Review by Tina Koyama

When I first saw it, I was immediately thrilled by the rich plum color of the new Plumchester Square Sketchbook – with a yellow-gold elastic and matching ribbon bookmark! I don’t know about you, but I don’t see nearly enough of the purple/gold complement anywhere, much less the stationery world. Let’s take a closer look, outside and inside.

Appearance and Features

The vegan leather hardcover has a smooth matte finish without the vague stickiness I sometimes feel on other synthetic leather surfaces. The corners are neatly rounded. Although I didn’t road test its durability, the cover resists minor fingernail scratches and looks like it would hold up well to daily-carry. The only branding is a white debossed logo on the back cover.

The elastic closure is significantly wider and heftier than what you’d find on a Moleskine – proportionate to the book’s 8.3-by-8.3-inch format. I wish the satin ribbon bookmark were wider – by comparison, it seems skimpy (however, the cut edge has been fray-proofed, so Ana would undoubtedly give that detail a bonus point!).

Other than its color, probably the most distinctive physical feature of the Plumchester sketchbook is its square format. Although an Internet search for square-format sketchbooks yields plenty of results, most are spiralbound or softcover, not perfect-bound hardcovers. The square format is one of my favorites for versatility – you can decide on your work’s format after it’s done, not be forced to conform to the format of your book. It’s also just right for sharing on Instagram, as Plumchester points out: “Snap a photo of your art on a square page and post it to social media using #plumchester.”

All of that caught my eye, but what held my attention was when I opened that perfect-bound hardcover binding – and how absolutely flat the page spreads open. As big a fan as I am of Stillman & Birn’s sketchbooks, I’ve looked askance at their claims that their hardcover books open flat – I have never been able to escape the telltale gray shadow at the gutter when I put a spread on the scanner. (S&B’s softcovers do, indeed, open as flat as any sketchbook I know.) The Plumchester, however, really does open completely flat. Since spreads closer to the middle of a book usually open flatter, I deliberately picked a spread near the back cover to scan the gutter. As you can see from my un-Photoshopped image, there’s no gray shadow. Based on all the hardcover sketchbooks I’ve opened, I had been convinced that it just isn’t possible to make one that opens completely flat – but the Plumchester proves it can be done.

Media Tests

OK, let’s get to the nitty-gritty – the 48 pages of paper. The smooth, bright white paper is 160 gsm (108 lbs.). Since I’m familiar with it, and it has a similar texture, I compared it to Stillman & Birn’s Epsilon series, which is 150 gsm (100 lbs.). While that weight difference is hardly noticeable in thickness, where it really shows up is in opacity. On an Epsilon page, the ghost of the image on the page underneath or on the other side is clearly visible, but I saw no ghosting at all on Plumchester pages, even when scanned.

I had a ton of fun throwing just about every medium I own onto those pages. Many sketchbook papers have a toothy surface that’s nice for art media, but the tooth is unpleasant with a fountain pen (my favorite writing tool), so I don’t enjoy writing on the same page I’ve sketched on. But the Plumchester’s smooth surface is a joy to use with everything from fountain and gel pens to fat, juicy brush pens.

The only media that bled through were an alcohol-based Zig Kurecolor marker, a Higgins Black Magic marker (wherever I stalled when writing, but not a scribbled line where I was moving faster) and a scribble of Liquitex ink where I sprayed it with water.

Plumchester says the paper is ideal for “graphite pencils, pigmented ink, colored pencils, paint markers,” so it was no surprise that the paper buckled under watercolor or wherever I sprayed or washed the page with water. While I expected the buckling (most papers lighter than 140 lbs. probably would), I was a little disappointed that the sizing allowed most of my water-soluble marker and brush pen inks to sink in rapidly, which means that giving them a swipe of a waterbrush didn’t bring out a rich wash. Papers of equivalent weight such as Stillman & Birn’s Alpha and Canson XL mixed media do a better job of that.

Still, my pear illustration shows off plenty of bright, blended colors from Kuretake Zig Clean Color Real Brush Pens, so I can’t complain. My other fruit sketches show conventional colored pencils, watercolor pencils (activated with water) and watercolor paints, and the colors all look brilliant on Plumchester’s paper. As expected, the page buckled wherever I applied water, but nothing seeped through.

With all dry media the paper is pleasant to use, especially plain old graphite. I thought it might not have enough tooth to use with charcoal and other chalky drawing pencils, but even those look beautiful. With colored pencils I tend to prefer surfaces with a bit more tooth to pick up the pigment faster, but I still like the results on this smooth surface.   

Final Impressions

I think the Plumchester sketchbook would make an ideal art journal. The page spreads are generous, and the flat-opening binding is unsurpassed. The paper takes nearly every medium beautifully, as long as you don’t get carried away with water, and the pages are heavy enough that they could support collage, too. A bonus is the smooth surface, which is a delight to use for drawing and painting as well as writing.

The A5 square size is a bit too large for me to carry in my everyday bag, so I am really hoping Plumchester makes a smaller book in the same square format – 6 or 7 inches would be ideal. With the same purple and yellow color scheme, please!

tina-koyamaTina Koyama is an urban sketcher in Seattle. Her blog is Fueled by Clouds & Coffee, and you can follow her on Instagram as Miatagrrl.

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