Prepping For Paris: Choosing A Travel Journal

7:07 AM

A sampling of the sketchbooks I've made or used
Choosing a sketchbook is (or should be, in my opinion) as important as buying a pair of shoes you can wear all day long, every day you're on a trip. It will be your daily companion and there are few things worse than being stuck with a lousy companion made of crummy paper! It's worth it to make sure you will like your choice long before you leave. 

Choosing a travel sketchbook should be based on our personal likes and dislikes as well as a few more considerations. You have the usual choices of journal size, cover type, binding, page orientation, paper finish, and number of pages. It is also helpful to consider the overall weight and size of the journal with regard to hauling said journal around with you, your work style (sitting down vs. standing up) and which medium you will be using the most on the trip. 

By answering a few questions first, it's becomes a little easier to suss out what will work best.

Your Working Style
Let's answer some questions to get a better idea of what you like and how you like to work:
Do you like to write a lot in your travel journal? If you've art journaled/travel journaled before, you may have an idea of how much you like to write and draw. If not, do your write in a journal as a regular practice or when you go on vacations? If you do, this will effect the number of pages you'll want in your journal, the size of the journal and the type of paper you want. A smoother paper might be best if you mostly write and only draw a little.

How will you be traveling—by foot, in a car, etc.? Size is ever so important to consider when you're going to be on foot or hiking a lot. The journal needs to be of a size and weight that's easy to carry as well as to work in. If you're going to one location and venturing out from that place each day, this may not matter so much. But if you're hiking for the entire trip and you won't have a chance to set the book aside, consider the weight of the journal!

Do you simply want to sketch with little writing? If this is the case, there are any number of sketchbooks on the market. Choosing a paper finish based on your preferred medium (ink, marker, pencil, watercolor, etc.), page count and size will be your deciding points. 

Are you a traditionalist or a rebel? There is no right answer to this one and the question is not meant to be a challenge! If you tend towards more traditional work, then a vertical format in a 5.5 x 8.5 inch format is about as traditional as you can go. If you're more of a rebel (or you get bored easily), you may want to try a square format or a long, skinny format. 

Let me state very clearly: the time to find out you are NOT a rebel is BEFORE the trip! There are few things more frustrating than finding out you despise the format of your sketchbook when you're a long way from an art store and you've already started in the sketchbook you've learned to hate. See more below on testing out choices. 

Do you like to work in more than one medium? This can effect the type of paper you want in your journal. Watercolor paper is very versatile in that it will accept a number of different mediums well. However, if having paper you can write on or use a pen on is most important, cold press watercolor paper may have more texture than you prefer. (I tend to choose my paper based on the medium I will use most when traveling. Since almost all of my work is ink and wash, I know I want a watercolor paper that will hold up to washes and still let me get a decent line on the page.)

Do you like to add ephemera (receipts, cards, etc.), photos, and found objects into your journal? These little added bits usually help to tell the tale in ways just art or photos alone could never do. If you add a lot of ephemera, it can really bulk up a journal so that it doesn't close well. If you lean towards this type of journaling, coil binding is an excellent option as you have more room to add in these fun elements and the book will have a better chance of lying flat when you're finished. 

Do you work sitting down or standing up? If you are only comfortable sitting down at a table, this can effect your choices because when you're on a trip, there's not always a table handy. Hardcovers are a good option as they give you some support while you work in your lap or while standing up. If you can work standing up, how important is to have some kind of support? Again, a journal with hard covers may be what you need. If you choose a very small sketchbook (3 x 5 or 4 x 6 inch), a soft cover may be fine. 
A variety of Stillman & Birn Sketchbooks
Making Choices
Keeping the answers above in mind, let's discuss and answer this next set of questions:

Binding Choices: Hard cover, soft cover, coptic stitched, perfect bound or spiral bound? 
Hardcover watercolor journals are great in that they give you a support when you are sketching in your lap or standing up rather than at a table. It is easy to work across two pages to create a full "spread" and they're available in a variety of papers. More often than not, hardcover journals are perfect bound (see below). This means removing pages is nearly impossible and it's likely you'll have pages left over at the end of the trip.

Softcovers are way, way more flexible than a hardbound sketchbook and can easily slip into a back pocket (depending on size). You will find softcovers in both perfect binding and spiral binding, but mostly perfect binding. They can be folded back on themselves with ease. Some of the hardbound books can too but not all. These books tend to be much lighter than hardbound books. The trade-off is not having a lot of support. If you work standing up, this may be a challenge depending on the overall size of the journal. Again, size, orientation, and paper finishes run the gamut. 

Perfect binding is the type of binding used with magazines and most hardcover books. Because the pages are bound in with glue and/or stitching and we're less tempted to remove "mistakes." The flip side of that is that unless you are a very prolific sketcher and or writer, you probably won't fill all of the pages in one trip. Also, if you add a lot of ephemera, you may have a very cumbersome journal on your hands that does not close well. 

Coptic stitched journals come in a variety of paper finishes and sizes as well as page count. Most have hard covers and can be used as a support. These are usually available via book artists rather than through a commercial source, though you will occasionally find them. Again, there is a set number of pages that are not easily removed and while there is typically more play in this type of journal for adding bits of ephemera, it's not infinite. 

Spiral bound journals easily fold over on themselves and usually have hard covers so there's support. They work well with added ephemera and pages can be more easily removed or added. With that said, their downside is working across the middle "gutter" of the page to do a full spread. It can be done, but it's not as cohesive as working in a bound book where there is not a gap between the pages.

