Nine Watercolor Sketchbooks, Compared

Pile of sketchbooks open to the testing page.

I’m taking Liz Steel’s Watercolour course, and the introductory section has us experiment with paints, brushes, and paper. Having already gone down some paint rabbitholes, I found myself going overboard with paper this time! I tested nine (9) different sketchbooks.

Testing Criteria

These tests are directly based on an introductory video from Liz Steel’s watercolor class. Here’s the process I used:

  1. Test a waterproof pen, since I’m planning to mix ink and watercolor in sketching. Some papers (like heavily textured cold press) don’t play nicely with ink pens. I used a Safari Lamy medium fountain pen.
  2. Test a few different colors. I tested WN Potter’s Pink, DS Monte Amiata Natural Sienna, and WN Viridian; in retrospect I wish I’d included a more diverse selection of colors since those are all granulating.
  3. Test a flat wash using a granulating color (Liz uses Ultramarine, I use Cobalt): you can make a quick flat wash by running horizontal strokes back and forth. Looking for even color.
  4. Test a chaotic series of strokes with the same color. Looking for a set of marks with depth.
  5. Test wet-on-wet. Repeat #3, but wet-on-wet. Looking for a pleasant soft appearance, without hard edges.

The Sketchbooks

Pentalic Aqua

Pentalic Aqua

Paper Stats: Cellulose 300gsm cold press

Price: $24 for 5”x8” ($1 per A5-ish sheet)

Experiment Results: Cold press with a low-key tooth that doesn’t disturb pen marks. Vibrant colors. Got some streaks in the flat wash. Lots of cauliflowering in the wet-on-wet.

Notes: I used this journal for most of Kolbie Blume’s Seascapes 10-day challenge. I didn’t mind working on it for the most part, but when I switched back to Etchr’s Perfect Sketchbook for the last painting, I was like, “Ahhhh, what a relief.” The Pentalic is just a little bit more finicky than I prefer, and it dries too quickly for my wet-on-wet explorations, and even the nicest tape is hard to pull off without tearing.

Painting of sparkling ocean waves under a setting sun
Sparkling Ocean Waves. Kolbie Blume’s Seascapes Challenge, Day 1 – April 2022, on Pentalic Aqua. I struggled to get soft edges and to pull the tape off.

Hahnemühle Watercolour Book (Akademie Aquarelle)

Hahnemühle Watercolour Book

Paper Stats: Cellulose 200 gsm fine grained surface

.Price: $20 for A5 size (67 cents per A5 sheet)

Experiment Results: Good pen smoothness. Nice flat wash. Awkward-looking dried paint lines on the chaotic strokes. Major hard edges in the wet-on-wet.

Notes: Working on this one, I found that it dried more quickly than I would like, and warped a lot (it’s really more for quick sketches than wet-on-wet).

Hahnemühle Watercolour Book (100% Cotton)

Hahnemühle Watercolour Book (100% cotton)

Paper Stats: 100% cotton 250 gsm “fine grained surface”

Price: $23 for A5 size (76 cents per A5 sheet)

Experiment Results: Average pen smoothness. Strikingly flat flat wash. Chaotic strokes dried semi-flat, but there’s a bit of depth there. Slight cauliflowering in the wet-on-wet.

Notes: I’ve been using this little book for my “sky journal” the last few days, and I have to say I’m finding it a struggle. The paper dries unevenly, some parts too fast and some too slow, so that I can’t reliably work wet-on-wet yet I’m also waiting forever for it to dry completely. Add more than a layer or two, and I’m scrubbing and pilling the paper.

Painting of blue sky with clouds
Blue sky painting, July 2022, on Hahnemuhle 100% cotton paper. Some of the “flecks” in the blue sky are granulation, and some are pilling.

Another issue I have with this sketchbook is that even though the pages are sewn in, they tend to fall out. Instead of falling out one page at a time, as a glue-bound sketchbook would, they fall out in creased pairs. I occasionally wrote notes on the facing page, but found that I could not reliably keep the notes with the painting it was for.

