Strathless Bristol Bored

February 4th, 2011 | Posted in General

It’s half universal truth and half industry punchline that veteran artists often lament that “they just don’t make art supplies like they used to”. Younger artists usually roll their eyes, but just wait about 1o years, whippersnapper. When some art supply or tool that you have been using for a long time suddenly becomes discontinued or the manufacturing process with it changes so it doesn’t perform as you have been used to, it can drive you crazy. Creating is a personal process and there is nothing more frustrating than when something you previously relied on to do this suddenly refused to do it and instead does that. It derails the entire creative flow when you are forced to struggle with some mechanical hurdle.

Pen nibs are a great example. There is a famous story in the cartooning industry about Charles Schulz, creator of “Peanuts”, and his favorite pen nib. I’ve found sources that say this was the Speedball C-5, and while he might have used the C-5 at one time or another for lettering I have it from some a few who knew Sparky personally the nib in question was the Esterbrook Radio #914. This was the nib he exclusively used for inking Peanuts, and when he heard in 1971 that Esterbrook was going out of business he called them directly and bought every last box they had in stock. He claimed he’d retire when he ran out of that nib, rather than try using another. Another pen nib story comes from my good friend, mentor, longtime MAD artist and current MAD art director Sam Viviano. Sam was partial to the Gillott 303, but at some point Gillott changed the nib from a bronze finish to a blue steel finish, and Sam found it made the nibs far less reliable. He went around to art stores and bought up all the old stock 303s he could find, and he saves these for use when he is inking something that needs special attention. There are many similar stories. Suffice it to say when an artist finds a tool that works great for them, they become very unhappy if that tool goes away.

Which brings me to a personal gripe about the spiraling quality of previously reliable art supplies… namely the venerable Strathmore bristol board.

I used to exclusively use Strathmore 500 series Bristol board, 3 or 4 ply weight in a kid (cold press or textured) finish. I found these boards to be nearly bulletproof… they took all the penciling, erasing at inking you could throw at them and still the surface would take subtle washes if you wanted to add them after all that abuse. Great stuff, or used to be.

Lately I’ve gotten a number of bad batches of Strathmore bristol. The problem with them was they bled. Inking on them with a dip pen resulted in your line getting fuzzy and hairy-looking. Totally unusable. At first MAD sent me some boards that did that, and I couldn’t use them. I wrote it off as an anomaly… maybe somebody at the Strathmore plant spilled their Pepsi into the bleaching vat during that batch or something. Then I ordered a pack of 25 sheets of 4 ply 500 boards from an online art supply house, and all 25 boards did the same thing. Bled all over the place. I managed to use these boards anyway by spraying them with a photo-retouch fixative that is used to spray photographs so that someone can add painted tints and colors to them directly on the photo’s surface. This was an expensive solution, not to mention that aerosol can of fixative was so toxic I had to spray it outside while holding my breath and then run away. I am sure there is a hole in the ozone layer directly above my house.

Just the other day I got a pack of 25 sheets of 500 series from Dick Blick. Fortunately before I spent a lot of time penciling on one of the new boards, I tested it with the ink. It bled like a stuck pig. That’s three batches from three different sources in about 18 months that was bad. That’s not an anomaly, that’s a trend.

It’s frustrating because that stuff isn’t cheap. I paid over $140 for those twenty five sheets including shipping. Returning them will be no fun, but worse is how do I order them with confidence again? I can’t. There are few places in the Twin Cities that stock this kind of board where I can go and buy a sheet and test it first before buying up any stock. Frustrating. I’ve found this applies only to the 500 boards, and the lesser quality 400 boards are still usable (so far).

My apologies for the rant. I could go into how they don’t make movies/TV/music/donuts/etc. like they used to anymore, but I have to go outside and tell some kids to get the hell out of my yard.


  1. Matt says:

    Thanks for the rant, Tom, because I had the exact same thing happen to me with that series Bristol board. I thought I just got a bad batch or my ink was bad. I luckily found a stash of old boards that I’ve been using now, that don’t bleed. Though, they don’t last forever. I’m 22 years old and I completely agree with the rant. So you have the youth’s support.

  2. Lee Fortuna says:

    Tom I’ve been using almost everything you have mentioned on this blog & have been very happy with your advise on supplies! So please, as soon as you find another paper that you find acceptable let us know here! Thanks Tom for the heads ups!

