How To Choose A Sketchbook by Jess Greenleaf

How To Choose A Sketchbook

Think of your sketchbook as your second brain.  It's a safe place where you get to work through ideas, play with new techniques, experiment with new art supplies, and think about new subjects.

Regularly working in a sketchbook is an integral part of the creative process, and one of the best ways to find your own authentic creative voice.

But which sketchbook to choose?  With the thunderous abundance of choices on the market, it can seem like a difficult proposition to wade through to the one that's just right for you.


How To Choose A Sketchbook Greenleaf & Blueberry Jess Greenleaf Artist Quality Sketchbook

A stack of a various sketchbooks I have used over the years.


At the beginning of this year, I went on a sketchbook odyssey of sorts.  I wanted to find the perfect match for my style and methods.  I poured over different offerings online, and visited art shops all over the country.  I touched, felt, smelled, and generally sized up every sketchbook I could find.  

In this post, I'm going to share with you what I learned, how I determined which sketchbook was right for me, and ultimately which one I chose.

The best place to start your search is with yourself.  Determine the characteristics in a sketchbook that are the most important to you:


Characteristics of A Sketchbook

Greenleaf & Blueberry

A handmade sketchbook I found in a local bookshop.  Although I had not used a sketchbook from this maker before, it was the dimensions I generally use, and the paper felt similar to what I am normally drawn to.  As a result of selecting and using this sketchbook, I was able to stay in the zone of what is useful for my work, but experience a new paper type, new maker, and new binding.


1)  Size  

Start with size.  How big or small do you like to work?  And don't think about what size you think you should be working with - instead, think about what size inspires you.  Also, take into account the practicality of size.  Where do you usually work?  Do you like to carry your sketchbook with you?  Think about what size of sketchbook will fit in your pocket, backpack, purse - or wherever you prefer to carry your sketchbook when you're on the move.



While switching up sketchbook sizes can be lots of fun and a nice way to shake things up, the satisfaction of a stack of used sketchbooks all of the same size and make should not be underestimated!


2) Orientation

The orientation of your sketchbook refers most specifically to the length of the binding.  A sketchbook with a portrait orientation means the sketchbook is positioned vertically when it is open, with the binding running the length of the sketchbook.  A landscape orientation means the sketchbook is positioned horizontally when it is open, with the binding running the width of the sketchbook.  Landscape sketchbooks are extra long and skinny when they are open - perfect for stretching horizons.  Of course, you may even prefer a square instead.  Think about how you position your hands and supplies, and what your compositions most often demand.


Landscape Orientation

This is an example of landscape orientation.  The binding runs along the shorter edge, while it runs along the longer edges on portrait orientation.


3)  Paper

The paper is the real substance of your sketchbook, and can be broken down into further different categories.


Different Paper Types

A stack of different torn paper scraps.  Selecting a sketchbook with a type of paper you are not familiar with is a great way to expand your creative horizons and get to know a new type of paper.  By using through a whole sketchbook of it, you will have a very good idea about whether you like it, if it works for your painting techniques, and what it can offer your work.  

-  Media.  What kind of media will you generally be using?  If you plan to use pencils and pens, then a sketching paper will probably be right for you.  If you  plan to use light wet media such as marker, ink, or some watercolor, look for a mixed media paper.  If you will primarily be working in watercolors, including using wash techniques, you will probably want to opt for watercolor paper.

-  Weight.  Standard watercolor paper is generally 140 lb. paper.  This means it can take a lot of water without buckling or rippling, though in sketchbook format (and thus un-stretched paper) it will be unavoidable at times.  The lightest watercolor paper you can generally find is 90 lb.  Anything lighter is best suited for light mixed media and sketching.  Think of it this way:  the more aqueous the media you plan to use, the thicker the paper you will need.  However, keep in mind that pen and ink can be quite juicy and easily absorbed into the paper fibers.  If your paper is too thin, you will just set yourself up for disappointment when the ink soaks through to the back of the page and limits how many page faces you can use.

