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.
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)?
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!
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.
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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
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!