My Sketchbook Review!

In this post I’m putting some sketchbooks through their paces to see how they perform with my watercolour method. 

My method aims for crisp detailed brush strokes – so I need SMOOTH paper to do that. And I create multiple layers of fairly watery paint on dry paper, to achieve really realistic tones and hues. So I also need the paper to be ROBUST, which usually means it’s as THICK as possible.

These things combined means the best sort of sketchbooks for this style of work are those marketed as for ‘MIXED MEDIA’.

They also work well for any type of botanical painting or realistic watercolours of any sort, as well as for, of course, mixed media work!

Here are a few I tested out. These are just my opinions, I am not affiliated with any of these brands.

Strathmore 500 series Premium Mixed Media

This one is a dream to paint on with gorgeous 100% cotton paper (this is really unusual in a sketchbook) and comes beautifully bound, but it’s expensive – at 50p/65c per side –  and, as it’s not wire-bound, you can’t tear a sheet out easily if you make a real mess. Paper is creamy white, like the standard paper I paint on and is treated so it held up pretty well to buckling.


Strathmore Visual Journal – Mixed Media

Strathmore’s lower priced option is also 100% cotton (amazing!) so it’s nice and absorbent, through the paper seems more likely to buckle than the more expensive Strathmore sketchbook. If you clip the pages, you could probably get away with being able to paint on both sides of the paper and that makes the price around 20p/ 26c per side. Paper is creamy white. This is the best lower priced sketchbook I tried.

Canson XL Series Mix Media Paper Pad

This one is a lot cheaper, especially in the US, at more like 11c per sheet (in the UK more like 20p per sheet)- and it’s big with 60 sheets. But again the paper is only 160gsm, and this paper feels even more prone to buckling, meaning you won’t really want to paint on both sides. It doesn’t seem to be designed for painting on both sides anyway as sheets are perforated for easy removal. The paper is bright white and isn’t as absorbent as I’d like meaning drying times were longer.


Daler & Rowney Ebony

Similarly priced in the UK to the Canson one above, this one from Daler Rowney is also 160 gsm and the paper, though creamier in colour, behaves in a similar way with a tendency to buckle and longer drying times.


Canson XL – 300gsm

Canson also make a couple of heavy weight versions of their Mixed Media paper,. This larger pad (8 .3 x 11.7 inches or A4)  is 300 gsm and is really robust. The sheets of paper themselves are rougher on one side – but not as rough as cold pressed paper. And as the paper is so thick it you can certainly paint on both sides.  It’s a decent price at around 18p/ 23c per side and the paper is nice and absorbent. Again the sheets are perforated though so it doesn’t feel like a sketchbook you want to keep flicking through like a book.


Canson Heavyweight Mixed Media

The third one here from Canson is not AS thick, at 224 gsm, but it still performed well, without buckling very much and it’s rougher side wasn’t AS rough as on the pad above. It’s a similar price to the pad above and is a good option.


Stillman & Birn ZETA series

The one I’ve decided to use myself, and which I’d recommend, is a whopping 270gsm and is at a mid price point at 29p/38c  per side. It’s not cotton, it’s wood pulp and yet it’s been internally and externally sized which means it gives it exceptional strength, balanced absorbency – also aided by how thick the paper is. For more buying links for the US and UK click here and select the correct tab for your country.

I hope this review of sketchbooks was helpful! Let me know in the comments – and please do leave your own recommendations for sketchbooks that perform well with this technique.

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  1. G. Gail Robb on September 27, 2018 at 4:03 pm

    Very helpful review – thank you so much!

  2. Tech Genie on September 27, 2018 at 5:11 pm

    Thanks for the great reviews!

    I have a couple of the Canson 224 gsm notebooks on hand so will use them first. Do we paint on the smooth or the rougher side?


    • Anna Mason on October 3, 2018 at 2:17 pm

      I think the smoother is better Elizabeth.

  3. Kyunghee Johnson on September 27, 2018 at 9:55 pm

    This is exactly what I need this moment. I was looking for sketchbook for sketchbook excise. Thank you so much your experiment for us, so we don’t have to buy all those for ourselves. I have been using Strathmore watercolor cold press paper for my sketchbook excise but too long to get dried! I was frustrated! I’m so excited to get a new and right one sketchbook for me! Thank you again Anna.

