(This article is also available as a zine at https://ko-fi.com/s/7272bd985f )
Episode 4: Accessible Supplies (Part 1)
Episode Link: https://anchor.fm/uncannyfernhill/episodes/Accessible-Supplies-Series-Part-1-er657v/a-a58lss
Welcome to another episode of Bird Bohannon and the Uncanny Familiars of Fern Hill!
What is it that can make “art” seem somehow scary, like it’s something that other people do? Or - Maybe you already do your fair share of creative work, but you’re perpetually curious about how other people approach their own expressive acts… Itchy to learn any little hack to get around that occasional nagging dread, imposter syndrome, or periods of boredom with your current practice.
Wherever you fall on that spectrum today, welcome to the first of my monthly newsletter series! [Intro is reading from newsletter] Likewise, whichever way you learn best I see you and want to help you make art easy the best way for you.
Our uber-capitalist culture is great for providing endless options for art supplies and messaging on how to be perfect and make a career out of your natural human creativity. So this is some counter messaging. To use what you have. To start now with small acts you might already be doing. And to keep it simple for sustainability, to prevent burnout.
Ah, the ubiquitous wire bound notebooks with blue lines. Composition books too, sewn saddle stitch down the middle of the spine, through a stack of those lined pages. Whether the corners are ninety degrees, pokey sharp, or the rounded edges of composition books - You’d never draw on those. Of course not. Or wouldn’t you? Haven’t you? Isn’t there something oddly special about drawing in pen on those blue lines?
Drivers speak of highway hypnosis, the center line appears and disappears, appears and disappears. As you get into focus on the marks you make with your pen, in the form of words or scribbles to get the ink flowing again, doodles while on the phone, or more - something similar can happen. Yes, the pages are pre-marked with these blue lines and that helps take the pressure off that completely blank paper can have.
But something else can happen too, a sort of magic from that regular pattern of blank and line and blank and line. The page becomes bigger as you zoom in, become part of the lines, your pen more easily an extension of being. And there’s no weight that it will be considered “artwork”. There’s no pressure that you’re trying to pretend you are an artist or that you’re going to sit down and make something beautiful. It’s just fun, and a delightful way to self-soothe. Like a cat.
Other Features of a Basic Supply
An ode to basic school notebooks is not complete without considering the way the writing on one page indents on the others below it. This is called a palimpsest. A funny word, for sure. Maybe a regular ball point pen like a Bic isn’t heavy enough and you have to press too hard. So your hand gets tired before you can have any drawing fun. So here’s an accessibility hack for your light-weight free pen: tape on some weight, make a bigger grip so your hand doesn’t get tired so quickly. Meet your ergonomic needs so that the molding of the pen doesn’t satisfy. Use what you have available to modify existing tools to suit your needs.
And let that ink flow. Double up on your lines to make them darker, bolder - or take the pen at an angle and shade lightly with less ink flow. What you can do with a ball point pen is amazing! I saw some recent drawings by a computer guided robot, that really demonstrated the kind of line variation you can get from a ball point. And there can be deep meditative focus from really focusing on what your supplies can do, physically.
That investigation and discovery might lead you to question, what else are you doing in daily life as if it’s the only way? What could you do slightly differently? If you just make room for, breathe in and out calmingly, to work through the intrusive thoughts that might come up - come back to focus as you might in a meditation, focus on your supplies. The physics of the haptics and how you’re doing things and how you might tweak things to be able to do it longer, or have a more fulfilling short burst of expression.
Oh, and the way the pages buckle and swell with every indent hammered into the paper’s pulp, incidentally, in that it only happens with ball point pens and not with pencil or the light sweep of a nice fountain pen. So that when you fill the book up, it swells and you know it’s not only heavier with that added ink, but bigger overall. The way the book crunches when you hold it, crunch crunch.