Moleskine Watercolor Album

Moleskine Watercolor Album

Paper Stats: 25% cotton 200gsm cold press

Price: $25 for Large (69 cents per A5-ish sheet – nice)

Experiment Results: Much smoother paper than I tested above, great for ink. Paint washes show some slightly streaking. Somewhat flat color in chaotic strokes. Some hard edges in wet-on-wet.

Notes: This is the sketchbook that came in my Art Toolkit, and I’ve enjoyed using it for plein air because the paper is relatively lightweight and dries quickly, but still takes a fair amount of wash. Still, it’s more finicky and prone to cauliflowering than the toothy Arches-style cold presses I’m used to.

Stillman & Birn Alpha

Stillman & Birn Alpha

Paper Stats: Cellulose 150gsm medium grain

Price: $18 with a whopping 48 sheets (38 cents per A5 sheet). The one pictured is an even smaller size.

Experiment Results: A smooth, lightweight paper. Plays nicely with pen, nice flat wash, lots of texture in the chaotic wash. Okay wet-on-wet wash (some hard edges). Dries quickly. Buckles less than I thought it would.

Notes: Do not expect a gradient from this paper. This is a great paper if you want to see brush strokes (as Liz Steel does). Personally I find it… difficult. It’s just not a good match for my style.

Stillman & Birn Beta

Stillman & Birn Beta

Paper Stats: Cellulose 270gsm cold press

Price: $20 (71 cents per A5 sheet). The one pictured is an even smaller size.

Experiment Results: Plays well with pen (smudges are my fault for trying to put down a wash before it dried). Slower to dry overall compared with Alpha, so calibrate accordingly. Even flat wash. Not a ton of depth in the chaotic strokes, but no ugly hard edges. Nice soft wet-on-wet. Less visibly textured than some cold presses, so allows for more pen flow, but you still get the benefit of that cold press softness.

Wonder Forest

Wonder Forest

Paper Stats: 100% cotton 300gsm cold press

Price: $18 (90 cents per A5-ish sheet)

Experiment Results: For a seemingly toothy paper, the ink performed well. The most even flat wash of all the ones I tested – plus, some nice depth in the chaotic strokes and the wet-on-wet is pretty. Wet-on-wet dispersed more than the others, but that might have been a water control issue on my part.

Notes: I used this sketchbook quite a bit while painting from Kolbie Blume’s Wilderness Watercolor Landscapes; it’s the one Kolbie uses in the 10-day challenge videos. I was quite pleased with its performance. I found it hard to tell the difference between much more expensive sketchbooks, like the Etchr ones below. My only gripe with it is that the binding is glue and the pages tend to fall out, which isn’t ideal for a travel sketchbook.

Mountain Meadow from Kolbie Blume’s 10-Day Challenge, Day 4 – November 2021. On Wonder Forest. The tape I was using at the time is the culprit for the edge bleeds.

Etchr Perfect Sketchbook

Etchr Perfect Sketchbook

Paper Stats: 100% cotton 300gsm cold press

Price: ~$40 for A5 size ($1.81 per A5 sheet). Etchr charges 3 for  $119 (you must buy a three-pack), but you can sometimes get individual ones from resellers.

Experiment Results: My fountain pen skipped a lot on this paper; it’s just too textured to get an even line. The high level of texture does mean it’s very easy to get a nice flat wash and very pretty wet-on-wet results. You can see the depth in the chaotic strokes, depending on my brush pressure.

Notes: I had some quality assurance issues with one of the sketchbooks in my three-pack, but Etchr replaced the defective book. I enjoyed using this sketchbook for Kolbie Blume’s original 10-day challenge as well as many other mini-paintings. When it’s good, it’s very good; this is the closest I’ve seen to Arches quality paper in a sketchbook. However, the heavy weight and large tooth may make it unsuitable for a Liz Steel-style ink-and-wash travel sketchbook.

Etchr Sketchbook

Etchr Sketchbook

Paper Stats: 100% cotton; 230gsm cold press or 220gsm hot press (I got cold press).

Price: ~$30 for A5 size ($1.15 per A5 sheet). Etchr charges 3 for $89 (you must buy a three-pack), but you can sometimes get individual ones from resellers.

