Sketch books come in many sizes and shapes – the sheer choice out there can sometimes be bewildering, but at the end of the day, what is a sketchbook? At its simplest level, it’s just a plain paper book – so what’s all the fuss about, surely one sketch book is as good as the next?
As a lifelong enthusiast for gorgeous sketchbooks, this is a subject on which I could write at length. Don’t worry, I don’t plan to do that here, since I suspect for anyone other than fellow enthusiasts it would be extremely boring, but I thought it might be helpful to outline some of the factors that might influence your choice of sketchbook, in relation to the alternatives out there.
Of course it goes without saying that as with most things, the choice of sketchbook you make is going to be influenced mainly by what you plan to use it for. So for example, do you want to keep a record or journal that you will refer back to, or are you likely to want to remove the pages? What medium will you mainly be working with? What size do you want? Does it need to be easily portable? Is it intended as a gift? And of course, how much money do you want to spend on it?
Sketchbooks come in all shapes and sizes, from the truly portable, miniature travel journal designed to slip into your pocket, to large A1 size books and pads which are more likely to be used at home or in the studio. The larger books can become quite costly, depending on the quality of paper used,but offer a much larger ‘canvas’ particularly for more complex or finished work.
Weight of Paper
The weight (or thickness) of paper used is dictated partly by what media you intend to use in your sketchbook. For example a thicker (heavier) paper tends to be more expensive and ensures that you can use both sides without the image from one side showing through. It will also stand up much better to the use of water and paint without tearing or buckling. Paper intended for use with wet media will often be described as ‘sized’ meaning that it has an additional coating to strengthen it.
In the metric system, paper weight is measured by ‘gsm’ i.e grams per square metre – the higher the gsm, the thicker the paper. However, the US sometimes uses a different system called Basis Weight which I am unfamiliar with, so for an explanation of it I refer you to the Wikipedia entry.
Whether you choose a gummed block, spiral binding or a bound book for your sketchbook, again depends upon how you plan to use it. The sheets of paper in a gummed block are designed to be taken off and removed, 1 sheet at a time as you use them. They are not intended to remain as a book. At the other end of the scale, proper bound books are not designed to have their individual sheets removed. You can tear a sheet out, but this is likely to make other pages fall out too. These books are best for journals, and artwork which you intend to keep in the book for reference or as a long-term record. They are great for travel journals for example. Spiral bound pads can offer a good compromise between the two in that artwork can be kept and displayed in the book, or removed without damaging the book in any way. They are also usually relatively inexpensive in comparison to bound books, though perhaps not quite so stylish!
Type of Paper
Another vast subject in it’s own right, there are specialist papers for watercolour, oil and acrylic, pastels, pen and ink and markers…. so again, the choice you make is really down to what you plan to use your sketchbook for. The texture, weight and absorbency of the paper you use can help or hinder the artwork created on it. For example, very smooth papers such as Bristol Board are often chosen for work with marker pens or pen and ink, while a rougher ‘toothed’ paper is often preferred for watercolours. The smoothest papers are often described as ‘hot-pressed’ (meaning that the texture is flattened out of it during the manufacturing process). A general good all-rounder is cartridge paper. However even plain white cartridge paper can vary enormously – it might be bright white, or it can be more creamy in colour, and the weight and absorbency can also vary hugely, so if you can, it’s always worth feeling the paper between your fingers first before you buy so that you know exactly what you’re getting.
A further consideration is what the paper is actually made from. So for example, Eco sketchbooks are made entirely from recycled materials, while acid-free paper is designed to be longer lasting – an important consideration if you want the artwork to be anything other than ephemeral.These papers will not rapidly age, yellow and become brittle as the cheapest papers (especially those normally given to children) usually do. Some of the best quality papers are made from cotton rag, while other papers are made from plant materials such as hemp or rice.
Sketchbooks with special coloured and textured papers can make great backgrounds for mixed media, or use with pastels. While travel journals may offer plain or lined paper depending on whether it is going to be purely written or illustrated or alternatively for maximum flexibility a combination of both.
Lets face it there are some drop dead gorgeous sketchbooks out there, but they often don’t come cheap. I have a beautiful hand-made small leather bound sketch book which I was given as a gift. I keep on saving it for something special. Rather like a best dress which never gets worn, it’s in danger of never being used! This is a consideration to keep in mind if you are buying for yourself! It’s also worth considering sturdy sketchbooks with plain covers and good quality paper which you can customise and embellish yourself. That way you will have a sketchbook that is both beautiful and unique.
Other things to consider are whether there is something to hold the book shut (useful for sketchbooks which are frequently used out and about or carried in a bag), or whether there are any additional pockets to hold loose scraps of paper.
At the end of the day I am personally of the firm belief that you can’t have too many sketchbooks, it is after all difficult if not impossible to choose just one that will meet every need, and a variety of sizes, paper types and bindings will probably be needed by most creative types.