Last Week: Working two sketchbooks

April 26, 2016 | 28 Comments

Your choice of sketchbook is probably the most important decision to make as it affects so many aspects of your work. Not only will the paper will dictate what media you can use, but the size and binding will have an impact on how easy it is to use. For example a small sketchbook makes it easier to pull out of your bag and do a super quick sketch, while a larger book with thicker watercolour paper will probably be reserved for dedicated painting sessions.

So it is not just a matter of buying someone else’s selection and assuming that it will be ‘right’ for you. You have to think about how you want to use it first.

I have discussed these ideas before – so please pop over to my section on sketchbooks to read some more thoughts on how to choose a sketchbook.

Last week  I started a new A4 watercolour moleskine book and I have had some clarity on a situation that thought was a big compromise.

I think the A4 moleskine is my all time favourite sketchbook to use (despite the fact that the current paper isn’t as nice as the old paper was) but it is just too big and heavy for everyday use. I love the Stillman and Birn Alpha 9×6 landscape sketchbook for everyday use (quick sketches and lots of notes), but when I am out sketching and have some time to do a more serious sketch I would prefer to use better watercolour paper. So for the last few years I have resorted to working in two sketchbooks – I take the A4 moleskine out when I am going on a sketching day.

I would much prefer to only have one book as a continual narrative is a big deal for me. I have been thinking that this arrangement was an unavoidable compromise and I disliked the idea of having some sketches in a separate book – it was as if they were lacking in some way because they were isolated from the record of my life. This relates back to what I was thinking about a few weeks ago Recording Life vs Creating Art.

This weekend, as I was working the two books during the inagural national Urban Sketchers Australia sketchmeet ,I suddenly realised that the ‘serious sketches’ don’t need to be part of the day to day narrative of my life. My big A4 sketchbook is a separate narrative of my sketching outings over the course of a much longer time frame (6 months to a year). I really like the idea of having a book with a longer story as my everyday sketchbooks only contain a limited time frame of 4-6 weeks.

This weekend I used my Alpha for the quick ‘squeezed in’ sketches while travelling or at the end of the day when I was tired. These quick more experimental/risk taking sketches are enough for me to include the event in my day-to-day storytelling and a place to write my thoughts.  I hope that makes sense?

Anyway, I am in danger of rambling on and on about these ideas, so I will leave it at this point and start sharing my pages. I will intersperse the larger sketches in with my everyday pages so you can see how the two work together.


I know that I have discussed this topic before, but I always love hearing about how other people use their sketchbooks and what challenges they have at the moment finding the right fit. So I would love to hear from you!




  • Anne Scott says:

    I’m still to find the ‘perfect’ sketchbook although I recently received my ‘Perfect Sketchbook’ from Erwin in the post.
    But l like your idea of just accepting that maybe I need two!

    • Liz Steel says:

      hi Anne, I was trying not to get caught up with ‘the perfect sketchbook’ confusion. The idea of accepting two different ones for different purposes is really starting to settle with me.
      Hope you have rested from our massive weekend! It was a blast wasn’t it?

  • Kate says:

    Before I started sketching, I kept a journal of scriptural study topics. Every day as I read scripture, The Spirit would bring things to mind, and I would write those down along with questions. Sometimes i would include a map or other drawing that related to the topic. I look forward to the day when I can make these journals visual.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Kate – I still have a separate personal journal for just writing… my daily sketchbooks have become more public so I still need somewhere completely private. This is another topic in itself!

  • Sandra James-Talbot says:

    I use the 6″x9″ Alpha – the paper is a great weight for writing notes and sketching. It’s quite inexpensive so I’m not precious about it. I’m not sure about the A4 Moleskine I have, it feels a bit serious and grown up for my limited skill level – I think I’m going to experiment with folding a whole sheet of watercolour paper up into a 16 page concertina book that I saw on Marc Taro-Holmes’ website – Just need to work out which paper to use though.

    • Liz Steel says:

      hi Sandra – I made one of those sketchbooks years ago but went through it way to quickly… and as you say, what paper to make it out of it the best decision. Have fun and hope it works well for you!

