Stillman & Birn, Seawhite of Brighton, Leuchtturm 1917, Leda Art Supply, and Pentalic journals sketch watercolour

DOODLEWASH REVIEW: Watercolor/Art Journals Part I

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.

Pile of watercolor and sketch journals, Leuchtturm, Fabriano, Stillman and Birn, travelogue, handbook journal, Moleskine, Canson

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.

Stillman and birn watercolor and sketchbook journals

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.

Sumi-e ink, water and Finetec watercolor- no bleed through.

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.

Leuchtturm 1917 Sketchbook large white and small black

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.

Throwing something fun in- this book Urban Watercolor Sketching by Felix Scheinberger. His style is super fun!  I particularly like his info on pigments.

Urban Watercolor Sketching by felix scheinberger

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!

Recommended3 recommendationsPublished in Art Supply Reviews

58 thoughts on “DOODLEWASH REVIEW: Watercolor/Art Journals Part I

  1. There is something wonderfully relaxing about having my cup of coffee and reading your reviews on a Saturday morning! Plus, I learn so much. Relaxed learning…why couldn’t university have been like that?? 😉

    You gave an interesting point about bound versus spiral. I’d liked spiral because I can flip a previous page totally out of the way, but then again, I don’t often do heavily wet washes so the paper doesn’t buckle as much and I hadn’t even started clipping until I saw you do it in some previous post and decided to try it.

    “Velvet Elvis”…hahahaha!

    So, I gather S&B is only available for purchase on their site and not, say, Dick Blick?

    Thank so much, Jessica!

    1. Hi Teresa! Your morning sounds lovely! S&B doesn’t sell from their site, but a lot of online retailers sell them, Blick, Jerry’s, The Merri Artist, Amazon, and some place called Blitsy that I’ve never heard of. I imagine some local art stores may carry them, but I’m not sure on that one.

      It is nice to be able to flip the journal cover and pages over. One of the other good things about S&B, they give both binding options!

      Hahaha, that velvet cover creeped me out! It made no sense to me, as much as people put journals in pants pockets or bags, it would end up a big ball of lint.

  2. Jessica, thank you for this review of journals. I’ve never liked them in the past but that’s because the few I tried didn’t hold up to standards. With all this info, I can make an informed decision. I’m sure I’ll find a journal I love.

    1. Thank you Laura! Yeah, they do go on a bit, these posts ;). I’m starting to get over most of the weirdness of putting my journals page or artwork out there like this. So thank you for your lovely comment!

  3. It’s amazing how many different types of journals are out there. I remember when I started journaling, I went through so many different types. I can’t believe of all the ones I’ve tried, none are listed here. LOL. I’ve been wanting to try S&B series, but I can’t turn myself away from Tomoe Rive paper for daily art and journaling. I really do need a proper watercolor journal. Thank you once again for not just the review by things to consider when choosing a journal…

    1. It is amazing how many! How is someone supposed to figure it all out?!

      No way should you turn away from the magical TRP! It suits you so well. I remember when I first saw your posts and I though, what the heck is she painting on…and then I got roped in…hehehe. Maybe you can just add in the supplemental watercolor journal ;).

  4. Thanks for this really useful review. I currently use a Canson Mixed Media spiral bound sketchbook as my art journal but I’m in the market for something portable that takes a real beating with wet media so your post came at an ideal time. I look forward to the next installment.

    1. Thanks Laura, I’m glad that this was helpful. I use one of those same Cansons, but for really messing around in or testing paints, one page has glitter, hehehe. As you can see, I’ve not stuck to one journal, I’m doing a little eye roll here at myself 😉 I would love it if you found something useful for yourself out of these reviews! Let me know if you do end up with anything and how you like it.

  5. This was SO helpful, Jessica! I cannot believe how many types of journals there are. Like Laura, I’ve been using a Canson Mixed Media spiral bound pad for my sketchbook, and it’s not bad, but definitely not ideal. Plus it doesn’t look nice and polished the way a real journal does. But there are so many options it makes my head spin. Thanks for breaking it down into digestible bits!

