Commercial Sketchbooks: Exacompta 9920 Sketchbook

August 28, 2009


Above: graphite sketch (0.7 mechanical pencil with HB lead) of a wild turkey in the Exacompta 9920 Sketchbook. As indicated by the labels placed in the image, there are opacity issues with this paper. The book can be opened flat, the shadow in the gutter results from no weighting while scanning. Read below for a discussion of the paper and book qualities.

While I will always love pen and ink, especially with watercolor or gouache washes, I do love working in pencil too. I have found that recently I haven’t been doing much pencil work and I miss it. I tend not to work in my visual journals in pencil because of the smudging issues. But I also find, that since I have been so delinquent in going to life drawing, I’m really at a pencil use deficit.

I needed to find some paper to sketch and "think" on so I went off to Wet Paint and started searching their shelves for a commercially made sketchbook for this purpose. I didn’t have to consider binding my own because I knew I wouldn’t be using the mixed media techniques I use on the heavyweight art papers I bind into visual journals. I was looking for something simple, inexpensive, and something that didn’t smell in a way that would bother my allergies (some paper smells are heavenly).

Typically when I look at commercially made sketchbooks I’m looking for books that have heavy weight paper suitable for wet media: books like the Venezia Sketchbook from Fabriano. I’m essentially scouting out books that I can use in the event I stop binding my own journals. But for this shopping trip I was looking for paper I could sketch on with pencil, nothing more.

I don’t even know why I picked up the Exacompta 9920 Sketchbook because it embodies so much of what I don’t like about commercially made books: silver on the page edges (which I think looks tacky—and I’m all for bright sparklies!); a cardstock cover that is easily bent and creased; and lettering, logos, or other decoration on the cover (this book has a debossed and foil-stamped logo).

I think perhaps it was the fabric taped spine which drew me to it this time—because I know I have passed over this book for months because of the above characteristics. I really like the fabric taped spines of the Clairefontaine notebooks I use for my writing journals.

Whatever the reason, on this day I pulled the book off the shelf, looked passed the silver edged pages that were glaring at me in the bright lights of the store, and stared down into the lovely sewn binding. At 5.5 x 8 inches the book felt good in my hands, substantial (I think I counted 10 signatures—my eyes aren’t what they used to be—and each signature is 20 pages), and a good size for sitting on my desk, close at hand, for sketching yet still a sensible size if I wanted to pop it in my pack and go out with it.

Exacompta Right: the Exacompta 9920, showing the debossed silver cover logo. The silver on the edges of the pages doesn't show up in this photo, but they are mirror slick. The sketchbook has rounded corners and the cardstock cover is cut flush with the pages.

I still wasn’t sold because the paper is quite light weight, lighter weight than some of the other drawing papers I was just looking at.

Note: The store manager told me it was 100 gsm which is roughly a 65 lb. paper. Most drawing papers I use are at least in the 70 to 90 lb. range. For comparison the Field Sketch Book from Canson has 65 lb. paper while the Field Drawing Book from Canson has 80 lb. paper. Both of those sketchbooks have hard covers, though they are wirebound. The Robert Bateman sketchbook, also wirebound but with a flimsy paper cover, has 110 lb. paper which is almost twice the weight of the paper in the Exacompta 9920. (Incidently if you like to sketch in ink the Bateman sketchbook is a good one because of its heavyweight, smooth, white paper.)

There are a lot of potential problems with lighter weight papers like the paper in the Exacompta 9920. The first potential problem is opacity, or rather the lack of it. Dark brush strokes with the Pentel Pocket Pen can show through. (I’m not talking about bleeding now, but the ability to see the work on the previous page.) But I give Arches Text Wove, now Arches Velin, a pass on this because I so love to work on the paper. It’s good to look deeper. (By comparison the Arches Velin is a 120 gsm paper and previously the lightest weight paper I would work with.)

