Commercially Bound Journals: Pen & Ink Watercolor Journal

January 13, 2010

A review with test images of the watercolor journal from Pen & Ink.
100110APenguin Left: Penguin sketch using a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen and Daniel Smith Watercolors. Holding the journal vertically is difficult if you stand when sketching.

My post the other day about the white sale at Wet Paint started me thinking about the commercially bound journals I’ve written about since I started the blog in October 2008. That train of thought ended with me making a page about this topic on this blog (see the left column of the blog for "Pages"). It's my hope that by having the links to those reviews in a page they can be easily found by people just arriving at the blog.

Next, the effort of making the page and gathering all those links reminded me that, “Didn’t I have another commercially bound journal somewhere around here waiting to be tested?”

Yes, neglected because of the end of year push to finish my blue-paged journal, there was an 8 x 5.5 inch (landscape) Pen & Ink Watercolor Journal.

This journal looks very much like a Moleskine, and in fact the Pen & Ink company makes journals in ruled-page, grid-page, and blank sketch page versions just like Moleskine. The only Pen & Ink journal I was interested in trying, however, was the watercolor version. I picked it up while I was out and about with a friend. She needed to stop at Penco, in the downtown warehouse district of Minneapolis. (They do mail order so if you can’t find this journal near you, you’ll know where to go.) I didn’t save the wrapping so I can’t tell you what the actual price was, but I think it was around $12.

There’s a nice fake leather (might be cheese-whiz leather) covering the slightly bendable cover boards—rounded corners of course, the same as the Moleskine. A thick elastic strap extends from the back cover to keep the journal closed when not in use. There is a very nice expandable pocket on the back inside cover. And there is a ribbon bookmark at the spine.

I’m not a Moleskine user so my following comments are not to be confused with comparisons to the Moleskine watercolor journals. I haven’t used those. My comments relate to my findings on the construction of this journal and its paper.

First I want to say that this is a seductive book. There is just enough softness in the cover, both in texture and give, to make you want to pick it up. So beware!

Also, beware of playing with this give too much. You can actually bend the bendable covers so much in such a short time that you can start to get a bit of a crease under that fake leather and actually make it bubble up a bit—something that could well happen when working consistently in this journal over its life if I can simulate it in a short strength test.

I have other construction issues. I thought the sewing a little loose and the pages easy to joggle. I abhor perforated pages in journals and frankly think people who make this type of page should be jailed—but there you have it. (Why have a casebound book if you are going to tear out pages?)

100110APenguinDETAIL Left: Detail from the Penguin sketch shows some of the paper texture.

The paper is a lightweight watercolor paper that I would guess is in the 90 lb. range. Opacity is an issue with this paper and I’ll have more comments about that later.

Describing the texture is a bit difficult because it feels and reacts not unlike smooth paper (or hot press) but it obviously has a texture, just not the same texture on every page. At first I thought this was a front and back of the sheet situation, but the more I stared at the pages under harsh light the more confused I became. Sometimes a texture seems to ripple at a slant to the right, other times to the left, other times the texture seems to go horizontally. Regardless of these shenanigans I would rate this paper as soft of surface (in the sense of yielding to pressure) and a relatively smooth paper with just enough texture to get some interesting watercolor puddling.

Additionally it is smooth enough to write on with just about everything: the pens I tried on it love it and pencils adore it as it is soft enough that you get that cushy press so many of us loved as kids when we got a new pad of newsprint paper to write on (well I know I did). You actually have to be careful, even with a soft pencil, to not press too hard into this soft paper and deboss into it, or the following pages.

There is a bit of drag when writing on this paper which is partly the texture and the sizing. For gel pens it’s not so noticeable. For my beloved Staedtler Pigment Liners it was very noticeable indeed. I would prefer to write with a Nexus pen (though you need to take care with pressure from that hard-tipped pen) on this paper. The Pentel Pocket Brush Pen (PPBP) moves smoothly across this surface, doesn’t blot when held in one place, and gives a very nice textured line because of the drag of the paper. This can be seen in the penguin sketch above.

101010PenJournalDipPenGert Left: Gert in dip pen with Ziller Glossy Black Acrylic ink. Note also the peeling apart of the signatures in the gutter. More on this later.

