Tag: notebook

Notebook Review: Baron Fig Vanguard Black Box

The Baron Fig Vanguard Black Box is probably no longer a big secret but I’m going to hide the photos of the actual covers of the notebooks behind a “read more” so if you don’t want to have the surprise ruined, you don’t have to click through. Especially since the NEW Vanguard Edition launched last week. So, really… but not many folks have been talking about this edition. I feel like it got lost in the shuffle of the holidays and all the other special releases and I think people might kick themselves if they don’t grab this one since its still available so I thought I’d get my review out now. Better late than never.

Everything prior to the “read more” will not be a spoiler so feel free to continue to read on.

First, the Black Box comes in another one of Baron Fig’s excellent boxes. This one in matte black with gloss black symbols on the cover: an x, an o, a wave and a leaf. It reminds me of a puzzle, something from Welcome to Nightvale or an episode of Lost.

The big news is that its one of the first editions of the Vanguard with dot grid. AND… the paper looks to have been upgraded to the same stock that Baron Fig is using in the Confidant. The stock is  toothier than in my previous Vanguard editions and the color is creamier.

See that texture? Alternately, if you liked that smooth smooth Vanguard stock, then this is not the edition for you.

When I did a side-by-side comparison of the Black Box edition paper and an original Vanguard, the paper in the Black Box handled like the Confidant which was much more to my liking. My fountain pens were well-behaved and the toothiness of the stock meant that pencils and pen nibs didn’t slide around of their own accord.

The photo above is a close-ups of the ink handling of the two books. The bottom two frames are the same pen on the two versions of Vanguard. Fountain pen users will recognize that weird ink resistance on the right as opposed to the left which is just lovely shading. (It’s Oster Fire & Ice ink, if you’re curious.)

Okay… this is it… You want to see the cover details?


Review: Plumchester Square Sketchbook

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.

Review: Wanderings Traveler’s Notebook

I received the Wanderings Notebook to review not long ago and wanted to give a good thorough field test before I wrote my review. It will look like most of the leather, Midori-like notebooks you’ve seen on Etsy and other sites and wonder “What’s the big deal?” And that’s part of the big deal. There’s no a big deal unlike Foxy Fix, Chic Sparrow, Buteo Bunker, ZenCraft, One Star Leather or any of the other more posh brands.The Wanderings Notebook doesn’t have a lot of bells-and-whistles. There’s no pockets, extra stitching, no “extra room”, no personal size, passport size, Moleskine size, pocket size, slim size, blah blah blah…. It doesn’t come with a bunch of different colored elastic options or charms or custom embossing. To be honest, a lot of those options cause me to seize up with too-many-decisions-to-make-before-I-can-place-my-order and then I never place an order. The only branding on the Wanderings Notebook is a literal brand on the cover of a compass rose.

Right now, the Wanderings Notebook is only available in dark chocolate brown leather in the original traveler’s size (closed it’s approx. 8.5″ x 4.75″  or 22.2×12.7cm). The elastic is brown. Henry Ford would approve.You can get it any color you want as long as you want it in brown.

I decided to do a bit of a side-by-side with a regular Midor Traveler’s Notebook. The only full-sized Midori I could find was the 2015 Blue Edition Midori Traveler’s Notebook. The Wanderings Notebook is a bit wider overall than the Midori. The added bit of leather on the Wanderings strap is a noticeably nice addition. Also, the stock Wanderings elastic is a bit wider than the standard Traveler’s Notebook elastic. From the top view, you can see that the leather textures are a little bit different. The Wanderings Notebook is a bit more rustic where the Blue Edition has a smoother texture.

The leather on the Wanderings looks a bit thicker overall but its still supple. Inside my Midori Traveler’s Notebook (it as still branded Midori in 2015) is one a refills of handmade sketchbook paper and a plastic sleeve or two.

The Wanderings Notebook uses brass toggles to finish the ends of the elastics. The Wanderings Notebook also does not include any bookmarks in its notebook unlike the Traveler’s Notebook though it would not be difficult to add your own if you wanted to customize your notebook.

From the side view, you can see that the Wanderings Notebook uses the  side hole to attach the elastic for the closure which many people prefer over the back knot that the Traveler’s Notebook uses. Also, the Wanderings Notebook has the same brass noodle-like bead on the side. I prefer it to the Midori disc which sticks out away from the book quite a bit.

