The Book You Work In

November 1, 2008


Above: a selection of recent handmade books I use for visual journaling

By the time you read this post I will either be teaching or have taught a group how to make my newest structure, a non-traditional rounded-back journal. I say non-traditional, because I've stripped down the process of making a rounded back book to steps that I consider essential. They are essential to me because they give me a strong book, useful for visual journaling, but don't entail a lot of laborious steps. Those laborious steps involve a high degree of craftsmanship (you try carving out channels from boards to lace cords or ribbons through and you'll know what I mean) and often provide window dressing that I don't feel is necessary for a visual journal (such as decorative paper endsheets) when all I want to do is get busy sketching. Those steps also frustrate beginning bookbinders and I want to help people get past that frustration.

I teach for a couple reasons (OK, maybe a hundred, but here are a few on the top of my mind today). First I want to encourage people to keep visual journals because I think observation and the recording of that observation is a healthy, productive activity which can lead to positive things like insights, connection to the world, and a better attitude (which might translate into some good karma). Second, I want to show people how to create structures that are solid, yet not intimidating to create. I want them to have a satisfying and successful bookbinding experience. Their first book probably won't be prefect, but they will be able to build toward whatever level of perfection they want to strive for with a solid set of skills. I also want them to be able to make books without a lot of expensive equipment; I want them to be able to make books at home, when they need them, so they will always have a journal at hand.

Third, I want them to understand the process. I want them to know why I made the choices I made when designing a structure. I want them to know how to experiment and make their own decisions about those experiments.

Ultimately I want people to be able to make the books they want to use, with the paper they want to work on. And when I do that I get payback. The return on my investment in showing the class my passion comes when the students have that "aha moment," the "now-I-get-it-moment." It doesn't happen to everyone in every class. Sometimes it happens after they go home (I know this because I get notes from students later). Sometimes it happens years later (I know this because I get notes from students much, much later). You know that their lives, in a small way, are never going to be the same, and that in some way, you have altered and expanded their perception.

I'm also realistic enough to know that not everyone who goes through my classes becomes a bookbinder. For some people the "aha moment" they take away from class is that "this is not for me." I'm OK with that as well. It's a healthy part of the learning process. There are lots of reasons to not bind your own books, probably as many reasons as there are to bind your own books.

One reason to not bind is the physicality of the process. I am not joking when I tell people you need great arm strength to do some of the tasks (sure you can do them with less strength, but a finessed strength is needed for something as simple as pulling fabric over a board consistently, and I like consistency). I'm realizing myself that my own body won't be able to produce books at the pace I've been used to. It takes me longer to recover after binding 10 books at a time. In fact, I no longer plan my binding days that way, finding instead ways to spread out the process. (Difficult for someone who likes immediate gratification.)

Also some people just don't want to mess with glue and cutting things, they just want to sketch. I can understand that. Right now, my joy in working in a book of my own creation, decorated with cover paper of my own design is still strong enough for me to give up a little bit of sketching time now and then (especially rainy days when even I don't like to be out sketching).

I know though, that it won't always be like that. There will come a point when it won't be as easy for me to bind books. I've thought ahead to that time and wondered what I would do.

Before I bound my own books for visual journaling I used commercially made books. Some were inexpensive black covered sketchbooks with paper that never really suited what I wanted to do. Some were wire-bound books with better paper but that annoying wire-binding that kept me from crossing the gutter. Some were delightful casebound books from Rag and Bone, with a paper suitable for mixed media work. (Once discontinued these books are now back, so check out the link.)

Note: On July 12, 2011 Janis Jessop wrote to tell me she had purchased some of the current Rag and Bone Journals. She had problems working with watercolor on the paper of the books—paint and water seeped through the paper immediately upon application. This is something I and many others I knew who used these books for several years never experienced. Mills will often change how a paper is made, sometimes even just a slight variation will effect the uses for that paper. It's one of the reasons the search is always on for new papers and new commercially bound journals (Moleskine paper has changed several times since the reintroduction of their product, for instance. And I have two "Hand•bound" journals that have slightly different drawing paper in them.) Jessop's note said she "could have asked for a sample of the paper." I don't see that on their website, but I recommend that you email or call them about getting a sample of their paper so that you can test if you plan an order and intend to use the books for wet media. This company makes some of the most beautiful books I've ever seen, their workmanship is fabulous, so I'm sorry to hear that someone has had a problem. 

As a visual journal keeper you find a way to cope with the books you have available. When I was young and had a limited allowance I made due with exercise books purchased from the school supply shop. In college I simply drew on lined paper in wire-bound notebooks. (I found that I actually painted more paintings when I had crappier books. Nicer books let me satisfy my painting urges. So what do you want to do?)

