Retro Gansai Sets With Maria Ines Gul

Can you tell us a bit about how you have used the retro paint sets?

At first working with these unusual colour palettes put me out of my comfort zone but it ended up being an extremely fun process. After a couple of experiments with textures, I picked four ideas from my sketchbook and created illustrations for each set of paints. I often find limitations like a narrow number of colours extremely liberating, 8 shades feel just right for me. 

How would you describe painting with the gansai paints? Do they feel different to the standard watercolours?

The gansai paints are just my cup of tea! In my work I like to mix different watercolour and gouache textures, meandering between the delicate washes and super thick opaque block shapes. I was shocked to discover that these paints can magically do both. I love how deliciously pigmented they are. These paints are definitely thicker and more chalky than traditional watercolours, but with just the right amount of water they can create rich and dreamy watercolour washes. The sets have the cutest packaging, a real eye candy on my desk.

How do you pick your subject matter for a painting?

Everything usually starts with a feeling, sometimes I like to pick a line from a song’s lyrics / poem as a starting point. Women definitely play a central part in most of my work. I have recently discovered that I really, really enjoy painting fabulous hairdos.

Is there a style of painting/particular artists’s work that you admire?

Oh, I am definitely obsessed with the artistic group formed by Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Enid Marx & co. For a brief period during the 1920s they all studied together at the Royal College of Art under Paul Nash, I was so ecstatic to find that out as a student there almost a hundred years later. 

Read the full interview

Find Maria here

The Perseverance of Paper Marbling

"A question we often debate in the stock room of Choosing Keeping when contemplating our next batch of boxes, notebooks or pen pots is whether marbling is over. Indeed we have been guilty of covering almost everything we touch in this unique decorative paper and we have scoured the globe for the top marblers, each with their own area of expertise and specialised technique. Today I hope to make the case that this wonderful and historic technique is far from over…

One of the most common marbled paper types is called Turkish Spot (above) - named for the type of paper marbling that was developed in Turkey in the 15th century. Originally known as Ebru, or cloud art, in its most classical form it is comprised of spots of paint with a distinct vein running through. These papers are very recognisable and commonly found in traditional bookbinding as either cover or end papers and is familiar in period as well as modern day cinema. 

Named for its European origins, the Spanish Ripple (above) was developed in the 19th century. The ripple effect is created by softy rocking the paper as it is placed on top of the bath where the marbler has carefully laid out their design. An added step is necessary to create the rarely found moiré effect pictured: the paper is first folded into squares in order to generate a more distinctly irregular wave.  

Find all our marbled papers here!

Often considered to be a more conservative marbling technique, these intricate comb designs (see previous column) require an extremely steady hand and precision of eye to pull the paint through the water with a series of specially designed combs. The soft tones in the paper pictured create a gently fluid effect. Traditionally marbling was a highly secretive craft and it was typical that even those involved making the designs would not know the full process - each step would be carried out in private by a different craftsman.

This strange, almost amoebic, design (above) is a more unusual variety of the historic technique. The chemical nature of the craft is here most visible as the separation of the paint into the distinctive tiger eye pattern is cased by ox gall (acid from the belly of an ox) mixed with different sulphates. It is extremely difficult to master and increasingly hard to find such spectacular modern made examples."

- Frances, Choosing Keeping

Labels & Stickers: A Traditional Touch

"One of the most popular items in our shop isn’t even one we sell: our Choosing Keeping bird sticker always grabs the attention and desire of anyone who has had a package or envelope sealed with one. Although we don’t have these available to buy, we do have a specially curated selection of labels that evoke the same charm and character.

Cat Stickers - A more recent addition to our collection, our Smiling Cat and Hissing Cat labels are something straight out of a retro Halloween storybook. Unlike digitally printed stickers, these die-cut designs have a traditional, slightly textured finish - perfect on the back of an envelope or for decorating a present.