I tested out an assortment of my currently inked fountain pens on the notebooks that came with the Wanderings Notebooks.

The Wanderings Notebook ships with three blank inserts with kraft covers and ivory paper. I was surprised to discover that the paper was actually quite good for fountain pens. Most of my fine and medium nibs did quite well.

I usually clip a multi-pen to my Traveler’s Notebook since it ends up getting tossed around a lot or going to meetings and I like having a pen and a pencil with me. I was pleased that gel ink and pencil worked well on the paper that shipped with the cover but was equally happy to see that the paper stood up to a lot of different media.

There’s a little bit of show through on the reverse of stock but not too bad.

In the end though, with a Traveler’s Notebook cover, the most important aspect is always the durability of the cover and how well it wears and feels in your hand. The universality of the size means that finding a replacement insert is not a big deal. I will often just cut down old sketchbooks to make refills in a pinch. So I think it was wise for Black Mountain to go with this size to start. I know a lot of people don’t like this size or prefer the Field Notes or Passport size better but I find that once you adapt to the Traveler’s classic size, you re won over to it for good.

One of the things I talked with the Black Mountain Company about was that their notebooks are made in China and that is how they are able to keep their costs down. We talked about it at length and I hope that he won’t mind me quoting him here:

When I selected my supplier in China it was one of my top priorities to partner with a company that I felt good about in terms of how they treat their people and how the product is made. They pay their people well, source raw materials ethically, and produce a truly high quality product. I’ll leave that last point up to your judgement as well, of course.

I’m not an “artisan” as it is so popular to be these days, but that was not my goal when I started Wanderings. I wanted to provide a truly quality product to people at a price that a normal person can afford, along with stellar customer service (my specialty and what I enjoy doing).

Our planet is a global civilization and I run a micro-global company. My products are designed in Canada, made in China, and sold around the world, and I like it that way.

As someone who also works with Chinese manufacturers regularly, I can relate to his situation and his passion. I also his appreciate his honesty. Having walked through Chinese factories myself and seen the pride and hard work with my own eyes, I know what it means to see what you have envisioned come to life in the hands of craftspeople on the other side of the globe. Anyway… back to the bottom line.

The Wanderings Notebook is just $26.99 and includes three blank refills to get you started. Unlike the Traveler’s Notebook, it does not come with the cotton dust bag and the fancy paperboard box and extra elastics to keep those costs down. You can use that savings to embellish and add to your notebook however you see fit. If you’ve never tried a leather notebook cover before, there’s no better way to try one and I feel good about recommending a company who is both honest and honorable.


Notebook Review: Baron Fig Askew, Work/Play II and Planner 2017

I’ve developed quite the stack of Baron Fig products to review so I decided to roll them all up into one big review. Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten the Work/Play II ($20), the Planner 2017 (sold out) and the quite controversial Askew ($20). So, let’s work through the list.

Each book is similar in size (5.4″ x 7.7″)  and design to the Baron Fig Confidant with a bookcloth fabric cover. I love the feel of the cloth but the black cloth on the Work/Play II edition attracts dust like nobody’s business. I know lots of people have begged and pleaded that Baron Fig make a black edition. You got your request, now be sure to carry a lint brush. I lint rolled this cover twice in the process of photographing this but it the pursuit of truthful reporting, I’m leaving the dots of dust for you to see. Its beautiful, it looks great, but if you are OCD like me, its going to make you crazy.  I can now see the appeal of the slate grey covers of the original Confidants. What I cannot see, cannot make me crazy.

I love seeing all the ribbon bookmarks. I particularly like the pop of red for the Askew marker. I love the wide cotton and the finished ends so they don’t fray. I just wish the were a smidgen longer so that I could grab the end and pull it to the right corner to open the book. Sadly, the bookmark is too short to do that. It need to be about an inch to two inches longer.

(Ah, the lint!!!) The Work/Play II edition is blind embossed on the cover with a pencil and a paper airplane. The graphics are simple and playful and are repeated inside on the “bookplate” on the flyleaf.

The paper inside is printed on the lefthand side with dot grid and is blank on the righthand side. I joked with my husband that as a lefty and an artist, my “work” is usually more drawing so I need the blank pages on the left so the book is actually backwards, “Why did they put the embossing on the back cover?” Otherwise, the book is utter perfection! I was worried the dots were too wide or too big but once I tried them out, I think they are perfect, even with my tiny penmanship.

