best watercolour sketchbooks

The Best Watercolour Sketchbooks: A Review

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The best watercolour sketchbooks for artists—a review of five different sketchbooks from some top quality brands.

There’s nothing better than a good watercolour sketchbook, with blank white pages ready to be covered in paint. The possibilities are endless, sketchbooks are an artists’ free space, where they can create in total privacy without judgement. In a sketchbook, you don’t need to worry about making mistakes, because that’s what they’re all about, practising and improving. 

First it’s important to understand what makes a quality sketchbook, so you know what you’re looking for. In the product review I’ll go over the features of each sketchbook so you can choose what will suit you best.

What makes a great sketchbook?

Paper weight

Thick paper is the most essential feature. Water can make paper buckle, so ensure you look for sketchbooks that have a paper weight of 200gsm or more. If you get a sketchbook with thin pages, the paper will start to warp, buckle, pill and even fall apart with washes of water.

Paper fibre: why acid-free, cotton paper is best

Another thing to consider is the type of paper you are getting. It’s always important to look for acid-free paper as this is archival and professional quality. Acid-free paper doesn’t yellow over time. Paper with cotton in it is far more stable than paper made from cellulose. Cellulose sketchbooks are cheaper and many brands make their sketchbooks with a mixture of cotton and wood pulp.

To prevent paint from being absorbed straight into the paper fibres, manufacturers size their paper. Paper is commonly sized with gelatin which stops the paint from sinking in, giving a vibrant appearance. If you don’t use animal products, Etchr makes a wonderful vegan friendly sketchbook.

Hot pressed, cold pressed or rough?

hot pressed watercolour paper
Hot Pressed Paper
Cold Pressed Paper
Rough Paper

Hot pressed, cold pressed and rough simply describes the way in which the paper has been treated. This is important to know about because it can affect the finished appearance of a painting.

Hot pressed paper is the smoothest, and is therefore for artists who love painting in delicate, fine details. This type of paper is best for lifting techniques as it is the least absorbent.

Cold pressed paper has a slight surface texture where very fine details may be obscured, however it’s much better at taking watery washes as it is more absorbent.

Rough paper is the most absorbent, so is the best for techniques like heavy washes and glazing.

Portability

No two artists are the same, and neither is the way they use their sketchbook. One artist might need a pocket sized book they can carry around with them to make quick sketches, another might want a bigger book to plan colour schemes, compositions and drawings before transferring to a final piece of paper.

A compact sketchbook will be more portable— a great feature for those who don’t want it to take up much space in their bag. However, if you’re a student, you may want a slightly larger sketchbook that gives adequate space to document your workflow and process.

Best watercolour sketchbooks: reviewed

Moleskine watercolour album

Buy it here.

Attributes: cotton blend, cold press, ivory white paper, 200gsm, 30 sheets

This sketchbook comes in several different sizes including A3, A4, large and pocket. It is presented as a sleek black thread bound book with a faux leather feel and elastic closure. 

It has inner storage compartments for you to keep loose sheets or references. The paper colour is an ivory white and is fairly thick at 200gsm. 

On this weight of paper, I wouldn’t go overboard with the washes, but it will be able to take some water. The paper is cold-pressed so it has a slight texture to it. 

With this journal, you could fold it out flat and paint a double page spread for a panoramic effect.

Strathmore Visual Journal

Buy it here.

Attributes: 22 sheets, cold press, natural white, 300gsm, spiral bound

Strathmore’s Visual Journal is made from 22 pages of high quality, thick cold-pressed paper that has a wonderful, smooth texture. This journal is aimed at the intermediate artist, due to the quality of the paper, but a beginner and equally a professional artist would get lots of enjoyment out of it too.

There are two size options, and two paper thickness options. Strathmore offers a 300gsm watercolour journal, which is heavy! It will be able to take even watercolour washes without buckling or pilling. Because the paper is so thick, you would be able to paint on both sides of the page.

Remove the flysheet to reveal the decorative cover beneath. The cover is hard enough to comfortably rest on whilst painting and the spiral binding means you can open it to 360°.

Watercolour painting in Strathmore’s Visual Journal by Joly Poa.

Hahnemuhle Watercolour Book

Buy it here.

Attributes: fine grain, portrait format, 200gsm, 30 sheets, natural white, cellulose 

The Hahnemuhle watercolour book is made from 200gsm natural white, acid-free paper that has a finer texture compared to some of the other journals.

The cover of the journal has a canvas effect and an elastic to keep it secured shut.

Etchr Everyday Sketchbook

Buy it here.

Attributes: 100% cotton, cold press, vegan, 230gsm, 26 sheets, hardbound

This book is made for mixed media, but works like a dream with watercolour. The acid-free paper is made from cotton and is cold pressed, meaning it has a slight texture. It has a customisable cover and lies completely flat, making it comfortable to work on.

At 230gsm the paper is thicker than some others on the list and you can paint on each side of the page. If you like to use mixed media, the sketchbook can be used with ink, acrylic and gouache too. The book comes in three sizes, A6, A5 and A4.

This paper works wonderfully with a variety of watercolour techniques, such as wet-on-wet, glazing and lifting.

Colours look brilliantly vibrant on Etchr paper.

Stillman and Birn Beta Series

Buy it here.

Attributes: 270gsm, 26 pages, sewn binding, cellulose, 8×10”, cold press

This archival quality paper is heavyweight but suits lighter washes rather than wet on wet techniques.

Its beautiful navy softcover feels luxurious—paint in it with watercolour, gouache, ink or graphite.

Sketchbook tips

best watercolour sketchbooks

You may have chosen your perfect sketchbook already and now want some tips on how to keep your watercolour journal looking its best. 

The journals on this list generally have thick paper, but to prevent the paper from warping under wet on wet techniques, slide a piece of card beneath the page and secure it in place with a bulldog clip. This also prevents any paint from splashing on pages beneath.

To neaten up a painting in a journal, you could choose to mask around the edges. Get some painter’s masking tape and neatly line up the tape so it runs along each edge. Then paint over it and remove the tape when you’re done to create a white border. You’ll want to get masking tape with low tack, to prevent it from tearing your journal paper. Sometimes even low tack masking tape doesn’t want to come away without taking some of the paper with it. Resolve this by pointing a hairdryer on a low heat setting at the masking tape from a few inches away. Gently heat the tape until the adhesive relaxes. You should be able to peel the tape away with ease.

If you like to paint on the go, or outdoors, get some supplies that are easy to carry with you. These watercolour brushes store water in the handle, the water glides out as you paint. 

Watercolour pencils are also a great option for sketchbook work. Choose to use them dry and paint over them with some water or dip the nibs in water for a saturated effect.

Best watercolour sketchbooks: Pin it!

Watercolour painting: Further reading

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