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June, 2009 -- Sketchbooks

I  recently received an email, inquiring about what sketchbooks would I recommend. At the same time, Cheap Joe’s sent me a couple of sketchbooks to try out, and so I thought it might be a good time to present a short history of my sketchbook experiences, and to give a brief comparison of books I’ve use over the years.

From the get go, when traveling, I’ve always preferred ring-bound sketchbooks to watercolor blocks. They make a nice compact unit, and I don’t have to figure out what to do with all the loose watercolors.

Utrecht Sketchbooks

When I was first starting my career in about 1980, my budget was limited, I wasn’t very good and I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. So I bought some Utrecht sketchbooks, and began using them in cafes, bars, nightclubs and on my first painting trips to Mexico.

The books were soft-covered, ring-bound, 9x12” and contained 50 sheets of 70 pound paper. Even with the pages clipped down, they would wrinkle and buckle under the scantest of washes. Nonetheless, they were my first record of my struggles to become proficient, and the stacks in my studio cabinet attest to my honest, first attempts at capturing the world around me. Although I still use them to plan studio paintings, I no longer consider them an adequate support for water media.

Here’s a couple of examples from an early trip to Michoacan, Mexico:


The Parque National in Uruapan, Mexico –

A wall of masks in the home of a Patzcuaro artist –


Aquabee Super Deluxe

Sometime in the middle eighties, I purchased a book “The Joy of Watercolor”, by David Millard. I loved his simplistic, colorist approach. In the book he mentioned that he used Aquabee Super Deluxe sketchbooks, and so I went out and purchased one.

The books are soft-covered, and ring-bound with 60 14”x11” sheets of 90 pound paper. This was certainly a step up for me, and the books became my constant companions on trips to Central America, North Africa, Europe and Indonesia.

 As my technique improved, I began to recognize the limitations of these sketchbooks. It was difficult to lay down a large, clean wash without annoying drying lines, and the 90-pound paper still tended towards buckling. Plus, because of the soft cover, the books had a tendency, after extensive use, to have a permanent warp. Although I no longer use them, they produce some fine memories and some pretty darn good watercolors.

Here’s a few examples:

One afternoon, in Bali, I was sitting a thatched hut when one of those legendary monsoon storms came racing in. Just before it came crashing down, I was able to execute this watercolor in about 15 to 20 minutes. The rains were so heavy, that, moments after I completed it, you couldn’t see across the road. The paper always caused some irregularities in the large washes. But, in this case, they actually contribute to the drama.

Approachin Storm – Bali

This scene was painted from a shaded doorway in Arcos de la Frontera, Spain.


I painted this one evening, at the Feast of Guadalupe, in the Copper Canyon of Mexico.


Parsons Sketchbooks

When I lived in Santa Fe, there was (and still is) an art supply store called Artisan Santa Fe. They had a company in New Jersey making them 11x14”, hard-covered, double ring-bound watercolor sketchbooks, containing 20 sheets of 140 pound Parson’s (now defunct), cold pressed, watercolor paper. I felt, at the time, that I’d hit a jackpot. Because of the hard covers, the books wore well, offered a firm support for painting, and they traveled well.

The paper was smooth surfaced, and a bit oversized (less absorbent). On the plus side, as a result of the extra sizing, the paint sat more on the surface, was richer with less value change between the wet and dry stages. On the minus side, broad washes were subject to streaking, and one had to overpaint with a light touch in order to avoid disturbing the already dry passages.

I adapted my technique, and these books became a mainstay for several years.

Here’s a couple of examples:

Dingle Harbor – Ireland

River Clune – Scotland


In recent years, I’ve come to carry two different books with me on my trips: the Canson/Montval Field Sketchbook and a ringed-bound Arches watercolor book.

Canson/Montval Field Sketchbooks

These books are commonly available through most suppliers. They are hard-covered, ring-bound, and contain 20 sheets of 140, cold-pressed, watercolor paper. I prefer the 11x14” size.

Once again, the paper is somewhat oversized, making broad washes more challenging. However, there are certain subjects that I want a bit hard-edged, and seem more appropriate for this type of paper, and my approach is generally more compartmentalized (see August, ’08 newsletter “Compartmentalizing Your Washes).

Some examples:

Mexican Garden

Dart River – Devonshire


For more examples, see February, “07 newletter “California Watercolors”

Arches Watercolor Sketchbook

These books are just what you would expect from Arches watercolor paper. They are hard-covered, double ring-bound, and contain 15 sheets of 140 pound watercolor paper. They are a little pricey, hard to find and the size is peculiar – 10x14”. Nonetheless, for working wet into wet, and using general watercolor technique, they get the job done.

Two examples:

Cornwall Coast, England

Cuenca, Spain



Joe Miller of Cheap Joe’s Art Supplies graciously sent me a couple of watercolor sketchbooks to try out: his own American Journey watercolor sketchbook and a Kilimanjaro watercolor sketchbook.

Using references from my Indonesian sketchbooks, I did several paintings in each of these books.

American Journal Sketchbook

This book is hard-covered, double ring-bound, and contains 20 sheets of 140 pound, cold-pressed watercolor paper. The paper is elegant, with a nicely textured surface. It is more heavily sized, like the Canson/Montval books, making it more suitable to a compartmentalized painting technique.

One of the advantages of a harder paper is that you can carefully lift dried paint, and rework an area. Here’s an example from the American Journal sketchbook.

Step One:

I wet the page, and rough in the whole area using blues, yellows, greens and some selected warms. I let this dry.


Step Two:

Next, using a soft brush, some clear water and a soft tissue, I gently (so as not to disturb the nap of the paper) lift a bit of the dry pigment, forming rough architectural shapes. Once again, letting that area dry.

Step Three:

I go back in and form some general thatched structures.

This can be an effective way to recapture white paper from areas that inadvertently painted out. Having said that, it can also become a crutch, and I prefer the natural white of the paper, and those beautiful, planned white shapes that are left untouched, with their irregular edges.

I like this book, and I would like to see it offered in a larger size – say 11x14”.

Kilimanjaro Watercolor Sketchbook

This book is 12x9”, double ring-bound, with a soft cover, and 20 sheets of cold-pressed watercolor paper, with a white barrier sheet between each of the watercolor sheets.

This is a fine paper, with a beautiful, irregular surface that takes watercolor in a classic way. I laid down broad washes, worked wet into wet, did extensive overpainting, and discovered that the paper responded well to everything I could throw at it.

The following is an example of one of the pieces that I painted in this sketchbook:

Balinese Temple

I wasn’t familiar with Kilimanjaro watercolor paper, but I liked it a lot, and I could easily consider using this paper as my workhorse stock. I had only three considerations with the sketchbook. A hard cover would give more painting support, and make the book more durable. If they would produce an 11x14 version, I would definitely consider taking these books on my painting trips. Lastly, I don’t get the barrier paper between each sheet. It’s a waste of paper, and creates a lot of unnecessary bulk. I usually carry one sheet of Bristol Board with me that I insert behind the sheet that I’m working on. 

I’m aware that artists have different working methods, and they take their materials very seriously. I don’t consider my opinions definitive, by any means. I only hope that this newsletter may be of some assistance when you are picking out that perfect sketchbook for you next watercolor excursion.

Happy painting!