Gerard’s Visual Journals

Gerard McNeil was featured here as a Notebook Addict of the Week over 10 years ago. In that post, we saw some photos of the notebooks he uses to capture creative ideas, and a few interiors. Recently he got back in touch and shared a link to his website, where you can get a more detailed look at the contents of his visual journals:


Many more images are available on his website, where you can click for larger images. As an artist and arts educator, Gerard is constantly engaged with creativity. It’s fascinating to see how his ideas are explored in his notebooks!

Notebook Discontents and Regrets

I probably don’t need to tell you this, but I LOVE notebooks. I am always attracted to all sorts of notebooks. I can’t pass an office supply store without taking a look, even if I’m pretty sure the selection won’t be that interesting. Even the back to school pallets of cheap-o spiral notebooks at Staples kind of give me a thrill.

But I’m also really picky about notebooks, so there are many notebooks that I don’t love, and don’t want to use. I have used lots of different kinds of notebooks over the years, and my personal preferences have shifted and evolved in terms of size, paper type, and other features. Nowadays, I pretty much know exactly what I want in a notebook for daily use, and I’m selective when it comes to buying notebooks for this purpose. But I still sometimes get it wrong. Today I’ll tell you about a few notebooks that I thought I would love, but actually didn’t.

The Travelers Notebook

I kind of knew the passport size Midori Travelers Notebook was going to be wrong for me, but I bought one anyway, plus some fancy inserts. I was seduced by all the images I’ve seen online of beautifully worn in, over-stuffed travelers notebooks, many with Nolty planners tucked inside. I liked the idea of customizing the inserts, and ended up not even including a notebook inside. I used my Travelers Notebook for a few months as a wallet, but somehow it never felt right. Taking out credit cards or coins or cash just seemed awkward. The whole bundle was too bulky. And it just wasn’t the right shape. I’m still tempted to try a “fauxdori” sized to hold Field Notes and similar sized pocket notebooks, but even that might not work: the notebooks inside would be my favorite size, but the cover would be larger. And I’m not sure my Nolty planner would be as satisfying inside a cover like that. I still love the concept of a bundle of booklets inside a cover, but I’m not sure it will ever work for me. My Travelers Notebook now seems like a waste of money.

Looseleaf Notebooks

I can’t say I completely regret buying most of my various Filofaxes and looseleaf notebooks, but I just can’t seem to fit them into my usage routines nowadays. I used to use them all the time and loved the idea of being able to swap out and reorder pages, but now I’ve become very wedded to recording things in bound notebooks that I use for a certain period of time. It’s often helpful to me to know exactly which notebook to go to if I want to refer back to something I wrote at that time. Trying to organize used looseleaf pages is never as tidy. I still like my collection of looseleaf notebooks but I’m not sure they’ll work for me for daily use.

Field Notes and Similar Pocket Notebooks

I have a whole shoebox full of Field Notes, Moleskine Cahiers, and other slim, single signature pocket notebooks. (There are even a few more in another shoebox.) I don’t dislike them, but I do somewhat regret the money I’ve spent on a lot of them because I just have too many relative to my usage, and I find most of them them merely convenient, rather than exciting or particularly satisfying to use. Some were found on travels, and some were Kickstarter projects I thought would be fun to review. A few were sent to me as free samples or given as gifts. Some are from my one year of being a Field Notes subscriber. I use these for a single purpose: notes for my French class. Maybe if I didn’t feel so compelled to use up all these pocket notebooks, I could try a looseleaf for my French notes! Now that I do my class over Zoom, it’s compelling, but in the past it was convenient to be able to carry just a lightweight booklet in my bag. We’ll see…

Nolty Notebook

Remember my recent “What I’m Using” post where I said I wasn’t happy with one of my daily carry notebooks? Well this is the one. Those who have followed this site for the last few years will know that I have spewed enthusiasm about Nolty at every possible opportunity. I purchase several Nolty planners each year, and I have really loved them all, except for the Nolty Notebook. The Notebook seems to have been wildly popular since it was first introduced as part of their 70th anniversary celebration. It started as a limited collectors item, then they expanded the selection of colors due to the demand, and have continued to offer it in new colors for 2021. I would imagine they’ll continue with it in 2022 and beyond.