Traditional & Classic Labels - A familiar sight for anyone who has purchased one of our own Choosing Keeping Composition Ledgers, we love to pair these labels with the ledgers, using them as a name plate on the front cover. Available in both a decorative traditional design and a clean, classic alternative, each style comes in a variety of colours suited to match all uses (a personal favourite is the lime and brown combination). As well as adorning the front cover of notebooks, they make for excellent address labels - a much needed change from the usual printed addresses we so often see.

Bird 'To' Labels - This twist on the classic Choosing Keeping bird sticker is the perfect finishing touch for any present or letter. Cut to our instantly recognisable swallow shape, these labels feature a warm gold trim for a subtle luxurious feel. The smooth matte paper makes it ideal for writing or stamping recipient’s names on to address all letters and presents. Although we originally made these as a Christmas item (it is never too early to think about the holidays) this sticker is suitable for labelling gifts year round thanks to its understated style and appeal.

Jam Jar Labels - The unsung hero of home organisation, the jam jar label is a tried and tested favourite here at Choosing Keeping. Not just for jam jars, these small labels are ideal for labelling spice racks, cupboards or even pots of your own handmade paint from our Japanese Pigment Sets. With 48 labels in a pack there’s no end to the amount of things you can organise!"

- Alex, Choosing Keeping

Leather Notebook: Business on the outside, party on the inside

"Are you looking for a notebook that will make a memorable impression at your next face-to-face business meeting, or a notebook to jot down all of your favourite London haunts? I may be biased but I think this sartorial Choosing Keeping leather notebook ticks all of the boxes, combining form and function. Slick, stealthy and discreet on the outside, with vibrancy and pizazz on the inside. This little black book is handmade in the UK using top quality materials and traditional bookbinding methods that originated with the production of small pocket bibles. 

The cover is crafted from supple and textured black goatskin leather that ages and develops its own patina over time. On the inside you will find lined cornflower blue paper which is an excellent dancing partner for your fountain pen (I use the Pilot Custom 74 Soft Fine). The notebook is thread-stitch bound in small sections so once opened the pages lie flat on the desk, making it easier to write notes or long form without having to awkwardly hold the pages down. 

As with many bibles, this notebook has traditional "red under gold" page edges that only shine red when the pages are flexed. It is subtle, but this design detail adds to the drama!

The surprise end papers, made out of psychedelic hand marbled papers, add a flash of colour when the notebook is opened; each individual notebook has a different marbled paper, a satisfying way to differentiate phases for those who like to repeatedly use and collect the same design of notebook. Imagine these notebooks full of ideas in a row on your office shelf… wouldn’t that be satisfying.

Our leather notebook is available in A5 or a smaller 'pocket' size, which fits perfectly in a jacket pocket."

- Eleanor, Choosing Keeping

Paint making with Pear Fleur

Can you tell us a bit about your new paint making video?

The new paint making video features the Saiun-do Kyoto Nihonga Mineral Pigment Set in Red Camellia. Inspired by the Japanese camellia, the set includes vibrant reds, lush greens, striking gold and other rich pigments. The careful curation of the pigments inspired the resulting red camellia painting that is created at the end of the video.

The video is part of a series of paint making videos that were created in partnership with Choosing Keeping. This particular video is very special to me because I was going through major life changes while producing it - the serenity and patience that the paint making process induces helped me through extremely stressful times. My only hope is that those who watch will experience some amount of calm no matter what they are going through.

Which technique do you use to transform the pigments into paint?

There are two techniques that I currently use. The first technique is by grinding the pigments into a fine powder, pouring a bit into a ceramic plate, and mixing the paint with Nikawa Japanese binder glue with my fingers. This is a traditional technique that is typically strategically carried out during the painting process itself, and the paints become very permanent after they dry.

To make paints that are more like re-wettable watercolors, I mix the ground pigments with glycerin, gum arabic, distilled water and a touch of honey. Then, I use a muller (that was graciously gifted by Choosing Keeping!) to coat each pigment granule with the mixture. I’m still practicing and learning how to get better at making the paint - thus my paint making videos are not instructional in any way.

What do you think is the main advantage of using the pigments instead of pre-made paints?

