Saturday, May 30, 2020

Sketchbook Review: Stillman & Birn Square Format Softcover

Stillman & Birn square-format sketchbooks are available with all of the brand's papers.

When I first started sketching, I explored many different sketchbook papers and formats (some are pictured on my Sketch Kit Archives page). It’s what we all have to do when we start because we don’t yet know what size or format we like, and we’re still experimenting with media. One style that I stayed with for a good part of my first year was the square Hand Book Artist Journal (at the time, it was made by Global Art Materials; now it seems to be coming from Speedball). After much frustration trying to use watercolor with this paper that is not appropriate for wet media, I finally wised up and changed to something else. But the thing that kept me going back to the Hand Book was its size and format: a 5 ½-inch square.

That book taught me the versatility of the square. I could begin a sketch without committing to a vertical or horizontal orientation (I don’t necessarily recommend starting a sketch without having a composition in mind, but we all know that a composition can change midstream). A single page was great for one or two portraits or figures or even a small scene. It fit nicely in my bag, and I could pull it out discreetly in buses or coffee shops. (Indeed, I had no need for a separate pocket-size book as I do now.) On the other hand, if I suddenly saw potential for a panoramic landscape, I could draw across the full spread. The square was handy (even before the age of Instagram).

After I gave up the Hand Book, I moved on to mostly 8 ½-by-5 ½ inch portrait-format books because I couldn’t find squares with paper or binding I liked. During all those years that I bound my own sketchbooks and could have made square ones, I didn’t because it seemed to waste paper in the sheet dimensions I was buying. But every now and then I miss the versatility of the square.

A few years ago, Stillman & Birn, my favorite sketchbook brand, brought out a square softcover version in all of its papers. The 7 ½-inch square was larger than the Hand Book, but I was excited to get back into the square. I got a Zeta and a Nova Trio, which contains all three of S&B’s toned papers. (Since I’ve reviewed Zeta and Nova papers in previous reviews, I will only discuss the square format in this post. For information on paper quality and features, please see the previous links.)

As expected, the square format gives me the right shape for compositions that don’t fit quite right in a rectangle, like this pot of pansies.
2/16/20 ArtStix in Zeta

When I felt like sketching my sketch kit last fall, I knew I couldn’t do it with the level of detail I wanted unless I had more real estate, so a full-page spread in my square Zeta accommodated my composition well.
11/9/19 brush pen and watercolor pencils in Zeta

At my first Zoom social event, I again grabbed the square Zeta to fit four portraits conveniently on each page.
4/1/20 Uni Pin brush pen and water-soluble graphite in Zeta

Just a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to do a study of clouds from our sundeck, and I wanted something as large as possible while still being easy to hold while standing. It was an ideal opportunity to test a full-page spread in the Nova Trio – a full 15 inches across. While I was working on the right side of the gutter, the page behaved well because it was supported by the rest of the book. On the left side, however, the book’s first page was supported only by the softcover, which felt flimsy when I pushed against it roughly in my typical colored pencil style. It was a struggle to keep that side steady. Since I have no problem using the pages near the covers of my usual softcover 8 ½-by-5 ½ inch portrait-format books, I was surprised that the additional two inches made that much difference.
5/14/20 watercolor pencils in Nova

Since the 7 ½-inch size is smaller than the long side of my go-to Beta books, I also thought it wouldn’t make too much difference in my daily- carry bag. Alas, it makes a significant difference: My bag flap will not close completely over it, and it feels clumsy.

I’ve had these books for more than a year, but they are slow to fill. The reason is that I only use them at home when I’m seated at my desk, where the book can be fully supported. The cloud study was the first time I street-tested it (although the “street” was our sundeck). My sad conclusion is that it’s a great studio format, but not so great for sketching on location.

Now, if the square were 5 ½ inches, I bet I would find a lot more uses for it just as I had found with the versatile Hand Book. Heck, it would fit easily in my mini-size Rickshaw Zero messenger bag, which has become my daily-carry during these pandemic months. I wouldn’t need an additional pocket-size sketchbook, either. How about it, Stillman & Birn? (This is going on my annual sketch materials wish list.)

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