Are you inspired by the sketchbooks of your favourite artists? Maybe flip-throughs of gorgeous coloured pages and art notes have encouraged you to start a sketchbook of your own. Choose a sketchbook or art journal with this guide to finding the right sketchbook for your art practise.
What is a sketchbook?
A sketchbook can be many things and there is no right or bad way to use one. It can be a place for improving your skill, experimenting, or just swatching paint colours. Fill it with notes about your latest art or sketches in or out of the house. It might be a place where you complete small drawings or paintings. Perhaps it will be a visual journal of your art and your life.
Why use a sketchbook?
Sketchbooks are a valuable tool in your art supplies. Having a place to try ideas, make mistakes and learn is essential. Leaving my learning process to happen only on canvas would be very expensive. My sketchbooks are a place to develop my thoughts and ideas on a smaller and more affordable scale.
There are lots of benefits. A collection of books that record your progress is a place to go when you’re feeling stuck or having a bad art week. Reflect on your past work and see how far you’ve come or get inspired by an idea you didn’t follow up.
Many people find adding journaling to their books helpful. It can be a private place to express themselves that is not shared with others, including on social media or blogs. I have a collection of Moleskine books combining expressive art and journaling. They are very private and not for sharing anywhere. Create your own private sketchbook or journal that’s expressive and personal.
There are no limits. Choosing a theme or purpose can be helpful if you’re starting out and feeling overwhelmed by the possibilities. Use your sketchbook in a way that suits you, your art and your life.
Choose a sketchbook
You might have different books for different things or have a specific sketchbook idea in mind. I would choose something small and light just for taking to sketch at the beach for example. But on my art table I can have a larger book with heavier paper. There’s some trial and error here too. Try different brands, sizes and styles until you discover ones you love. Here’s what I think about when choosing a sketchbook.
The paper is surely the most important part and I need paper suitable for my materials. If I’m sketching in pen or pencil at the beach, thin pages might be perfect. When I’m swatching acrylics at my table, trying some collage or playing with watercolour I’m going to need something heavier to support the wet paint.
Getting clear on what you need really helps. If you’re a watercolour artist, get a book with watercolour paper. Think about the texture of the paper if you love to use charcoal, pencils or pastels. Mixed media artists who love to throw anything and everything at a sketchbook might choose something heavyweight.
I like to find a middle of the road option. A wet strength cartridge paper is not very heavy but can take acrylic without too much water, some collage or some acrylic ink. Concertina sketchbooks can be double layered so I can be bold with my paint and not worry too much.
I use a lot of sketchbooks and my budget doesn’t stretch to premium books so I buy what I can afford. I don’t worry about them looking perfect and love them more when they are tatty with wrinkled pages. Do what works for you.
Types of paper
Here are some examples of sketchbook papers I’ve tried. The gsm (grams per metre) helps you determine the weight and thickness of the papers. The higher the number, the heavier the paper.
Watercolour paper is widely available from low cost options to beautifully handmade books. It’s usually 300 gsm (140lbs) and is available in different textures.
Blank pocket journals designed for note taking are great for outdoor sketching in pencil or pen. Moleskine pocket cahiers have lovely thin pages at 70gsm.
Cartridge papers are best for pencil, charcoal and similar. They have a bit of texture and will buckle with water. However, I’ve found an extra strength cartridge paper that I love. It’s 140 gsm and can stand some acrylic. The concertina sketchbooks are the same but double layered. You can find details of these sketchbooks here.
Mixed media paper is heavy and thick and designed for all the things you can throw at it. Daler Rowney produce 250gsm (169lbs) spiral bound pads that I’ve used with heavy paint, stitching and collage without any warping at all.
Khadi paper is a cotton rag paper that has a unique texture and flexibility. It’s available in a range of weights and sizes including sketchbooks. I find it won’t take a lot of water without warping and has a tendency to tear. Some artists and printmakers love it. The sketchbook I have is 210 gsm.
Small is good if you’re planning on carrying your sketchbook with you. I like an A5 size here in the UK. It’s big enough to be useful but small enough to fit in my bag on a walk to the beach. I’ve gone as big as A3 but this didn’t suit me on my small table. It was a wonderful space to play in once I’d gained some confidence though.
Jet pens have an excellent guide to international paper sizes.
Heavy sketchbooks can be many pages with hardback covers and great for archiving your work. They are also heavy to store, move and carry around. Will you want to carry your sketchbook with you?
The binding is lower down my list of priorities but sometimes it really matters. If I’m planning on producing finished work in a sketchbook or want to use a double spread to work on, the binding is important. Some sewn bindings will open flat. The Moleskine sketchbooks have a good reputation for this and I like the watercolour sketchbooks.
Spiral notebooks have their pros and cons. I love that I can clip the paper edge and take a page out. The binding allows for heavy collage and mixed media work when closed. But they are frustrating to store with those wide spirals on a shelf or in a box. So I rarely buy them but others love them. Give one a try and see how it works for you.
Choose a style of sketchbook that suits you. You might have to try a few before you find one that fits. I have favourites for different things. I love a 10″ square sketchbook for my art table, a lightweight pocket cahier for sketching at the beach and concertina books for playing with colour and mark making.
Choose a format that excites you from square to landscape or concertina and try different styles for different ideas.
Whatever your budget there are sketchbooks for you. If watercolour paper is out of your budget buy what you can afford and paint anyway. I like to buy during special offers and rarely buy premium quality books. Affordable options are available. Head to your local art supply store for offers, check student supplies or stationery shops.
If it’s your first sketchbook buy what helps you get started. Do you want something special that you will give lots of attention to or something cheaper that you won’t be afraid to make a mess in?
I bought my first sketchbooks on sale in a local office stationery store. They weren’t my favourites but it was enough to get me started and they helped me to figure out what size and format I liked.
Where to buy a sketchbook
I try to shop local when I can but I’m lucky to live in a small city with plenty of shops. Seeing the sketchbooks is helpful and being able to check the weight and the texture of the paper can help me to choose.
Shopping online is convenient and a wide range of sketchbooks is available for delivery to your door. Many local suppliers offer ordering online too.
Seawhite of Brighton is an art supplier local to me who make a range of affordable art supplies. Their sketchbooks are now widely available. I have no affiliation with them but they are what I buy and use regularly. Read more about my favourite art supplies.
Choose your sketchbook and get started
Now you’ve chosen your sketchbook, gather your supplies and get started. If you find the sketchbook you’ve chosen doesn’t work for you, don’t worry. It’s a not a waste to discover this. The paper can be put to use in other ways if necessary and you can look for something that suits you better. If the first page feels hard, I promise it gets easier. Don’t worry about making a beautiful page. Just swatch some of your paint onto the first page to start filling your sketchbook.
Read the next article in this sketchbook series, How to start a new sketchbook.