Friday, December 28, 2012

Road Trips, Hot Rods... and a Road Test

Posit: Americans are in love with the open road. Posit: Americans love their cars. (And so do the Swedes, who I am informed actually own more classic American "road yachts" than anyone else.) Jack Kerouac wrote about road trips, and so did John Steinbeck. Teenagers dream of hitting the open road and going in search of America. Affluent retirees buy motor homes and spend their Golden Years exploring this land that Woody Guthrie said belonged "to you and me". And the rest of us look forward to holiday breaks from jobs and other day-to-day commitments so we too can hit the road (maybe with Nelson Riddle's theme from the old "Route 66" TV show playing in our head).

We hit the road, on a whim or on purpose, but never so much as during our major holidays. So, this Thanksgiving "weekend" my family and I headed to the Gulf Coast and my wife's family: a chance to get out and away; to catch up on the year's news with cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents; and to see how the post-Katrina reconstruction has progressed. I enjoy the drive (if I can do it during daylight hours) because both the geography and the scenery gradually change as we make our way east and south; open grasslands give way to pines, then to vast rice fields, then to the Atchafalaya Swamp (a magical place that haunts my artist's imagination, and that I promise - to myself, if no one else -- to dedicate an entire sketchbook/journal one day), back to pines, and finally giving way to twisted oaks, Spanish moss, and the longest man-made beach in the world.

View Driving directions to Gulfport, MS in a larger map

The morning after arriving on "The Coast" I leave my wife to catch up with her family, and my children to play with their cousins, and I venture out -- "to recharge my beach batteries" and to see how the recovery following Hurricane Katrina is progressing. This adventure usually involves driving over to my old neighborhood on 2nd Street in Gulfport, then a relaxing drive east along "the beach" (on Highway 90 -- one of the top two coastal roads in the country), and ending up in Ocean Springs -- a beautiful little time capsule of a town whose downtown is a gentrified snapshot of life in the 50s and 60s, and my favorite coastal community.

Well, my beautiful old house with its wonderful hardwood floors and regional shotgun architecture is gone (washed away by the storm) replaced, if I counted the lots correctly, by a new code-compliant house on stilts. But several of the lots are still vacant (and probably will be for many years to come) and in one I found a beautifully restored 1953 Cadillac Eldorado convertible -- which, of course, I had to stop and sketch.

a classic from the Golden Age of the American-made "land yacht" (in quintessential candy apple red)

The beach drive doesn't offer much landscape for sketching -- just a long horizontal and the soothing harmony of clear blue sky and warm creamy, ochre/orange-tinged white sand. But, combined with the maritime breeze, the gentle lapping of the Gulf waters, and temperatures warm enough for shorts and a brilliantly colored Hawaiian shirt, it can be sublime... and a birders paradise.

Waterman Florida Blue and Pelikan Red on Fabriano Ingres paper 
(pre-cut to carry in the Stillman & Birn sketchbook)

(My leisurely stroll around downtown Ocean Springs -- and an illustrated review of a new paper line from Stillman & Birn that I think you're going to find very interesting -- I'll save for a separate post in the near future.)

And, on the return drive west I alternated between stops (to record some of the man-made landmarks that survived the storm but that will eventually be claimed by the corrosive salt air or the developer's bulldozer) and side trips into some of the small neighborhoods off the beach to see how far along their recoveries have come.

watercolor over micron and graphite on S&B Beta Series paper

Among the more surreal sights I encountered was a Bofors 40mm twin anti-aircraft gun system just west of the Biloxi Yacht Club. Before Katrina, the guns served as a monument to WW II veterans and stood in front of one of the area's VFW lodges. Now, however, they stand as sentinels -- alone and forlorn -- before a vast, empty, overgrown lot. The guns withstood the force of the tidal surge that swept away so many of the buildings but, having been completely submerged by the storm's record high tide, are now being slowly reclaimed by neglect and the corrosive action of the salt water.

the rugged Beta paper handles erasures and corrections with ease 

the paper handles washes with ease & color rides high on the surface, 
remaining just as bright when dry as it was when wet

In one of the small neighborhoods, in from of a tiny mom-and-pop grocery store, I also spotted a beautifully finished ("restored" would not be the proper adjective here, I think) Chevy pickup truck. It was highly modified (to say the least) but as best I could tell it started out as a 1936 model -- and was a delight to behold!

