As I pointed out the other day when I described the genesis and construction of my Unsewn, Unstapled Sliding Quarter-Imperial 100% Cotton Embossed Leather Multimedia Sketchbook, most sketchbooks you can buy are rubbish by lowest common denominator makers for lowest common denominator consumer units.
The Greek watercolorist Marialena Sarris says it is no accident that so many artists take the time to make their own custom sketchbooks. She’s right. That is certainly my experience. At the right is a very small selection of the sketchbooks, custom-made and bought, that I use. The two alrounders in sight are both my custom concoctions. The paper in bought books is always too lightweight and of too low a quality to satisfy for long, and in the few books which have first class paper, the binding is a barrier to employing the book satisfactorily.
These problems multiply themselves when the poor bewildered artist wants a multimedia sketchbook in which to work with both wet and dry media.
But if you think finding a white sketchbook is a pain, try finding a tinted paper (never mind a book!) that won’t disintegrate, or, if it remains together, buckle, then curl up and die, the moment it you bring a wet brush near it.
Ironically, one of the better colored papers available is the lightweight (160gsm) pastel paper from Canson, Mi Teintes, not because it loves water so much but because somehow, after buckling quite frighteningly at the application of water, it can be pressed acceptably flat again.
Even more ironically, the only good watercolour paper commonly available in tints is the student grade non-cotton Bockingford paper. Though Bockingford is archival and highly regarded well beyond academia, the tints are aimed at printing wedding invitations and stationary for genteel ladies, and too limp by far for my sort of slash and dash work with high strong colors.
So what can you do if you must absolutely have tinted paper of a certain quality, in my case 300gr 100% cotton in at least two finishes, NOT and Hot Press?
It ain’t rocket science. You can tint your preferred paper with an absolute minimum of equipment, all of which you probably saw the last time you were in your bathroom and your kitchen. The tinting materials are probably standing on your kitchen shelves too.
Your tinting substance must bond with the cotton paper, or whatever paper you’re tinting, and once dry must not wash out. It must not be acid, because acid destroys the paper rather shortly; vinegar and lemon are not wanted. It must not rot in the paper; pink mayonnaise won’t do it! It must not cause the paper to yellow over time. It must dissolve in water, or mix with it, or otherwise color the water so as to tint the paper, because the water will be your medium to carry the tint into the paper. The most common sunstance found in most kitchens which meets all these requirement is tea. Spices, used for cooking, may also work, but if you’re helping yourself in a kitchen that is not your domain, you’d better ask your better half before you grab the saffron or turmeric because many spices are pricey and difficult to get.
For tools you need a basin or bowl or tray a bit bigger than the paper you want to tint because you need to soak the paper in the colored water, another flat tray to dry a sheet of paper in, and a new kitchen sponge, and away you go. For the drying part, a clean, smooth, flat table or kitchen counter will do as well. You don’t need a stretching board: the weight of the paper and the water in it will flatten it very effectively against a smooth surface.
You gotta get the right tea, of course, especially if you’re a man, otherwise you won’t sound like an expert. I suppose that even Earl Grey, whose still paler bergamot cousin Lady Grey I drink with extra lime and honey, will tint paper a delicate yellow, or something.
But I already knew I wanted a dusty tan, strong but not too dark, for working on with sepia ink and a special, very beautiful amber ink I made for washes with the sepia, oil pencils but especially sanguine oil, earth-based water colors — everything you would use for that faux vintage look, both wet and dry. For this the right tea is the commando’s favorite, Red Bush, which I drink when I can’t be bothered to make a pot of something fancier.
The advantage of tea is that the tint is easily adjustable. I put two Red Bush teabags (Lidl house brand, whatever that is) in a half liter of hot water in a glass jug so I could check the color. White plastic also works. After a while I adjusted the color to slightly redder by adding an infusion of cherry tea that I was brewing up separately because I found it in a cupboard and wanted to see whether it was indeed a red tea. (It is brownish with a red cast; it might tint paper a dusty pink if I ever need a dusty pink…) You can probably also use green Chinese tea but I didn’t find any and it was too late to call the takeaway to deliver some. I went with what I had.
