I recently realized I had accumulated quite a stack of sketchbooks to review. I was not sure the best way to present them so I decided to just review them altogether. There are EIGHT different sketchbooks from seven different companies and include different types of paper, binding methods, number of pages, price points and other variables.
Why review them together? Because when I am picking out sketchbooks, I am usually looking for some key features regardless of other variables. Specifically, I look for paper durable enough to withstand a variety of pen, ink and water tools (watercolor markers, some light watercolor, etc).
Will I reject a sketchbook if it doesn’t an elastic closure or gusseted pocket in the back? No. Am I less likely to buy a notebook again if it doesn’t lay flat? Maybe. Will I abandon or trash a sketchbook with crappy paper? Yes. Everytime.
I use sketchbooks like other people might use a regular notebook — except instead of random ideas written out, I will sketch out thumbnails for a potential new product, practice lettering and calligraphy, paint my lunch or a sleeping cat, write notes, test out new inks, glue down some random bits, etc. This means good paper is paramount. A lay flat binding is highly advantageous but if the binding is good (Smyth sewn or the like) then I can manhandle it until is does lay flat.
So, with these specifications, I decided to go ahead and include all EIGHT sketchbooks I currently have and use the same criteria to tests and compare:
- fountain pen ink
- watercolor test
- various writing pens
The notebooks I tested are as follows:
|Stillman & Bern Alpha
|90×139 mm (3.5×5.5”)
|92 pages (46 sheets)
|Stillman & Bern Delta
|90×139 mm (3.5×5.5”)
|52 pages (26 sheets)
|Leuchtturm 1917 Sketchbook
|92×150 mm (A6)
|96 page (48 sheets)
|Two ribbon bookmarks, elastic closure, guested pocket
|70 pages (35 sheets)
|Elastic, gusseted pock front & back, ribbon bookmark, notebook canoe removed and replaced, included inktober info
|Viviva Colors Cotton
|40 pages (20 sheets)
|Flat pocket in back cover (2021 Inktober Edition), included inktober info
|30 pages (60 sheets)
|Pencil loop, elastic closure
|Maruman Soho Sketch
|Glue bound pad
|203×235 mm (8×9.25”)
|112 pages (56 sheets)
|100lb (approx 160gsm)
|Elastic closure, gusseted pocket, ribbon bookmark
The chart above is organized by size with the smallest A6 (3.5×5.5″) books first then A5, B5 and the largest at 8×9.25″. The chart lists most sketchbooks by their European sizes as I suspect most readers are fairly familiar with A5 size (roughly 5.5×8.5″ for those unfamiliar) and A6 is essentially half the size of an A5.
The paper weights vary from 96gsm all the way up to 300gsm but just because a paper is very heavy weight did not mean it was better. The papers also had different textures as well, from very smooth to very rough.
In terms of color, the paper color is also an array from a bright white to a deep ivory.
The sketchbooks I tested also had an array of binding and cover options. What this allowed me to do is establish that I don’t really care about the binding or the cover material as long as the paper is good and the overall sketchbook is durable. I prefer a hard- or softbound book over the spiral or pad. I find that pads do not have durable enough covers and thee pages may fall out when I least expect it. Though pads do make it easy to remove pages for hanging, scanning or burning, whichever the case may be. Hard or softbound sketch books, when bound well, can bee used “across the fold” for a larger format that is harder to do with a spiral bound. Spiral bound are the easiest to fold open but the rings can get in the way for some people.
So, let’s cut to the “which is your favorite.” Here is my ranking:
- Stillman & Birn Alpha & Delta (tied)
- Shinola Sketchbook
- Clairefontaine Goldline
- Maruman Sketch
- Leuchtturm 1917 Sketchbook
- Viviva Cotton A5 & Mossery Sketchbook (NO!)
1 & 2. Stillman & Birn
I have always preferred the S&B sketchbooks since they first appeared on the scene several years ago. Their range of sizes, paper weights and colors and cover options make them probably the best sketchbook choice in the US. Whether S&B are as readily available outside the US, I am less certain. However, if you are a US resident, I recommend trying S&B for yourself. I have always favored the Alpha for its slightly toothy paper and value but the Delta is with its extra thick paper makes it an equally good option. Don’t fear the page-to-price difference between S&B’s 150gsm paper and 270gsm knowing the heavier stock will easily allow use of both sides of the sheet with heavy coverage where the 150gsm might have some show through and require using only one side of the paper. Once you’ve decided if you want smooth or toothy, white or ivory, the hardest decision is what size and binding to choose. I normally go for A5 sized sketchbooks but with these sketchbooks for review I chose the smaller, pocketable A6-ish (3.5×5.5″) and I have really enjoyed them. They are less noticeable if you like sketching in public and require simplifying a sketch to its essence to fit on such a small space.
The photo above shows the color different of the paper stocks. The Delta on the left is warmer and the Alpha is a bright white.
The fountain pen ink tests on the Alpha and Delta paper show the color and textural differences. I have only included the reverse image of the Alpha paper. The Delta paper reverse images are actually the watercolor swatch samples — the paper was so opaque, I could easily use both sides without ANY show through.
