Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbookI was planning to give a lukewarm-to-negative report on the Stillman & Birn Alpha softcover pocket sketchbook. A few pages in, the binding was fine, though the same could be said for the Delta sketchbook that after a few pages more cracked and tore between signatures. I tried brush pen and different types of pencils on the Alpha’s smooth white paper (there’s only the smallest bit of tooth to it), and the results were meh, both in the look of ink on the paper and the feel of working with it.

Stillman & Birn Gamma and Delta sketchbooksThe Alpha is praised as excellent all-purpose (ink, pencil, wash) heavyweight paper (150gsm weight–but to quote artist Ursula Vernon (@UrsulaV): This cardstock is not “heavyweight.” Heavyweight means I can beat a man to death with a pack.)

After a few sketches I found myself wishing I had gone with my instincts and returned the book to the store. I had been planning to when I discovered the Delta sketchbook had defective binding, but when I contacted Stillman & Birn about that, they insisted I unwrap the Alpha to check it too. So, I was stuck with it. They sent an extra pocket-size Gamma sketchbook along with the replacement Delta, but since it’s the same paper as the Alpha in ivory instead of white, I decided I’d give the Gamma to someone else.

The first experience with the Alpha was like drawing on the cardboard inserts that come stuck in shoes or tights. There seemed to be no character to it; pen and pencil lines sat indifferently on the paper, dull, not looking their best. The customer service rep who wanted me to unwrap the Alpha was friendly, and the replacement Delta arrived quickly. But I didn’t see anything special about the Alpha paper. It was adequate, but so is photocopier paper.

Last night I took another look at reviews of the Alpha, trying to figure out what I was missing in all the love, including a review showing an artist soaking the paper with dripping swashes of watercolour, pushing it to its limits. It didn’t seem like it could possibly be the same paper. So I tried some cautious watercolour swatches. The paper curled, but to be fair I had wet only one edge, so it isn’t strange that a paper this thin would roll right up. The colours looked pretty on the bright white.

multicolour Mus

Then I tried the 02 Sakura Micron Pigma pen instead of the brush pen.

line art Iusta, suitable for colouring

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Turns out that the Alpha is a nice surface for the sort of precise pen lines the Microns give (I first chose to draw SPQR Blues with Microns to get precise, Roman-road lines instead of varied brush-pen strokes). I still can’t say the Alpha paper has a lot of what I’d call “life,” but the ink goes down evenly. That is to say, the paper doesn’t “push back,” affecting the ink or the nature of the line. It’s hard to describe; but I feel that even a super-smooth Strathmore Bristol plate paper gives a little bit of pushback characteristic to the surface. That the Alpha doesn’t is not a bad thing, just a different thing. I felt like I was drawing outlines for colouring book art when drawing on this paper.

I did a light, cautious watercolour wash over the inks. The paper warped a bit—it’s by no means lying flat, as in the YouTube demo, where the paper was taped down on all four edges as the artist worked; but I don’t expect to have to tape down the pages of an on-the-go sketchbook to use it. After a night flattening it under some big books, the pages are still warped enough that I wouldn’t want to draw or paint on the opposite sides unless I’m just doodling and not worried about colours pooling in the dips. If I used watercolour throughout the book, it would end up with that “Hobonichi” look of a well-used journal. Not necessarily a bad thing. I’d call that “character.”

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ADDENDUM, 25 March: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a negative review of any of the Stillman & Birn sketchbooks, except for the price. The softcovers seem to be relatively new, and the lower price is a plus. Each signature in the Alpha softcover is four folded sheets, with the first and last sheets of the book pasted down onto the cover. So you can draw on the inside covers, but the first 2cm of glue wrapping around on either side from the spine is thicker, enough to give the paper a bump and a crease. The Delta is two sheets per signature.

Getting a few pages into the Alpha, I see a difference between the front and back of the sheet that I hadn’t noticed yet, since I’d used only one side. The back has a toothier texture, and there’s one signature folded so that the first half of its pages has the rougher front. Last night I drew and erased pencils for six tries at a Felix drawing, each time wondering when the surface would be compromised. It still looks perfectly fine. I’ll update the review when I try inks and a wash on it, because that’s a major plus if it can withstand that much fussing.