How to choose a sketchbook

November 20, 2019 | 26 Comments

I do nearly all of my work inside a sketchbook, so I thought it might be helpful to share all the different considerations I make when deciding on a sketchbook. There are a lot of variables (and probably some more that I haven’t thought of!) so in the second half I will share my preferences.

If you are just starting, this article will probably seem a little overwhelming, so I suggest that you just skim it for now and then focus on the Conclusion at the end of the article.


How will you use your sketchbook?

Before you start assessing the physical characteristics of a sketchbook, it’s important to think through how you will use it. Of course this might change once you begin the book, but it’s good to make your best guess as to how you think you will use it.

What do you want to record in your journal? Do you want to record your everyday life and fill your sketchbook with all kinds of sketches (elaborate ones as well as quick ones) and notes, collage, maps etc. Or do you want your sketchbook to be filled with standalone sketches of scenes (from dedicated sketching sessions) with little or no text. These decisions will affect the paper, the size and the binding of the sketchbook.

You might also realise that it is best to have more than one book – a small pocket sketchbook for quick sketches that you carry around with you everywhere and a larger sketchbook for taking out on sketching outings.


Paper

What different media will you be using and how will you be using it? Is there one medium that you will be using more than the others, one medium that is more important to you?

The reason why it’s good to ask yourself these questions is because there is often a compromise if you want more than one medium – eg. ink and wash. Watercolour likes textured paper while ink is better on a smooth surface. Most watercolour painters prefer to work on 100% cotton paper with some texture (Cold Press or Rough) but these papers often don’t work very well for ink. So you have to work out which medium gets the priority in your decision making process!

How thick is the paper? A lot of people don’t like it when the paper buckles or warps when sketching with watercolour. If that’s the case for you then you will probably be happier with thicker, better quality watercolour paper. Keeping an elastic band around the book and/or putting it under some weight can often reduce the effect of buckling. The thickness of the paper will also affect whether you can work on both sides of the page.

The way in which you work will also affect your paper decision – but that needs a separate article.

Something else to consider is whether thick good quality paper will create pressure to create a ‘good’ sketch. This is important when you are beginning as your biggest focus should be to simply create the habit of regular sketching. So there is a balance – if the paper is not designed for watercolour you might be discouraged by the results, but if the paper is high quality, thick and expensive, you might be afraid to use it.


Binding and Cover

Another important aspect is whether the book opens flat so you can easily sketch on either side of the pages and have the option to sketch right across the spread.

A spiral bound book is great for turning the book back on itself, so you don’t have to support both sides, but is harder to sketch across a spread (under the spiral).

Hardbound books are great for urban sketching as the cover provides support whether you are standing up or sitting down to sketch. But the hard cover adds weight to the book. So if weight is an issue, it’s worth considering a softcover option.

Also consider how robust the cover is. Will it bother you if the cover gets tatty (if it’s a softcover) or grubby (if it’s a light covered fabric cover)?


Format

Four common formats are landscape, portrait, square and accordion/concertina.

Landscape (horizontal) sketchbooks are great for landscapes and wide panoramic scenes (especially when you sketch across the fold). However it’s  harder to sketch tall subjects without rotating your book. Some people are happy to do that, others are not.

Another consideration with landscape books is that they take up a lot of room when you open them fully. The A4 landscape Moleskine which I use frequently, is difficult to use on a plane, on a small cafe table and in high wind situations. It’s generally awkward to hold when sketching without a support board.

Portrait (vertical) formats are easier to handle and if you are prepared to sketch across the fold and provide lots of options for sketching different subjects. They also provide more composition opportunities than a landscape book. The main limitation of a portrait format book is that they are not as good when doing panoramic sketches.

Square books are a good compromise between the vertical and horizontal formats but are harder to find. They are also good for Instagram!

Another format is an accordion sketchbook. Although they can be awkward to hold open (ie. prevent them from unfolding completely), they provide flexibility in terms of sketching vertical or horizontal scenes – you can create very long panoramic sketches which go over multiple pages.


Size and weight

I find that an A5 sketchbook is a good general size for everyday use – if you sketch across the fold you can create work which is A4 in size.

