Monday, January 4, 2016

Paper Shake-Up

12/30/15 brush pen, ink, colored pencils, 98 lb. Canson XL
mixed media paper
For more than two years now, I’ve been using Canson XL 140-pound watercolor paper consistently in my handbound sketchbooks. While it’s considered “student grade,” I find both the surface and weight to be perfectly adequate for my watercolor needs (and skill level), and it’s a terrific value. Using 30-sheet, 9-by-12-inch pads from, I can make a 72-page sketchbook for less than $3.

There are other “costs” involved in using 140-pound paper, though. One is that I can’t stitch more than about three sheets per signature because of the paper’s thickness. (For a while, I tried stitching four sheets because I wanted more double-page spreads per signature, but the Coptic stitch I use to bind the signatures together seemed compromised from the heavy signatures, so I went back to three sheets.) The way I burn through them, I fill a sketchbook at a rate of about one per month, so that’s as often as I have to bind a book. As much as I enjoy bookbinding, I would like to be able to go longer between bookmaking sessions, and that means putting more pages in each book.

The second “cost” is in storage space; you heard me griping recently about how I’m running out of shelf space for all those sketchbooks.

To address both of those “costs,” I’m trying an experiment. Since last spring, I’ve been using 98-pound Canson XL Mix Media paper to make my pocket-size catch-all sketchbooklets. The paper isn’t as robust as the 140-pound version, of course, but I’ve found it to hold up very well under light ink washes and even watercolor. At my usual 9-by-12-inch size (folded to 6-by-9 inch), I can stitch five sheets together, and the signature is about the same thickness as three sheets of 140-pound paper. That means I can bind six signatures into a 120-page sketchbook, and it would take up the same amount of shelf space as a 72-page sketchbook (of my current design). It would take me nearly twice as long to fill, so I wouldn’t have to bind as often. A lot more bang for my hand bookbinding buck!
98 lb. Canson Mix Media paper

The main issue I face is whether the paper will hold up to watercolor as well as I hope it will. During the winter months when I sketch indoors, I tend to use less watercolor anyway and use more pen and ink with light washes. I’ve also been moving away from watercolor and toward colored pencils in general, so the lighter paper stock might even work out long-term. The sketch above of trees at Green Lake was done in my typical fashion: I sprayed the top half of the page lightly with water, applied ink with a waterbrush and sketched with various pens and colored pencils. That’s about as wet as I get, and the paper held up fine.

On a full-page spread, though, the paper buckled quite a bit, and it’s visible in the scan of the light rail construction crane I sketched the other day.

When I start sketching outdoors again (alas, many months away) and use watercolor more often, I can switch back to the heavier paper. That’s the beauty of bookbinding – I can change papers at any time, yet maintain chronology in the finished book.

A secondary issue is the possibility of ghosting when I scan pages. I’ve gotten spoiled by the 140-pound paper’s total opacity, but I have to say Im not bothered by the little ghosting I see.

I have one more minor paper experiment coming up: A few weeks ago I alluded to finally getting my hands on some unbound sheets of Stillman & Birn paper. Way back (at least a couple of years ago?) when S&B first announced the release of the loose papers, I was very excited about the prospect of putting them into my handmade sketchbooks. After all, they were the same papers I knew and loved from my favorite purchased books before I started bookbinding – how delicious to be able to make my own books with them! But when I couldn’t find the papers anywhere locally, my enthusiasm fizzled, and I forgot about them.

Running into them recently at a local shop was a bit anticlimactic, and at $4.69 per full-size sheet of the heavyweight Beta and Zeta papers, the sticker shock was severe. I did the math, and the S&B paper would bring the cost of my handmade sketchbooks to $21 for a 72-page book (and that’s not even counting the paper waste to conform to my usual 9-by-12-inch format). At that price, I can’t justify using it regularly. But just to find “closure” on my long-standing search, I went ahead and bought two sheets, cut them up and stitched them into signatures. Despite the papers being too costly and too thick (contradicting the purpose of my previously described paper experiment), they will be fun and luxurious to try. I’m saving those signatures, though, for times when I know I’ll be using watercolor.


  1. Tina, when you say "ghosting" do you mean show-through of your ink lines? If so, I may've a fix for you. Slip a piece of black paper... cardstock or drawing paper, whatever... behind the page you're scanning. Ta-da... no more show-through!

    I too have a space issue with my sketchbooks and have moved to lighter/more pages per book and have now freed up an empty file drawer to hold "archived" volumes. It'll be great to see where 2016 takes you!

    1. Hi Dana! I have used the dark paper trick, and it works well to prevent show-through from the page that is being blocked by the dark paper, but it doesn't always work for ghosting from the page directly on the opposite side as the one I'm scanning. I'm pleased that I haven't had too much trouble with ghosting so far, though. Thanks -- I'm looking forward to 2016, too!

  2. Not everyone will have their "winter" and "summer" sketchbooks. It does sound like a good idea.


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