  4. Gail J. on September 29, 2018 at 4:46 am

    Thank you Anna. Looking forward to these shorter tutorials as well as all the wonderful regular ones you post.
    In Christ,
    Gail J.

  5. vinodhinird on September 29, 2018 at 7:12 am

    Thank you anna.

  6. Nandhini Narasimhan on September 29, 2018 at 7:15 am

    Thank you Anna! I have been using the Stillman & Birn sketchbook from Jackson’sart and it is fantastic for sketches. The weight makes it ideal and takes a lot of wetness and doesn’t buckle that easily.. So happy to see your recommendation on this!

  7. Longbotham on September 30, 2018 at 3:17 pm

    I have a notebook which I have been using to record colour mixes for the tutorials I have completed. I have not applied any substantial washes to it. I think that I will teat myself to a new one for the new tutorials. Thank you Anna for your preparatory work.

  8. Friedrichbw on October 1, 2018 at 2:14 am

    I absolutely LOVE the Strathmore mixed media books. I art journal in those exclusively when I’m not watercoloring on a block, but here in the US, I also ALWAYS wait for a 40-50% off coupon or sale at Michael’s or Hobby Lobby. On occasion Amazon will also put them on sale. 🙂

  9. Janet Whitham on October 1, 2018 at 2:24 pm

    I’m excited about the sketchbook tutorials and have ordered myself a Stillman and Birn. Can’t wait for it to arrive – I love a new toy!

  10. Smudger on October 2, 2018 at 11:00 am

    I am looking forward to doing the Hydrangea sketchbook exercise so I thought I would treat myself to a new Strathmore sketchbook, arriving in the next couple of days. How excited can you get ordering a new sketchbook?!

  11. Lauren Russo on October 2, 2018 at 7:34 pm

    I absolutely loathe the Strathmore Visual Journal – Mixed Media. I find that it bleeds and the edges of my strokes feather out – ugh – what a mess! Hate it.

  12. Chelsey on October 4, 2018 at 3:20 pm

    I highly recomment maxgoodz watercolor books that have ultra heavy weight paper! It was pricey but so very worth it! Im in the US and they shipped to me from Russia.

  13. Sheila Savage on October 4, 2018 at 5:24 pm

    Thank you Anna, I just ordered the Stillman Birn Zeta. I am looking forward to trying this product. Thank you for helping all of us with direction for quality products which will affect the quality of our finished work. I appreciate all that you do for us, you are so inspiring to me. I am busy working on a project with friends, but…..hopefully soon….I will have time to take your class. 🙂

  14. Shreya K on October 4, 2018 at 9:02 pm

    This was the perfect timing. I have been longing to buy a good watercolor sketchbook and being in India, it’s a less common commodity at a good price The review helped a lot. I just ordered the Stillman & Birn Sketchbook. Thanks agin for sharing!

  15. Manon Beaulieu on October 5, 2018 at 1:16 am

    Thank you! I spent hours in a store trying to choose the right pad and I bought the Canson XL Series Mix Media Paper Pad. I was happy to see that you included it in your list.
    However, now that have have watched your video I think I will go and buy myself the Strathmore 500 series Premium Mixed Media.

  16. ANITA on October 5, 2018 at 2:57 am

    Would hot pressed paper be an alternative? I’m thinking of binding my own sketchbook.

    • Anna Mason on October 5, 2018 at 2:58 pm

      Yes definitely.

  17. Gerrie on October 5, 2018 at 9:40 am

    Thanks for this wonderfull information!

  18. Christine M. Ballo on October 5, 2018 at 12:55 pm

    Thanks for this review. I am from the Philippines, and we have these heee, except the Stillman brand. I am trying to be good at watercolor painting, so it helps me a lot!

  19. Rosemary Comerford on October 25, 2018 at 10:41 am

    thank you Anna, for giving me some insperation to start sketches again. i have sketched in pencil but do think watercolour will help as you see the more clearly the picture you wish to complete.

  20. Harry on October 26, 2018 at 12:17 pm

    Hi Anna. I’ve read this blog a couple of time now, and I’m approaching the last pages of my very first sketch book which is the Canson Mix Media 160g book. I mainly use this to practice brush techniques and to test color . . . so it’s pretty messy. Now I’m looking for something more portable for painting and drawing on site. I will certainly look for the Zeta recommendation but I’m not sure if it’s available here. Thank you for the excellent review.

