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Review and Giveaway: Stillman & Birn Softcover Sketchbooks

I was really excited when I heard that Stillman & Birn were expanding their product line to include softcover sketchbooks, especially when I saw that a pocket sized version was available. There are so many options out there for hardcover sketchbooks, and so many pocket notebooks, but these really fill a niche in terms of offering durability, flexibility, portability, and a wide array of quality paper options. I’m ashamed to say I received samples for review almost a year ago and am only getting caught up now, but better late than never!

I’ve reviewed Stillman and Birn’s hardcovers in the past, see here and here. The softcovers are available in the same paper types– 6 varieties, covering different paper weights, textures, and colors, but different sizes.

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I tested the 3.5 x 5.5″ pocket size portrait versions, of course! They are slightly smaller than a pocket Moleskine. The covers are a smooth material, not at all leather-like but with a leathery-looking pebbly tone, which you can see but not feel. The covers are neutral shades of grey, dark green, dark red and blue, corresponding to the paper type within– greenish for the Delta, with 270 GSM ivory cold press paper; red for Alpha, with 150 GSM bright white medium grain paper. There is nothing imprinted on or inside the sketchbooks except for the Stillman and Birn logo embossed on the back cover.

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The signatures are stitched, and there is a fair amount of glue at the spine, holding the signatures to the cover. The pages open very flat despite the spines feeling a little stiff at first, especially with the thicker papers. After being opened all the way, the covers will stay open for a while but will eventually close most of the way. There is no elastic to hold the sketchbooks closed. No inside pocket or ribbon marker either.

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The papers are up to the same high standard as S&B’s other products, performing well with all sorts of pens, pencils and watercolors. Only the bleediest markers show through much on the 150 GSM paper, and the 270 GSM paper is pretty impervious. Even the papers meant for only dry media held up fine with watercolors. From the outside, these sketchbooks don’t look like fancy sketchbooks designed to be kept forever, but with acid-free, archival quality paper, what you create on the inside should stand the test of time.

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What’s not to love? This is where I thought I’d be saying “well, they are a bit pricey…” but they’re not! The pocket size sketchbooks have a list price of $10.99 and are currently discounted to under $9.00 for some models at Amazon. With so many options in bindings, paper types, sizes and portrait/landscape formats, Stillman & Birn really offers something for everyone!

And I am offering you all the chance to win a free sample! Four winners will be randomly selected from those who enter in any of the following ways:

On Twitter, tweet something containing  “@StillmanandBirn” and “@NotebookStories.

On Facebook, “like” the  Notebook Stories page and the Stillman and Birn page, and post something containing the words “Stillman & Birn” on my wall.

On your blog, post something containing the words “Stillman & Birn” and “NotebookStories” and link back to this post.

And for those who don’t have these other options available to them, you can also enter by leaving a comment on this post.

Since we can have 4 winners, I will pick at least one winner from each entry method above, and each winner will receive at least 2 sketchbooks.

The deadline for entry is Friday June 23 at 11:59PM, EST. Good luck everyone!

Notebook Addict of the Week: Russell Stutler

Based on the photo below and the website where I found it, Russell Stutler is definitely a sketchbook addict.


His website is a great resource for anyone who is interested in sketching on the go– there are articles on tools like waterbrushes and assorted sketchbook brands, and tips on how to use them in the field. And his own artwork is incredible, as you can see below:

If you are ready to lose yourself in pleasurable browsing for a while, be sure to visit Russell Stutler’s Sketchbook Home.

