What’s the Best Sketchbook for Urban Sketching?


I have been asked what the best sketchbook for urban sketching is a number of times. There is never one answer to a question which starts with “what is the best….?” The answer always depends on the context. Annoying, I know.

There are a number of factors to take into consideration when choosing a sketchbook for urban sketching:

  • Medium. Will you be using only pencils, pen, coloured pencils, watercolour?
  • Size. Will you be taking your sketchbook overseas? Will you mainly be around your home area?
  • Cover. Do you need a hardcover for support? Or will you have a board/easel with you to support your book, paintbox etc?
  • Price. Are you on a budget? Are you a beginner? Do you want to be able to paint many layers of watercolour without the paper disintegrating?
  • Availability. Depending on what country you are in, which stores you can access physically or online will effect which sketchbook you can buy.

Most urban sketchers use watercolours to add colour to their sketches.  As such, in this article, I am solely going to discuss watercolour sketchbooks for urban sketching.

Watercolour Sketchbooks

Using the best watercolour paper you can afford is essential. When you’re starting out, this can be an expensive and overwhelming prospect.  Many brands now make affordable sketchbooks with decent watercolour paper designed for people who want to sketch and paint on the go. They have caught on to the urban sketching movement and the need for decent quality and affordability.

Budget Sketchbooks for Urban Sketching

Moleskine Watercolour Album

13 x 21cm, 200gsm, 72 pages, landscape, approx £12, Amazon

This is the first sketchbook I chose when I started urban sketching.  The paper is 200 gsm and cold-pressed, which means it has a bit of texture to it but it’s not so textured that you can’t draw properly on it. 

I have always used the ‘large’ size which confusingly is not the largest size available. It is 13 x 21 cm, which is roughly A5-sized and has a landscape orientation which is great for drawing wide scenes across two pages. Moleskine watercolour albums are now also available in portrait orientation.

This sketchbook is perfect to start off with. It’s one of the most affordable sketchbooks and handles light watercolour well enough. The paper will struggle if you try to apply too many layers or do too much wet-in-wet painting.

This sketchbook is available in ‘pocket’ (A6), ‘large’ (A5), A4 and even A3 size!

Pink Pig Watercolour Sketchbook

A4, 300gsm, 30 pages, wire-bound, portrait, £12, the-pink-pig.co.uk

Pink Pig is a British brand and their sketchbooks are handmade in the UK.  If you live in the UK, you have to check this brand out. They offer a wide array of different sketchbooks.  Their range of watercolour sketchbooks is fantastic too. They come in all sorts of sizes and colours and they offer 3 types of watercolour paper: 280 gsm matte, 280gsm textured and 300gsm Bockingford.  Each paper is produced in the UK. On their website, you can choose which paper you want and how many leaves (pages you want). 

An A4 landscape book with 15 leaves (30 sides of paper to draw on) of 300 gsm Bockingford paper is £12.  That’s very roughly US$15. Such a great price. All books are wire bound so you can’t really draw over two pages but if you are ok with that then these books should be top of your list to check out.

Pink Pig is a smaller company that really take care over producing great quality handmade products so if you are in the UK please check them out.  I have seen Pink Pig sketchbooks widely available in physical art stores but they’re also available on Amazon as well as via their own website, which as mentioned you can select your own custom book and paper.  

The company ships globally to 45+ countries so check out their website here to see if they are available where you live.

I was given an A4 watercolour sketchbook by a relative for Christmas a few years ago and I absolutely loved using it. 

Seawhite of Brighton Travel Sketchbook

A5, 200gsm, Medium grain, 60 pages, landscape, £11.50, Amazon

This company have been on my radar for so long but I have just never got round to trying any of their sketchbooks.  However, recently when I purchased some watercolour paints there was an option to purchase a sketchbook along with them but it did not mention what brand the book was. It was a great price and I needed a new sketchbook so I thought I would try it out. I didn’t realise at the time of ordering it was a Seawhite book so I was delighted when it turned up.

It looks very much like the Moleskine however it is a tad larger when I compared them side by side (the A5 landscape version of both).  The paper in the Seawhite seemed rougher, but not in a more textured watercolour paper way, but a recycled/craft paper way – which seemed strange.  The colour of the paper seemed more off-white than the Moleskine. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t overly enthused on my first look.

I tentatively tried the paper out with small sketches and light use of watercolour until I became brave enough to just go for it.  And…… I LOVED it! This book is fantastic. My colours seem so much more vibrant on this paper than the Moleskine and it seems to handle watercolour so much better.  I really would highly recommend this sketchbook. I think it’s the same price as the A5 Moleskine (if not cheaper) and widely available.

The sketchbook is also available in A4 size and portrait orientation.

Intermediate Sketchbooks for Urban Sketching

Stillman & Birn Sketchbooks

These sketchbooks are wildly popular with established urban sketchers.  It took me a few years but eventually, I took the plunge and spent a tiny bit extra to see what all the fuss was about.

