Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Preview: Tumuarta and Hahnemühle Squares


Square sketchbooks: Tumuarta (left) and Hahnemuhle

One of the first sketchbooks I used as a novice urban sketcher was the square-format Hand Book Journal. Although the paper was terrible with watercolor, which I was trying to use at the time, I didn’t know any better. For a hardcover book, the binding was better than most – the page spreads easily opened completely flat. Containing 128 pages for a low price, it gave me a lot to burn through quickly in those early days.

The best part about the book, though, was its 5 ½-by-5 ½-inch square format. When I first started sketching in public, I still felt a bit self-conscious pulling out a sketchbook. The square was small enough that I felt discreet opening it at a coffee shop table, but it gave me a comfy page size to work with. It was also easy to hold while standing on a sidewalk. Bonus: The 5 ½-by-11-inch page spread made an excellent panorama. Although I probably didn’t realize it at the time, a square format also gave me an advantage as a beginning sketcher: I didn’t have to commit to an orientation before beginning the sketch. Before I learned about paper quality and my media needs, I happily filled several square Hand Books.

Eventually, though, I wanted better paper. I tried many brands and bound my own sketchbooks for several years. When I moved to Stillman & Birn, I loved the papers, and its 5 ½-by-8 ½-inch softcover became my favorite, both at home and on location. I really missed a small square format, though. S&B’s only softcover square option is the 7 ½-inch size, which I enjoy using at my desk, but it’s too large to carry or use on location. I tried binding my own square book once, but the paper dimension resulted in a lot of waste.

Although I’ve been happy with S&B and now the A5-size Hahnemühle, some part of me is always on the lookout for a square sketchbook with decent paper. A square is so versatile, and I often find my compositions taking on a squarish shape on a conventional rectangular page.

Shortly after I had discovered the Hahnemühle Watercolor Sketchbook and decided to make it my everyday-carry book, I learned that Hahnemühle’s new 100 percent cotton watercolor book series was making its way to the US. Since I don’t use watercolor paints or super-wet washes with watercolor pencils, I don’t really need the performance of 100 percent cotton. However, when I was looking at the 100 percent cotton line at Wet Paint Art, I was thrilled to see that a 5 ½-inch square option was available (the square does not seem to be available in the lower-grade watercolor paper that I am perfectly happy with). I grabbed one immediately.

Around the same time, I stumbled upon another 5 ½-inch square sketchbook by a brand I’d never heard of – Tumuarta. With 140-pound watercolor paper and at a reasonable price, the book was worth a shot. They are both similar in design: Fabric-covered hard covers with ribbon page markers and elastic bands. The Hahnemühle has 60 pages; the Tumuarta has 48. They both open fully flat and feel good in the hand.

It will probably be a while before I give either of these a solid workout in the field or a full review. But for now, as I always do with a new-to-me sketchbook, I did quick wet tests to get an idea of how the papers react.

Tumuarta 140 lb. watercolor paper

Hahnemuhle 100% cotton watercolor paper

The Tumuarta has a much stronger tooth than the Hahnemühle (or S&B Beta); I’m not sure I’d like it with dry pencils. Interestingly, the Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencil dissolved less because the pigment was trapped by the hefty texture. That may or may not be desirable, depending on the subject matter. Otherwise, they both performed well on these quick tests.

I do hope one of these works out for me because I’ve discovered another benefit of this size and format: It fits perfectly in the mini-size Rickshaw Zero Messenger Bag that I use when fitness walking (also known as my pandemic sketch kit bag). I occasionally grab a 3 ½ -by-5 ½-inch S&B Beta when I have something in mind that I want to sketch during a neighborhood walk on better paper than a Field Notes. But a 5 ½-inch square would give me a much more comfortable real estate. I think I’ll take one of these out for a walk soon and try it on for size – and for paper. 


  1. I like square formatted sketchbooks too. It makes it easier to decide on the composition. The concertina sketchbook I made (I'm now sketching views to put on the back.) is square and I like that because when you look through it everything is facing the same way. I've used the square S&B too.

    1. I love your concertina's format! I wish S&B would make a smaller square... it would be perfect because I love the softcovers.

  2. How come you chose a square paper for mostly landscape sketching? I am curious to know. Coming from a pgotography hobby background, I would have expected rectangular shapes to be better suited.

    1. Although I sketch a lot of landscapes, often I see compositions in squares... and filling in the traditional rectangle doesn't necessarily make it a better composition. Plus it's very easy to hold in one hand -- a practical matter for someone who likes to sketch while standing! ;-)

  3. I really like the paper in my 8 x 8 inch. It warps with washes, but not too crazy. And the page count (190) means I can get a year of daily scribbles in two books. But, it does not lay flat without clamps and is still too big for hand holding. Now, I like the square format so much I am thinking of making a square book out of the 9x12 Sax Sulphite sheets. I could make a 6x6 and a 3x6 landscape book and not completely waste the cut offs. Still in the thinking stage. I don't know how archival Sax Sulphite is, but it takes light washes and pencil with a texture as smooth as Zeta.

    1. I love my 7.5" square S&B at home, but the size makes it a deal-breaker for urban sketching. I think that's how I got so hooked on the square format in recent years... I do a lot of out-the-studio-window sketches in the large square, and it's so versatile!


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