Color Spree

Color Spree
My favorite color is "all of them." What's yours?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Art Spectrum Supertooth and Strathmore Field Watercolor Sketch Book

Art Spectrum Colourfix Supertooth primer and the Strathmore Field Watercolor Sketch Book go together like peanut butter and jelly. Together, they can become something fantastic for plein air painting in pastels.

I've wanted a pastel journal for some time, a good one with protective sheets between the pages and sanded pastel paper in a convenient size. I need it both for plein air sketching and just for bringing along to doctors' appointments and other outings. After an experiment taping sheets of glassine into a different spiral bound watercolor journal, I read the description of the Strathmore Field Watercolor Sketch Book and grinned.

There was my Pastel Journal project already pre-assembled and ready. This spiral bound journal with heavy covers contains 15 sheets of Strathmore 400 cold press watercolor paper, 140lb standard weight rather than the lightweight 90lb paper in many mixed media journals. It's hefty enough to take anything I want to throw at it and won't curl up. Best of all, it also contains 15 sheets of 60lb white sketch paper between the watercolor sheets.

Its original purpose is a good one too. By alternating sketch pages and watercolor pages, a watercolor artist can plan the painting in pen or pencil and then paint on the following or preceding page. It's set up with the watercolor pages first, which means that for using it as a pastel journal I may want to use that first sheet for a watercolor or acrylic painting instead. But each of the other pages has that sketch paper as a protective sheet to keep it from smudging.

I bought this item a couple of months ago and got busy with other things. During that time, my cat Ari tested the hard covers with his claws. My front cover has a lot of claw skid marks and a few deep scars already. That doesn't matter. The important thing is that my cat did not manage to damage the pages inside.

He can get pretty rowdy sometimes and I've got other scarred sketchbooks that didn't fare as well. My Strathmore Field Watercolor Sketch Book stood up to it. That tells me it'll also stand up to being shoved in a glove compartment or satchel, tossed into the drawer of my field easel, used heavily in circumstances a more delicate cover system would fail and leave my delicate pastels vulnerable.

If they wanted to create a pastels version, it would be great if they also included an elastic band to hold it shut and replaced the sketch pages with glassine inserts. Dakota Pastels makes a pastel book, the Koolbind system, that alternates glassine pages with your choice of Wallis Pro, Sennelier La Carte or Art Spectrum Colourfix pages in three different sizes. An advantage of the Strathmore Field Watercolor Sketch Book as a pastel journal is its cost.

A jar of pastel primer will average about $12 online, whether it's Art Spectrum Colourfix Supertooth, Art Spectrum Colourfix or Golden Pumice Gel. These primers will all do a good job of turning 140lb watercolor paper into good sanded pastel paper at a fraction of the cost of Colourfix paper and other good artist grade sanded papers. Your surface is identical to the 100% rag professionally made papers, but you have the freedom to create as much of it as you want and use it for practice paper.

Any 140lb cold press watercolor paper is good for this treatment. So your alternative for a pastel journal could be to purchase sheets of inexpensive house brand 140lb cold press paper, cut and prime it yourself, then hole punch it to keep in a three ring binder. That's the cheapest system but that takes some work.

Strathmore Field Watercolor Sketch Book and a pint of your choice of primer can become a mid-price choice with less work than the complete homemade Pastel Journal system for less cost than a Koolbind or its refills. Also since the binder is permanent, you'll have less trouble storing your pastel field sketches. The sheets are not perforated for removal but would not be hard to cut free by cutting across the holes if you wanted to frame a particularly good page.

Now for the primer!

I bought all 20 colors of Art Spectrum Colourfix after trying Natural (Clear) and discovering I loved the texture. Not only that, I loved the convenience of being able to put it on anything from mat scrap to cheap watercolor pads so that I'd never run out of sanded pastel paper in my favorite colors. Clear is the most useful color. It really is clear too.

It goes on white and dries clearer than a coat of glue, by a similar process as acrylic mediums. Your watercolor underpainting or alcohol wash, anything you want to do under the primer coat will shine through in its true colors. A pint jar lasted me a long time covering page after page with good sanded surface, so I relaxed and used it for sketching and stroke experiments as often as for serious painting. I bought all the colors because I love using a colored ground. Also sometimes when I'm recycling a failed watercolor, I want to cover it completely with something opaque.

