Playing With Watercolors & Stillman And Birn

When Stillman and Birn sent some books for review, naturally a Beta was included. I figured I’d let my girls at it, since they like to paint and surely having 5 & 6 year old girls paint on paper would be a pretty serious test. but after using the other books for a while I got a bit protective, and didn’t want to give up the Beta. That left the watercolor up to me, and I dreaded it. I put it off, put it off some more, and then finally I jumped. I must have had some kind of fear of watercolors.

Experienced artists with good technique find Beta to be perfectly usable paper. But what about the rest of us? What about people like me who haven’t picked up a brush with creative intent in decades? I’m as good a hack as anyone, and figured the absence of technique would provide a good test.

My first experiment was using tube paints from Reeves to color a simple sketch. Those familiar with You Can Draw In 30 Days will recognize the elements, and I’m sure the art of my children has been an influence:

I squeezed paint onto a pallet, and even mixed colors a bit to get different greens and different reds. The sky was way too thick and I tried to thin it out with more water once it was on the paper. I didn’t soak the page beforehand like some tutorials suggest. I just went at it like someone who had paints and a brush and no instruction, and who was used to painting walls. I was pretty pleased with the result, all things considered.

The paper took it just fine. It was almost like painting on plywood, or sheetrock. As I got each part wet, it did get a little wavy, but in the end the page stayed fairly flat but for a gentle curve:


Not bad considering that some houses have received thinner coats of paint. With the cover closed it flattened out:


After a few days and painting the other side the sheet flattened right out.

My next experiment was with Prismacolor watercolor pencils. Shrunk down a bit the one of Riley on the right doesn’t look half bad to my eye, but the other one is pretty horrid. As they say, don’t be afraid to make a bad drawing! I had no idea I was so fearless 😎 By the way, the paper is white – I just didn’t correct the white balance.

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I think I prefer watercolor pencils to actual watercolor paints. They seem easier to work with for me, but that didn’t save me from the temptation of travel and pocket sets – one each from Sakura and Winsor & Newton. The red Uni KH-20 pencil sharpener below was painted using Sakura’s 12-color pocket travel set, using the color of the pans as the guide to which red to choose – bad move, as they look a lot different on paper than they do in the pan. The crab was pencils.


When I spoke to Michael Kallman, the main guy at Stillman and Birn, he said that many folks were using the Epsilon and Alpha books for watercolor even though that is not what they’re intended for and S & B doesn’t recommend it. Since we all want a book that does everything but in the end we’ll have to live with compromises, I decided to see how the thinner paper reacts for myself.

So I decided to do some color charts from the portable watercolor sets, along with some tests to see if some of the pens I have would take a wash, in my Epsilon book. Noodler’s Bulletproof black proved to be more like BB-gun proof, incidentally. The paper got a bit lumpy, and in spots where I tried to blend colors aggressively a bit of pulp came up. When dry the paper flattened out, but the scrubbed areas were rough to the touch. The folks who are adept with paints don’t seem to have any issues, but I think I’ll stick with Beta. The Sakura Micron was the only pen that could take a wash without smearing like crazy – but it needed 5 minutes or so to dry first.

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When I first started using the books I was predisposed to like the Epsilon. It was most like what I had already, and being mostly a fountain pen user it seemed like a safe choice. Now I’ve changed my mind. I see why people get into watercolors, both the paints and the pencils. They’re fun. They also take more than a few different knacks to do well, and those who haven’t yet developed the skills need a surface that will be patient – for me that is Beta. A fine fountain pen, and a a harder lead work well enough on Beta that I’d rather have the thicker paper than the smoother surface. It’s more opaque than the others, and more crinkle resistant.

I did do a little watercolor, both paints and pencils, in my Leuchtturm1917 notebook, which has 80g paper. Pretty much instant buckling, and any scrubbing quickly rended the surface. Simply wetting pencil lightly wasn’t too bad, but this is definitely not viable watercolor paper, nor was it intended to be. I tried it because I wanted to see what the other end of the spectrum looked like.

I haven’t given Alpha much use – just a light sketch and very light wash with the watercolor pencils. I will give it a more serious try next, and my mind may change again, but for now I think Beta would be my first choice for a do-everything paper.

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