Sunday, September 14, 2014

Product Review: Rhodia Rhodiarama Pocket Notebook

My travel journal in Brazil was a Rhodia Rhodiarama notebook.
When I’m home, I keep an ongoing journal/log book using an A5 (about 5 ½” x 8 ½”) size Leuchtturm notebook. But when I do any major traveling (longer in duration than a few days), I switch to a pocket-size format. Aside from the practical matter of a smaller size being easier and lighter to carry, I also like keeping a separate, independent journal for each trip.

Unlike my sketchbook, this little notebook is used mainly for writing (a useful pastime while riding trains in Japan and Europe) and gluing in ticket stubs, chopstick wrappers (Japan), beer coasters (Germany) and other thin ephemera. Before I became a sketcher, I used to bring along a POGO portable printer and stick in small self-adhesive prints of select photos as a visual token of the day. (Sometimes I miss that little printer, but when you do carry-on baggage only, something has to go. Besides, now if I want a visual token of the day, I just sketch it.)

A travel journal page from my 2010 trip
to Japan. I used a Pogo printer to capture
favorite images.
I like to begin the travel notebook as soon as I commit to taking the trip because I want to document the whole process, not just the trip itself: the date I began applying for a visa; the purchase date and price of my airfare; the currency exchange rate. It’s also where I write key vocabulary words and phrases in the language of the country I’m visiting that I need to learn; the addresses of hotels we’re staying in (so I don’t have to dig that out of my carry-on bag when we’re sleep-deprived and bleary-eyed at the airport); our list of must-see sights. In other words, it becomes both a personal travel journal and a reference.

When I wasn’t sketching yet, the type of paper wasn’t very important, so I most often used a Moleskine or other similar hardcover pocket-size notebook. Last year I took a Pen & Ink notebook to Europe. It has smooth, heavy paper (similar to Moleskine’s manila-folder-like “sketchbook” paper) that I enjoyed writing on, but the binding started falling apart before the two-week trip was over.

7/10/13 ballpoint pen, Pen & Ink notebook (An attempt at
reportage sketching on Barcelona's La Rambla.)

This year for our trip to Brazil, I gave a lot more consideration to the notebook itself than I usually do. I recalled a time in Barcelona last year when we were walking to dinner, and we ran into a commotion on La Rambla. I couldn’t read the signs that people were carrying, but I got the impression that it was some kind of protest. Since we were only going to dinner, I had left my sketchbook and supplies at the hotel. (HA! I’d never make that mistake again!) I couldn’t let this first-ever opportunity for sketch reportage slip away! I quickly pulled out my travel journal notebook and a Bic ballpoint from my purse and sketched. I never did find out what the protest was about, and the sketch didn’t convey much. But the significant thing was that I realized the importance of always – always – having something in one’s possession to sketch on, even if only going to dinner.

A typical page from my Brazil journal:
Notes from a conversation I had with a
local shopkeeper about birds in Paraty.
With that incident in mind, I set out to find a pocket-sized notebook that would be good for writing but could also take a sketch or two in a pinch. I’ve already tried quite a few commercial notebooks that I had hoped would fill this bill; my continual disappointment is what led me to make my own. For example, Moleskine’s pocket-size watercolor sketchbook is the right size and weight, but I hate writing on landscape-format pages, and I also prefer a smooth, nontoothy paper for writing. Moleskine’s standard notebook paper (and that of most competitors) is too thin and could never take even a light water-soluble ink wash. Moleskine’s so-called “sketchbook” paper (the yellowish manila type) is substantially thick (nice for collage), but I hate its waxy surface for sketching.

I considered briefly making my own, but I didn’t think a handbound book with enough pages to last two weeks (I write a fair amount when traveling) would hold up well to daily-carry and general travel abuse.

The Rhodia pocket notebook is slightly
thicker than most notebooks in this format.
The one commercial notebook I hadn’t yet tried was the Rhodia. Much lauded by fountain pen users for its smooth, non-bleed-through paper, it’s more expensive than Moleskine and most other brands, and its thicker (albeit higher quality) covers and paper make it bulkier and heavier than Moleskines. (It’s about three-quarters of an inch thick compared to Moleskine’s half inch.) With 192 pages (96 sheets), it also has more pages than I would normally use in two weeks.

