Ultimate Sketchbook Review

20 August 2013 § Leave a comment

Since I first started seriously keeping a sketchbook, I have found myself in this serious dilemma of finding a quality product that can stand up to my abuse and my expectation.  As much as my sketchbook is a record of my life, it is also a laboratory for my technique.   I require durable paper seeing that I regularly use washes and layers of ink and watercolour but also like to experiment, when the mood arises, with acrylics, pastels, charcoals, and so on.  However, I don’t want super thick, watercolour paper for it has no forgiveness and feels (psychologically) more serious.  I need paper where I can do serious pieces as well as quick, disposable sketches.

It’s a tall order.

So, below I have recorded my thoughts on my various sketchbooks, which inlude
Exacompta, Stillman&Birn, Moleskine, Canson, Strathmore, Fabriano, Bienfang, Rite-in-the-Rain, and Fiorentina.


Exacompta, 5.5″ x 8.25″
2008-2012, Discontinued
I’ll start with the best.   If these were still in print, this whole post would be irrelevant and I would just write a long love letter about Exacompta.

This sketchbook was softcover and perfect bound .  It truly was the king of all sketchbooks and had a personality that made it stand out.  The first few pages were decorative paper, the edges of the book were painted silver, and there was a piece of ribbon bound in to mark my spot.  It had a black card-stock quality cover, which allowed for it to bend and lean over my leg, and the binding was covered with grey tape. The pages laid flat across the binding so that I could sketch freely.

The paper itself was 100g, off-white, PH neutral and 25% cotton.  It held up well and rarely buckled unless I severely distressed it.  It held ink without feathering, took light washes, and was textured in a way that charcoals and graphite popped.  I stapled, cut, and pasted a wide variety of papers in and, again, it stood up to the test.

Upon discovering this book in 2008, I went through 5 or 6 volumes covering my 5 years at college.  I grew up with these books and was extremely distressed when I found out in 2012 that they were now discontinued.

Stillman and Birn 6″x8″ Alpha, 4″x6″ Gamma.
My present sketchbooks. 2013.  150g blank paper. Vellum finish for dry media and light washes. The main difference between Alpha and Gamma is one is white and the other is cream colored.  Now that I have both, I definitely prefer cream/off-white because it reminds me of my Exacompta. So far, the paper holds up very very well.  It’s a little thicker and thus can take quite a bit of wash.

My main complaints are that it is a hardcover sketchbook and it has no personality.  I can not even begin with how much I hate Hardcover sketchbooks.  I know a lot of people are big fans, but I like bending my books back.  These are just clumsy.  The binding, in some places, allows for flat crossover but on a whole, towards the start and end of the book especially, it is a battle to draw across that binding.  As to personality, it is a clean black sketchbook with no real distinguishing features.  I’ve modge-podge’d a few papers in to give it a bit of distinction but the thing is bland.

Either way, in terms of paper quality, it really is excellent.  I’m fairly pleased and will try to see past the hardcover best as I can.

Moleskine, Various sizes
2004-Present, Non-Sketch use.
When I first met Moleskine, way back in 2004, I fell in love.  My first use was the lined pocket notebook for taking notes on my stories.  For this, I would still use a moleskine.  However, I ventured in to using Moleskines for sketching in 2007 and regretted it immediately.  The paper is of poorest quality, if not too thin then too thick, too polished and definitely not water-friendly.  My ink often bled through to where I would only use pencil in them.

The binding isn’t the best and sometimes fell apart.  The strap on the books loosens with too much use and then is just obnoxious and annoying.

Frankly the price just doesnt justify the buy.  I would never use these as sketchbooks again.

Fiorentina Sketchbook Refill, 6″ x 8″
This is next on my list to try, by recommendation of my old Professor, Robert Petrie.  From the looks of it, it seems to be a relative of my Exacompta so I am very eager to put the paper to a test.  I’ll let you.

Canson Universal Sketch, Various Sizes

Strathmore Drawing, Various Sizes

These books marked my youth.  The papers were durable and held up to most of my attacks.  I regularly shifted between scales of books (from small to very large drawing pads).  These were great when I was more in the pursuit of Art than I was of recording and studying.

Personally I really hate wirebound books.  You cant really draw across the binding, you can’t lean your hand on one side if it’s small enough, paper gets clogged up, you’re more inclined to rip pages out, etc.

I’m happy I outgrew these.

Fabriano Artists Journal, 6.5″x8.5″ Coloured Paper

I really enjoyed my brief stint with Fabriano.  As a one-time-use journal, I think it was well worth it.  I helped me open up my view.  I worked a lot with white and black charcoal, playing with foreground-background drawing, figure and shape, negative and positive, etc.  The paper quality was really high quality stuff and I enjoyed drawing on it–it received dry medium excellently. Plus it was softbound.  Did I mention I love softbound?

The only reason I probably didn’t pursue using this longer or in iteration is because I didn’t know they had a single-colored version.

Bienfang Notesketch, 8″x11″
This was a very fun experiment, born out of a class requirement. I would actually call it a hate-love relationship.  I really loved that there were lines for writing and space for drawing.  Or, well, I loved the idea of it. However, in execution, the book is clumsy.  The space for drawing (I had the book split vertically down the middle) was really useless for anything but diagram-level drawings.  I also realized I didn’t have much to write most of the time and when I did, it was in the form of notation, so the organized lines on the side just didn’t make sense.

I’m sure however, for some people, this is still a great book.  They also had later formats where the book was split across the horizon, which definitely feels more my speed.  But since the paper quality is eh and it is a spiral bound, I won’t be venturing back down that road to find out.


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