Stillman and Birn – Some Observations On Pencil And Pen

Stillman and Birn sent me some of their books to try, and here are my observations after some brief but purposeful use. I’m not an artist nor an art student. I just like to draw from time to time, and recently I decided to try to take my skills a bit further. That and journaling form my perspective in comparing these books.

Stillman and Birn offers three kinds of paper:

180lb paper with a rough surface, suitable for mixed media is used in the Beta and Delta books.

100lb paper with a vellum surface is used in the Alpha and Gamma books

100lb paper with a plate (very similar to a ‘wove’ surface) surface in the Epsilon book.

I used the following:

Pencil: Palomino Blackwing, Pentel HB and 2B, Musgrave Unigraph 2H

Pen: Namiki Vanishing Point in fine, with Noodler’s Bulletproof Black, Pelikan M800 in extra fine (writes more like a fine) with Private Reserve Midnight Blues.

For fountain pens, I found the Epsilon was best, followed by Beta, and then Alpha. Epsilon is like a brand-new asphalt road. Very smooth and flat. Beta is like an older asphalt road – one that gets little traffic but was laid on a poor base. It’s lumpy and the car lurches up and down, but there’s no tire noise or steering jitter. The texture of the Beta paper wasn’t scratchy, although there’s clearly more feedback than with Epsilon. Alpha is like a brand-new concrete road, where they give it a rough surface for poor weather traction. Flat, but lots of tire noise – a rough surface. I found writing with a Namiki fine point, or fine point gel pens to be scratchy. Not unwritable, and the line quality was comparable to the others, just not very pleasant.

For graphite, Alpha was the surface that did best from a line-quality and performance perspective. Next was Epsilon, then Beta. My simplistic shading test left me with the impression that Alpha would be more forgiving of bad technique. I simply colored the left side of a box, and then using a stomp tried to blend the shading to the right:


Above is the Epsilon. You can see where my original vertical strokes are, even after blending with a stomp.


This is the Beta. The absence of blending here is more my fault than the paper’s – started blending the dark band on the left, and did so too long before trying to blend to the right.


And finally the Alpha. What caught my eye was that the texture of the shading seemed to be more consistent with the Alpha. The density of the shading is more reflective of technique – or lack of. I think all the papers could shade well with good technique.

I found Alpha to lower the apparent grade of a pencil by about 2 grades – an HB lead on Alpha writes about the same as 2B on Epsilon. It also seemed to consume graphite faster. Epsilon was more pleasant to write on, and was more compatible with the grades I prefer for other papers. The Epsilon paper isn’t as smooth as Moleskine or Leuchtturm1917 paper, and it lowers apparent pencil hardness by maybe as much as a grade.

I haven’t yet tried anything wet, but I did try both pen and pencil on the Beta and found it was not very pleasant for me with Pencil – I don’t care for the crayony look it gave the pencils I typically use, although harder lead looked better. For fountain pen it was smoother than I expected, and I’d rather write on Beta with the Namiki fine than on Alpha. With the M800 it felt like many resume/high-end office papers. Another item in the Beta’s favor was the lack of transparency. Both the Alpha and Epsilon are somewhat transparent. Not enough to read what is on the other side, but definitely enough to know something is there. On the Beta I couldn’t see it. I’m not very sensitive to this, and it’s far less than with thinner papers, but I mention it because I know some folks are very particular. I think the Beta is the only book I’ve ever seen that is fully opaque. Its paper is thick and tough, and while this makes a really sturdy book it also hits page count, which is a big issue for journaling.

They all seemed to erase about the same. White plastic erasers did the best, followed by kneadable and then the harder rubber style. In all cases the paper didn’t seem to be affected.

So where am I with this? Still trying them out, since I’ve only filled a few pages or so in each. But, right now the choice would be between the Epsilon and Alpha. The trade-off is either poorer pen feel and the need for harder pencils on the Alpha, or slightly lesser pencil performance on the Epsilon. If I knew I was going to use both pen and pencil, it would be Epsilon. Especially if I would be writing very much as the smoother paper is more pleasant to write on.

However, for sketching in pencil, Alpha is clearly the better paper and I enjoy using it. I’m not sure I can articulate all of why I like using it so much, and I’m not convinced the difference in book size – my Epsilon is 5×8, the Alpha is 8.5×11 – isn’t clouding my feelings, but the alpha seems better enough that I would consider a book just for that.

Last but not least, my experience with these books so far confirms what I thought when I unwrapped them – there’s nothing else out there like these. The paper is heavier and nicer than anything commonly available, and certainly anything available in a bound book. They cost a bit more than the alternatives, but at the rate I would fill books like these, it’s not much to pay for a whole lot more book.

As I said, I’m still checking them out – more to follow!

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