REVIEW: Mary Roff Handmade Watercolor Sketchbook

Handmade Watercolor Sketchbook by Mary Roff

Today, I’m here to review one of Mary Roff’s handmade watercolor sketchbooks. Mary makes so many different handmade sketchbooks with different papers, sizes, and bindings that I was truly torn over the decision – each of her sketchbooks is unique.  How to choose which to buy!

Mary Roff Handmade Sketchbook Image

Finally, I settled on one. I loved the beautiful birch design covers, and I know that Fabriano Artistico paper is one of the best watercolor papers there is. The exposed stitch Criss-Cross binding adds elegance to the book. The size of 5 x 5.5 inches means I have room for something reasonably complex but can also whip out a page in a short time.

Handmade Watercolor Sketchbook Specs

  • No. of Pages: 20 sheets/40 pages/5 signatures
  • Size: 5 x 5.5 in/ 1.97 x 2.16 cm
  • Paper: Fabriano Artistico, 140 lb., Cold Press, 100% cotton

Sketchbook Cover Paper

Mary says “I love any kind of paper with a design so anything from wrapping paper to handmade paper, printed Italian and Japanese papers and hand-painted canvas can go on one of my books. I also like the look of leather and use either faux leather or Kraft-Tex for some covers. When I have time, I like to paint on mixed media or handmade papers, and those become covers for some of my books.”

The cover paper on this book, is an acid free paper from the Paper Studio.


This video shows you the sketchbook more clearly and you see some of my process in painting one of the examples. There’s more information in the reading portion of this review, however.


Handmade Watercolor Sketchbook binding close up

The book is bound using a Criss Cross Binding, which is also called Secret Belgian Binding.  


Handmade watercolor sketchbook spine detail

The technique was developed in Belgium in 1986 by Anne Goy. It uses a primary sewing on the cover and spine and …

Interior handmade sketchbook pages

… then a secondary sewing to attach cover boards and text blocks. The result is an exposed stitching that adds to the elegance and beauty of the book. It is similar to Japanese Stab Binding in look, but …

Inside watercolor sketchbook Page quality photo

… allows the pages to lie flat. They do have some spring to them, but stay in place while you are working on them. The thread used for the covers is a 4 or 5 ply waxed linen thread. The signatures are stitched with a fine French waxed linen thread.

Closeup of sketchbook pages and binding

The text block (the pages in the sketchbook) are sewed into five signatures. If you are unfamiliar with the term, a signature is made when two or more sheets are stacked together, folded and stitched in the middle. The signatures in this book have 2 sheets each, which creates 20 sheets/ 40 pages in the sketchbook.

Mary uses many kinds of binding in her sketchbooks. She says, “I like just about every type of binding I’ve tried to do but especially love any binding that has exposed stitching. I think of the waxed linen thread stitches as a decorative element on the book. So, I do a lot with Coptic, and Secret Belgian Binding, long stitch, chain stitch and other non-adhesive type bindings.”

Sketchbook Paper

Sketchbook paper Interior view

This particular sketchbook is filled with Fabriano Artistico, 140 lb. cold press. Many of you probably just said, “Ah!” because this is one of the standard favorites in the watercolor world. It’s mould-made of 100% cotton, is acid-free/pH neutral and chlorine-free, and has no optical brighteners. It is sized both internally and externally (no animal products used) and is suitable for water media, printmaking, digital printing, charcoal, pastel, and other drawing applications.

Detail of Fabriano Artistico, 140 lb. cold press paper

The paper has an even texture, and watercolor flows beautifully.

Examples of various mediums on watercolor coldpress paper

Although not listed as suitable for pens, markers, acrylic and fountain pen ink, you can use these products. You won’t get clean crisp lines because of the texture, but you can do interesting things with them.

I would NOT use fabric nib pens (such as Microns) or markers (such as Tombows). They are too fragile for textured paper and would wear down in no time. Plastic or metal tips work just fine though.

Ink Drawing of Sheep and Bird

I love line and wash (ink drawing & watercolor), so for one of my examples I did one. More about this down below.

