Sean van der Meulen

illustrations & comics

Seawhite square sketchbook: almost perfect

NOTE: this review features some drawings of nude life drawing models:

I’ve been doing a whole bunch of life drawing in recent years, and even more in recent months. After numerous experiments with expensive sketchbooks (Stillman & Birn, Moleskine, etc.), I realized that for life drawing, I need a sketchbook that isn’t too expensive (so I am not so precious with the paper), has paper that can take quite a lot of different techniques, has a lot of sheets, and is a good size, possibly between A5 and A4. So, I went back to a book I’ve been using on and off for a while now, which I had been dismissive about: the Seawhite of Brighton Square Black Cloth sketchbook, size 19.5×19.5cm. It covers pretty much all my requirements.

The sketchbook with a Platinum Carbon Pen and lead holder on top for size reference.

 

Paper quality and size:
The sketchbook is filled with Seawhite’s own 140gsm acid free all media cartridge paper. I usually prefer a thicker, smoother paper, but this paper is a great all-rounder, especially when sketching. It takes just about every sketching medium quite well, from pencil (though it can smudge quite easily) to pen and ink and watercolour washes. The paper has a slight tooth, which plays havoc with the Tachikawa School G pen, but it’s not enough to cause problems with most nibs. I often use the very fine and sharp Conté/Bic Plume Atome on it, and it works very well. Most fountain pens and brush pens really seem to work great on it, and the only feathering I’ve ever had on it was with a Pentel Pocketbrush GFKP with a too loose inkflow, and that was hardly visible (but I knew it was there, and that stuff drives me crazy). The page size is a very nice (and unique?) 19.5cm x 19.5cm. It’s an excellent size for life drawing: all sorts of poses fit, whether lying down, standing or sitting, and you can do a lot of combinations of poses on a single page as well. It’s also a great desk sketchbook, as the square size will allow you sketch out an either landscape or portrait illustration/comic book page and have room left for remarks or small sketches on the side. Or, of course, to just draw finished square drawings in.

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As you can see, pencils tend to be a bit rough, but that definitely could just be me.

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Inked with a Plume atome, I think.

Appearance:
Like all Seawhite black cloth sketchbooks, the book has a simple black cover, with an embossed logo on the back. This makes it pretty suitable for embellishing with stickers and such, if you are so inclined. I’ve never has a Seawhite sketchbook fall apart on me, they are very well made. The square book has an added bonus: it seems the thicker size makes it easier to lay open. Seawhite makes great value for money sketchbooks, but the square ones even more so: they have a whopping 190 pages, which means you have plenty of paper. Does this make it rather heavy to carry around? A bit, but since the cover is quite thin (though still sturdy), it doesn’t weight that much more than a standard Stillman & Birn Epsilon. It is quite bulky though, but I manage to squeeze it into a small sized bag nonetheless.

Quick brushpen gesture sketches during life drawing with added coloured inks.

Quick brushpen gesture sketches during life drawing with added coloured inks.

Downsides:
There are a couple of minor problems though: like I said, the paper is slightly rough, which means it unsuitable for my favourite pen. Also, while 140gsm isn’t too shabby, you do feel like watercolour washes really could use a thicker paper, like 180-200gsm. And while the book is sturdy, I would have preferred rounded corners, and these are pretty sharp sometimes. I’d also remark I’d like a elastic closure, but then I’d just be asking for a Moleskine type book. It’s still a shame the travel journal Seawhite sells isn’t made by themselves, and that both its production and paper quality leave a lot to be desired. A Seawhite faux-Moleskine with either their all media cartridge paper or, even more intriguing, their bristol paper, would be a great addition to their line up.

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Some lettering tests with a Lamy Safari fountain pen calligraphy nib.

Conclusion:
My gripes above aside, this really is my favourite sketchbook for life drawing. High quality paper, great value for money, superb build quality. You can’t fault it for what it is.

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Plume atome and inkwash.

Sketchbooks…

Like so many other artists with neurotic tendencies, I’m always looking for the best pen or best paper. While I’ve recently reached somewhat of a decision on both pens and paper to use for professional drawings (more on both of these in upcoming posts), there’s still the matter of sketchbooks.

Sketchbooks, for me, need to meet several requirements. They can’t be too heavy or too big to bring along. A5 size is pretty much my max. They also need to be able to withstand the stress of being thrown in a bag with lots of other stuff. the most important requirement of all is good quality paper: I use lots of materials for sketching, and I’d prefer to be able to use all of them in a single sketchbook: pencil, the previously reviewed Tachikawa School G fountain pen, Zebra G nibs (and other nibs) with Indian ink, the Platinum Carbon Desk Pen, the Pentel Pocket Brush GFKP, and ink washes.