  • Shirley miller says:

    Liz thank you for cintinuing on this never ending topic of sketchbooks. I have not even been a full year using sketchbooks, so I have experimented quite a lot. I don’t enjoy rough paper or even cold press so I have mostly used the Stillman and Birn A5 5 by 8 Zeta and sometimes the Epsilon. I don’t love using the backside of a wrinkly paper either. Also I want a daily sketchbook too. I love the moleskin landscape size you use but I don’t think I will like the paper. And will I be home sketching then I will enjoy a wire. But if I’m out I like the hardbound. I’m still dizzy with choices, and I get that the main thing is to keep sketching. I like to sketch on alpha and gamma but not to paint! Help!!!!!!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Shirley – Hope you can enjoy the process of discovering what works for you. I love that we are all different… makes discussion of our personal preferences so interesting!

  • I always seem to have quite a few different sketchbooks on the go, a very inexpensive one for quick tonal studies in marker pens as preliminary studies for Pastel paintings. Another cheap little square Jasco that I use for line drawings, pen & ink & the like. I was using a little moleskin for ‘ nicer ‘ line & wash & watercolours but have stepped up to a larger one & am not liking the quality of the paper in it. I have also been making my own recently which is fun & I can use whatever paper I choose. Arches 600 was bit too thick & 300 hot press….well, not absorbent enough, think 300 med should be just about perfect ( when I get around to making it ). A girl can never have too many sketchbooks !

    • Liz Steel says:

      Ha! totally agree Amanda!! loved reading all your details. And if you like Arches paper then moleskine might not do it for you… I am one of the rare people who don’t like arches. Have fun!

  • Kate Powell says:

    I’m not fond of the S&B books so they are out for me, though if they did a A4 in Delta or Zeta they might win me over. I have a silly small book I leave by the bed now that I have fun with, ink only, sketch only, and am using up some smaller books that I leave in my purse all the time but I like my Moleskins. When I do a nice sketch in an inferior book it is always sad.

    • Liz Steel says:

      hey kate- I think they do A4 portrait format hardbound in delta and zeta… ah! but its great we are all different. Your small silly book sounds fun!

  • Pat Cameron says:

    I use The Moleskine watercolour 5×8 size and have filled a lot of them, but Sandra James-Talbot I have just made 3 of the concertina books as per Marc Taro Holmes and will take them with me to France and Italy in 5 weeks time. I used a Hahnemuhle watercolour paper which is a mix of bamboo and cotton rag. Can’t wait to try it out!!

  • Tina Koyama says:

    I’m excited to read this post because I have been thinking about these same types of issues myself recently! I think the significance of choice of sketchbook far exceeds that of any other sketching material. As you say, the size and type of paper so often influence the type of sketching possible and certainly the composition. If you dislike a pen after a couple of sketches, just put it aside, and no big deal. But if you hate a sketchbook and you’ve only used a few pages, what then? Waste the whole thing? Or suffer through it until it’s full?! :-0 I won’t ramble more, as I’m still collecting my thoughts that I’ll eventually blog about, but wanted you know you have jogged my process-oriented thinking once again! 🙂

    – Tina

    • Liz Steel says:

      well it depends what pen it is (a falcon??? ha!) but yes it is tough to know what to do with a sketchbook that doesn’t suit… you can always give a fancy pen away but an abandoned sketchbook is a bit of a waste (hmm, I have a very fancy one from Rome like that)

  • Jodi Wiley says:

    Your thoughts on this are very interesting. For a long time I tried to keep one sketchbook but have continuously failed. I have now come to accept that my sketches will be all over the place but it is more important to me that I am actually sketching, than to have it all together. If my sketchbook is too big, I don’t take it anywhere, so I really do need the smaller one I can whip out and the bigger one I take to sketch-meets or to dedicated sketch outings. I also have a couple I keep at home (with regular ‘sketchbook’ paper in them rather than watercolour paper) and these are for studio notes, sketches and experiments. I have come to terms with this situation, although it took me a while! I like your point about having a book that tells a story over time. It is very powerful actually. I recently finished a sketchbook which I took exclusively on family holidays. As we only go away once or twice a year it took me three years to finish it. Looking at it from start to finish was a real eye-opener – the change in my style and skills, for one, but also the family story it told over time – the journey it revealed was quite emotional. It is my absolute favourite sketchbook so far, even though it contains some shockingly ‘bad’ sketches! I love it all the more for that.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Yes Jodi – each book has a different narrative (that is the big lightbulb moment for me this week) and that family holiday one sounds special. I do wish I had more of those long time frame books! (oh! I always want to have my cake and eat it too!)

