Updated May 2, 2013 to add information about the Leuchtturm 1917 Notebook. Please read the updated information below under "Writing Journals."
Updated May 22, 2012 to add information about the new Strathmore Hardbound Art Journal Line. Please read below in the opening section for updated information. The Mixed Media version of this line is my favorite commerically bound journal for visual journaling, just inching out the Fabriano Venezia which I also love.
Updated September 29, 2014 to add information on the new wirebound Fluid Watercolor Journals from Hand•Book, the softbound Strathmore Journal, the Leuchtturm 1917 SKETCHBOOK which has thicker paper than the notebook from Leuchtturm, and the Pentalic Traveler Pocket Journal. See this information integrated into the post below.
Since starting my blog in October of 2008 I have reviewed a number of commercially bound journals and sketchbooks. It is my goal that more and more people keep visual journals. I would love it if everyone also bound his or her own journals but I'm realistic. The most important goal for me is to get more people observing and sketching their lives.
So if you aren't a bookbinder and want to start keeping a visual journal, check out the following posts to read about some commercially available options. I will endeavor to keep this list updated as I add future journal product reviews.
I do not believe there is one book or one paper that is the perfect solution to anyone's needs. Therefore I try in my reviews to point out the pros and cons I've discovered in a test of the paper in these books.
I use a variety of media and explain what I encounter when using those media in that book, on that paper. I try to be specific about how I use a given medium—for instance if a paper can take only light washes of watercolor or if I can really slop on the water. Even so, my idea of light washes may be wetter than yours or vice versa. Bottom line, something that is a deal breaker for me might be just the thing someone else is searching for.
A book must have sewn signatures for me. No matter how wonderful the paper in a journal is, if it is perfect bound it's sure to start falling apart. I'm also looking for a journal that will take the mixed media I use for my visual journaling. And I always have my eye out for a commercially made journal I can rely on when my binding life ends.
Wirebound journals have their fans, as well as some great abilities and papers, so I also list a couple of those in the "Other" list.
The best way to discover a journal's characteristics is to take one for a test drive, exposing it to your methods. Use one every day for a month and see how the paper and the size fit in your life and your methods. It's a worthwhile investment that may provide just the creative jog you need. And it's always an adventure.
Strathmore Hardbound Art Journals. This line, debuting in May 2012, includes books with drawing paper, toned drawing papers, watercolor paper, and one of my all-time favorite papers—Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media Paper. I've very excited about this commercially bound journal and encourage you to check out whichever one contains paper that suits your working methods.
Strathmore Softbound Art Journals. These have probably been available since 2013. I used a small one for my first journal in 2014. I used a medium sized journal containing Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media paper for my 2014 Minnesota State Fair Journal. Its 7.5 x 9.5 (or so) inch journal pages were a perfect size for onsite sketching. I did discover one problem with this journal in the tough field conditions of the Fair—it was HUMID. The soft covers got very limp in the humidity and because I stand when I sketch there was less support than I like. However, I love this paper so much that I adapted quickly. I just want to give you a heads up. If you like a solid support and want to use this paper I recommend that you buy their 8.5 x 11 inch hardbound journal. The softbound journal is still Smyth-sewn and of course has the wonderful 500 Series Mixed Media paper. (Watercolor and toned drawing paper versions are available in various sizes.)
Fabriano Venezia (Also see the following review for comments about this book.) I provide some additional specifics about painting on the paper in the Fabriano Venezia here. (July 2011) Before May 2012 this was my favorite commercially bound journal. It is reasonably priced, often on sale, and readily available. I love using this book as an in-studio journal in the 9 x 12 inch size. I rarely bind books of that size, and if I do the paper is pretty expensive, so this is a great bargain for me. I particularly love working on this paper with the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen and the Faber-Castell Pitt Artist's Calligraphy pens. I have found the books to be sturdy and to stand up to heavy use. In books that I make myself I typically cut out a few pages and leave tabs to hold space at the spine for collage material on other pages. When using these books I never do that. At first I didn't just so I could test the book's structure. Now I continue to do it because the books can take it and I like seeing how plump they get. Artist Pat Beaubien creates beautiful nature journals using this journal from Fabriano. Her work involves traditional watercolor techniques.
A group review of the Fabriano Venezia, Clairefontaine's Voyage, and Hand•Book's regular journal, along with a bit on why I teach bookbinding, and what I'm going to do when I can't bind any more. (I knew I'd written about the Venezia and the Hand•Book before but it took the new search engine for me to find it, this June 2010.)
Clairefontaine's Voyage (A landscape format watercolor journal that's hard to locate, see group review above or click on this link.)
Hand•book Journals (These are their regular journals. A review of their watercolor journals is listed below. Also see the group review second on this list which mentions this book).
Exacompta 9920 Sketchbook (Drawing paper in a soft-covered book with sewn signatures and a fabric covered spine.)
Pen & Ink Watercolor Journals (that's right the company name is "Pen & Ink").
Hand•Book Journal Company's WATERCOLOR journals (New in spring 2010 with different paper and sizes than their regular journals reviewed above.)
John Purcell's TH Saunders Waterford Watercolor Sketchbooks, (sewn signatures), reviewed June 3, 2011. (These are from London, so if you live in the U.S. the shipping is going to be costly.)
