Thursday, February 22, 2018

Product Review: Field Notes Signature Sketch Book

Field Notes Brand's latest Signature edition is just a smidge larger than
its standard pocket-size editions. Shown here with a Sweet Tooth.

Last September, Field Notes Brand came out with Dime Novel, a limited-edition release of its pocket-size notebooks with several surprises – a new size, a new binding style and a new paper. You can read about the details in my review at the Well-Appointed Desk, but overall, I found almost everything about it to be a welcome change from the standard format (which I still enjoy using; my favorite is, of course, the red Sweet Tooth).

The slightly larger 4 ¼-by-6 ½-inch size offers just enough more sketching real estate while still keeping the book portable. Like the usual stapled binding, the new Smythe-sewn binding enables page spreads to open completely flat, which is a non-negotiable requirement for any sketchbook I use. I also like that the squared-off spine has a more polished, finished look than a stapled spine. Finally, the paper – Strathmore Premium Wove 70-pound – has a pleasant tooth and can withstand just about any medium I have abused it with so far. Although not without flaws, Dime Novel has come as close to a “real” sketchbook as any of the hundreds of otherwise similar pocket-size notebooks on the market.

Apparently others agreed with me, because the limited edition sold out in record time. Just this month, however, Field Notes Brand released a new regular edition based almost exactly on Dime Novel: Signature. Available indefinitely, the Signature edition comes in a ruled version as well as blank. It contains the same Strathmore Premium Wove 70-pound paper as Dime Novel except in a bright “Ultimate White” color, which I prefer to Dime Novel’s ivory paper (at least for sketching with color; for writing or drawing in monochrome, the creamy color is a easier on the eye).

Other than a redesigned cover and the omission of the (unneeded, for my purposes) overly large page numbers in Dime Novel, Signature looks, feels and acts exactly the same as its limited-edition model – but I had to test the paper anyway (partly as a public service; mostly because I enjoy abusing notebooks and sketchbooks to see their true mettle). Here are the results:

I tested all the media I typically use for sketching, and even some I rarely use for sketching, plus various writing instruments. The very light tooth is pleasant to use with any implement (though I wouldn’t mind a slightly heavier tooth for graphite and colored pencil drawings). The only thing that bled through was (as expected) a Sharpie marker.

All my favorite brush pens, juicy fountain pens, markers and water-soluble pencils. Water-soluble media were swiped with water.

As it did when I tested Dime Novel, my Sailor fude nib with waterproof Platinum Carbon Black ink feathered slightly, while my second Sailor fude with water-soluble Sailor Doyou ink did not. However, in my test sketch of the knotty tree below, the mild feathering enhances the quality of the organic line. Wherever I paused slightly or applied more ink, it bled through a bit (see the reverse side below the sketch).

2/21/18 Sailor fude nib fountain pen with Platinum Carbon Black ink
Reverse of the tree sketch shows ghosting
and a bit of bleed-through where I paused or the ink
was heavily applied.

With wet media, I really went to town on the abuse. On my watercolor, water-soluble colored pencil and Pentel Brushwriter swatches, I spritzed them with water – a technique I would not typically use on anything less than 100-pound paper. As you can see (test pages below), the spraying buckled the paper badly, but watercolor applied normally fared reasonably well.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the abuse I’ve given over the years to many types of paper that are often inappropriate for wet media (such as most notebooks), the sizing on a paper can be more important than its weight. In my Dime Novel review, I noted that the 70-pound paper in the Workshop Companion edition has the most wet-media-friendly sizing of all of Field Notes’ interior papers. Even my super-juicy Sailor fude with Platinum Carbon ink doesn’t feather or bleed on it, and lightly brushing water-soluble media with water results in relatively rich washes. Although FN has deemed the 70-pound Strathmore Premium Wove used in Dime Novel and Signature to be “the highest-quality body paper we’ve used in any Field Notes edition ever,” highest quality” is a mushy term determined by the specific need.
More abuse -- Sharpie, more pens, soft graphite and various water-soluble media that I spritzed with water.
Sprayed page buckled badly.

That said, I’m not complaining, as my particular casual sketching needs don’t exceed the quality of this paper. I use these small, daily-carry books as a supplement to my full-size, handmade sketchbooks – not a replacement. It sufficiently supported the multiple layers of Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle water-soluble colored pencils and the light wash I used in the apple sketch below. The colors show vibrantly despite the less-than-stellar sizing.

2/21/18 Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle watercolor pencils with a light wash.

Although I don’t use watercolor much anymore, I know many sketchers do, so just for fun, I did a comparison between Signature’s paper and the student-grade 140-pound Canson XL watercolor paper I use in my handbound books (below). Although Signature’s sizing kept the pigments on the surface longer than I expected, the hues look slightly more vibrant to me on the Canson. For light washes and spot colors in a casual sketch, I’d say the Signature can take watercolors adequately (though I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who was serious about watercolor sketching).

140 lb. Canson XL watercolor paper
70 lb. Field Notes Signature paper

My mixed-media sketch of the street scene below is more typical of the type of sketches I put in a small-format sketchbook. I used a Pentel sign pen (a hard-tip brush pen with water-soluble ink), Museum watercolor pencils with a little water, and a Blackwing graphite pencil. I love the bright white color, and the tooth is a good balance for all of these media.

2/21/18 Pentel sign pen, Blackwing graphite pencil, Museum watercolor pencils (lightly washed)

If I have any complaint, it would be the paper’s opacity. In my tree sketch above, I included in the scan an image of the facing page, which reveals ghosting from the street scene sketch on the previous page. That’s not too bad for 70-pound paper; even 100-pound Stillman & Birn Alpha paper isn’t perfectly opaque. (I’ve come to learn that color has a lot to do with a paper’s opacity. In my beloved Sweet Tooth edition, which comes with three colors, the red paper is completely opaque, while the yellow and even the blue are less so. Stillman & Birn’s toned Nova edition is opaque, but the white Alpha is not, even though they are both 100-pound weight.)

Look -- it actually says Sketch Book!
Overall, I am pleased as punch with Signature – both its qualities and the fact that it’s going to be around indefinitely so I won’t feel a need to stockpile a limited supply. As I said in my review of Dime Novel, it’s an ideal cross-over book for both writing and sketching – it’s going to be my next travel journal.

This is just a small thing, but I am tickled by it: While Field Notes has offered blank paper before (Sweet Tooth, of course, and its basic Kraft notebook has an unruled option, plus the forgettable Arts & Sciences edition is half plain), this is the first Field Notes product (possibly the first of any of the ubiquitous pocket-size notebooks offered by many makers) to be called a “Sketch Book.” Finally, I feel recognized as part of a small but ever-growing segment of the notebook-using community. (OK, after all the whining I’ve done, I also feel just a teensy bit vindicated.) We all write; some of us draw, too. At last, there’s a place for both – in the same notebook.


  1. Great review, Tina. Glad to see that Field Notes has discovered "sketching" :-)

  2. Good review! I'm glad they came out with a regular edition for you. It is so annoying to find something you like and then have it not be continued.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...