In early May I found myself waiting for a friend and wandered into an art supply store to pass the time. Of course this activity is problematic, wandering in a store full of tantalizing goods leads to unplanned purchases. My unplanned purchase of the day was a watercolor sketchbook, that lured me with a beautiful orange-brown cover, a hint of rough, deckle edged paper, and a square shape to seal the deal. I have been working in this book and have covered it's seemingly lovely pages with all manor of watercolor paintings and journaling. Over the course of this exploration I have stumbled upon a few things not quite to my liking and a few things really wrong with this book. The details of my findings follow.
Made by Global Art Materials/Hand•Book Journal Co. according to the label on the book when purchased, although their webpage does not show this product.
The book contains 48 handmade watercolor paper pages, complete with slightly irregular sheet size and deckle edges. The sheets are white, rough, 140 lbs/300 gsm, both internally and externally sized, acid-free and archival, and made from 100% recycled material.
The version I purchased is 8x8 inches but the line of books comes in a range of seven different sizes.
The book is hardcover bound with sewn signatures and made in India.
All of the above information comes from the label on the band that came on the book itself.
I paid $30, which seems to be the price that I find it being offered for online as well.
At left the full book open on the table. Center image shows the minimal connection between cover and book block, along with the shift of loosen thread. At right a view of the spine when closed, showing the three signatures.
This is a hardbound, sewn signature binding. The book has three signatures that are sewn together with thread. Those signatures are glued to the cover and are only being held in place by about an inch of glue at the base of the end-sheet and first signature (see photo on the right, showing this small attachment at the back of the book).
The signatures in this book are sewn together but they are unsupported, meaning that they are being held together by just the thread, there is no mull/super, tapes, or glue involved. Typically this type of book would have some form of support along the spine and the signatures would be fully glued into the case using the full first and last pages of the book block or by using fully glued end-sheets, creating a structure that is fully supported and stable, spreading the weight and wear of the book across a system.
This means that the thread that was used to stitch the book together is the only thing supporting the book at the spine, making for a weak structure. The thread that was used in this book is stretching (see photos, at left - I shouldn't be able to slide my finger under the thread inside a well sewn signature and there should be no large gap like the one shown), causing the book to begin to loosen up, meaning that with any further use this book will fall apart into separate pieces of paper that used to be a book.
This loosening can be seen in the book now, pages are beginning to slide away from each other by as much as a half an inch.The signatures don't even line up with each other anymore unless you wiggle the book a bit. You can see this in the photo at the right, where the folds of the two signatures are completely shifted from the pages that are open.
In the series of three images above, you can see the further impact of the poor construction on the book as a whole. On the next to last spread, which is shown in the first image, as I opened the page to work on it gaps open by nearly half an inch to a previous image several pages back. This makes the new page a little hard to work on without impacting the painting on the other spread. Any wash will leak back and ruin the already complete page. This has caused me to leave the last two spreads blank, which is a shame, until you consider how I feel about the paper (keep reading, I explain).
In the center image you can see this shifting as the page opens with a gap in the image that was painted across the spread originally in the first signature of the book.
This same gap effect can also been seen in the image on the right, which was painted across the spread in the book's third signature. I have to say at this point the book shifts and slides every time it is opened. Luckily I recognized the signs of a book on it's way to unbinding itself and have been very careful while I finished the last signature, or I fear it would already be in pieces being held together in a ziploc bag in my studio.
The paper in this journal is a heavily textured watercolor paper, sheets are handmade, about 140 lb./300 gsm, with full deckle edges. According to the label the sheets are internally and externally sized, made from recycled material, and are archival. I was attracted to the deckle edges and the idea of working on rough watercolor paper when I purchased this book. I very often work on printmaking paper of some sort or on a smooth mixed media surface, so the idea of a change to watercolor paper was exciting in it's possibility.
The first challenge of this paper was all mine ~ the texture, because I am used to a smooth paper transitioning to this very rough surface was a bit of a shock. I quickly discovered that the fine pens that I tend to use were very difficult to draw with on this sheet as they skipped over the texture and left a spotty line. I have rediscovered the joy of working with my heavier brush and calligraphy pens which deliver a nice bold line over and between all the texture. Since managing my reaction to the texture and getting used to drawing on the sheet, I am really liking the textured surface and may continue to work on paper with more texture in the future.