-  Finish.  Think texture here.  For watercolor paper especially, there are different finishes: hot pressed (smooth texture), cold pressed (moderate texture), and rough (you guessed it: highly textured), respectively.  But every paper maker will have a slightly different finish.  Paper finish will determine, to an extent, how your paints will look when dry - the more textured the paper, the more textured your paints - especially if you are using paints made with natural pigments (which tend to have larger pigment particle sized and more variety of pigment particle size).  The larger pigment particles weigh more than the smaller ones, and will therefore settle into the deeper valleys of the textured paper, creating a more granulated appearance.  Also, think about whether you plan to use pencil or ink.  More textured paper can eat through fine multiliner pens and have you sharpening your pencil constantly.  Hot pressed watercolor paper is an excellent solution for those that enjoy working with watercolor, pencil, and ink - though you will be hard-pressed to find it in a sketchbook.

-  Color.  Increasingly, there is a wide variety of color options on the market when it comes to the paper in your sketchbook.  You can think beyond white if you so desire.  Consider the supplies you plan to use.  White gel pens, pastels, white watercolor, or gouache show up brilliantly on darker or colored papers.  Just keep in mind that when you change the color of your paper, you are shifting the value scale of your composition.


4)  Cover

The covers of your sketchbook come into play when you factor in durability and function.  Will you be using your sketchbook in your lap, and therefore need the covers of your sketchbook to function as a hard surface on which to work?  Do you like to fold your sketchbook cover to cover, and therefore prefer a spiral binding?  Do you transport your sketchbook in a role, need it to fit in your back pocket, or otherwise need a more flexible cover?  The finish, or surface, is also worth considering too.  Leather, cloth, and paper all wear and weather differently.


5)  Binding

This is how the pages are held together.  Many sketchbooks are sewn together - some more tightly than others, which can influence whether it lies flat or wants to close up on you.  Some people will prefer a spiral binding, which always lies flat, but can get damaged when packed and get in the way of your hand when drawing or painting.  The handmade market offers a wide variety of decorative stitches, which can be very pretty, but sometimes fragile.  


Spiral Bound Sketchbook

A spiral-bound sketchbook that I carried some years ago.  I find that the spiral binding gets in my way less with a landscape orientation.


5)  Source

Every purchase you make is a vote with your dollars.  It is worth considering which kinds of companies you wish to support - from where you purchase your sketchbook to who makes it.  There are mass-produced sketchbooks available at all the big box stores, and there are many independent makers crafting sketchbooks by hand, with plenty of mid-sized companies in the middle.  If you don't know where to start, head to your local independent art shop.  They will have a wide variety available for you to peruse and a knowledgeable staff to help explain and answer your questions - and maybe even some demos for you to test.


6)  Availability

Once you have figured out which sketchbook is a perfect fit for you, you will probably want to be able to purchase it again after you have used through your first one.  If you are purchasing from a larger brand, this won't be a problem.  If you opt to give your business to an independent maker, you may want to check in with them about the availability of your new favorite sketchbook to ensure that you will be able to re-order.  Most makers would be thrilled to have a standing order for any of their goods.


7)  Price

Many people balk at the prices of sketchbooks made with quality materials.  It is very important to remember: you get what you pay for.  100%.  However, I am absolutely not trying to shame you in to spending a fortune.  Not at all.  Price is just another characteristic that needs to fit in to your consideration for choosing the sketchbook that is right for you.  Most of the time, your sketchbook is for you to practice - not for finished work.  On one hand, working the same paper that you will be using for your finished work is excellent practice for mastering paint behavior and brush technique - you will know exactly what to expect as you dive into a painting.  On the other hand, plenty of artists feel too inhibited by the nice materials to truly experiment freely.  Nice materials can create pressure.  Also, what is the rate at which you go through sketchbooks?  That may affect what price you are comfortable with paying each time you purchase a new one.