I’ve recently narrowed it down to 3 different books, all of which have their positive and negative sides.

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Moleskine Art Plus Sketchbooks. 

Ah, Moleskine! well built, with rounded corners, a lightweight hardcover, and smooth paper, you’d think this would be ideal. But alas, there are several problems with this one, and they all come down to the paper quality. It used to be that Moleskine sketchbooks were the bane of my existence, with their coated paper that precluded any use of watercolour or wash:

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Most ink pens also were problematic, as the paper had the nasty habit of sucking up pigment, leaving ink dull and grey.

However, in recent weeks I learned of a change in the paper. Now carrying the name “Art Plus” and featuring a blurb claiming “better absorbing paper,” could it be that Moleskine had become a viable option? well, somewhat:

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Yes, the paper is much more absorbent. You can use washes, watercolour without any problem, ink no longer gets sucked in the page, and it can be used very well with the Tachikawa School G pen (replacing the now out of print Derwent Safari Journals as my favourite sketch book for that pen):

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the sketchbooks now carry 165gsm paper, and 104 pages. So, what’s the problem? well, soon after I bought the pocket Moleskine sketchbook, I also bought the larger size sketchbook. And this is what happened when I tried out the Platinum Carbon Pen and Pentel GFKP in it (sorry for the crappy photos):

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So, my number one pet peeve: feathering. I like my ink lines stark and crystal clear. After more tests, there’s also some feathering with pen and ink, though hardly any compared with the GFKP/Carbon Pen. the Tachikawa pen seems to be fine (with some slight feathering on random occasions).

The smaller Moleskine sketchbook seems way less problematic, with minimal to no feathering with nibs, and minimal feathering with both Carbon pen and GFKP. So, I think it’s safe to say there is a quality control problem with Moleskine sketchbooks, a common problem with sketchbook manufacturers that outsource (parts of) production of paper. A shame, because the design is still terrific.

You can buy Moleskine Sketchbooks all over the place, but for dutch people the cheapest option seems to be those wonderful folks at Penstore.nl.

Seawhite of Brighton Black Cloth Casebound Sketchbooks.

 

For the last five years or so, I’ve been mainly using Seawhite sketchbooks. they are filled with what Seawhite calls “140gsm All-Media Cartridge Paper,” which they manufacture in their own paper mill. It’s a rougher paper than the Moleskine paper, but still very useable with nibs, the GFKP brush, Platinum Carbon Pen, and is quite impressive with watercolour as well.

 

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However, I’d hesitate to use the Tachikawa School G pen on it: it easily catches on the paper, and thus paper fragments can quickly clog the nib. Pencil seems to smudge quite easily on the paper as well, possibly due to the rougher texture. A final problem is that unlike the Moleskine, you’d be hard pressed to lay a Seawhite hardcover sketchbook open flat. That said, the sketchbooks are cheap, come in lots of different shapes and sizes, and there’s great consistency to the paper. There’s a reason I’ve been using them for the past five or so years, and still use them for life drawing sessions.

One last thing about the Seawhites: they have recently released a Moleskine-like Travel Journal, but this is not made in their own factory, and features an inferior paper stock. A shame!

Stillman & Birn Epsilon Sketchbooks.

My most used sketchbook in the past year or so. Stillman & Birn is an american company dedicated to making high quality sketchbooks. Now, they state the sketchbooks are “bound in the United States,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean the paper manufacturing isn’t outsourced. They seem to have quite strict quality control in place though. the paper is “Archival Quality,”  meaning it’s acid and chloride free. Anyway, I ended up buying one of their Epsilon (smooth 150gsm paper) sketchbooks via amazon.co.uk seller Jackson’s Art.

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The paper quality is terrific. nibs glide over the page, brush pens leave beautiful marks and even the Tachikawa works well (if not as well as on the smoother Moleskine paper). There are several other series of sketchbooks, including the Zeta, featuring 270gsm paper, which will probably be a lot easier on the Tachikawa, but it’s also more expensive while also (understandably) having less pages.It also works very well with ink and watercolour washes.

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The book will lay somewhat flat, after you’ve broken in the spine, though not as much as a Moleskine will. the book is also quite heavy: the cover is very sturdy, and it has 124 pages, which means it’s not ideal to always bring along if you want to travel light. The real problem with the Epsilon sketchbook is the cost though: in America they aren’t that expensive, but since there’s no official seller here in the Netherlands, you end up paying quite high shipping costs when buying from either amazon.co.uk or  (kunstpark-shop.de), adding anywhere from 50 to 75% to the retail price. I know that Stillman&Birn have recently released softcover versions of their sketchbooks in the United States, but the few I’ve been able to find through amazon UK are hilariously overpriced (and carry very high international shipping costs as well).