When I first saw the Nolty Notebook, I thought it was a great idea. I almost bought all four colors for 2021, but limited myself to just two. The “sakura” pink turned out to be not quite the shade of pink I’d hoped it might be, and I probably should have skipped it since I’m not really a fan of pink as a rule. But I love the charcoal grey shade, and was excited to start using it. There is a lot to like about this notebook: 2 ribbon markers, squared pages, fountain pen friendly paper. It is slim and flexible and pocketable. But I’ve realized that the tiny squares aren’t my cup of tea for a daily journal. I have very small handwriting, but if I write using every line, it feels cramped. If I write on every other line, it feels too widely spaced. I also tend to use squared notebooks to re-copy KenKen and Star Battle (aka Two Not Touch) puzzles when I’ve made a mistake in the printed newspaper version. Again the tiny squares make this a little awkward, so I end up using 2×2 squares, but then the grid lines can be distracting.

The Nolty Notebook has more cover overhang than I prefer, and the plastic cover makes it more noticeable than with the leather cover of the Nolty Gold. The plastic also doesn’t break in as much so it’s a little harder to get the notebook to open flat.

This all seems very nitpicky and almost not worth mentioning. In some ways, I think the Nolty Notebook is great, but the other factors are just bugging me enough that I’m feeling impatient to finish this notebook and move on to something else. I won’t be buying more. It wasn’t extremely expensive, so I can’t say I have regrets, really, but I do feel a bit disappointed. It’s a very nice notebook, but it doesn’t quite work for me.

I have many more notebooks in my collection that have never quite made it to the “love it, must use” level. For the most part, I’m still happy to have them in my collection because they are interesting in other ways, so they’re not really “regrets.” How about you, readers? Do you have notebooks that you tried but found disappointing? Did you abondon them or keep using them? Do you regret having bought them?

Notebooks I’m Using Now: February 2021

Here’s the latest update on my daily carry notebooks, or at least frequently used notebooks. The COVID-19 pandemic means I’m not necessarily going somewhere everyday, other than for a walk around my neighborhood, so I’m not actually “carrying” my notebooks much.

My most frequently used notebooks are:

  • The 2021 Nolty Efficiency Notebook Gold, where I jot my daily diet, exercise, appointments and to-do lists, as well as tracking habits and keeping lists. If I do go out for errands, etc, this notebook always comes with me.
  • The Nolty Notebook, which I’ve been using for journal entries and other random jottings.
  • A Moleskine Sketchbook, for drawing. Sometimes the Moleskine and the Nolty Notebook are also in my bag if I go out, but lately, I tend to leave them at home as I barely go anywhere other than grocery shopping.
  • The Printfresh wirebound notebook lives on my desk and contains all my job-related jottings and to-do lists.
  • The small Clairefontaine notebook is an older one I’ve had for a while. I started using it for my French class notes, which seemed appropriate for such an iconic French notebook brand! This pretty much lives on my desk too, now that I do my class exclusively by Zoom.
  • Not in this photo is a Nolty Efficiency Diary with a regular plastic cover in green, which I am using as an image diary. I paste in a small image each week, just random things I’ve found interesting or inspiring. It will be my third year doing this, and I am kind of enjoying the results as something to flip back through later on.

I am pretty content with this current set-up, except for one thing. I am not totally happy with one of these notebooks. Can you guess which one it might be? I will tell you soon in a separate post!

World War I Notebook

This World War I notebook found on eBay is a recent addition to my collection of vintage notebooks.

world war i notebook

I was intrigued by this notebook because I’d never seen one quite like it, and there is no manufacturer’s name or symbol anywhere on it. Unlike the other World War 1 soldier’s diary in my collection, it’s just a plain lined notebook with no added content. It measures 3 3/8 x 5″, close to today’s standard sizes but a little bigger than many typical antique diaries, which tend to be more like 2.5 x 4″. It is about 1/4″ thick, with 6 signatures of paper.

