Left: Scan of one of the 9 x 9 inch pages in the sketchbook I was testing. (The scan image is not square because I didn't scan the wirebinding portion of the page which takes up some of the page's width, as is typical in a wirebound sketchbook.) Click on the image to view an enlargement. You can read about the points I've noted to myself below in today's post.
Background: In March or April I was contacted by someone from Aquabee and asked if I would like to test their Aquabee Super Deluxe 808 Sketchbook. She had read reviews of other commercially made books on my blog. While I did not purchase this sample ($20 and some cents as the suggested retail price) I did subject it to all the tests I perform on a new sketchbook or new potential journal.
Bad news first, as the cover is what you encounter first. I found the cover design of this sketchbook dated and ugly. There are at least four different typefaces used on it (additional ones on an additional cover stitcker!). Most of the typefaces are incorporated as silver-foil-stamping on a maroon paper surface. That maroon paper surface is debossed to look like a hide of some sort. This maroon sheet is then laminated onto a lightweight white coverstock that is not as stiff or substantial as the back cover—which is a plain brown chipboard of some sort.
With several new and marvelous entries into the blank journal arena lately, a sketchbook with a non-sturdy cover is problematic for me as a choice for visual journaling. (In the last year we've seen Stonehenge release a journal series with thick, substantial, naked boards suitable for customizing by the artist. Strathmore's visual journal line also has a substantial and thick cover which is customizable. I haven't ever warmed to the debossed pebble pattern of the Strathmore covers, but they can be easily worked over by any mixed media artist—their market for these books.)
First impressions do matter in books and this first impression with the Aquabee Super Deluxe 808 Sketchbook was neither inviting nor encouraging. For me this is a sketchbook—clearly labeled by the maker as a sketchbook. As such it's suitable for taking to life drawing, but not for use as a journal to accompany me on my travels, or in which I'll be documenting my life.
At 93 lb. this is a lightweight paper for mixed media. Collage elements of stiff paper or cardstock would severely change the page stiffness. I would not recommend this sketchbook for a traveller who wanted to add lots of paper ephemera, brochures, or photos—all that material can be added, but there are better book choices on the market for that type of work.
The paper is labeled as "Heavy weight drawing paper for use with wet & dry media." In sketching and painting tests I had the following results:
1. The paper texture is different on each side of the sheet and the sides weren't staggered so that the same surface faced itself across the wire binding on a spread. If you work across the spine's wire binding you'll be working on two different textures. I think this product is more of a fold-over sketchbook so I don't see this as much of an issue. (See comments of other artists later in this review.) Just be aware of this characteristic should you decide to purchase the book.
2. Pen, especially my beloved Pentel Pocket Brush Pen, works wonderfully on this paper. The ink is quickly absorbed into the paper and you can paint over it immediately. This was also true with my Staedtler Pigment Liners and a variety of other inks. The inks seem to settle into the paper. There is a nice amount of drag on the PPBP, but not too much. You can get smooth lines, or allow a broken-drybrush effect line depending on your handling, regardless of the side of the sheet you're working on.
Left: A detail showing the pilling resulting on the paper when washes are reworked wet, but not scrubbed—this is with minimal reworking. See areas labeled "A." Click on the image to view an enlargement.
3. Watercolor moves O.K. on this sheet, but it pretty much sticks where first touched. If you try to manipulate your wash you start to wear down the paper (see A in my image of Gert and in the detail image). At "A" in four spots in the full view of my my sketch (and three points in the detail image) you can see how repeated manipulation of the wash has caused the paper to start to pill. This is particularly clear on the right side. The paper is not failing to the point of dissolving but it is definitely through being worked, even after only a slight bit of work.
4. Working wet over now dry washes is O.K. on this paper, and can be accomplished without a lot of disturbing of the original (now dry) layer of watercolor. (See B in the tail feathers of Gert.)
5. The paint, like the ink, seems to be absorbed into the paper quickly, and there is a dulling effect to the paint colors. The same paints used on other papers seem more vibrant.
6. The paper has a sweet smell when wet. It is not by any means unpleasant (like other commercially bound journals I have sometimes encountered). Sadly I am allergic to the smell. I actually started sneezing within seconds of wetting the paper. And this happened every time I tried to paint on the paper.