A smaller sketchbook (A6) is great to put in your pocket and use for quick sketches during in-between moments. It’s also more discreet (easier to sketch with no one noticing you!)

Larger books – such as A4 size – provide lots of different options for creating big sketches or filling a spread with a collection of smaller sketches. But of course A4 sketchbooks are much heavier and possibly too big to carry around in daily life.


Number of Pages

This might not be an issue for a lot of people, but for me, if a sketchbook only has 50-60 pages, I will fill it up too quickly! So in the long term, it might not be economical or desirable to buy sketchbooks with thick paper and only a few spreads.

On the other hand, if the book has too many pages you might get discouraged if it takes you too long to finish it. I think that when you’re a beginner, finishing your first sketchbook is a big milestone!


Cost

Good quality sketchbooks are not cheap, and as mentioned above, an expensive sketchbook might mean that you put too much pressure on yourself to only do ‘good’ sketches.

When I started I was using Moleskine sketchbooks (approx A5 size) and the fact that it was an expensive purchase meant that I was more determined to finish it than when I used cheaper visual diaries.


My preferences

How I use it

  • My everyday sketchbook is a narrative of my life, the place where I record the everyday and take risks. I want to have the freedom to try new things in it, and I want to use it daily for sketches and notes.
  • When I travel, my focus is very much on sketching, and so I want my travel sketchbooks to be better quality than my everyday books.

Number of sketchbooks

  • I prefer to be working on only one sketchbook at a time because I’m creating a narrative of my life.
  • Even though I like the idea of a small pocket book in addition to my normal book, I don’t like having the story of my life separated into two books.
  • As mentioned above, I have separate books for my travels but once I return home I will resume working in my latest everyday book.
  • I have a few themed books that I use for my research and development at home, and separate books for teaching (local workshops and my big SketchingNow courses).

Paper

  • The ability to be able to write and draw in ink is as important to me as my watercolour painting. Therefore I have to find sketchbooks with paper that work for both. As a result my watercolour technique has developed so that I can achieve the results I want on paper which is not true watercolour paper.
  • For my everyday book I want paper that isn’t too precious and will experiment with all kinds of paper. Thick ‘good’ paper certainly prevents me from doing super quick single line sketches.
  • When I travel I want to use watercolour paper but I prefer paper made with wood pulp and a little bit of cotton, rather than 100% cotton paper. (I need to write a separate article about this!)
  • I don’t mind paper which buckles a little – in fact I love a sketchbook which has a used much-loved feeling.
  • Working on both sides is super important to me so that my sketchbook feels like a book.

Binding and Cover

  • I mix it up for my everyday sketchbook and enjoy hardcover, softcover and spiral bound books.
  • Softcover works well as I often use a support board for my book, paint tin and water container, and this board means that any floppiness in the cover is not an issue. I also do a lot of cafe sketching in my everyday life!
  • Hardcover books do become a little heavy so, I tend to use smaller sizes for my everyday sketchbook
  • When I’m travelling I like hardcover books
  • I’m not a fan of the light coloured fabric covers (Handbook, Etchr) but it’s not a big deal and wouldn’t affect my decision to use a certain sketchbook.

Format

  • For my everyday sketchbooks I’m always changing format (and size) so that I’m constantly testing myself. But I think that my overall preference is for portrait format books as it gives me more options for sketchbook page layouts.
  • When travelling I’ve been happy with A4 landscape Moleskine, but this year (2019) I loved using the new portrait format version and at this stage, intend to continue using them.

Size and weight

  • Weight is a very big consideration for me for my everyday book, so I rarely go larger than an A5 hardcover book. Anything larger is too heavy to carry in my bag.
  • My preference is for softcover and I like the 8×10″ Stillman and Birn size.
  • When I travel I do use A4 hardcover sketchbooks, but as sketching is my main focus, I normally roam the streets holding the book in my hands!

Number of pages

  • As mentioned above, I go through a lot of pages both in my everyday sketchbooks and when I’m travelling. I usually fill up a 60 page A4 size sketchbook in a little over a week when I’m travelling, and have been known to have a similar pace when I’m at home at times.
  • My preference for an everyday sketchbook is to have 90-120 pages so that they last longer than a few weeks.