One of the other notable qualities of Fabriano Artistico is that it is tough. One of my favorite watercolor techniques is lifting color with a damp brush. The technique requires a sturdy paper. For the first painting in my sketchbook, I decided to give the paper a good scrubbing.

Watercolor Painting of Sheep

I painted my sheep with several layers of washes. Paint flows so beautifully on this paper, allowing for even washes and beautiful blending of color.

Final watercolor painting of Sheep

When you start lifting color, everything is softened and some of each of the colors show through to create multi-colored whites. I’ve just started lifting in this photo, but many papers would not have allowed even this much.

Example of Lifting color in Watercolor

Because this was a demonstration (and because I knew the paper could take it), I really started scrubbing, working my brush into the paper. This is usually discouraged because it essentially destroys the paper, bit by bit (and eventually the brush). I kept adding layers of color and lifting more.

Some papers get truly ugly and muddy, finally refusing to take any more color. I worked on this for a couple of hours, mostly scrubbing and simply got a great, woolly texture.  Fabriano Artistico takes a lot of destroying!

Watercolor painting of sheep and bird

After drawing my line and wash example, I did some watercolor washes and then used a white gel pen to get a different texture of wool.

Watercolor painting of sheep in forest

For my last example, I used gouache, an opaque form of watercolor to get a totally different kind of texture. I’ve really enjoyed painting these sheep. I love painting sheep so I’ve decided this sketchbook will be a celebration of them.  I’m going to try doing at least one a week until the sketchbook is full!

So many effects are possible with this paper, I can go crazy with styles and techniques.


Mary studied bookbinding while living in New York State but went 20 years before coming back to it. She was going through so many sketchbooks after joining Doodlewash, that she decided it was time to make her own again. She says “Now I can get exactly the size, shape and paper that I want. I mostly use Fabriano watercolor paper but am always trying out new papers including mixed media, drawing and some lined journal papers.”

Along with her beautiful sketchbooks, Mary also sells prints, greeting cards and jewelry in her Etsy shops.  You can find Mary’s sketchbooks and greetings cards and prints at her Etsy page, PaintsPalettesPages and her jewelry at Mary Roff Designs

You can learn more about Mary in here featured artist post on Doodlewash here

Remember, that every one of Mary’s sketchbooks is unique so be sure to read the description carefully if you decide to buy.



I bought this sketchbook because I wanted it. I received no consideration, though this post contains affiliate links which help support Doodlewash community features. As always, all opinions expressed are my own.

Recommended5 recommendationsPublished in Art Supply Reviews
  1. Karen Howard 3 years ago

    Sandra, you paint the most beautiful sheep I’ve ever seen. The combination of the color on white hinting at the fact that nothing is ever sheer white is just beautiful I love your sheep! And I love Mary’s sketchbooks gonna check out Etsy and see if I can find them

    • Author
      Sandra Strait 3 years ago

      Thank you so much, Karen! I love this sketchbook and am so looking forward to all the sheep I’m going to paint in it.

      • Karen Howard 3 years ago

        And they will be beautiful. Hey I have a question: we still acquire DO points but I haven’t seen anywhere to use them.
        I think I must’ve missed some news. Been busy for a while with my ailing dad. Passed away in September at 101 & 1/2! He was quite a guy and we miss him.

        • Author
          Sandra Strait 3 years ago

          I’m so sorry to hear about your Father. I lost my Mother in August. She was 96. I’m so glad I had her for as long as I did, but no matter how long, it’s never enough! You’d have to ask Charlie about the DO points, but I think it’s been discontinued.

  2. Walter F Pierluissi 3 years ago

    Sandra, the info on the watercolor books is good, but your painting on the sheep’s are really fantastic… HOOD JOB girl!!!!

  3. Karen Fortier 3 years ago

    Fantastic review Sandra!

  4. Mary Roff 3 years ago

    Thanks for the review, Sandra, and I am so happy that you are enjoying the book! Love all of your sheep!!

    • Author
      Sandra Strait 3 years ago

      Many thanks, Mary! Your book has been an inspiration!