The very first time I made paints, I asked myself the same question after many failed attempts and frustrations that came with the learning process. However, the difference between the two is similar to eating homemade food versus eating at a restaurant. Yes, both options are delicious and fill you up, but at the end of the day, doesn’t the food made at home by someone you love always taste and feel more special?

You have now sampled all 3 of the floral pigment sets, which colour combination do you like the best?

That’s such a hard question!! It’s like trying to choose your favourite star at night. But if I had to choose, the Blue Iris set feeds my love of painting with blue tones.

Read our full interview with Pear Fleur here!

Sumi-e Gansai: More Than Meets the Eye

"Among our range of Japanese gansai paints the Sumi-e palette is the most inconspicuous. Its six dark colours don’t offer much to gawk at in the pans, however in action they might just be one of the most interesting colour ranges we have.

Sumi-e literally translates to ‘Black Ink Painting’, originally a technique that used an Indian ink bar mixed with water to create varying tones of black. You can still find the ink in its bar form as well as a liquid version popular for drawing. This method relied on the purely monochrome palette to depict traditional scenes of natural flora and fauna. An extension of Japanese calligraphy, Shodō, and its physical movement and tools, sumi-e paintings feature an absence of illustrative lines, instead using carefully curated strokes and stains to depict form.

This take on that same traditional sumi-e takes the best bits of the limited palette and skews it a little towards those who may be more accustomed to working with colour. Each of the deep black paints lifts into light muted colours perfectly suited to the understated traditional Japanese subjects. 

For more controlled painting, working with the gansai in a ceramic palette allows you to easily create various values of the same colour. These mixes can then work together to create soft but dramatic transitions; ‘Reddish Black’ works its way from a deep warm black into a soft berry shade and ‘Purplish Black’ lightens into a cool wintery violet.

Unlike a standard pan watercolour, gansai paints have a creamy and slightly thicker formula, something between a watercolour and a gouache. Paint applies to the surface with high coverage and concentrated pigment but can quickly be lightened with water to create barely-there washes and stains. A learning curve for someone like myself who hasn’t had previous experience with gansai, I was quickly able to pick up how to work with this punchy formula. Offering an interesting new way to approach colour (or a lack of), the sumi-e palette is ideal for anyone feeling a little stale with their own colour choices and looking for a new challenge."

- Alex, Choosing Keeping

Traditional Japansese Shodo calligraphy - the masters of this tradition were known as 'the three brushes' - Kukai, Emperor Saga, and Hayanari Tachibana

Japanese Pens: The Extraordinary Everyday

"It probably comes as no surprise that we here at Choosing Keeping are obsessed with all things Japanese. From our pigments and paints, brushes and paper, right down to the tiniest erasers and clips. Of course the same goes for pens, but today we’re not looking at the lavish gold nib fountain pens from Sailor or Platinum, but rather the everyday companions of our pencil cases and desks. 

This week we take a look at a small selection of our Japanese stationery range fit to suit all needs: From super fine technical pens to the humble ballpoint, we have it all.

Hi-Tec-C - Perfect for the smallest of details, the Pilot Hi-Tec-C comes in four sizes: 0.25mm, 0.3mm, 0.4mm and 0.5mm. Despite the incredibly small line width, the Hi-Tec-C uses a biopolymer gel ink to deliver super smooth lines without bleeding. An innovative rollerball system sits at the tip of the pen, eliminating any skipping and ensuring clean lines across the page. Since its launch in 1994 this unassuming detail focused pen has been a fan favourite among writers and artists alike.

Mitsubishi 550 - For those looking for a retro flair, the Mitsubishi No. 550 might just be the perfect pen. This sophisticated ballpoint takes its design directly from its 1965 predecessor, a reflection of the brand’s significance in Japanese stationery manufacturing. The minimal branding and sleek design lend the 550 an air of clean and cool style while the writing is effortless with a smooth line needing minimal pressure. An elevated take on an everyday staple, its no wonder this classic pen became so popular. 

