Sunday, February 27, 2011

Let It Bleed: Materials Test (1 of 2)

Stathmore Bristol 300 Series (100lb/smooth)

Posting some raw scans of samples from the current mess of material issues: in part inspired by a long comment thread over at the Daily Cartoonist on this same sore subject. Tom Richmond wrote the original missive on his blog about the declining quality in what is for cartoonists quite literally their stock in trade. There are some excellent insights to be gleaned from both threads as far as insider tips, and to echo the sentiment expressed by many, it was great to know that I wasn't alone in my frustration. But after scanning all the swatches and writing this review up - right before posting it there was a radical twist that changed everything...

More below the fold...

The industry standard and the paper I've used for decades has been Strathmore brand Bristol board, and increasingly over the past year I've noticed feathering and/or bleeding breaking out while inking in my originals. My first suspicion is to blame it as the result of inevitable corporate conglomeration, which always sacrifices profitability for shareholders at the expense of cutting corners and degrading the quality of the product. Or it could be just a bad batch of paper; maybe even shipping and storage conditions could play a role, as I've noticed even ambient humidity and age can affect materials.

Strathmore Bristol 300 Series (100lb vellum - backside)

For comparison and contrast purposes, here's a sample up above of what happens to the line when using vellum surface: this is geared towards using dry media - pencils/charcoal/pastel - but as with watercolor paper, I use the backside of the sheets, being a slightly smoother/less textured surface. Still to no avail, as is painfully obvious. The right tool for the right job!
Speaking of which, Dick Blick has an informative section dealing with many of the questions regarding Bristol boards,and here is a helpful glossary of terms.

Strathmore Bristol 300 Series (100lb vellum - backside): after threshold

Even converting the scan - My default scan resolution is set at 300 - using "threshold" setting (200 in this case) is of no help whatsoever ...GIGO. As per Photoshop Help:
"The Threshold filter converts grayscale or color images into high-contrast, black-and-white images. You can specify a certain level as a threshold. All pixels lighter than the threshold are converted to white; and all pixels darker are converted to black."
Probably the quality of scanner might play a part, though I suspect a digital signal is a digital signal, regardless of the hardware - just more bells & whistles.
All this computer tweaking as opposed to the many years of relying on vectoring my scans, converting the pixel-based line to a series of points on a line. Whereas I always used a one-trick pony program, Adobe Streamline, to do this (necessitating startup in Classic mode on the old Mac), this task is now comparably performed in Illustrator using their Live Trace function. Even so, especially being an orphaned child of Macromedia Freehand, I've been shifting away from vectored art now anyways.

detail: Strathmore Bristol "Windpower" (100lb/smooth)

Here's a detail of a test on Strathmore recycled "Windpower" line of papers, which compared to other Bristol boards has been bleached and has a brilliant white surface. Still bleeding out.
Tangentially related to this topic, I've also noticed a recent proliferation of manga and comics-related spinoffs marketed towards cartoonists (for example, Canson's "Fanboy" line - yeah, now there's a catchy label), presumably the only difference being the different precut dimensions of the pads, not the paper itself.

Norwegian Woody (Strathmore 400/smooth)

Now we're talkin' - going from crappy beer to a craft-brewed beverage, the upgrade to Strathmore 400 Series is sweet. The higher the grade = smoother surface, the greater the weight = the heavier the stock, and this is a premium 2-ply paper (most of the other before this were 3 or 4 multi-ply). Once you get up into this range, as with many gourmet papers, they can often be bought in single sheets (approx. 22x30").
Top of the line is Strathmore 500 “plate” finish, 100% cotton, but as with most things, you will pay for it. The difference between 300 versus 400 is a buck or two per pad, versus 2-3 times higher for the 500 (depending on where it's purchased).
The cheapest is "coverstock," which is most decidedly inferior, not being acid-free, archival or capable of holding a line without spreading like an oil spill. As with all art supplies, it's best to simply avoid anything with the word "economical" in the description: the distinction in price is marginal - and the relative cost in quality is steep.  

detail: Canson Bristol "XL" Series Recycled (96lb/smooth side)

Switching now to a Canson brand product, and as with the Strathmore line, there are different grades of paper from "student" to "professional," with a corresponding increase in price. To my knowledge this is also the the only other commonly available brand (some others being Beinfang, Winsor & Newton and Lana), which is like having about as much choice in the art-supply world as one does between Coke or Pepsi (with the occasional Moxie).  
As apparent with the posted scan above, still some major feathering issues going on.

detail: Canson Watercolor "XL" Series (140lb coldpress - backside)

Stepping over to a completely different type paper, I've been also experimenting with using watercolor papers, as they dovetail quite nicely with my grand vision of turning the original drawings into finished (water)color pieces for display and sale. This would be another reason to stick with non-water-soluble, permanent inks, and allow for plenty of time to thoroughly dry them as well (which one in theory should be doing before erasing any pencil anyways). Ideally you want to use hot press as opposed to cold pressed, as the textured surface of the paper isn't conducive to a manageable or consistent line (unless that's the look you're trying to achieve), and this is somewhat offset by simply flipping the paper over and drawing instead upon the comparatively smoother back side.

(Teaser spot from the upcoming followup post)

Arches Hot Press test is a French-made cotton paper that is the generic standard brand in the watercolor world. The 90lb is a little scratchy to use pen & ink on, as it keeps catching the nib, and doesn't seem to hold onto the ink after drying: even after using a hair dryer on it, even the next day it still would smear and rub off. Incidentally, I can also take this opportunity to heartily recommend using the Vidal Sassoon "Ionic 1875" drier, as my girlfriend's actually survived being dropped in the toilet bowl during this testing session. See, it's another plus for the whole lifestyle change too - in an outhouse situation you'd just have to let it go.
Anyways, I need to take some 140lb out for a test drive, but a block of twenty sheets will set you back about $50, and it's not the kinda stuff to mess around on with Sharpies.

Really oughta have containment booms in place

Intersecting factors all play into the finished drawing, above and beyond one’s personal style (actual, physical drawing technique): paper is only one of the elements to juggle when drawing with Pen & Ink - pens and inks being the other two obvious ones. Another potential monkeywrench I will stress here, for good reason as it turns out, is the type, quality and brand of ink used: there needs to be a three-part harmony between these materials, and all things being equal, if one of them is off the other two won't compensate.

That said, I'm always keeping in mind that one of the overriding distinctions in fine art versus commercial art is the end product, meaning it doesn't really matter what condition the original is in, long as it works in print. Conflated against the mantra of many a cartoonist - that all of the above is secondary to the main point of it being funny, there is a customizable threshold of craftsmanship, meaning it's always simply gonna be your call in the end how far you wanna go with all this. In all my years of teaching, some of the most effective and enduring examples of wonderful work has come out the end of a ballpoint pen on scrap, or with a Sharpie on regular old xerox paper.

Look for a follow-up post wherein all this gets upended and pretty much thrown out, like a bad (or maybe just badly drawn?) cartoon.

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