Working in a Moleskine Sketchbook—2012

December 3, 2012

121025ATitlePageQ12Left: Title page in the Moleskine 5 x 8.25 inch Sketchbook that I was testing. Collage and rubberstamp ink.

Every so often I'll retest things. Products change and you might just be missing out on something that would be really fun and useful.

Years ago, before the current rebirth of the Moleskine I used their notebooks for writing and some pen sketching. When they were reintroduced I initially tried a sketchbook. I found the paper was a little slick (even for me, I like slick paper) but the size and the binding just weren't what I wanted. I was making sketchbooks not only for myself, but for other customers and I didn't have any interest in the Moleskines. 


Right: Gouache test on Moleskine sketchbook spread. You can see that even with a controlled amount of water the pages will buckle. On the bright side you can do some fun and drippy things on the page, and you can use the "repelling" qualities to add texture to your page. The repelling qualities can be clearly seen in the lower left of this page spread where the paint bubbled up and wouldn't settle on the page.

A year passed and I took another look (because so many friends were going on and on about them). I discovered that the paper had changed, it was almost bright yellow and had a very odd smell to it. I read reports that these were bad batches of books, but since I wasn't using the book I didn't give it much thought—not something to concern myself with. I returned the very yellow journal I had purchased and didn't think about it. (Those pages were very, very yellow, not just creamy yellow like the pages shown here.)


Left: Sketch with Faber-Castel Pitt Artist's Calligraphy pen on graph paper which was then torn out and collaged down. Color is from rubberstamp ink.

Recently however, it has become clear to me that I need to keep my options open for when I stop binding. So I decided to revisit the Moleskine.


Right: Finch sketch with some gouache. I have to say that I actually enjoy painting with gouache on this paper If I'm working tight and dry (i.e., with very little water). I think this image shows that. However, I was wheezing horribly by the time I finished (and my asthma is normally 100 percent under control, unless I stand in a field of rag weed!). I have to be kind to my body. I can't use something that causes me physical distress. If the paper did air out over time and didn't smell like it does dry and worse when it's wet I'd have to say I'd be tempted to use these books at least for my in studio journals.  


Left: A bunch of quick sketches of pet-store birds as I race against my allergic reaction to this book. I also got quite itchy after my session with this book. The only variable was the book—all the media used were media I use regularly with no problem. I think there is a sizing on the paper that my body doesn't like, or maybe because I was having trouble breathing I generally felt like crap.

I had purchased a Moleskine Sketchbook to use for my 2011 fake journal but the paper had such a horrible and persistent odor (chemical and woody all at the same time) that even after months of airing out the book wasn't usable to me. I went ahead instead with a Moleskine Watercolor Journal for that project.

Watercolor Moleskine: You can see my first page in my Fake 2011 Journal here.

Another view of using gouache on that watercolor Moleskine can be seen here. 

You can see a complete flip through of that fake journal and all the different approaches I took here.

Accept for the landscape orientation I enjoyed working in that journal. But it's good to have variation, so by the end of the month I think I was actually having fun with the landscape orientation.

121025FNotesRight: I found that even a light application of wet media, without a lot of scrubbing could sometimes go through the page to the next spread—the paper was not uniform in its handling. Read also my note about the paint seeping through the spine sewing and the interesting reaction it had with the paper—not something I see on the other papers I use. That's not a deal breaker so if you don't mind the smell I think you could be happy in this book—I just find the paint reaction as it crept through very curious.

Let me say right now, the ONLY MOLESKINE I will happily use at this time is the WATERCOLOR journal that is 8 x 11 inches or so. (See the above "sidebar." It is landscape so I don't much care for that orientation, but it's a good book, the paper is OK and I have found it serviceable, as long as I don't have to stand up and sketch and hold the wide page spread in my hands.


Left: Collage, rubberstamp ink in a masked area, and the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen. If you like to work with rubberstamp inks in masked areas like this the paper is marvelous for that—quick to apply on the slick surface, but also quick to dry. The Pentel Pocket Brush Pen works well on this paper, though it is not as fun for me to use on this paper as on the Fabriano Venezia's paper. I also find that over the course of the usage time I was getting very irritated with the yellow cast to the paper.


