Review by Tina Koyama
Maker of the popular pocket-size notebook in a wide variety of designs, Field Notes Brand has given an occasional nod to sketchers and visual thinkers over the years. Although the original Kraft notebook comes with an unruled option, the first product that attempted to look like a sketchbook came out in 2014 – the Arts and Sciences limited edition. In a larger, 7½-by-4¾-inch size, Arts and Sciences offered a unique page ruling: unruled on one side for sketching and either graph or standard ruling on the other.
A couple of years later, the Chicago-based company rocked the notebook world with my (and I think Ana’s) personal favorite, Sweet Tooth, which not only had blank, 70-pound paper – but the paper was brightly colored! I hoarded and happily filled many of those sweet books.
In 2017, the mid-sized Dime Novel limited edition (and later, the longer-term Signature edition) became the first all-unruled notebook with near-white, good paper – the closest to a true sketchbook yet. One year later, the lovely End Papers limited edition offered a unique format, heavy paper, and again one side of the page left unruled for visual entries.
That was the last time we saw an edition that invited drawing. Nearly five years later, it was high time we saw “some proper Sketch Books” from Field Notes, and the latest spring edition is that: Streetscapes. In the same 4 ¾-by-7 ½-inch format as Arts and Sciences, the limited-edition books come in packs of two for $14.95.
In addition to one pack each of the two sets, annual subscribers receive a No. 2 Woodgrain Pencil (not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I’ll just say that the pencil is not my favorite) and a “Big Pink” Graphite Eradicator.
The distinctive covers are more than eye-catching. Line drawings of four major US cities by bestselling coloring book artist Steve McDonald are meant to be colored – by you! If you’re familiar with New York City and Miami (Pack A) or Los Angeles and Chicago (Pack B), you’ll have fun identifying buildings, signs and other landmarks in the scenes. The intricacy of detail is astounding, and the drawings are beautifully colorable: Lots and lots of small, closed spaces waiting for you to fill in.
The inside front and back covers contain the usual Field Notes irreverence plus information about color, the history of coloring books, and facts and figures about the specific city depicted.
The 48-page innards are completely blank, 70-pound, “Ultra White” Mohawk Superfine paper. Three staples hold the books together, which is a big relief. When I’m standing on the sidewalk to sketch, I always fold the side I’m not using to the back. (Most of Field Notes’ perfect-bound editions, which looked attractive, were not well-suited to folding back.) The format is a super-sized variation of the traditional pocket-size book we know and love.
A long-time user of standard-size Field Notes for my daily-carry notetaking, I gave Streetscapes a more thorough workout than I typically would when I review Field Notes. Since it’s a “proper Sketch Book,” I reviewed it the way I would a sketchbook.
Although I’m a veteran sketcher, perhaps surprisingly, I have not used a coloring book since I was probably eight or nine years old. Other than my own DIY abstract coloring pages, adult coloring books have not engaged me, so coloring these covers was a new adventure. As a west coaster, I chose L.A. for my first try (I love the Hollywood sign).
Noting that Field Notes started carrying Blackwing Colors colored pencils in support of this release, I pulled out my own set of 12. At first the cover stock’s slightly waxy-feeling surface was strange to color on, but I got into it after a while, and the colors blended nicely. I loved coloring all those trees! For the Hollywood sign and Field Notes logo, I used a red Marvy Le Pen Flex Brush Pen, which also took to the paper well.
Because of that waxy-ish surface, I questioned whether the covers would take to wet media. For the second test, I picked NYC featuring the Flatiron Building. I was too lazy to color in all those windows (and I call myself an urban sketcher??), so I used a dark ultramarine Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle watercolor pencil to color only the shaded sides of the buildings. When I used a waterbrush to activate the pigment, the cover stock took the water just fine. No warping is evident. I didn’t try watercolors, but I’m sure they would be fine, too.
Now came the all-important innards. First, I ran through a test page of various media. As expected, the Staedtler Lumocolor Permanent Marker bled through badly. The Sharpie came through at points where I paused the pen. Applying water to the water-soluble materials caused a bit of bleed-through.
My first semi-wet media test sketch of a man’s profile (reference photo by Earthsworld) was done with a Marvy Le Pen Flex Brush Pen. I used a little water in and under his ear, which bled through a bit. (If you’re curious about that “righty” note, it’s because this lefty has been practicing drawing with her right hand as an expression of solidarity with a sketcher friend who has had surgery on his dominant hand’s shoulder. I figure it’s always good to keep both hands drawing, just in case.)
Next, I took my juicy Sailor Naginata Fude de Mannen fountain pen loaded with Platinum Carbon Black ink and a Streetscape out for a walk. I expected to see more bleeding from that juiciest of nibs, but nothing came through.
Although I wouldn’t put a lot of water on this paper, I’m not compelled to, since dry media are where this stock really shines. Not too smooth yet also not too toothy, it’s a beautiful surface for graphite, colored pencils and even ballpoint.
People who “can’t draw” and don’t think of themselves as “artists” would still find these books useful for diagrams, mind mapping, sketchnoting and other forms of visual thinking. The ample real estate encourages big ideas. And if everyone would keep a set of colored pencils or markers on their desk, I bet they couldn’t resist coloring in a few trees or windows while trying to stay awake in Zoom meetings. (You’re welcome.)
If Streetscapes had been billed a full-service sketchbook, I would have frowned on the paper’s sizing, which isn’t ideal for wet media. But as a Sketch Book for drawing fire hydrants on my walk, making portraits of strangers and squirrels, and coloring the Hollywood Hills, it is as “proper” as I need it to be. Well done, Field Notes. (The only thing missing from this release is a set of Blackwing Colors co-branded with the Field Notes logo. I would have easily bought another set of those pencils!)