Review by Tina Koyama
For many years now, the Rhodia Rhodiarama hardcover notebook has been one of my favorites. Available in a rainbow of rich cover colors, this notebook is otherwise identical to Rhodia’s standard Webnotebook (which comes in only black or orange). I use the A5 size for my day-to-day journals and the handy A6 size for travel journals. The paper, favored by fountain pen users, is the creamy “Luxury 90g ivory vellum paper, super smooth, acid-free, pH neutral” that Rhodia is known for. In my journals, I write most often with fountain pens, and all my nibs joyfully skate across this paper. My second favorite writing pen is gel, and it, too, glides effortlessly.
The A5 Landscape Webnotebook was recently brought to my attention for its potential as a sketchbook. My first reaction was to look askance. Although I am familiar with the paper’s fine qualities for writing, the only sketching I’ve done in Rhodia journals is with a fountain pen, and only small doodles, at that. The paper seemed too thin to support watercolor or other wet media and too smooth for graphite or colored pencil. But I’m always up for looking at familiar products in a different way, so I made the Landscape Webnotebook jump through all my usual mixed-media hoops.
First, let’s look at the physical features. Bound by the same smooth, faux-leather hardcover as its portrait-format sisters, the book contains 96 blank (also available ruled) pages with stitched signatures. Typical for Rhodia books, the front cover is debossed with the Rhodia logo. (Like the portrait-format Webnotebooks, the landscape version is available with black or orange covers.)
It has all the standard notebook features – an elastic band, a pocket on the inside back cover and a ribbon page marker. I like keeping the book closed with the band, but I tend not to use the pocket or ribbon in a sketchbook. (Ana would be annoyed that the ribbon is neither fused on the cut edge nor long enough to pull to the side to open the book to the marked page. Now that I’ve taken these photos, I’ll probably cut the ribbon off, as it gets in my way while I sketch.)
The binding opens completely flat at any point – a huge benefit when I sketch across the gutter as well as when I put pages on the scanner. (This trait is so important to me, in fact, that I won’t use any sketchbook that doesn’t open flat.)
When I’m not sketching across the gutter, I appreciate how easily the unused side of the book folds backward, which is how I prefer to hold it when standing.
Now I’ll get to the nitty-gritty – the paper’s performance with a variety of media. I started with graphite and traditional colored pencils, since these were the media I was most skeptical about. Although I like the warm, creamy color with graphite, as I suspected, the super-smooth surface just doesn’t have enough tooth for my taste. Graphite erases easily, but it takes longer to build up tone when there’s no texture to grab onto.
I had a similar experience with traditional colored pencil (in this sample, I used Uni Pericia pencils, reviewed here). I knew that these very soft pencils would pair well with a smoother texture, and I was pleased that the hues were bright and saturated, but again, it seemed to take longer to build layers without a little tooth.
Next I moved on to wet media. Despite being only 90gsm (24 pound) in weight, the paper surprised me by holding up to watercolor. There was no bleed-through at all with my fairly wet washes. (I’m giving credit to the sizing, which must be substantial to withstand fountain pen ink without feathering.) However, the page buckled as expected.
Since I’m not much of a watercolor painter, my more typical use of water in a sketchbook is with water-soluble colored pencils. Using soft Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils, I sketched a fall maple tree (from a photo, not outdoors – I’m not ready to see summer end yet!), then used my favorite activation technique: I spritzed the foliage liberally with water. (You can read about this technique in my review of an ArtSnacks box that included Museum pencils). As with traditional watercolor, the paper buckled, but nothing bled through.
Where the Rhodia paper really shines is with the medium it was probably designed for – ink. I took it out on the street for a quick urban sketch using my favorite Sailor Naginata Fude De Mannen fountain pen (my grail, if you care about such things) and a Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pen. As expected, both the fountain pen’s nib and the marker’s brush tip were a joy to use on the paper’s surface.
A few weeks later I used the same Sailor fountain pen at Green Lake, where I took my time on a small sketch. Maybe because I was working slowly, the nib put out a heavy line of Platinum Carbon Black ink, and I was surprised that it bled through wherever I paused. I saw some bleeding in my street scene sketch, but since I was moving the nib faster, it wasn’t as significant (and the marker didn’t bleed at all). Shown below are the sketch and its reverse.
I wondered if the choice of ink would make a difference, so I took out my second Sailor with an identical Naginata Fude De Mannen nib (yes, I have two grails – don’t we all buy at least two once we find it?) filled with Diamine Eclipse. Making a sketch of a burly tree in a similar slow style with occasional heavy inking, I found that there was no bleed-through at all. Waterproof Platinum Carbon Black tends to give any paper the heaviest workout, so I wasn’t surprised to see that water-soluble Eclipse fared much better. In the future, I’ll probably stick with water-soluble inks on this paper.
For good measure, I scribbled with several other types of markers and brush pens, and none bled through.
If watercolor, graphite or traditional colored pencils were my media of choice, I would prefer other sketchbooks that aren’t prone to buckling after water is applied and have a bit more texture to hold dry media. But every time I use a fountain pen in the Rhodia, it feels like the perfect match of medium to paper. I’m looking forward to sketching in it more with brush pens and markers, too, which pair with it just as beautifully. Pen and ink artists of all kinds – traditional dip pen users as well as those who prefer modern technical pens – would probably love the Rhodia as a sketchbook.