What are the differences between Stillman & Birn sketchbooks?


I love Stillman & Birn sketchbooks but there are a lot of options available and sometimes it’s tricky to figure out the differences between each of them and which will be best for your medium or style of drawing.  Each series of sketchbooks are suitable for urban sketching, they just have slightly different nuances.

There are 7 different series of Stillman & Birn sketchbooks. They are named: Alpha, Beta, Delta, Epsilon, Gamma, Nova and Zeta. There are 3 different binding types to choose from: wirebound, softcover and hardcover.

The sketchbooks are available in a number of sizes and orientations (e.g portrait, landscape or square). The chart below illustrates the key differences in the paper: weight, colour, surface and which media they are designed for.

ALPHABETAGAMMADELTAEPSILONZETANOVA
Paper WeightHeavy weightExtra Heavy weightHeavy weightExtra Heavy weightHeavy weightExtra Heavy weightHeavy weight
100lb/ 150gsm180lb/ 270gsm100lb/ 150gsm180lb/ 270gsm100lb/ 150gsm180lb/ 270gsm100lb/ 150gsm
ColourWhiteWhiteIvoryIvoryWhiteWhiteBeige, Grey & Black
SurfaceMedium GrainCold PressMedium GrainCold PressSmoothSmoothMedium Grain
MediumDry Media,Dry & Wet Media,Dry Media,Dry & Wet Media,Pen & Ink,Dry & Wet Media,Dry Media,
Light Wash, InkWatercolour, InkLight Wash, InkWatercolour, InkDry Media, Light WashWatercolour, InkLight Wash, Ink

Insider Fact: If you email Stillman & Birn they will send you a sampler pack of their paper for free and you can figure out which is best for you.

ALPHA & GAMMA SERIES

Urban Sketcher Liz Steel is a fan of the softcover 8 x 10 Alpha sketchbook.  She uses it as her daily sketchbook.  

This book is not for heavy washes of watercolour but is perfectly adequate for lighter washes and is a good all-round sketchbook.  The paper is not so heavy that it feels intimidating to use. It has a medium grain so provides a nice bit of texture for the watercolour paint but is still smooth enough to draw fluidly.

The Gamma series sketchbook is the same paper as the Alpha sketchbook except that the paper is ivory coloured instead of white.

BETA & DELTA SERIES

I very recently bought an 8 x 10 softcover Beta series sketchbook in Australia and I absolutely love it.  I did the sketches below:

The colours are so vibrant and punchy on this paper and the cold press surface is fantastic.  A large majority of watercolour paper is cold press, it is a popular choice for watercolour painters as it still has a bit of ‘tooth’ (texture) which enhances the beauty of watercolour paint but it’s not so textured that you can’t draw on it.  The ‘cold press’ paper of the Beta series is smoother than standard cold press watercolour paper, however, so it’s still excellent to draw on. 

The Delta series of sketchbooks are exactly the same as Beta except the paper colour is ivory rather than white.

EPSILON & ZETA SERIES

Epsilon & Zeta sketchbooks are comparable because they are the only two to feature perfectly smooth paper surfaces.  The Epsilon is a heavyweight paper at 150gsm, while the Zeta is heavier at 270gsm. They both have white coloured paper too.

The Zeta sketchbook was the first Stillman & Birn sketchbook I tried. It took me ages to decide which one to buy online and when I received it I think I made a mistake and actually intended to but the Beta series!  It is so hard to see the differences between each series when you are browsing them one by one on an art supply website. That’s why a table like the above is super useful so you can compare the differences side by side! 

Anyway, it seems it was a happy accident because I loved the Zeta sketchbook.  I had the softcover 8.5 x 5.5 inch landscape orientation sketchbook. This allowed me to draw wide landscape scenes across the double-page. As an urban sketcher, this is pretty handy.    

Here is one of my sketches I did in the landscape Zeta sketchbook

If you want to see the whole Zeta sketchbook, check out my sketchbook tour on my Youtube channel here.

