How To Choose A Sketchbook
Shopping for a sketch book can be like learning a new language. There's so much information on the cover of a sketchbook that it can look like gibberish to the untrained eye. We're here to help you decipher the madness and find the sketchbook to suit your needs.
Deciding what kind of artistic media you'll want to use in your sketchbook will be the first and most important consideration. There exists a sketchbook for every purpose, so take a moment to think about what types of materials you may want to use...
...or perhaps you may want to use a combination of media? If you would like to keep your options wide open then choose a mixed media sketchbook.
The good news is that this first step is pretty straight forward; the front cover of every sketchbook will give you information about what types of media are recommended for that sketchbook.
Size & Format
Sketchbooks come in a huge variety of sizes, shapes and binding styles. Some questions to ask yourself:
- Is this for studio use or field use?
- Are you traveling?
- Do you want the option of removing selected pages from the book?
Size (Surface Area)
The most universal and user-friendly page size would be a 9x12" or a 11x14": small enough to transport (if need be) but large enough to allow for detailed sketches (if need be).
The size of book you choose is completely subjective to your personal artistic style and need which makies it difficult to give general advice about size selection. Fortunately, most companies offer their sketchbooks in a multitude of sizes (ranging from as small as 3x5" to 18x24").
Most sketchbook pages are a rectangle, but some are square. A square format sketchbook is excellent for creating geometric designs such as zentangle or mandalas.
Rectangular books that are bound on the long side are called portrait format, and books bound on the short side are called landscape. There is also a special landscape format which is a long rectangle (usually a 2:1 ratio). When opened horizontally, this format allows the artist capture a panoramic view of the scenery on a single page.
Sketchbooks can be bound in several different ways; each binding offering different advantages. Some sketchbooks will have micro-perforated pages (for easy removal), some have pages that tear out with minimal effort, and some have pages that are not safely removable at all.
- opens easily and lays flat while you work
- pages are often easy to remove
Coil bound books can accommodate a large volume of paper and can have either a hard cover or a soft cover. A hard cover offers durability and protection for the pages within, but you'll spend a little more money on a hard cover. Soft covers on coil bound books often tear away after some time (especially if you're transporting the book around with you)
- often referred to as a sketch pad
- individual pages are glued and secured with tape to create a spine
- pages are meant to be very easy to remove
Tape bound pads are not intended for sketching in directly. In most cases, pages are removed from a tape bound pad prior to doing any artwork.
- sometimes referred to as a cahier, exercise book or field book
- usually contains fewer pages than other sketch books
- lightweight and generally inexpensive
- pages cannot be easily removed without destroying the book
- soft cover only
Staple bound books are essentially a stack of papers folded in half and stapled along the spine. Because of they way they're bound, staple bound books neither lay flat nor close properly and are best described as flimsy.
- a traditionally bound book
- the pages are sewn at the spine
- pages cannot be easily removed without destroying the book
Bookbound sketch books can also accommodate a large volume of paper and can have either a hard cover or a soft cover. Having a hard cover offers lasting protection, however, quality is an important factor. A lower quality hardbound book is reluctant to lay flat (which is very frustrating when the book keeps closing on your hand while you draw).
Before committing to a book, do a quick test by opening the sketchbook and seeing how well it lays open on its own.
Highest Quality example below is the Heinz Jordan Sketchbook - suitable for dry media, pen & ink
Soft cover books are a great travel companion and often have an elastic closure to keep the pages from getting tattered during travel.
Quality & Content
There are certain words that sketchbook manufacturers use to describe the quality of the paper in a sketchbook. These are words you always want to see on your sketchbook: Acid Free or pH-neutral. This means that the paper is lignin free or has been buffered with calcium carbonate to prevent yellowing over time.
Here is a glossary of paper descriptors:
|sketch - studio - medium weight||
heavyweight - premium - deluxe - artist - professional
tooth/toothy - rough - cold pressed
smooth - plate - hot pressed
If you're looking for the finest quality of paper, then look for the highest rag (cotton) content... but expect to see much higher prices on these papers. Most sketchbook papers are a simple tree-based paper but there are also sugar cane, hemp, and synthetic papers available.
Some papers also have recycled content. There is a perception that recycled fibers makes a lesser quality paper, but this isn't necessarily true. Robert Bateman sketchbooks have exceptional quality paper that is 100% recycled, heavyweight, bright white and is also acid free.
If you're looking specifically for recycled and/or sustainable paper then keep your eye out for the letters FSC (or the logo to the right) or the words Forest Stewardship Council Certified; this means that the trees to make the paper were harvested legally, ethically and the area was replanted.
This is the most confusing part for many shoppers. You will have heard words like cover, coverstock, cardstock, text weight... none of these terms apply to artist papers; they all reference papers for mass printing purposes (paper for publishers, printers, and office use). The key descriptor of artist papers is the paper weight. On almost every sketchbook paper weight is expressed in both imperial and metric; in pounds and in grams.
On the cover of a sketchbook poundage can be expressed as lbs or as a # symbol.
(For the millennials out there: # used to be known as a pound sign before Twitter existed.)
Determining a paper's weight in pounds is not as simple as just weighting the paper; it's a bizarre and complicated process. There are a number of variables that factor into it calculating poundage and I can't explain it to you because it's never made sense to me or anyone else I know. The calculation is something like...
"If you have a stack of papers 6" thick, where the volume is the same as your age, and the wind is blowing from the west on a Tuesday, then divide by orange."
(No, not really.)
My point here: when it comes to paper weight, poundage is not exact. If you were to feel the weight of a 100 lb sheet from one paper mill and a 100 lb sheet from another mill, they will very likely feel like different weights (because they probably are). The poundage is variable and should be viewed as more of a guideline than a fact.
Metric paper weight is always exact. The metric measurement is very simple: the paper mill weighs a single sheet (1 m square) in grams and there you have the metric weight.
Grams per square meter is expressed in any of the following ways...
Pages vs. Sheets
This one is sneaky.
A sheet of paper is exactly that; one single piece of paper. The term page refers to one single side of a sheet of paper. If a book says 192 pages, then there are 96 individual sheets of paper in that book. If you're not paying close attention you may think you're getting a killer deal on paper, only to realize you're getting half as much paper as you thought.
Because sheets are intended to be removed (and presumably used on only one side) almost all tape bound pads refer to the paper as sheets, but all other sketchbooks could go either way, so pay close attention.
The Right White
Art papers come in every colour you can think of, including a variety of whites. Papers can be bright white, warm white, cool white, natural white and fluorescent white just to name a few. The preference for a certain white over another one is a personal one. There are no rules as to what white to use for a certain media, however I'll give you cautionary note on scanning: If you are doing a piece that is going to be scanned and converted to a digital image, it's best to use a bright white or fluorescent white paper. Artwork done on a warm or natural white will look sallow and aged once scanned. If you then adjust the light levels to compensate you'll be altering the look of the rest of the artwork and image editing will become an endless frustration.
Brand & Series
If you have found a sketchbook that you love, do your future-self a favor and write the manufacturers name and series information somewhere inside the book. This way if the cover falls off (as they sometimes do) you'll know what it was so you can get it again. Some companies were smart enough to do this for you!
Strathmore's hardcover sketchbooks have a product label that is meant to be removed so they've printed the vital info on the inside cover. So thoughtful!
Dry subject matter though this is, I hope it's been informative and maybe even a little helpful with your next sketchbook purchase! Thanks for joining us!