Review by Tina Koyama
Perhaps better known for its fountain-pen-loving notebooks, Clairefontaine stationery company has come out with a new book specifically intended for sketching: the Graf’Book 360° ($13.50 for A5 portrait; several other formats available). The A5 portrait-format book I chose contains 200 pages of 100g/45-pound “ultra white, super-smooth French milled paper for drawing, sketching and writing. Perfect for pen, pencil, marker and calligraphy inks.” I was told by a Clairfontaine rep that the paper is archival, pH neutral and sustainably made. The soft cover is flexible and relatively thin; it looks and feels like a heavy file folder.
A unique feature is the book’s exposed spine thread knots, which look very much like the ancient Coptic hand-stitching technique I use myself. A rubbery-feeling substance protects the spine and threads.
The advantage of this binding method (and the main reason I use Coptic to make sketchbooks) is that the spine allows any page spread to be opened flat and fully. This is an essential attribute of any sketchbook I use and makes scanning pages so much easier, too. Oddly, a prominent black band appears in the gutter of every page spread. At first I thought it was some kind of protective tape to keep pages from tearing at the stitching, but the black band seems to be printed on.
I fanned the book open all the way so that the covers touched – proving that the 360 book is aptly named! For sketchers who require a flat-opening page as I do, this binding is fantastic.
Inside, the paper is smooth enough to make fountain pen users happy. I threw my usual arsenal of sketch materials at the pages, and the only ones that bled through were the paint pen and Sharpie (both expected). The paper’s weight and sizing are not appropriate for wet media – watercolor and water-soluble colored pencil hues lost their vibrancy, and mild buckling is permanent – but most inks, especially brush pens, took to the paper well. I was also pleased by the paper’s opacity. Even the bold, black brush marks do not show through much.
For my test sketches, I used a Tombow Fudenosuke brush pen for the bunny and a Blackwing for the pencil sharpener. The Fudenosuke is one of my juicier brush pens that can feather on some papers, but not here. I prefer a bit more tooth with graphite, but the surface is nonetheless pleasant to use. I like this paper best with brush pens, fountain pens and ballpoint.
My objections are mostly idiosyncratic: I’m not sure what the purpose of that black band in the gutter is, but it’s unnecessarily obtrusive because I enjoy occasionally sketching across the gutter to use the full page spread for larger sketches. It’s also a bit on the heavy side – at 12 ounces, the Graf’Book is about 50 percent heavier than an A5-sized softcover Stillman & Birn Epsilon (which, admittedly, has half the number of pages and costs more, too). I would prefer a Graf’Book half as thick for easier portability. The 360-degree-opening binding, though, is an excellent feature that’s hard to find in any commercial sketchbook.