I review the Leuchtturm 1917 Notebook in my March 17, 2013 post. From what I say in my review you'll understand that it's a writing, note taking journal, or best used for dry media sketching. But I went wild with my tests and it's going to be the vessel for my 2013 fake journal which is definitely mixed media so I'm including it in this list. Also I love the design and construction of this journal which looks like a Moleskine but has none of the smells and imperfections.
This summer I reviewed the Leuchtturm 1917 SKETCHBOOK which has thicker paper than the sister notebook listed in the previous paragraph. You can read my first part of the Leuchtturm 1917 Sketchbook review here. I wrote a number of other posts reviewing this commercially bound journal. Part 2 of my review is here. There is a third part to the Leuchttrum 1917 SKETCHBOOK review here. Additionally I continued to post images from that test journal as I filled it up so if you enter Leuchtturm 1917 Sketchbook into my blog's search engine you will find a variety of posts and examples.
On September 26, 2014 I reviewed the Pentalic Traveler Pocket Journal. I really enjoyed sketching with pencil on the paper but there was a noticeable odor to the paper which was a deal breaker for me. (Less of an odor than with Moleskine sketchbook paper, so if that doesn't bother you this paper won't.) To read a full review use the link.
Clairefontaine notebooks—lined, blank, and lab-ruled—with stiff and colorful cardstock covers and fabric covered spines (with sewn signatures of course!) The paper is smooth and perfect for writing on using either a gel pen or a fountain pen. I use these for my written journals. Sometimes I use them for specialty journals.
I have to list the Leuchtturm 1917 Notebook here even though I'm using it for a mixed media fake journal in 2013. It really is best used for writing.
Other Notebooks and Sketchbooks with Wire Bindings
Stonehenge Journals, available in July 2010, reviewed at this link. Wirebound with cream or white Stonehenge paper, in various sizes. If you don't mind having a wirebound sketchbook or journal than this is definitely a journal you should check out. The paper is great for drawing on with dry media and pen and ink. It will also take watercolor washes and gouache. There are some fun sizes of book available. And you can decorate the cover yourself!
Strathmore Visual Journals, reviewed on June 24, 2010 are wirebound and available in 3 sizes with a variety of papers: drawing, mixed media, watercolor, or Bristol. In 2011 I taught an on-line class for Strathmore using these journals. My particular favorites are the plate Bristol, vellum Bristol and the mixed media paper. I liked the Strathmore 500 series Mixed Media paper that is in these journals so much that I begged the company to make it available in sheets so that I could bind my own books with it. Now they also make hardbound books with it (see first category above). If you like wirebound journals these books are great.
Canson Mixed Media XL Series wirebound sketchbook. I review this book and paper in the linked post. I am definitely not a fan of this paper.
Stillman & Birn Epsilon Series Sketchbook, reviewed March 2, 2011. Update: March 2012—I'm not satisfiedwith the paper in these journals for note taking and sketching. I used two of them for taking notes in a 15-week Memory Drawing Class. Work included sketching in the journals sometimes with pen other, times with ink. I also had to take extensive lecture and discussion notes. I found that the soft pencil leads required for the sketching (4B to 6B) smudged horribly on this paper and a simple swipe of the hand could almost totally erase the graphite. Cross spread contamination was ugly. I also found that even as a right-handed note taker the ink from my Nexus and Stadtler Pigment Liner pens (both of which normally dry quickly on any other paper) floated so long on the paper that there are countless smears all over the notes, as I paused, looked up and listened, then shifted my hand, and returned to note taking. It has been a very disappointing experience. I won't be using these books again. Update: April 2014: I've since tried the newer releases of heavier weight paper options from this company. I'm not satisfied with the working capabilities of the paper or the construction of the books when compared to competing books currently available. I am not pursuing additional experiments with this line as long as there are suitable, useable journals available, such as the Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media Journal and the Fabriano Venezia journal, which both suit the ways in which I like to work.
Aquabee 808 Super Deluxe Sketchbook, (ringbound), reviewed June 20, 2011. Additional information on the Aquabee 808 Super Deluxe Sketchbook can be found in this guest post by Karen Engelbretson, posted July 1, 2011.
At the end of the Minnesota State Fair in 2014 I took one of Hand•Book's new wirebound watercolor journals on my last visit. The journal is filled with 140 lb. Fluid Hot Press watercolor paper. I didn't review the journal, but can tell you it is a solid wire binding and the covers are hard, stiff, and durable. If you enjoy wirebound journals this might be an option for you. I've reviewed Fluid watercolor paper on the blog before and you can find my reviews through this blog's search engine. I don't like it for everything, but over time have become quite happy using it in specific ways when sketching. I prefer the cold press to hot press. If you would like to see the final two images I sketched at the 2014 Minnesota State Fair you can see them in my journal flip through located here. I drew two turkeys and to one sketch I added watercolor. (Unfortunately I don't have the sketches posted as stills anywhere. The rest of my 2014 Minnesota State Fair sketches were on Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media.)
If you read this page and notice I've missed one of my reviews on this topic, please let me know. It's hard for me to keep them all in my head!