At some point, I envision having to return to commercially bound books. I'm already practicing acceptance about this, trying out mantras. I have started to look for books that might suit me (of course realizing that they might not be available later when I need them—it's always good to keep looking).

I like casebound books with sewn signatures. This allows me to take out pages, leaving a tab and put collage into a book and not burst the spine. This binding also allows me to work across the entire page spread.

I've found three books like this on the market right now. Danny Gregory told me about the first, Venezia Book from Fabriano. This book is 6 x 9 inches (I like the portrait orientation if I can't have square). It has 90 lb. acid free paper. They call the paper a drawing paper, but the paper will take wet media. The paper is fairly smooth, with only a very slight texture, great for writing and pen work. It's a little stiff for me for pencil work, but I think some people would enjoy working on it with pencil. It's bright white in color and has nice opacity (you're not seeing easily through to your previous page). The book has nice stiff cover boards and brick red spine fabric. I'm not that thrilled with the paper used to cover the boards: a brick pattern from San Marco in Venice. I just know that the cover corners will get worn as this paper is thin, but frankly that can be appealing too, it shows the soul of the used book leaking out, or peaking out. At least it is a neutral non-intrusive cover without any advertising embossed on it! You can do a search on-line for vendors; New York art supply stores seem to carry them.  I got mine for $14.95 at Wet Paint

Clairefontaine (I use their student lined-notebooks for my written journals) has an artist's sketchbook that is quite wonderful, though a good deal more expensive. "Voyage" is also casebound, with sewn signatures, but it is a landscape orientation, 8.5 x 6.25 inches or so. The thick cover boards are covered with crisp fabric (mine is black at the spine and blue everywhere else). There is also an empty label indentation on the cover, which I do on my own books sometimes and so I quite like it here. The artist can personalize the cover with his own label. The endsheets are rather whimpy (very lightweight paper) which saddens me, but I'm spoilt by the heavyweight papers I use in my own books; this is normal for a commercially made book. The book I ordered has 90 lb. hot press or "satiné" surface paper, also with nice opacity. I found it at Vickery. It cost $26.00 and once I'd paid shipping it was a whopping $32.00. I think you would definitely want to buy several at a go to spread out the postage cost. The problem with the paper in this book for me is that it feels slicker and more stiff than the typical art papers I use. When you actually work on the paper, however, it responds well to watercolor, gouache, and all the various pens I tried on it.

(Bad news, when I was putting the links in I found Vickery doesn't carry these any more. I don't have another quick and easy U.S. source for these, but Green and Stone, a British store sells these. They label theirs as "Not" which is a cold press surface notation, and rough. They have some other books on offer too, such as the journal with Arches watercolor paper. I haven't tried to order from them. Shipping will be expensive. See how quickly the supply chain changes.)

The third blank book line I have found that I would be comfortable working in is Hand Book's small, "Moleskine-like" journals. These are available in a bunch of sizes, my favorite being a square. They have fabric covered boards. The edges are rounded like the Moleskine and also like that famous line they have an elastic binder and a back pocket. The paper, which is a sort of cream color is toothy enough for pencil work but not distracting if you're working in ink. The paper takes washes in an acceptable fashion (by which I mean, it's a far cry from watercolor paper but you can get the paint to dance if you work). The opacity of the paper is also good. These books can now be found all over at a range of prices so I'll let you find your favorite source. Mine was purchased at Wet Paint when I was browsing one day. Wet Paint was an early adopter of this brand, and I'm very glad. I think it is a wonderful and economically priced choice for non-binders who want to work with mixed media.

So right now those represent my "Plan B" if I can't bind any more, or if I suddenly decide to stop binding. We all need contingency plans. The ultimate "Plan B" for me is bond paper folded, stapled at the fold, and keep on drawing.

For the time being I'm grateful every day that I not only enjoy binding, but that I can find papers that suit the binding process and on which I enjoy working. I find that the thrill of working on my favorite papers informs my work. It makes me eager to take risks and fail in my journals just so that I can be ready to work on paintings, or the next journal page. It makes me eager to turn the page, knowing that there is another book waiting and all I have to do is focus on what is before me.

I'm looking forward to seeing some "aha moments" today.

    • Christine Fitzgerald,
    • November 1, 2008

    Oh golly oh gee I wish you were closer to Houston. I would so love to take one of your binding classes.
    I must report that I own the Travelogue journal by Handbook in the 5 1/2 x 8 size. I’ve only just started drawing in it and haven’t tried any wet media. So far, so good.

    • Nita
    • November 11, 2008

    Just to say that I gesso or paint with acrylic over any covers I don’t like and make my own cover art. I do it on the Hand Book journals, moleskines, anything! Especially to cover ugly logos and corporate colors 🙂

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