Cost

  • As sketching has now become my career, I have accepted the fact that I will spend a lot of money on sketchbooks! So cost is not something that affects my decision as to which book to use.
  • Note. Although I sometimes get sent samples of sketchbooks to test (and I always disclose when this is the case) I still buy all my own sketchbooks. Hmm, that reminds me I need to place an order now!

So for all the reasons listed above my favourite sketchbooks are:

Everyday sketchbook: Stillman and Birn, Alpha Softcover (in various sizes and formats) as these books are relatively lightweight with lots of pages and paper which suits a range of media. Whilst not true watercolour paper, I’m really happy with the results I get when using watercolour and lots of water.

Travel sketchbook: Moleskine A4 portrait watercolour sketchbook. This is my favourite paper for sketching (despite various quality issues in recent years), I love the size and binding of these books.


Conclusion

Well, there are a lot of things to consider when choosing a sketchbook, and if you are just beginning it might seem overwhelming.

The important thing is simply to choose a book and start sketching! The only way to discover what suits you best is to fill a book and then start another one.

If you are primarily focusing on your drawing and dabbling a little with watercolour, then Stillman and Birn Alpha is definitely an option to consider. If you want more ideas check out these following articles:

What’s your favourite sketchbook?

Sketchbooks for Ink and (light) wash

For the more seasoned sketchers:

What are the important characteristics of the best book for you? Please share in the comment section below.

Finally…If you haven’t changed your sketchbook in a while, I would challenge you to try a different book. I’ve been experimenting with some very different books recently and it’s been so good! Changing paper and/or format is such a good way to get yourself out of a rut and explore some new techniques and ways of working. And yes! I plan to share more about the books I’ve been trying soon!


 

26 Comments

  • Tina Koyama says:

    Liz, excellent points all around on things to consider when choosing a sketchbook! One more point in regards to size: I carry both an A5 size and a pocket-size book all the time. The reason is that the pocket size is more discreet and easier to use while riding public transportation (it’s my favorite place to draw people). A larger book could be cumbersome and more likely to attract attention on a crowded bus.

    My current dilemma is that I use too many different media, and I don’t like to be pinned down to one or another, so I like using both S&B Beta (toothy) and Zeta (smooth)… but I don’t want to carry two books! And i don’t know which I’ll want by the time I get to where I’m going. I want a single book with both kinds of paper, either alternating pages or one half with one kind and one half with the other. First world sketcher problems! 😉

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks Tina – even more considerations… I didn’t think about the ‘discreet’ idea – since I’m normally fairly fearless, but it’s a fantastic point. And of course when I’ve tried a tiny sketchbook, I have taken my normal one with me too.

      And yes, it’s impossible to have a perfect solution for multiple media!!! The different paper sounds good, but would it be the right paper for the right medium at the time 🙂

  • Maria says:

    Hi! Thanks for shareing your choices. It’s been really interesting. I am currently working on several sketchbooks at the dame time, since I am in the developing fase of a proyect and I don’t want to limit myself for now. But, I do hace to day that when I was just starting to reflect on the idea I wanted to develop, It was really helpful to forget all the beautiful sketchbooks and interesting techniques available and just go for color pencils on a Hannemhule A5 sketchbook with lots of pages that I had laying around. 🙂

  • Hi Liz, as a watercolour sketcher, you are spot on with my preference 300 gsm cold press 100% cotton paper. That said it is also very hard to get what I want in a commercial sketchbook at a vaguely reasonable cost. By way of example, my partner purchased some Hannemuhle sketchbooks in Europe earlier thus year for €16. A smaller Hannemuhle book of a smaller size was recently advertised in Australia for $A50, so more th an double the price for a smaller book.
    The Perfect Sketchbook, which I have used in the past came closest to my specifications (I think Etchr has taken making these on now). I love a square format which are getting more difficult to source, other than online. So instead I have taken some classes, watched YouTube and now make my own sketchbooks filled with the paper I prefer. I am currently using square books made with coloured St Cuthbert’s Mill Bockingford watercolour paper. In my handbag I carry loose sheets of Arches watercolour paper which are folded to A5 size in landscape format. These are carried in a plastic sleeve and when I have collected enough pages I bindvthem into a book.
    While all this is a probably a bit extreme for a new sketcher it is way more cost effective buying sheets of paper and making your own books, than buying commercially made sketchnnooks.