Boxy - Jump forward a decade and we meet the Mitsubishi Boxy ballpoint. With its clean lines, flat edges and matte finish this 1979 design still feels modern and new today. Delivering the classic ballpoint writing experience with a smooth flow, the body provides a surprisingly comfortable grip that the hand naturally falls into. The click-propel and side release mechanism are extremely satisfying to use - you may find yourself clicking away without realising, much to the dismay of those sat near you. 

Frixion - This minimally designed pen offers a smooth writing experience with minimal pressure, but its the ability to erase the ink which is the star of the show here. With the rubber tip eraser one can now simply remove any mistakes or mishaps even when written in ink. Through friction (now you get where the name comes from) the ink is heated up and effortlessly disappears from the page in seconds. A “see it to believe it” type of trick, this pen is something plucked straight out of an international spy novel and put straight into your hands."

- Alex, Choosing Keeping

Kaweco Special: The Designer's Choice

"By far our most popular writing utensil for architects and designers is the Kaweco Special mechanical pencil. In fact, thanks to its four lead sizes, it is suitable for all means of illustrating - from fine technical drawing with a 0.5mm lead to broad sketching and shading with the 2.0mm. The design first appeared in some capacity in 1927 - pictured is the modern Kaweco Special with a vintage version from our archives. You can clearly see that the model sold today takes direct reference from its ancestor; now produced with an upgraded push-button mechanism for added ease of use and with a durable aluminium body.

This week I have been testing the shorter version of the pencil, which suits smaller hands and is ideal for use on-the-go, but it is also available in a longer size for those looking for something more substantial and with a bit more weight. Overall this classic mechanical pencil is very comfortable in the hand; the aluminium is soft and sturdy and the hexagonal barrel means it won’t roll off your desk!

0.5mm - Unless you have specific requirements for extremely fine lines I would never recommend anything finer than a 0.5mm lead; any thinner and it can become prone to snapping. The .5 is perfect for fine drawing, drafting and writing - you can control the darkness of the line very easily by applying more or less pressure.

0.7mm - This is the most popular lead size we sell - still precise like the .5 but the slight upsize makes the lead more durable and recommended if you are looking for a thin line but are a touch more heavy handed. Equally suitable for drawing and writing.

0.9mm - A slightly more unusual lead size which is more suited to sketching or everyday writing rather than fine technical drawings thanks to the thicker, stronger lead. Depending on how you hold the pencil you can exert some control over the line size as the lead is wears down producing a slanted tip. Very smooth.

2.0mm - The lead inside this holder is the same width as that which you would find inside a regular wooden pencil. It feels far firmer under hand and is ideal for broader lines or shading. A lead pointer can be used to sharpen the lead into a point for more detailed work making it a versatile option for those with multiple requirements. "

- Frances, Choosing Keeping

Straight to the Point: Snap Blade Cutters

"I remember scouring for good quality cutters since my early days at the Central Saint Martins College of Art, when I had to build miniature models for my Interior Design course. If, like me, you are a perfectionist who needs the absolute best tool to avoid a bad temper while involved in painstakingly difficult and methodical projects, then I would highly recommend this precision knife, made in Japan. 

The Japanese reputation for top quality sword forging and its labour intensive blade-smithing process dates back to the 1100s, with the traditional Japanese samurai's katanas still regarded as being the world's sharpest swords. It comes at no surprise that Japan is good at making modern cutters too!

I recently started a new project building decorative boxes using upcycled cardboard, decoupage and Choosing Keeping's Italian papers.

 I cannot tell you the amount of precision cutting involved in the process, and the reliable assistance I found in this sleek, long-lasting knife by NT, who, alongside Olfa, developed snap blade technology in the late fifties in Japan. The 9mm stainless steel blade with its 30 degree angle tip is ideal for intricate works. At its end, the cutter incorporates a built-in blade with auto-lock and a snap-off tool to change the edges once worn. Also, a practical clip makes it possible to attach it to your sketchbook or pocket and my favourite added bonus is its interchangeable blade which can switch sides and be used by left-handed users as well. This design is tested and enjoyed not just by myself but by architects, designers and artists who shop with us."

