought drawing on the Beta paper was a treat, drawing on the Zeta paper was especially smooth.  What little experience I had drawing with a fountain pen on hot press paper, and now the Zeta paper, I find it almost changes my drawing style into something more precise, more careful.  I am not as sloppy with my drawing, and I like that.

Painting on this paper is especially fun because the paint sits on the surface longer, so it's easier to move around.  I'm not a fan of uniform flat washes, and it's a good thing because I can't imagine it would be too easy on this paper.  But really, I love the kind of textures you can get on this paper with the paint, and I love how vibrant the paint is (because the paper is so white and the paint doesn't soak into the paper as much, and get dull).

If I'm in a splurging mood, I can see myself alternating between Beta and Zeta sketchbooks.


I would have liked to try this paper, but it was missing in my sample packet!  I informed S&B via email that it was missing, and they said they would send a replacement packet, but it's been long enough, I think they forgot about me.  Ah well, it's a treat to even try some of their papers for free.  I thought I might like this one because it combines the advantages of the thinner paper (more pages in a book!) with the smooth, hot-press like finish.  I guess I might have to buy an Epsilon sketchbook someday to find out.

Gamma & Delta

I was the least interested in the Gamma and Delta papers because I am not so much a fan of toned papers.  I love bright colors, and I am more likely to get them with bright white paper.  For these papers I chose subjects that were colored on the warm side to see if they might be enhanced by the ivory tone of the paper.

I enjoyed drawing and sketching on these papers as much as I did all the other ones.  It was still a joy to feel the fountain pen glide effortlessly over the surface, and a joy to mop in all my watercolors.  I love the little back-run textures I got on the Gamma paper in this painting.  I loved how robust and sturdy the Delta paper felt as I layered in thick background washes.

So yes, I'm sold on Stillman & Birn sketchbooks.  The papers are all wonderful, and no matter which ones I decide to work in at any one time, I will be guaranteed a pleasurable art journaling experience.

1 comment:

Arlene said...

Thanks for this review. I have ordered the sample packet but won't have it until I get back home to PA after our winter in AZ. Meanwhile, I did get a Gamma because I do like ivory paper. I am sure I will want some other ones after I have tried all the samples!