There are so many different kinds of paper artists can use, and so many materials that demand different surfaces. When you’re in an art supply shop, there are multiple options for loose sheets and large spiral-bound sketchpads, but when it comes to smaller hardcover sketchbooks, each brand only seems to offer one option… why? You’d have to shop around and test different brands to find one that works for you… or at least that was the case until Stillman & Birn came on the scene.
Stillman & Birn’s slogan is “paper matters.” While one artist may want a smooth paper for fine pen & ink drawings, another will want a rough surface for charcoal, or a thick paper that will stand up to watercolors. Stillman & Birn’s sketchbooks offer a variety of options to suit all preferences:
Paper weight: heavy, or extra heavy
Paper color: natural white or ivory
Binding: hardcover or wirebound
Paper surface: rough, vellum, or plate
They have boiled down various combinations of these options into 5 series of sketchbooks–Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon– each of which is available in several sizes, from 4×6″ up to 11×14″.
Let’s take a look at the samples they sent me to test out:
First impressions: the covers are nice and sturdy, with squared corners. The material is a bit smoother than other similar sketchbooks. Each has a paper band outlining the characteristics of the paper within. Otherwise, the only branding is a stamped logo on the back cover. The wirebound sketchbooks are a nice option for when you want to completely fold back the cover. The hardcover sketchbooks don’t open as totally flat as some other brands I’ve tried, particularly in the smaller sizes, but this may be due to the thicker paper.
All the papers performed beautifully– the extra heavy paper did not buckle at all with the watercolors, and even the dreaded Super Sharpie was 99.9% undetectable in terms of show-through unless you’re holding the paper up to the light. Even the heavy weight paper was better for show-through than almost anything else I’ve tried. The regular heavy weight paper only buckled a little with watercolor. All the papers held up to erasing. The rougher surfaces work nicely with charcoal, and yet still feel good to write on with a fine point pen. The surface didn’t deteriorate with multiple layers of watercolor or markers.
My only concern is that my pH test pen showed a couple of the sketchbooks not to be acid-free– if it turns purple, the paper is acid-free, if it stays yellowish, it’s not. I was surprised by this, as I’ve rarely had notebooks fail this test. The Beta sketchbook (extra heavy weight, natural white, rough surface) and Epsilon sketchbook (heavy weight, natural white, plate surface) were the ones that failed, and the only thing those papers have in common is the color. But Stillman & Birn say all their sketchbooks are “archival quality” and “pH neutral” so I hope they’ll address this with tighter quality control on their paper. [UPDATE 9/7: the owner of the company immediately contacted me upon seeing this review. They test their batches of paper when they arrive and are addressing the pH issue with the manufacturer in Europe to understand how this may have happened.]
I really enjoyed testing these, as I had to break out some art supplies I hadn’t used in a while, and the way they performed on these papers inspired me to want to use them more! I hope some of you will also feel similarly inspired by this giveaway: the folks at Stillman & Birn have generously offered to send an 8.5×11″ hardbound sketchbook from the Alpha series to 5 randomly selected winners who enter in any of the following ways:
On your blog, post something containing the words “Stillman & Birn” and “NotebookStories” and link back to this post.
And for those who don’t have these other options available to them, you can also enter by leaving a comment on this post.
Since we can have 5 winners, I will pick at least one winner from each entry method above.
The deadline for entry is Friday September 9 at 11:59PM, EST. Good luck everyone!
And if you don’t win, here’s the list of retailers currently stocking Stillman & Birn sketchbooks. (You might want to snap some up fast, as the company is based in New Jersey and their warehouse and offices were heavily damaged by Hurricane Irene. I hope this won’t interrupt their supply too much!)