Right: Another Pentel Pocket Brush Pen sketch, this one with washes of gouache. I have to say that working more loosely here, trying to lay in light washes I found the paper more frustrating to work with. I did enjoy slopping on the background colors. It was almost like finger painting with a brush the way other colors would stay or lift off depending on pressure. I know over time I would find working on this paper daily a task and not fun. If you are interested in working on your watercolor or gouache technique I recommend that you buy one of Moleskine's watercolor books, or make your own watercolor book, or buy one of the wirebound watercolor books commercially bound by others.

I list commercially bound journals that I have reviewed here on a page specifically for such reviews.

I still had the unused sketchbook version of the Moleskine on my shelf so the other day I got it down and decided to work as quickly as possible, with as many materials as possible, through as many pages as possible—just to see if I needed to readjust my thoughts about this commercially available sketchbook.


Left: In this sample I drew first with the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen as I have frequently written about on this blog. Then I used heavy layers of gouache over the image to hide those lines. I found the paint more difficult to control on this paper than other papers I use. That takes the fun out of it for me. I could of course adapt to this paper, but the odor is worse when wet so it was physically uncomfortable for me to work on this piece. Click on the image and view an enlargement.

What you see in this post are the pages I created over a 2-hour or so time period. (I was interrupted so I don't recall exactly how long it all took.)

My main problem with this book is still that the paper has an off-putting smell to me (even after airing out for over a year). It is worse when you wet it for using light applications of wet media. I thought if I worked with it in the studio and worked with it quickly it wouldn't be a problem, but it was. The book remains shelved and unfinished.


Left: My final notes at the end of my experiment. I think it's important when you try a new product to take notes on the day to remind yourself of the experience—what worked, what didn't, how things worked, how things felt, what the fun factor was, if there were any odors (pleasant or unpleasant), which media worked for you on the new paper and which didn't—and so on.

I suppose 10 years from now I'll buy another Moleskine Sketchbook. I'll test it to see what the paper they are using is like (how it has evolved, perhaps through buyer demand, or just the change of manufacturing conditions). I'll work with it to see how it handles for what I want to do at that time. For now I'll not buy any more of these journals—I'd always have a headache and that's no way to enjoy journaling.

Now if smells don't bother you, or if the odor of this paper isn't a smell that bothers you, you might just want to check out this sketchbook. I found the paper OK to work on even though it often wanted to repell watercolor. (You'll have to accept and get used to the yellow cast of the paper.) I think the quality of the binding is well-done compared to the various "copies" on the market. It's a sturdy little book.

But keep the things I mention in mind—test first by buying a small sketchbook before you jump in. And be sure you are getting a sketchbook—there are all sorts of different lines within this brand. All have different weights and types of paper. Be sure to compare apples to apples.

    • Zom
    • December 4, 2012

    I appreciate your reviews.
    I have also put aside the moleskines except for one red sketchbook that I only use for pen sketches. I have yet to find a sketchbook that works well for watercolour. I have a moleskine watercolor but I don’t like the shape so I haven’t used it.

    I just have to add that the finch on orange is absolute magic.

  1. Reply

    Sometimes I love reading these posts – and realizing I’m not a freak for reacting to art supplies, despite my experiences in an academic setting.

    Thank you, Roz, for support you didn’t set out to give – but ended up giving me.

  2. Reply

    Elizabeth, first let me say if you are relying on me as evidence that you’re not a freak we are both in trouble! But on the bright side reacting to art supplies is crucial for any practitioner and you should be concerned if you aren’t. It doesn’t matter what field you are in, art, bread baking, interior design. There are tools and materials you need to get your job done to the highest degree (or with the highest amount of FUN Factor—which is important to me) and so you have to learn about and try out your materials.

    Consider yourself supported in this.

    Where one has to worry, and I see lots of students who do this, is when art materials are purchased almost without thought, simply because the advertising was enticing, or the product promises were seductive. And then the purchaser doesn’t do anything with the supplies.

    It’s sort of a shopping addiction melded with procrastination. That person isn’t moving forward working on his or her craft, but is instead caught in a continual loop of “I’m not getting any better so I’d better get this magic pencil that works for so-and-so.” But that pencil isn’t magic and what works for so-and-so is the 30 hours of drawing they do every week and have done since they were 7 years old.

