I go through a lot of sketchbooks, and I’ve tried three that aren’t bad sketchbooks for light sketching and a little watercolor. But not a lot of watercolor! None of these sketchbooks can handle a heavy wash, and none of their papers will tolerate much (if any) lifting or other serious, watercolorish stuff.
In other words, they don't always work for me. However, if you only need a sketchbook for doodling and quick sketches, these will work, and each has a few merits and traits worth mentioning. So in no particular order, they are…
- Bee Paper Company’s Super Deluxe Mixed Media Aquabee sketchbook (what a mouthful!)
- Fabriano’s Venezia sketchbook (plus my experiences with their EcoQua notebook)
- Midori’s Traveler Notebooks (includes 3 different types of papers)
Though these sketchbooks don’t make the cut for serious watercolor usage, they are well made, fun to use, and may suit your needs.
So let’s compare!
Before we begin, quick disclaimer... I sketch solely in pencil, pen, and watercolor. This influences my opinions of these sketchbooks and how they perform. You may have different experiences with these art materials, and if so, I'd love to hear how these sketchbooks have worked for you. Feel free to leave me a comment at the end of this post.
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Bee Paper Super Deluxe Sketchbook Review
A friend sent me this sketchbook to try, and I was excited to receive it. A sticker on the front proudly proclaims, “The only sketchbook you will ever need.” (Emphasis theirs.) Around the sticker is listed the media that this sketchbook is supposed to handle, everything from colored pencil and charcoal to pen and watercolor.
I was game to try it out, so I immediately headed outside with it... and dropped it into a creek! I watched the sketchbook lazily float down river until it passed by a spot where I could retrieve it, and then I took it home to dry.
Regardless of its meandering swim, the Bee sketchbook flattened back out and seemed ready to go again. There's something to be said for that!
Interior: The Bee sketchbook's paper is a soothing, warm white and has a nice tooth to it, and each page is slightly smoother on the backside than the front. The paper is only 93 lb/140 gsm, but it did hold up well with light washes (and a creek ride) with only slight warbling and no curling.
Exterior: The sketchbook's cover is a seriously strong chipboard, and I appreciate that when I am out sketching and trying to balance a sketchbook on my knee. The metal binding is very sturdy and a continuous loop so papers stay put.
Media: This paper did very well with graphite, fountain pen, and dip pen, but not so well with a calligraphy tip which struggled to grip the surface. Micron pens also did well with it, and pencil erased easily. None of the inks or pigments I used bled or showed through to the other side. Though this paper worked okay with dry brushing and light applications of watercolor, pigment immediately sinks right in and isn't up for being lifted or moved around.
Overall review: The Bee Paper Super Deluxe sketchbook is an affordable, durable option that has a solid foundation and decent paper that can even work well with light applications of watercolor, but don't expect pretty effects with it.
Fabriano Venezia Sketchbook Review
One day while shopping in a college bookstore, I grabbed one of Fabriano's hip looking EcoQua notebooks to use as a journal and was surprised by how well it worked with pen (including fountain pen), light watercolor, and ink washes. Since I had such smashing results with the notebook, I ordered Fabriano's Venezia sketchbook with the expectation that it would perform even better.
Meh. The Venezia sketchbook does have thicker, toothier paper than the EcoQua notebook and a better binding, yet it didn't perform as well as I had hoped. But this is a popular sketchbook, so for what it's worth, I'll share my opinion below.
Exterior: Many are put off by the cover, supposedly reminiscent of a pattern from the Piazza San Marco (but I've been there and still don't get it). However, I have no issues with how this sketchbook looks, and the sturdy cover could easily be modified. This sketchbook feels expensive and carries like a hardbound book— in other words, heavy! Its quality appearance, inside and out, pay homage to its Italian heritage.
Interior: The Venezia's interior is eye candy. Its 90 lb/200 gm paper is thick with a soft, cottony feel and a slightly toothy texture. The color is an appealing bright, warm white. With a bit of stretching, its sewn binding allows it to open nearly flat. I did have trouble with it staying open while sketching, but binder clips easily solved that issue.
Media: Pens slid across the surface easily, even dip nibs. None of the inks or pigments I used bled or shadowed through to the other side. Graphite also worked well and erased easily. When using watercolor, the paper didn't curl and only slightly buckled, and pigment flowed well as long as I kept it moderately dry, but this paper just isn't made for a lot of water. When I pushed it too far, pigment balked, bled, and cauliflowered. You can see an example of this with the failed Beauty Berry sketch at this post, and the chapel at the post is also in the Venezia sketchbook.
Overall review: Though the Fabriano Venezia is a quality sketchbook, I'm not sure it can handle watercolor well enough to convince me to pay its premium price again.
Midori Traveler's Notebook/Sketchbook Review
The Midori Traveler's Notebook has a coolness factor about it that few can resist, including me. Last year, I scored a lovely little knock-off version on Amazon (you can read my glowing review at the product page) and immediately put it to use.
If you don't know much about this Japanese notebooking system, the leather cover has a series of attached bands that hold various, interchangeable notebooks in place. The available inserts vary widely, from blank to gridded or dotted pages along with calendar pages and more. The notebooks can be rearranged or traded out at will, plus there are lots of fun accessories (like a ruler, pockets, etc) that can also be added, if desired.
I have loved, loved, loved this leather notebooking system, but what I haven't loved are the papers that I've used with it. I've seen watercolor inserts custom made to fit this notebook, so I may eventually resort to purchasing those or try to find the time to DIY my own, but for now, I'm making do.
I keep a gridded notebook along with two blank notebooks (aka sketchbooks) attached inside the cover, and below I'll share how the blank papers have worked for me.
Midori Lightweight Paper #013 I confess that I only tried to sketch one little landscape on this paper before tossing it into the recycling bin. I read a review that this was the best insert for watercolor. Whatever. This paper buckled, cockled, bled, and curled with me. It's also a very slick surface, so the watercolor had a blast racing me around the page. I didn't even like it with pencil. It does work well with pen. Okay, so there's that, but I'm done with this one.
Midori Blank Paper #003 This is Midori's standard, blank refill paper. It works so-so with pencil but is great with pen. Though I've seen other artists do amazing things on this paper, it only works slightly better than the lightweight paper for me. (This paper was used for the mossy tree sketch at the top of this post. Okay, but not great.) It will work in a pinch for quick, light sketches, but I have to be careful with it, and I'm not always careful when I'm sketching.
Midori Sketching Paper #012 Finally, I've found a suitable sketching paper. Notice that I didn't say a great sketching paper, but I'm sticking with it... at least for now. The paper is fine with pencil and great with fountain or felt-tip pens. It's smooth but not super slick; it's softer to the touch and thicker than the #3 and #13 papers. It can handle watercolor, at least to a certain extent. It's not up for a serious wash or scrub; if I try, it pushes back with some serious pilling. However, this sketching paper is pretty low maintenance, and I like that. You can see many more examples of sketches on this paper in my mycology field journal at this post.
Overall review: Though the Traveler's Notebook organization system is genius and the papers are all fine for general writing, I greatly prefer the hardier #012 insert. And if someone would please consider making a decent, affordable, easily accessible watercolor insert for these notebooks, I'd buy a box in a heartbeat.
P.S. I've explored other sketchbooks that are similar in many ways to these three sketchbooks, so if you are looking for a sketchbook solely for sketching and light watercolor, you may also want to read my reviews of Stillman & Birn papers and Handbook Artist Journal. Or be like me and have fun trying them all! :)