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With so many possibilities, how can you choose which sketchbook to buy?
Rather than me recommend a few favoured sketchbooks, let’s explore each part of the book in turn, so you can make an informed choice for your own individual practice. For added entertainment, I’ll even share a cautionary tale from my own experience.
Personally, I favour the Daler Rowney Ebony range, and have several different sizes on the go for different purposes. I looked at each element in turn and then found the range that had all the characteristics I required.
Hardback, spiral bound, paper heavy enough to take water-based media, and available in a range of sizes.
Size and Shape
Sketchbooks tend to follow the standard sizes A4, A5 etc., with the addition of square and panoramic formats. Think about the type of drawings you do. If you’re always on the go and want to slip your sketchbook into your pocket, A6 might suit you perfectly. Inspired by landscapes? Panoramic may be your choice.
Consider whether you need portrait or landscape format. A portrait format will open out to give a 3:4 proportion, whereas a landscape format will become panoramic when opened out.
For general sketching, A4 or A3 are probably the most useful. I usually take an A4 outdoors with me – it fits neatly into my rucksack and is large enough to fit several drawings on a page. I’ll take A3 if I know I’m going to be working on a larger scale.
You don’t have to abide by conventional sizes though. An artist I know cuts an A4 spiral bound landscape pad in half lengthways, to give two books that are long and thin, but not as extreme as panoramic format.
If you really like working on a wide scale, you could try a concertina style sketchbook. Simply start on page one, and keep drawing until you reach the end of the book.
Binding – glued, saddle stitch, spiral or case-bound?
I’m not a huge fan of glued pages, as they tend to become loose with use. If you want to remove pages though, it’s easy to do so.
Saddle stitch looks like they’ve been stapled. It’s a useful type of binding, provided the paper is quite thin and there aren’t too many pages. So expect to see this type of binding at the budget end of the spectrum.
Spiral bound sketchbooks give the user the advantage of being able to fold the cover and used pages back – very useful if space is tight or you’re sketching outdoors on a windy day. The disadvantage is if you want to continue your drawing on the facing page, as the spirals will disrupt your masterpiece.
Case-bound books are hardback with stitching to secure the pages in place. You can easily continue your drawing from one page to the facing one, but A3 can get a little unwieldy.
The cover will either be hardback or softback. I recommend hardback, as it’s more durable, especially if you’re working outdoors on a regular basis. If budget or weight is an issue, or your sketchbook never moves out of your studio, softback may suit you better.
Now for the important part: drawing surface. Most sketchbooks contain cartridge paper, in either smooth, medium or rough grades. For most of my sketching I like a fairly smooth paper, with just enough “tooth” to hold soft graphite or conté crayon.
Medium and rough papers have a texture, whereby the drawing tool just catches the ridges. If you love a textured appearance to your drawings, these surfaces would be a good choice, but if you are a beginner or you’re likely to work with sketching pens, you may find a smoother paper easier to work with.
Maybe you want a specialist paper? Handmade, like Khadi, or a watercolour pad?
Also important is the weight of the paper. When you’re perusing the sketchbook ranges, look for a number with the letters gsm (grams per square metre, sometimes written as g/m2) after it, as that will tell you the weight (and therefore the thickness) of the paper.
A sheet of photocopy paper is usually 80gsm (sometimes 70gsm or 90gsm). You’ll want a thicker paper than that in your sketchbook, especially if you are going to use watercolours, line and wash or water-soluble pencils. A 90gsm paper will cockle when wet, so choose something 140gsm or above. You’ll probably still see some slight cockling, but it’s an acceptable level. 160gsm is adequate for me, but if you do a lot of watercolour work, 200gsm may be better for you.
Check the colour of the paper too. While most sketchbooks will have white paper, some have black, which is great if that’s what you want, but far from ideal if you were expecting white! The Arboreta or Moleskine ranges have cream coloured pages; far less glaring if you’re sketching outdoors on a sunny day.
Which do you want, the budget range, the top notch version, or something in the middle? Prices range from £1.50 to about £40, so there’s something to suit most budgets. That said, beware of buying the most expensive. Why do I say that? Here’s a cautionary tale:
Decades ago, when I was learning to draw, I was given a beautiful sketchbook as a Christmas present. And I do mean beautiful. Gold embossed. Case-bound. Smooth off-white pages, each protected with a crisp sheet of tissue paper. Truly the Rolls Royce of sketchbooks.
The problem? It was just too good. I didn’t dare make a mark for fear of ruining it. To this day it sits in my studio, as empty as the day it was purchased. Sketchbooks are meant for exploring ideas, making mistakes, experimenting. They are inherently scruffy. Turn beauty into scruffiness? I just couldn’t do it. Maybe one day…
Sometimes our best drawings are made on poorer quality paper. Why? Because we’re not worried about making a mistake. Suppose I gave you a sheet of photocopy paper. You’d probably start drawing without hesitation. What if I gave you a sheet of paper worth £100? I don’t think you’d draw with such freedom; maybe you’d even keep it for a “special” drawing.
Other considerations may be whether or not you require a sketchbook that conforms to vegan standards. Maybe you’d like a book with elastic to hold the book shut when in transit? Or perhaps a book that’s part cartridge and part watercolour paper?
Sometimes you’ll see sketchbooks with perforated pages, so you can easily remove a page if you choose. I bought one of these for my Falklands trip, and look what happened!
I shalln’t be buying a perforated pad again. To be fair, it’s had a LOT of use.
So now you know the options, decide what you need for each part of the book. Then it’s just a case of matching your requirements to the ranges on offer.
Try the Jackson’s website for your research, as you can filter the possibilities by format, gsm, surface, brand etc.
If you liked this post, you might like my previous post Watercolour Paper- The Differences Explained.