Hand•Book Journal Company’s Watercolor Sketchbook

April 21, 2010

I test the Hand•book Watercolor journal.
Above: The brand-new and warped Hand•Book Journal Co. watercolor journal.

A linen-weave type of bookcloth is my favorite. They tend to be hardy and long-wearing. They are always attractive. So when I was browsing at Wet Paint and saw the new Hand•Book Journal Company's WATERCOLOR sketchbook I was immediately enthralled—it has just such a bookcloth covering its boards.

I had to buy one and bring it home to test it. I think it was just under $30, but the price tag is long-lost (as I've had this book for over a month and haven't had a chance to write about it).

The book is 10.5 x 8.25 inches and is called the "watercolor grand portrait." (There are two landscape versions available—5.25 x 8.25 and 3.5 x 8.25 inches.) This book contains 60 pages. The signatures are sewn (though the stitching is loose). The pages are flush with the cover boards. Both the pages and covers have rounded corners. Still in its wrapper it was a delight to hold and anticipate.

Immediately upon unwrapping the cellophane which enveloped it, however, the boards started to warp horribly. I left it out overnight on my table and in the morning it was a deformed mess (and I live in a fairly balanced environment—neither humid nor dry).

In the above photo you can see the warping at the book's tail end, arching in a curve up from the spine and back down at the fore edge. Additionally, the covers bent outward along the fore edge at the head and tail. It was a MESS folks. (In the above photo the top pages are also warping—with no painting on them yet. Look down to the last page in the book and see a rippling wave—that's what happens when you paint on the paper.)

100321Pears Left: Test page from the journal, using pen and watercolor.

As you can see from the scan of my first test page there is a lot of buckling of the paper, showing up as shadow on the scan.

I encountered the following when working on the paper used to make this sketchbook:

1. The paper is slow to dry, buckling very badly. It did not settle down when dry, as some papers do.

2. The Pentel Pocket Brush Pen drags on this paper, for an interesting, broken line. The sizing of the paper keeps the ink from drying quickly and it does bleed a little when watercolor washes over the ink lines.

3. The Staedtler Pigment liner is comfortable to write with on this paper—not too much drag. It also bleeds a little on this paper when washed with watercolor.

4. The paper smells OK when wet, but there is a slight odor I can't put my finger on. I call it "saw dusty" in my notes. Not quite a strong musty odor, but with the hint of that smell many papers from China seem to carry. A sort of mustiness. (When this odor is strong I find that I can't work on the papers because it triggers my asthma.)

100406Gert Left: Gert Sample on the backside of the first sample page. Read below for details.

5. The flow of watercolor on the paper is stilted. Paint doesn't flow easily and it creates weird balloons and uneven sedimentation. It's not fun for me to work on this paper. There is a drag to the paper, as can be seen in the application of paint in my Gert sample. The paper retains the limits of the brush marks rather then allowing a smooth application of color. This is a severe sizing problem for a watercolor paper to have.

6. The watercolors (I was using Schmincke Pan Watercolors for Gert) look faded and dull—sucked into the paper.

7. Pick up of color on secondary applications of color is simply ugly. (See Gert's throat.)

Final Recommendations

I would pass on this journal. While it is lovely and enticing in the package, unwrapping the journal quickly shows off its flaws. Working on the paper would be fun if you intended only to work in pen and ink and enjoyed drag on your brush pen. However, if you are looking for a commercially bound journal for keeping a watercolor visual journal—well keep looking. At this price you should be getting a lot more quality than is offered in workability.

Oddly, I find (as do several of my friends, including Roberta Avidor) the company's regular journals work well with watercolor. Our expectations aren't for watercolor paper, so that helps lower the bar, but the sketchbook series books are well-made, seem to have avoided the warping issues and the paper takes wet media. The price range is also more welcoming.

I found this journal so unpleasant to work in that I cut out my test page and am passing the book on to a young artist who can experience the paper without any draw on her pocket book.

  1. How disapointing. I would have expected a much better outcome. The small Hand-Books are pretty amazing.

    • karen
    • April 21, 2010

    Thanks, Roz, this post will keep me away from that book. I like the other Hand*Book journals and have used lots of them and they seem pretty stable.

  2. Reply

    Well thank you for this review, I’m sorry you found it so utterly disappointing and unusable though.

    I recently found your blog – I’m finding it a very enjoyable and highly informative read with some great journal pages.

  3. Reply

    Lynn, Donna, Karen, Sarah, I’m writing to all of you at the same time because I have basically the same thing to say to all of you which is that I am so very disappointed with this watercolor book, because I had such high expectations (loving their regular sketchbooks SO MUCH). And of course, being seduced by the linen bookcloth. I mean really, it was engineered to get me to pick it up.

    I do so want to find a good (not even great) watercolor journal that is commercially made so that I have something to use when I stop binding my own books. Frankly I am beginning to despair over this ever happening.

    The COST is something that is truly outrageous. You see, I wouldn’t mind paying $30 for a commercially made book of this size if the paper were of a quality that justified the price.

    Just the other day I was given a sample of paper to try (came to me through a 3rd party and I don’t know who the maker of the books will be) for a “watercolor” paper to be made into journals and the paper was absolute SHIT!

    I mean, really, really bad SHIT.

    I can only hope they took the sample I sent them with all my notes on it and pay a little bit of attention.

