Artists have a wealth of tools at their disposal to create magical art pieces, and it’s important to pair these tools with the right art surface for them to shine. One of our favorite surfaces is a sketchbook because of its portability and convenience. Sketchbooks come in all sorts of sizes, paper weights, bindings, and more. We’re here to help you pick out the best one that suits your needs, so keep reading to see some of our favorites.
- Sketchbook Considerations
- Sketchbook Characteristics
- Sketchbook Recommendations
- Specialty Sketchbooks
- How We Approach Research and Testing
- Other Resources
- Shop This Post
Choosing the right sketchbook depends on knowing how you’ll use it.
Let’s break down the traits that make a sketchbook suited to different applications.
Other sketchbooks may have spiral or twin-ring bindings. Artists may prefer these bindings since they lay flat and don’t hinder the drawing process. If you like these binding styles but want to be able to tear pages out easily, look for sketchbooks that have perforated pages. Glue binding is the least durable binding style, most often used in pads of paper instead of sketchbooks, but it’s great for cleanly removing pages.
For artists who keep sketchbooks as part of a portfolio, a hard cover can extend the lifespan of a sketchbook. An elastic closure on your sketchbook also helps protect the artwork inside.
There are a variety of terms that can be used to describe texture, including “hot press" or “plate" for smooth papers, and “cold press" or “toothy" for rough papers.
Smooth papers are ideal for drawings with sharp edges and fine details, though they aren’t best for dry media that need to catch in the grain to transfer color. Toothy papers produce textured drawings with vibrant colors, but may leave gaps in the drawing due to the rough surface.
To protect their drawings, artists should look for paper that is acid-free. Acid-free papers tend not to discolor or break down over time, allowing your art to keep its true colors. Paper color also differs across sketchbooks. The most common colors are white, off-white, and ivory. Some specialty sketchbooks may feature toned paper in shades of dark beige, tan, or gray.
Now that we've gone over our considerations, let's take a look at our recommendations for various media.
Stillman & Birn makes a wide array of specialized papers for sketching, and the Zeta sketchbook is our favorite for all-purpose use. With its heavy weight and smooth finish, this sketchbook lends itself well to almost any media and the true white paper showcases colors faithfully. The sketchbook is available in four sizes, each with a sturdy cover and binding.
The Alpha sketchbook is a joy to use with graphite and colored pencils. The white paper has a mild tooth that catches just the right amount of pigment. It's heavier than the average sketchbook for dry media, but this makes it versatile as you can use it with light washes of ink or watercolor. If you prefer ivory paper, the Gamma sketchbook has the same weight and tooth. If you want smoother paper for colored pencils, you can opt for the Epsilon sketchbook instead.
The Strathmore 400 Series Mixed Media Pad is filled with smooth heavyweight paper. Its mixed media capabilities allow you to soak a page with an ink wash or layer watercolor over your lines. For strong black lines and spot fills, be sure to work with opaque ink.
The Mixed Media Pad is also available in black, and it's our recommendation for the best black paper sketchbook.
The smooth paper of a Strathmore 400 Series Marker Pad is great for alcohol ink. Strokes don’t spread, colors don’t streak, layers build easily, and blending is almost effortless. Heavy layering does cause bleedthrough, but it’s easily fixed by removing a sheet from the glue binding and working on a protected surface, or by keeping scrap paper between pages.
For a more portable option, pick up a Copic Sketchbook. Although it’s filled with slightly thinner pages, lines don't feather and colors stay vivid. Plus, its durable twin-ring binding and two small sizes make it easy to take on the go.
This heavyweight acid-free cold press paper is designed especially for use with watercolors. The textured surface takes color brilliantly but is smooth enough that you can blend and reactivate paints well. Available in three sizes, each sketchbook has a durable hard cover and sturdy twin ring binding to take along on your adventures.
If you would like to paint with your watercolors peacefully at home, Global Art Fluid 100 Watercolor Paper Easy-Blocks contain 100% cotton paper with glued binding on two edges to prevent the paper from buckling when wet. Since the binding is very secure, take care when removing your work from the block.
If you’re looking for a smaller watercolor sketchbook or one with a sewn binding, the Stillman & Birn Beta Sketchbook contains extra heavyweight paper that’s perfect for layering watercolors with no bleeding, streaking, or pilling. The Delta series contains the same paper in ivory.
Here are some specialty sketchbooks that aren’t media-specific.
The main draw of these little sketchbooks is the fantastic paper. They don’t have additional bells and whistles like closure mechanisms, and with the extra-heavyweight paper, if you break the spine of the notebook it will stay a little open. Transport these in a snugger pocket, not a tote bag where they can bounce around and get into trouble.
If you prefer a pocket sketchbook with an elastic that holds it closed, try Moleskine Art Sketchbooks. The different styles of these sketchbooks are all filled with smooth 165 gsm ivory paper. We don’t recommend this paper for wet media. While watercolor doesn’t bleed through, it does sink in and become grainy, and wetter washes buckle and warp the page. It’s suited to dry media and medium-wet brush pens, though you should skip the Copic markers. Choose between the iconic Moleskine design or accordion-style pages that unfold to one long sheet. Both have elastic closures and durable hard covers. The landscape sketchbook includes neither but is filled with the same paper.
For more drawing tools to pair with black paper, check our guides to white drawing inks and white ink pens.
Our writers draw on their personal expertise, consult our in-house subject matter experts, and do extensive research to make our guides as accurate and comprehensive as possible. We then test every finding that makes it through the research stage. Only the techniques and tools whose performance we personally confirm make it into our guides as recommendations.
With the right sketchbook, artists can work their magic with confidence and finesse. What are your favorite sketchbooks and drawing tools? Let us know in the comments below!