Ever wanted a watercolour sketchbook for taking around with you? We noticed a mysterious in-depth review on a Stillman & Birn Sketchbook, by a customer simply named Evelyn, saying how she found it weighty and yet that the paper was lovely and could soak up oodles of watercolour, while the colour stayed beautifully fresh. The detail that Evelyn went into about her requirements, meant we thought she’d be a great artist to describe the differences between sketchbooks and how to make sure your one is portable enough for your needs.
Why is the right sketchbook important?
It is one of those deep mysteries of life that I haven’t yet managed to solve – how much blame can I reasonably lay at the foot of my materials? While I am well aware that not even the most astonishingly perfect sketchbook ever created will make up for lousy skills, I’m also aware that bad paper is dismally unrewarding to use and sucks the life out of your painting. I began my watercolour sketching habit using cheap basic bargain books, which function perfectly well as a gateway drug, until you are hooked, slightly obsessed, and are then forever on the prowl for the perfect pad.
By way of explaining what it is I’m looking for, here are a few examples of the kind of use my sketchbook gets. I mostly draw with a fountain pen, though occasionally with a Pitt / Staedtler waterproof pen or a brush pen, which I expect to be able to run smoothly across the page with no bleed. My paints are mainly Winsor and Newton artist’s watercolours, with the odd Daniel Smith thrown in for luck, which I would like to be able to apply liberally on occasion without too much paper buckling, and I’d like the colours to retain their vibrancy. I sketch on location sometimes, so portability matters, and I often sketch across two pages, so they should ideally lie flat. When I’m being good and sketching regularly, I can flake through books quickly, so price is an issue.
After working my way through a few books I didn’t get along with, I found and was quite content with Handbook Journals. I thought my search was over, but then, rather annoyingly, I kept coming across glowing reports of sketchbooks from a company I had never heard of – Stillman & Birn – and well, what could I do except buy one!
First impressions of the Stillman & Birn Gamma Sketchbook
I bought the Stillman & Birn, hardback, gamma, portrait format book measuring 14 x 22 cm. (This review should also apply to the alpha, as the weight and surface are the same as the gamma, but the alpha is white rather than ivory). When it arrived I promptly set off on an excitedly keen sketching binge, however, in no time at all, I developed a deep dislike of it!
Firstly, it is astonishingly heavy. The similarly sized hardback Handbook Journal weighs in at 330g, the Stillman & Birn, with its incredibly ponderous cover, is 430g. That is a whole 100g heavier, despite having only 48 pages compared to the 64 of the Handbook. When you are trying to pare the weight of a portable sketching kit down to a minimum, that extra weight really matters.
My second major gripe with the S&B was that no matter how hard I pressed down and forcefully leaned upon the spine, I found it impossible to flatten down the pages. This matters as I often work across two pages and I found it very frustrating when the pen snagged in the gully of the spine instead of skimming seamlessly across it. Although the blurb promises that the spines ease in and lie flat, mine remained resolutely stiff and stubbornly solid, resulting in sketches that had nasty gaps down the centre, as in the first example, and also in sketches where the paint seeps into the gully and formed an unsightly puddling, as in the second.
Looking at the spine of the sketchbooks
These differences are apparent when looking side on at the spine; the Handbook is more flexible, while the Stillman & Birn is quite rigid.
Paper weight and buckling in both sketchbooks
On paper weight: The S&B paper is the heavier of the two at 150g vs. the 130 g of the HB. One of the things that piqued my interest in the Stillman & Birn was the oft repeated reassurance in many reviews that the paper can take a lot of paint and it will not buckle. Yes the Stillman & Birn paper is strong, and yes, you can liberally slather washes over it with gay abandon, and will not doesn’t soften or breakdown in the slightest. Pens don’t bleed, and even the worst ink leaks from a wayward fountain pen won’t seep through the pages. But I found it does buckle, and it stays slightly bucked when it dries. I love to turn a new leaf and to greet the optimistic potential of a fresh blank page, I don’t however love to turn a leaf and confront the dimpled back of the previous day’s attempt. I found this dimpling to be worse on the Stillman & Birn, and to test this somewhat empirically, I covered a few pages of both the S&B and in the HJ with a variety of matching daubs and streaks of soaking wet washes, and left them to dry. I photographed the results, admittedly, not terribly successfully, but enough perhaps to show the slightly more undulating texture of the Stillman & Birn.
