Monday, February 4, 2013

writing, stillman & birn, and what comes next

I love writing. I write a lot, whether it's typed or written. I've been using my MUJI notebook for a while because it has so many pages. The problem is that the paper in the notebook is recycled and doesn't stand up so well to fountain pen ink. It's thin, which means water-based glues make the paper buckle. And finally, there are like 365 pages in the book. I don't want to leave part of it blank, even though I really, really want to. If and when a new notebook comes into my hands I'm 80% sure I'll abandon the MUJI. So there we have it.

I have a couple criteria for notebook paper:
  1. unlined
  2. high-quality (80g and higher) that can stand up to fountain pen ink
  3. won't buckle under water-based glues (like Mod Podge)
And a few for the notebooks themselves:
  1. small size (under 7"x9"?)
  2. hardcover
  3. unpatterned cover, black preferred
Most importantly, the notebooks have to be affordable. I've stated a couple times on this blog that I'm a student. Money is a huge factor because it won't matter if the notebook is perfect for me and I can't afford to buy them over and over!

You'll notice that the MUJI notebook touches four of these things. I believe it's about 5"x7" so it's acceptably small, the paper inside is unlined, the cover is unpatterned, and it was pretty inexpensive. The good thing about testing new supplies is that you really figure out what you prefer.

So for the past few months I've been looking for a replacement while wanting desperately to just be finished with the MUJI notebook already. I would probably have ordered some new notebooks, except shipping is ridiculous from art stores--although I can't really blame them, since art supplies themselves are expensive and free shipping comes above $100 at most art stores to, I guess, facilitate that.

I'm sure a lot of us have heard about Stillman & Birn and their art journals (sketchbooks? I guess "sketchbook" has a connotation of "unfinished" or "preliminary" to it), as well as the quality of their paper. The prices aren't inexpensive ($12-13 for their smallest sized journals), but quality always comes at a price. I sent an e-mail a little while ago about the paper and how well the smallest sized offerings (the Alpha series and the corresponding Gamma series), and the kind fellows there sent me a sample package of the paper. For the purpose of this review I'll focus on the white papers (Alpha, Beta, and Epsilon).

And I'm going to tell you what everyone else has already told you: it's great. It's great. All of the papers are well suited for fountain pen and ink (they're all 100g or higher!). I'll go ahead and tell you about my experiences with the paper while showing you my complete inexperience in art supplies!

Please note that my experience with these writing tools may differ from your experiences, and the colors shown are not the true colors of the used inks. I didn't bother to color correct because that isn't the big deal here!

 The Alpha series has 150g paper with a vellum surface. I don't really know what vellum surface means, but it's supposed to suitable for "all dry media and multiple washes". When you run your fingers across it, it doesn't necessarily feel rough; it's smooth, but you can feel some texture.

Writing with a Serwex 101 on this paper gave me a little bit of feedback (this could have been because my nib was writing dry, though). Writing with my TWSBI 540, however, was much smoother with almost no feedback. My spoon nib dug into the paper with Diamine Imperial Purple, but was much smoother with Lamy blue and Online Smaragd. With the G pen nib, the paper was, surprisingly, a bit smoother than the spoon nib.

The Beta series has 270g paper with a cold press surface, suitable for "mixed media renderings". Rubbing your finger on the surface gives you a similar texture to the Alpha series. The paper is simply much thicker; I assume this is for heavier application of things like paints.

The Serwex 101 on this paper was similar to the experience with the Alpha paper. It had feedback but it wasn't bad for me. Using the Beta paper clarified the fact that I really don't mind feedback! I think it's nice to have this sort of tactile feeling when you write. Maybe my opinion on this will change if I have to face these sorts of paper every day for the rest of the year, but so far? I like it. This, however, is probably the notebook that would come last, not out of a deficiency in quality. The Beta series paper is simply too thick for my purposes; I honestly do not need 270g paper. 

The Epsilon series has 150g paper with a plate surface. Once again, I don't know what this means. However, the paper is built for "line drawings". This is definitely the smoothest paper of the bunch. Running your finger across it gives you little resistance; it kind of feels like Rhodia paper.

This was the paper built for pen and ink, so it's only obvious that it would work best. There was the slightest hint of feedback, which I really liked. When I compare the writing I did on the Epsilon and Alpha, I notice that there's a difference in appearance, too. I don't really know how to explain it. The slight texture of the Alpha series is visible when you look at it. Does this take away from the "cleanness" of the writing? Letters don't look jagged but they look sort of like they're competing with the texture. On the Epsilon series there is no "competition".

You may notice the glue tests at the bottom--or, you'll notice their labels. I use Mod Podge, a water-based glue, and Coccoina, a sort of adhesive paste that smells really good. Coccoina makes paper crumple more, but Mod Podge, if used too liberally, will make paper buckle too. I needed to make sure that the paper wouldn't crumple too much with either. The Beta series stood up the best with not a sign that either glue was used. The Alpha series came in second. Looking parallel-y at the paper, you can see a slight dip. With the Epsilon series, the dip is more pronounced. I expect, however, that closing the journal would smooth these out.

I guess now I'm kind of torn. I loved the paper samples I got. But like I've stated before, do I want to purchase these? The smallest Alpha series at 4"x6" runs at approximately $13 on most art stores; the smallest Epsilon series at 5 1/2"x8 1/2", $18. I completely understand that you have to pay for quality. But how much am I willing to pay for this quality? Would I pay $13 for a notebook I could otherwise purchase for under $10? I guess I'll have to answer this question eventually.

(2/4/2013) Came back to this draft after a bit. I decided against purchasing a Stillman & Birn art journal simply because I looked at my bank account and gawked a little. I decided to spring for an Art Alternatives hardbound sketchbook--with shipping, it came out to be about $8.95--the same exact price I would pay for a similar sketchbook at my local Barnes & Noble, but without tax. The Art Alternatives sketchbook is actually pretty awesome; when I get a little deeper into it, I'll make sure to post about it!

So I guess I can sum up my experience like this: amazing, but just not for me. I really enjoyed my experiences with the paper, but it's a little out of my price range. If I ever find myself with a spare twenty, though... well, you know where it'll go.

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