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

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

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.

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 prefer a square instead.  Think about how you position your hands and supplies, and what your compositions most often demand.

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

-  Media.  What kind of media will you generally be using?  If you plan to be using pencils and pens, then a sketching paper will probably be right for you.  If you are planning on using 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 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 to 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 are a wider 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 in two, 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)  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 effect what price you are comfortable with paying each time you purchase a new one.

Once you have determined which specific characteristics you are after, you will more quickly be able to asses the different sketchbooks on the market.  However, most sketchbooks fall into 5 main types.  By being aware of both the main types of sketchbooks available, and the characteristics you are looking for, you will likely end up with a straightfoward decision.

General Types of Sketchbooks

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 brook disappointment and waste your money if you try to turn one type into another.

2)  Brand Name - These are generally mass-produced and widely available both in stores and online for moderate to inexpensive prices.

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.  Can be an interesting way to get out of your comfort zone and try something new.

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, folding 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 into itself and 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.


So which kind of sketchbook did I finally opt for after my exhaustive search?  I went the custom route.  I found that my practice required more variety than what one sketchbook could really offer, and nothing on the market quite matched my search parameters.  I have enjoyed bookbinding for years, so I simply dove into another corner of our studios to whip up a sketchbook that matched my specifications.  (I understand not everyone has this luxury, but I wanted to let you know how my personal sketchbook search concluded.)  So I am currently working with:

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 color, the unusual dimension, and the ease with which I can replace and customize the pages inside.  This is the sketchbook where anything goes.  
- Custom Handmade Sketchbook with Arches watercolor paper (made by me 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.
- Custom Folding Sketchbook with Arches watercolor paper (made by me 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.

How To Choose A Sketchbook Custom Handbound Sketchbook Jess Greenleaf & Blueberry
A few custom sketchbooks I've made for myself over the years.

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 are a list of sketchbook companies and makers that I enjoy.

Sketchbook Recommendations

1)  Stillman & Birn Archival Sketchbooks - Excellent quality, shocking variety.  Their sketchbooks come in every size, orientation, cover option (soft and hard), 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.  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)  Odelae - 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.  (She *just* restocked.  Get 'em while you can!)


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!

Jess Greenleaf


Jess Greenleaf

I went the custom route pretty much out the gate. As a journal rather than sketch book. I went to Italy for a class on journaling as I had never done it and a journal was required, so I make my own. I cut some Arches 7×9 (the suggested size) and then used a Levenger hole punch (which I already had) to notch the paper and used some circa discs to hold it all together. I used a Circa cover I had that I cut down to fit. I really liked it as I could insert or remove pages or rearrange them quite easily. In the end it spoiled me for all other notebooks. BUT I have purchased a few Stillman and Birn at the suggestion of a workshop teacher (Iain Stewart) who not only uses them for sketching but also buys the paper in sheets and uses it for painting. They are quite well make journals, but since I already own the circa punch and discs I may stick to that just for economy and the ability to use any paper I like.

Jess Greenleaf

I love your writeup! I did much the same last summer. I settled on a leather journal cover from Galen Leather (small family-run business in Turkey) and I made a coptic stitch insert with 1/2 Fabriano 90lb CP, and 1/2 Fabriano 90lb Rough. Besides the initial cost ($65) for the reusable leather cover, the insert cost around $10 to make. I LOVE it! My next goal is to make a HP insert for my botanicals.

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