    1. So many of them Jen! I don’t know how everyone figures it out! I guess some people get lucky and find one they like soon on and stick with it, ahem- Charlie ;). I told Laura that I also use one of the Cansons, and Bee Paper, which is similar. I like having the ones that I feel I can do anything in, like glitter and crazy paint swatches and whatever and not feel like I’m messing it up too much. I even burned/singed sheets in my Bee Paper doing a ghosty thing last year for Halloween (so fun!). A kind of anything goes journal is good! I hope you find something that you like! Let me know how it goes. Whatever you are using for your paintings, they look wonderful!

  6. Your review of art journals is excellent! Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us! 😃 I have yet to try the S&B. I like how you add a lot of water or ink to your pages as this really is a good test. I hate it when the paper buckles. Do most of the “watercolor” journals use only cold press paper? I like to use hot press sometimes too. Strathmore made one with 140 lb hot press paper at one time but it seems they stopped making it. Thanks again, Jessica! 🎨💕

    1. Hi Jill, I’m glad you found the review helpful! S&B Epsilon and Zeta are hot press with a smooth finish. The other versions of the paper aren’t super textured. It would be nice for you try have their sample packet to try out. Totally worth an email to them :). Let me know if you end up with something and how you like it. Still have a few more to go over next Saturday too 🙂

  7. A new meaning to investigative journalism. Ha! Very punny, loved it. Journals are great. I have way too many Moleskines. Someday I hope to get to where I’m using them for sketching, and not just for bad writing and note-taking. Not surprisingly, some of this review went over this non-artist’s head, but I enjoyed reading it and looking at the images. I really liked that urban watercolor sketching at the end and am going to follow the link before I forget. Oh yes, I did have one question – some people manage to get their images that are painted or drawn in notebooks to show up cleanly and neatly online. How do most of you do that? Photograph the notebook page? Are there other options?

    1. Hi there! Thanks for laughing at my pun! Hehehe. I love that book at the end, it’s really a lot of fun and informative. Lots to look at in it 🙂 and really helpful for someone starting out.

      As far as images go, I just use my iPhone. But I almost always take the shots in the same spot- a north facing window because the light works well. Other than that, I don’t do anything else, pretty much point and shoot over here. I know there are apps that people use, but I’m not sure what they are.

      Let me know how you like the book 🙂

    1. Thanks Phil, glad it was helpful. As you can see, I am easily seduced too, ha! I won’t be needing any new ones for a while, yet sometimes, my eye still wanders.

  8. Wonderful review, am looking forward to the next installment. Always on the look out for ‘good’ sketchbooks and there are so many out there nowadays. Introduced to S&B after joining this blog community, picked up a couple from the Zeta series and fell in love. After reading your review I will be picking up a couple from the Alpha series and be a bit more bold in my use of them. Was interested in seeing your mention of the Leuchtturm1917, I love their notebooks, appreciated your links and may experiment with their sketchbook just for fun. Awesome post thank you for sharing all the information and links, it is a great help.

    1. Hi Haunani, I’m glad this was helpful to you! The Leuchtturm 1917 notebooks are my favorite. I recently switched to using a Midori MD, and miss the Leuchttrm and will be going back to one as soon as I fill this other one. Let me know how you like the Alpha if you end up with one. I’m happy to hear of your success with the Zeta!

  9. A great review! I agree with everything about S&B. Beta is my preference and I’ve tried all 4. But in the end my favoRite paper is still Arches 140# cold press and t hen I have to make my own journal.

    1. Hi Wayne, I’m glad you are enjoying the reviews and thank you for your comment. Thumbs up on your journal choices :). Happy sketching!

  10. Great detail! I like how you always show what you are explaining in pictures. I’m a huge fan of Stillman and Birn also. I use an 8X5 Beta bound, an 8X5 Zeta bound, and a 9X12 Zeta spiral for most of my journaling. Once those are full I think I want to try an 8X8 just to try a different shape. I like the smaller bound books when painting on site for the reasons you mentioned, but I also like the spiral for quick on site sketching when I’m going to go back to the studio and paint later. Then I can clip it to a board there and not worry about the buckling so much. They are a great product and the company is very friendly. I enjoyed the post.

    1. Hi Pete! I love a square journal. At this point it might be a year or two before I need anything new, unless I really get to painting! But, I might try one of the S&B square too. Thanks for the idea! Your comment is appreciated :), it’s always nice to learn how other people are using their supplies. Happy sketching!