Paper choices vary greatly and much of our choice will come down to our preferred style of journaling
If you are a primarily a writer, then having a paper that is easy to write on will be key. 
If you are primarily a sketcher (pen or pencil but without much color), it will be important to have a paper with a lot of tooth for pencil but smooth enough to allow for decent line quality if you want to add ink. 
If you are a primarily a watercolor sketcher, then it is imperative that the sketchbook you choose can handle washes and paint regardless of paper finish (smooth, rough, etc.).

Another choice for a travel journal is to make your own. I often wind up making my own journal as I like to play around with page sizes and paper types. Depending on the paper I currently favor, I may or may not be able to find a sketchbook in the orientation or size I want. I talk about building my own for the Paris trip here and here

Making your own sketchbook is a lot of fun, but takes a bigger investment in time. If you're new to sketching, I would recommend waiting on making your own until you've tested out some of the choices commercially available so that you know what you like as well as what you don't like! 

Choosing The Sketchbook That's Right For YOU
Take a look at how you work, at what size you work best at, the type of work you do MOST often (writing vs. drawing vs. painting), the medium you use MOST (ink vs. pencil vs. watercolor vs. marker) and base your choice on these things. 

Arches, Blick, Canson, Fabriano, Hand•Book, Moleskine, Pentalic, Strathmore, Stillman & Birn, and many more all have sketchbooks on the market and most of good, if not excellent, quality. It all comes down to choosing what will work best for you. 

If forced to make a recommendation, I would ask you the questions above and attempt to suss out your level of experience and your preferred medium. Based on those answers, I'd probably recommend a Stillman & Birn, Strathmore or Arches sketchbook for you. It would be no larger than 5.5 x 8.5 or 7 x 7 inches and it would most likely be in a vertical format rather than landscape or horizontal. 

If I don't have the time to make a sketchbook, Stillman & Birn Zeta series is my second best go-to sketchbook as it accepts watercolor and pen and ink equally well. I've even made my own sketchbook out of the Zeta paper (it's available in full sheets) because I like it so much. The Zeta paper is not for everyone—test it first. You may find you like the Beta Series better!
Variety of styles and covers

Here's What I Know
These last few notes are about what I've learned on the trips I've sketched and journaled on:
  • I have yet to fill a sketchbook while traveling. It's like going to a wonderful restaurant and ordering everything on the menu only to realize you cannot possibly eat it all. I always have pages left over. If I go to the same location more than once, I just make a new title page to indicate the next trip. If the sketchbook is spiral bound, I'll occasionally remove the pages if I can use them in a different sketchbook. 
  • Do not, I repeat, DO NOT take a new-to-you sketchbook on a trip that you've never sketch or written in before. I've seen it happen and it seriously dampens our enthusiasm when we're fighting the paper because it won't accept watercolor or the ink bleeds or it's too rough to write on. ALWAYS test before you go
  • In fact, if you want to use a new-to-you sketchbook, buy two. Start working in one today, while you're still at home, to make sure you're going to like it and to learn its limitations. If you like it enough, you can use the second one for the trip. 
  • Size matters! If you generally work small, don't take a 7 x 10 inch sketchbook on a trip—you'll never get it filled. Conversely, if you regularly work on 7 x 10 inch pages, don't frustrate yourself by switching to a 3 x 5 inch sketchbook. You'll have to decide if you can be comfortable working in a smaller sized journal like a 7 x 7 inch or 5 x 8 inch, but don't hobble yourself by going too small unless you're looking for that specific challenge. 
  • Weight matters! Just know that the bigger the book, the more it weighs. (Seems obvious, right? You'd be surprised.) If it has a leather cover or is hardbound, it weighs more. At the start of the trip, the journal will weigh a few ounces. By the end of the trip, I can guarantee you it will weigh close to 17 pounds! Trust me on this. It may even weigh twice that if you've been hiking the whole time!
  • There is NO perfect sketchbook...or at least, I have yet to find the perfect sketchbook and it's not for lack of trying! For me, two things are key...making sure the paper accepts my chosen medium (watercolor), and ease of use. I've never take a journal larger than 7 x 7 inches or 5.5 x 8.5 inches as I don't work large enough to make it worth the extra hassle of carrying a larger journal. I want something I can easily wrestle with while I'm holding onto my palette, paper towels and brush as it seems I'm seldom at a table when I create.
  • Last, but certainly not least, the time to experiment is at home, not on a trip. New papers, new paints, new pens, new inks, new ANYTHING should all be tested out multiple times long before you leave home. Your tried-and-true favorites should be tested (multiple) times in any new sketchbook you're considering taking for the trip. There's nothing wrong with experimentation and I highly recommend it, but with EVERYTHING that goes on when we're traveling, the last thing any of us want is to have to fight our journal to create. 
Do you have an old favorite you go to time and again or are you more on the adventurous side and like to try something new? 

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4 Creative Thought(s)

  1. What all this boils down to for me is that I usually make my own travel journal. I change up the the look but the style that works best for me is the coptic stitched book. I make it 6"x8". It fits into a bag easily with travel paints etc. I like arches paper so I write on the back side and paint on the smooth side. I make pages with pockets for items of interest. I have tried all kinds of different books, spiral bound, coil bindings, permanent bindings etc etc. I always go back to my tried and true, comfortable book.

  2. Dear Laure - lots of great thoughts here for choosing a sketchbook that will suit one's needs. Truly not every sketchbook fits all needs. Have a super day.

  3. Great spelling out of the things to think about when choosing a sketchbook. I'll be practicing in what I have already in preparation for Paris!

  4. See my hand-bound hard cover journals with watercolor paper in my Etsy shop: BlueVaseBooks.


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