Stillman and Birn Alpha Hardbound Sketchbook Testing and Review Part I

 Click here to skip to Part II, if you've already read Part I.

Having recently completed a journal, I've been dealing with the issue of "What Will I Do Next?" In order to make that determination, I started experimenting with the kind of work I want to do in an assortment of sketchbooks, to determine which one(s) will give me what I want. Of course there is always the Make Your Own option, but I'd much rather be sketching than making sketchbooks, if I can find something that works for me.

I decided that I don't want to give up the ability to work across two page spreads, so that immediately eliminated all spiral books. Working across the two pages enables me to sketch twice the size of the book, eliminating half the weight and not having to carry such a large book when I go out on location. Plus, when I'm done with a sketchbook, I like having the book as a hardcover volume of my life that can sit on a shelf and look like a book. A bunch of spiral sketchpads don't convey the message that this is an art journal as opposed to a sketchpad, and should be treated with a little respect!

Stillman & Birn is a relatively new sketchbook company that just started turning out books in February, but already the high quality of their paper and durability of their books are making them a favorite choice among art journal aficionados. I decided to test the limits of a Stillman and Birn Alpha hardbound sketchbook to see if it would perform well enough to serve my needs. I had previously reviewed the S&B Beta Wirebound Sketchbook. Had that been available as a hardbound book I could have stopped right there, but it's only made in wirebound form. I also did a lot of multi-media work in a Stillman and Birn Delta book (all my zoo sketches, for example), which is the same paper as the Beta but ivory-colored, and also available only as wirebound.  I really need a stitchbound, hardcover book at this time.

The Alpha was the natural next choice, since I want a bright white paper in a hardcover book that can handle some wet media. The Fabriano Venezia book that I just completed has great paper, but it was such a struggle to keep it open when working that I'd rather find an alternative. I want to work much larger now, but for test purposes, I selected a 5.5x8.5" Alpha book to run my tests in the studio and take for test drives out sketching on location.

Having made the hardbound book decision, the time had come to start throwing assorted media at it, and see how it holds up. There were many questions to consider, among them:
  • How will the paper withstand spraying water, brushing on and scrubbing acrylics and inks (sometimes multiple times), and drying with a hair dryer?
  • Will the cover and stitching hold up as I go through the book?
  • Will the paper dry flat?
  • How will the transparency of the paper be affected?
  • Will fountain pens still take to the surface after other media is applied, or will the paper pill too much for smooth application?
  • How will watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, brush pens, flex pens, Cretacolor leads, ink and wash, and pastel react to this paper with and without prepared surfaces of other media?
  • Can the binding and stitching handle removal of the center spread of each signature to give some room for collage work and extra media on the pages?
So far, I've been preparing pages in advance with Golden Fluid Acrylics, F&W Acrylic Inks, and various acrylic mediums, then testing other mediums over the top. In many instances, this practice has become as much or more of a test of how various media react than of the paper itself, but that's only because the paper has been able to handle it! I prepared about 10 page spreads at a time, drying each one thoroughly with a hair dryer before proceeding to the next. Then I'd set the journal under a very heavy coffee table-type book overnight. The pages did flatten completely. Score two big points!

I had a ton of trouble photographing these pages. Clearly there is a scanner somewhere in my future. The background above looks green on my computer, but it's actually yellow, and I have not been able to adjust it to resemble the actual page, no matter how hard I've tried. The page was brushed yellow acrylic paint diluted with water, then blotted with a paper towel to give a mottled surface, and dried with a hair dryer. The red border was then painted on, dried with the hair dryer, and the striping and curly corners added with a Krylon 18K Gold Leafing Pen. (I love that thing!) Sometimes I just can't help myself. In my representational artwork, I never get to play with gold, glittery stuff and very highly saturated color, so I truly enjoy going a bit over the top in my art journals.

Once that preparation of the page was finished, I pulled out my new Sheaffer 100 pen, filled with the new formulation of Noodler's #41 Brown (2012), to see if it would take well enough to the surface. This was dependent on whether or not the paper held up to the abuse I'd already heaped upon it, and also whether this particular pen with this exact ink would adhere to the acrylic-primed surface. Well, no problems on any counts! The paper was still perfectly intact, the pen glided over the surface, and the ink laid down quickly and without skipping. Then I painted the barrel of the pen with watercolor, and that also took without problems.

