Review: Watercolor Sketchbook Comparison

I’m often dabbling with watercolors in sketchbooks that aren’t really made for using them– regular notebook or sketchbook paper can deteriorate a bit with wet paints, or wrinkle and buckle a lot as it dries. So I’ve been experimenting more with using actual watercolor paper in hopes of better results. I’ve had various watercolor pads over the year, and I’ve reviewed larger-size Stillman and Birn sketchbooks that work beautifully with wet media, but for the sake of fitting more closely with my more frequent daily notebook form factor, I decided to try a Moleskine watercolor book in the pocket size. As is typical with Moleskines made in the last few years, it did not seem as well-made as it could be, and I’ve seen complaints online about a change in quality in Moleskine’s watercolor paper, so I decided to check out some other alternatives in the same format. Let’s take a look!

Here they all are, the Moleskine, as well as the Pen & Ink watercolor sketchbook from Art Alternatives, and the Pentalic Aqua Journal.

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In close-up of spines below, from left to right: Moleskine, Pentalic, Pen & Ink.
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In photos below, from top to bottom: Pentalic, Moleskine, Pen & Ink.
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They are all very similar in terms of packaging, size, and features, but each has some features that differentiate it.

The Moleskine is the thinnest, mainly due to having thinner cover boards. The spine is a little crooked and loose, as if it was glued to the book block a bit unevenly. The binding is nice and flexible, though, and opens totally flat, except for the spreads between signatures where a little glue keeps the gutter from opening all the way down– it’s still quite flat, though. You can actually fold the cover back about 270°. Each signature is 3 sheets of paper, 60 pages total. The pages are not perforated (though I have heard that at one point Moleskine watercolor books did have perforated pages, I think). I’ve done various sorts of doodles and sketches in it with varying degrees of wetness, but the pages have all dried nice and flat. Moleskine says the paper is “heavy” but does not specify a paper weight in GSM or lbs. For my purposes, it is perfectly fine although as always, I wish Moleskine had not started to let the cover edges stick out so far from the pages. The list price for the pocket size watercolor book is $13.95. Other sizes are available.

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I bought the Pen & Ink watercolor book after being so pleased with their heavyweight page sketchbook as a Moleskine alternative. I like their slightly soft cover material and nicely rounded spines. Art Alternatives sketchbooks always seem very well-made, especially given their low prices.  This watercolor book includes a ribbon marker, which I could live without– it has a lot of extra length dangling out. Every page is perforated. The paper seems of a similar weight to Moleskine, but is perhaps very slightly cooler in tone, and the texture of it seems to have a more linear grain than Moleskine’s. Each signature is 2 sheets of cold press 180 GSM paper, 56 pages total. There is glue between the signatures here too, but it’s hard to compare how it opens flat because the perforations cause a bend before you even get into the gutter, and you probably wouldn’t want to paint across a spread with the perforations in the middle anyway. Again the whole book can be opened more than flat, almost but not quite bending all the way back on itself. Again the pages seem to hold up well to wet washes without buckling or deteriorating, but my pH test pen seemed to indicate the paper is not as acid-free as the other watercolor notebooks. The pen should look purple on acid-free paper, but it came out more a brownish-yellow on several tries, which indicates acidity. The list price for this sketchbook is $10.99, but discounted prices can be much lower. A larger size is also available.

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The Pentalic watercolor journal was my favorite in terms of how it feels in the hand– it’s a bit smaller and chunkier than the others, with slightly less cover overhang. The exterior is a dark blue, which is a nice change. Here you have 6 signatures of 2 sheets each, so only 48 pages, but the paper is 300 GSM and very noticeably thicker than the others. The spine is a bit too liberally glued, unfortunately, so the binding is a bit stiff and needs to be bent back and forth to loosen it. The end pages where the book block is attached to the cover are really heavily glued and the back cover doesn’t open totally flat. This is especially a problem because the back pocket comes up closer to the spine than on the other two notebooks, making it awkward to actually get anything into the pocket. There were some pages where the glue between signatures came pretty far out of the gutter and the residue is visible where I forced the pages flat. This was the only notebook to include a loop that could hold a pencil or brush (which I personally could live without). This also has a ribbon marker. The pages seemed to hold up well to my tests. I paid $12.95 for this, but I had a hard time finding this size for sale online anywhere and could not confirm if that is the official list price.

