||Sketching With a Moleskine
| by Russell Stutler (Last updated August 2012)
When I checked the links in the "Sketchers on the Web" section of the Sketching Forum I was amazed at how many photos of Moleskines I saw. A lot of artists swear by these little notebooks, and some folks swear at all the hype surrounding them. Several websites are dedicated to them. So what's all the fuss about Moleskines?
A Moleskine (pronounced mo-leh-skeen'-eh) is a small pocket size blank book with black textured oilcloth cover which resembles leather, a permanently attached ribbon bookmark, a pocket on the inside back cover and elastic band to hold the cover closed when not in use. Moleskine pages are stitch bound, and this allows them to lie flat.
Moleskines are made by Italian manufacturer Modo & Modo, and are based on a style of blank book which used to be made by several manufacturers until the last one ceased operations in the mid 1980s.
These blank books were known in France as "carnets moleskines" ("moleskine notebooks" in English) because the black oilcloth cover apparently resembled moleskin (no "e" on the end) which is a heavy cotton fabric. No moles were skinned to make the notebooks.
Most of what we know about the original moleskine notebooks -- including their French name -- comes from a description by writer Bruce Chatwin in his book The Songlines. He personally referred to them as his "Paris notebooks" in this description.
These moleskine notebooks were apparently popular with artists and writers -- some quite famous -- for two centuries, so the story goes (as told by Modo & Modo). Modo & Modo began manufacturing the current version, and registered the name Moleskine as a trademark in 1996. The modern Moleskine notebook is based on the concept and design of the original moleskin notebook, and the cover is made of black oilcloth like the original.
These feel classy, and are less conspicuous than a big spiral bound sketchbook when sketching around people since they will most likely assume you are just reading a book or making journal or calendar entries. A lot of artists love the hardbound format because it is so gratifying to draw in a book, and very satisfying to store them later on a book shelf. It's perfect for sketch journaling.
Of course, hardbound sketchbooks, even black ones, have been around for a long time. The Moleskine has an advantage over many other hardbound journals and notebooks because it is more slim and very portable. Its small size makes it the perfect traveling companion. A spiral bound pocket notebook will also fit nicely into the hip pocket, but with a Moleskine there are no wires to catch on your pants every time you bring it out, and no danger of pages falling out.
Now you can carry a classy hardbound sketchook with you everywhere, which means unplanned sketching may happen in your daily life more often. You can become the sketch hunter as Robert Henri described:
The sketch hunter moves through life as he finds it,
not passing negligently the things he loves,
but stopping to know them, and to note them down
in the shorthand of his sketchbook.
A hip pocket sketch hunter! Now there's a fun goal that is now within reach.
Most importantly, the Moleskine pages really do lie flat when open, which I think is their biggest selling point. It's much easier to draw on a flat surface.
Modo & Modo have expanded current Moleskine line to include a variety of formats including notebooks, sketchbooks, address books, weekly planners, musical notation books, story board books, and even offer them in a larger version. As a matter of fact, now there are even larger "Folio" versions in A4 and A3 size (A3 is 12 X 16 1/2 inches or 42 X 29.7 centimeters, and this size doubles when the book is open).
Of course, every increase in size is also a step away from that slim pocket size format that made the Moleskine notebook (and the original moleskine notebook of past centuries) so attractive as a traveling companion in the first place.
There's also an accordian style Japanese Album notebook which is based on those long horizontal scrolls that can be seen in museums, at least in Japan. I have never tried one, and can't comment on them -- ironic I suppose since I live in Japan.
Let's take a look at a few of these formats which are likely to be used for sketching, namely the notebook, sketchbook, and watercolour notebook:
These are good for general sketching with pencil or ink. They come in ruled, unruled, and grid ruled versions. If you are primarily drawing rather than writing, you will probably choose the unruled or grid ruled version.
If you sketch with pencil or ballpoint pen or even a pigment pen such as the popular Microns, the you will have no problem with any of the three Moleskines mentioned above. If you sketch with a fountain pen and ink, you may or may not have positive results with the notebook, depending on the ink you use.