Of course, while this is nice and composition books and spiral bound lined notebooks are super easy to find anywhere for very cheap - they aren’t perfect. Technically you can scan the pages just fine and simply omit the non-photo blue color of the lines, if you want to harvest a line drawing without the evidence of the substrate. But there are two more things to note. With composition books, the ones that are sewn with one line of stitching down the spine - if you tear one page out then the other side of the sheet comes too! Now that’s easy to deal with, you simply keep the page in! Or, trim away from the stitching at least ¼ of an inch.
And with spiral bound notebooks, the pages are always perforated! And that can be a lovely thing, so you can tear out one page or many and staple them or bind them some other which way - but if you are someone who takes a long time to fill a book up, the cover might well fall off before you’re through needing it. I have an old book that’s all taped together again, maybe if I was just gently with it the cover never would have torn at the holes. Or, if I had made a cover for it like we had to for our school books growing up.
As Special as You Make It
Even if, or maybe especially because, something is cheap we can extend the life of the object by treating it as if it is just as special as we can. By imbuing that extra care, we do elevate the object. In this case, our blank book is an exploratory vessel. A simple lined notebook will do just fine in most cases.
Don’t let fear of missing out take over and prevent your expressive needs. The notebook isn’t the thing holding you back, mostly for me it’s a lack of curiosity and creative struggle serves as a signal to ask more questions. To be able to use what i have, where i am, now.
A runner up in regard to being readily available is the moleskine brand of notebooks. These and similar looking books have become quite common! While i think that the special lines of the aforementioned notebooks are hypnotizing, i feel overly restrained by the dark lines common in many journals. Moleskin and their lookalikes are available in plain versions, with no lines, and with dot grids and graph paper interiors. Dot gridded paper is especially good for creating graphs and such, but you could simulate the experience by placing a gridded sheet behind the one you are working on.
Such a ghosting technique works very well with moleskin books as the paper is usually quite thin. This allows the books to have lots of pages, free for writing passing thoughts that might ruin a fancier book with thicker paper meant for say watercolors. While moleskin and similar looking books are also available with a wide variety of papers inside, the following description applies only to the very thin paper common to moleskin’s most common books.
These blank books are typically black or tan and are available in multiple styles, saddle stitched in pocket size and greater sizes, but floppy with no rigid cover, and tiny to large sizes of hard-backed traditionally bound books that lay flat and contain more pages. The paper of these ubiquitous sketch booklets is smooth and works best with pencils that don’t require toothy paper, and pens like the Sakura micron felt tipped fine-liners that don’t bleed through such thin paper.
Any time you are using a pen and paper combo that results in a bleeding through, where you write, say, with a sharpie and three pages later there are dots as evidence of places you paused white writing or drawing - this is time for a blotter paper. Blotter paper is historically used with inks that take a while to dry, so you can close the book you are writing in, or turn over the handwritten letter paper without smearing the fresh ink.
A simple piece of thick paper, or two pieces of thin paper, can be used as a sacrificial layer beneath the page you are working in, so you don’t transfer through your page. But maybe you’re into that ghosting effect, and that’s cool too. That is an example of truly embracing the qualities of your media! A piece of construction paper works better than a smooth sheet of paper when you want a sacrificial page that will absorb fresh ink or watercolor.
The pros of moleskin brand notebooks is that they have a consistent quality and appearance, which folks like for putting them on a shelf or just a consistent familiar experience. The regular, cheapest ones, are great with pencil and felt-tipped micro-tipped pens. The see-through characteristics of the paper can lower pressure related to media preciousness. Moleskins are well-made and lay flat. The biggest plus, and the reason they made it into this list of accessible media, they are Omni-present if you can afford them.
The cons are that they are expensive for their paper quality, due to not being fountain pen or even watercolor friendly. Moleskin is certainly available with paper that works well with watercolor and gouache or wetter inks, but personally i’ve always found these prohibitively expensive compared to using sketchweight paper that does accept ink and washes. Lastly, the cult following around Moleskins make them seem like they should be better than they are, but it’s all about understanding where the material is working for you and against you. There is no perfect notebook and your tastes can change over time, or just throughout the month!
