18 Mar, 2022
The Perfect Sketchbook may be a myth.
The perfect sketchbook depends so much on personal preference and it's intended purpose. I have a few pet peeves that effectively rule out some sketchbooks. If I'm going to use watercolor, the paper has to allow for wet washes. Whether I'm in the studio or traveling, doing quick on location sketches or setting up for a live model figure class will affect what size sketchbook will work best. So, I think the best I can hope for is a set of workable sketchbooks customized for my most common sketching scenarios. The following are the factors that I consider most important when considering a sketchbook.
The paper is MOST important to me.
General sketch paper
I have so many really horrible sketches where I tried to use watercolor, or even ink washes on paper that didn't want to cooperate. The worst papers buckle badly and don't flatten when dry; the color bleeds through to ruin underlying pages, and it's impossible to avoid really hard edges as the paper grabs onto the paint and refuses to let it move at all. Sketchbooks with this kind of paper work well with pens, markers, graphite, colored pencil and just maybe, if you push it, watercolor pencils with a tiny bit of damp brush.
While I love this sketchbook for graphite, or pen, it really is horrible with any kind of wet media!
|Really bad buckling!!|
|Stamping with watercolor worked well|
|These were done with watercolor pencil and a damp waterbrush - also OK.|
Mixed Media paper
I had high hopes for sketchbooks labeled for mixed media work but, alas, while they are better about buckling and bleed-thru, they still don't take a wash and let the paint move the way I want.
|Mixed Media paper handled the wet glue for these collages well with no buckling|
|Ok - but no real watercolor magic|
|Difficult to avoid hard edges.|
I almost always use a 140 pound watercolor paper sketchbook, The results for watercolor are just so much more reliable! Usually they are smooth enough to take some text and pen work. It does seem a bit wasteful to use such good paper for notes and glued-in ephemeral (when I'm doing a travel journal), but these days, I hate to compromise on good paper for watercolor work.
|A quick sketch - but the color magic is there!|
Mixed paper books
Another option might be to bind your own sketchbook with a combination of sketch paper for notes, thumbnails, ephemera, etc and watercolor paper for painting. Actually, Cheap Joe's Art Supply has the Watercolor Paintbook that does just that! I have one on back-order to try out. Unfortunately, it's a hard-bound spiral book, so I know I'll have those compromises - but, for travel sketching or workshops where I want to take extensive notes, it could work quite well.
Size and Format
If I'm sketching in my studio or in a class, I like big sketchbooks/pads - up to 18 x 24" - these aren't practical for travel or urban sketching. The largest size that I find fits in a bag or day pack and isn't too cumbersome to handle is about 9 x 12".
|These big pads are great for the studio or a figure class!|
On the other hand, the smallest size I would consider is about 3x5" and then only if it's bound flat enough that I can sketch across the binding (more about that in a minute). For most urban/daily sketching I use a 5.5 x 8.5" sketchbook. If I'm hiking and weight is a real concern, 3.5 x 5.5" works (or sometimes I just take loose paper taped to a corrogated plastic support to keep it really light).
The tiny book on the left is vellum, 3x4" and really only good for graphite or ink - the paper is so thin, you see thru to the image on the other side so I couldn't really use both sides of the paper making the usable area for a sketch really tiny.
The others are all 3.5 x 5.5" and fold flat giving a total area of 7 x 5" for landscape sketches. The two in the middle are hard bound, the bottom one is a Handbook (so it has light watercolor or mixed media paper); the one on the right is a soft bound book by Daler-Rowney. At less than $2.00, it's quite a bargain - it can take a very light damp waterbrush on water-soluable ink.
More usually, I use a larger format sketchbook. The biggest is a Pentalic 9x12" spiral bound watercolor book at the bottom; I've decorated the cover of the 7x10" Canson Watercolor Sketchbook for this year's Sketcbook Revival Challenge. My favorite daily sketchbook to carry with me is a 5.5 x 8.5" Sketchbook at the top right. I've been using the soft-cover Stillman and Birn Alpha sketchbook, but the paper doesn't really suit me for watercolor, so I'm trying this hardbound Hahnemuhle watercolor sketchbook. I think the 200gsm paper is close to 140# - so far, I've been enjoying it! I almost always decorate the covers or put on a sticker so it's easy to differentiate similar sketchbooks.
I have an 8 x 10 Stillman and Birn Zeta Sketchbook on order - the Zeta Series is softcover with watercolor paper - so I think I'll love it!
I absolutely abhor continually adjusting my sketchbook orientation (landscape or portrait) depending on what I'm sketching. My sketchbook has to allow either a portrait or a landscape format without turning it around. For me, this usually means either a portrait or square format; and it means that I intend to sketch across the binding using 2 pages for any significant landscape sketch. In order to do this, two more of my sketchbook requirements come into play; the sketchbook must lie flat when opened, and I prefer to sketch across a stitched binding rather than deal with a spiral in the middle of my sketch.
|Stillman and Birn's Alpha 5.5 x 8.5 opens flat for 11 x 8.5 useable area.|
|Or, with it's soft cover, I can fold it over for a compact portrait format|
|Hmmmm . . . . how will I ever decide?|
Hard Cover or Soft:
Because of my preference for a sketchbook that lies flat when open and not really liking spiral bound books, I mostly use soft-covered sketchbooks. They tend to lie flatter when opened than books bound with hard covers - although some, like Hahnemuhle and Handbook, do a very good job.
Misc Features: Pen Loops, Pockets, Place Marker Ribbons!
Accessory features like pen loops, pockets, and place marker ribbons are nice-to-have, but easy to DIY. Pen loops with self-adhesive come in packs of 5-10 from Amazon are relatively inexpensive, I often glue an envelope onto the inside of the back cover for business cards and glue dots for ephemera I want to add. Sticky notes and paper clips can provide bookmarks if you need to mark something in the sketchbook.