Friday, September 29, 2017

Product Review: Stillman & Birn Nova

9/25/17 graphite, colored pencil
Over the years I’ve dabbled now and then with toned paper. Usually when I get in the mood for it, I bind a couple of sheets into one of my usual sketchbook signatures. The past year and a half, though, I’ve more often gotten my toned paper fix from my red Field Notes Sweet Tooth notebooks. Although it’s not the traditional gray or tan, red still works the same way as a medium tone shaded and highlighted with black and white.

While I’m not inclined to use toned paper with watercolors – I think their luminous transparency requires the sparkle of pure white paper – the opacity of colored pencils is a good match with tones. I was getting a hankering for traditional toned paper again.

When I had heard that Stillman & Birn was coming out with a series of toned sketchbooks, I was thrilled! I received small sample sheets of the Nova series in my Chicago symposium swag bag, which confirmed that the paper was the same texture and quality that I’ve grown to love in S&B’s Alpha series. After months of less-than-patient waiting, they finally appeared at my local Daniel Smith store (also available online at Blick). I grabbed one of each in beige, gray and black in my favorite 5 ½-by-8 ½-inch softcover size, as well as a pocket size in beige.

Stillman & Birn's Nova series of toned books
I’ve reviewed the softcover format before, and the toned Nova series is identical. Like the white Alpha series, the paper is 100-pound weight with a light tooth that I enjoy using with colored pencil and graphite. (The weight is significantly better than 80-pound Strathmore 400 series toned papers, which I had been using before.) It’s not ideal for a heavy wash or spraying with water (which I couldn’t resist doing last week at Chateau Ste. Michelle, despite knowing the paper isn’t intended for such abuse, and the paper buckled). I’d say it’s best with dry media or light touches with a waterbrush.

I’ve been using the beige book to make still lives, and the warm hues of tomatoes and apples really shine on the paper. I get a little thrill knowing I can put in highlights easily with a white pencil without remembering to save out the paper’s white.
9/13/17 colored pencil

I’m finding the black paper to be much more challenging to use. Lighter hues really pop on it (the banana, see below, worked better than the tomato), but they require many layers to achieve the degree of opacity needed to cover the paper. But in the same way that I like seeing the bit of sparkle from a white paper’s tooth showing through, the bits of visible black add an interesting texture. I’m still perplexed, though, about which hues to use for shadows, and I’m challenged to try unusual complements. Black is going to take much more experimentation.

The gray toned book has been my daily-carry for urban sketching the past couple of weeks. I may have chosen the wrong time of year to give this book a try. With all the trees just beginning to turn, and our skies still amazingly clear (at least yesterday), it just doesn’t seem right to use gray. But on an overcast morning a few days ago when I happened to drive by a white-steepled church in the Wedgwood neighborhood (top of page), I was very happy I had the gray book with me then. 
9/12/17 colored pencil
Looking at my sketches so far, I’m not unhappy with using bright colored pencils on gray, but it takes more work to pile on enough layers to make the colors pop. I think I like toned paper best with gray shades and white, as in the steeple sketch, or gray and white plus one strong hue, like the bright yellow I used at the Ballard Locks a couple of weeks ago. 

In any case, I’m having fun experimenting with toned papers, and I’m pleased to have a reliable series of S&B sketchbooks to have the fun in.

9/18/17 colored pencil

9/25/17 colored pencil

9/21/17 water-soluble colored pencil

9/28/17 water-soluble colored pencil, ink


  1. I like the way the fruit sings on the tan paper!! Nicely done!

    1. Thanks, Joan -- I really like the way the colors pop, too!


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