So, yeah, in a perfect world, Moleskine would have better paper quality control, Seawhite would make smoother paper pen and ink (and Tachikawa School G!) sketchbooks, and Stillman&Birn would have a dutch reseller.

My current solution is a pocket Moleskine to always bring along, with the Tachikawa sketchbook for on the go sketches, and when I want to do bigger sketches/drawings bring either an A5 sized Seawhite or 5.5×8.5 inch Stillman&Birn Epsilon sketchbook. it’s not ideal, and I’ve recently contacted a independent sketchbook maker to see if she can make a sketchbook filled with some of my favourite drawing paper. But that is still a while off, and probably too expensive to work with all the time..

Big freakin’ drawing.

So, last year I did something kind of unique. For the last ten years or so, I’ve been doing Christmas cards, usually of wintery landscapes.

 

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Now, as it happens, my girlfriend’s parents were redecorating their living room and were looking for something to put on their wall. They have always loved my cards, so I offered to do a big drawing for them. I was suffering from a severe depression at the time, and my therapist and I had pretty much come to the conclusion I needed to draw more and challenge myself, and this would fit perfectly. Also, I rarely draw on paper bigger than A4. I did some preliminary sketches and ended up with the following A4 sized sketch:

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So, now the real work began. After a few failed attempts, I ended up going with Canson Montval 75x55cm paper. It’s a very finely grained watercolour paper with quite a lot of heft on it (300gsm). It’s not as smooth as Canson Arches Satine, but I quite like the slight texture (it’s also a LOT cheaper than Arches). I ended up doing a very loose sketch and then filling it in with detail piece by piece, and inking it like that as well, to keep the paper relatively free from smudges. as you can see, I went a bit crazy for details.

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just a bit of ferns. I used a Faber Castell Grip pencil (2=B hardness) for the entire drawing.

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Once the foreground was done, I started on the middle ground, which was mostly a forest. I ended up doing some nice trees, if I say so myself:

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here are the main tools of the drawing: the previously mentioned Grip pencil (with addition grip placed on it), a Conte/Bic Plume Atome nib and a Zebra G nib in a Tachikawa nib holder:

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after quite a bit of drawing I ended up buying a Smudgeguard 2 to save both my hand and the drawing from smudges. it works great, I wish I’d bought one years ago. As you can see by this time I had pretty much finished the front and middle ground. after this is it was just the white granite rock, the less detailed background forest and mountains, and the rocky river shore and river to draw and ink. In the end that happened rather quickly.

 

 

I don’t seem to have any pictures of the drawing completely finished in ink, before I started the wash, so here it is about halfway through the wash. still needed do quite a bit of details on the trees and foreground.

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the finished drawing, right after the final ink wash and touches with white ink. As you can see, it was a lot of work, and I was so happy to finish the whole thing.

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I added a lot of tiny details just to break up the monotony of drawing ferns etc., like these little mushrooms..

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..and these flowers..

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..and some Mouse Guard characters..

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..and some tiny Bone characters, dwarfed by the landscape..

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..as well as a musician (who might just have been inspired by a certain red-headed character from Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle) playing a lonely tune.

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In the end, I’m quite happy with it. Sure, I can point out quite a few mistakes, and there were times when I wanted to tear the drawing up, but just finishing it was quite an accomplishment, and it ended up pushing me in the right direction.

the finished drawing, framed (you can click through to the giant version):

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It was the best of pens, it was the worst of pens.

The Tachikawa School G fountain pen is one of my favourite sketching tools. It is also one of the most annoying drawing instruments out there. 
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Like so many other artists (Dan Berry and Dustin Harbin come to mind), I’ve found myself searching for the perfect on-the-go replacement for pen and ink for ages. Nothing will ever replace my love for dip pens, I think, but since bringing a bottle of ink along can be problematic, other solutions are preferable for sketching in the wild. After a long quest which presented several close calls (the Platinum Carbon Pen and the Namiki Falcon came close, but neither have quite the same sharp line a good nib can give you), I found the Tachikawa School G on Jetpens.com. (Europeans will want to order it from Jstuff.de, with much lower shipping costs, while Dutch users have an even cheaper option by buying it at penstore.nl,  who provided me with some cartridges for the pen free of charge when I was in desperate need of some!). There are a couple of different versions of the pen: the fine point with black ink, the fine point with sepia ink, and the extra fine with black ink. This review is for the fine point with black ink only, though I’ll make some remarks on the other versions at the end of the review.

