Review of Stillman & Birn's Zeta Paper

Sometime this month, Stillman & Birn will be releasing the Zeta  multi-media sketchbook, the latest in their series of fine quality art journals.  I was sent a few of the unbound sheets to try out.

The Zeta has a multi-media paper that is about the weight you'd expect of good photo paper, without the slick glossy surface. While the surface is smooth, it accepts most mediums well.

I'm going to write this review differently than I have in the past.  I've found that every medium has its problems.  A multi-media paper must be formulated to deal with as many mediums as possible.  So I'm going to list problems I've encountered in the past, and then tell how you the Zeta does.

I used ink sprays, stamp pads, fabric markers, granular gel medium, watercolor, acrylics, art pen, water-soluble wax pastels, decoupaged napkins, and shaving cream on this paper and was happy with the results in all cases. 

Mine is a tale of woe--comprised of family reunions, dead computers, and luggage left behind.  I won't go into detail (except to say, despite these problems, I had a blast while I was there!), but as a result some of my examples are works in progress, and not shown are the decoupaged napkins and a colored version of a pen and ink. 

Fabric tipped Pen & Ink colored with Ink Sprays and then covered with gesso.  Unfinished piece.

Possible problems:
     Pen & Ink: Pen snagging, feathering, bleed-through, show-through. Slow drying time causing smudges.  Fraying of the pen fabric.
     Water-reactive Ink Sprays: Paper dimpling, curling, bowing.  Ink spray beading up or uneven saturation.
      Gesso: Paper dimpling, curling, bowing because the paper can't support the weight of the gesso.

Zeta Performance:
No snagging, feathering, bleed-through, or show-through.  The pen glides across the paper, and the ink dries immediately.  
The ink sprays went on evenly, drying quickly without blotches.  The Zeta paper did curl and dimple, but weighting it down overnight removed all the curl and most of the dimples.
The gesso caused more curl, but weighting the paper removed it again.  Some dimpling remains but it is slight.

Pen & Ink.  Unfinished piece

Water-soluble Fabric Markers

Possible problems: Pilling, feathering, streaking, bleed-through, show-through.

Zeta Performance:
No pilling, feathering, bleed-through, or show-through.  The ink dries immediately, which causes streaking with these pens.  There are techniques for avoiding it, which I used in some areas, but it can also be used to advantage.  There is no 'line' drawing in this piece. I used the streaking to create all my lines and shadows.  I found it easy to avoid the streaking when desired by using circular motions, applying 2nd layers of color and using the side of tip for broader strokes.

Fabric Markers (non-Water-soluble)

Possible problems: Pilling, feathering, streaking, bleed-through, show-through.

Zeta Performance:
No pilling, feathering, streaking, bleed-through, or show-through. 

Watercolor Crayon (wax pastels)
Possible problems: Pilling, lack of color, difficulty blending colors

Zeta Performance:
No pilling, the color was strong and there was no difficulty blending.  I did need to apply more crayon than usual and would recommend using higher end watercolor crayons.  Student-grade pastels don't have as much pigment, and require more tooth to pull out the color.

Pigment Inkpads/Brush tip pens
Possible problems: 
Inkpads: Blotchy color, difficulty blending color
Brushtip pens: Pen snagging, feathering, bleed-through, show-through. Slow drying time causing smudges.  Fraying of the pen fabric.

Zeta Performance:
I was able to spread the color directly from the inkpad.  There were a few darker streaks that I blended out with a babywipe.  The trees and bird were added with a sepia pen and then black with no problems at all.  This whole picture took about 15 minutes to do.

Watercolor washes - unfinished piece
Possible problems: 
Watercolor: Paper dimpling, curling.  Lack of color.

Zeta Performance:
I used the cling wrap technique for this background, placing bits of cling around the page, and inserting the brush at the edge to let a watery concentration of paint to run through the tunnels created by the wrap.  When the paint dries, the wrap is moved and the process repeated.  

The paper was wetted thoroughly in the process, and there was some curl and dimpling.  The curl was weighted out completely and the dimpling is minimal. The color is pale, but my mixes were pale.  