The cover seems to be a faux leather wrapped around cardboard. The pages are gilt-edged, though the shininess is quite faded from what it probably used to be. Inside, the endpapers have a pattern printed in metallic ink. The endpapers are two separate sheets, so you can see a gap at the spine where red cloth tape shows through. This must have been a very elegant looking notebook when it was new.

vintage notebook endpapers

Inside, the pages are lined. Many are blank, and the notebook doesn’t seem to have been used from front to back. The written-on pages are scattered throughout. It seems to have been used to record letters sent and received while its owner was stationed in France during World War 1. The dates noted begin in 1918 and continue into 1919.

world war i correspondence

There is a mention of “devastated areas” so peacetime must have still been quite difficult for soldiers serving in France in the aftermath of the war, but he makes no mention of events as they happen, only the letters and postcards he sends or receives. Presumably their contents would have been censored until after the war was over.

The World War I notebook also contains various names and addresses, mostly written in the back pages, so it must also have served as an address book where the owner recorded information about people he met during his travels. Some of the addresses are in various US locations including military bases, while others are French names and addresses. The entries are written in a mix of pencil and different colors of fountain pen ink. The handwriting is quite beautiful. One page even seems to be written in shorthand.

world war 1 notebook addresses

There are a few odds and ends tucked into the notebook: a visiting card, a blank prescription slip with numbers written on the back, a newspaper clipping and a typewritten poem. As noted in the poem, the owner’s military service in France seems to have covered several months at the end of the war and continued during after the armistice.

world war i notebook poem typewritten

An interesting sidenote: The poem seems actually to have been a parody song written by someone named Grantland Rice, according to a newspaper from that time, though the words here are slightly different. I found references to this song in other online sources, such as this one where it was similarly written on a loose sheet tucked into a diary. It must have been quite popular at the time, perhaps as a humorous thing to include in letters home. But maybe the men were told not to mail it in censored letters, as it might have seemed too negative, and thus it was carried with them in their notebooks and diaries.

world ware i notebook with clipping

This is quite a fascinating and mysterious notebook. The contents are in a way quite mundane, without any personal reflection other than, perhaps, the poem/song, so we can only imagine what the owner’s wartime experiences must have been like. Someday I’ll take the time to look up some of the names in the notebook, but I’m not sure they will help me identify the owner, as he does not seem to recorded his own name or his relationship to the other people named in the notebook. It is amazing to think that this notebook has survived in relatively good shape through the end of a war over 100 years ago. It’s battered and musty smelling but seems alive with history.

Rashid Johnson’s Sketchbook

The MoMA website has an interesting feature on Rashid Johnson’s sketchbook practice. In a conversation with Samantha Friedman, the organizer of MoMA’s exhibition “Degree Zero: Drawing at Midcentury,” Johson talks about how he uses sketchbooks, some of the motifs in his drawings, and how the pandemic inspired him to think back to how he’d used sketchbooks in his youth.

Johnson’s sketchbook looks like the notebooks from Portugal made by Emilio Braga. I haven’t seen this brand marketed as sketchbooks per se, but they have blank pages so could work well depending on what drawing materials are used. If you look closely at some of the photographs, you can see it has a marbled design on the page edges, which is another trademark design element for Emilio Braga.

Rashid Johnson’s Stage, a participatory installation and sound work, is currently on view at MoMA PS1. It doesn’t sound like the sketchbooks are included, but I’d love to see more of them!

“Toxic Youth” Sketchbook Exhibit

Toxic Youth is an online exhibit of sketchbooks by Dana Jennings, on view at the University of New Hampshire Museum of Art’s website through April 2, 2021.

Jennings’ sketchbooks are full of writing and doodles and patterns and drawings, all inspired by his experiences working with his father in a New Hampshire factory. The factory was shut down by the EPA in the early 1980s and became a Superfund hazardous waste site. Jennings and his father have both suffered from a variety of serious health problems linked to the chemicals they were exposed to in the factory.

As you might expect with this sort of subject matter, some of the sketchbook drawings are quite intense and raw and nightmarish. You can flip through 3 sketchbooks on the website, and the page scans really give a feel for the sketchbooks and drawing materials used, as you see the smears of pencil dust and markers bleeding through the backs of pages.

A series of sketchbook workshops accompanied the exhibit over the last couple of months, all 45 minute sessions at lunchtime (for the Eastern time zone, at least) and open to any adults interested in sketching. The fee is $40 unless you are a UNH student. The last one takes place on Monday February 22.