- Silvia, Choosing Keeping

Notes on Nibs: Testing Fountain Pens

Choosing Keeping is fundamentally a brick and mortar shop and we value the tactile nature of stationery as well as the joy of physical shopping. Indeed, the stationery connoisseur will agree that there is no greater satisfaction than feeling the softness of the best writing paper or musing over the subtle differences between pencil grades. But it is the fountain pen that benefits most from an in-person purchase. It’s all about trying the pen and working out what barrel size fits best in your hand, what material and weight you find most satisfying and, most importantly, what nib size and type best suits your individual handwriting. Indeed, the unique nuances of nib types across brands cannot be translated into a digital language - but that hasn’t stopped us trying!

Nib Taster Notes:

Sailor Blue Dwarf, £140 - As is typical with Sailor, this is a well rounded and reliable nib. It writes true to size - a touch on the thin side - with some bite and feedback. The flow is consistent and little pressure is needed for ink flow; whilst firm, there is some line variation possible with more considered writing.
Material: 14k gold with rhodium tip
Sizes available: Fine, Medium, Broad, Music

Lamy 2000, £175 - Very wet with high lubrication; on the broader size of medium, there is not much precision but the generous flow lends well to faster writing or for those who enjoy the variation of tone in inks. The tip is well-rounded which produces an extremely smooth finish, almost gliding across the page.
Material: 14k gold with platinum coating
Sizes available: Fine or Medium considered writing.

Ohnishi, £160 - £175 - True to a Western fine, it is comparable to a Japanese medium. With its steel nib it feels firm and there is no real line variation possible. A good everyday writer with a study and reliable line that does have some give over continued use - it has quite a dry nib which may benefit lefties or those in need of a quick dry.
Material: Gold-plated stainless steel, by German manufacturer Schmidt
Sizes available: Fine

Pilot Prera, £48 - This pen would be ideal for those looking for detailed writing or drawing; definitely on the finer side, it is quintessentially Japanese in its precision. Very firm and smooth, there is certainly some bite but no line variation possible. As steel nibs go this is exceptional, but I would recommending upsizing as the fine can feel a touch scratchy.
Material: Steel
Sizes available: Fine, Medium, Italic (CM)

Platinum ‘sheep’ Leather , £185 - Whilst Platinum in general tends to runs very fine, this nib is true to size with a very generous and consistent ink flow. Some line variation is possible with gentle pressure and it feels soft and balanced. With its leather barrel and no threading, it feels comfortable and warm in hand.
Material: 14k gold
Sizes available: Medium 

- Frances, Choosing Keeping

Three Pages a Day

"When typewriters were popularised in the late 1800s there was significant and immediate backlash from the portion of the population (many of them poets and novelists) who saw the interference of machinery in the process of writing as somehow tainting the purity of thought and expression. Of course today, in an age where using a typewriter is a romantic alternative to the everyday use of a computer, writing by hand is seen by many as a redundant exercise … I do not! Whilst perhaps slightly biased by my profession, I sincerely believe that there are a huge wealth of benefits to writing by hand - and as often as possible. 

Far from the careful bullet journalist, my daily writing is free flowing and admittedly erratic. Loosely following the ‘morning pages’ technique of writing three pages to no one in particular, it is more about the handwritten process and the train of thought followed than the look on the page. My companion of choice is Choosing Keeping’s own composition ledger (A5 ruled is my preference) - I love the huge variety of spine colours and cover combinations. 

Many of our customers express anxiety over writing on the first page of a new notebook and whilst there is certainly a peculiar power to blank pages and the potential they hold, I assure you that there is nothing more satisfying than a full one (or five!). And what better way to mark the start of the astrological year than with our zodiac composition ledger? Having just passed through the equinox we have officially entered Spring under the sign of Aries. As the first in the zodiac, Aries is associated with new beginnings and a fiery energy that frankly couldn’t be more welcome this year. 