Review: Stillman & Birn Zeta Series (and Winsor & Newton Watercolors)

The Zeta is the latest addition to Stillman & Birn’s excellent line of sketchbooks. I’ve reviewed the others here, so I won’t go into too much detail about the basics of their construction. The key difference with the new Zeta line is that it offers their heaviest paper in a smooth surface as opposed to the toothier cold press paper in the Beta and Delta series. The 270 gsm paper is said to be able to handle pretty much whatever you throw at it– watercolor, pencil, erasing, pens and other mixed media. So here’s what I came up with for my testing:

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I used all my usual pens– the surface is indeed much smoother than the Beta and Delta, making it a pleasure to write with the fine point rollerball pens I use most. Fountain pens and markers also worked fine. The paper held up well when I erased some of the pencil marks. The Accu-liner pen soaked in a bit and spread out when I held it in place for a few seconds.
And this is the ideal paper for anyone who hates show-through– even the invincible Super Sharpie left only the slightest hint of show-through– when I was taking the photographs, I couldn’t see it showing through at all, but in the photo itself, you can see it just a bit.  That dot where I held the Accu-Liner resulted in a slight grey dot on the reverse side, but nothing else showed through at all. I also used quite a lot of watercolor paint. I got the page quite wet in some locations, without the least bit of deterioration or buckling. The bright white paper shows off the watercolors beautifully.

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As a bit of a digression, I decided to take this opportunity to compare two watercolor paint sets I’ve owned for years. Both are made by Winsor and Newton. I was recently looking into buying another set and I realized I wasn’t sure if what I owned were Artist grade or Student grade. The difference is that Artist grade paints have more pigment, so you get better coverage and more intense color. They are more expensive, as you’d expect. The student grade paints, the Cotman line, are pretty reasonably priced.

Running up the left side of the page are tests of each color in my slightly larger watercolor set. When wetting the paints with a waterbrush, they feel a little creamy, almost sticky.  In the lower right corner of the page, I tested my very small watercolor set. I use this one more often and don’t clean out the paint pans as well as I should, so the colors could be a bit muddy from mixing, but I tried to get them pretty pure for these tests. In this set, the paint feels more watery when you mix it. On the page, the colors don’t seem to have quite the same intensity as the other set. Based on all this, I thought the small set must be the student grade, and the larger set was probably artist grade. However, I knew I would have paid anywhere near the $129 list price! The price may have been a bit lower years ago, and places like Blick and Amazon do discount these sets, but still, that’s very expensive. The other thing I noticed was that the brush that came with the larger set said “Cotman” on it– did that mean just the brush was student grade, or the paints too? I decided to check one more thing– the removable half pans have code numbers and the name of the pigment on them. When I searched some of these on the W&N website, it confirmed that these are indeed Cotman student grade paints. I do enjoy using my tiny little set (the equivalent of which lists for about $28.00) but I may start using the larger set (about $35 list, but discounted at Amazon) more now that I’ve realized the colors are nicer. I’m not sure why two student sets would seem so different in paint quality– perhaps because the smaller set has little blocks of loose paint not contained in pans, it’s more a difference in the binding material holding the pigments in solid form? Or just a difference in the particular colors in each set (the tiny set used to have a slip of paper identifying the pigments, but it’s long gone)? I’m stumped, but both of them are great for casual sketching–I don’t think you can go wrong with either. I have to admit, though, I’m now really curious as to how much better the artist grade paints might be! An inexpensive way to find out will be to buy a couple of individual half pans of the same pigments in artist grade (about $10 each) and test them side by side.

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So back to the sketchbook itself…  what more can I say? It’s fantastic paper, in a quality binding, and it’s a pleasure to use. I love it that Stillman and Birn offers so many options to suit any artist’s needs. Here’s a chart of their various papers. All of the paper types are available in assorted sizes in hardbound and wire-bound versions, from 4×6″ up to 11×14″ depending on the line. (I wish they made a 3.5 x 5.5″ size that would match all my other favorite notebooks and sketchbooks, as even 4×6″ is a bit larger than I like to use while traveling, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the larger sizes at home.)

Most of their prices are in the $15-$30 range, which I think is very reasonable for the quality of their paper. The 4×6″ Alpha series, with 124 pages (62 sheets) of 150 gsm paper, lists for only $12.99. Look for Stillman and Birn sketchbooks at your favorite art supply store, or online at Amazon.

Stillman & Birn Winners

Here are our 5 winners for the sketchbooks. No one seems to have entered via linking back from a blog post, so I picked one winner from the comments, and two each from Twitter and Facebook:

Comment #10 from Dan

Twitter: @onymousol and @janelGr

Facebook: Shaun Brooke and Diane Buck


Thank you everyone! Send me your addresses and Stillman & Birn will mail the prizes soon.

