So where to start? I mean that literally.
Where do you plan to use your sketchbook? If you plan to draw and paint just at home, where you have a big drafting table, large display of art supplies, and a butler to serve you tea, then any size sketchbook or even loose sheets of paper will do. Also, I need to know where you live, and I like my tea with a little milk.
If on the other hand you want to travel with your sketchbook, take a look at your current shoulder bag or backpack that you usually carry. For most of us, the medium size sketchbook (A5 / roughly 5″ x 8″) will fit there fairly easily. The smaller postcard-size sketchbook (A6 / roughly 4″x 6″) fits even better of course, and can be surprisingly satisfying because you will be more likely to (read: be forced to) focus on big shapes and overall design rather than getting too hung up on a lot of details. My teacher Gif Russell used to say if you are frustrated with your artwork, take a break and switch to large brush, small paper. This forces you to consider design, and stop tickling your drawing to death.
“He Ain’t Heavy…”
The next aspect of portability to consider is the weight of your sketchbook. If it is either a tad too large or a tad too thick, there is a good chance you will leave it on the table by the door at home rather than lugging it around with you. Not good. You need to lug, and be happy doing it. So when in doubt, a slightly smaller book with not too many pages is good.
From sketchbook to tools, to get to the paper
Yes, we are still on the subject of sketchbooks and paper, but we need to take a detour for just a moment. What mark-making tools do you plan to use for now? (Not forever, for now.) The paper characteristics you will need are entirely dependent on what you plan to do with it. By paper characteristics I mean simply the texture and thickness of each sheet.
Hot or cold or possibly tepid
Cold press paper (see above, on the right) comes in various qualities from student grade to professional, but in general it looks a bit like someone took a stack of paper towels, wet them, and compressed them together, leaving a slightly wavy texture on the surface. My personal favorite is Arches 140# cold press which is available in sheets and blocks and in a too-large-for-me spiral sketchbook. This paper does not fold well so it is not available in bound sketchbook form.
Often called ‘mixed media paper’, it may be roughly the same weight paper as the cold press, but has a much smoother, almost polished surface (see photo above). It behaves very differently than cold press, I mean very! I like both, but neither paper will do what it was not designed to do, no matter how skilled an artist you are. Here is where a dose of education can prevent a boatload of heartache. The big difference comes when you try to apply a wash (a large area of liquid color). With cold press you can easily create lovely graded washes (think how the sky is sapphire blue up above and robin’s egg blue at the horizon, with no brush strokes in between!) Hot press, on the other hand, will show off your colors more vibrantly than cold press, but it also tends to leave quite a history of each individual brush stroke. Not good at all for fiddling and correcting. Gif Russell used to say, “The way you remember the difference is, ‘Hot press is hell!’” She is a graduated-wash, Arches-paper kind of lady, of course.
“Tepid, but not bad!”
There is no such thing as tepid paper, but I needed a word to describe the other perfectly useful paper, not hot-pressed not cold-pressed, so there you go.
If you think you will be using mostly dry media (pen, pencil, or colored pencil), and possibly a bit of watercolor without large wet areas, you’ll be just fine with a good quality 90# paper such as Bee Paper Super Deluxe. It comes in several sizes, and I especially like the odd little 6″x 6″ size. Light-weight, spiral bound, it handles more than you might think and the paper is not so precious that you will feel shy using it to test out your latest pen or color or technique. If you do plan to use watercolor and can learn to control the amount of liquid, this paper with be adequate (the paper will buckle a bit, but that gives your sketchbook character, right?)
Many sketchbook manufacturers (especially companies that only make student-grade papers) do not tell you the weight of the paper they use in their sketchbooks. I have found even if they do, your fingers and ears are better judges of what the paper will do for you. Here’s your test: Go to your favorite art supply store and open a sketchbook. Start turning pages with your dominant hand. Without creasing or mutilating the book at all (never annoy your supplier!) , gently flick the edge of a page with your thumb as if you were trying to determine whether you have one or two sheets in your hand. If the page makes a somewhat loud statement, you have paper that will probably handle water fairly well. If your sheet is quieter but still has some body, it will may well handle ink without bleeding through. If it is very quiet, like the paper in that cheap paperback novel you are hiding in your bag, then leave that sketchbook for someone else who only doodles with pencil. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, I leave behind any sketchbook labelled “Sketching” or “Drawing”. The paper will aggravate me, and who needs that?
Spiral vs. Bound
This is so subjective. I like both and use both- simply follow your gut. My advice with a spiral book is to test it by opening it all the way up, folding the cover back, and holding it in one hand so just one page shows, not two facing pages. If it has a hard cardboard backing, this sketchbook will provide a very stable surface to enjoy while either standing or sitting. (Also notice if it feels too heavy to hold for long enough to make a good sketch.)
If instead you decide to go for a bound book, indulge in a large spring clip (see below), and clip it right across the binding seam so that you are not fighting to keep the book open while you work.
Other choices like shape (portrait, landscape, or square) are purely personal preferences.
One last thing: Your first marks
As soon as you buy your sketchbook and bring it home, make your first precious marks by writing in ink on the inside front cover:
contact info (whatever you don’t mind a stranger seeing)
and the sentence “Substantial Reward Given For Return!”
I mean this. I know you would never ever misplace your sketchbook, but just in case, this simple sentence could save you heartache and perhaps years of therapy.
Congratulations! Now get sketching! And if blank-page panic hits when you open to that first page, no worries. Start on page two.