  11. Hi Jessica! Such helpful, in-depth information. You present it all in a way that is easy to understand, especially with all the visual examples. I love your wit, too ;). I am using a simple “generic” journal right now and can’t wait to read your next post so I can make an educated decision on a better quality book. Kudos!

    1. Hi Carol! Thanks so much for your comment. I’m glad the review(s) have been helpful with decision making. There’s so much out there to decide on! Let me know what you end up with and how you like it 🙂

  12. Hi Jessica, thank you for your post and thank all of the readers for their comments. I need to go back through your post and the comments again. I found everything very helpful and this will be a good reference for me. I have found the Strathmore Mixed Media journals take a lot of different types of media very well. Even the water color paper does too – takes a lot of different types of media. I use the recycled water color journals a lot and really enjoy them. I like lots of water too. They all buckle to a certain extent. But can be fixed. Lots of videos on You Tube on making your own journal. And of course lots of books on that. I gave myself a daily challenge for June to paint once a day. That was before I saw the July Watercolor month. I will do that too. I am using a Moleskine. I wanted a small journal and wanted to try a regular one and not spiral. For July I have a Global Arts Watercolor Handbook one to use. Spiral. I have not tried that type yet. I have used the Handbook Travelogue ones and really liked them. So many journals, so little time. You talk about a few here I will be trying. I look forward to part 2 next weekend. I see you are reviewing some of the ones I mention. Thanks again!

    1. Hi, that’s great that you will be joining in on World Watercolor Month! Yes, we have tried many of the same journals. Sounds like you have found a couple that you like :). I’m happy that you found the post helpful. Did you join the World Watercolor Month FB group?

  13. Awesome review. Here we don’t have any of that, the products usually don’t enter to Argentina, less they would come to my city! I only have a moleskine Ibought in a travel, but I can’t use it for doodles. Its incredibly expensive for use to that, anyway, I always found the pages pretty resistent and confortable and I work with TONS of water on it.

    1. Hi Wendy, I wish you luck in finding something that suits you. This Saturday I will post about a few more options, some that are inexpensive and suitable for doodles. Perhaps one of them will be available in your area. Thank you for your comment!

  14. An interesting read here. I’m simply an “absolute beginner” in watercolors painting and sketching!
    I have the Scheinberger book (bought during a trip to the states) and I need now to practice, than practice, than practice again…this is w
    hat my teacher suggests me to do 🙂

    1. Hi Robert, wonderful that you picked up the Scheinberger book :). Best of luck in your new watercolor adventure! Sounds like you are off to a great start. Thank you for your comment.

  15. Perfect timing! We just did an episode on our new podcast (Art Supply Posse) about sketchbooks and made mention of a lot of the same sketchbooks that you did. I’ll definitely mention your post on our next follow-up if folks are looking for a deep dive on watercolor sketchbooks specifically! So much good info!

    1. Hi Ana, I will check out your podcast! Thanks so much for sharing, sometimes timing is everything! I saw your picture with the stack of sketchbooks and it seems we are kindred spirits ;). I am also a FP and ink enthusiast 🙂

  16. Thank you soooo much for writing yes! I just asked a question about watercolor journals on another watercolors for a couple of weeks ago and just got back the sound of crickets chirping. Very excited to try new journals out and learn how to sketch on the go. Thank you for your help- this newbie really appreciates it!

    1. Hi Leslie, you are totally welcome. I’m happy to answer questions. My email is also on the “About” page. There are a few reviews on various watercolor brands under “Reviews,” with more being added every Saturday. I hope you join us over on the FB group for World Watercolor Month! Thanks so much for your comment. Happy painting!

  17. I’m interested in the weight of the paper in the 190 page Stillman and Birns, the 8″x8″ on Amazon. Also, please more about the toll f river paper? For ink and watercolor, etc. Email below. Thanks.

    1. Hi Sally, you can go to Stillman & Brin’s website to look up the info you seek. I’m sure I linked to it in the post. I’m not sure what “toll F” paper is, I’m figuring you mean Tomoe River Paper. I probably provided links for that too. Here is a video highlighting the paper.

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