OK, I think this has been my most "literary" posting to date. Next week I'll almost certainly return to my more normal model (more illustrations, fewer words). In the meantime I hope you're all enjoying a wonderful holiday season, and getting in lots of sketching of your own.

a little driving home music


Test Drive: Some time back Michael Kalman, co-owner of Stillman & Birn, kindly offered one of the company's Beta Series sketchbooks for me to review and evaluate. So, I decided to take advantage of our Gulf Coast road trip  to do a little "test drive". All of the images produced for this week's blog article (with the exception of the pelican) were produced in the Stillman & Birn journal and the following are my observations and thoughts.

this set slips perfectly into my day kit (with plenty of room for watercolors and color pencils)

Structure: Stillman & Birn journals are available in two bindings: a sewn, hardbound structure with rigid spine; and a hard-covered, spiral-bound structure. This review will focus on the qualities of the first type of structure.

The front and rear cover of the binding use remarkably thick, rigid boards that will easily withstand the rugged conditions that face the outdoor adventurer and keep safe the notes and observations lodged within. Careful attention has been paid to details in the journal's construction. And the rear cover has been deeply imprinted with both the company's logo and the name of the sketchbook series.

the elegantly rendered imprinting on the rear cover is a perfect match 
for the leather-like finish of the binding  

One drawback to some hardbound sketchbooks is their inability to lay completely flat when opened (and this can be particularly problematic when doing a two-page spread in watercolor as washes will tend to puddle in the "gutter" between the pages). Stillman & Birn has resolved this issue in their sewn structures through the design/construction of the journal's spine.

the flexible inner spine is the secret to the Beta Series' ability to lay remarkably flat 

If you lay the spine flat on a table and then proceed to open the journal to a pair of inner pages you will observe that, as the front and rear covers are lowered to the table surface, the sewn section rises up and away from the hardboard spine of the binding. By the time the pages are fully open the pages are laying completely (or very nearly) flat, with little of no "gutter" to speak of. I found this feature outstanding.

Paper: While Stillman & Birn do not manufacture their own paper for this series, they have researched their options carefully and chosen very well. The paper is a remarkable 180 lb./270 gsm. (That is, for example, 40 lb. heavier than the most popular watercolor paper sold by Arches, and 70 gsm heavier than the paper used in the Moleskine watercolor journal.) The paper is archival, being pH neutral, acid free, lignin free, and chloride free. The paper has been heavily (and very evenly) sized both internally and externally, so that washes result in little or no buckling of the page, colors remain on the surface, are vivid even after drying, and (when necessary) can be readily "lifted" to make corrections. It also has a Cold Press surface with a texture that falls between Arches CP (Arches CP is more textured) and Arches HP (this time Arches being slightly less textured).

even after a full minute of nib contact feathering was virtually nil with water-based inks

Show-through/bleed-through: Before I hit the road I wanted a clear idea what I could (and couldn't) expect from this sketchbook. I turned to the last page of the journal and ran a torture test with six pens and both water-based and alcohol-based inks. With each pen/ink combination I held the pen point to the paper for a series of pre-set periods of time and then observed any indication of feathering, show-through, or bleed-through. What I found (see illustration below) was that the paper's sizing prevented both feathering and bleed-through of all water-based inks -- even when the nib was held in place for a full 60 seconds! The alcohol-based Sharpie ink in the thick-felted large marker was a completely different story; feathering (the horizontal spreading of the ink) could easily be observed with the eye, show-through occurred at the 1 second mark, and bleed-through began at 5 seconds. In fact, bleed-through actually marked a second page at 30 seconds, and bleed through the second page at 60 seconds. (In fairness to S&B, the Sharpie test was intended to determining the Beta Series' outer parameters and I doubt many journalers will find the large Sharpies practical drawing tools in any sketchbook.)

Format: At this time the Beta Series hardbound is available in three popular "portrait" format sizes (8.25x11.75 in. (A4), 8.5x11 in. and 5.5x8.5 in.), but not currently in "landscape" format.