There are several fountain pen inks which work well on regular Moleskine notebook paper. I've found Platinum black ink and blue black ink work very well while their Carbon ink bleeds through. Noodlers black works very well, and it becomes waterproof when dry. I haven't tried Noodlers' other colors. I'm sure there are many brands of ink that work well, but you will have to experiment a little to find them (I reserve the last page or so in my notebooks for ink tests). It helps if you use a fountain pen that's a bit of a dry writer, or one with a fine or extra fine nib. Over the past few years I've filled several Moleskine notebooks with written notes using fountain pens and have had no problems at all. If you can find an ink converter for your fountain pen then you will have the freedom to try different brands of ink.
The paper in the regular Moleskine notebooks is fairly thin and ink drawings can be seen on the other side, so you may want to just draw on the right hand pages when using ink. You can save the left hand pages for notes (done preferably in light pencil).
The notebook also comes in slim versions called Volant and Cahier, which fit in the pocket without bulging.
The sketchbooks have heavy paper which takes pencil very well. It also takes pigment pens very well. It will take some fountain pen inks well, but some will bead up a little. The sketchbooks are horrible with watercolor.
Watercolor beads up on the sketchbook paper. Then if you rub it a bit with a brush it settles down. It's still unpredictable and hard to control, but some artists might actually like the effects it gets. One way around this is to use watercolor pencils (the sketchbook was created with pencil in mind after all). Here are the results of an experiment:
On the left page I brushed on Winsor Newton watercolors with a waterbrush. On the right half of these swashes I worked the watercolor into the paper by going over it with the waterbrush until it stopped beading. It took about 4 or 5 successive strokes before the color settled down. If you stroke too many times, the paper surface will start to break up, and you'll have new problems. On the right page I scribbled with Mitsubishi UNI watercolor pencils. I went over the right half of the swashes with water from the waterbrush . These only required 1 or 2 strokes to convert the pencil strokes to a smooth wash. You can see how the color from the watercolor pencils actually behaves well.
So many artists complained about this watercolor unfriendly paper that Modo & Modo came out with a new Moleskine specifically for watercolor.
Moleskine Watercolour Notebooks
I don't know why they call it a notebook instead of a sketchbook. Perhaps it's because they don't want to confuse this with their regular sketchbook.
There was great excitement and anticipation when this new addition to the lineup was announced. I had to wait a bit longer than many of my artist friends, since these products usually don't show up in Japan until several months after their debut in the west.
There were mixed reviews about the Watercolour Notebooks soon after they came out.
One big issue which generated a lot of complaints in the various art forums was the perforated pages which made this version less "Moleskine-like" than its predecessors since the pages could now be easily torn out.
Again, it appears that Modo & Modo was listening, and the version with detachable pages was quickly retired, and replaced by the current non-perforated version. You can tell by looking at the side of the paper even in the shrink wrap whether it is an older perforated version or the newer non-perforated verion. Below is the non-perforated version.
Another big issue with the watercolour notebook was the format. Some people loved the horizontal landscape format (binding along the short side) while others were disappointed that Modo & Modo didn't stick with the traditional vertical book format.
The horizontal format works well if you are doing two page spreads like the one below, but I personally find it very unbalanced when open, and awkward to hold when I'm sketching on location, especially on a windy day. My hand cramped terribly during this sketch from trying to keep the book balanced.
If I were just sketching on the left hand page, I could fold the right pages and cover backwards so that I could hold both covers with the left hand, with two fingers separating them. It's still a bit awkward but at least makes sketching possible on the left page.
A vertical format would open up to a general square shape which I find better balanced and much more versatile.
Like all Moleskines, the pages in the watercolour notebook lie flat when you spread them out, which as I have said is their best feature, and one that a lot of Moleskine imitators don't seem to understand. The paper itself worked great with watercolors, much better than what I normally use. The paper is much whiter than the notebook and sketchbook as you can see in the photo near the top of this article that has the different versions together.
The watercolour notebook also takes fountain pen ink very well as one would expect since it is intended for wet media.
So now there is truly a Moleskine for watercolor sketchers if they don't mind the horizontal format.