  3. julio cesar naranjo says:

    Hi Tom, let me tell you a little story, ive been frustated most of the time finding good materials in the art field, its a real pain i have to work all day and to find something that really works you have to go to the mayor citys. Right now im on vacations and yesturday i went to all the art stores i know and it was a shame what i find there.
    I bought watercolors, brushes and paper that are far from be the best and for worse they were expensive, we dont have a real demand for artist supplies so you can imagine how you feel when your doing something and you just dont get the result that your expecting. Take care.

  4. Scott Nickel says:

    Maybe the plate finish Strathmore 500 has gotten crappier too and is now closer to the old kid finish boards…worth a try? 🙂

  5. Keith Brown says:

    Have you spoken with Strathmore? Give yourself some credt. You are a very well know artist and I think they should hear from you. I wonder if quality suffers because of the lack of sales numbers as alot of folks switch to completely digital?

    • Tom says:

      I appreciate the kind words, but I doubt Strathmore gives a @#%$ about one guy’s complaining. Clearly they have lowered their manufacturing standard, likely due to escalating costs, and should have known these kinds of issues would begin to happen.

      • frank says:

        tom, if i were you i’d let strathmore know…a few months back i had the same thing happen to me. i complained to the company. they sent me an email asking that i send them a sample of the bad bristol. so i did. within a week they emailed me saying that i wasn;t imagining it and that the bristol i had was bad. a week after that i received a 20 lb. box of fresh bristol right off the press and cut to my preferred dimensions…

        so email them… it could work out for you…

  6. Brian Benson says:

    Have you ever tried blueline pro for materials. Thet specialize in comic industry supplies.

    • Tom says:

      No, because you are paying for the non-repro guides and mark-up lines and such. I don;t need any of that. I just want nice, blank pieces of board that don’t bleed when I ink on them or have clumps of fibers stuck to the end of my pen nib after doing a couple of lines.

  7. David says:

    LOL I resemble this post–
    I was that ‘snapper in the ’80’s, when my illustrator boss lamented the loss of clay-surfaced, double-weight Whatman boards! I thought he was whining.

    I feel your pain, of clumps in your nib. It was suggested I use the classic method of sanded gesso… no thanks.

    However, I once tried matte decopage paste, applied with a small foam roller for house paint trim. Rolling applied it evenly without adding brushed ridges to sand. Since I just wanted to seal against bleed but not make a problem of “crawling,” I starved the roller. So, it dried fast with no sanding, no ozone hole, no gesso-lung! I was surprised how well acrylics went down on it.

    Full disclosure: I haven’t used it with pen-and-ink.
    To your point, it did seal the surface but allow some tooth.

    When inking to later color in Photoshop, I’m experimenting with my scanning method. For better registration, I read that comic books are scanned at 600ppi in bitmap– no anti-aliasing. Some of the ‘fur’ in those gray-values will drop away. At that level scan, I would still have enough pixel information to further smooth furry lines with a Curves adjustment. Since this would affect all line weights, I duplicate the affected layer, and ‘Merge Down.’

    Mixed results so far; I think I need to master ‘Curves’ adjustments. I just found this– a really clear video explanation of Curves– especially note minutes 2:30 – 6:30 =

    Thank you so much for this blog, Tom, Let us know what you find to solve your problem,


  8. David says:

    Please excuse the double-post, but I didn’t re-read for intent before submitting… I missed a phrase or two about 600ppi and Curves:

    At 600ppi bitmap (not Mac bitmap) mode, there *is* no gray pixel to further smooth with Curves.

    Scanning at 600 grayscale mode, de-furring seems possible, if one can master the Curves method. (That’s where I’m stalled, atm. Maybe I should scan blackline art in full color, then convert to ‘L-a-b’ color space to best use Curves?)


  9. Lisa says:

    That stinks :^( A friend of mine insisted that I start using the 500 Strathmore, but my favorite to draw on is still good ol’ 400 Strathmore Drawing paper, the recycled kind with the green cover. I just don’t feel I can draw as well on anything else.
    Hey, as soon as I found my favorite Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor, they stopped making it :^( Goodbye “Holy Cannoli”

  10. Rick Kirkman says:

    I use Strathmore 500 for Sunday strips, but don’t use ink pens, so luckily I don’t have to worry about that. I buy enough Strathmore for about 5 years worth of strips at a time, so I have a lot left, but it’s cut to size (approx. 10 x 23). If you’re in a pinch and need some smaller sheets, I’ve got some for a price.

