Stillman & Birn sketchbooks

Stillman & Birn sketchbooks

For a change from the regular Moleskine sketchbooks I’ve been trying out a selection of Stillman & Birns.

Stillman & Birn - Zeta Series

The Zeta series has “extra heavy weight paper” at 180lb/270gsm. The paper has a really good thickness almost card like and very similar to Bristol board. Usually with sketchbooks you learn to live with the paper buckling with even the slightest watercolour wash. With these books, I threw lots of washes onto a single page and its really resilient. So, you can do full watercolours in this book without fear. There is a very slight affect on the paper but its hardly noticeable at all.

I think they achieved this by adding a size of some type to the paper which strengthens it and makes it more resistant to the effects of water. I did notice that paint does behave slightly differently to regular watercolour. It could be that because it sits more on the surface rather than be absorbed colours might appear lighter. The Zeta paper for me was too bright and too smooth that I’m used to. I ended up pre preparing the pages by adding a watercolour wash to each page.

All the pen/paint samples work great on the page. There is very slight feathering with the fountain pen.

Stillman & Birn - Beta Series

The Beta series is another Extra Heavy Weight sketchbook at 180lb/270gsm. Like the Zeta series its pretty much bulletproof when it comes to watercolour washes. Its classed as cold press though the texture is still pretty smooth and not really like the texture you get with regular cold pressed watercolour paper.

One of the effects of using these books is they did alter how I use sketchbooks. Moleskines are cool, but it takes time doing watercolour washes, I’d have to add layer upon layer to get the effect I was after. So doing a page it would take me several hours to finish a painting. With the Stillman & Birn books its a breeze to do washes and so its much easier to fill a page, much better for drawing and painting outside. So its coincided with me wanting to do much more “true” sketching and painting on site.

Another thing the Moleskine books are great with Faber Castell Artist pens and other fibre tip pens. The Stillman & Birn ones aren’t so good, the ink I think gets absorbed too quickly and doesn’t really glide over the paper. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I tried using fountain pens and dip pens instead with these you get a much more varied an interesting line. Now I’ve been exploring different line weights to give my drawings hopefully more character that I couldn’t really accomplish with the Faber Castell pens. From started as a negative turned into a positive to the extent I don’t think I could go back to using fibre tip pens. As with everything there is a trade off what’s good with one thing might not necessarily work with another, these books work fantastically well with dip pen and ink, fountain pens and brushwork.

Stillman & Birn - Delta Series

The Delta Series is pretty much identical to the Beta Series, again an extra heavy weight paper at 180lb/270gsm. Its cold press as well and has an ivory tone to it. This was my favourite sketchbook from the heavy weight series. The subtle tone works well with colour washes.

Stillman & Birn - Gamma Series

And finally the Gamma series which is a heavy weight paper which is slightly lighter than the others at 100lb and 150gsm. This is the book I think I’d go back to and reorder. Although the paper is much lighter I still found it could take watercolour washes really well without much buckling at all. Lighter pages mean more pages it has three times the amount of pages with 62 sheets compared to 26 sheets. This is a big deal if you’re taking your sketchbooks with you on a trip as it doesn’t take long to go through pages. It feels much more of a book and definitely one that I could take on a long trip without worrying I’d run out too quickly.

I don’t have too much more to say about it, its says it has a vellum texture which is pretty close to hot press but not too smooth there is a slight tooth to the paper.

Stillman & Birn - back

If there are any negative aspects these could be. I like having a back pocket to the book, I carry around business cards and keep receipts/bits of paper and its nice to have somewhere to store them. I ended up cannibalising an old moleskine book and removing the pocket and adding it to these books with double sided tape. I wish there was more attention to small details that can give a book more personality, at the moment it feels like a very functional book but it can be the small things that you end up appreciating. This shouldn’t distract that none of this affects how good these books are as sketchbooks.

Last thoughts. These books are ideally suited to drawing outside and you’ll have no trouble with watercolours at all. There’s quite a lot of variety so you can find the book that is aligned to your needs. For me they have to work well with watercolour, have a slight texture, fold flat so I can paint over the spine and have a subtle colour and these pretty much tick all the right boxes.

The Sketchbooks are available at Jacksons Art.

I used the hardbound books 5.5 x 8.5in.