Stillman & Birn sketchbooks are available in three different styles: wire bound, softcover and hardcover. You have to read carefully how each sketchbook differs.  There’s Alpha, Beta, Delta, Epsilon, Gamma, Nova and Zeta. Some have white paper, some have ivory, some are intended for dry media only, others for mixed media, some are smooth, others have grain and they’re all available in a variety of different sizes and formats.

Stillman & Birn Zeta Series

8.5 x 5.5 inch, 270gsm, smooth, 26 sheets, landscape, £13.70, Jacksons Art

I purchased this sketchbook as a treat to myself after a few years of using ‘cheaper’ books.  I wanted to know what the difference is and why this and other sketchbooks are more expensive. Note: I just checked the price of the 8.5 x 5.5 inch landscape format book i.e the same size as the Moleskine and Seawhite books I discussed earlier and there is not much price difference at all). 

This book has 270gsm smooth white paper and is labelled for use with mixed media. I think this is the first sketchbook I tried with totally smooth (hot press) paper and I was not convinced I was going to like it. It took a bit of getting used to but once I found my stride and learned how the paper accepted paint I fell in love.  I will definitely be buying this book again. This is a great sketchbook for urban sketching.

I find Stillman & Birn sketchbooks a little tricky to get hold of. In the UK I order from Jacksons Art, and I think the sketchbooks are widely available in the US. I bought the Beta sketchbook at a store in Melbourne, Australia. Here in South Africa, I cannot seem to find a stockist though unfortunately.

Stilman & Birn Beta Series

8 x 10 inch, 270gsm, cold-pressed, 26 sheets, portrait, £19.00, Jacksons Art

I spotted this sketchbook in a store while in Melbourne, Australia so I treated myself as a Christmas present.  They only had one size available, the 8 x 10 inch portrait book (roughly A4) and it was expensive. I checked the price in the UK and it’s a bit cheaper, so perhaps it was the fact I was in Australia or the exchange rate. 

This book has 270gsm cold-pressed (so a slight texture) white paper, ideal for watercolour.

I have only done a few sketches in this book as I have been separated from it due to travelling.  I needed a smaller book to fit in my bag (I chose the Moleskine watercolour album – even the Seawhite book wouldn’t fit). So now the Beta sketchbook is in the UK and I am currently in South Africa.  I look forward to getting the book back.

Due to the price, I’m a bit intimidated to be loose and carefree in this book but for more careful illustrations it’s an absolute dream.  My colours are so vibrant, wet-in-wet technique works like a dream. It’s gorgeous. A definite treat to step up to.

As a side note, urban sketcher Liz Steel is keen on the softcover Alpha series sketchbooks, they have a lighter weight paper (150gsm) with a medium grain and she uses them as her daily sketchbook but they are not intended for wet media.

My next Stillman & Birn sketchbook will most like be a Beta series in a slightly smaller portrait format of 5.5 x 8.5 inch so I can carry it around with me more easily. I think this is a great choice of sketchbook for urban sketching.

Hahnemuhle Watercolour Book

A5, 200gsm, fine-grain, 30 pages, portrait, approx £15, Amazon

I hear nothing but great things about these sketchbooks. Hahnemuhle sketchbooks are the most widely available sketchbooks in South Africa so this particular one has now become my “go-to” choice. I believe one of my favourite urban sketchers, Danny Hawk, regularly uses these sketchbooks too.

They come in both portrait and landscape formats, from A6 up to A4. The price is similar to Moleskine books but I much prefer the whiteness and the paper itself in this Hahnemuhle book.

Buy this sketchbook with confidence, this is a very well respected and high-quality brand.

Hahnemuhle Watercolour Toned Sketchbook

A5, 200gsm, fine-grain, 60 pages, landscape, approx £20 / US$25, Amazon

I have recently got my hands on the tan version of this sketchbook (it also comes with grey paper) and I am loving it. It handles watercolour well, just like the sketchbook mentioned above with white paper.

It’s so much fun to play around with toned paper and add highlights with a white gel pen, a paint marker or white gouache. It’s definitely a different way of sketching.

For more info on sketching on toned paper, check out my post here.

Conclusion

The most affordable watercolour sketchbook for urban sketching beginners is either the Moleskine or Seawhite of Brighton travel sketchbook if you are keen on a landscape format where you can paint across two pages.  Out of the two, I would personally pick the Seawhites of Brighton book. I find paint just doesn’t appear as vibrant on the Moleskine paper.  

If you want to spend just a tiny little bit more money the Hahnemuhle Watercolour sketchbook is my favourite to grab for everyday watercolour sketching.

For those who want to take the next step in terms of quality, I cannot recommend Stillman & Birn sketchbooks enough.  These are absolutely my favourite. They just seem to elevate my sketches to the next level. I would choose the Beta range just purely because it has a bit of texture to it.  My sketching style is not that suited to a completely smooth paper surface.

However, if you are looking for something a little less intimidating from the range (the paper in the Beta range is very thick and heavyweight), I think the Alpha series has a bit of a more ‘everyday’ feel to it, in so much as you won’t be scared to ruin a page or not do your absolute best work as you may feel with the Beta range (well, that’s how I feel anyway). This is because the Alpha is series has a more lightweight paper than the Beta range.

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