    What I did have to worry about was the crappy quality control of black Prismacolor pencils I used to use for drawing the strip. The leads of the Prismas became so brittle after I’d been doing the strip for a few years that I’d have to go to the art store and go through every pencil, one-by-one to check for bad ones (the bad ones had little tell-tale bubbles you could see in the lead, although sometimes you could get fooled when the bubbles were covered by the wood). I complained and complained to no avail.

    After a lot of experimentation, I finally settled on using Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils as a replacement, despite the fact that they smear a little easier. I still use those for Sundays, but now use 9mm graphite for dailies.

    Because I used pencil, I also used fixative, Blair No-Odor Workable Matte Fixative, which for a while became unavailable. I heard that was because of the toxic ingredients. I used to do the same holding my breath and running exercise. They may have changed the ingredients now, but after doing some research, I found a better substitute. I now use Aquanet Extra Suoer Hold Hair Spray. It works great, is less toxic (I think) and much cheaper…and my hair stays in place longer.

    • Tom says:

      Rick- FYI I know a lot of caricaturists that have used hair spray as fixative for chalk or pastel work, and they say it turns yellow after a few years. I would have guessed it turns blue given the color of old lady hair, but there you go. Maybe Aqua Net does not have that problem.

      • Rick Kirkman says:

        I’ve been using the Aquanet spray now for, I’m guessing, ten years. No yellowing at all. I remember reading, when I initially researched this, that art students would use hairspray for fixative and find all sorts of problems later, including having their art eaten by rats and cockroaches. The reason for that: the spray contained starch. Aquanet doesn’t contain starch, and is alcohol-based. Maybe it was starch that caused the yellowing.

  11. Ernie says:

    Wasn’t there an old cartoonist’s trick of ironing their boards? I’m not sure if it was to solve problems when there was too much humidity in the air or too little.

  12. Jamie Smith says:

    It probably isn’t the paper: it’s most likely the ink.
    I’ve been experiencing the same exact problem with Strathmore Bristol, and was getting very frustrated with consistent feathering of my ink lines, so it was a relief to read of other folks experiencing this issue.
    However, I just finished up a round of testing seven different kinds of paper (Canson, Strathmore 300 and 400 series, smooth and vellum finishes, recycled stock and cold/hot-press watercolor papers) using three different brands of India ink (Higgins “Black Magic,” Winsor & Newton’s and Sennelier).
    The first tests using Higgins, which I’ve used for many, many years, bled out. Waiting to hear back from an email query to the company, as there might be a bad batch at fault, or trouble with a solvent used (one thing I noticed was the ink actually had a bad smell).
    The feathering problem didn’t happen AT ALL using the other brands if India ink on any of same papers.
    Also tried using different nibs, and tested for opacity, durability with erasing, and experimenting with wash: had almost the same results across the board(s), so for now I’ve switched to a slightly more expensive brand of India ink, but a better quality product.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks for the comment, but it can’t be the ink.

      First, I’ve been using the same ink for years and have never had this problem until recently. I have also dumped out my old ink and gotten fresh stuff from several of the 12 or so quarts of it I have in storage. All bleed. Second, if it’s the ink than how come other pieces of the same type and weight of Strathmore do NOT bleed? If it’s the ink it would bleed on any similar paper.

      I will say that some inks bleed more than others, but I believe this to be a function of the ink’s thickness. The thinner the ink the easier it is for it to crawl through the loose fibers of these bad boards and bleed. Likewise the nib used can make a difference. A sharper nib pulls the fibers of the paper and exposes more inner fibers to ink seepage. I can use the same ink that bleeds with a nib and apply it with a brush, and no bleeding. This is because the ink sits more on the surface of the paper and less ink is applied when using a brush.

      The only conclusion that can be drawn is: same pen nib, same ink, different sheet of paper=undesirable results=paper causing undesirable results.

      • Jamie Smith says:

        Rats, I hoped it’d be a magic bullet: after flogged the test details to death, blogging about it, and given my history of overlooking what in retrospect are obvious (too simple) solutions to complicated problems, thought for SURE that was the culprit.
        Still, it was cause=effect for me, and was worth checking out as it solved the problem in this instance. Now I’m on a quest to find out as much as possible about HOW this stuff is made.
        But after looking into it there are so many variables and potential factors it’s like herding cats. Like the alchemic, cryptic properties of how some art supplies are secretly manufactured, the effects of storage, aging properties, horoscope, etc. Maybe the sheer volume of frustrating sweat changes the relative humidity of the immediate environment?

        I’ll second the hope you keep us posted on how it ultimately pans out – for the better or worse. Best wishes regardless.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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