Stillman & Birn Sketchbooks: Excellence In Execution

I’m new to sketching, but  I’ve been doing it nearly six months and I am a paper and pen freak.  I just love them and in spite of hammering away on a computer all the time, I have at least a dozen pens inked up and various waterbrushes, brush pens, pencils, nib pens, and paint brushes in use regularly.  It’s nuts, I know, as my abilities with these tools are limited but, for me, playing with the tools is just as important as doing art.

My approach to paper has been different.  I’ve spent the last bunch of decades as a fountain pen user – almost exclusively.  Fountain pens require high-quality papers if you’re going to enjoy them to their fullest.  So while I’ve tried the ever-popular Moleskine journals, my requirement for a paper had been reduced to “Is it made by Clairefontaine/Rhodia?”  If it was, I was happy.

This didn’t work for sketching, principally because I needed a more absorbant, and thicker, paper so I could play in the watercolor pond.  So I started a quest for sketchbook/journals.  I just counted and I have NINE of them (remember, I’ve only been doing this for six months).  When the dust settled, I had fallen in love with the Stillman & Birn Alpha series sketchbooks.  The binding is bulletproof and the paper far exceeds expectations when it comes to handling lots of water while doing watercolor washes.  I reviewed the Alpha here, comparing it to my Fabiano Venezia sketchbook.  Here are a couple of the sketches I’ve done in it to give you some idea of how the paper responds.

And so I was like a kid at Christmas when the postman arrived with my order of new Stillman & Birn sketchbooks.  I wanted to a spiral-bound book for field sketching and while my pack can’t handle 9x12s, I bought the 7×10 Alpha for that purpose.  I like the idea of sketching without having a double-page spread to contend with, mostly because I’ve watched other artists working with spiral-bound journals in videos.

I also picked up a twin of my current 5.5×8.5 Alpha hardcover journal, though it’s not an identical twin.  Instead, this one is from the Stillman & Birn Epsilon series and while paper thickness (100lb) is the same, it has a smoother ‘plate’ finish.  The Alphas are quite smooth but, being curious, I thought I’d give an Epsilon a try because a couple artists I admire are using them with good results.  Of course, they could create great art on the bottom of a cafeteria table.  They say that watercolor tends to puddle a bit (the effect on all smooth surfaced papers) but that they actually like the results.  I’m excited to try the Epsilon.  You can find more info about these journals on the Stillman & Birn website.  Oh…and no, I don’t work for them.  I just like their journals.

It’s said that the scariest thing for writers and artists is the blank page.  In my experience, there’s some truth to that.  Somehow, though, I’m really excited about having a couple hundred blank pages to fill.  What are your favorite journal/sketchbooks?

10 thoughts on “Stillman & Birn Sketchbooks: Excellence In Execution

  1. Currently I’m using a Moleskine Sketchbook. I like the paper and its yellowish color for my pen and ink drawings. Sometimes is not good enough when I apply watercolor, it depends on the number of washes and the size and quality of the brushes: I find it works better with synthetic brushes, they don’t keep as water as the Kolinsky ones. I will try one of those Stillman&Birn sketchbooks.

    Thanks for the review, Larry!

  2. Great review Larry, I am very happy working with the Alpha Series. I have also worked with the Moleskine – they are both very nice. I find my Stillman and Birn book to be my favorite so far. I just received their 180 lb Beta, and Delta series books, and will soon be breaking those in. I think for watercolor washes they will be an even better choice, but we’ll see. I like you have only been art journaling for a few months. I have several journals that I am working out of – maybe one day I’ll complete one;-)

  3. Nuno, thanks for your comment. It’s always interesting to hear what others use and how they use them. I used Moleskine notebooks for years, for writing, but in recent years I’ve found their paper inconsistent. I do like my small Moleskine watercolor sketchbooks, though, and wish they’d produce a portrait version of it.

    Cheers — Larry

  4. Hi Jeanne…
    Thanks for stopping by my blog and for talking about your Alpha experience. If my Alpha has taught me anything it’s that paper weight is only one factor determining how the paper holds up to water as I have other 100lb papers that buckle like crazy when I apply a wash.

    I chuckled over the fact that I’m not alone in having a bunch of journals. I think those of us new to sketching, at least we curious types, have to sort through our choices and when it comes to journals it seems the only way to do that is to end up with a bunch of them, with 3-4 sketches in each. I do hope I will become better organized as I settle into my preferences.

    Cheers — Larry

  5. Ah, it’s always so nice to read about someone else who is new to sketching and disregarding all the “draw only with one tool” stuff. I am on my third attempt at learning to sketch, I have to say this is the best so far (many thanks to Danny Gregory, whom you cited in one of your other posts). I’m amassing a lovely collection of fountain pens and still working on “my favorite” journal. That said-in January our local art store had a sale on the Stillman Birn sketchbooks. I ended up with an 8×10 Epsilon series-partly for wanting ink and watercolor and partly for wanting a bound book. (I think I was nervous about yet another wire-bound sketchbook waiting to be finished). I’m about half-way through and really like it. I’m a bit concerned about the size for travel, but that’s about my only concern thus far. I’ve done a bit of color and had no problems at all with the paper, or with bleed-through from pens.

    My take on things at the moment is that I’m pretty much doing all the fun art-experimenting that my grandsons are doing-I’m just doing it at a later age. So if I want to experiment with color I do. It’s all great fun!

  6. Hi Rosemary,
    Thanks for your comment. I have to confess that I’ve never heard the ‘draw only with one tool’ advice but then I don’t get my advice from art schools. As for Danny Gregory, I took from his books that I didn’t need to ‘learn to sketch’ but rather I just needed to do it and I’d get better at it 🙂 In my case, at least, that appears to be true, but the most important thing to me is that I’m having a lot of fun doing it.

    To be honest, I’m torn between the spiral-bound and hardbound format. I like the hardbound from an esthetic point of view but I have to say that when I go out sketching, my new 10×7 spiral bound is wonderful as I have a single 10×7 sitting on my lap as I sketch. I’ve got both and use both. Fickle I guess…just like with my many fountain pens 🙂

    I can relate to that age thing. Who says you can’t teach old dogs new tricks (grin).

    Cheers — Larry

  7. I thought I wrote you, thanking you for these sketchbook demos. Really helpful the way that you show them, Larry.
    And I do love your sketches and paintings.

    annie (BeginAgin from the Sketching Forum).

  8. Thanks for your comments, Annie. I’m still new to sketching and I remember looking for materials that worked for me. Most difficult was the sketchbook itself as most you find in stores fall short if you want to do pen/ink and watercolor sketching. I spent a LOT of money trying a number of them. When S&B came along my problem was solved and I can’t imagine using anything else.

    Cheers — Larry

  9. When you open your Stillman & Birn to work on, does it open up flat with ease, or must you keep fighting it with one hand to keep it open as you draw with the other?

    • Tim, when you take an S&B sketchbook out of its shrink-wrap it will not stay open. This is because of the double-stitched coptic binding.

      But also, because of the way it’s bound, all you have to do is muster up a bit of ‘brave’ and break it in. Unlike many sketchbooks, you can bend an S&B back to the point that both covers can touch one another. Do this repeatedly as you open every couple pages and you’ll generate a sketchbook that will stay put, unless it’s windy as it is in Quebec most of the time 🙂 Jamie Grossman did a blog post on doing this and you can see it here:

      Cheers — Larry

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