Even with tired eyes and hand I found that dip pen worked fine on this paper. The paper seems to suck the ink quickly out of the nib so I was refilling a lot, but my line was crisp and I could move quickly. I could even do rapid shading and squiggles without snagging the paper.


Right: Detail of Gert in dip pen. The slight texture on this paper is smooth enough to not interrupt your dip pen strokes, but it does absorb the ink quickly. The relative smoothness of the paper allowed me to make quick light shading strokes such as those under the eye, without any paper fibers or texture catching. Click on the image to view an enlarge

I think makers of this book might be hoping that people will be using the fountain pens and ink they also make. A quick test of my sketching fountain pen yielded delightful line quality, no catching of fibers, and just the right paper smoothness even for my smallest letters. I don’t know if it was intentional to make this a fountain pen friendly book, but it seems to be.

My problem with ink work on this paper is the lack of opacity of the paper. You will be looking through the sheet to your previous sketch. That isn’t a deal breaker for me (I make books out of Arches Text Wove which is a lightweight paper and I live with the lack of opacity it yields because it is so fun to work on that paper!) but since there are other draw backs to this book and paper, the lack of opacity helps make the case against it. Just be aware of this issue if you are bothered by opacity issues.


Above: Example A—Watercolor Test on Pen & Ink Watercolor Journal paper.

• I found that if I work an area even lightly with a wet brush and pigment the paper looks a bit pilled (darker dots emerge where fibers bunch up off the surface of the paper—like pills on a sweater). When the paper dries it still looks like this but it feels smooth. That's an indication that the pigment is sneaking into the surface if there aren't surface pills. (Note: in no test did I get bleed through to the other side of a page.)

• The paper works not unlike hot press paper in forming a hard edge to a wash as it dries. But unlike most watercolor papers I use, I find that this edge developed very quickly and that even when the first wash was still wet and I laid in another color (see bottom left of Example A) I couldn’t erase that first “dried” edge. Usually an edge like this developes only when the wash is dry.

• There is a slight musty smell, not quite chemical, to the paper when it is wet. It is not overpowering and for most people this will not even be noticeable. It falls within the limits of what I can work with (there is also a slight smell to the cover which I found more distracting, but that's why I cover my books in fabric).

• There is some buckling with light washes, but not as much as I expected (later I use more water).


Above: Example B—pencil and watercolor test on Pen & Ink Watercolor Journal paper. Note the pulling apart of the two adjacent signatures at the gutter (more about this below).

• While I do not hold with erasing, I did do an erasing test on this page. It is in the top center and may not be visible in the scan. I found that this paper does not take light pressure erasing at all well. Which is good—if you use this book you’ll have to give up erasing and that’s good for you!

• I found that writing on this paper with pencil (and quick sketching on it) was delightful because of the cushy nature of the paper. This might be distressing to the serious graphite artist who wants to layer graphite values in. I wasn’t in the mood to do a full-on sketch in graphite on this paper but I did some pencil fiddling and for artists who work in graphite it has possibilities though some may find that its tooth fills up too quickly with graphite. I find that even light applications of a 2B pencil smear readily and easily.

• With many papers that I use, even if they are a bit wet from a wash I can go in and put on more pencil. This paper must be completely, undeniably dry. A lesson in patience.

• The washes on the giraffe were wet but not sloppy. The page dried slowly, but when it did dry the page was relatively flat. If you work with wet but not sloppy wet washes the buckling you get with this paper will not deter you from working on the backside/next page.

• While one shouldn’t fuss with one’s watercolor washes in general sometimes it’s hard to resist. This paper doesn’t want you to come back to it until it is completely dry. Adjust your approach accordingly.

• A crucial construction matter: the space between signatures in a casebound book such as this book, is held together with glue, applied from the outer edge of the spine. Enough glue must enter this space and hold the entire spine edge, of the two signatures that meet, together. These are points of weakness in any book of this construction—in this book it is a definite point of weakness as the glue seam does not hold AT ALL. I simply opened the book to this point at the end of the first signature and the pages delaminated, ditto on the last signature. I haven’t worked on the inner sigs yet, but visual examination finds them just as fragile. (Also my book has some thread ends sticking out at two of these locations which shouldn’t be there and that puzzles me.)