Viviva Colorsheets Review

I don’t usually do art supply reviews here, but when the folks at Viviva Colors contacted me to offer a sample of their Colorsheets watercolor set, I couldn’t resist. Viviva Colorsheets are a slim, portable, pocket notebook sized booklet of watercolor paints: right up my alley! At least in theory…

viviva colorsheets and moleskine watercolor notebook
viviva colorsheets packaging

First off, the packaging is lovely. The booklet of paints came packaged in a cute envelope. The booklet itself is also really nicely designed, with a colorful flower design on the outside. At 2.75 x 5.25 inches, the Colorsheets are a great size to tuck into a sketchbook. They are too thick to fit inside a hardcover pocket sketchbook without bending the covers or possibly breaking the spine– or at least they are beyond my comfort level for doing so. I know other people often stuff their sketchbooks with all sorts of things that really fatten them up!

Inside the booklet are 4 page spreads with 4 colors each. When I saw the patches of paint, it made me recall some kind of similar watercolor paints that used to be included with Cracker Jack prizes or some other little children’s toy. You’d get maybe 3 tiny paint swatches to color in some tiny picture with a wet Qtip. The Viviva Colorsheets take that concept to a much higher level. Each color has a rectangle of paint that measures about 2.25 x 1.75″. The thickness is smaller than I could measure with a ruler but my very very rough estimate is that the volume of paint is maybe 1/4 of what you’d get in a typical watercolor half-pan. But the pigments seem more dense, so in theory you can use them more sparingly. The manufacturer claims they should last about as long as a traditional half pan.

The paints are separated by a water repellent sheet so they will never contaminate each other or stick together while wet. Viviva does recommend that you let the colors dry before fully closing the booklet, so I guess they can stick to the protective sheet when dry.

The page edges are staggered so you can see which colors are on each page. Some of these printed color tabs are less accurate than others but they give you a good idea where to go. Then next to each paint patch, you can dab a splash of the actual paint to see the true color. This is quite necessary because the paints themselves look nothing like the colors they produce on white paper! Some of the paint patches look almost metallic and remind me of photos I’ve seen of fountain pen inks that have a two-tone effect in the sheen. Viridian looks coppery but turns out to be a beautiful greenish turquoise. Peacock Blue looks like metallic purple, but turns out to be a cerulean blue.

viviva colorsheets persian blue and violet

The booklet comes with a coated sheet of extra cardboard that you can stick into the back cover and use as a mixing palette to blend colors or add more water for a lighter wash. It wipes clean afterwards, or at least mine did, but I didn’t let any paint dry there. I didn’t have it attached to the booklet when I tested it but I could see that it might be awkward to use that way. The fold-out design of my favorite pocket watercolor box (found in various artist and student-grade sets by Sennelier, Schminke, Schpirerr Farben, Arteza or available empty) is much more practical for one-handed use, if not as lightweight. There are other designs for lightweight, portable watercolor sets, such as this one, that I haven’t tried, but that look like they would be a bit easier to use than Viviva.

The colors are bright and vivid. (Here I’ve tested them in the Moleskine Watercolor Notebook.) The choice of colors included is pretty good, but I found that the reds and oranges and yellows all seemed a bit too similar to me. One red was slightly warmer, but not by much. The Gold Ochre is the lightest yellow, so people used to using a more typical watercolor set might be disappointed not to have a lighter, cooler yellow, like lemon yellow. These are all more intense, like a cadmium yellow or a permanent yellow, though if you add a lot of water you can get a lighter shade, as you see in my random test page, vs. the color swatch page where I didn’t use as much water. Viviva offers another set of colors, the “Spring Set,” which offers some different shades, but I did not receive one of those to try.

viviva colorsheets review test page
Viviva colorsheets color swatches

The biggest downside to the Viviva Colorsheets was not apparent until I took the photographs for this review. I had done my test painting a few days earlier and didn’t re-wet anything, but as I was handling the booklet to take photos, I realized that I had pink stains all over my hands. And on my computer, and my light box, and my desk. I realized that the magenta color seemed to be leaving pink dust all over everything, and was even present inside the original packaging envelope. What I’d thought was just a quirk of how the booklet cover was printed was actually smears of magenta dust. I washed my hands, wiped things down, and then did all of that again a couple of times. This dust is insidious. (You can see the pink stains on my thumb in a couple of the photos above.)