 

Build quality
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The pen is cheap, and so is the build quality. Everything besides the steel nib is plastic, and not very good quality at that. The cap features a clip which will break off easily if you clip the pen to a thicker sketchbook cover, or if you put too much pressure on it. The writing/decal on the barrel will rub off in a few months, as you can see in the photo above. The back of the feed can snap off easily if you’re not paying attention when placing a cartridge. The nib is good and will last a long time (though, since it appears to be simple steel, it will not last as long as a real fountain pen) but  because of its thin nature it can snap if you press down on it too hard. However, the low price of the pen makes the low quality of the pen understandable. Tachikawa have slightly altered the design of the pen recently, with a longer cap covering more of the barrel. However, as far as I can tell, there haven’t been any changes in terms of quality.

 

Ink
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Like the pen, the cartridges also sell for a low price. There is no ink converter that I know of, so if you want to fill it with a different ink, you’ll have to empty one of the cartridges and fill that one. I wouldn’t recommend this, though: the pen is very singular, and the ink cartridges are already problematic enough. The ink is waterproof (after a solid period of drying) and heavily pigmented, more so than Platinum Carbon Ink. If you open a cartridge you will see the ink has a pretty high viscosity. You can also see that the cartridges aren’t filled to the brim with ink. In fact, you can empty a cartridge pretty quickly when using it constantly.

 

Feed and nib/ink flow
The feed is a bit different than other fountain pens, due to the waterproof ink: there’s some sort of pad between the feed and the nib which keeps the ink from drying in the feed. I’m not entirely sure whether it’s all that succesful: the inkflow is the biggest problem of the pen. Despite the very fine and pretty stiff nib (though it will give you a decent bit of flex after you break in the pen), it can still easily railroad due to the inconsistent inkflow. The inkflow problems are also caused by the nature of the nib though, as, unlike most other fountain pen nibs, there is no ball at the end of the School G’s nib: it has a very sharp point, and that point can easily get caught in paper. The inkflow will improve over time with consistent use, though every time you start a new cartridge it will take a bit of effort to get the inkflow back to where it was, shaking the pen will definitely help (also, the inkflow can be rather too free when you approach the end of a cartridge due to air expansion in the now nearly empty cartridge. That said, when I brought it along on a flight to London, it did not suffer any leaks on the plane, which pleasantly surprised me).

 

Use
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You’ll need a smooth paper to get anywhere with this pen. Most cartridge paper sketchbooks have too much tooth, and will definitely disrupt the inkflow by clogging the nib with paper fibers. You will need a smooth bristol board or specific pen and ink paper to get the best results (in recent months I’ve started using it with Clairefontaine Paint ON Multi-Techniques sketchpads), though there are some sketchbooks that give good to great results:

 

  • Moleskine sketchbooks are good for this pen, though, as with all non indian inks, the paper soaks up the ink so much that it’ll turn a dull grey.
  • Derwent travel sketchbooks/journals  are the best I’ve used with this pen, there’s relatively little catching the nib on this very smooth cartridge paper. Plus, unlike Moleskines (which these sketchbooks closely resemble), this paper allows inkwash and watercolour. There will be some feathering though, as the paper stock is of uneven quality.  Newer versions of the sketchbook come with a pen loop on its back, which might not be the best place for such a thing, but is very handy for keeping it with your book and more trustworthy than the easily broken pen clip of the Tachikawa.
  • Strathmore Mixed Media Journal (smooth). Since this has a smooth bristol paper in it, it does work well with the School G. The paper is rather low quality though, and ink lines can easily feather.

Keep the paper as flat as possible, putting the paper at an angle definitely doesn’t improve the inkflow and makes it more likely to catch in the paper.

 Also, don’t forget to wipe down the nib after use with a cloth or piece of kitchen towel, just like you would a dip nib. keeping the nib clean definitely helps with the ink flow.

 

Line quality
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Here’s the thing though. When it works, it has the best line quality I’ve EVER seen in a non-dip nib pen. It’s sharp, but not angular. Quite stiff, but not lifeless. There’s a beauty to it that might feel utterly archaic to most, but appeals to me so much. Like with nibs, it is utterly analogue. While I greatly appreciate the digital nibs in Manga Studio (especially with Ray Frenden’s brush packs), they’ll never get that tactile feeling a dip nib gives you. This is the only pen that does. I realize that for many people, a pen that is as scratchy and difficult as a nib can be isn’t necessarily a good thing. But for me, it is one of the best, warts and all.

 

  • You can use an eyedropper to put a drop of water on the eye of the nib if the inkflow has stopped after a longer period of disuse. However, due to the waterproof nature and high viscosity of the ink, I recommend not leaving it unused for more than a week.
  • The sepia version is also very nice, though all of the faults of the black ink version have been carried over. I have never tried the extra fine version, but I have never read a positive review of that one. The nib is so sharp that it is nearly unuseable, and with a worse inkflow.

© 2019 Sean van der Meulen

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