Basic Characteristics of Supplies
As far as all the other books in the world are concerned, one thing is for certain, the thickness of the paper does not determine whether it will bleed or take a wash better than a thinner paper might. The actual composition of the paper and the finish determines the characteristics more than a page weight might. For one thing, it’s a real tough cookie to swallow, but if you are trying to get a particular watercolor effect and it’s not working - it’s probably the quality of the paint or paper.
A little bit of high quality watercolor paint from a tube goes a really long way if you are careful. Pan sets don’t have quite the same properties as tube colors, but even a toy set of hard pan watercolors can provide more portability than a whole pack of markers, when paired with a water brush. That’s the kind of brush pen where you can refill the barrel with water, instead of needing a cup of water and a brush.
As far as watercolor results failing due to paper, there are a couple of factors to consider. Hot press is a smoother finish and cold press is a rougher texture, but wood pulp is not nearly as absorbent or forgiving as cotton paper is. There’s a whole practice of rinsing and stretching the paper, as well as learning to use resists, and that next level specialization is not the subject of this article. Just know, it’s a thing.
Basically any scribble is better on hot press cotton paper - it’s instantly a finished work when you say it is. Cotton paper is the gold standard of art paper, and for good reason. A sketch becomes a quality object in the same way it’s intimidating to claim as art your torn doodle on lined school paper. No difference to me, personally, but as a commodity, the cotton paper has weight like an oil painting has weight: tradition and proven archival qualities. So, by comparison, if you aren’t able to pay for the pro quality supplies, why not embrace the simplicity and inevitable restrictions of more accessible supplies. And even if you do get the expensive, nice supplies, there’s always room to experiment and learn from simple supplies.
There are constraints to every media. By choosing to embrace one set of tools over another, you are giving in to what your modality is capable of. Yes, this is a practice of exploration. Simply that, yes, drawing and using paper, filling blank-books, is an adventure unique to you in the time that you do it.
And what’s more unique than making your own books? DIY books come in so many possible shapes and sizes, as well as levels of access in terms of skill required and cost of materials.
My favorite stitched binding is the Coptic stitch method, which allows a really flexible book that wants to open completely flat. There are two basic versions of this book binding technique, one that uses a single needle, and a version that uses two needles.
At the other end of the book binding spectrum is ring binding. Instead of needing needles and thread, time to learn and make a mess, ring binding is part of the normal school and office supply purview. The most basic way to make a book using ring binding is to use a binder and paper with holes already in it! My favorite way, however, involves index cards, two binder rings, and a neck lanyard.
A stack of index cards receive two holes on the short end. You can use other paper, but keep in mind if you use thinner paper you will need to also make a hard back that’s stiff enough to write against. Next, a binder ring (like for study flash cards) is inserted in each of the two holes in the stack.
If you stop there, you have a DIY Filofax that you can actually write in without first taking each page out. With the bulk of the rings on the short end of the index card, or other paper, you can hold the stack like a smart phone with the rings in the header portion or at the bottom. You can make a cute cover and go off and use the lovely little modular book. It’s up to you, but there’s a next step to make your DIY faux-lofax wearable.
To do this, you take a lanyard that will break free easily - perhaps with a special weak link or even a DIY link made from a curled up bread tie. The two rings act as necklace bales and the little notebook goes on the lanyard. I found that when I used this method of construction with index cards, I didn’t need covers, but I chose to make a pretty cover anyway so that it could look less dorky in dressier situations. The shear usefulness of the wearable notebook overrode any consideration about others’ judgement. And when I did get interest on the subject of my strange necklace, it was from a person’s curiosity.
I liked to wear mine across my body like a purse if it was unlikely i would need it immediately, and around my neck and with the book on my stomach if i was doing a nature walk or working in the bujo, or list-making, portion of the little modular book. The speed with which you can doodle down a cool sight or idea is superb, you can always be turned to an empty page, and remove and rearrange pages and sections. As the book fills, you can create a new book from the drawings or writing, and put more blank sheets on the necklace.