    Buy stuff that is appealing to the direction you want to go, test it, work out how it does or doesn’t do what you want it to do, realize you don’t have the current level of skill to assess it, go get that skill by more study and practice, revisit the material you were testing and see where it takes you now.

    I actually get a little annoyed, well, that’s not right, I’m disappointed in people who aren’t more curious about their art materials, because those materials are changing (brands that have been around “forever” aren’t the same as they always were, manufacturing, raw materials, etc. it all shifts). They need to flex their curiosity muscles so that they are in position to use other materials and keep working.

    So keep flexing those curiosity muscles and testing brain all the while you build skills. That’s exactly the kind of support I hoped to give.

  3. Reply

    I don’t think we came about our problems with sensitivities in the same way (inhaled aresol solvent burns, in my case) – but when I am having a bad day, it is really supportive to me to know I’m not alone as I try to figure out why that tube of titanium white or the new sketchbook is making my eyes sting and water and my throat burn.

    In a way, It was a good thing that I have my problems. Without them, I might not have started asking what I was using – and so I look at it as positively as I can. I will never be an oil painter (pine oil is possibly my worst trigger), but watercolours help break me of the “over-work-it” habit I developed as a digital painter. I never would have tried that if I hadn’t had these problems… and thus forced myself to learn why – and what other things I could try.

    I think that is one of the things I really like about reading about your explorations. You ask, “Why?”

    I know that the magic pencil phenomenon is one I am not immune to, but I do my best to be cognizant of it – not use it as an excuse – and know when it is just fun to go and look at new tools. 😉

  4. Reply

    Maybe I missed it, but why are you stopping binding your own books? I always thought it was cool to make your own books, but personally never took it up because I thought it would take so much time and energy to learn that it would take away from sketching.

  5. Reply

    Elizabeth, our route to sensitivities is certainly different and I didn’t realize that was the support you needed. My sensitivity to art materials is mostly genetic—allergies to various things; and then gradual environmental stuff, like continued exposure, but nothing dramatic. And I happen to be extra sensitive to certain things like solvents. But I’ve always been that way so it’s probably genetic.

    I’m sorry you had such a horrific experience—inhaled solvent burns, not just because you had to experience it but because you can’t use Titanium white, which to me, at least in gouache, watercolor and most brands of acrylic is pretty innocuous for me.

    I think it is good that you have responded by looking at what you use and what effects it has on you. So yes that is something positive to focus on. But people should think about the health risks of exposures to solvents and certain media in general to keep themselves healthy so I hope you can be a good role model for others as well by spreading the word.

    I’m not an oil painter because of smell issues related to the oils used, but I think pine oil is only in turpentine isn’t it? Not in the paint itself. If that is the case then you actually could become an oil painter because many people now don’t use turpentine and use mineral oil. Something to look into.

    The nice thing about digital work is that you can save earlier versions and always go back to them so I can see how it is helpful to work in watercolor and learn to stop fussing. I fuss no matter what media I work in so I just have to keep working on overcoming that.

    It’s always fun to go and look at new materials and tools and learn about them. I have a rule of thumb that any new items can only be purchased when I have a block of time when I can work with them—that goes for computer stuff as well. Otherwise there is just too much going on and I hate when things sit unused!

    Good luck with your explorations! Thanks for reading.

  6. Reply

    Carolyn I haven’t stopped yet. I have stopped binding books for sale (i.e., making vast quantities, ha) and only make enough books for me and a couple long time artist clients.

    I have found over the last couple of years that my hands are more sensitive, in part because I ride my bike 17 to 24 miles a day and the road noise bothers them, but it was happening even before that. I just can’t bind 11 to 18 books in a day, even breaking tasks down and spreading them out over time and then binding in a couple days. If I could bind a book or two, but no, I tear down enough paper for 10 books. I could just case one in but there’s time before a meeting so I’ll do 3 now and the other 7 when I get home. That type of thing.

    More of a good thing is not always a good thing.

    And I’ve watched friends who are older move into the land of arthritis where they have limited abilities relating to their joints.

    So for all those reasons I’ve focused on what I’m doing and realize I won’t be making books, certainly the quantity, later in life. So I look for books that are commercially made that I’ll be happy with them.