7. The paper buckles substantially when wet. You can still work on both sides of the page, but the buckling is significant enough that I recommend that you weight your pages on your scanner bed if you intend to get an even scan.
Left: In this Pentel Pocket Brush Pen Sketch with watercolor washes you can see how with even minimal areas painted (and wetted) the paper buckles substantially. You can see the ripples the buckling causes at "A" with shadows captured during the scanning process. Additionally the paint tends to soak into the paper and apear dull. (The paint does NOT soak through the paper.) Click on the image to view an enlargement.
8. The sheet, being rather thin for mixed media, is not very opaque. PPBP strokes are very bold and they show through to the following page. For some artists this will mean working only on one side of the sheet. I happen to be used to this issue as one of my favorite papers (Velin Arches) has a similar issue. I love working on Velin Arches so I won't give it up. If you end up being an artist who enjoys working on this paper I suggest you over look the opacity issues. There is NO BLEED THROUGH of ink or paint. What I am writing about now is visible lines showing through on the reverse side of the sheet.
9. If you like the paper and don't mind the cover issues, the 9 x 9 inch size is an attractive option both for carrying and for composing a page.
I would not recommend that a beginning artist purchase this book for visual journaling. I would recommend instead that such an artist first learn how to handle watercolors on watercolor paper so that she can approach this paper and its quirks with confidence, rather than meet it with frustration and give up on watercolor.
I would also hope that if the makers of the Aquabee Super Deluxe 808 want to be part of the growing visual journal market they'll upgrade their front-cover material, upgrade the quality of the back-cover material, and rethink the typography of their product—thus creating a welcoming, adaptable book that will appeal to visual journal keepers. Artists interested in a "sketchbook" that will match and exceed the shortcomings of this product would be better off looking at something like the heavyweight version of the Great Canadian Sketchbook, which has heavy weight pages and covers of thick black board. (Note the lighterweight version of the Great Canadian Sketchbook is covered only with a cardstock sheet and I'm not recommending that as a journaling candidate, though it makes an excellent sketchbook, just as the Aquabee would.)
Reports from Other Artists
After testing several pages with a variety of media on this paper I knew that I would not fill the sketchbook. I wanted to know how this book held up for other artists.
I sent landscape artist Diane Wesman several sheets of the paper to test out. She not only keeps visual journals using a variety of books and papers, she keeps a vast assortment of sketchbooks to serve her art needs. Diane carries her sketchbooks and journals into the field with her. (I know that Diane favors Uniball pens like the Vision Needle and also Staedtler Pigment Liners.) Diane reported back:
I have experimented with the Aquabee Super Deluxe. It is a pleasant paper that I would use for sketching. I like the weight and the fact that it comes in a wire binding and will lie flat. If the cover is stiff that is even better.
A 2B pencil works well on both sides of the paper. A harder pencil is less satisfactory. The two sides of the sheets are quite different. Still O.K. for sketching.
Pen and ink is O.K. The ink does spread out a bit because of the soft surface of the paper.
Small watercolor washes did buckle the paper, but not so much that I would not use them in small areas. Naturally the same buckling takes place when watercolor pencil is wetted.
Next, I asked artist Suzanne Hughes for any comments about this product. Suzanne is the only artist I personally know who has actually worked through an entire Aquabee Super Deluxe 808 sketchbook! I thought she would have additional insights from spending time with the paper and the book structure. Suzanne has actually written two very interesting and informative posts on her blog, on this product. Her first post explains how she came initially to select the Aquabee Super Deluxe 808 sketchbook as a candidate for her visual journal. To read about how Suzanne Hughes rates this sketchbook please click on this link.
You will find that Suzanne's experiences are more positive than mine. She is getting ready to start using another Aquabee.
It is always good to consult a variety of sources and then pause to remember what it is that you do or intend to do with a potential sketchbook, journal, or paper. In that way you can find the paper that suits your working method. I think that based on my experiences and the experiences of Diane and Suzanne, you will find enough specific information to decide whether this is a useful product for you and what you like to do with your art materials.
I'm taking the sample sketchbook to the MCBA Visual Journal Collective on Monday, June 20 and will be giving out sample sheets to those present so that they can test the paper for themselves. If you're interested in trying out a couple sheets of this paper please join us at 7 p.m. (The topic for June is "Photographing Your Art." You can read about the topic at the information page in the first line of this paragraph.)