Stillman and Birn Sketchbook Review

9:24 AM

Stillman & Birn Sketchbooks
Beta Series on the left;
Alpha Series on the right
Click to enlarge any and all photos
There has been a lot of discussion about the Stillman & Birn sketchbooks on several blogs and FB groups that I play with, so I decided to order a couple and see what they were like.

I purchased a 7 x 7 inch (17.8 x 17.8 cm) Beta Series with extra heavy weight paper and a rough surface as well as a 6 x 8 inch (15.2 x 20.3 cm) Alpha Series with heavy weight paper. Both papers are Natural White in color. When compared to Arches, Winsor and Newton, Fabriano and Strathmore, the paper was very close in color to these watercolor papers with some being a little lighter and one being a bit darker.

The paper in both books is alpha cellulose which is a wood pulp that has been processed to remove lignin and other impurities. It is consider to be a very strong paper that is acid and chloride free.

Beta Series
Beta Series
Daisies Test Page
My first test page in the Beta Sketchbook was a sketch of some daisies. The sketch was done with Copic marker and I had no trouble with the pen skipping. The paper surface is very much like you would expect from Arches cold press watercolor paper with slightly less tooth.

Things to note: while you can lift (see daisy shapes in the background) it is nearly impossible to go back to white. If you do, the paper surface is damaged and it becomes difficult to paint over the area without it being obvious.

I found priming the paper with water was necessary to get a good flow to the paint rather than painting a straight wash. The paper tends to grab the paint quickly making it difficult to get a smooth was without hard lines or edges.
Please forgive the crooked scan
Private journaling has been blocked
at the top of the page
The paper is 180 lb. weight so there was no bleed through to the daisy page. Even with the heavy application of paint and water, the paper still dried flat with minimum buckling. The food collection is the backside of the daisy page. I found no noticeable difference in the surface of the paper after the earlier saturation of the front page.

I also did an eraser test on another page to see how easily the paper erased and whether the paper surface changed. I noted no damage from the erasing and the pencil lifted easily.

Alpha Series
Alpha Series
Daisy Test Page
To keep my testing fair, I decided to use the daisies again. This paper has far less tooth and texture than the first. The weight of this paper is 100 lb. and the buckling was much more pronounced (as would be expected of a lighter weight) when I created the background wash. There is little room for correction and even less lifting ability on this paper. I used the same Copic marker to draw the daisies.
Backside of the daisies page
Note the buckling
When I started to draw on the backside of the daisies, I immediately noticed the paper surface had been altered by the heavy background wash. The ink feathered and the buckling was so pronounced that I finally dug out my binder clip to hold the page flat. 
Notice the binder clip on
the left of the book
The "Let Go and Grow" page is a mixed medium page of watercolor, marker, ink and a touch of colored pencil. There was bleed through to the front daisy page, however the scans do not show it well. It wasn't bad, but there was definitely bleed through. I also noticed that when I used pencil and then erased, it left an impression on the page, sometimes making it difficult to lift the graphite. The surface did not seem altered by the erasing.

Final Evaluation: If you use a lot of markers, heavy ink or moderate watercolor, your best bet is to opt for the heavier paper in the Beta Series. If you are looking to do very light washes, pencil work, colored or graphite, I think you'll be fine using the Alpha series. Writing on this paper (when not altered by heavy washes) was a dream no matter which pen I used. 

The paper in both books has a nice feel to it and performs well. I think I'll enjoy using both books, however, I don't see myself purchasing more when these are filled. 

Please note: The paper in each series is the same whether the book is hardbound or wire-bound. The Beta Series with the heavier paper is only available in the wire-bound form. To keep my unscientific tests as similar as possible, I opted for two wire-bound books. 

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20 Creative Thought(s)

  1. A very timely post Laure. I had recently heard about this paper and wondered how it would work with watercolor. Thanks for doing the tests. Thanks for using white daisies for the test

  2. Thank you! I have been wondering about these sketchbooks for awhile and wasn't sure if I wanted the Alpha or Beta. Sounds like the Beta would be better for me but I'm not sure now at all since you said you wouldn't buy another once these are filled....hmmm. I appreciate you review.

