Sean van der Meulen

illustrations & comics

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..

2 Comments

  1. Hi Sean,
    Interesting!
    Seawhite go for a bit of ‘tooth’ to widen the versatility – I can see that ink works well with smooth papers but Seawhite books are designed to work as best as possible across all media; so the surface has enough resistance to take coloured pencils/pastels/charcoal/paint. We have used a smoother paper in our Brit sketchbooks but are currently changing to the all-media as a result of feedback – the wider market prefers a slightly rougher surface. Pen/ink work is becoming more popular than ever though, so perhaps we should thing of producing a book with a surface optimised for ink? Bristol Board?
    Cheers and best wishes

    • Sorry for the late response! A bristol board Seawhite sketchbook would be awesome! the current Seawhite books work pretty good with pen and ink, but for the really fine nibs, a smoother surface like Bristol is better, yes.

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