Pros: The Beta Series are built very well and will easily hold up to whatever the artist/voyager may throw at them. The binding is thick and rugged and will provide excellent protection to the treasures within. The structure lays flatter than most hardbound sketchbooks, making double-page images a workable option. The stitching is flawlessly done (with heavier thread and more stitches than some competing brands) and will handle repeated openings and closings with ease. The paper is sturdy, thick and heavily sized. The paper's surface is just abrasive enough that it responds well to even the lightest touch of a pencil (thus providing the maximum value range possible with pencil) and handles most media -- both wet and dry -- exceedingly well. When working with wet media, color sits on the surface, retains its full intensity, and can be readily lifted when needed. And little or no buckling is produced when watercolor or ink washes are applies.

There is absolutely no show-through or bleed-through with normal sketching media and techniques. So one can use both sides of each page with confidence.

And, if the snowy white of the Beta Series is too bright for your personal taste, the folks at Stillman & Birn thoughtfully offer the Delta Series -- same surface and paper weight in a subtler creme color.

Cons: When new, the structure does not lay completely flat when open so a little time must be taken to "soften" the spine (by repeatedly opening and closing the book) or some care must be takes when working with washes to avoid puddling in the gutter, and photographing/photocopying finished works that cover a two-page spread may be more challenging. Avoiding this issue is easy if one simply follows the recommendation found on the company's website; open the book to a series of pages, beginning at the front and proceeding to the back, until the facing pages lay completely flat. Repeat this process until the structure lies flat when open and has lost its tendency to spring closed. When the book opens and closes without resistance you're done.

Unlike the Alpha and Gamma Series, the Beta Series is not currently available in a horizontal "landscape" format; this may not be an issue for some, but personally I like the unique creative potential that is offered by the elongated double-page spread -- whether used horizontally or vertically. While the Beta handles fineline markers with ease, the feathering and show-through/bleed-through experienced with the Sharpie marker would lead me to suggest caution when using alcohol-based markers and probably to recommend using only one side of each page when using this kind of medium. (If you're a marker devotee you might even want to utilize a piece of loose barrier paper to prevent bleed-through from one page from spoiling the next.)

While I had no difficulty using a fountain pen and fountain pen ink, the paper's surface is just abrasive enough that I caution against using vintage or gold nibs; I limit myself instead to Microns and modern stainless steel-nibbed fountain pens. For an even smoother working surface experience -- one that will easily handle watercolor AND the most sensitive pen nib -- watch for the arrival soon of Stillman & Birn's new Zeta Series: 180 lb./260 gsm weight but with a Bristol-like Hot Press finish that is perfect for even the most detailed renderings. (I have received a few sheets of this delightful paper for testing, so you can expect a full review with illustrations in the very near future.)

If you (like me) are in the habit of depositing found objects and flotsam from your adventures in your journals, you may miss this elastic closure commonly found on Moleskine and Rhodia journals. Solution -- recycle the heavy rubber band than comes with you broccoli and other bunches of veggies from the green grocer's. And an envelope (either no. 10 or notecard sized) tucked inside the rear cover will keep receipts, wrappers, and the odd piece of exotic ephemera safe and sound till journey's end.

feathering test on the Beta Series paper

In conclusion, while some companies in the sketchbook/journal industry seem at times to base their sales on hype and the names they can drop, rather than the quality of their product, this relatively new line is clearly set to earn their reputation by offering the artist/journaler a sketchbook constructed of quality materials and crafted to last.

Am I Blue (Week 3): This is the second update of the lightfastness portion of our review of blue fountain pen inks (sorry, no post last week) and I am very pleased to report that (as can be seen in the photo) there is, thus far, no noticeable change in the hue or intensity of the inks, although (contrary to what one might expect) the Sheaffer Peacock Blue ink that has been exposed to sunlight (and we've had plenty of that) may actually be getting a tad darker.

lightfastness results after 3 weeks

I will continue to watch the test card each week for any sign of fading or shifting but, in the interest of brevity,  I will wait until the 6th week to make my next fade test update (unless there are any unexpected developments).


  1. Great post Earnest. Useful information and splendid illustrations! I'm eager to try both the Beta and the Zeta papers.

  2. Love the drawings. Very useful and thorough information on the S & B journals.

    1. Thanks lee, glad you liked them. Watch for a special "sneak peek" review/preview of the soon-to-be-released Zeta Series (Beta-thick watercolor paper with a luscious ivory-smooth surface) in the very near future.


  3. You are the second person I have seen demo the new paper, now I just want to get a hold of TFS, Fantastic Job!