Journals- this is a huge topic! Huge because there are so many journals out there, and because many of us are on the hunt for the best and most suitable one. This review will focus on journals that work for wet media, and point out some that do not.
A few brands are reviewed in greater detail, because I have more experience with them. General info will be offered on some. Otherwise, cows would be coming home before we are done. This series of posts features, Stillman & Birn, Seawhite of Brighton, Leuchtturm 1917, Derwent, Moleskine, Global Art Materials, Leda Art Supply, Pentalic, Fabriano, Canson, Strathmore, and Bee Paper Company. So that one post doesn’t become an unwieldy beast, they will be presented in two posts.
I’ve tried way too many journals. I investigate journals- gives a new definition to investigative journalism. For this post we will look at Stillman & Birn, Seawhite of Brighton, Leuchtturm 1917, Derwent, Leda Art Supply, and Pentalic.
What I look for in a journal. I want it to take wet media well, I’m not a light wash kind of girl. I prefer bound, not spiral. With bound, I feel like the paper warps less because one edge is already stabilized, and doesn’t need to be clipped down. I’m partial to Stillman & Birn- especially the Alpha Series. The post will start with S&B. I recommend this brand over most of the others.
I care what they do, not what they say they do. If it states- takes a light wash, which many sketchbooks do, I want to define what that means for that particular journal, because they are all different. Generally I’m a wet painter and I also paint with ink. I want to see what it can handle, and if anything weird or interesting might happen.
On with the show…
What I’ve come to assume as a fact of life- all watercolor/sketch journal papers warp or buckle. Some more than others, but pretty much, they all do it a little bit, and in some cases a lot. The only watercolor journal I’ve used that didn’t warp is the Pentalic Aqua Journal. Much of what things come down to is personal preference. Some people love a brand, like Moleskine, while others are against it. I hope that the info presented helps you to find your watercolor/sketch journal love, or avoid some that might not be right for you.
The journals I consistently see nice remarks about are Stillman & Birn, and as I said above, they are a personal favorite. I like this company, they care about their products and maintain interaction with the people who use them. They feature artists that use their journals on their social media sites, so people can check what others are using in these. The journals are durable with hard covers, and lay flat, but they need a little breaking in to do this. See this blog for how to break them in. I usually clip the pages down on whatever is being used. The small one open below is an Alpha Series with many layers of ink wash.
They have six paper varieties. See site for size and binding options, there are a lot of them.
- Alpha and Beta- white, cold press medium grain papers, Alpha 150 gsm- dry media, light wash, ink and Beta 270 gsm- dry & wet media, watercolor, ink.
- Gamma and Delta- same as above, but ivory paper
- Epsilon and Zeta- white, smooth surface papers, Epsilon 150 gsm- pen & ink, dry media, ink and Zeta 270 gsm dry & wet media, watercolor, ink.
Below- Epsilon smooth 150 gsm paper with wet ink wash, the ink glides over the page, it’s also very nice with pens including dip and fountian, minimal buckling. Spiral Beta 270 gsm with wet watercolor wash- side views were taken after it dried of the paper warping.
The 150 gsm/100lb Alpha and Gamma series say “dry media, light wash, ink,” but they take more than a light wash and they all take ink well. I’ve really wet this paper. The thicker paper of the Beta buckled more than the Alpha, Gamma or Epsilon. I suspect some of it is because the Beta I have is spiral bound. I’ve used the Epsilon almost exclusively for ink paintings that I heavily dilute with water, it’s never bled through. None of them have. That little Alpha pictured on the stack of journals above, has been put through the ringer. I’ve always been able to paint on both sides of the paper and the journal held together wonderfully. I’ve tried the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Epsilon, with a Zeta waiting in the wings.
What many await in this brand, is the softcover. Their site looks like they already sell them. They came out with softcovers late in 2015, but there were issues with the binding, so they pulled them in order to fix the issues. When they are re-released I will buy one immediately.
Guest Doodlewasher Larry Marshal uses S&B. His review of these journals is great. Initially, I emailed S&B and asked if they had sample papers, they sent me a little packet to try. It’s free in the US. Outside the US, check with them.
I stay away from anything that says “cartridge paper.” This blog has a nice description of cartridge paper. These are not meant for wet media and never work out, well almost never. Seems like there’s always a but, or an exception to everything. Recently I found what seems to be the exception, the Seawhite of Brighton “140gsm all-media cartridge paper, acid-free and sized for extra wet-strength.” It is bright white and smooth paper. I believe it’s new to the US market, people in the UK may be familiar with it. This paper is thin, but I was super surprised at how well it handled watercolor when doing a sample painting for the PrimaTek post, no bleed through. I did one ink painting with Brusho that was very wet and I went over a particular spot a few times, in that spot there was bleed through. I expected it to be more than it turned out to be. I also like this because it comes in square. This is the 8” x 8,” 190 pages (that’s a lot of pages), hardback with cloth cover for around $14 on Amazon.