  3. Glad you like them, Teri!

    Stephanie, don't let that statement discourage you. I like the sketchbooks and the paper performs well. I just don't see an advantage over my usual sketchbooks that I already use. If there's no clear advantage, and a personal preference doesn't emerge by the time I've filled them, I don't/won't need to replace them.

  4. Nice assessment, I am very paper ignorant unfortunately!!!! Love your work done here!

  5. Thanks for the evaluation. It sounds like this paper is similar to Aquarius II with it absorbing the water. I don't like that attribute and would have been real disappointed had I bought one of these.

    Your daisies POP off the page. Wow!

  6. Great review, Laure! Your daisies are divine and absolutely pop off the page. Guess my wallet is safe today. I'll stick with filling the journals I've got :)

  7. Excellent review, Laure -- thanks for all the detailed info! You answered all my questions regarding these much-talked-about sketchbooks.

    (The daisies and donuts are incredible!)

  8. Hi Laure,

    Thanks for taking the time to review the new Stillman & Birn sketchbooks. I enjoyed seeing the artwork you did in these books.

    I believe the buckling you experienced in the Alpha book was due to the amount of wetness used; as you point out Alpha is primarily suitable for dry media and light washes. For heavier applications of wet media we recommend the Beta Series which is more suitable for multi-media renderings.

    I agree with you that the Beta series is quite absorbent and may require a wet on wet technique in certain instances, rather than dry brush.

    Again, we very much appreciate your time in evaluating these books.

    Best regards,

    Michael Kalman
    Stillman & Birn

  9. Thanks, Teresa!

    Timaree, if you get a chance to pick up a small one, I would. Experiment. You might be pleasantly surprised!

    Thanks, Pam!

    You're welcome, Vicky, and thank you!

    Stillman & Birn, thanks so much for stopping by! Thanks for placing a product out on the market that's fun to paint on as well. I look forward to working in the journals.

  10. Great review! I am half-way through an alpha series and do my best to try it with different medias - hope to post results soon too!

    (great daisies!)

  11. Who knew there was so much to know about watercolor papers. I am learning so much by coming here. How cool to hear from the company of these sketchbooks. Shows they care.

  12. Beautiful daisy paintings! Is it a mix of copic & watercolor?

  13. Thanks for all this useful information. I love how you test new products and rate them. I love that first sketch of the daisies. The paper must have worked out well because the flowers look almost real.

  14. Great and helpful review. There's a confusing amount of sketchbooks to choose from, and it helps to have your hands on opinion.

  15. Nice job, Laure. I wondered if I'd like these, but Ithink I use too much water to enjoy them the way I'd like. I wish Moleskine or Canson or Arches or somebody would make a really nice, square pages sketchbook, medium sized, without spiral binding, so you could paint over spreads. you really have to make your own, but frankly, Ithink they're all missing out on an opportunity.

  16. Sue, I think you'd be okay with heavyweight option as it took a LOT of water! I agree with you on the idea that the sketchbook people are missing out on the square paged, bound books. However, I can see where it would be difficult with the heavy paper to bind it. The problem I have with Arches is that the paper cracks when you fold it even if you do make your own. And I'm just not that fond of Canson or Fabriano, but I'm going to give Fabriano a go one more time.

  17. I'm loving your "reviews" of all kinds of paint supplies, especially art journals. It's so hard to find a good one... I know I'll eventually make my own just to get the results I want, but for now, I'm using up what I have.

  18. Wonderful review, Laure...I can see myself trying both of these sketchbooks in the future. I especially like heavier paper in my purchased books, but the consequence is fewer pages! Your daisy paintings are glorious!

  19. I really enjoyed ur works...beautiful blog! keep it up!

  20. your works here are awesome ! I am glad to be able to read your review...makes me think the Bind It All 8 1/2 " by 10 1/2" one I am making with Arches Cold Press 140 pd bright white will be better for me.


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