  • My apologies, autocorrect seems to have run wild with some of my comment. In particular I was referring to sketchbooks in my final sentence. I am not quite sure what “sketchnnooks” are, although they sound quite cosy.?

  • Cookie Ballou says:

    And then there’s paper color…
    Bright white paper feels too stark for me. My favorite sketchbook is a little spiral bound Aquabee (portrait 6×4). The paper is a pleasing off-white, and I love it’s small size. An added bonus is that I can take it apart and rearrange the pages. Might seem silly, but I can keep things sequential even if I’ve worked out of order. I sketch on one side of the paper and write on the other. I also like moleskine A5 or smaller. And again the paper is a pleasing off-white.

  • Silke says:

    Thank you for this summary on possible thoughts when deciding on a sketchbook.
    I am journaling and like an ongoing book.
    In winter I choose bigger sizes, when I’m not heading out too often. For learning in online classes I like a larger sketchbook to include text.
    I have themed sketchbooks on people and cats, sometimes it takes a long time to fill them. But I don’t mind.

    One thing my books all have in common is their last page: There I write down what I liked about the book or not, the binding, the paper, the number of pages, the size. I love to play on different papers – and to challenge myself. Sometimes I also write something about my learning curve or where I am on my personal sketching way.
    And when one book is coming to an end I love to choose a new one, depending on season, projects, travelling – and my last pages sometimes help to make a decision.

  • Kate Powell says:

    Some requirements:
    Has to be a hard back. I don’t want to mess with a second something to set the softcovers on.
    I prefer a bound book to a spiral.
    I do not like hot pressed paper… and not rough cold press either. I want white.
    Ideally the size would be B5… but so far I’ve compromised on size.
    The environmental aspects of whomever I am dealing with is important… How they source their water and paper pulp. Hahnemühle fits that bill, and I am pleading with them to do a bamboo sketchbook in the A5 landscape size.

    I don’t like the looks of a sketch that goes across the gutter (sorry Liz –I know you do, and lots of other do too). I think it mars the look of the sketch, and so unless I was doing reportage and had no choice, I simply would not do that. It is why I prefer landscape and on rare occasions turn the book around for a tall skinny something, like a spire. I often clip my pages so wind and such don’t bother me.

    I LOVE an A5 or B5 format landscape, and almost never reach for anything else, though I always have an A4 landscape in rotation. I recently was given a Portrait B5 and while I loved the size, the shape was torture! I love a square (the architect in me?), and they are a second choice for me, both loose paper and sketchbook, but only for in-studio sketching.

    Agreed about the paper weight, but I go through sketchbooks pretty fast because I use them for “thinking” sketches too. So I compromise. I have two levels of sketching — my thinking sketchbooks, which takes light watercolors, is the Hahnemühle Nostalgie A5 Sketchbook, and I can get them for about $4 less that the Hahnemühle Watercolour A5 Journal. My A4 is always watercolor weight paper, and I always have these three in rotation.

    Last ideas: I am looking at trying Etchr’s off the rack books next order. S&B Has good paper but doesn’t meet my other requirements at all, which is why I moved on. I still have a couple of Moleskins in this size too but like the Hahnemühle paper much better. I like accordion’s for special projects, like a short trip or a story…

  • Carmel Campbell says:

    A great article. Thank you so much for putting it together. I would like to be using one sketchbook but find myself using three. One is watercolor paper, my favorite is Winsor & Newton 100% cotton cold press. It does not have a rough service like most cold press and is a dream for watercolor. This I use for people and portraits and to develop my watercolor skills.

    My everyday sketchbook, at the moment, is a square softcover Stillman & Birn Alpha for coffee shops, trains, markets, I guess almost anything. It is my fallback sketchbook. I have just started using the square format. I need to give more thought to the page layout as I feel I am wasting some of the paper space. I am sketching thinking it is portrait format. I normally alternate between portrait and landscape in Alpha.

