Sketchbooks: Stillman & Birn Beta Series Softcover Sketchbook (review)

Since I often don’t get much time to sketch when I’m out and about, I prefer to work in small sketchbooks when I do have the opportunity. As I’ve mentioned previously, I found that the Moleskine sketchbooks – even the ones supposedly designed for watercolour – don’t really stand up to more than a very light wash, which is not ideal for me as I prefer to sketch in watercolour rather than other media like inks and pencils (though I do use pencils in some sketches).

A while ago I saw that Jackson’s in the UK had a gift set of six Stillman & Birn pocket-sized softcover sketchbooks on sale, so I thought it was a cheap way to try all their different papers at once. The first book I tried was the Beta series, with the blue cover.

Of the six types of paper, three of them are called “Heavyweight” at 150gsm, while three are “Extra Heavyweight” at 270gsm. Most are white but there are a few ivory papers, and there’s a range of surfaces from smooth to medium grain to cold press. The Beta series paper is Extra Heavyweight white paper with a cold press surface. The Heavyweight sketchbooks seem to have nearly twice as many sheets as the Extra Heavyweight (46 sheets versus 26 sheets) but of course the trade-off is that the paper is not as thick or sturdy. The ones in the pack I got were all portrait orientation but you can get landscape ones as well. Also, it seems Stillman & Birn have recently brought out a Nova Trio book that has three colours (black, grey and beige) in one sketchbook, though sadly these seem to be hard to find in stores anywhere (which is a shame as I’d like to get one). You can buy these colours in separate sketchbooks, though.

The first time I took my Beta sketchbook out, with the intention of using watercolour pencil and washes, I accidentally left my waterbrush at home. However I figured it was still a good opportunity to test how the paper handled dry media. Given that it’s a cold press paper (the ‘roughest’ of the Stillman & Birn sketchbook papers), there was some nice broken texture that resulted from using the pencils dry, though I was able to smooth it out by pressing down harder. That being said, it’s not as textured as a regular cold press watercolour paper, so you are somewhat limited to how many layers of pencil you can put down (in some places in the drawing below, I did find myself running out of tooth so the paper wouldn’t take more layers). This wasn’t a big deal as I usually only do a large number of layers on proper finished pieces, whereas sketchbooks are a few layers at most due to time constraints/general laziness etc.

“Sunlit Leaves”. Based on a photo by Michelle Cassandra Vincent.

At a point in time, I did a sketch of the beach while on a research retreat, using watercolour pencils and watercolours. I had coloured the blue areas of the sky in with a pencil and then washed over it with a waterbrush, but it did take a little scrubbing with the brush to remove the visible strokes from sky. The paper did start to pill a bit, but I still think it did well to stand up to as much abuse as it did before it started to pill (the book also got dropped in the sand and stood on by a dog and came through unscathed).

“Mount Eliza beach.” Sketched on location.

The sketchbook is so small it fits easily in my school bag or even my pocket, so I’ve got into the habit of taking it to uni, along with a small box of paints (lately I’ve been enjoying my Derwent Inktense paint pan travel set). When my students have a class where they just work on their assignment (and therefore there are no tutorial activities for me to run), it gives me time to do some sketches.

“Royal”. Sketched from imagination.

I’ve done a few sketches in this book now, and I’m happy to say the paper is pretty resilient when it comes to washes. Even for paintings where I covered the whole page and washed several layers of colour over the background, the paper buckled very little, and even then, only really on one edge when I’d inadvertently drenched the paper by squeezing my waterbrush too hard. As I mentioned above, it will pill a bit if you scrub at it too much, but as long as you’re careful with the brush, you can put down several layers of watercolour (or probably ink as well) quite easily. Another thing I liked about it is that, unlike with normal watercolour paper, I was able to use a rubber eraser to make corrections without affecting the surface paper; I find that when I use watercolour paper, I need to use a kneadable eraser or it damages the texture.

In terms of price, these sketchbooks are in the low to middle of the range as far as buying a book of a similar size goes, but this doesn’t take into account the type of paper. Yes, some other sketchbooks are cheaper, but they also use thinner paper, so it’s worth paying a few dollars extra for a Stillman & Birn Beta; in fact, some of the more expensive ones still used inferior paper that would only be suitable for drawing, not for any water media.

Here are some other sketches I’ve done in the Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook.

“Indigo”. Based on a photo by Michelle Cassandra Vincent.

“Grace, sketch”. Based on a photo by Lesley Charlesworth.

I haven’t had a chance to try the other Stillman & Birn sketchbooks yet, but so far I’ve been very happy with the Beta series sketchbook. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants a durable paper for sketching out in the field, especially anyone who may have been somewhat disappointed with the Moleskin. With the variety of sizes available, you’ll be able to find one that fits in your sketching kit, and you won’t have to worry about the paper curling up like a pretzel if you use watercolour.

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