My big moment of joy was discovering that, after several previous tests with the Vanguard, there has been some substantial improvements with the Confidant paper. It’s not the same stock that’s in the Vanguard for starters. Nor is it the same paper that I’ve previously tested in earlier Confidants. Oh, Baron Fig… You’ve come a long way!

Hence, the lazy pen tests… I wasn’t expecting much in the pen tests. But I turned the page and there was no bleeding. And none of my fountain pens feathered. I didn’t smear my inks. Even my brush pens worked. Holy pen tests, Batman! What’s going on?

So, I pulled out the Planner… It’s dressed in the Confidant’s dress greys with the date blind embossed in the corner. All subtlety and understated.

I penned my name in the front feeling all “Confidant”. Maybe I might finally get my act together. 2017 hasn’t started all that auspiciously for me thus far.

The planner starts with month-on-two-pages calendars which, in my haste to “get down to business” I forgot to photograph. With January practically over, I decided to use the first few pages for pen tests. Again, its the same paper as in the Work/Play II. Its ever-so-slightly, warm white with lots of open space for your Monday through Friday activities though they do split Saturday and Sunday on  one block which I’m not crazy about. Doesn’t anyone else have busy weekkends?

There’s also a lot of grey space at the top of the page which I don’t quite get though after a couple pages, I did see the advantage of sticking my magnetic page markers up there.

I did like the shaded month “tabs” along the righthand side to make it easy to find the month. There is also a dark page marking the end of the weekly pages and the beginning of the motes pages in the back of the book. All-in-all, if you had previously used a Moleskine planner, this is a vast improvement paperwise. The typography and overall layout is good as well. The book provides quite a few notes pages as well and the bookmark is considerably more durable albeit not as long as I’d like.

Finally, the controversial Askew notebook. I’ll start by saying that I am a graphic designer by trade and I know who Debbie Millman is. She is a well-known designer in my field. She publishes books, hosts a podcast, speaks at events, judges design competitions and is generally regarded as an expert in her field. In graphic design, she’s one of our celebrities for her merit. That said, I’m also familiar with her aesthetic and knew she would do something quirky. So, I was not all that surprised to see the Askew as it came to me, and I did receive it as a review copy not as a subscriber so that might change my perspective a bit (all the other notebooks reviewed here today I paid for).

I love the brilliant blue fabric cover, and the hand scribbled end papers (even though, in general, ballpoint pens give me the heebie jeebies). That red ribbon bookmark! Brilliant! All reminiscent of notebook paper but tilted on its ear. And then each of the pages hand drawn and ever so slightly “askew”.

Again, the paper and size was the same as the other notebooks. While others complain that its too quirky, I think this is a great book for creative play, for travel journaling, for collage, for doodling and for breaking out of rut.

I had fun putting the wonkiest page to good use. Because Monday was in serious need of a do-over.

So, my bottomline, I am loving the Baron Fig Confidants. These are definitely moving the needle on the A5 (-ish) hardcover notebook and have whooshed to the top of my list of favorite notebooks up next to the Moo notebook. And while the Askew may have made other folks reconsider the Confidant subscription its made me CONSIDER the subscription because this is the kind of notebook that surprises and delights. I don’t think I’d want an endless stream of plain dot grid notebooks to show up every quarter but if once a year, something like the Askew showed up and really shook things up, then its totally worth it.

DISCLAIMER: Some of these items were sent to me free of charge by Baron Fig for the purpose of review and some I purchased with my own money. Please see the About page for more details.

Notebook Review: Moo Notebook


Moo-ve over, Moleskine. Moo is about to show you a thing or two about how notebooks are supposed to be done.

Moo Notebook presentation box

Moo Notebook

First. Let’s talk about presentation and packaging. Now, normally, I’m not much for a lot of packaging because its usually stuff I have to either store or throw away especially in regards to fountain pens and that tends to be a lot of material that is not reusable or recyclable. In regards to notebooks though, a nice presentation box is something that is both recyclable and reusable. Moo is notorious for packaging that often lives long after all the business cards, postcards, or other paper ephemera has been distributed. I still have my original business card box from my first order of business cards that I use to transport cards to and from events almost a decade later. So, yeah for an awesome box.