Urban sketcher and watercolour artist Brenda Swenson is a hug fan of Beta and Zeta sketchbooks:

NOVA SERIES

I believe this is a recent addition to the Stillman & Birn sketchbook range.  There are three different options regarding paper colour: beige, grey or black!  I love sketches on toned paper.

Miguel Herranz is a master at sketching on toned paper:

And Marie Silver’s Instagram feed of her sketches on toned paper blows my mind.  This is a sketch she did in IKEA.

Using toned paper (beige or grey at least) means your mid-tones are already there so you can focus on just sketching with shadows and highlights if you like.  I tried one sketch on toned paper and really enjoyed the new twist of sketching in such a way (side note: writing this is making me want to order some toned paper)!

The Nova sketchbooks are all 150gsm weight and therefore handle dry media mainly but can cope with some light washes of watercolour too.  They are exactly the same as the Alpha and Gamma series of sketchbooks except for paper colour.

This is urban sketcher, Paul Heaston’s, sketch in a Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook with beige paper:

Here is what the grey paper of the Nova series looks like:

If you cannot decide whether you want to try beige, grey or black paper, Stillman & Birn have released the Nova Trio sketchbook which has a mixture of all three colours.  This sketchbook is available as a wire-bound book and as a softcover book (there is no hardcover option).  The softcover book is only available in a square 7.5 x 7.5 inch format. The wire-bound book is available in two different portrait sizes: 6 x 8 inches and 7 x 10 inches.

CONCLUSION

Buying the best paper you can afford is a really good way to lift the quality of your sketches.  I found making the switch from a cheaper Moleskine book to Stillman & Birn took me to a new level.  

I’m in no way endorsed by Stillman & Birn.  They’re just the first brand of higher quality sketchbook I used.  I’m very much looking forward to sampling Hahnemuler, Fabriano and a whole host of other sketchbooks when I can find them (and afford them)!  I travel a lot and some times you just have to go with what you can find!  

For a heavy watercolourist who enjoys using many layers of paint and wet in wet techniques, go for the Beta series (at least start there).  For a sketcher who uses pens and lighter washes of paint, try the Alpha series. I suggest these because I prefer white coloured paper to ivory but if you want the ivory colour then check out the Delta or Gamma series respectively.  Some artists find the ivory colour to really enhance light colour washes.

A benefit of the sketchbooks with the light paper weight (Alpha, Gamma, Epsilon and Nova) is that they have far more pages in the sketchbook than those with the heavier paper.

For instance, the hardcover sketchbooks with 150gsm paper have 62 sheets / 124 pages while the hardcover sketchbooks with 270gsm paper hold 26 sheets / 52 pages.  

The softcover sketchbooks with 150gsm paper have 46 sheets / 92 pages and the softcover sketchbooks with 270gsm paper have 26 sheets / 52 pages

The wirebound sketchbooks with 150gsm have 50 sheets / 100 pages and the wirebound sketchbooks with 270gsm paper have 25 sheets / 50 pages.

There’s a significant difference in pages between certain books and certainly something to take into account when choosing which one to use. 

As you can see, if you prefer to use the 150gsm weight of paper, from a pure focus on the number of pages, the hardcover sketchbook would provide the most value for money. However, if you want to use the 270gsm paper, there is little to no difference between the different bindings.  The options of sizes and orientation would then be the main thing to inform your decision.

Urban sketcher, James Richards, uses the Beta wire-bound sketchbook so that if someone wants to buy a sketch he can tear it out easily – I like this idea!

Each one of these sketchbooks can handle watercolour and ink well, so it comes down to your personal preferences as a sketcher, it seems Stillman & Birn have all the bases covered. I can’t wait to try out sketchbooks from each of the series!   

If you are in the UK, you can purchase Stillman & Birn sketchbooks at Jacksons Art.

This post is not sponsored by Stillman & Birn, I’m just a huge fan of their sketchbooks and I know a lot of other urban sketchers are too so I encourage you to try one out!

If you are looking for more general advice on which watercolour sketchbook to use for urban sketching, pop over to my post here which discusses various sketchbooks at different price points, what’s best for beginners and which books to consider when you’re looking to take the next step.

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