Since all watercolor casebound books are problematic at this point of construction (there is either too much sizing on these papers and the glue doesn’t hold, or the papers are too soft and the seam delaminates with the surface of one side sticking to the other and exposing the soft fuzziness of the other side’s interior) even this serious construction fault isn’t a deal breaker. However, it is something to weigh seriously. It does look like, without tearing my book apart, that they did back the spine with paper, so that’s something.

You can see the split at the left side of the Giraffe page, past the perforation, right in the gutter—a separation of 1/16 inch or so.

Above: Example C—On this spread I drew with the PPBP (recto page) to feel out the drag on the pen and also to test opacity and “dullness” of the ink on this paper without paint over it. On the verso page there is a sketch of a pear that I deliberately reworked and reworked and reworked, to see what the paper would hold up to. I also did a masking tape test.

• Even working and reworking very wet on this paper I found that the surface held up well, despite the tendency to look pilled.

• Very wet working methods will severely buckle this paper and that buckle will not relax when dry. You can see from the scan shadows how badly the verso page is buckled. Part of that is because of this pear image and part of the buckling is the result of the painting on the previous page (which we’ll get to in a moment).

• I did a masking tape test on this paper, as I will often mask off rectangles within which to paint. High quality artist’s masking tape that is low tack still DESTROYS this paper, even after only being in place a few minutes. Within the outlined place at the center of the spread you’ll see that the entire area when the tape was positioned has been pulled up with tape removal. There was no possible way to finesse the tape off the page—and believe me I am a master at finessing tape off a page. Do not use masking tape on this paper, if you must, please test your brand first on a back page.


Above: Example D—Heavy wet washes of gouache, repeated reworking, all over PPBP sketch (of Gert of course).

• Gouache was applied in wet sloppy washes over PPBP sketch lines using an inexpensive #10 synthetic round watercolor brush. The paper was already buckled from the pear sketch on the next page (see previously discussed Example C above), but this new painting resulted in more severe buckling. (Note paper buckling doesn’t bother me much, but I know it really pains some people.) You can see evidence of buckling even after the page has dried, above the bird’s comb.

• After working with light to medium washes of gouache all over this bird I used a hair dryer to dry the page and then went in and worked some more, this time with heavier paint applications, often rewetting the base layer and reworking it to blend—so basically working the shit out of this paper. It held up to all that, so that means you’ll have to decide if you can live with the buckling. Also while gouache lightly applied to a page is a suitable medium for visual journaling, thicker layers of gouache such as this, are problematic on any surface that bends repeatedly because the paint will crack. If you’re going to work this heavily with gouache on this paper, and you’re going to let people go through your book, flipping back and forth, expect to see your paintings crack and even expect chunks to fall off. (I find that I can get away with these thicker applications of gouache on 140 lb. watercolor paper or its printmaking paper equivalent.)

Note: transparent watercolor will show the reworking much more clearly because of the edge of wash issues I discuss under my watercolor test sheet. Gouache does really let you hide a lot of paper problems.

• Construction issue: look at the stitching in the gutter at the left edge of this page. The stitches are so loose they actually balloon out slightly. This allows you to open a book at a page spread and take a right corner in one hand and a left corner in the other hand and actually see-saw the spread up and down (flat in relation to the open spread). All books have a bit of this depending on how tightly they've been made and how many sewing holes they have. It is especially common in books made with thicker art papers. But the sewing shouldn’t be so loose at the start (the first time you open a book)—remember, working with any book even the best of structures is going to loosen up a bit. If you start with a loose structure…well you get the idea.

• Construction issue: note the wide aspect of the sewing holes. Large wide holes like this do a lot to loosen a book’s pages, giving them slip on the thread. That’s simply sloppy. These holes will also widen more with wear. 

Overall Thoughts
I think the ink of the PPBP and watercolors and gouache all look a little dull on this bright white (but slightly warm—sorry to quibble here but I’ve been having trouble with eyestrain lately and it really does look bright white next to other known samples, but also has a warmth to it) paper. This is a matter of taste perhaps, as I’m used to using papers which float the pigments more on the paper surface.

The good side to this absorbency is your pen work is ready to wash over immediately. On some papers when I finish sketching with the PPBP I get a little bleeding of the ink when I wash over them with watercolor, depending on how long the ink lines have been down on the paper and how much sizing on the paper is keeping the ink from being absorbed. With this sketchbook the ink went into the paper and stayed put ready for an immediate wash.