Moo flyleaf on notebook

Moo Notebook and Slipcase


Next, for about the same price as a Moleskine notebook, the Moo notebook ships with a notebook and a slipcase. Now your notebook will have some amazing presentation on the shelf after its filled with your thoughts and ideas. Will my scribbles be worthy of a slipcase still remains to be seen, but having that option is certainly something that makes the Moo notebook more valuable than the average notebook.

colored pages in Moo Notebook

colored pages in Moo Notebook

Then there’s the colored pages in the center of the Moo notebook that provides a visual division between the front and back half of the book as well as blank pages for drawing, collage, and other purposes I haven’t thought of yet.

Tear and remove bellyband on Moo Notebook

Upon removing the bellyband on the Moo Notebook, there is a self-adhesive pocket that can be adhered into the notebook for business cards and other small ephemera.

note on reverse of bellyband on Moo Notebook


moo notebook pocketMoo coptic binding

But wait, I haven’t talked about the wicked, coptic, lay-flat binding. The cover opens flat, away from the spine to show the exposed binding, which is both aesthetically cool and functionally useful allowing the cover to open more fully. In the marketing materials, Moo expressly states that this binding method makes the notebook lay flat more easily which is better for left-handed writers. You know how to win my heart, Moo.

colored pages in Moo Notebook

Ribbon bookmark Moo Notebook

Oh, wait. I forgot to mention, they even thought to finish the edge of the ribbon bookmark so it doesn’t fray. And at the bottom of the box is a coordinating pencil, pre-sharpened with an inspiring message to get you going. Yeah. They thought of everything.

Moo Pencil in box


Seriously, at this point, even if the book has paper as crappy as your average Moleskine, its still leaps and bounds better at $20 than a Moleskine. If you’re looking for a great gift idea for someone who likes to write, do a little doodling or just likes beautiful things, this would make a perfect holiday gift. Just go order one. Go on… I’ll wait.

Lined paper and lay-flat binding in Moo Notebook

Now, let me tell you about my pen and pencil tests.

Pen & Pencil tests Moo Notebook white paper

I tested both the writing paper and the green blank paper. The information about the papers on the website list the white paper as Swedish Munken Kristall paper. There’s 160 pages and its lightly lined.

I decided not to hold back. I figured I’d throw the kitchen sink at this notebook and then accept my fate. Would it stand up to a bevy of brush pens or an assortment of fountain pens? Yup. Gel pens, rollerballs and even pigment-based Faber-Castell brush tip permanent pens. Yeah, some of the brush pens showed through but I was asking a lot but the paper withstood a lot more than I thought it would. And there was very little bleed through. There was no feathering issues on the right side of the paper and most pens dried in a reasonable amount of time which meant I wasn’t smudging my writing. If you really want to use both sides of the paper, stick to fine line pens, gel pens, pencils and fountain pens with lighter, drier inks.

At first, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the lines but they are light enough enough that the fact that they didn’t bleed to the edge of the page of to the spine did not end up bothering me.

Pen & Pencil tests Moo Notebook white paper reverse of stock

Pen & Pencil tests Moo Notebook white paper reverse of stock

Then I decided I’d use the green G . F Smith’s Colorplan Park Green paper for drawing (as recommended by the web site) and it held up to an assortment of pens, pencils and markers with no issues. There’s some nice tooth to the paper which was nice with both graphite and colored pencils. Even my Copic Sketch markers worked well but they did bleed through but only to the back of the paper and not to the next sheet. There wasn’t even show through of any of the other tools. The colored paper also made it possible to use opaque white gel pens for accent which was fun. It definitely reminded of how much I enjoyed using the Field Notes Sweet Tooth editions this summer. I almost want a whole book full of the Colorplan paper not just 16 pages.

Moo Notebook paper tests Color Plan Park green stock

I did some snooping and the Colorplan paper is either the 80#/120gsm or 91#/135gsm, in case you are curious about the specifics. I couldn’t narrow down exactly the weight of the Munken Kristall paper other than to establish its the Arctic line and its probably the 120gsm.

Moo Notebook paper tests Color Plan Park green reverse of stock

What’s the downside? The Moo notebooks are covered with grey fabric book cloth which look fabulous but, in my world, is a cat hair magnet of epic proportions. And it will probably have coffee and tea stains on in a New York minute. And ink stains. And a bit of mustard, at least I think that’s mustard. Best not to ask. Maybe I’m just accident prone and messy but if you’ve met me at a pen show, my fingers are perpetually ink-stained so its not a stretch to think my notebooks aren’t also likely to suffer a similar fate. The Moo notebook also does not have a big secretary pocket for holding larger ephemera like postcards, mail and meeting notes.