Again, for the writing samples, I am showing both the Delta and Alpha paper and the reverse of the Alpha paper. The Delta was so opaque, there was no show through and I continued using the reverse side of the paper for the next test.
Finally, the watercolor tests on the Delta and Alpha paper plus the back of the Alpha paper. The texture is visible on the Delta paper (top) and the granulation of the watercolor paint is more visible on the Alpha.
3. Shinola Sketchbook
My second pick in the Shinola Sketchbook. Where the S&B sketchbooks were small and pocketable, the Shinola is the largest sketchbook in this review.
I find the whole idea of the Shinola brand to be a bit pretentious but, damn if the sketchbook isn’t worth the hype. The exterior is minimal, the overall construction is sturdy and includes all the “extras” that make it feel as much like a notebook as a sketchbook and the paper is aces.
The downside of the Shinola sketchbook is, of course, the price. It’s one of the most expensive notebooks I reviewed (a comparable S&B would be the 7×10″ spiral bound books that retail for $24.95 however the S&B is a spiralbound not hardcover) and it is only available in only one size with either a black or orange cover.
Despite preferring a smaller sketchbook, the Shinola turns out to be a pleasing size — not TOO big after all.
Above is the front and back of the fountain pen ink tests on the Shinola Sketchbook paper. The dip pen ink seems to hold up pretty well and the swash of color is clean and true-to-color. The paper was smooth enough not to catch the nib and though there is a little waffling of the paper from the water, there is almost no bleed through.
The watercolor swatches on the Shinola sketchbook paper are smooth and show some granulation of the pain. The violet even shows a bit of sheening. In other ink experiments I didn’t get a lot of evidence of sheening but the sizing on the paper differs a bit from one side to the other so YMMV.
There was a little bleed through with the watercolor paint but not terrible.
With the writing samples, the ink and line weight fidelity is good and there is very little show through on the reverse side of the paper.
#4 Clairefontaine Goldline
Next in my faves is the Clairefontaine Goldline. It would have rated higher than the Shinola if it weren’t harder to find in the US and to find alternate sizes. The horizontal A5 format is designed to cater to nature sketchers with the wide page folios but, for someone like me who is more likely to be drawing in a coffeeshop, airplane or on the couch, the long format is a bit unwieldy for me. However, the paper is great. I appreciate the effort to add extras but the elastic loop only holds a pencil, its not wide enough for pens. For UK and European readers, the Clairefontaine Goldline might be a great option for you. On the Clairefontaine website, there are six sizes available plus an assortment of other sketchbooks and pads to try.
The smooth paper in the Clairefontaine Goldline took fountain pen ink really well. The linework is crisp and clean. There was NO show through to the back of the paper.
Watercolor on the Goldline is vivid and there was very little buckling of the paper after all the water application — bonus!
Writing samples were crisp and clean. The paper took all the ink well and did not feather or absorb the ink. Some of the other papers showed some ink spread but the Goldline kept fine lines fine and the brush pen work smooth and clean.
The Goldline really is a gold standard in paper quality. I am not crazy about the natural, linen-like textured fabric cover but I tend to be messy so easy-to-clean black sketchbooks are my preference. Maybe it was years of art school and the classic black sketchbook but I feel like everything else is trying too hard.
#5 Maruman Soho Sketch (B5)
At #4 is the Maruman Soho Sketch. This paper is super smooth and takes fountain pen ink, markers and other pens really well. Yes, there is more bleed through with this paper than any of the others I recommend but the value of 100 easy-to-tear out pad means that, for the price, its a good value. It’s also the thinnest, smoothest paper so the likelihood of bleed or show through was likely to be higher.
If you’re looking for a hardcover “notebook-style” sketchbook, this is definitely going to be aesthetically underwhelming. However, if your goal is to “play” with fountain pen ink, then I would recommend the Maruman Soho Sketch just be sure to get the 96gsm paper, not the 126gsm which is toothier.
The tapebound binding lays flat but doesn’t seem particular durable for carrying around in a backpack for daily use. On a desk though, it would be fine for regular use.
Just looks at how the dip pen and ink splash performed on the Maruman paper! For fountain pen ink play, the Maruman Soho Sketch is great. There is definitely bleed through with the paper but with 100 sheets per pad, only being able to use one side of the sheet is okay.
With the watercolor test, the Soho paper got a little waffly/crinkly, so I would definitely recommend this paper to ink art and doodling rather than heavy applications of watercolor.
The back of the watercolor test shows how much of the paint bleeds through.
The writing samples show how “ink friendly” the Maruman Soho Sketchbook is.
Again, there is a little show through on the back side of the paper but its most obvious where water was added and where the heaviest brush pen was used.
This close-up shows just how crisp the paper behaves with ink.
#6 Leuchtturm 1917 Sketchbook
Last is my recommendation is the Leuchtturm 1917 Sketchbook. The paper is better quality than the comparable Moleskine Sketchbook (not to be confused with the Moleskine Watercolor sketchbook which features toothier paper). The Leuchtturm is a brighter white than the Moleskine Sketchbook and doesn’t have a waxy coated feel when applying various media to it. The Leuchtturm 1917 Sketchbook has two ribbon bookmarks like their regular notebooks but I’m not sure that’s really necessary for a sketchbook. It handles most pen well and fountain pen ink when used traditionally.