What about the larger size Moleskine watercolour notebook? I went out and bought one so I could answer the question. This extreme horizontal format changes the way I sketched -- now I was thinking panoramas, and there are a lot of great panorama subjects which I had not considered in the past. I bought this notebook in central Tokyo, and proceeded to try it out at the imperial palace grounds, the former castle of the shoguns, because I recalled there were some wide scenes around there that would suit this format well.
I have sketched this scene several times in the past, but this was the first time I was able to get the turret on the right, the gate in the background and the tower in the distance all on one page. I could see how this larger sketchbook would be great for traveling and capturing more scenery in a single sketch.
But the larger version is heavier and even more unbalanced and awkward than the pocket version, and my hand was pretty sore after holding this for two and a half hours.
After mulling over the problem, I found a simple solution. I cut a plywood board the exact same size as the large Moleskine watercolour notebook. This board was four millimeters thick, because that was what I happened to have at home.
Then I clipped it to the back of the watercolour notebook with most of the board behind the lighter half of the notebook, and only enough board to accommodate a clip under the heavy half. Since this was a new notebook, the right side was heavy and most of the board was under the left side.
It actually worked, and the heavy side was no longer flopping around trying to persuade the notebook to do a somersault.
Granted, the whole thing is still long and unwieldy, and my hand does get sore after sketching for a while if I'm standing, but at least I have a fighting chance now.
In the photo above, I'm holding the Moleskine on the lighter half with no major problem (except for a tired left hand).
One more solution is to change the way you hold the smaller pocket Moleskine. Cradle it in your hand and rest it on your arm (I wrote right arm but I meant left!). This works with the small and large Moleskine. You'll need a clip in the middle, and for both edges if the wind is blowing.
I love everything about the Moleskine watercolour notebook except this one glaring problem; the awkward horizontal format. It's a shame that we have to go through all these acrobatics so that our hands won't cramp.
Why doesn't Modo & Modo produce a vertical or even square format watercolor Moleskine? I sent a message to them several years ago requesting they make a vertical format watercolor notebook. I'm sure they have received many requests for this, but unlike the time when customers complained about the perforations, this time they apparently refuse to listen, and the stand-off has dragged on for several years.
A New Kid in Town
When I first wrote this article several years ago, the Moleskine was the only game in town if one was shopping for a nice black hardbound sketchbook with good paper, and its amazing commercial success apparently gave the makers a bit of a smug attitude towards its loyal customer base. In the years since those days, dissatisfied artists have taken to the blogs and discussion forums to vent their frustration and discuss various contenders for the coveted title of "Moleskine Killer."
One company in particular, Stillman and Birn, has produced a line of sketchbooks which have been receiving a lot of attention lately as the newest Moleskine Killer. I was surprised to discover that so many members of the Sketching Forum are now singing the praises of Stillman and Birn Sketchbooks. This company has listened to artists' gripes and suggestions, and have produced exactly what they seeking; a vertical hardbound pocket sketchbook with quality watercolor paper It is truly pocket size at 4X6 inches which is only slightly bigger than a Moleskine. In addition, they have produced a whole series of hardbound sketchbooks in a variety of sizes. And it comes with pure white or ivory colored paper in a regular weight or heavy weight. So many options!
Right now these sketchbooks come in several series based on the Greek letters, Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon (the English equivalents would be A,B,G,D and E). Alpha and Beta are both pure natural white color. Alpha paper has an average sketchbook paper thickness, and Beta paper is really thick like what you might find on a watercolor block. Gamma and Delta have ivory colored paper with Gamma paper being average weight (like Alpha) and Delta paper being really thick (like Beta). Epsilon paper is pure natural white and is smooth but still with some texture, and is perfect for ink sketches. All the papers are great with watercolor. Well, Epsilon will take watercolor washes just fine but nothing too ambitious. All the paper is thick enough that there is no ghost image on the reverse side. There is also no feathering (spidery lines) or bleeding (soaking through) of ink. This is important since you can use both sides of the paper and fill your sketchbook with double page spreads if you like.