These are not make-or-break issues for me but I would like to see Moo add an option for an edition of the notebook with the same exterior material as is used on the slipcase as an option and I’d love an add-on adhesive pocket like the business card pocket that is larger and could be added onto orders for other ephemera. I love that Moo is moving into notebooks and I look forward to seeing what else they will do, especially after seeing how exceptional this notebook is.

The Moo Notebook is available directly from Moo for $19.99.

CLARIFICATION: The special black box packaging with the pencil is for the MOO notebook launch ONLY. Any notebooks purchased from the website will not include the pencil and outer black box. MOO includes just the hardcover notebook and the slipcover. I apologize for any confusion. It’s still an awesome product and far and away a better deal at $19.99 than other similarly-sized and priced notebooks.

DISCLAIMER: This item was sent to me free of charge by Moo for the purpose of review. Please see the About page for more details.

15 Things to Do with An Empty Sketchbook

I got to thinking, with Inktober here and a whole pile of empty sketchbooks staring at me, I thought I’d compile a list of ideas to help you fill up one or more of those many empty sketchbooks you might have as well.


I wrote about important people in my life and drew their shoes for Uppercase Magazine! So much fun.

A post shared by juliarothman (@juliarothman) on

  • Illustrate your favorite recipes (inspired by They Draw And Cook)
  • Draw your outfit, maybe what you’re wearing today, or your favorite outfit or what your kids are wearing. Document your shoe, bag or jewelry collection with notes about the who, whats and whys of the items. (Originally inspired by Julia Rothman’s Kind Soles piece that appeared in Uppercase Magazine #16)
  • Are you an avid reader or music collector? Draw the covers of your favorite books or albums or illustrate scenes based on the stories or lyrics. (inspired by the book, My Ideal Bookshelf)
  • Alphabet project: “A is for ….” This is another idea inspired by Uppercase Magazine. Each issue they do a themed alphabet around their issue theme and provide a word for each letter of the alphabet to that theme, like ceramics, stitchery, pattern & decoration and so forth. Then they provide a definition or visual representation of each term in the alphabet. For example in the Pattern & Decoration issue #21, “C is for Calico” and “W is for William Morris”. For whatever subject you have a particular interest in, you could do an alphabet project and try to think up terms, people or elements and illustrate each of them. In some cases you might have many to choose from and could do more than one.
  • Speaking of pattern: why not turn a sketchbook into a pattern book? Geometrics, repeating, linear, nonlinear, one-color, multi-color, representational, natural, textural… so many to choose from! Check out Uppercase Magazine Issue #21 (now sold out but the Surface Design Guide will be included in the upcoming issue #32), or artists like Lotta Jansdotter, Orla Kiely, Marimekko to get started with pattern design.
  • Attend figure drawing events, or other activities that allow you the opportunity to regularly draw from life be it your local coffee shop, your kids’ playground playdate or your long-suffering partner, pet or child enduring being the subject of yet another portrait drawing. Dedicate one sketchbook or notebook for this purpose. (Inspired by Ladies Drawing Night, Hallmark’s Noon Sketch Group and Roz Stendahl)
  • Collage. If the paper in a particular sketchbook or noteook is not sturdy enough for your favorite drawing or painting materials, use the book to collage in scraps of found materials like labels, stickers, menus, ticket stubs and other ephemera. Gesso the pages to add strength and let the book become a waffle-paged beast. Create an artist’s journal that documents your life events through drawings, photos and ephemera. (Inspired by Make Your Own Ideabook with Arne & Carlos: Create Handmade Art Journals and Bound Keepsakes to Store Inspiration and Memories)
  • Draw your breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner. Or coffee. (inspired by Danny Gregory and Liz Steel)
  • Lettering practice. Sounds simple but using one book for a 15-minute-a-day practice doing lettering drills, writing a quote, the #rockyourhandwritingchallenge or some other specific task will help improve your lettering skills.
  • Dedicate one sketchbook to be your color key. Use this book to test, document and list all the pens, pencils, paints, inks and other art materials your own. Figure out which colors and brands you like, you think mix or blend well and keep them all in one book to use as your giant reference guide. Be sure this book is one with your favorite type of paper and has lots of pages as you will want to continue to update and reference it. A good rule of thumb is to use one side of the book to do swatch tests and then the other side to do a drawing with the materials to see how they perform in “real world” tests. (inspired by Jane Davenport)
  • Draw from old photographs. Go through your family photos or visit the local antique shops or thrift stores and use the old photos as points of reference for your drawings. (inspired by Maira Kalman’s book Girls Standing on Lawns)
  • Draw what you’re watching on television. Or YouTube. If you can’t get out to draw from life, draw the folks on TV. They can be just as interesting. And you can pause them mid-expression. Or rewind. Talking heads from newscast, vlogs or political debates are great for this.
  • While we are on the subject of television, why not draw some of your favorite characters from your favorite shows or movies? There have been lots of wonderful fan art circulating recently from Netflix’s Stranger Things and there’s always a plethora of Star Wars fan art. Embrace your inner geek and draw your favorite scenes from your favorite shows or movies, or create new scenarios. Didn’t like the ending of LOST, fix it. What’ really happened at the end of X-Files? You can draw it.
  • Document the news in illustrations. Be it good or bad, use your drawing skills to capture the moments in time.
  • Collaborative Sketchbook: You can create a shared sketchbook between a friend or loved one be it one other person or a group of people or a whole heap of strangers. (inspired by 3191milesapart.com , Dana Barbieri and Anne Butera from Uppercase Magazine #29 and 1000journals.com)