Once you start trying to apply fountain pen ink like watercolor or use a dip nib, things start to get a little messy. The bleed or showthrough isn’t terrible so if you’re wanting a little “play” sketchbook that’s in line with their regular paper notebooks, then this is a good option.
There’s some feathering with the dip pen that’s interesting but not the sort of results I was expecting. On the reverse, there is a little bit of bleed through of the ink.
For a smooth stock, the watercolor applied fairly well with just a little bit of bleed through on the back.
Pen tests are really where the Leuchtturm sketchbook paper performed best. The only place where I got any bleed through was where I applied water to the marker. I feel like the Leuchtturm Sketchbook might be a good option for someone who wants to do a highly decorated bullet journal.
The line quality maintained fidelity though there is an unusual “salty” look to the marker ink when I zoomed in. While it looks a little odd in the macro view, the ink stayed on the paper, not IN the paper.
When compared dollar-for-dollar, the Stillman & Birn sketchbooks are a better value and better paper. You might be losing a fancy, gusseted pocket and two ribbon bookmarks trading the Leuchtturm for an S&B sketchbook but you’d be gaining better paper.
The two sketchbooks I would not recommend are the Mossery Sketchbook and the Viviva Colors A5 Cotton. Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend the Mossery to ANYONE. The Mossery Sketchbook, despite listing 224gsm mixed media paper, is not good for almost all the tools I tried. If you’re a pencil sketcher, than the Mossery might be fine but seriously… who uses only pencil?
All the pen ink looked soft and sort-of squishy. This paper behaved like cheap office copy paper despite being very heavyweight.
After seeing all the other marker close-ups, its clear that the Mossery paper was not up for the challenge of a bullet tip marker. The Pentel Touch is not a fancy tool, its the Japanese equivalent of a PaperMate Flair pen. I feel like a sketchbook that touts ON THE COVER that it is “suitable for pencil, pastel, charcoal, watercolor, gouache and ink” should actually be suitable for those tools. Sadly, the Mossery is NOT suitable for anything but pencil really.
The fountain pen ink test on Mossery showed a lot of feathering and showed unusual color shifts almost like a chromotography test.
The bleed through on the back of the Mosssery paper is serious.
Watercolor inks “sunk” into the Mossery paper and could not be moved like other papers designed for watercolor where it’s much easier to add more water and scoot the paint or ink around. The burgundy and Persian swatches show distinct paint strokes like a wet-on-dry painting technique despite being done wet at the same time. I’d describe this paper as “absorbent like toilet paper”. Paper designed for inks and watercolor have a little sizing on the paper to keep the inks and paint “up” on the paper and not absorbed into the fibers (the Goldline sketchbook is a good example of this).
The Mossery had the worst bleed through but I couldn’t get past the weird absorbency of the paper. It was practically SUCKING the paint from my brush.
On the plus side, the Mossery is spiral bound and the interior notebook can be replaced. There are two gusseted pockets and a ribbon bookmark built into the cover. However, none of this is enough to get me to recommend the Mossery Sketchbook. If you buy one or already have one, I would recommend using it for collage rather than using the paper for any kind of ink or water-based media. I might save the cover and make a custom Col-o-ring notebook to slip into the cover. Because the cover is pretty but the paper — sheesh!
And finally, the Viviva Colors A5 Cotton is the other sketchbook I would not recommend. The paper texture is extremely textured and a very dark ivory color. If color and ink fidelity is important to you, this paper is NOT for you. The rough surface creates a very uneven surface for pencils, fine tipped pens and creates rough edges when using wet media like watercolor or brush pens.
The pocket in the back is not gusseted. This flat pocket is difficult to use. I almost would have preferred no pocket to unusable pocket.
The cover is not attached to the paper block, just the back of the block is attached to the cover. Though the paper looks to have a sewn binding, there is a lot of glue in the binding so it is difficult to fold the pages back completely without creasing the paper at the edge of the binding tape.
The color fidelity of the watercolors, despite the warm white paper color is good and if you like cold press paper for watercolor, then this might appeal to you. For most casual artists, this paper is too rough for general use though. Viviva does sell another sketchbook featuring smooth paper that might be a better option for most folks.
The ink from pens did not bleed on the paper but the bumpy surface made my handwriting look a bit shaky. It’s most notable in the Acroball writing. When water was added, there was some weird color haloing with the “permanent” inks.
It’s quite noticeable how rough the surface of the paper is when you see the ink swatch when compared to other papers sampled here. The dip pen ink didn’t feather but it was scratchy trying to use it on paper this rough.
When viewed from the back of the sheet, there was no noticeable bleed through on the Viviva Colors paper.
If you scrolled through all eight sketchbook reviews and all 64 photos, give yourself pat on the back then go out and buy yourself a Stillman & Birn sketchbook. Even if you don’t buy an Alpha or Delta version, its unlikely that you will be disappointed in the quality of the S&B sketchbooks and you can get on with focussing on your ideas, drawings and projects and think less about your sketchbook.