Tips on choosing a sketchbook for drawing, journaling or watercolour

This guide is written for beginners who want to start journaling or drawing in sketchbooks.

I've used many sketchbooks over the years and also reviewed many in great detail. This article will cover the main things to look out for when choosing a sketchbook.

I've also created a video talking about the same points as in the article below. But I accidentally left out some stuff in the video so the text below is more complete than the video.

There won't be any particular recommendation because sketchbooks are rather personal. Every artist will have their personal preference and swear by certain brands. The sketchbook that I like or recommend may or may not be the one that you'll like. But if you want to do some research, just visit http://www.parkablogs.com/tags/sketchbooks-drawing

Alright, let's start.

Size

For beginners, an A5 sketchbook would be good as a general purpose sketchbook. It opens up to a working area that of an A4 size paper. It's big enough where you can still create intricate art, and small enough for minimalism, e.g. painting watercolours with shapes. They are fairly compact and can fit in most bags, even the smaller ones. It's a good size to get and if you find that you are more comfortable with a larger sketchbook, you can then up-size in the future.

If you are someone who likes drawing details, then a larger sketchbook might be more suitable for you. An A4 sketchbook, for example, opens up to A3 size. Drawing on a larger area requires more time also. For me, filling an A3 area with ink and watercolor will take around 2-3 hours. You'll definitely need a larger bag to fit the sketchbook and a sketchbook at this size can get heavy when you bring it out for a day of sketching. A4 sketchbooks are big so they are more comfortably used when laid against a hard surface, e.g. table.

Then there are smaller sketchbooks like those notebook or palm-sized ones. Those are extremely portable and you can even fit them into your pocket. They are light and great for bringing everywhere. The downside is the pages may be too small for intricate drawings. If you're used to drawing big, moving to a smaller sketchbook may prove to be frustrating because you'll have to change your usual drawing style. The mentality for drawing in a small sketchbook is different from a larger sketchbook, e.g. A5. The key is about simplification. Switching sizes is a good way to mix up your style and help you think different and tackle drawings differently. It's like drawing with different media to try something different.

Binding

The common types of binding available for sketchbooks are the wire-bound and perfect bound.

The wire-bound or spiral-bound sketchbooks have this wire loop that holds the pages together. The benefit is the pages can flip and go over making the sketchbook easy to hold. You can hold them easily in a standing position. The downside is you can't draw across the gutter. Well, actually you still can but the artwork will not look as nice because it's interrupted by the wire. The other thing to take note of is whether your scanner is able to scan paper that are off the scanner's glass surface. The paper near the wire will be not be in contact with the scanner's glass surface, and for some scanners that will result either in a blurred or darker area.

The other advantage of the wire-bound sketchbook is it's ability to open flat.

The perfect bound or sewn bound sketchbooks are those that use stitching to hold the pages together. Several pieces of paper are grouped into a section, folded and stitched together at the fold. Several of those sections will combine to create a whole sketchbook.

Some perfect bound sketchbooks can open flat while some can't. It's best to get sketchbooks that can open flat. For those that can't open flat, it's more difficult to draw close to the gutter as the paper there curves in. For sketchbooks that can open flat, you can easily draw across the gutter.

There's a third kind of binding and it's the glue bind. It's typically used for pads where you can tear off the sheets. They have no binding to speak of and are not meant for long term storage. The pages will fall off eventually when you flip them often. Get a properly bound sketchbook. Once, I brought one of those glue bound sketchbooks for an overseas trip without realising, and now I seriously regretted my choice when I see the pages falling off.

Paperback or hardcover

I highly recommend getting hardcover over paperback. The hard back provides support when you're drawing. Hardcovers are good for indoor and outdoor use. You can stand and draw with a hardcover sketchbook easily compared to a paperback. When you're drawing or painting on a paperback, especially when the sketchbook is not laid against a hard surface like a table, your applied stroke will push the pages away, and it can get challenging to control your lines when the drawing surface is always moving away.

So what's paperback good for? I don't know. They are thinner and more compact?

Orientation

Sketchbooks are available in landscape and portrait orientation. There are also square format sketchbooks.

This is really a personal choice. I prefer landscape or square format sketchbooks. Nowadays, I don't draw across the gutter, and with landscape sketchbooks, you'll still be able to sketch a horizontal scene without the need to go over the gutter.

Paper weight

The weight of the paper is basically how thick the paper is, generally speaking. The weight can be measured in lb or gsm. I only understand the gsm standard.

A sheet of 70gsm paper is thinner and more flimsy than a 300gsm.

Light paper, such as those below or around 100gsm, is good for dry media. Heavier and thicker paper are good for wet media, such as watercolour, acrylic, etc. Get at least 200gsm if you want to work with watercolour. Thicker paper means it will be less likely to warp when water is applied on the surface. Warping can move water around the surface to create puddles which will dry to create unsightly back-runs.

If you like using markers, get thicker paper also because markers have tendency to bleed through pages. I use at least 200gsm paper for markers.

Type of paper

Sketchbooks can use normal paper, cartridge paper, watercolour paper or even toned (lightly coloured) or black paper.

Cartridge paper? This is a high quality type of paper used for illustration and drawing. They differ by weight and can be smooth or mildly textured (sometimes called fine or medium grain). They are wonderful to draw on with pen or pencil.