But really though, what about Barb? . . . . . . #strangerthings #barb #illustration

A post shared by Mariya Pilipenko (@mariya.pilipenko) on

Need more ideas? Check out the book Playing With Sketches: 50 Creative Exercises for Designers and Artists.

Do you have ideas for things to do with sketchbooks that are piling up? Please leave your ideas in the comments!


Review: Denik Sketchbooks & Notebooks

Denik Notebooks 2

Denik Notebooks 1

Denik Love Sketchbook Denik Love Sketchbook inside


Denik is an artist-designed notebook company that’s mission is to change the world with art. It’s doing this by contributing part of their profits to education and by paying the artists that create the cover designs a royalty fee for their designs.

Last year, they helped to build the Denik Middle School in Zambougou, Mali. They are currently working on funding a school in Laos and are working with Pencils of Promise, to build a school in Guatemala which will start in the Spring of 2017.

In their spirit of generosity, they sent me a huge stack of notebooks to review. So many, that I enlisted the help of friends in order to test all the notebooks in a timely fashion. Jordan, Marcos, Allyson, Kim, Terence, Bob, and Meshelle all pitched in to provide feedback and assistance in reviewing these notebooks and sketchbooks. For all of them, it was their first outings reviewing a notebook so I’m pooling their comments and opinions to streamline this review. Otherwise this would have had to be an ebook.

The notebooks that we had to review are:

  • Plaid Classic (5.25″ x 8.25″, hardcover with flannel fabric over board, 60 heavyweight pages, blank) $24.95
  • Granite Softcover (5.25″ x 8.25″ 150 pages acid-free, 75% recycled paper, lined) $11.95
  • Drawing Mountains (5.25″ x 8.25″ 150 pages acid-free, 75% recycled paper, blank) $11.95
  • Margerita Illustrated by Lisa Congdon (5.25″ x 8.25″ 150 pages acid-free, 75% recycled paper, blank) $11.95
  • Hideaway (5.25″ x 8.25″ 150 pages acid-free, 75% recycled paper, lined) $11.95
  • Floral Beauty (5.25″ x 8.25″ 150 pages acid-free, 75% recycled paper, blank) $11.95
  • Floral Love Sketchbook (8″ x 10.5″ 150 pages of acid free, 75% recycled paper, blank) $10.95
  • Crazy Ideas Sketchbook (9″ x 11″ 77# natural, 150 pages of acid free, 75% recycled paper, perforated) $14.95

The Plain Paper Notebooks:

For efficiency, I’m going to group all the plain paper notebooks together. These are the books that Bob, Marcos, and I tested. It includes the 150-page, 5.25″ x 8.5″ “Hideaway,” “Floral Beauty,” Margerita,’ “Drawing Mountains,” and the larger 8″ x 10.5″ “Floral Love” Sketchbook.

All the books have a “soft-touch” cover, rounded corners and a perfect bound spine. The sketchbook in the exception in that is has square corners.

Denik Tamale Illo 1

I used my Cross Century II with blue felt tip refill and colored pencils for my first page. I got some show through and a little bleed through where I had the most color coverage with the felt tip ink.