Any of these primers are good for recycling failed watercolor paintings. Why waste good archival paper? The more you reuse failed paintings, the more money you save to get new pastels and other things you want. If the paper's 100% cotton, that failure can turn into something a museum conservator wouldn't complain about provided you use equally archival pastels.

I have to talk about Art Spectrum Colourfix to describe the Supertooth because they both serve a similar purpose. Much to my delight, I like them both equally.

They're different.

Art Spectrum Supertooth has a sharper tooth. I thought it would be more fine-grained. It's not, it's about the same. Colourfix has a slightly different feeling. Finger blending is easier on Colourfix. Supertooth has very distinct sharp pointed grit, with a feel almost like Wallis but not quite as deep.

The deepest tooth on any pastel paper I've tried is Kitty Wallis, either the Museum grade or Pro grade because the grit is the same on both. That stuff is like painting on a shark. Do not finger blend on Wallis or you'll be doing "Mixed media, pastels and blood." Wallis demands using a stick or a Colour Shaper and it wears down Sofft tools and other blenders fast. It also eats pastel sticks faster than any other sanded paper.

So if your style is blending with sticks and you need to lay on thirty or forty opaque layers, spend the money and get Kitty Wallis paper. I have yet to fill the tooth on a piece of it no matter what I do to it. However, it's also so rough that it's sometimes a bit hard for me to manage.

Colourfix came in right at my comfort zone and makes finger blending easy. Finger blending still works with Supertooth but I wouldn't want to do a lot of it at a time, it's more abrasive. The sharper texture of the grit gives a different look to broken color and other effects.

It's harder to cover an area completely with color on Supertooth, other than by using the tricks that work on Wallis. An alcohol wash will do it, turning your underpainting into smooth color before you build up from it. A dry toning layer can be applied and scrubbed in with a foam brush, lightening to about half the value of the stick but covering evenly. These are both techniques that work on Wallis paper.

The grit is more fine-grained than Wallis, so if you're working small, Art Spectrum Supertooth may be a good choice. It only comes in one color, Natural (Clear.) So your other option for underpainting is to do the underpainting on the paper in watercolor or use an alcohol wash on a light first layer underpainting. Then prime over that underpainting and you have toned your paper anything you like. It is as sparkling clear as the regular AS Colourfix Natural (Clear.)

My Strathmore Field Watercolor Sketch Book is 10" x 7". I wanted to leave myself some space around the edges in case I removed a page for framing, so I marked up 6" x 8" painting areas on several pages. I penciled in "Art Spectrum Supertooth" in the long margin toward the spine but on the first page, primed right over the crop marks right to the edges instead of taping the edges.

I could read my label easily, it had wonderful clarity. It wasn't obscured at all. This is another advantage for priming your own paper with Clear. You can use the primer itself as a barrier layer. Do your graphite sketch on the paper directly, then tape the edges and cover the page with two or three thin coats of Art Spectrum Supertooth or Colourfix. Your sketch is easily visible as a guide but graphite will not come through the primer to muddy your light or bright colors.

Here's a painting I did on the first page of my newly primed and inaugurated Pastel Journal, showing the look of Art Spectrum Colourfix Supertooth with hard pastels painting. I like my hard pastels for outdoor painting and sketching, they're more compact, less fragile and easily portable. So this journal had to work well for sketching and painting with my favorite outdoor set, 48 Color Conte. Together the pastels and journal make a compact, lightweight stack to carry.

Sunrise by Robert A. Sloan, Color Conte hard pastels on 140lb Strathmore 400 watercolor paper primed with Art Spectrum Colourfix Supertooth.

A couple of tips on using Art Spectrum Colourfix and Colourfix Supertooth primers. Dampen a foam brush or cheap watercolor flat brush and squeeze most of the water out. Too much water can dilute the product and ruin the effect. The full effect resembling printed Colourfix or Supertooth paper requires two or three thin coats of full strength primer.

Shake the can vigorously for a few moments before opening it, or stir vigorously with a coffee stirrer, spoon, popsicle stick or palette knife. It wipes off a palette knife easily so that was a convenient stirrer. If the grit isn't thoroughly mixed, you may get uneven results.

Pay attention to the texture when you first open the jar. If it seems to have thickened from that, add a few drops of water and stir, repeat till it has the right consistency. Do not thin it too far - if it seems thick and you paint two coats on a test scrap, you might just be overestimating it. Too much added water is probably worse than too little. You can't remove it by drying it out again, it's not rewettable like watercolor paints. It should feel a lot like heavy body acrylic paint right from the tube, not flow like liquid acrylics.