Perhaps the difference is more obvious from the side – both books have lain flat on a shelf for a month or so before taking this shot:
How does each sketchbook’s paper react to paint?
More so than weight or bucking issues, the ultimate sketchbook test must surely be how well the paint behaves on the paper and how well it retains its colour and vibrancy. I have to admit that there is something about the Stillman & Birn paper which really pleases. It has a very appealing surface – slightly rough, or with a bit of tooth, but not rough enough to hinder the flow of pen or pencil. But lovely though it feels, I couldn’t really find much difference between the two papers when it came to performance. Again, I thought perhaps an experiment might help, so I tried to produce the same marks, with the same amount of paint on both sketchbooks (harder than you might think!).
After quite a few pages of swatches and much addled staring, I came to the earth shattering conclusion that the results on both papers are remarkably similar! Neither appears to have more notably vibrant colour than the other and washes have soaked in, spread and mixed in similar fashions. The S&B paper seems to arch up when wet which results in a bit more puddling and therefore denser colour at the spine end of the swatches. I felt the colour lifted slightly easier from the Handbook, I thought grainier pigments possibly showed their texture a little better on the Stillman & Birn, but quite honestly, any differences were far too slight to be of note to all but the most exacting critic.
Swapping from a hardback to a softback sketchbook
So on balance, for me, the lumbering weight of the hardback Stillman & Birn and its inability to lie flat would rule it out for me, which should bring an end to this (rather protracted!) pondering. However, just to complicate life a little, and because I did rather like the texture of the Stillman & Birn paper, I decided to try the same book but with a softback cover. This solves the weight problem, as the softback S&B is only 230 g, making it almost half the weight of its hardback older brother and a good 100 g lighter than the Handbook Journal. It also lies flat easily, hurrah! The lack of a hard cover does however mean for sketching out and about, not at a desk or table, you are effectively trying to draw on something floppy, which is really not to be recommended. Bringing along a bent piece of corrugated plastic and a couple of clips solves this issue without adding much weight.
Conclusion on the pros and cons of each sketchbook
So, where has all that comparing and contrasting left me? Well it has left me with two sketchbooks! I like the ultra-light weight, the vellum textured paper and the behaviour of paint on the softback Stillman & Birn, but I like the hard cover, the price and the behaviour of paint on the Handbook Journal.
Other differences that may be worth considering: The Handbook Journals come in a pleasing square format, approx. 14 X 14 cm. They also have a useful elastic strap, and a little plastic pouch, which is handy if you are one of those sketchers who collect paraphernalia. The Stillman & Birn books are available in a greater variety of larger formats than the Handbooks, and they also come in a greater range of paper weights and paper colours, and they come spiral bound, if that is your thing. Beyond that, I’m afraid that any improvement in my paintings is going to have to come from, well, actually painting, rather than from any particular choice of sketchbook. Perhaps less time spent pottering away procrastinating over materials might be in order? Or perhaps not, where would the fun be in that!
I have a background in Graphic Design, but I’m now mid-way through an MA in Art History, and a little way through a long long journey to become a better artist. I paint in oils when time allows, but I try and to watercolour sketch daily (ish), partly because the looking, the drawing and the colour mixing involved are wonderfully useful for progressing in painting, but mainly for the sheer enjoyment of it.
I pop some pics and some ponderings on my blog.
Visit our sketchbook department to discover which one appeals to you or view our range of Stillman & Birn sketchbooks here and Handbook Journals here.
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