I was going to just say that the design of the booklet makes it likely that you might get paint on your fingers while you are flipping from one color to another. And that if you’re that worried about getting paint on your fingers, you should wear gloves, or just not paint at all. Paints can be toxic, so washing your hands is necessary anyway. But this goes beyond the expected level of mess you’d get with any paints. My Viviva set arrived with no evidence of damage in the mail, and I never dropped it or bent it or did anything that would destabilize the adherence of the paint. If the colors are so unstable that they dissolve and get pink powder everywhere, that is a big fail. I can only imagine how much worse it might have been with the actual in-the-field use a portable set is presumably made for.

Clean-up debris!

I was originally going to say that the Viviva Colorsheets were well worth a try, as their $20 price seemed reasonable for a fun, portable watercolor set for casual use. But I now have to say that I can’t recommend this product.

Secret Notebooks from 1983

What if someone found your secret notebooks from childhood, almost 40 years after you’d last written in them? It could happen: a 9 year old girl hid these notebooks in a crawl space in her home in 1983. They were forgotten and her family moved away. Decades later, contractors working on the home gave them to the current owners, who ended up being able to find the original owner and return them!

Read more: Someone in Toronto recovered secret 1983 notebooks in crawl space and found the owner

A Korean Notebook Review

It seems strange to be writing a review of this Korean notebook now, as it represents a pre-COVID milestone for me. It was a gift from a friend who lives in South Korea. She came back to the US for a visit in February, and we talked about the shutdowns that were already happening in Korea due to the virus. She was the first person I spoke to about the coronavirus who seemed truly worried by how serious it could become, but of course even she had no idea what was about to happen in the US starting in March. Anyway, her visits are always special because she is a dear longtime friend, but also because she often brings me a Korean notebook as a gift!

front cover of korean tradition notebook
back cover of korean notebook

This one is pretty cool. The brand name on the slip inside the packaging seems to be “Korean Tradition” but I can’t find any information about it online. It is an A5 size softcover notebook, quite thin but with a squared spine. It seems to be perfect-bound, with just glue instead of stitched or stapled signatures. It looks really snazzy, but the downside to this binding is that it doesn’t really open flat.

korean notebook doesn't open flat

One detail I really like about it is that it has French flaps. I always think this is a nice detail on a paperback book, and I wonder why you don’t see it more on notebooks, as it makes the cover seem more substantial. I would think it would make it more durable too, at least in terms of corners bending. The cover is a smooth coated paper, with a lovely colorful design. There is no branding anywhere on it.

The inside of the Korean notebook is quite unusual– the right hand pages are all lined, but the left hand pages have 4 different designs. Most are blank with a border all around or on top, and then one section has an all-over blue and white pattern. The overall design is really cute.

Unfortunately the paper is not good with fountain pens, but it feels great to write on and handles a fine-point gel ink pen just fine. This was the same problem I had with one of the other few notebooks from Korea I have in my collection, the Iconic Essay book.

korean notebook pen test front of page
korean notebook pen test back of page

This Korean notebook says it costs 1000 won, which is about $0.92 in US dollars. What a bargain for such a colorful, fun notebook!

Christmas Books

Before the holidays, I was talking about my wishlist of a few notebook/sketchbook/art supply items. Santa came through!

I expected to receive James McElhinney’s Sketchbook Traveler book, and I wasn’t disappointed. McElhinney’s pocket size sketches are reproduced life-size, each accompanied with text about the location depicted. Additional material in the book gives some lessons about the history of travel sketching, the Hudson Valley, some technical and practical tips, and lists of resources. There are even some blank pages so you can use the book as your own travel sketchbook. It is a delightful package.

Buy on Amazon

I also received another book. This one wasn’t included on my pre-holiday list, but I posted about it back in October: Finding Dora Maar. I am excited to read more about how the author happened to buy Dora Maar’s old Hermes address book on eBay, and then traced her life history. Alas, there are no illustrations other than the cover image. But you can see a couple of photos in my blog post.

Buy on Amazon

Notebooks, journals, sketchbooks, diaries: in search of the perfect page…