Seeking the Holy Grail
On the trail, trash cans are the holy grail. Elusive, deeply appreciated, a wonder to behold and use. Eliciting the voices of angels when appearing unexpectedly at a trail head or road crossing.
The perfect sketch journal is like that, too.
The perfect sketch journal can make the skies part and the angels sing.
There are so many factors that go into making a particular sketchbook a wonder to behold and use. The quality of the paper. A size that is both portable (if you’re on the move) and that allows the sketcher full gestural expression. Whether or not it lays flat or is easy to hold while sketching in any position.
Here’s what I’ve used so far, in order of discovery.
1. The Lechtturm1917. Size A5 or 5.75 x 8.25 inches. I filled three of these hardbound journals on my AT hike, mostly with words and pen sketches.
The size is good for carrying in a pack, but carrying hardbound books on long distance hikes isn't necessary or smart.
The paper is thin and bright white. It’s okay for quick pen, marker or pencil sketches and will handle a tiny bit of water. But once I discovered big watercolor washes, the jig was up and I had to retire this journal. The paper just can’t handle watercolor.
2. The Moleskine Sketchbook. Size 5 x 8.25 inches. Ahhh, Moleskine. What a reputation you have for making your users feel like "real" artists and writers. Don't be fooled! While adequate for my learning phase, it's no holy grail. According to some reviews on Amazon, Moleskine changed the paper and not for the better. It takes washes better than the Lechtturm, but it has its limits. In my opinion, it's not worth the price and you can do better by your art.
3. Handbook Journal Portrait. Size 5.5 x 8.25 inches. We're getting closer, here. I love the paper and the way it lays flat even though it has a hard cover. The paper is sturdy and has a bit of tooth, so it handles water well, both in one large dose and in repeated small doses. The paper is ivory, rather than bright white, but I don't think I have a preference yet for paper color.
I'm also playing with a smaller version of the Handbook Journal, the 5.5 x 5.5 inch size, but I'm finding the smaller size too constricting and I only reach for it if it's all I have with me.
Next Up in the Queue...Softcovers
I'm trying to be methodical about this exploration since I'm still learning, trying new things, finding my sketching "voice." But I do have a few sketchbooks waiting in the wings I'm excited to try. They are:
1. Stillman & Birn Alpha Softcover, size 5.5 x 8.5 inches. Excited about the portability of a softcover. This is a go-to sketchbook for lots of urban sketchers, so I'm looking forward to playing with it.
I was confused about the array of Stillman & Birn sketchbooks--alpha, beta, gamma, etc, etc through the Greek alphabet. It was overwhelming like the the yogurt aisle is overwhelming at the grocery story. But this page on their website cleared it all up for me.
2. Strathmore Mixed Media, size 5.5 x 8 inches and size 8.5 x 11 inches. I found these at the craft store when I was looking for something lighter weight to carry in my backpack. I learned that when a sketchbook says "mixed media" it will handle more water. As opposed to one that's labeled "drawing," which won't.
Exploring Different Sizes
Looking back over my list, I realize I've defaulted to what's known as "portrait" format, usually in the 5-ish x 8-ish size. It's a good size for portability, but I've begun to see the constraint of the portrait format, though.
So, next up, "landscape" format. I've got a Moleskine Watercolor Album, size 5 x 8 inches, which I've been reluctant to use because it's nice and I haven't been confident that I won't ruin it. So I'll probably start with something a little less intimidating like this Stillman & Birn hardcover, size 9 x 6 inch.
Time to go big, get a little wild, let the paint fall where it may.