Other obvious problems with lighter weight papers include: collaging difficulties when the material you collage is a thicker paper than your base paper; and using wet media and dealing with buckling.

Well I had already decided I was looking for a book for pencil work, maybe some watersoluble pencil but mostly just graphite and wax colored pencil. So my opacity, support, and buckling resistance needs were moot.

Standing in the bright lights of the store, feeling a sheet of this paper, my eye caught the one seductive characteristic I was perhaps powerless to resist. The paper was a laid paper.

090823TurkeyPencilLAID Left: Turkey drawing close up showing laid texture.

A lovely, crisp texture could be seen on the page, while at the same time the touch of the paper was smooth. This could mean they were doing something wonderful with the sizing on the paper. The only way to know for sure was to test.

Then I saw another annoying feature: one page of each spread is the laid side of the paper, the other page of the spread is the toothy back side of the sheet; except of course in the center spread of every signature where the same texture is found across the spread. When I bind a book using sheets with a pronounced textural difference on the front and back of the sheet I like to collate my pages so that like texture faces like texture across every spread. That way a drawing or painting across the spread deals with the same texture. The visual sense and approach of your drawing and painting doesn’t have to change as you move onto the opposite page.


Right: close up of the toothy texture of the backside of the paper used to make this book. This is also a lovely texture to draw and write on, it’s just disconcerting to have spreads with such pronounced texture difference on opposite page.

I stood there a long time reviewing the pros and cons of this book. I really wanted to have a go at drawing on this laid paper. The other negatives (listed above) could perhaps be overlooked. Then I told myself, why not just sketch on one side of the spread? It’s a smaller space and not how I usually like to work (across the spread), but what the heck. It’s an experiment, and it’s not forever. And it is only $12.

Now there was only one other obstacle to overcome. One of the staff at Wet Paint told me he thought the book had been discontinued. They would stock it as long as stock was available but he was under the impression the manufacturer was no longer making it and simply using up existing stock. So to get a book that might turn out to be a favorite…and then not available…. Well life is short and he wasn’t certain. I went home with the book.

I tested it immediately by sketching a taxidermy duck with watersoluble colored pencil, which I left dry because I liked the sketch just as it was. On a separate page I wet the pencil. While the paper buckles considerably (it is only 100 gsm after all) it held up to the water and did not soak through, and dried nicely (I don’t mind a little bit of rumple).

I also found that writing on this paper, either surface, with ink, was very pleasant. The textures didn’t disrupt the smooth line. While there are opacity issues due to the thinness of the sheet, there are no bleed through problems with the ink pens I like to use. The finish on this paper is really something else.

It is actually a rather hardy paper, taking repeated pencil strokes (some of the build up you can see in the turkey sketch). The tooth of many lighter weight papers collapses if you try to build up layers and layers of color, even with the lightest touch possible. This paper easily allows you more latitude.

So now I’ve got a new sketchbook to sit on my desk or computer table, to grab when I just have to feel a pencil in my hand. For half of every signature I’ll be working on the recto page, then I’ll get a center spread, and for the rest of the signature I’ll be working on the verso page—if I want always to have the same texture. It’s a small thing. I’m feeling no pain.

Since I loved sketching in this book so much I actually went back to Wet Paint and purchased their remaining two books. If you want this sketchbook from them, be sure to call first and make sure they have restocked. I’ve seen it in mail order catalogs and such, so an internet search should help you score one. At least up until the point they are no longer available, whenever that may happen to be. Heck, with any luck they really will cancel this sketchbook and bring out the Exacompta 9920 v.2—a casebound second-generation sketchbook, with no logo on the front cover, and naked page edges. Even with different surfaces on facing pages that would be some book to work in.

    • Diane
    • August 31, 2009

    You know I don’t mind just working on the recto portion of the spread. If I come up with a graphite drawing I especially like I will fix it with some spray fixative. I know you won’t touch the stuff. What is your solution to keep the graphite from rubbing off on the verso page?

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