The cover is produced by perhaps my favourite paper supplier. Italian of course and the inheritors of the great Remondini printers who were so prolific in their paper production from the 17th to 19th centuries - in fact this notebook is a real love affair with Europe as they are also bound on the continent. The paper on the inside is what I would describe as easy going: For particularly fussy fountain pen users I would recommend an MD or marbled notebook for maximum smoothness, yet I am perfectly happy using my trusty Lamy Safari (who can resist this years’ special editions) for quick, regular and meditative writing." 

- Frances, Choosing Keeping

A Colour Palette for Nature

"Yamato-e painting, developed in Japan’s golden age, the Heian period, is a classical Japanese style of painting which interprets the beauty of nature and the changing seasons. These highly detailed paintings often depict narratives, landscapes and the four seasons Shiki-e. Many Japanese festivals and rituals follow the seasons - spring is regarded as the first season and a breath of fresh air as buds begin to blossom upon the trees and shoots push their heads through the ground.

See the bottom of this article for some examples of classical Japanese Yamato-e paintings that illustrate the spring sensibility.

Gansai paints are made in Japan using a colour palette specific to Kyoto, Japan’s imperial capital during the high middle ages, and codified in a colour dictionary pointing to precise references in nature.

Choosing Keeping’s Spring paint set borrows from this chromatic lexicon - the bright green tones of Wakaba or fresh leaves, purple from wisteria, and of course pink from, Sakura (cherry blossom), which is a key Shinto symbol of spring. How romantic that Japanese colour nomenclature don’t pertain to chemistry - but rather references subjective emotions and fleeting observations of nature. For example, Akebono-iro - the palest light pink refers to ‘daybreak colour’ or Hatoba which can be translated as ‘pigeon wing’.

If you consider that each colour is so well considered, Gansai paints are not intended, at least in theory, for mixing. Compared to the Western style half pans (think Winsor and Newton), assai are presented in large and wide full sized pans, designed to be used straight out the palette, ready to accommodate a generous paintbrush without splitting any bristles.

This unique feature encourages expressive and uninterrupted strokes, equally minimising the need for mixing palettes.

Gansai’s particular strength is its versatility - either opaque, thick and creamy for a texture reminiscent of gouache - even pale and light colours can be laid over dark papers with obvious contrast similar to dry pastels. Add water and the paints resemble Western style watercolours - more give, more luminescence and transparency.

I tested the Spring watercolour set using the Tokuseu Saishiki and Kijiku Itachi premium Saiun-do brushes on rose, clay, white, and olive handmade paper cards. As the year progresses, I plan to test the summer, autumn, and winter watercolour sets to paint with the seasons."

- Eleanor, shop manager

The Tale of Genji, Chapter 34; Kashiwagi catches sight of the Third Princess, Tosa Mitsuoki (1617-1691)

Tosa Mitsunobu (1434-1525) Tsukimine-dera (Geppoji) konryu shugyo engi (History of the Founding of the Geppoji Temple) 1495

A Nib as Soft as Butter: Pilot's Custom Soft Fine

“My fountain pen of choice is the Pilot Custom Soft Fine. Its 14k flexible gold nib is a niche specialty nib type, unique to Japanese pen makers and manufactured by Pilot since the 70s. It produces a unique sensation of varied line width as you exert more pressure on downward strokes, combining calligraphic flair with razor precision. You'll find the effect extremely pleasing whether you are patiently carving each individual stroke into the page but also when writing naturally in a frenzy as ideas spill out of your head.

A popular sales line for a gold nib is that it will mould to your personal hand(writing) - is it a myth?

4 years of continuous years of daily writing and I can confidently affirm that it is no lie. Using a gold nib pen (versus a steel one) is a game changer - something like the Eureka moment for any chef discovering that butter is the secret ingredient to deliciousness.

I use a CON-70 converter cartridge and am currently enjoying Alt-Grun by Rohrer and Klingner, pictured. Yet another benefit of a refillable cartridge system, to enjoy a rainbow of ink colours in a thrifty and environmentally friendly way."

- Eleanor, shop manager