Once you have determined which specific characteristics you prefer and what your budget is, you will more quickly be able to assess the different sketchbooks available on the market.  Most commonly available sketchbooks fall into 5 main types:


General Types of Sketchbooks


There are so many variables when it comes to sketchbooks, that when we began hand-making our own line of sketchbooks in-house, it was difficult not to get carried away with different options!  


1)  Watercolor vs. Sketch - Most sketchbooks are either for sketching or for watercolor and will be clearly marked.  Make sure to get the correct type.  You will only encounter disappointment and waste your money if you try to turn one type into the other.

2)  Brand Name - These are generally mass-produced and widely available both in stores and online for moderate to inexpensive prices.  Each brand will have a variety of offerings.  One brand may have the size and paper type you want, but not the orientation or cover type.  Finding a brand that offers a sketchbook that checks all of your boxes can be challenging!

3)  Hand-Bound - Available from independent makers and craftspeople.  Usually made by hand with superior quality materials.  You can generally count on ethical working conditions and responsible material sourcing.  An internet search will usually turn up a handful of these with perhaps some additional sleuthing necessary.  

4)  Folding / Accordion - These are sketchbooks with pages that connect to one another so that the sketchbook will unfold to one piece of paper with covers attached.  This type of sketchbook can be an interesting way to get out of your comfort zone and try something new.  These are generally available in just one paper type.


How To Choose A Sketchbook Folding Sketchbook Accordion Sketchbook Japanese Sketchbook Jess Greenleaf Custom Handmade Sketchbook with Arches watercolor paper
A G&B field sketchbook, accordion style.


5)  Custom Solution - You've looked and looked and found nothing that fits your search parameters or gets your creative juices flowing?  It may be time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.  Making your own sketchbook can be hugely satisfying, and it doesn't have to fit any mold - only yours.  However, if you are imagining creating a beautifully bound sketchbook, be aware that bookbinding is a complex craft unto itself and you should be prepared to make a time and material investment.  Another option is to reach out to a craftsperson and commission the sketchbook of your dreams.  You will likely be delighted with the result.


My Sketchbook Search Results 

So which kind of sketchbook did I finally opt for after my exhaustive search?  First I'll share what features I was looking for:

  • 90lb. Hot Pressed artist quality watercolor paper 
  • Pocket sized
  • Landscape orientation
  • Semi-hard bound (flexible enough to pack in a tight space, but sturdy enough to use on my lap)

To satisfy this specific list of features, I opted for the custom route.  I found that nothing on the market quite matched my search parameters.  I have enjoyed bookbinding for many years, so I dove into a corner of our studios to stitch up a sketchbook that matched my specifications.  

However, I enjoy switching up different features and use different sketchbooks for different purposes.  I use a custom-made sketchbook for some work, and I use a selection of more mass-manufactured options for other applications.

Over the years my rotation has included:

Midori Travelers Notebook with Sketch Paper insert (purchased from Two Hands Paperie)  The lighter weight paper feels less precious to me, so I feel more at liberty to try new things.  I love the durable, flexible leather cover, the unusual dimension, and the ease with which I can replace and customize the pages inside.  This is the sketchbook where anything goes.  

- Greenleaf & Blueberry Handmade Sketchbook with Arches watercolor paper (made by hand in the G&B studios)  This is where I take ideas for a more serious, studied spin before they turn into a finished painting.  Working on Aches paper gives me a better sense of how the paint will behave.  The durable canvas cover, flexible covers, and closed binding allow me to take this book where I travel, while still protecting the pages inside.

- Greenleaf & Blueberry Accordion-Style Sketchbook with Arches watercolor paper (made by hand in the G&B studios)  This is where I test our colors and experiment with new brush techniques.  The paper is top-notch, but since the page faces don't proceed in a normal sequence there is an informality that helps keep things casual.