Apply it and smooth it with your brush before it dries, then let each coat dry completely until the paper no longer feels cold to the touch before adding the next. This helps flatten it out again if it cockles. Tape the edges so that you aren't priming up to the edge - this also reduces cockling and bending. Alternate the direction of your strokes between layers - horizontal, then vertical or the reverse. This will help you get the same smooth gritty surface as the papers that are printed with the same primer.

Finally, if you use these primers on mat board, paint the back of the board with gesso. Seal it in on all sides so that the board doesn't warp. Archival mat board or archival foam board may make a good professional surface. Mat scrap left over from framing other pastel papers is free. Your practice paper can cost you nothing except not throwing it in the trash after investing in primer.

Washes of water or alcohol work fine over Art Spectrum Colourfix primer and Art Spectrum Colourfix Supertooth likely works the same way. I haven't tried that yet but I'll update this entry when I do. Because it comes in clear though, it's just as easy to do your underpainting or sketch before priming unless you're preparing a sheet to bring out in the field.

It takes ten or fifteen minutes for a layer to completely dry, so it's too slow a process to do priming on the spot during a plein air trip. That process is fast enough that I could occupy myself in the evening priming any watercolor failures to start over in pastels. The jars are square plastic jars with a good seal, less likely to break if you bring it along on a road trip. Do pack them in plastic bags though. My liter can of Colourfix clear got dropped in the move from Kansas to Arkansas and the lid popped off, spilling about half a cup of product on the floor. The liter cans are more fragile and more easily distorted than the little 250ml plastic jars.

Be sure to wipe the threads of the jar with a wet cloth and close it immediately after painting a layer of primer. If these primers thicken too much, they lose some of the grittiness.

I primed the third page of my journal with Art Spectrum Colourfix Natural (clear) for comparison, from my oldest jar, the 2/3 empty first jar I bought. That had thickened over time and with exposure from use, the first two layers didn't have the tooth of regular Colourfix any more. Stirring in a teaspoon of water restored its texture though and when I re-primed that page it felt the same as the printed paper or the unopened colored primer I used on the following page.

Supertooth does have deeper tooth, but does not sacrifice fine grain to create it. It can hold more layers but may demand more layers to keep from getting white specks in areas you want to hold solid color unless you use a form of underpainting. It allows more detail because it's more fine grained than some coarser sanded surfaces. Blending and softening can be done with your fingers, just be a little more careful than with regular Colourfix. I finger blended the block-in stage of color masses on my sample painting and while I had to add color to some areas to avoid white patches (especially in dark areas), I achieved it on the second try.

The deeper tooth of Art Spectrum Supertooth may make it a better choice if you have a heavy hand and prefer using softer pastels. Unisons, Great American, Schminke and Sennelier may like it better than hard pastels but you can use any kind of pastels on it. Softer pastels demand deeper tooth or you wind up limited in how many layers you can use. It's also harder to correct mistakes if you don't have enough tooth on the surface.

How these two products can work well together is that sketching may be a little easier on regular Colourfix while paintings with heavy layering may prefer Supertooth. Some people will like one over the other, some like me may like both, others don't like either and prefer a different surface like Ampersand Pastelbord or Kitty Wallis paper. The beauty of having a variety of sanded and coated surfaces is being able to find the one that best fits your style and favorite pastels.

One of the best ways to find out which surface is better for you is to try small 9" x 12" sheets of Art Spectrum Colourfix and Art Spectrum Colourfix Supertooth. Both are available in those sizes and are made with 100% cotton rag watercolor paper if you buy the paper instead of the primer. Both give you the advantage of your preferred surface on cheap watercolor paper so that your practice paper feels and the same surface as your finest archival professional papers.

Supertooth will chew down your pastels faster than Art Spectrum Colourfix and slower than Kitty Wallis paper. It's closer to Richeson Premier Sanded Pastel Paper than it is to Wallis, but it's a fine grain surface that allows a wide variety of techniques. I think I'm going to enjoy using it often and don't regret having two choices of primer texture to play with on my practice paper - and my reclaiming ventures.

Here's a different painting done with regular Art Spectrum Colourfix paper, the one that comes in 20 colors. I used Unison pastels for this painting. The differences are subtle, both soft Unisons and hard Conte would work well on either surface. They just look and feel a little different.

Red Tulips by Robert A. Sloan, Unison soft pastels on Art Spectrum Colourfix paper.