Perforated pages and the opacity issue make this book a "work-on the-right-hand-page-only" type of journal. I counted 80 pages, so a book with only 40 images in it might not suit a lot of visual journalers.

The loose construction of the book makes it difficult to hold easily, especially if you are standing and sketching in the field. And it will only get looser with use.

Final Recommendation
Well after reading all those damning comments about the construction and the lack of opaque paper I know you’ll be surprised to learn that I think this is an OK book if you can find it for less than $12. And if you don’t mind landscape format. AND if you don’t mind perforated pages.

Here’s the real problem. I can live with most of the problems inherent in this book and its paper, given what else is on the market, if only it didn’t have perforated pages. I still can’t get past that. So this seductive little book goes into the back room to be shelved with other tests.

Note 1: A reader wrote in asking what I had against perforated pages, and I realized I hadn't been clear enough in my post. For those of you who don't read the comments I wanted to make sure to clarify in the body of the post.

I find that perforations WEAKEN the page and don't hold up to wear. If you are going to add perforations to a page in a casebound book with sewn signatures you might as well have just produced a perfect bound book.

I use casebound books with sewn signatures because I like the strength of the structure and because I work across the gutter. Perforations interrupt that work in an unsightly way, allow seepage to another page, and weaken and wear out faster after they have been worked over with dry or wet media.

If you want to read what I really feel about perforations, read my comment response by going to the comments section of this post. Now you understand better why I think people who produce casebound books with perforated pages "should be jailed" (see flip comment in post above), or at least tested for sanity—it is offensive and makes no sense.

Note 2: while looking around for a web listing for this product (Pen & Ink is not an easy product name to search!) that I could share with you, I found a review of this journal at Spiritual Evolution of the Bean. BiffyBeans (screen name) has some really great photos of this journal, including one that I absolutely love showing the dramatic bendability of the cover. And she didn't lose her information wrapper so she was able to tell us the paper is 122 lb. cold press. (Believe me this is not your father's cold press!) Go check it out for her other test results as she also tries out a bunch of different pens. (I didn't get the feathering and spread of inks she writes about, but I also only worked with the Staedtler Pigment Liner, the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen, the dip pen, an office gel pen, and the Preppy fountain pen in my tests. They all just sank in.) If you use any of the pens she lists you'll want to be aware of that. BiffyBeans also has a supply link—though the price she had to pay is more than what I paid at Penco. I probably got a pre-holiday deal.

  1. Reply

    Very in depth review Roz. Thanks. I was given one of these books in the smaller format size, and was put off by the landscape format. Why Moleskin and this company continue to make only landscape formats in these books (watercolor) is beyond me. If I want a bound journal that takes watercolor, I opt for Fabriano Venezia or Handbook journals that come in the portrait orientation.

    Your sketches are a delight as always.

    • Nita
    • January 13, 2010

    Thanks for the very thorough testing!

    I have one philosophical question. If the user would never consider tearing out a page, perforation or not, why care about the manufactured perforation line?

    And if the user is willing to tear out a page, having no perforation is not going to stop them!

    I have a friend who refuses to use a journal with perforation lines–feeling like a drug addict who fears that the perforation will lead them to their downfall.

    Really? I’m truly confused by this Perforation Line Power. Help!

    • Katy
    • January 13, 2010

    Roz, as always, your review is very helpful. This is one journal that I think may be locally available to me (and there are precious few of those, mind you), so I may consider trying it out some time. Of course, I haven’t broken in the Venezia yet…

    • Pam Perry
    • January 13, 2010

    I just have to say a hearty “I agree” to the statement about perfed pages in bound journals. Even all little wirebound notebooks now are perforated. Where is the logic???? You should hear me standing in stationery stores checking out the journals/notebooks and mumbling under my breath!

    • Roz
    • January 13, 2010

    Thanks Donna, and I agree, the Venezia and Hand•book journals offer a better commercially bound alternative from my perspective too.

    • Roz
    • January 13, 2010

    Velma, you’re a stitch. (But I do talk to the penguins through the glass at the zoo so I’m one to talk.)

    • Roz
    • January 13, 2010

    Nita, your question isn’t even philosophical. I’m sorry I wasn’t clear in my review.

    The problem I have with perforated pages in casebound journals is that they WEAKEN the page and eventually with lots of use (either while painting, or reading) the pages start to wear and tear at the perforations and then the pages simply fall out. (Also lots of people end up handling my books in my classes, and they aren’t always careful.)

