Review: Stillman & Birn Zeta Series (and Winsor & Newton Watercolors)

The Zeta is the latest addition to Stillman & Birn’s excellent line of sketchbooks. I’ve reviewed the others here, so I won’t go into too much detail about the basics of their construction. The key difference with the new Zeta line is that it offers their heaviest paper in a smooth surface as opposed to the toothier cold press paper in the Beta and Delta series. The 270 gsm paper is said to be able to handle pretty much whatever you throw at it– watercolor, pencil, erasing, pens and other mixed media. So here’s what I came up with for my testing:

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I used all my usual pens– the surface is indeed much smoother than the Beta and Delta, making it a pleasure to write with the fine point rollerball pens I use most. Fountain pens and markers also worked fine. The paper held up well when I erased some of the pencil marks. The Accu-liner pen soaked in a bit and spread out when I held it in place for a few seconds.
And this is the ideal paper for anyone who hates show-through– even the invincible Super Sharpie left only the slightest hint of show-through– when I was taking the photographs, I couldn’t see it showing through at all, but in the photo itself, you can see it just a bit.  That dot where I held the Accu-Liner resulted in a slight grey dot on the reverse side, but nothing else showed through at all. I also used quite a lot of watercolor paint. I got the page quite wet in some locations, without the least bit of deterioration or buckling. The bright white paper shows off the watercolors beautifully.

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As a bit of a digression, I decided to take this opportunity to compare two watercolor paint sets I’ve owned for years. Both are made by Winsor and Newton. I was recently looking into buying another set and I realized I wasn’t sure if what I owned were Artist grade or Student grade. The difference is that Artist grade paints have more pigment, so you get better coverage and more intense color. They are more expensive, as you’d expect. The student grade paints, the Cotman line, are pretty reasonably priced.

Running up the left side of the page are tests of each color in my slightly larger watercolor set. When wetting the paints with a waterbrush, they feel a little creamy, almost sticky.  In the lower right corner of the page, I tested my very small watercolor set. I use this one more often and don’t clean out the paint pans as well as I should, so the colors could be a bit muddy from mixing, but I tried to get them pretty pure for these tests. In this set, the paint feels more watery when you mix it. On the page, the colors don’t seem to have quite the same intensity as the other set. Based on all this, I thought the small set must be the student grade, and the larger set was probably artist grade. However, I knew I would have paid anywhere near the $129 list price! The price may have been a bit lower years ago, and places like Blick and Amazon do discount these sets, but still, that’s very expensive. The other thing I noticed was that the brush that came with the larger set said “Cotman” on it– did that mean just the brush was student grade, or the paints too? I decided to check one more thing– the removable half pans have code numbers and the name of the pigment on them. When I searched some of these on the W&N website, it confirmed that these are indeed Cotman student grade paints. I do enjoy using my tiny little set (the equivalent of which lists for about $28.00) but I may start using the larger set (about $35 list, but discounted at Amazon) more now that I’ve realized the colors are nicer. I’m not sure why two student sets would seem so different in paint quality– perhaps because the smaller set has little blocks of loose paint not contained in pans, it’s more a difference in the binding material holding the pigments in solid form? Or just a difference in the particular colors in each set (the tiny set used to have a slip of paper identifying the pigments, but it’s long gone)? I’m stumped, but both of them are great for casual sketching–I don’t think you can go wrong with either. I have to admit, though, I’m now really curious as to how much better the artist grade paints might be! An inexpensive way to find out will be to buy a couple of individual half pans of the same pigments in artist grade (about $10 each) and test them side by side.

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So back to the sketchbook itself…  what more can I say? It’s fantastic paper, in a quality binding, and it’s a pleasure to use. I love it that Stillman and Birn offers so many options to suit any artist’s needs. Here’s a chart of their various papers. All of the paper types are available in assorted sizes in hardbound and wire-bound versions, from 4×6″ up to 11×14″ depending on the line. (I wish they made a 3.5 x 5.5″ size that would match all my other favorite notebooks and sketchbooks, as even 4×6″ is a bit larger than I like to use while traveling, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the larger sizes at home.)

Most of their prices are in the $15-$30 range, which I think is very reasonable for the quality of their paper. The 4×6″ Alpha series, with 124 pages (62 sheets) of 150 gsm paper, lists for only $12.99. Look for Stillman and Birn sketchbooks at your favorite art supply store, or online at Amazon.

4 thoughts on “Review: Stillman & Birn Zeta Series (and Winsor & Newton Watercolors)”

  1. I would love to win a one of these notebooks ….. I have been wanting to get one but have not had the extra cash to buy one.

    Thank you for this opportunity !!!

    The review of the watercolors and notebooks was great.

  2. Okay, I realize you’ve probably already given away whatever stock you have for these amazing items, but IF THERE’S ANY POSSIBILITY YOU COULD SPARE A FEW FOR ME, I would be forever in your favor. These are exactly what I need in order to do my work – which for the moment is private but might become public some day.

    Is there any possibility you can do a stranger a solid?


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