I bought one and gave it a quick water-soluble ink wash test, and the paper held up acceptably. Doubtful, I tried watercolor on it, too. It held up OK to the light wash, but the surface gave a flat, unpleasing look to the color, and the ivory tint isn’t very flattering to watercolor.

The cover feels lovely
and comes in bright, rich
Esthetically, the Rhodia’s cover and paper both feel wonderful to the touch, and the Rhodiarama series comes in a wide range of bright colors that appeal to me. But the Rhodia would definitely be a tradeoff of slim size for superior paper. I waffled quite a bit – my goal was to get my bag down to the lightest possible weight, and realistically, how often would I be sketching in my travel notebook, anyway? – but ultimately, the Rhodia won.

And what a winner it is! First of all, the binding stayed strong, and I believe it could withstand months of daily-carry (though I’ll probably never test that myself; my travel endurance is about two weeks). The paper is a dream to use with fountain pen, cheap hotel ballpoint pen, pencil, rollerball, gel pen, you name it. Although I didn’t fill it, I ended up using more than two-thirds of it (maybe I’m getting more verbose).

A monkey captured in my Rhodia notebook.
The most important thing, though, is that it met my sketching needs at exactly the right moments. You already saw this sketch of the tiny monkey I had the luck to be able to draw on my way up to the top of Sugarloaf. I had my Stefano with me at the time, so I could have used it, but I was afraid that the commotion I would have to make to dig it out would spook the little guy away. (It was a gosling moment!) It was much easier, faster and quieter to slip the Rhodia out. (In fact, the monkey seemed fearless and hung around for quite a while.)

8/23/14 Diamine Chocolate Brown and
Private Reserve Velvet Black inks,
Rhodia notebook
Another example was on the outbound flight – the long, overnight leg between Atlanta and Rio. After a night of fitful dozing, I woke early when most other passengers were still asleep, including Greg. Bored, I wanted to sketch, but getting out my sketchbook would have meant digging around in my backpack, which was under the seat. Not wanting to wake Greg with my commotion, I simply pulled out the Rhodia, which was in the passport case around my neck, and entertained myself by sketching sleeping passengers in the near-dark.

Would I consider using a Rhodia as my everyday catch-all sketchbook instead of a handbound sketchbooklet? After all, although the Rhodia’s paper isn’t as good as the 100-pound watercolor paper I use in my sketchbooklets, the type of sketches I end up doing in a sketchbooklet tend to be of bus commuters when I want to be surreptitious, so I wouldn’t haul out watercolors anyway. But the Rhodia’s biggest drawback is its bulk, which is about three or four times the thickness of a sketchbooklet. Still, it’s worth considering. And it’s definitely my notebook of choice when I travel. 

9/2/14 Private Reserve Velvet Black ink, Rhodia notebook (a napping dog at
the Paraty bus station)


  1. Hmm...very interesting. I love Rhodia notebooks but I've never thought about sketching in them. Do you refer to your sketchbook work in this journal when you're traveling or is it completely independent of it? I ask because I've been thinking of setting up a Bullet Journal to make notes about my sketches. If you don't know Bullet Journal, it's a way of using a journal, not a journal itself. Very powerful organizational method.

    1. I'm not very organized when I travel -- I use the Rhodia for both sketching and notes whenever it's convenient, without thinking much about it. If I'm already sketching in my sketchbook, then I'll put notes in there. I am familiar with the Bullet -- it's a cool system, but a bit too systematic for me. I tend to be more "freeform" in my personal management style. :-0

  2. Thanks for all the information you provided. The Rhodia you picture in this post shows blank pages but the one to which you linked is only lined. I prefer blank (or, if it's the only option, dot). The Rhodia Pocket Web notebook has blank pages but comes in only black or Rhodia "orange" (yellow).


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