  5. Lisa Ann Ulibarri 3 years ago

    Thanks for the wonderful review I have been eyeing those journals for awhile now lol. I always enjoy seeing your art in all you try its fabulous!!! 🙂

  6. Sharon Bonin-Pratt 3 years ago

    A sheep in the birch trees in the Roff birch sketchbook – perfect. Your beautiful art does justice to a beautiful book – though I would not discourage a beginner from using high quality materials.

    • Author
      Sandra Strait 3 years ago

      Thank you, Sharon! High quality materials certainly make a difference and this book is made from nothing bu high quality materials!

      • Sharon Bonin-Pratt 3 years ago

        Sandra, I keep meaning to tell you how impressed I am with your skill at creating white critters that aren’t at all white, yet we’re convinced they are. You’re masterful at this. Your courage at experimenting with paper and paints has given me the trust that I can do some of this too – scrubbing and lifting. It’s not keeping the paper pristine but impressing an image that’s really important. Thank you.

  7. Linda Calverley 3 years ago

    Thank you for the review, I love handmade books. Your sheep paintings are gorgeous, love those colours.

  8. alice 3 years ago

    can’t wait to get mine! it has shipped so it should be here soon! nice review 🙂

    • Author
      Sandra Strait 3 years ago

      Thank you, Alice! I can’t wait to see what you do in your book! I know it will be awesome!

  9. MT 3 years ago

    Thank you for sharing fantastic book binding idea and watercolour of sheep. So lovely.

  10. Mireya 3 years ago

    I love the samples you did with pens? Did you add water to the pens?

    • Author
      Sandra Strait 3 years ago

      Thank you, Mireya! I didn’t use pen only. I drew the sheep and magpie with Zensations technical pen, then painted it with watercolors, then used a Uniball Signo White gel pen to add white woolly texture.

      • Mireya 3 years ago

        oh ok

  11. Aneta 3 years ago

    Gorgeous book!! One of the very best papers, too! 👍

    • Author
      Sandra Strait 3 years ago

      It is indeed a beautiful book and full of fabulous paper. I’m truly enjoying working in it!

  12. Fanna Turano 3 years ago

    Sandra, I truly look forward to your reviews and ALWAYS purchase each item, in this sketch book arena, I bought 5! (2 for me, 3 for wc pals). I simply wanted to say thank you for such in-depth reviews, and always great advice. I shared with Mary Roff that your delicious review compelled me to buy her sketch books, and I bought hardback sizes as well as ringed and stitched. She was a lovely woman, artists, and I was impressed with her books. Naturally, scads of other handmade books jumped out at me, but Mary’s were so lovely.

    Just wanted to say thank you for all of your well-thought-out reviews, they simply happily force me to buy each and every item! I also loved the “flask” watercolors’ in those colorful, pull-top cases. Bought the mint green and chartreuse. Lovely colors, seemingly artist quality. You’re an excellent review “person,” and I’m thankful for you and your research.

    I’m also highly intrigued with your “tangles” and your painting, planning of each. I’ll have to read your review on DW more closely and intensely. They seem awfully complicated, as I was reminded of high school geometry. I have no earthly idea how it works, but I have a crazy brain that loves difficult details. They seem out of my school of thought, but as I stated, I am intrigued.

    Merry Christmas to you, and thank you once again for all of your research. I inevitably wind up loving every single item you’ve posted on DW! Appreciate all of your hard work in creating your reviews.

    Fanna Turano
    Denver, CO

    • Author
      Sandra Strait 3 years ago

      Thank you so much, Fanna! I’m so glad you enjoying my reviews and finding all sorts of great art supplies to try. I don’t think you can go wrong with Mary’s books (and ‘yes’, she is a wonderful person on all levels!). Tangles can get complicated, but the whole process is designed to break it down into steps and make it easy to do. It all started with Zentangle. The two are very similar, but Zentangle is more focused on the meditative qualities, while Tangling focuses more on the finished product. All in all, though both are designed to be easy and relaxing.

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