Sketchbooks: Stillman and Birn Nova Trio Sketchbook (review)

For a long time, I’d been wanting to experiment with sketching and painting on toned backgrounds, but couldn’t decide which colour to try and was reluctant to buy a sketchbook with a particular paper colour in case I didn’t care for it. When the Stillman and Birn Nova Trio sketchbooks came out, I was eager to try one out, and finally managed to get one this week.

Stillman and Birn sell their toned Nova paper series in three colours: grey, black and beige. This Nova Trio sketchbook has 51 sheets and includes all three colours.

This sketchbook has a hardcover, but you can also buy the Nova Trio in softcover versions (though I think they’re different shapes and sizes). The paper is 150gsm, which is pretty standard for sketchbook paper, but in terms of texture, it seems a bit more on the smooth side compared to their Beta sketchbook paper. When I used coloured pencils, it could take quite a few layers, though when it came to the oil pastels I started having difficulty layering a lot more quickly. I could still manage in the end, but I had to let the pastel get cold and ‘set up’ a bit before continuing on.

Some of the marketing material mentions that it stands up to multiple washes of watercolour, but as much as I like this sketchbook for drawing, I’m not sure I’d turn to it for painting. For one thing, watercolours either won’t stand out at all (on the black) or will look muted and off-colour (on the beige and grey) unless you use opaque colours or gouache. You could just use the Alpha or Gamma paper from Stillman and Birn (same texture and properties, just in white or ivory, respectively), but having tried those papers as well, I wasn’t that impressed with their ability to withstand heavy washes or any of the more punishing watercolour techniques. The paper was alright when I was just doing normal washes (although it did buckle a lot, even with only moderate washes) but as soon as I started scrubbing and trying to lift, the paper began to pill. I also found that even colours that are usually non-staining were a bit difficult to lift.

Even when using coloured pencils, I had to be very careful erasing and only use a kneaded eraser as using a vinyl one altered the surface quite quickly, even when not much pressure was applied. I think that for sketches or drawings where you’re going to use gouache or maybe watersoluble pencils and then apply washes and leave them alone, the Nova Trio paper would probably be fine (and when I get more time I want to experiment with doing some gouache paintings in this book).

This is a sketch of some irises I did on the black paper using oil pastels.

Here’s a sketch of some peaches in watersoluble crayons on the grey paper (my desk light makes it look more yellowish than it is).

And this was a coloured pencil drawing of another friend’s dog, Maggie, on the beige paper.

The Stillman and Birn Nova Trio sketchbooks are nice if you want to experiment with sketching on different coloured backgrounds but don’t want to have to buy or carry around three different sketchbooks. The texture is smooth and lends itself to fine detail, but if you want to do heavy washes, I’d recommend the Beta sketchbooks instead.

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