    I started making my own books because I couldn’t find books for journaling in that had the type of paper I wanted to work on. I developed the method of binding I use because I want to make a book quickly but have it be sturdy. I love making books but I too would rather be sketching, so the more quickly I can get back to that the better. But I also enjoy making things with my hands and there is something very satisfying about making your own books, with the papers you want to work on. And then there is the fact that my life has always been about books—writing, editing, production, design.

    If someone has reached 30 and been sketching and journaling in books that meet his/her needs, books that are commercially available, then I probably would recommend that instead of making his/her own books he/she buy commercially made books that he/she likes and keep sketching.

    Binding isn’t for everyone. For some people it’s a frustrating thing, a finicky thing. For other people their hands are already too old to learn to do the tasks involved with great accuracy and proficiency and instead of accepting that they are frustrated with end results they don’t see as “perfect.” I have students like that. I encourage them to enjoy the process but not everyone does. And not everyone has the time to perfect a skill to the level that he/she’ll be happy.

    For me, when binding on a regular basis makes my hands feel less than optimal for the other work I have to do for a living, or even for fun—more fun than binding—I’m going to have to opt to buying commercially bound books. That’s just being realistic.

    We all of us have limited time and we have to use that time to best serve the goals we have.

    • Marianna
    • December 17, 2012

    I enjoyed this article. I agree with everything you said about Moleskine the paper changed in thickness, texture, sizing, smell, and I kind of hate the acid yellow color. Since I have been reading your blog I now make my own sketchbooks thanks to you. My sketchbooks have papers I have choosen. And are hopefully not made by a large Chinese conglomerate with an Italian pedigree, and loaded with nasty chemicals.
    I like reading your blog posts and often learn something new, thank you for being so prodigious 😉

    Happy holidays

  7. Reply

    Marianna, thanks for reading. I’m glad you’ve had similar findings, though I’m sad for both of us that the Moleskine doesn’t contain better paper that we can use.

    I’m really glad that you have started to make your own sketchbooks after reading my blog. One down, 6 billion, 9 hundred million… to go. And counting!

  8. Reply

    I have looked at the Moleskin books. They did not really impress me very much. I thought the value vs. price did not make sense to me. They felt , I guess the words would be “not right” , I did not notice any odor. I have to be careful with odors myself, as I have asthma. If it has a chemical smell, I won’t use it.Also, the paper did not feel nice, I prefer the papers at the craft stores, like Michaels and Hobby Lobby.I am going to try and make my own books and journals, also.

  9. Reply

    Debra, I think the most likely reasons you didn’t notice an odor in the Moleskine you checked out was that 1. you aren’t sensitive to the same odors that I am sensitive to, and 2. you got an old Moleskine with different paper (and no odor), OR (most likely) 3. You were looking at a different line of Moleskines.

    I was talking specifically about the SKETCH line which has slightly thicker and stiffer paper. I’ve got several of different sizes and they all smell as do the accordion fold Moleskines (which I recently gave away to people who can use them).

    The notebook paper doesn’t seem to smell the same to me. It is lightweight and has a different finish and isn’t useful for my mixed media approach so I don’t buy them for that. But I will buy some of the soft-covered notebooks with either plain or gridded paper and use those for notebooks thrown into my pack, when I have to go to a meeting and do a lot of writing. They don’t have that smell, it’s a different paper.

    Also their WATERCOLOR Line doesn’t have this odor. I’ve used a large (8.5 x 11 inch or so) landscape watercolor journal from Moleskine for my 2011 Fake Journal (the link is in my post in the list of links) and had no problem with any odor from that book by Moleskine. So it’s just the Sketchbook line that I have a problem with (severe problem).

    I wish the Watercolor ones came in portrait orientation because I would be tempted to buy them for the occasional project book. I actually liked how they were made.

    Sometimes though things change and aren’t useable.

    Happily for me I can make journals in sizes I like with whatever paper I want to use right now. And when I stop binding (when my hands say “no more abuse”) I’m hoping the Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media hardcover line is still available because I’ll just use that for everything. They are well made and I adore that paper.

    I’m glad that you’re going to try making your own books because I think it’s a fun and rewarding activity, especially when you turn right around and fill them with your journaling.

    I have a page here on the blog where I list the bookbinding books that I think offer a lot of great choices for the bookbinder who also wants to work in her/his journal.

    Good luck as you venture into binding. I hope you enjoy it and have a lot of fun.

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