    It shouldn’t be difficult to do this. I’m really worried about paper manufacturing right now. Urg. I shouldn’t get myself started.

    Anyway, I’ll keep recommending their REGULAR books for people who want to use mixed media, but this product is a sad effort.

    I’m glad I could save you all some money, and Donna, I don’t know WHAT YOU MEAN!!! It is not expensive to know me. Surely I’ve steered you away from all sorts of poor products! Of course I do like what I like and those things tend to be well, whatever they cost—which doesn’t seem expensive to me because they are good value—things like Daniel Smith Watercolors, which I think are the best, and reasonably priced for their excellent quality (I can think of lots of other paints of poor quality being sold for the same or more!)

    So I hope I’m not encouraging you to spend too much money Donna. If so you need to take a materials break. I make the students in my year-long journal class do that—pick one medium and use it all month—don’t even look at any others. And it’s really great if you pick something simple like PENCIL or PEN. One tool, no expenditures except the paper you work on of course and the tool itself.

    Hope that helps.

    Let’s all keep our eyes open for a good watercolor book!

  4. Reply

    Thank you so much for saving me my $$$, Roz. I love my regular Hand*Book for sketching, and have been looking at this one online getting ready to buy it. Of course I won’t now, having read about your experience. I actually think that all of us, who will save money thanks to your review, ought to contribute a dollar or two as a token of appreciation for your public service and to reimburse you for your cost. I just have no idea how to make it happen logistically.

  5. Reply

    Alex, I’m just glad to save people a bit of money to use for supplies that might help them in other ways.

    Also I try to point out positives (if I can find any) in my reviews so people can make their own decision as to whether or not the product is still something they want. In this case the pen work is fun on this paper if you don’t mind drag on the ink brush (some people don’t care, some people really mind) and if someone purchased a book like this for doing only ink work it might be a good fit, but then it seems very sad to me that they will have to pay the “premium” for a “watercolor” paper that really isn’t of any use to them in their ink work.

    Other folks don’t care about books warping the minute they are unwrapped (frankly if that was all that had happened with this book and the watercolor paper had been of good quality I would have overlooked the warping!) and people do paint differently. Some people like drag on the brush. So there may be some folks who read this review and actually buy that book. (Though I hope not—I would rather see them spend their money on different books that might be more fun to work in.)

    Sigh, it’s always hard to see a good idea executed so poorly.

    I’m glad you found the review helpful. The best “thank you” to me is always that people turn right around and fill more journal pages.

  6. Reply

    Ooops, I just bought one and it is sitting on my art table. Like you, the cover called my name. I am going to pass it on to a beginner who needs art supplies. Thanks for the review.

  7. Reply

    Elizabeth, since you already have one you might want to test a back page and see how it works for you. Then pass it on to someone else to experiment with like I’ve done. The paper might frustrate a beginner—unless you give him/her a big warning that real watercolor paper is not that recalcitrant!

    But boy, oh, boy, is that cover hard to resist! (And I loved the poppy on the label too!)

  8. Reply

    is it me or is there a CSS error? anyways well done article

  9. Reply

    CamAmateur, don’t know what you mean. Unless you’re more specific about the thing you’re seeing or not seeing as an error. It all reads fine from here.

    • Sharyn
    • March 10, 2011

    Thanks Roz for the very informative reviews on sketchbooks and journals! You’ve been extraordinarily helpful amid all the advertising rubbish about what’s good and what isn’t. I’m in Australia and we have to pay an arm and a leg for art supplies, it is just ridiculous! Lucky there’s internatiional shipping and mail forwarding from US to Australia. A Strathmore Visual Journal is $25 here for example. I’ve just ordered a stack of those to try out.

  10. Reply

    Sharyn, I’m glad it’s helpful. I know getting things mail order overseas is expensive (I’m trying to get some English sketchbooks right now!)

    The nice thing about Strathmore’s journals is that they have several that work well for mixed media. They have the mixed media journal with special paper, which I really like. It’s light weight paper but really holds up well. Also I like the two Bristol versions, both vellum and smooth. They hold up to washes for background color and also to making watercolor/gouache sketches when you’re out and about.

    The watercolor version of the journals is also good, but the texture of the watercolor paper is more pronounced that my personal taste (i.e., I’m a hot press girl). If you like to have watercolor paper texture show in your work and your brush strokes it’s a great choice and I know people will love it. They are also the heaviest pages of all the journals if that matters.

    Good luck with your Strathmore Journals. I hope you’ll join me for my online workshop in May!

  11. Reply

    Saved me money — I had it on my to-buy list! I’ve wanted to try the non-watercolor handbooks but after trying a few other books came back to the Aquabee Super Deluxe (non-watercolor) and so have not tried those either. Love your reviews. HONEST!

  12. Reply

    Kate I’m glad this helped. I’m not a fan of the Aquabee Super Deluxe. I wrote about them in 2011

    The one I tested didn’t work well for me with watercolor. But I know a lot of folks like them. At the time I tested it I had the Fabriano Venezia to fall back on and that was more fun for me to paint on. Now I always seem to use the Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media paper options if I want a commercially made journal with wet media capabilities.

    I laugh though because right now I am working in one of my Japanese Lined journals and am just about to start a series of loose sheets in the studio for watercolor.

    Glad this review was helpful. Glad you have something that works for you!

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