Why I love using Alpha paper

May 10, 2023 | 18 Comments

If you are a regular reader of my blog then you will know that I love using Alpha sketchbooks by Stillman and Birn. There are a number of reasons why this paper suits me perfectly and over the years I’ve refined my watercolour techniques to get the best results on it. And this is true for both sketching on location and my paint-only teacups.

This image (taken for a demo from my Teacups course) demonstrated two of the reasons why I love Alpha so much. It enables me to:
1. create a variety of different edges particularly when working into damp washes and …related to this…
2. work quickly without having to wait for one wash to fully dry before applying the next.

In these two examples, I painted the roses over damp shadow washes using the same timing for both. And just for the record, I have used Alpha through the Teacups course.

I do love 100% cotton paper (cold press) – the granulation and the dry-brush texture that it can create. But I haven’t to date worked out a way to create varied washes and hard edges that are an important part of my work. This is something that is on my ‘to-explore’ list.

The above example on Alpha doesn’t show a lot of granulation/pigment party but I can get lots of beautiful watercolour magic on Alpha by using the specific combination of pigments and the right pigment-to-water ratio.

I can also create lots of fun textures and effects on Alpha. Many watercolorists try to avoid backruns and hard edges but I love them!

Thick cotton paper which is the ‘gold standard’ for watercolour painting doesn’t actually suit my sketching practice. I want paper in my sketchbook that is good to write on, that is ‘good enough’ but not too precious so that I feel free to take risks and sketch a lot in my daily life.

I also want a sketchbook that contains lots of pages – so Alpha sketchbooks which contain 80-120 pages are perfect for me. (At the moment I’m using A4 hardcover Alphas and completing them in just over a month!)

Alpha also suits a range of media. The paper is great to use with ink and pencil (great tooth) and although not designed for watercolour, it is incredibly robust. I throw a LOT of water and pigment at it, draw into the watercolour with ink and nothing goes through to the other side – well, heavy scrubbing with a water-soluble tool into a wet wash might! The paper buckles a little but I like that ‘lived-in’ feel from my daily book.

Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to sketchbooks and paper… I thought it was a good time to explain mine again. 🙂

And finally… I’ve written a few other articles that expand on these ideas (with some on-location sketches):

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  • Ginie Udy says:

    Just got a delivery from Jackson’s of the 8×10 softcover S&B Alpha and loving it! Can’t wait to use it in the Teacups course. And bonus surprise re the beautiful rich maroon colour of the cover. I really like that too!

  • Jan Fougere says:

    I too love the alpha paper. I have purchased so many other types of sketchbooks but always seem to go back to the 8 x 10 alpha. That being said, I am finding lately there is a significant difference between one side of the paper and the other. I prefer the really smooth side. The back has more texture and is somewhat more absorbent.
    I am really looking forward to the teacup course!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks for your comment Jan – I haven’t noticed any difference in the paper but will keep an eye out for that.

      • Ginie Udy says:

        Hi Liz, I’ve just bought a 6×9 landscape hardcover Alpha from Larry Post and am also experiencing the two textures that Jan refers to. I might contact Jen and see if she has any intel. As I said to Jan, I might get used to it, but…it’s definitely different to the first Alpha I bought for the Teacups course and fell in love with.

        Do you order your Alphas from Jacksons? I think I recall you saying that you did at one stage. I’m wondering about the stock Larry Post has in store…old or new? Larry Post is just up the road from me in Manly so very convenient but I do remember the Jackson’s price was much cheaper!

      • Liz Steel says:

        Hi Ginie – I buy from Larrypost generally and only Jacksons if there is no stock at Larrypost. In recent months I have only bought new A4 size so these might be old stock and not have this problem.
        I’m a bit concerned about a change to the paper!!!!

      • Ginie Udy says:

        Hi Liz, I contacted Jen yesterday. She wasn’t sure about age of stock and as she said, manufacturers are usually reluctant to release any info that might not be palatable to the market!

      • Liz Steel says:

        thanks for the update Ginie

    • Ginie Udy says:

      Hi Jan, I purchased a softcover 8×10 Alpha for the Teacup course and really liked it. I ordered it online from Jackson’s which I think came from the UK. On completion and filling it up pretty much, I’ve just bought a hard cover landscape 6×9 Alpha from a local Australian supplier and have also noticed the two sided, different textures paper issue you experienced.

      In some ways I don’t mind it, but I was wondering if it was going to be an on-going thing as I’ve got used to the smoother version on all pages of my first Alpha.

      Sounds like Liz hasn’t experienced this.

  • Susanna says:

    I switched from Moleskine 5×8″ to the 8×10″ S&B Alpha for my 3rd course with Liz and immediately appreciated the larger format & light weight soft cover. I was initially startled by the buckling (usually minimal) but quickly adjusted to it.
    But the most important aspect of the Alpha was having less “precious” paper. I was still learning how to sketch & use watercolor paints; having the Alpha sketchbook was much less intimidating during at a time when simply doing any sketch was “taking a risk”!
    I still use the smaller Moleskine for travel and love-love that paper, but the 8×10 Alpha continues to be my everyday, well-used sketchbook.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Yes Susanna – totally agree that less precious is a very important characteristic for an everyday sketchbook. And I love the buckling too! The lived in feeling!

  • Patricia Wafer says:

    Great post! I also love S&B Alpha paper both in the hardbound sketchbooks and I esp love the 8×10 soft bound. I do a lot of landscape graphite sketching and Alpha is excellent for that. I do like their 8×10 softbound Beta also. It is called cold press but I think it is somewhere between hot and cold. I just wanted to draw your attention to an American watercolor artist named Leigh Culver. Last Thursday she did a zoom talk which can be viewed on the Winslow Art Center website (they archive al their Thursday artist talks for free online).She is also an art historian and the she discussed several artists who influenced her work last summer when painting a series of plein air seascapes on the coast of Maine. I think you would find those very interesting. She used a limited palette based on the colors that would have been available to those artists (Homer, Sargent, Marin) and she paints on hot press paper. Not sure which brand. Those seascapes are on her website. I think you would like them a lot. Since you also paint lots of coastal paintings I thought you might want to see how hot press works for you if you have not done that yet. I like Fabriano and Lanaquarelle. A less expensive brand is Fluid and I prefer their paper that has some cellulose to their 100% cotton which is a bit too absorbent for me. I have only used their cold press which is quite smooth and more like hot press to me. When I was starting out in watercolor painting 19 years ago I got a lot of advice against using hot press paper but I have come to love painting on it and I don’t think it is any more difficult than painting on cold press. They are ALL difficult! But fun!!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks for your wonderful comment Patricia. And yes I do like hot press and find it easier to use than CP. I was thinking about adding that to this article but it’s years since I’ve done anything on HP. Thanks for the reminder:-)

  • Pat Loughery says:

    Yes! I love Alpha paper too. One hidden benefit of Alpha paper is that it handles fountain pens better than “real” watercolor paper, which tends to tear off and constrict the nib.

  • Jamie C says:

    That example of the rose on both types of paper, using the same technique is great! I find most artists who use the 100% cotton are patient enough to wait for the paper to dry, which I am definitely not. And I live in a desert, so it doesn’t take that long! Lol! I’ve been using the A4 hard bound alpha for months now, and love it.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks Jamie! Even If I wait for 100% cotton to dry I still prefer Alpha on most occasions 🙂

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