Dividers for this field notebook are even easier to make than dividers for a full sized binder, but the same rules apply. I found this necklace technique worked beautifully for several months of travelling and being busy. When i returned to a normal pace of life, i came back to making my own, much larger, coptic stitched books to suit my illustration needs.
More Common Book-Bindings
Of course, there are so many other ways to make your own books, many of which are somewhere between ring binding and coptic stitch in complexity. One such technique is the popular and ancient Stab Stitch binding, it looks lovely and is very simple to sew. Unfortunately, with this simple method, the pages cannot be laid flat and so works better for compiling a finished book rather than a blank book or for needs which don’t require you to use both sides of the pages.
Another really common binding style is Saddle stitch. This method includes staple bound and machine or hand sewing, it’s very basic and friendly. With letter sized paper or larger, you might need a stapler with a long arm, to reach to the middle of the stack you are binding. The saddle stitch binding technique is used for making zines, magazines, little booklets and instruction manuals, and those classic white and black covered composition notebooks.
There is an imperfect hack in lieu of a proper long arm stapler. Open the stapler as you must to staple on a bulletin board, if it is capable. Then, staple through the area to be bound, and into a piece of cork or something where the legs of the stapler will remain open for you to close with an available tool. You might need tape if the legs don’t fold all the way, so you don’t have a book that attacks fingers. If you have lots to staple, I would suggest investing in a trusty long-arm stapler ($35) or borrowing one from a friend.
For thicker magazines and paper back books, glue is used in what is called “perfect binding”. Basically, a stack of cut papers is glued into a thicker cover material which is bent around the front and back of the stacks. If you use this technique yourself, know that PVA or book binding glue is more flexible when cured than say wood glue or school white glue. These will work with more flexible paper, in a pinch, but chunks of the magazine are more likely to break free of the cover with a rigid glue. Thin hot glue would probably work pretty well, let me know how it goes if you try it.
Clamps like for woodworking are needed when glueing, or at least weights of some kind to keep everything nice and straight during the curing process. Care should be taken not to use more glue than necessary, so that the interior pages don’t get stuck together. You’ll have more success with a combination of paper thickness and paper size that allows the glued spine to remain rigid to turn the pages. Overall, this technique is similar in purpose to the stab stitched binding mentioned previously.
Another Alternative I Preach
There is another way to keep a blank book that’s kind of backwards and so very friendly for folks who like to avoid the front door. If you are the kind of person who prefers to doodle and write on junk mail envelopes and random bits of paper, i see you. You are fine! You can make a book to encapsulate your special way of working if you choose to, by starting a collection stack.
A box, an envelope, or a binder clip can help keep the bits and pieces together and in order if that’s important. Later, you can keep the pages together as you have collected them, or you can choose to make a book from the pages themselves or use an existing book, into which you might insert your special bits and pieces. Of course, whatever you’re already doing is fine if it works for you.
If you’re having trouble getting started or having trouble maintaining creative habits, keep it simple.
Basic supplies, even when they are post-modern versions, can connect us to pre-computer human practices of devotion and various contemplative practices. I love books for their intrinsic portability. Even when time or physical space is limited, a sequence of blank pages can offer us a quiet space to sit with ourselves and our ideas. With due respect to our natural resources and personal abilities, supplies for expression don’t have to be out-of-reach.
And remember, with lots of love for yourself if this is a problem you face: Purchasing and obsessing over new art supplies is only a proxy for making. You get art supplies to use them. To feel good. To learn. Not to feel guilt as they stare at you, still blank. Please don’t be stymied by fear of missing out because you don’t have the right supplies. You know honestly what you want to do and what is the next best step for your art journey and what resources you can afford to tap into.
Comparisonitis and Art Supplies FOMO are real, and you have the power to side step their capitalist powers. All media has limitations you can choose to embrace to learn and experiment within these friendly restrictions. Go ahead and fill up your blank books if you have them, or use what’s available and treat it as precious as you want to. Don’t wait for the perfect supplies to get started making marks. You’ve already got the most important tool. Haha, yourself, of course!