Monday, February 25, 2019

Zeta Testing

2/19/19 7th and Westlake 

Thinking about a sketch kit so small that it would fit in my pencil box has gotten me interested in (OK, obsessed with) the whole sketchbook/paper question again. My love for graphite, awakened by the workshop I took with Eduardo Bajzek in Porto last summer, prompted me to rethink my everyday-carry sketchbook paper. Up to that time, I had been perfectly happy with Canson XL 140-pound watercolor paper with all media that I typically use – but with graphite, it’s just too toothy to use in the softly toned manner that I enjoy so much.

The many papers I tested last fall, trying to find one that would
meet all my media needs.
After hemming and hawing for quite some time, my solution was to stitch a signature of smooth Strathmore Bristol and carry it along with my usual signature of Canson XL. It’s been working out OK, but it’s one more thing to carry, and I also don’t like that sketches will be out of sequence when I eventually bind the signatures. (If it ain’t one thing, ‘tis another.)

Is there really no paper that would meet all my needs if I’m willing to make some compromises? After all, even my everyday-carry Canson XL watercolor paper is a compromise: With all other things being equal, I prefer Stillman & Birn Beta’s weight and texture for wet media. And Canson XL has the annoying “feature” of being slightly less toothy on one side than the other (not surprising for student grade). But for the price and convenience of the pad size (9-by-12 inches, which folds into an ideal 6-by-9 inch signature size), I’ve decided those are reasonable tradeoffs.

If I were to fully reopen my mind, would a single paper option exist . . . .?

After mentally reviewing all the sketchbooks and papers I have tried, I landed on one possibility for meeting all my media needs: Stillman & Birn Zeta. The heavier version of Epsilon, Zeta has a hot press surface that is not quite as smooth as Bristol but is adequately smooth for the graphite techniques I use. In fact, Epsilon was one of my favorites with graphite among the contenders last fall, but I rejected it because its 100-pound weight couldn’t hold up to the spritzing I often like to do with watercolor pencils. I must have forgotten about Zeta then, even though I’ve had a book on my desk for a couple of years and use it occasionally with markers, ink or colored pencils. With the same 180-pound weight as Beta, Zeta can certainly take even a heavy wash and spritzing. The proverbial light bulb blinked on!

Headed downtown for an errand last week, I grabbed the Zeta sketchbook. From a Starbucks window seat, I made the sketch above. I didn’t apply large areas of watercolor pencil, so it wasn’t the best test of Zeta’s water tolerance, but I thought the activated areas were satisfactory.

Later at home, I gave Zeta a more rigorous workout – and put it head-to-head with Canson XL. (Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles were used in all tests.) Since I tend to use my spritzing technique with foliage, I sketched a couple of quick trees from imagination and spritzed them. Although the two papers tolerated sprayed water equally well, I really miss the texture that the Canson XL imparts – the spritzed foliage on it just has a leafier look.

2/20/19 S&B Zeta
2/20/19 Canson XL 140 lb. watercolor paper

Next I sketched an apple on both Zeta and Canson XL (also shown here for comparison is a still life I made a few weeks ago on Stillman & Birn Beta). Although I usually take more time with still lives, for these tests I deliberately emulated a more on-location approach by slamming down the pencils fairly hard and fast (methods not recommended by traditional colored pencil artists). I also used more water than I typically might in a careful, more methodical approach.

2/20/19 S&B Zeta

Canson XL 140 lb. watercolor paper

2/8/19 S&B Beta

Again, both Zeta and Canson XL held up to water equally well. Zeta’s sizing, however, is different, and the pigments don’t look quite as rich when activated as they do on Beta or my daily-carry Canson. Maybe it’s just the difference that painters experience between hot press and cold press papers, but the colors seem a little flatter on the untextured surface. What do you think?

The results of my Zeta testing come down to two qualities: texture (or lack thereof) and color intensity. Are they reasonable compromises if the benefit is being able to carry one type of paper for all my media needs? Or are they deal breakers?

There’s only one way to find out. I have a little more than half the pages remaining in the Zeta sketchbook. I’m going to use it exclusively on location until it’s full. By then, I should have the answer to those questions.

(And yes, I do see the irony of searching for the ideal paper when I just got through sketching on papers from my recycle bin!)


  1. Will be watching to see how the Zeta works for you!

  2. Beta doesn't have that much tooth. I consider it barely like watercolor paper. I think the color intensity is nicer on the Beta.

    1. Beta's tooth is more apparent where dry pencil is applied and not activated. I haven't painted on it much with watercolor paints, but I like the sizing on it with watercolor pencil and things like water-soluble markers.


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