Review & Giveaway: Stillman & Birn Sketchbooks

There are so many different kinds of paper artists can use, and so many materials that demand different surfaces. When you’re in an art supply shop, there are multiple options for loose sheets and large spiral-bound sketchpads, but when it comes to smaller hardcover sketchbooks, each brand only seems to offer one option… why? You’d have to shop around and test different brands to find one that works for you… or at least that was the case until Stillman & Birn came on the scene.

Stillman & Birn’s slogan is “paper matters.” While one artist may want a smooth paper for fine pen & ink drawings, another will want a rough surface for charcoal, or a thick paper that will stand up to watercolors. Stillman & Birn’s sketchbooks offer a variety of options to suit all preferences:

Paper weight: heavy, or extra heavy

Paper color: natural white or ivory

Binding: hardcover or wirebound

Paper surface: rough, vellum, or plate

They have boiled down various combinations of these options into 5 series of sketchbooks–Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon– each of which is available in several sizes, from 4×6″ up to 11×14″.

Let’s take a look at the samples they sent me to test out:








First impressions: the covers are nice and sturdy, with squared corners. The material is a bit smoother than other similar sketchbooks. Each has a paper band outlining the characteristics of the paper within. Otherwise, the only branding is a stamped logo on the back cover. The wirebound sketchbooks are a nice option for when you want to completely fold back the cover. The hardcover sketchbooks don’t open as totally flat as some other brands I’ve tried, particularly in the smaller sizes, but this may be due to the thicker paper.




All the papers performed beautifully– the extra heavy paper did not buckle at all with the watercolors, and even the dreaded Super Sharpie was 99.9% undetectable in terms of show-through unless you’re holding the paper up to the light. Even the heavy weight paper was better for show-through than almost anything else I’ve tried. The regular heavy weight paper only buckled a little with watercolor. All the papers held up to erasing.  The rougher surfaces work nicely with charcoal, and yet still feel good to write on with a fine point pen. The surface didn’t deteriorate with multiple layers of watercolor or markers.







My only concern is that my pH test pen showed a couple of the sketchbooks not to be acid-free– if it turns purple, the paper is acid-free, if it stays yellowish, it’s not. I was surprised by this, as I’ve rarely had notebooks fail this test. The Beta sketchbook (extra heavy weight, natural white, rough surface) and Epsilon sketchbook (heavy weight, natural white, plate surface) were the ones that failed, and the only thing those papers have in common is the color. But Stillman & Birn say all their sketchbooks are “archival quality” and “pH neutral” so I hope they’ll address this with tighter quality control on their paper. [UPDATE 9/7: the owner of the company immediately contacted me upon seeing this review. They test their batches of paper when they arrive and are addressing the pH issue with the manufacturer in Europe to understand how this may have happened.]

I really enjoyed testing these, as I had to break out some art supplies I hadn’t used in a while, and the way they performed on these papers inspired me to want to use them more! I hope some of you will also feel similarly inspired by this giveaway: the folks at Stillman & Birn have generously offered to send an 8.5×11″ hardbound sketchbook from the Alpha series to 5 randomly selected winners who enter in any of the following ways:

On Twitter, tweet something containing  “@StillmanandBirn” and “@NotebookStories.

On Facebook, “like” the  Notebook Stories page and the Stillman and Birn page, and post something containing the words “Stillman & Birn” on my wall.

On your blog, post something containing the words “Stillman & Birn” and “NotebookStories” and link back to this post.

And for those who don’t have these other options available to them, you can also enter by leaving a comment on this post.

Since we can have 5 winners, I will pick at least one winner from each entry method above.

The deadline for entry is Friday September 9 at 11:59PM, EST. Good luck everyone!

And if you don’t win, here’s the list of retailers currently stocking Stillman & Birn sketchbooks. (You might want to snap some up fast, as the company is based in New Jersey and their warehouse and offices were heavily damaged by Hurricane Irene. I hope this won’t interrupt their supply too much!)