    Perforating pages in a casebound book is to me the same as producing a perfect bound book, which we all know is junk and won’t stand up to the test of time.

    So my problem with perforation is not that I will be seduced to the darkside and start tearing pages out of my book (that will never happen, believe me). My problem with perforated pages is simply that they are a CRAP way to construct a casebound book.

    Repulsive to people who love structures that are made to last (which the casebound book as intended to be constructed is) and just [expletive deleted]-up.

    With the soft paper that is in these books the perforation line is even more heinous as wear will quickly weaken the line. I haven’t even shown the book to anyone and some of the pages I’ve worked on are visibly worse for the wear and there has been minimal wear!

    Additionally, and here I approach a more philosophical point addressing the style and look of something, but that’s as close as it will come to a philosophical point for me—having perforation lines [expletive deleted]-up your work across the spread!

    For me, there are two reasons I use a casebound book with sewn signatures. 1. Durability. 2. I work across the spread.

    I really don’t want those holes sucking my paint to the next spread, WEAKENING when wet, and becoming more prone to tear out. And worst of all, messing up the view across the gutter.

    Hope that helps.

    • Roz
    • January 13, 2010

    Katy, I’d stick with Venezia. I just don’t like those perforations!

    • Roz
    • January 13, 2010

    Pam, I haven’t looked in wirebound sketchbooks lately but it doesn’t surprise me that they are perforated. I guess it’s too difficult for people to trim off the wire hole edge if they are going to tear out their pages? Sigh. You and me both, mumbling in the store shelf areas!!!

    • Nita
    • January 14, 2010

    Ah, thank you for the thorough explanation! And of course, in a journal with loose saggy signatures, as you described, I can understand that the perf lines are weak, too.

    Thus defying the cliche that the paper is strongest at the perforation!

    I guess I never buy perfed books, so haven’t experienced the perf problem. Thanks for the Roz-thorough answer!

    • Roz
    • January 14, 2010

    Nita, sigs don’t even have to be loose for perforations to cause problems. In fact I’ve seen some tight books with perforated pages that actually wear very quickly based on friend’s usage levels. They just simply don’t make sense.

    I have never heard the cliche that the paper is strongest at the perforation and wonder where you heard that? I know several engineers who would argue that.

    But then I’m reading a book for review where the author makes an odd statement about sharpening pencils and it’s also physically wrong—people get odd ideas. I know I’ve had some. This is perhaps one reason I have an in-house engineer.

    Glad you asked so I could clarify my position on perforations.

    • Nita
    • January 14, 2010

    That phrase is an old cliche, so I googled “strongest at the perforation” to see where it would pop up. Got 3360 hits, one of which mentions it as one of Murphy’s Laws: “paper is strongest at the perforation.”

    One hit said it was Pamela’s Law — never heard of Pamela!

    And there was a site where engineers said, “of course it’s not!” We-ell, no . . . but it’s a funny, ironic line, mostly meant to express exasperation, like when you tear a paper towel off a roll and it tears NOT at the perforation, time after time.

    • Roz
    • January 14, 2010

    Nita, I am laughing so hard I nearly fell off my chair. I have never heard this “old cliche” even once and can’t wait to google it and get thousands of hits!

    I don’t know who Pamela is either.

    I guess I live in an alternate universe—when I tear at a perforated line (stamps, paper towels, toilet paper, bubble wrap…) it tears at the perforation.

    Those exasperated folks who made up this cliche are obviously NOT bookbinders and paper artists!

    Wait, maybe they are the ones who designed a casebound book with sewn sigs and perforations—because they have no understanding of the structure of paper?! Must be.

    Thanks for brightening my day with your research!

  2. Reply

    Roz, after reading your reviews and being a frequent stalker of Wet Paint, I went and purchased the Fabriano Venezia 6×9 and it is LOVELY. The paper, oh, the paper, I am in utter heaven! This is it… except for the ones I make myself with #140 lb. Fabriano Artistico paper, this is my favorite. Thanks again!

    • Roz
    • February 17, 2010

    Jennifer, well I’m doubly glad—that you went to Wet Paint and that you love your Venezia journal. I hope you have a lot of fun filling it. Thanks for letting me know.

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