Denik Red pen test

Marco used a red felt tip pen with similar results to my page above. I think it was the Pentel Sign Pen or similar which would be similar to a Micron or a Multiliner. He got a bit a show through but no actual bleed through.

Denik Tamale illo 2

More tamale art with colored pencils, felt tip and a little bit of alcohol marker as well.

Denik microns

Bob did a light bit of sketching with a Copic Multiliner and there’s some evidence of the show through on the reverse side of his page. So we all got similar results and we all love to use felt tips!

Denik collage

Marco did some collage work with ink, and pasted papers which I absolutely love. He used foil papers, kraft, and card stocks. The glue caused the paper to buckle a little bit but the collage looks so cool, who cares?

Denik brush pen

More of Marco’s drawings, this time with a brush pen.

Denik Sakura Identipen

The Sakura IdentiPen is similar to a traditional Sharpie permanent marker so it had plenty of show through and some bleed through but the paper held up fine for doodling. You can also see some of the showthrough from the Pentel Finito Xtra Fine page on the lefthand side.

Denik Pentel finito Denik Sharpie

Sharpie permanent markers, like other alcohol-based markers bleed through the paper a lot and even on to the next page so if you’re planning to do note taking with a Sharpie, you may want to put a piece of cardstock under your page or a pencil board to protect the sheets below. Still looks pretty cool in Marco’s capable hands. (If he keeps this up, I might be out of a job!)

Denik Copic Fountain Pen

This page is a mix of Copic Drawing Fountain Pen and alcohol marker for the gray shading. The fountain pen has a little show through but not much bleed through. As you’ll see further down, Copics and other alcohol markers bleed through quite a lot.

Denik Colored Pencils 2

Bob sketched with colored pencils and liked the way the paper kept his colors bright and true on the crisp white paper. The smoothness was a plus too.

Denik Colored Pencils

Bob also experimented with laying down a thick layer of color to get a solid build up of pigment to see how the paper handled it. He was pleased with the results.

Denik Erasable Colored Pencils

I tested the paper with pencils and a much lighter hand with my sketch of 11 from Stranger Things. I used the Pilot Color Eno Neox erasable leads in my Cross Century. I agreed that the smooth paper was a good match for colored pencils.

Denik Gouache

I also tried some gouache on the paper. I got a little bit of buckling as the paper is not really designed to handle wet media but not so much that for a small sketch it would bother me. I wouldn’t recommend full on watercolor work though.

Denik Notebooks Copics

Denik Copic pen 3

Then we have our Copic and alcohol-marker tests. Both Marco and I had the same results. The colors bled to the back and some colors bled all the way to the next page and to the back side of that. Dark colors bled even further. So, proceed with caution, use a slip sheet or skip the Copics with the blank notebooks.

The Lined Notebook:

The Hideaway and Granite notebooks are both lined and feature softcovers  and the same paper, page count and general configuration as the blank notebooks. They have the same rounded corners and soft touch covers as well. Allyson’s big complaint was that she was not a fan of the soft touch covers. They reminded her of nails on a chalkboard sensations. It is definitely not a sensation for everyone.

Denik Lined

The ruling inside is 7mm and the lines are a dark gray. There is additional space at the top of each space for a title. The lines could be a wee bit thinner or lighter for my taste but no one else complained about them so maybe I’m just super picky. Meshelle, Terence and Allyson were all under tight deadlines this past week so their comments were limited so I did standard pen tests on the lined notebooks. Felt tips pens and darker, juicier fountain pens left some dot bleed through. Rollerballs, like the Regal Alice, and particularly wet fountain pens like the Karas Kustoms with super-saturated Robert Oster Blue Sea ink (also the blob of ink in the top corner) left its mark on the reverse of the paper which you can see in the photo below. Overall, the results in the lined notebooks are consistent with the blank notebooks which lead me to believe its probably the same paper.

With gel pens like the Pilot Hi-Tec C, there was no show through or bleed though issue so that’s good. And pencils performed just fine. I particularly liked the  Mitsubishi Prussian Blue/Vermillion pencil. It was lush and dark on the paper.

I wish that Denik was less obscure with the actual weight of the paper in the notebooks. Its a very Moleskine-y thing to do. Denik is specific with the sketchbook paper weight, why not be specific with the notebooks too?