Shaving cream with liquid ink-unfinished 
Possible problems: Paper curling.  Lack of color.

Zeta Performance:
For this technique, you fill a plate with shaving cream, squeeze in some drops of liquid pigment ink (I used stamping pad re-inkers) and mix them together.  You spread the mix on your paper, then wipe it off with a paper towel.  What remains is the marbling of color.  

I had lots of shaving cream, so I applied it to both sides of the paper.  The paper curled a bit and you can see how the marbling came out.  I was able to weight the curl out.

Granular gel mediums/Acrylic paint with mica-unfinished piece

Possible problems: 
Gel Medium: Paper bowing from the weight of the granules.  Granules not sticking.
Acrylic paint: Paper dimpling, curling, streaky color.

Zeta Performance:
The granular gel that I used is sort of like a Mod Podge mixed with Kosher salt crystals.  The directions suggested sanding the paper lightly if smooth.  I didn't, because I wanted to see what would happen.  

I did lose a few granules where I spread the gel too thin.  It was surprisingly few, and probably wouldn't have happened if I had sanded.  

The acrylic paint did show brush marks in some places.  It isn't an easy paint to photograph, because the mica makes it shiny, but it's beautiful.

This is the painting that I decoupaged with napkins, to make it look like a map, and the finished piece was fairly heavy.  The paper held up well, curling just a bit at the corners.  I wasn't able to weight the curl out completely, but that's to be expected.  The gel mediums don't stretch once dry, so the paper is pretty much frozen into place.  

Fabric tipped Pen & Ink colored with Ink Sprays/Drywall tape stencils-unfinished piece

Possible problems: 
Drywall tape: Paper tears when tape is removed

These are the same pens and ink sprays that I wrote about in my first example, so I'll concentrate on the drywall tape.  This is a low tack tape with plastic woven fibers that is used to support drywall repairs.  I cut it into shapes and use it as a stencil.  Even though it is low tack (not very sticky) if you remove the tape when the paper is wet, the paper surface can tear.  

As a test I removed the tape immediately after spraying (not recommended) and there was NO tearing.  I still recommend waiting until the paper dries, lol.

Rubber Stamping-unfinished piece

Possible problems: Slow-drying-smuding; broken image

There are many different stamp pad inks and the problems can differ by how 'wet' or thick they are.  I had intended to stamp using different inks and stamps.  As it is, I only had the chance to test with a fairly 'wet' pigment inkpad.  The image looks broken, but the stamp is a 'grungy' one and in fact the image is almost perfect.  I inked up once and stamped 5 times without re-inking.  Although the color fades the image is still clear and unsmudged.  This technique is called ghosting, and it doesn't always work well on some papers.  

Overall, I was pleased with the performance of the Zeta paper.  The slightly rougher surface of the Beta and Delta series might be better for someone working primarily with heavy washes of watercolor, but for a wide range of mediums, the Zeta is an excellent choice. 

I want to thank Stillman & Birn for giving me the opportunity to review this paper.

There have been other reviews from several fantastic artists.  I recommend reading them, not just for the review, but for the wonderful artwork!

Other Zeta Reviews:                                   My Reviews of other Stillman & Birn Series
Dion Dior                                                     Alpha Series Review
Hudson Valley Sketches                                 Beta Series Review
fine art by... Jeanne Forsyth                           Gamma Series Review
Pen, Pencil and Paper                                    Delta Series Review
The Fountain Pen Network                            Epsilon Series Review
Earnest Ward: Drawn to Life                          Comparison of the different series
The Comic Art of Jorge Santiago Jr


  1. Wow...Sandra, you're amazing, as it your work on the Zeta. Thank you so much. Hugs xx

    1. Thank you! You're a constant inspiration to me!

  2. amazing artwork - what a wide variety of talents you have! I love that the zeta held up so wonderfully though I must admit I am not surprised! I have been working in a Beta journal and LOVE it! It takes everything I can throw at it!

    1. Thank you! I have to admit I was really looking forward to this review because I've been so impressed with Stillman & Birn's other sketchbooks. I knew the Zeta would be fantastic!


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