Encouraged by that first success, I decided to see how my other fountain pens and favorite inks would perform on a similarly-prepared surface. This time, I got some sparkle into the paper itself by using a Golden Fluid Acrylic Gold paint, heavily diluted with some medium and lots of water, and dried with a hair dryer. The blue border was then sponge-painted on.

I tested the following pens on the page:
  • Noodler's Flex Pen
  • Eversharp Symphony Flex Pen Fine nib
  • Eversharp Symphony Flex Pen Broad nib
  • Pilot Plumix
  • Sheaffer 100 Fine nib
  • Kaweco Ice Extra Fine nib
  • Sheaffer VFM
  • Lamy Safari with Broad nib
  • Lamy Safari Medium Nib
  • Lamy Safari Extra Fine nib
  • Lamy Safari Fine nib 
  • Platinum Preppy 0.5 nib (medium)
  • Platinum Preppy 0.3 nib (fine)

And the following inks:
  • Noodler's Bulletproof Black
  • Caran d'Ache Grand Canyon
  • Noodler's Midnight Blue
  • Noodler's Tiananmen
  • Noodler's Kung Te-Cheng
  • Platinum Carbon Black
  • J. Herbin Poussiere de Lune
  • Noodler's La Reine Mauve
  • Aurora Black
  • Noodler's Passternak
  • Private Reserve Velvet Black
  • J. Herbin Cacao du Bresil
  • Noodler's Sequoia
  • Noodler's Purple Wampum
  • Private Reserve Chocolat mixed with Private Reserve Black Velvet ("Chocolat Velvet")
  • Noodler's Zhivago
  • Noodler's Black Swan in Australian Roses
  • Noodler's #41 Brown (old version)
  • Noodler's Lexington Gray
  • Noodler's Mata Haris Cordial
  • Noodler's Mandalay Maroon

I also washed a bit of each ink with a clean waterbrush to see if the ink would wash well or (if bulletproof) if it would stay put even with the light acrylic coating on the pages.

The paper held up so well to the complete wetting, drying, and flattening that not one pen skipped on the paper. The inks washed or didn't wash the same as they would or wouldn't on any other surface. So, pen and ink over a page prepared with diluted acrylic is definitely a winning combination on this paper. Once the page was done, I added the gold borders with the Krylon 18K pen. 'Just couldn't help myself!

The time had come to do some testing with watercolors over acrylic --- a dubious-sounding combination. To make it even more challenging, I decided to do the test on a page that was pretty heavily coated with glimmery Golden Fluid Iridescent Pearl. The acrylic was much less diluted than the previous pages I'd tested.

The apple on the upper left was painted with a waterbrush (the kind with the water in the barrel of the brush). The apple on the lower right was painted with a traditional brush, allowing me to get a higher concentration of paint on the brush. The paper was definitely sealed by the acrylic this time, so I struggled with color lifting when I'd go in to get more paint down. This made it a challenge to get dark values. On the other hand, lifting color when you wanted to was a walk in the park! The paper itself behaved perfectly. It handled all the layers of media flawlessly. Although I was disappointed in how the acrylic and watercolor interacted while I was painting, when I looked at it the next day, I loved the effect! You can't see it much in the photo, but because the prepared page is iridescent acrylic, and the watercolor is transparent, the glistening shows through the color and the apples sparkle in the light! It's so cool!

The next day, I put in a call to Golden Acrylics tech guru, Mike Townsend, to find out if there is a better way to get watercolor to take on an acrylic-coated surface. I'll tell y'all about our chat and show results from applying his suggestions tomorrow. Stay tuned! Click here to go to Part II.


  1. Did you have any bleed through to the following pages? I am just about ready for a new sketchbook and am thinking about the Alpha. I do pen and ink with watercolor washes. Thanks for posting your experiences!

  2. Jill, I've never had bleed-through in this book with any of my ink/watercolor testing, which has been pretty extensive. I'm quite sure you'd be safe with the Alpha!

  3. Thank you for such a comprehensive review. I recently read a review on FPN about Stillman and Birn, but I am having a difficult time locating the product. Any suggestions on where to find?

  4. Kp, here is a link to S&B dealers:


  5. Thank you, Jamie!!

  6. Thanks for such comprehensive tests! I never had any bleed through in any of the Stillman & Birn journals either, so glad to see that acrylic works so well in them too and acrylic inks. Cool techniques you used!

    We've got our preferences. I see what you mean about two page spreads and hard binding though, now I've got a reason to enjoy the hardbound sketchbooks I've got too instead of just sticking to wire bindings.