Monday, April 13, 2015

Product Review: Canson XL Mix Media and Borden & Riley Vellum

My latest DIY sketchbooklet, this time made with 98-pound
Canson XL Mix Media paper.
I may have inadvertently discovered an ideal paper for making small sketchbooklets!

I wasn’t looking for it; after making my most recent DIY notebook, which was mostly an exercise in spite, I was planning to go back to the Canson Biggie 100-pound or Strathmore 100-pound watercolor papers that I had used originally. Those papers are great for the kind of sketching I do in small sketchbooklets because they take a light ink wash well. Unfortunately, they are also so heavy that I can fold only six sheets together (yielding a 24-page sketchbooklet). I was hoping to find something thinner, which led me to trying Rhodia paper, but it’s too transparent to sketch on both sides. Like I said, it was mostly an exercise in spite because I was so frustrated with all the small notebooks on the market (though obviously I accomplished nothing more than cutting off my nose).

Anyway, I was actually shopping for paper for the ink drawing class I’m taking at Gage. The instructor had recommended paper with a relatively smooth texture appropriate for dip pens and also heavy enough (around 100 pound) to withstand a wash of diluted India ink. For the one-time “quick start” class I took last week, I used 100-pound Bristol board, which I happened to have on hand, but it’s a bit pricey to be burning through during 10 weeks of class exercises, so I decided I needed something cheaper. (Not to mention that I’m always looking for an excuse to shop for art supplies.)

Borden & Riley Vellum
Canson XL Mix Media
I came home from the Blick store with two pads of paper: Canson XL Mix Media (98 pound), which the instructor had used last week, and Borden & Riley Vellum drawing paper (90 pound). In the back of my mind, I was thinking that the Borden & Riley could turn out to be appropriate for making sketchbooklets since it’s much thinner than 100-pound paper and also very smooth, making it pleasant to write and sketch on with fountain pens, and because the pad says “recommended for light washes, pen & ink” and dry media.

First I tested both papers with the types of pens and media I’m likely to use on them: a dip pen with India ink for class; three fountain pens with both waterproof and water-soluble inks; and a swipe of watercolor.

Borden & Riley tests
Canson XL Mix Media tests
Reverse side of Borden & Riley
The Borden & Riley vellum tested disappointingly poorly on all counts. My Pilot Falcon nib, which puts out a fire hose of ink to keep up with its extreme flexiness, feathered to high heaven. Even the fine dip nib feathered, and my Sailor fude pens, which almost never feather, showed a little feathering, too. But the most disappointing part was how poorly the paper took washes. Maybe it’s the sizing (or lack thereof), but inks apparently sink straight into the paper (and all the way to the reverse side, in the case of the fire-hose Falcon), leaving nothing on the surface to wash when swiped with a waterbrush. With an ordinary fountain pen, the paper is opaque enough that sketches could be made on both sides, but not if water is applied. This paper flunked out as both a classroom paper and a potential sketchbooklet paper. (The misleading labeling that indicates the paper is appropriate for all the media I tested it for is particularly annoying.)

4/12/15 Iroshizuku Take-sumi ink, Pilot Falcon
pen, Caran d'Ache Museum water-soluble
colored pencil, Canson XL 98 lb. Mix Media
(slightly leaning Eiffel sketched from photo)

The Canson XL Mix Media paper, on the other hand, performed well in all the ways that the Borden & Riley failed. First of all, I have to say that I’ll never understand paper weight poundage designations. This 98-pound “mix media” (my copyeditors eye is twitching! It should be “mixed media”!) paper is significantly thinner and lighter than 100-pound watercolor paper – way more than the 2-pound difference. In fact, it feels thinner and lighter than a couple of 90-pound watercolor papers I have!

I’ll forgive the confusing poundage, however, because its surface is wonderful. It has some tooth, which gives washes some character, but is smooth enough not to snag my flexy Falcon or dip nibs. None of the nibs and inks I tested feathered at all, and the water-soluble inks blurred to soft, lovely washes when water was applied. At 98 pounds, it’s fully opaque, as expected, and no bleed-through occurred, even where the ink was washed.

4/12/15 Platinum Carbon ink, Van Gogh watercolor,
Canson XL 98 lb. Mix Media paper
I got so excited about it that I made two sketches, one on either side of the same sheet – one with my wet Pilot Falcon, Iroshizuku Take-sumi ink and a little water-soluble colored pencil (above), all washed (these media are what I would typically use in a small sketchbooklet) and a second sketch with waterproof Platinum Carbon ink and watercolor (at left). As you can see, there’s no bleed-through at all (and barely visible ghosting), and only minor buckling – yet the paper is thin enough to fold eight sheets together (yielding a 32-page sketchbooklet). That’s not quite 48 pages (apparently the industry standard for pocket notebooks), but compared to my former 100-pound sketchbooklets, it’s 33 percent more bang for my handbinding buck!

Canson XL Mix Media gets an A+ for both my pen and ink class and my daily-carry sketchbooklets! (But not for editing.)


  1. The Canson XL Mixed Media sounds like it will work perfectly for you! I'm glad you finally found something you're happy with. Next time I'm at Blick I will have to look at it. I could use some small pocket notebooks.

  2. Thanks, I will have to look for this since I want to try making sketch booklets the size of the Baron Fig Apprentice.

  3. Glad you've found a paper you like for your booklets. Sorry about the cutting the nose thing. I still dream of someone else making 3x5 sketchbooks filled with S&B Alpha (100lb) paper and I'm not sure it matters to me how many sheets are in them :-) --- Larry

  4. I'm using the Canson XL Mixed Media for the leather bound books I'm making for the Fort's gift shop!


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