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Ultimately, I’m not enough of a watercolor expert to really judge these notebooks based on the performance of the paper– I muddle around with watercolors as the easiest way to color in some of my sketches, but I don’t know how to properly use them in any more sophisticated way.  For my needs, the paper in all of these sketchbooks works just fine, though I’m concerned that the Pen & Ink paper might yellow with time if it’s not acid-free. This comparison is more about the form and features of each sketchbook– every user will be different in their preferences regarding ribbon markers, pen loops, thickness, etc. I’m having a hard time picking a favorite– I lean towards the Pentalic because I love the chunky shape and thick paper, but the stiff binding , ribbon marker, pen loop, and awkward back pocket are negative factors for me. (I might just try to remove the ribbon marker and pen loop.)

FYI, the paints I’ve used in all these are mostly artist-grade Winsor & Newton— despite my lack of expertise, I splurged on an upgrade from the student-grade Cotman sets I already owned, partly because I liked the folding metal tin they came in. This set seems to have been discontinued, but you can buy the empty metal tin separately. It’s meant to hold 12 half-pans, but you can easily fit in more. Schmincke and Sennelier also make watercolor sets in this type of tin.

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I would love to hear from more experienced watercolor users– what are your favorite pocket size sketchbooks? What do you look for in paper? What other features do you prefer?

Links to buy all these sketchbooks at Amazon and Blick are below. I did not find the Pentalic for sale online in the 3.5 x 5.5″ size, but there are listings for a larger size. I bought my small one at Lee’s Art Shop in Manhattan.
Moleskine Art Plus Watercolor Album, Pocket, Black, Hard Cover (3.5 x 5.5) (Classic Notebooks)
$13.95 at Amazon

Moleskine Watercolor Notebooks

$12.44 at Blick

Pentalic 100-Percent Cotton Watercolor Journal 5-Inch by 8-Inch
$15.48 at Amazon for 5×8 version, 3.5 x 5.5 not listed there

Pentalic Watercolor Journal and Travel Brush Set

$18.99 at Blick for 5×8 set including brush, 3.5×5.5 version not listed there

Art Alternatives Pen & Ink Watercolor Books – 5.5″x3.5″ – 56 122lb Cold Press Pages
$7.69 at Amazon

Art Alternatives Watercolor Books

$9.23 at Blick

Notebook Addict of the Week: Sarita

Sarita emailed me some photos of a great collection!
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Sarita says:
“I’m not even  sure if this number is accurate, but I believe I have about 25 unused & 35 used or briefly written in notebooks in this collection. I have a very bad habit of picking up notebooks that are cute and I end up feeling like I should never ever taint them, and the moment I write something in one of the notebooks, it feels “tainted” to me and I feel the need to replace it with a new notebook. Most of my recent additions have been bought from Target or from the Target clearance section 🙂
I think I’ve always been drawn to notebooks, but in these recent years I’ve really started to get into collecting them! (I’m not even sure if these are ALL the notebooks I own in these photos, I’m pretty sure there a few used ones hiding around somewhere…..haha)
I mainly use my notebooks for class notes, keeping up with to-do lists, brief writing ideas/planning out comic/art ideas, and sketchbooks!
I hope you like my collection! <3
Also I’m not sure if you’re aware of this new notebook brand, but I recently discovered Target put these in their shelves! The brand is called “Yoobi” and they are very similar to the Moleskine brand!
From what I saw, these notebooks were also available in the colors red and green, and I don’t think I’ve noticed any sketchbooks yet, just journals!”

Thanks for sharing your addiction, Sarita!

Coolest Book Ever: SYLLABUS by Lynda Barry

Notebook lovers and Lynda Barry fans (I am both) will just die of happiness when they see this book!

Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor

Not only is every page chock full of Lynda Barry’s unique art and the creativity exercises she developed for the classes she’s taught, plus examples of student work… the amazing thing is that the whole book is a facsimile composition book!


A single stitched signature, rounded corners, the exact size, and it even has the tape on the spine! It’s just a gorgeous object as well as an inspiring manual. I spent a few hours just poring over it when I first got it… and I know I’ll spend many more! Here’s a sneak peek of one of my favorite pages, with a pile of the composition books all the students used in one semester.



Check out Lynda Barry’s other wonderful books too:
What It Is
Picture This: The Near-sighted Monkey Book

A Notebook from Ecuador

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I bought this notebook in Quito, Ecuador, on the last night of a week-long trip spent in  the Galapagos Islands, with a stopover in Quito in each direction. (You can see a few of my Galapagos sketchbook pages in this post.) There weren’t many opportunities to shop for stationery on the trip, but I did see some notebooks in Quito and at the airport, many of them a local brand called Betero— I would have bought one of those too but they were that 9 x 15 cm size that bothers me, and they were a bit expensive in the airport shop, so I ended up deciding against it, which I regret now! I purchased this notebook in the gift shop of a rather touristy restaurant called La Choza that was supposedly one of the best places to get Ecuadorian/Andean food. The food was fine, but I was more interested in the cultural experience, as there was an elaborate Ballet Folklorico dance and music performance during our meal, and the shop had some charming crafts.  I picked this design out of several variations, all of which had uniquely Ecuadorian objects or art pictured on the covers, in this case an antique coin.

The brand is ArteSonado. (They have some other interesting designs on their website.) It’s kind of  a hybrid softcover– the cover is just printed cardboard, not wrapped, but it’s not as flexible as some softcovers. It’s slightly smaller than the hardcover pocket Moleskine shown below for comparison.

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The elastic closure is a bit narrower than most, and anchored further away from the top and bottom of the back cover than usual. The outer cover is creased and left unglued around the spine in order to give it room to bend so the notebook can open totally flat.

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The black endpapers are nice, but the rear pocket is not very well thought out. It’s so small it won’t hold much more than a business card– no expanding sides. The open edge also faces outward so anything stored in there could slip out.

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The paper is slightly toothy rather than smooth, and show-through and bleed-through are a bit worse than average.

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Ultimately, this notebook has mainly souvenir value for me. It’s not the sort of thing I’d use every day due to the paper and the awkwardness of the pocket, but if I ever decide to try to collect a notebook from every country, I’ll have Ecuador taken care of!

Hey Notebooks

That’s a lot of graph paper, quite impressively aligned!

See more at Hey Notebooks.

Moleskine Monday: “The Comeback of the Notebook”

Newsflash! People like using notebooks, even in our digital age! Below is a screenshot of a German video news segment (in English) about people using notebooks and sketchbooks, particularly Moleskines. My favorite part is the appearance of fellow notebook blogger Christian Mahler from

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See the video at The Comeback of the Notebook | All media content | DW.DE | 17.10.2014.

Big thank you to David Bogie for the tip!

Notebook Addict of the Week: Ayah

This week’s addict is a fiction writer who has a collection of almost two hundred  journals. You can see a picture gallery here:
She also has several youtube videos chronicling her journaling obsession:

 Here’s a sneak peek of that photo gallery:
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Looks like a great collection! Thanks for sharing your addiction, Ayah!

Notebooks on a Book Cover

This looks like a great book, and not just because of all those lovely well-used notebooks on the cover!
In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction


Ian Curtis’ Journal

A notebook that belonged to Ian Curtis, the singer from Joy Division:

His journals and lyrics are being published in a book: So This is Permanence: Lyrics and Notebooks

Via leugenio: Ian Curtis journal and the lyrics to….

West Yorkshire Police Switch to Electronic Notebooks

Which would you rather see a police officer using? This:

Or this:

I suppose for the sake of efficiency and accuracy in reporting crime, electronic record-keeping may be a good idea. But that old fashioned notebook looks nice!


Read more at West Yorkshire Police to say “Goodbye” to traditional notebooks – Huddersfield Examiner.

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