  21. Esther on October 31, 2018 at 9:22 pm

    Great stuff, thanks!

  22. ishKiia on November 8, 2018 at 9:18 pm

    Really interesting the first one on the list is cheaper than the one you chose to use for yourself on Amazon
    Strathmore 566-8 500 Series Hardbound Mixed Media Art Journal $17.86 with 32 pages
    Stillman & Birn Zeta Wirebound Sketchbook, Heavyweight 180lb is $19.19 with 25 pages

    I thought you might think it interesting. I will go with the Strathmore i think

    Thank you for the review

  23. athinasoultani on January 23, 2019 at 8:52 pm

    I ordered the Strathmore Visual Journal i wait to receive this so i can try this it is need some days to receive this here in Greece.

  24. SuBu'inAK on February 11, 2019 at 7:41 am

    Anna ~

    This was so helpful and how much more confident my feelings are to be able to choose from a very thorough group of different sketchbooks! What tops it off and makes choosing even better ~ is that the reasearch was done by the best!!!

    Thank you for giving us all the various options for equipment, easel, iPad stand and explaining how different and why colors show up better on various devices, best lighting system (Daylight Lamp), palette, your brushes (love the Rosemary & Company brushes and that they are sold here in the USA, and the watercolor paper! Plus your site is full of painting that works for us and the site is easy to understand how to get from one place to another, and bursting with information!!!

    Many Thanks,
    Sue In Alaska

  25. PatA on April 1, 2019 at 11:43 pm

    Thank you – much appreciated – I’m learning a lot about paper, paints, etc… never realized there was such a big difference!!!

  26. Katherine E Kramer on July 1, 2019 at 5:22 am

    Anna and team, one option you could look into if you want to make your own sketchbook is the “TUL Note Taking System”. It’s a less expensive version of Levenger. The notebook covers are in the range of $15-$20 (may be more if you want leather) and the hole punch is $40, so that part is a commitment. It allows you to put your own paper in and move sheets around. I currently use it to hold all my scraps so I can use them for sketchbook activities.

    • Katherine E Kramer on July 1, 2019 at 5:24 am

      Sorry, and you can find it on Amazon 🙂

  27. Syndy on February 8, 2020 at 12:56 am

    Thanks Anna, wondering about most conducive size for exercises? I guess whatever’s most comfortable for you personally and the situation you use it in…
    I purchased the Zeta in 9″x12″ which feels really big as it’s an oversized A4, plus the binding, and then realised the one recommended is 7″x10″. Is that the one you happened to have, or the size is also part of the review?

  28. Melissa Dare on May 13, 2021 at 12:31 am

    This review is quite helpful and I wish I would have found it before I had placed my order with Blick’s in the US for all the paints yesterday. I will order your recommended one next time. I look forward to learning from you Anna! Thank you for providing all the paint substitutes as well for Daniel Smith as I happen to have a lot of those already.

  29. Sue Bartlett on March 15, 2022 at 3:03 pm

    Hi! I am excited to keep finding new treasures of knowledge as I become more familiar with the school pages….it’s like Christmas each time I find something new! I was wanting to look at the information in the last link above ‘more buying links for the US and UK….’. However, it seems the link is not working or that page no longer exists?

    Just wondering if this information can be found elsewhere?

    Thank you!

  30. Dale Wolfe on September 19, 2022 at 9:19 pm

    I have ordered and used a lot of watercolor books to paint in. I really like the hot press paper that is flat and smooth on both sides. I like ARCHES Aquerelle Carnet de Voyage Travel Books 6×10. And also the Hot Press Blocks 7 x 10 and 10x 14. I like to buy Arches large hot press pages that I can cut down to the size I like to use., too. I use these for special paintings.
    The Strathmore Visual Journal 5.5 x 8 inches is smooth and some things that I paint are just on the front and not on the back. They are small but easy to carry for outside painting.
    Fabriano has great hot press- both sides, too -paper in books in several sizes like small, medium and large. This is a good book to paint in when you are out and about and working on art. It would be nice if they would start making spiral books as it is not always easy to work in the small size book..
    Winsor Newton has some good Hot Press Blocks in various sizes, which are nice to use.
    I have tried just about every paper made, but if I don’t enjoy using them, I never purchase them again.
    I used Cold Press large sized Arches and Winsor Newton pages for some of my paintings but don’t enjoy painting on these papers.

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