  • Love all these comments and your post, Liz. I seem to be in a never-ending pull and tug over sketchbook size and use. For the longest time I was happy with a 10×7 Alpha spiral (love spirals for drawing – hate them for shelving) and I went through a bunch of those. I’ve always had cheap 4×6 books that I carry everywhere but that approach left a gap, which was what you’re talking about with your use of the 9×6 Alpha. Throw into the mix a desire to go a bit larger and I ended up with 9×12 Beta books which start to get hard to carry. And so it goes.

    At this point, I’m cutting 9×12 spiral sketching books in half and use them for things like quick-sketching at music and dance events, sketching while watching TV, and general doodling. And I’ve fallen in love with an 8×10 softcover (prototype) from S&B. This one has Delta paper and while I’d prefer Beta, I just love how thin and light it is. It’s the first time I’ve used an 8×10 format but since the book folds absolutely flat (like your Moleskine) I can work 8×10 or 16×10. I expect to buy a bunch of these when they actually release them. Then again…there the …. [sigh]

    • Liz Steel says:

      Yes Larry it is a great discussion – thanks for adding to it.
      I am really looking forward to testing the softcover S&B. I initially thought that I NEEDED a hard cover for support but these days with my signboard (Marc Holmes copycat) it would be less of an issue.

  • Bantan says:

    Thank you, Liz, for your thoughts on this topic!
    I have one “regular” sketchbook, telling the stories of my days – or where I draw a small something when there was no drawing time. I love to decide what book I will use next – but when I decided I stick to it until I worked through. At the end I know the paper and what I like about it and what not. Some I won’t buy again, some I really like.
    I have some more sketchbooks for projects, drawing cats and people and some with another size. Cats and people would fill up my Journal too fast – and so I like to have an extra book or booklet.

  • Agata says:

    Very interesting topic! I realized, for the first time I have only one sketchbook! It’s Leuchtturm1917. The paper is quite thin for watercolors, only 180 gsm, but it’s bright white and very smooth and I like it.I’m still thinking about A4 Moleskine as my “sketching everyday life at home” one. It could be soft cover…

  • I thought I’d seen it somewhere and have been fumbling through your recent blog posts to find it. You mentioned here the distinction between how you’re currently using your 9×6 Alpha vs your A4 Moleskine and I wanted to comment on something I realized about my current usage, which is sort of new to me but I sort of fell into the method and have grown to like it. It’s nearly the same as yours but it’s pure serendipity that got me here.

    I’ve mentioned that I have a couple of the upcoming S&B softcovers and hoping that they release them before I run out of pages. Anyways, one of them is 8×10 while the other is 8.5×5.5. I started using the 8×10 (270gsm) and fell in love with the format because it’s smaller than a 9×12 or even A4 but, if I clip it to a backing board, gives me a full 10×16 if I want it. I’ve only been doing “serious” sketches in it, though the definition of ‘serious’ is always loose.

    I decided that I should spend some time working in the 8.5×5.5 (150gsm) book just to see how that went and so now I’m drawing in both of them simultaneously and after a couple weeks of doing that I find that the 8x5x5.5 is my ‘go to’ sketchbook, which includes scribbles, pen tests, etc. while the 8×10 comes out when I have more time to do something “serious.” This approach is becoming very comfortable and the more I use these softcovers the more I like them. The fun thing is that these two softcovers weigh only 50g more than a single Moleskine A4 🙂

  • Jenn Kim says:

    Thanks so much for sharing, Liz! As a beginner in the medium (watercolor + urban sketching), I was really struggling with how to record both my progress as an artist in daily sketches and longer “serious” pieces I wanted to keep for specific locations… and I kept thinking it’d be so expensive to use these nicer watercolor pages for daily sketches (ack!) that don’t have many layers (yet?). Your 2-notebook system really resonates with me!! I’m thrilled to have found a post articulating exactly what I’ve been trying to figure out! Thanks again 🙂

  • Peggy Annabel says:

    Hi Liz, Our group, ShireSketchers, are ready to upgrade to better watercolour paper. Some of us have been coating the pages of cheap books with mixes of p.v.a., wallpaper size, gelatine, talc etc. with some great results: though tedious a page at a time.. We are ready to make our own stitched books of home prep’d sheets. Are we mad!! Will it work!! What’s the best sheets to buy? I think we will be saving lots of money, but I am very nervous leading them into this venture. Any advice??

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Peggy – that sounds great. I am not an expert in this at all. So sad Wendy isn’t with us anymore – she would have been the one to ask!

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