Super wet with Brusho and water- some bleed through.
The odd things that happen on Amazon- always search in “All Departments.” This one is categorized in “Home and Kitchen.” If a search is done in one of the other departments, like “Office” or “Arts & Crafts” not all of the size options will come up, this square size wouldn’t have.
The other journal I’m putting under this cartridge paper category is the Leuchtturm 1917 Sketchbook– 96 pages of 180g paper in brilliant white Measures 5.75 by 8.25 inches, and there is the small pocket size. I love this brand for their journals, but the sketchbooks aren’t good if serious watercolor is involved. The description says- “180g paper that allows you to sketch, design, draw, scribble, paint and more.” A spot here or there of watercolor is fine, but the paint is not easily mixable or manipulated on the page. Looking at the retailer Goulet Pens, their description does not say anything about wet media- “ideal for sketches in pencil, charcoal, chalk, pastel, felt tip, and marker pen.” They have nice photos of the sketchbook and inks used in it, they also have a video overview of the Leuchtturm line. If you are super interested in this sketchbook, this woman has a three part review on it.
I tried the Derwent Journal– cartridge paper, states that it takes a light wash. I sent it back, so no photo. In the light wash, the paint couldn’t be manipulated on the page at all and it looked dull, soaked right on in. Plus it had this creepy feeling Velvet Elvis like cover. Lint magnet. Yuck.
Odyssey Sketchbook by Leda Art Supply. This company appears to retail exclusively on Amazon, and the sketchbook has mostly 5 star reviews. The company seems to be interactive with their customers and care about customer satisfaction. They checked in with me after the purchase. They feature artwork from people using their product on their site. If I didn’t use water media most of the time, I would love this journal. It has been great for all dry media I’ve used in it. The size, the softcover, opens flat, page marker, pocket, and elastic strap- all great. The 81lb paper says it will take a light wash, but it has to be very light. The 7” x 10” size is about $16, and it comes in two smaller sizes. They call the paper color light beige, it’s the same color as a Moleskine Sketchbook. I did one watercolor sketch of tall grass that I consider a light wash, the paper bled through-noticeable in pic below from the front side, although it gave it a nice effect. Then I did one ink painting that was pretty wet, and it had a lot of bleed through, which was to be expected.
The heavy ink wash, paper deterioration noticeable on the front and back.
The Pentalic Aqua Journal. This is the journal that Charlie uses for all of his Doodlewashes. He likes it a lot, so I tried it out. The description states- “European milled, 48 pages of 140 lb. (300 gsm) acid free watercolor paper provides the perfect weight and texture for watercolor journaling.” It lays flat and comes in two landscape sizes, 5″x 8″ and a smaller 3.5″ x 5.375, 24 sheets in each. The description on Amazon says 100% cotton rag, but the description on the Pentalic site doesn’t mention that. The paper is nice, thick and great to paint on. It comes with a long ribbon marker, elastic brush holder, pocket in the back, and is held closed by an elastic band. The problem- it has gaps between each of the six signatures where you can see the adhesive. Not a big deal if you are painting on one page, but if you like to do a spread over both pages, this wouldn’t be good. The first and last pages have about a quarter inch that is adhered to the page that holds it inside of the cover, it’s a little cumbersome to paint on those pages. I like that the corners of the cover are rounded. The biggest complaint I’ve seen about this journal is the durability, that it falls apart easily. It does not feel entirely sturdy, I wouldn’t bend the cover back. I took this on a trip and I like the paper a lot, and it came back with me intact. There was no buckling, and I painted on the front and back of each sheet. If they had more size options, and if they didn’t have binding issues, I would use this brand more.
Here are some links to info that might be helpful:
All about paper.
Paper weight– lbs. and gsm conversion and explanation.
How to choose the right watercolor paper.
Paper sizes explained.
This is an ongoing series of watercolor and art supply reviews with a post every Saturday. Next Saturday is Part II of journals- Moleskine, Global Art Materials/Handbook Journal, Fabriano, Canson, Bee Paper Company and Strathmore. This month is about tools and supplies because next month will be all watercolors!
If you haven’t heard yet, July is World Watercolor Month! Check out Charlie’s post for details, and join in the fun!
Hi I’m the Doodlewash Supply Blogger and offer reviews of various types of art supplies, watercolors, and helpful tips. I approach artistic expression with a light-hearted point of view. I love to see, and support others opening up to, and embracing their creative process with any medium or creative expression. Follow me on Instagram!