Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Perfect Sketchbook

Red-tailed hawk drying his wings.  Watercolor and ink on Aquarius II paper.

Get two sketch artists together, and usually sooner rather than later, the subject of the perfect sketchbook comes up.  The answer is simple:

There is no perfect sketchbook!

But we keep trying to find it.  

For many years I did most of my field sketching in hard bound plain paper blank journals.  My drawings hardly showed through onto the backside of the page and the paper didn’t buckle very much when I got wet and juicy.  I’m now in Volume 41.  As the years have gone by I realize the paper used to be better in these journals, plus I’ve developed a taste for even better paper. I’ve been trying other sketchbooks quite a bit during the past couple of years.  I try to have both my journal and a good sketchbook in the car ... but which sketchbook?

There is a variety of sketchbooks with lovely paper  -- many with paper far too nice for scribbled notes. Most of these sketchbooks are rather expensive.  Stillman & Birn is putting out a deluxe series of sketchbooks; Aquabee almost marries price with good paper, but still seems spendy to write copious notes on; Strathmore has some nice sketchbooks.... and many others.  On all of these I get intimidated when the sheet of whiteness in front of me costs somewhere around a dollar a sheet and and tearing one out seems sacrilegious.  Suddenly I worry about messing up a page; I don’t want to start something I might not have time to finish; I don’t want to write herky, jerky notes on that good paper.  Trying to reinvent myself as neat and tidy was an exercise in how to ruin spontaneity. My field journaling is all about trying to capture the moment, both in words and with sketches.  “Bless this Mess” is a good motto for my journal.  For more on my thoughts on journaling, please go to my post:, “Thoughts on Keeping a Journal” Feb 2011.

and “Warts and all”  March 2012.

Plein-air sketches on index.
A few weeks ago I suddenly had an a new idea on how to handle my conundrum.  I still plan to keep a plain paper, hard bound journal for most of my writing and lots of sketches; but I also plan to keep a “Inspiral Info-Bind” binder filled with my choice of paper.  ( 
Years ago I bought a Komtrack Inspiral Info-Bind binder and promptly shelved it because refill paper is so expensive. My recent brainstorm is that I can cut up large sheets of paper and punch my own refills  .. and pick any type  of paper I want.  Every so often I can take out finished pages and insert new ones.  I had to buy a hold punch -- that cost me $50.  It’ll  be a bit of a bother to cut, punch, and insert the pages; but right now I’m excited to have a variety of paper under one cover:  I currently have five types of paper in my binder:  Strathmore’s Aquarius II for watercolor, Strathmore’s high surface bristol for fine pen and ink work, some cheap index for just sketching, some typing paper for notes, and even some ‘write-in-the-rain” paper.  
Wren Tit found along the Oregon coast.  Watercolor and ink on Aquarius II paper.
Another advantage of the Inspiral Info-Bind coil is that I can fold the book all the way around, i.e. I don’t have to work with it wide open.  I often sketch in our little car where space is limited.  

I have another Komtrak binder, one with a smooth back, but it doesn’t fold back.  I see they also offer a simpler binder which might work just as well.

I haven’t lived with my new system long enough to know whether it will stick as long as filling one hard bound journal after another has -- gee I’d have to live another 37 years for that.  I doubt I’ll be so lucky.  


  1. Thanks for another informative post. Enjoy all your various papers and please keep on keeping us inspired and enlightened. Your sketches are wonderful. Wish I could loosen up and make it look as easy as you do.

  2. Sounds like you found something that will work for you. I remember having this conversation when we got together last year. I will have to see this in person some time. Sounds like a clever idea. Your sketches are wonderful what ever you did them on.

  3. I have found putting together my own sketchbook is the best way to select the paper that makes me happy while sketching. I do purchase my choice of paper in large sheets that won't bleed thru to the back, wrinkle when water/paint applied and has some body. I then cut it to size, along with a cover and back out of heavier paper, then take the stack of paper to a local office supply and photo shop to have it spiral bound. It cost me only $2.60 for an 8 l/2 x 11 to have it bound. It's so much more reasonable $$ and my own creative crafted sketchbook.

  4. Great idea! And I'm delighted this post gives me another chance to peek into your wonderful sketchbooks.

  5. I have so enjoyed these posts, Elva... This one and the other two you referenced. The sketch journaling process is something I now cherish so much. It makes me happy every day. Like you, I only wish I'd started sooner -- I was 52 when I started a little over a year ago. All those sketches I could have made in those decades! But at least I started when I did, and I have no intention of ever stopping. Happy art journaling to us all!

    - Tina

    1. If my house burns the family photos and journals are what are most important.

      After all my years of journaling I find I often dive into them to find information I know is stored in there -- when do sage grouse strut? ... what time of year did we go to Humbolt Bay, .....

  6. I, too, have struggled over what kind of sketchbook to use. I nearly bought the Arc system that Staples carries as I saw another sketcher with one in which he'd put good watercolor paper. In the end, I decided it was easier and far cheaper just to use a 3 ring note book if I want to have nearly-loose paper of my own choosing. I have two sizes and already owned the punches for them.

    I've also done as Lois has and taken paper and hard mat board cover to be spiral bound at an office store.
    --Kate B