    My 3rd sketchbook is Moleskine landscape in A4. This I use when I go out sketching for buildings. I have tried the Etchr sketchbooks. I found a big learning curve with the cold press, it was rough, so hard to use pen and ink but loved the hot press.

    The one big regret I have is buying sketchbooks at a whim because someone else used them. I sometimes wonder if I will ever use the sketchbooks I have stored. I also like to make my own sketchbooks with Fabriano cold press 100% cotton. I continue to be amazed at what happens when you use 100% cotton paper. What the pigment does on the paper. However not always practical when sketching out and about town. So there is some disappointment when jumping from one paper to another as I get different results.

  • Liz Steel says:

    Hey everyone! thanks for all the detailed comments. Really LOVE reading them!

  • Suhita Shirodkar says:

    I sketch across multiple sketchbooks it never seems to bother me. But Nina Khaschina seems to have hit on a perfect solution for those that like to keep the timeline of their sketches linear and in one place: she has a standard book she draws in , but she uses random littler sheets and pads for sketching on her daily run, and during errands or when she wants to sketch on a colored paper. At the end of the day, she makes beautiful spreads by taping it all into her main journal. The books are a fantastic, multi-layered record of her life.

  • Cindy Cali says:

    Greetings Liz….. As always, your enthusiasm is inspiring. Thank You for another great article. I look forward to the next one ?

    Cindy

  • Great post Liz. I am working on one myself! Just did a video but hadn’t positioned the camera correctly so have to do it again 🙁

    I use the Perfect Sketchbook B5, 200gsm Kickstarter version and really love it. I’m working in my 6th one at present and find I can comfortably use pen, pencil, watercolour or gouache on this paper and enjoy the process.

    For demonstrations, notes, quick studies and experiments I can’t beat the Stillman&birn Alpha paper. I’ve filled many of these, in many shapes and sizes, and in both hard and soft cover. I like the 8×10” but have also filled a lot of the smaller landscape books. I prefer hard cover, but the light weight of soft cover had its advantages. As you said, there are compromises to make…

    The Perfect Sketchbook B5 being the exception. I hope they will make a 200gsm Signature version at Etchr Lab as there are arguably not enough pages in a 300gsm book.

    I also like the Hahnemühle watercolour sketchbooks and I think they are my favourite of the commercial books available. Though I haven’t tried the portrait Moleskine…

  • Sylvia says:

    Why does watercolor sometimes bead up in my Moleskine watercolor album?

    • Liz Steel says:

      Never gotten to the bottom of that issue. When it’s happened to me I think it’s often oil from my fingers. But it could be a defect from manufacturing.

  • Celeste says:

    Just started a new S&B Beta….so far, I’m liking the thicker paper.

  • Marianne says:

    I find the Etchr Lab’s The Perfect Sketchbook so puzzling.
    As stated on their site it’s made with Fabriano paper. In that case I wonder why not just buy Fabriano, which is much easier to source as well.

  • Anna Feruglio Dal Dan says:

    I am getting in the habit of sketching again, and I have fallen in love with Khadi hardback notebooks. The paper is so soft that looking at it too hard makes it pill, and you can forget about masking, which I like… but there is something in the feel and look that just makes me happy.

  • Great conversation, I like Clairefontaine plain notebooks A5 size, they’re quite cheap to buy in Australia and the smooth paper is lovely for fountain pen (glides over the surface). Plus it takes watercolour fairly well…a little bit of buckling but I don’t work super wet and I quite like a little bit of buckling on the paper – gives the sketch character and something unique. The A5 soft cover also weighs very little so I always have it in my bag…that’s the most important thing!

  • Flory says:

    I’m a fan of S&B Beta books. The paper can take ink and watercolor, my two favorite media, as well as other things I try. I really appreciate that it doesn’t buckle much (actually it can buckle a bit but then relaxes as it dries fairly flat) and that I can work on both sides of the page. I like the softcover 10×8” for travel and for online courses, and the softcover 8.5×5.5” for my everyday sketching.
    Speaking of Stillman & Birn, I learned (by asking) that their papers can be purchased online at Art Supply Warehouse (ASW), http://www.artsupplywarehouse.com. So now it’s possible to make your own custom sketchbooks with your favorite S&B paper(s).

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