- Stillman & Bern Epsilon Portrait Soft Cover.  I use this sketchbook particularly for working on sketches and paintings of masterworks so that I can learn from them.  The paper is thick and smooth but has a nice tooth to it, and the sketchbook itself is nicely durable without being oppressively heavy.  I feel comfortable learning and playing in it.

- Shinola Sketchbook.  I selected this sketchbook as my sketch journal, in the style of Samantha Dion Baker's work, to document and illustrate my life at home with my family.  The Shinola sketchbook only comes in one size in either black or orange.  It is wonderful for light watercolor sketches and writing.

- Hahnemühle Watercolor Book (wood pulp) & 100% Cotton Watercolor Book.  I enjoy using the Hahnemühle Watercolor Book for my thirty day projects and the 100% Cotton Watercolor Book for studies that require more development, such as botanical studies.  These sketchbooks are top quality while still being affordable.  One of my favorites!

How To Choose A Sketchbook Custom Handbound Sketchbook Jess Greenleaf & Blueberry
A few custom sketchbooks I've made for myself over the years.  These were made using spare canvas and paper scraps.  

Now that you have determined which characteristics you're after and which type of sketchbook you'd like to find, it's time to shop.  Here is a list of sketchbook companies and makers that I enjoy, in addition to the ones listed above.


Sketchbook Recommendations

1)  Stillman & Birn Archival Sketchbooks - Excellent quality, shocking variety.  Their sketchbooks come in every size, orientation, cover option (soft, hard, spiral), with tons of different paper options (seriously, check out their paper specs).  Founded in NYC.

2)  Midori Traveler's Notebook - Ultimate customization options, though it only comes in two sizes.  The leather cover is reusable, and what goes inside can be changed as many times as you wish.  The cult following is totally understandable.  Based in Japan, manufactured in Thailand.

3)  Handbook Journals by Global Art - Nice hard-cover watercolor and sketch options in a variety of sizes and orientations.  The cloth covering has a nice feel.  Based in Kansas City, MO

4)   Moleskine Watercolor Notebooks - Widely available in an increasing variety of cover colors.  They make both a sketchbook and watercolor book in a variety of sizes and orientations.  Some people feel their quality has gone down as they have become more widely available.  Based in Milan, Italy and manufactured in China.

5)  Big Black Bee Bogus Recycled Rough Sketchbooks - A fun option if you would like to give a different color paper a try.  Based and produced in USA, for the most part.

6)  Blackwing - They make a classic sketchbook perfect for the artist who primarily uses pencils.  Has a slick feature that allows you to carry your pencil along the spine. Based in California.

7)  Rustico - A small company that specializes in leather goods and offers a handful of leather covered sketchbooks.  Made in Orem, Utah.

8)  Loombound - An independent maker living on Orcas Island in Washington State.  Each book she creates is a beautiful work of art.  She has also published a book on the art of bookbinding.  I've dreamed of owning one of her sketchbooks for years. 

If You Opt To Make Your Own Sketchbook

Just remember to be creative, make it your own, and have fun.  Think outside the box (or book!), and make it work for you!  If you are feeling intimidated about the binding process you can always opt for a folder!  Maybe add a pretty tie on the folder and keep a whole assortment of different types of papers in it.  Or bind a book that contains a wide variety of pages.  You can use an old pair of jeans as your book cloth and repurpose some darning thread to bind your pages.  


Sketchbook Ideas

In this sketchbook/folder I like to store different types of papers.  I've had it for years, and always enjoy using it because of the low-pressure, experimental nature of it.


Creating you own sketchbook can be another extension of your creative practice and open you to a different set of options than you might otherwise experience.  Enjoy watching your tastes and skills develop!

No matter what you choose, remember to enjoy the process and make your sketchbook your own.

I'd love to hear which sketchbook you end up with or what kind you've been loving!


As always, thank you for being here, and wishing you happy painting!

Jess Greenleaf

Left Continue shopping
Your Order

Your cart is empty!