Denik Lined

The Sketchbook:

Denik Sketchbook

The Crazy Ideas Sketchbook  is a classic wire bound sketchbook and exactly the kind of sketchbook that Bob would gravitate towards. The large format 9″ x 11″ size and wire binding is his go-to format. The paper is a little lighter weight than his favored Canson XL Mix Media but its a little larger in size and the perforation means its a little cleaner and easier to remove pages for sharing and scanning.

Denik Sketchbook drawing tools 1

None of Bob’s regular drawing tools like felt tips, rollerballs, pencils or gel pens had any show through or bleed through and he liked the light tooth and weight of the paper. The paper was thick enough to feel substantial but not so thick as too take itself TOO seriously. He could doodle, sketch or take notes at will and not feel too precious about the paper. That’s just how he likes his sketchbooks.

Denik Sketchbook drawing tools 2

When it got into more marker territory, there was definite show through with those pesky Copics but not as bad as there was with the notebook paper and it certainly didn’t bleed to the next page. This is much better for drawing purposes. With watercolor brush markers, there was no show through at all. Even adding water to spread the color, there is only a little buckling. This is not really watercolor paper though. I did find that this paper was okay for a bit of gouache as well but again, it did pucker a bit. So, I’d rate it “light wash” and ink only and not full-on watercolor or wet media. It would do in a pinch but would cause some weird pooling due to the paper buckling.

Denik Sketchbook Fountain pens

As for fountain pens, I had really good luck with no feathering and little show through. I’d actually use it for calligraphy practice since the sheets are large, easy to remove and fairly smooth.

The Hardcover Notebook:

The hardcover notebook had a woolly flannel plaid cover with a leather tag debossed with the Denik logo on it. Very subtle. On the inside covers was a black and white mottled print that reminds me of a composition book. And the whole book reminded me of something Jordan would love and I was right. There is also a red satin ribbon bookmark inside this book. I wish the ribbon had been finished on the end to keep it from fraying but  some white glue or a FrayCheck should stop it. A flame might work as well but since I am letting Jordan keep this book since she tested it, I’m not going to set it on fire, just in case.

Denik Pencil and Sharpie

Jordan used some colored pencils and a Sharpie permanent marker too. We Hallmarkers are nothing if not consistent. She was overall really happy with the thicker paper though the Sharpie permanent markers did still bleed through. You can see the Sharpie show through on the photo below.

Denik Ink and more

Jordan found that pen and ink and felt tip was awesome on this smooth paper and had little to no issue with bleed through because it was thicker. The ink washes did not cause any warping or buckling. Jordan was able to get a range of blacks and grays which made for a happy lettering artist.

Denik Watercolor

Jordan also experimented with her Koi watercolors. She got some warping of the paper but was still able to produce some good color range. Once the paper was dry, the weight of the book itself flattened the paper back out to create satisfactory results for sketching and experimentation.

The Verdict:

I really like the cover designs of the notebooks and sketchbooks. The artwork is very cool and there are lots of options to choose from, designs ranging from inspirational quotes to textural patterns. Some covers even feature gold foil stamping for extra zing.

I thought I was going to love the softcover notebooks but I find that they don’t lay flat enough for me and I really have to work them to keep them open or roll the covers back on themselves. The fact the covers are fexible enough to fold back on themselves is a plus for some though. In general though, I’m more inclined to use the softcover notebooks for notetaking rather than art-making. The lined versions would be good for general writing, list-making, journaling and the like and the 7mm ruling is in that sweet spot of ruling being neither too wide nor too narrow.

While I was initially hesitant about the spiral bound sketchbooks, I have been won over to them. The paper is good quality for drawing, pen and ink and most markers as well as light gouache and water media making it good as a daily sketchbook. Having used the spiral bound for a couple weeks, I have been won over to the idea of a wirebound sketchbook in general. I like the lay-flat-ability and the perforation makes it easy to remove pages for scanning and other digital capture.

The Plaid Classic hardcover with the extra-heavyweight pages was also a huge hit and I hope that Denik will continue to produce this particular configuration because it was a clear winner. Jordan handed it over to me with a sheepish “I’m gonna get this back, right?”  look in her eye. It is being returned to her today as are all the other books that were tested as thanks to everyone who helped out on this epic notebook and sketchbook testing project.

For more information about Denik you can follow them on Instagram, Twitter or on Facebook

DISCLAIMER: This item was sent to me free of charge by Denik for the purpose of review. Please see the About page for more details.