Monday, October 7, 2019

Product Review: Stillman & Birn Beta Sketchbook

My first Beta filled on the streets. . . a little road-weary, but not much.
The plain cover is a great showcase for my favorite stickers.

I’ve been using Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbooks for seven years (my first blog reference of it was in 2012), so it seems strange to be reviewing them only now. I’ve filled several with still lives and other sketches made at my desk, and the Beta landscape format has been a supplemental sketchbook whenever I’ve traveled the past few years. I’ve also used a Beta sporadically on location here at home. But after my trip to the Netherlands made me question S&B Zeta for daily field use, I started wondering if I should be using Beta all the time. I just finished filling my first everyday-carry Beta, so it seemed high time to finally write a review.

The spine is wrinkled . . .
When Stillman & Birn sketchbooks first came out, they were only available in hardcover and spiralbound, so those were what I used. As soon as they released softcover editions in 2015, they became a fast favorite. The lower weight and slimmer profile of the softcover is a major benefit for everyday-carry. Even at my desk, I prefer the softcover to the hardbound because the pages open flatter and are therefore easier to use and scan. The softcover is now the only style I use.

After a little more than a month in my bag, the cover is showing small signs of wear along the edges (above), and the spine has shifted a bit and is looking somewhat wrinkled (left), but I have no fear that the pages might come loose; they are firmly bound. (A serious binding issue when the softcover edition was first released was a different story, but after they fixed it, the binding has been completely reliable.) I don’t mind any of these minor signs of wear because filling a 52-page book over four or five weeks is a typical usage rate for me. I also like
. . . but the binding is fully secure.
it when a book looks like it’s done some living. I have inadvertently set it down on coffee and water spills, and the cover wipes off well. If I were planning to carry the same book for several months or longer, however, I might consider putting a slipcover on it to protect it.

The 180-pound Beta paper (along with ivory-colored Delta and smoother Zeta) is the heaviest I’ve used in a sketchbook paper, and I love the fact that I can use both sides of the page without ghosting. The paper warps in areas where I’ve spritzed heavily and remains warped when newly dried. But if I keep the book closed in my bag for a day, the page flattens completely.

Over the years, I’ve used just about every medium that I typically use – colored pencils, water-soluble pencils, markers, brush pens, watercolor, ink – and they all look vibrant and sharp on Beta pages.

5/18/14 watercolor

I’ve heard some watercolor painters complain that the paper’s sizing and fiber content arent ideal for watercolor, and that might be true, but I find it ideal for my purposes. While the tooth isn’t as pebbly as some cold-press papers I’ve tried, it’s enough to grab watercolor pencil pigment aggressively, which is ideal for working quickly on location. The texture does show through with dry media, which some might not like, but I prefer it in nearly all urban and natural scenes. In fact, when I switched from cold-press Canson XL paper (which I used for years in my DIY sketchbooks and which has a Beta-like surface) to smooth S&B Zeta last winter, the feature I missed most was the texture.
2/13/19 Watercolor pencils and Beta are best friends.

What I didn’t fully realize at the time that I switched to Zeta, however, was the difference in sizing among papers intended for wet media. Watercolor painters will talk for hours about different types and degrees of sizing used on various papers, and I don’t know enough about it to go into the technicalities. But what I learned from using Zeta for a few months was that even though the marketing information describes it as being appropriate for wet media, it is not the same sizing as Beta’s. Hues from the same water-soluble colored pencils look slightly less vibrant on Zeta’s surface compared to Beta. In addition, I had trouble when I spritzed Zeta pages for wet-in-wet techniques because water would sink immediately into the surface and even leave a permanent measly pattern where the water drops first landed.

Whatever type or degree of sizing Beta has is just right for spritzing: The water stays on the surface long enough to apply wet pencil color, then disappears without a trace. And the spritzer/Beta team really shines when I spray foliage in my sketches to intensify the hues in an irregular, organic way. The paper’s texture and sizing both enhance the appearance of foliage. (Below is the same sketch I showed the other day; it’s the best recent example I have.)
10/13/19 Spritzing watercolor pencils on Beta's textured surface gives foliage a natural organic appearance.

With such a prominent surface texture, I’d expect to have difficulty with Beta when making finely detailed colored pencil drawings. In the maple leaf below, I used both traditional (Faber-Castell Polychromos) and water-soluble (Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle and F-C Albrecht Durer) colored pencils. I had to keep sharpening the pencils, and it would have been easier to get the fine leaf points with a smoother paper. Yet I’m happy with the result here, and I like the subtle texture on the leaf that was easy to achieve on Beta’s surface. If I were using colored pencils to make anything more finely detailed than this leaf, I would probably choose a smoother paper (Zeta would be ideal).
10/30/17 Colored pencil and water-soluble colored pencil

So far, the only medium I don’t like at all with Beta is graphite used in the way I learned from Eduardo Bajzek that requires constant blending with a tortillon to achieve the lovely tonal modulation that appeals to me about this technique. Smooth paper is essential for it.

Fountain and ballpoint pens are both more pleasant to use on a smoother surface, but Beta’s surface is certainly tolerable with either. Markers and brush pens bring out the texture also, and I like the subtle “dry brush” effect.
7/16/16 Brush pen and Kuretake Zig brush markers

Overall, I’ve been very pleased with S&B Beta as my daily-carry, and it makes sense: I used 140-pound Canson XL for years in my handbound books, and Beta’s surface and sizing are similar to Canson’s. (A major advantage over Canson, however, is that Beta’s surface is identical on both sides. Canson XL, a student-grade paper, has the annoying “feature” of being slightly smoother on one side than the other.) It’s only logical that if I’ve been using Beta happily at my desk all this time, I’d be happy using it on location, too. And I am.


  1. I'm curious. Do you mix traditional water colors with your colored pencils very often? If so what is the order of usage? Watercolor paint then use pencils for details (either wet or dry)?

    1. I don't mix watercolors with watercolor pencils, but I know some artists do. Liz Steel and Suhita Shirodkar are two that come to mind.


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