Different paper are suited for different used because of its paper weight and its surface treatment. For normal and cartridge paper for example, they are good for pencil and light ink work. Watercolour paper is treated with a coating or sizing of gelatin. The sizing makes watercolour pigment look more vibrant as well as keep them on the surface. Some paper are not sized but still handle watercolour well though. The sizing will affect how dry the paper is. Some paper can be very dry and difficult to work with, while some are sized to perfection (my favourite is Fabriano Artistico but they are not used in sketchbooks).

For watercolour paper, it's important to note the cotton content. The higher the cotton content, the more durable the paper. 100% cotton are tough and can be used for multiple washes. For lousy wood-based paper, you can see paper fiber coming out when you put on too many layers of washes. 100% cotton paper is expensive, but worth the money. Some paper would have a mixture of cotton and wood-based paper just to bring down the cost. There are artists who use watercolour paper for coloured pencil work just because they like the quality of the paper.

Sketchbooks with 100% cotton paper are extremely rare. The only two that I know of are the Pentalic watercolour journal (out of production) and The Perfect Sketchbook (not commercially available, Kickstarter). If you know of any 100% cotton sketchbooks, please let me know. Do manufacturers think that there's no market for such high quality sketchbooks?

Paper also differs by the texture on their surface. Some are smooth, some mildly textured and some rough. The smooth and mildly textured paper are good for pencil and pen. The textured and rough paper are good for watercolour. In the watercolour world, they are called Hotpress (smooth), Coldpress (texture) and Rough. Don't use coloured pencils on rough paper because they wear down pencils real fast.

One thing I forgot to mention in the video is paper can be treated on one or both sides. For example, a coldpress watercolour paper may have texture on one side but smooth on the other. This can be brought over to sketchbooks. Sometimes in sketchbooks, you can feel the texture difference too when you flip the pages. Some careless manufacturers would use textured paper on one page and smooth on the other because they did not group the paper correctly before binding them.

I should talk a bit about mixed media paper. Mixed media paper, at least the ones that I've seen, are heavyweight smooth paper. They are marketed as being able to take dry and wet media. In real life, I find that they are not so great with wet media, especially watercolour, because the paper aren't treated or sized. Mixed media paper to me is not different from high quality cartridge paper. Strathmore has the excellent 500 Series Mixed Media sketchbook.

Colour of the paper

Not all paper are white.

Some sketchbooks offer off-white paper, either in cream or light yellow. The cream paper makes artworks appear warmer. White paper allows colours to be more striking, although some types of white paper can actually dull down watercolour.

Toned paper are nice for practicing tonal or value drawing. Black paper tends to isolate the subject and lets the audience focus on the subject. When you're getting coloured paper, it's good to get a white pencil or pen to mark out highlights in your drawings to give them more dimension.

Rounded corners

Some sketchbooks have corners that are rounded off, some just leave the sharp perpendicular edges. To me, they are just for aesthetic purposes.

Perforated

Some sketchbooks have pages that are perforated so the pages are meant to be torn off. Manufacturer Monologue has a few sketchbooks like that so be careful to read the descriptions when buying. These sketchbooks are not for drawing across the gutter because of the perforated lines affect how the drawings look.

Number of pages

Sketchbooks with heavier paper generally have less pages, and those with lighter paper will have more pages.

It really depends on whether you like more or less pages.

Some artists like to have a certain theme to their sketchbooks and for that I would suggest getting a sketchbook with fewer pages so that you can complete the sketchbook faster, unless you want to run a long project.

If you're not a frequent sketcher, regardless of the number of pages, it will still take a long time to finish.

Price

When I first started out, I like sketchbooks with a lot of pages, thinking that they are more value for money. Some sketchbooks can be expensive. And if a sketchbook has more pages, I deem it a better deal than those with lesser pages. At least that's what I used to think.

Don't get too caught up with the price of sketchbooks. If you draw so frequently that you have to buy new sketchbooks often, then sure, get the best value for money sketchbook. But if you're just a casual sketcher, you can get a nice sketchbook and just sketch in it for weeks, or months. I switch between several sketchbooks, and some of those sketchbooks take months to fill.


But what's most important is to get a sketchbook that you like, a sketchbook that you think is worth your money. Good paper cost money.

Sketchbooks are for fun and practice

Sketchbooks are for experimenting and trying out different style. There's no need to be too serious. If you want to be serious, draw and paint on loose sheets and frame them up.

There are artists who create really beautiful artworks on their sketchbooks. There are also artists who only paint on loose sheets and don't use sketchbooks because they are always thinking of the commercial side of their art -- would or can you cut out a page from the sketchbook to sell? If you want to sell, go for loose sheets.

The great thing about sketchbooks is they allow for growth. You can always look back at older sketchbooks to see how much you have improved, or how much your style has changed. There's a sense of satisfaction when you fill up a book, and also satisfaction when you look back at your progress. Drawing is a skill that you should always be practicing to keep yourself in shape. The more you draw, the more you can draw.

Sketchbook recommendations

So what is the perfect sketchbook? Which is the best sketchbook?

As I've said earlier, sketchbooks are personal, so I won't recommend any specific brand or product.

A lot of people love the Moleskine watercolour album but they aren't my favourites. I do like the Moleskine A4 watercolour album, but it's only because Moleskine is the only manufacturer that I know that produces A4 sized watercolour sketchbooks in landscape orientation.

Anyway, check out http://www.parkablogs.com/tags/sketchbooks-drawing for all the sketchbooks I've reviewed to find the one that suits you.

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