I worked in my bathroom because it has a full-length bath to contain the mess. Depending on how good your relationship with the housekeeper is, you might want to start work on quarter-sheets and leave the mess-making size of full imperial sheets (22.30in) until you have learned how to handle the wet paper without spraying tea-stained drops everywhere.
First pour the tea concentrate in the soaking bowl or basin or tray or whatever. You need just enough to float a sheet of paper. Add water to your concentrate to get the right amount of water, or the right depth of colour. My actual tinting solution was more the color in the photograph below than the one above.
In diluting the colour with water, you should keep in mind that a 300gsm sheet will have to lie in the water at least 20 minutes to be thorough soaked so it will dry flat, and a 630gsm sheet of paper had better be in there a minimum of one hour. These factors influence how dark a mixture you want to start with.
You may wish to experiment first with a small offcut of paper and a stopwatch. I didn’t bother with poncey nonsense like that.
Put the sheet of paper in the soaking dish. Use the sponge rather than your fingers to push it so water washes over it. Now leave it alone. Don’t fiddle with it or you’ll put fingermarks on it.
Depending on the strength of your mixture and the tint you want, you may wish to leave the paper in the tinting solution longer than the minimum time to soak its particular thickness thoroughly, as required for flattening it again. However, you should not leave it in the water so long that it disintegrates, or that sizing is altogether washed out, or that the surface is destroyed. Forty minutes to an hour may well be a maximum for most weights papers if you are not to run the risk of losing all the sizing in the paper, and thus alter its handling qualities, perhaps adversely.
When the paper has taken on the tint you want, take it out by the edges between the pads of your fingertips. Try not to put nailmarks into the paper; be sure to take off rings; best to use tongs such as you can buy at photographic stores for darkroom use to handle the paper.
Wave the paper very gently so that the water rolls off it, then place it flat on the drying tray or table. Press it gently, rather than wiping it, with the sponge. Resist the temptation to lift up a corner to see; the back of the sheet is definitely the same color as the front. Don’t put it in front of a heater. I left my entire apparatus in the bathroom, which is generally a warm room, but the bath is at least eight feet from the heater.
The paper should be dry in about 24 hours. You know it is dry when a corner pops loose from the tray or table and raises itself only a little way. A dry sheet will slide on the surface of the tray easily.
You can now reuse the tinting water for the next sheet. Different base papers (Arches Aquarelle, Fabriano Artistico, Saunders Waterford) are different colors and will tint differently not only according to their base colors but according to the manufaturing treatment, especially the various applications of sizing (in the vat so it goes inside, on the surface, both), and even within brands between the different-textured surfaces of the paper, Hot Press or NOT.
The paper shown below, as bought and tinted, is Fabriano Artistico 100% cotton 300gr. The soaking time was the full two hours, and the surface of the paper is bit rougher than when I started. I like this particular tint very much, especially considering that I had something very much like it in mind when I bought the sepia ink I want to use on it, and made the amber ink I will use for shading.
The surface is still good for pen and wash work, but for the next sheet, in order to get the near enough the same appealing tint without even the minor chance of damage we have established with our first run, I will add more concentrate of tea tint, and make the soaking exposure shorter.
I have stopwatches and timers, of course, no fewer than four to hand as I write this: in my flying watch on my arm, in my iPhone in my pocket, in the Mac on which I write this, and in my diving watch in a wooden box on my desk because I’m fitting a new rubber strap to it in hope of a summer.
But in this rough and ready tinting method, I don’t even try for a perfectly consistent tint across the several pages I make. If I like the tint, it is right, regardless of whether it precisely matches any page I made previously on a color meter, which I haven’t even taken from the drawer. It is enough that the tint, whatever it is, is even across the quarter-sheet.
Pot luck and good luck suits me just fine. Try it, you too might like it.
There are three parts to this article:
Andre Jute’s Unsewn, Unstapled Sliding Quarter Imperial 100% Cotton Embossed Leather Multimedia Sketchbook
Simplified Instructions for Making Andre Jute’s Unsewn, Unstapled Sketchhbook
Tinting your own Art Paper with — wait for it! — Tea (you are on this part)
Andre Jute is a novelist and painter.
With thanks to Marialena Sarris for research and lots of constructive tips.
Copyright © 2015 Andre Jute