Experiment Results: Ink does well on this one. The flat wash is just as good as the Perfect, if not better, and the wet wash is very beautiful too. Slightly disappointed that the chaotic strokes dried to one tone.

Notes: Yes, confusingly Etchr makes two sketchbooks with very similar names. The difference is mainly paper weight; “Perfect” above is 300gsm and this one is 230gsm. They’re also distinguishable from the outside because the “Perfect” has a leatherette cover and this has a woven fabric cover.

I haven’t tested this one extensively, but I’m very impressed by the tests. The paper feels plenty heavy enough for heavy washes, yet it also handles ink well.

Conclusions

The sketchbooks fell into two broad categories: heavier-weight (~200-300gsm paper), and lightweight (~90-150gsm paper), with the latter being more prone to buckling but faster-drying and easier to carry for travel.

Heavyweight Category Winner: I found the Etchr Perfect Sketchbook joyful to paint on, but no good for ink. It’s also obscenely expensive compared to the others. For a mix of watercolor & ink, I liked the Etchr Sketchbook, Wonder Forest, and Stillman & Birn Beta. S&B is best value-for-money.

Lightweight Category Winner: Stillman & Birn Alpha was the cheapest and the best, offering much stronger performance than I would have expected for its lightweight paper. Moleskine Watercolor Album is a runner up.

Two I’m unlikely to buy again are the Pentalic Aqua and the Hahnemühle Akademie. They’re definitely better than non-watercolor paper, but I just found them a bit awkward and non-joyful to paint on. The Hahnemühle 100% cotton was interesting, but slower to dry than I found practical for a sketchbook (even at home), where you just kind of want to be able to turn to page.

I’m also just questioning whether or not to use a sketchbook in the heavyweight category at all. When I’m at home (“in the studio”), I also have the option of using individual sheets of paper, which give me more options and can be more cost-effective. (They can also be more handy when you have multiple simultaneous works-in-progress: no page-turning, just set up another board!) Using a sketchbook makes sense in the field, but I’m not sure it really confers a major benefit for me at home. I’ll have to continue to think and experiment on that.

2 thoughts on “Nine Watercolor Sketchbooks, Compared”

  1. Thanks for the review! I can’t stand cold press- it’s not as forgiving.

    I like the freedom of using, well, everything I’ve got if I want to. Colour pencils can work nicely as a mask under a wash. All my sketches under water media are with water-soluble graphite- mostly blends out if it’s lightly done. Pencils crumble more on cold press and fineliner tips also shred too quickly on it.

    I grabbed two of the three packs A5 Etchr 220 HP, as I carry two in my field sketching kit’s travellers notebook. (Softcover A5 my travellers notebook would fit 3, but etchr don’t do softcover yet ah well.)

    There’s still a bit of tooth to the Etchr HP 220 GSM, but not excessive (it’s not CP and it’s not bristol). I like this.

    I’ve thrown all sorts of things at these- scrubbing, lifting, pens, water-soluble graphite, watercolour pencils, watercolour, dodgy pencil as mask for mortar (pale yellow lead was contaminated with dark pigment). I use a lot of water, even tried multiple layers of all of these.

    Warping is near non existent. (I use a Uniball eye micro signo when travelling.)

    Etchr HP 220 GSM was much more fun with expected predictable results than my experience with Stilman and Birn Zeta white or the Moleskine yellow.

    Reply
  2. That’s so funny, I would describe cold press as forgiving and smoother paper as more unforgiving, instead of vice versa. I suppose it depends on what you are trying to do. I like making a lot of smooth gradients, and cold press is good for that. Most of my blooms and visible strokes are accidental, and cold press tends to prevent them while smooth paper encourages them.

    I totally agree that cold press is extremely rough on pencil and fineliner. It’s hard to make ink lines without getting a drybrush effect. Mixed media is much better on smoother paper.

    I’ll have to try the Etchr paper you recommend. I like Etchr’s cold press paper, and it would be nice to have something smoother for ink that isn’t as cauliflowering as the Stilman & Birn Alpha.

    Reply

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