The remaining challenge of this paper is all in manufacturing ~ inconsistency.
Some of the sheets in the book are incredibly heavily sized, so sized that they have an unpleasant, plastic surface. The sheets that are oversized are hard to work on because the paint pools and sits on top of the surface of the sheet. Paint that sits on the size takes a long time to dry and does not always stay where you want it to be, often lifting or bleeding (see image below left, the orange paint has created a halo outside the line of the drawing as the paint sits and dries in the size layer, you can also notice the dramatic color brightness difference between this super sized sheet and the under sized sheet the rooster image is on at the right). This is especially noticeable if you go back over an area to glaze or add color, very common in watercolor painting, even if the area has dried a long time, the color underneath can lift completely when a new layer is added. Ink also lifts on these heavily sized sheets, causing lines, words, and dates to blur, lighten and disappear altogether when paint is added over the top (see image above left where the date has lifted when a light wash was applied over the top). I had this ink lift happen even after the pen had dried for as long as 20 minutes or even the next day. These sheets also do not take glue stick or tape. The only method of attaching items to the page that worked was to use PVA, heavy burnishing, and drying under weight, which is a lot of time and mess for attaching small things to a page. (see the image above right, where Washi tape is not stuck to the sheet but it is to the envelope glued to the page)
Contrastingly, some of the sheets seem to have no size at all. These under or unsized sheets have a napkin like feeling on the sheet surface versus the plastic like surface of the super sized sheets. When paint is added to the unsized sheets it is instantly sucked into the sheet, dulling the color, and not allowing for any movement of the wash on the page (see close up of the rooster face at right, where the colors are dulled and a shadow of red has clearly spread into the green around the head. This image was so muddied after paint was applied that I redrew over the top of the paint with a heavier black pen when it was dry to save the image). These unsized sheets also let the color that is placed on the page bleed well past where you think the color should go as soon as you add it to the page. These sheets do not perform like watercolor paper at all and are highly frustrating to paint on when watercolor paper is what you are expecting and paid for. They are also doubly frustrating considering that the sheets previous were so completely different to work on that the shift is stunning and a completely different skill set is needed to manage the page. There is no pattern to the sheets in the book, it isn't a back of one sheet is unsized versus the front being over sized it is random, some are sized, some are not.
As if this wasn't bad enough there is a third type of sheet ~ the mixed sheet. These sheets have areas that are super sized and areas that are unsized creating a changing paint environment as the page is worked on from one area to the next. I have to say that these sheets were the most demanding as a painting changed part way across the image, creating an irritating shift in paint application depending on the area being worked on.
Although I did manage to tough this book out and get a few pages that I am quite happy with (see this peony spread for example) overall, it has been an extremely frustrating experience. I understand that it is my years of painting and drawing that allowed me to even continue to move forward in the journal and I constantly had to remind myself that to be challenged can be healthy. I fear for anyone who is new to painting or journaling purchasing this book, as I think they could become discouraged and give up thinking that it was them and not having the experience with materials to understand that it is the paper.
I am now looking back on the experience of forcing myself through rather than giving up, setting this book on the shelf and saying oh well and asking - Why'd I do it? What did I learn?
One of the reasons why is that I paid $30. Considering the major issues this book has, this book is not worth $30 especially considering that the same money can buy a really beautifully made book with lovely paper. But I felt I owed myself an honest attempt after spending that much on the book, rather than just setting it aside.
As far as what I learned, that takes some thought. I learned that I like textured paper and I am looking forward to using a book on my shelf that has toned, textured paper now rather than being nervous about using it. I learned that I enjoy a bolder line than I usually use in my work and I will try to keep using my brush pens moving forward rather than going back to my smaller pens immediately.
Mostly, I learned the hard way why I have gone back to making my own books, I control the paper and the construction knowing what will happen with both. Even if I experiment with a new paper in a structure, I know it will not be as bad as this paper was and at least the book will be made well.
I also confirmed that I can push myself passed something that isn't quite right and continue to work. Some of the pages turned out well because I was never thinking it would be perfect because I knew that the paper wasn't going to allow for that level.
That is what really want to hang onto - no need for perfect - just the need to keep pushing the pen and the paint around on the sheet. No matter how it turns out, it is where I am that matters, and the journey will continue one page at a time.
PS ~ You can see "every page" (pages with only writing omitted) from this book here in a Flickr set.