Hardbound sketchbooks can be extremely intimidating when they are brand new. You don't want to ruin that first page! So I always open up to the last page and make scribbly drawing tests with ink, watercolor, etc., and I write a title such as "test page" at the top for people who happen to see it. Here are a few experiments I did on each of these sketchbooks: Alpha Series, Beta Series, Gamma Series, Delta Series, and Epsilon Series.
Stillman and Birn Sketchbooks don't have a ribbon marker, elastic band or that pocket in the back. They have more of a family resemblence to those black hardbound artist sketchbooks which have been around forever, except these new sketchbooks lie perfectly flat, have excellent watercolor paper, and are for serious artists. The price is about the same as a Moleskine, too!
So while the Moleskine may well always be the ultimate classy journal/notebook of writers and scrapbookers, many artists and sketchers have moved on to Stillman and Birn for their dream sketchbook.
Clearly Moleskine is no longer the only game in town. Stillman and Birn has apparently dethroned the Moleskine as the hardbound sketchbook of choice for artists. Let me introduce a few runner-up Moleskine contenders...
According to the history of Moleskines as presented by Modo & Modo, there were originally several manufacturers producing this basic style of blank book called "les carnets moleskines" which were used and loved by artists and writers for a few centuries (!) until the last manufacturer went out of business in the mid 1980s.
Well, that has become the state of things once again, with many manufacturers making this same type of pocket sized blank book.
Some Moleskine imitations are not worth considering because they are not stitch bound and do not lie flat when open. But there are a few "les carnets moleskines" that are just as good or better than the Moleskine, depending on your needs.
Many cost much less than a Moleskine, too. There are several brands including the Derwent Journal, the Pen & Ink Sketchbook and one called Markings but I will only comment on ones I have personally tried.
I bought a few blank books called paperblanks. These come in an amazing variety of artsy designs including references to famous artists and musicians. Some have magnetic fasteners instead of the elastic band. They are very exciting, and will be loved by most artsy journalers.
But a book is more than just its cover. Unfortunately the paper does not like most fountain pen inks, and feathers and bleeds terribly, much to my disappointment since I had bought three. The good news is that two of my paperblanks accepted Noodlers black ink in a fountain pen very well (that Noodlers is a miracle ink, and is sometimes the only ink that works on some papers -- it's also waterproof when dry). I gave the third paperblank to my daughter who does not use fountain pens. The two I kept for myself are in the photo above. The paper is regular notebook paper for writing and drawing but not for watercolors.
Hand Book Artist Journals
The label says hand book journal co., and a web search for this or Hand Book Artist Journals will turn up several internet vendors.
It is similar in appearance to a Moleskine sketchbook, and comes in two sizes like the Moleskine -- and three formats, landscape, portrait and square.
It also comes in four colors, black, blue, red and green.
The cover is fabric, which feels good. It's thicker than a Moleskine watercolour notebook (2 centimeters compared to 1.5 centimeters) so it won't easily fit into the hip pocket (which may have an adverse effect on spontaneous sketch moments) but there are more than twice as many pages (128 pages in the Hand Book, 60 in the Moleskine).
It has heavy sketchbook paper, which is very nice, but it is not watercolor paper, which means you can use watercolor in it, but ambitious watercolor tricks might not come out as expected. For casual pencil or ink sketches with watercolor, this sketchbook is perfectly adequate.
The paper is heavy but can still buckle a little, but since it is in a book, it gets ironed out flat when it is closed. That's one great thing about hardbound sketchbooks.
In the sketches of subway passengers below, I used my standard sketching tool, a brush pen and fountain pen filled with Platinum carbon ink, and watercolors, either Winsor & Newton or Holbein. It worked okay with these tools and in this sketching style, but there is a little ink feathering, and after several months my pages started to yellow at the edges.
The paper is thick enough that you can barely see the image on the other side if at all, which means I can sketch double page spreads. For pencil sketching I am pleased with the Hand Book Artist Journal, and have bought several more of these, all with green covers this time because it's my favorite color. For ink and watercolor, it is adequate but not my first choice (which is currently the Stillman and Birn).