Commercially Made Journals—Hand•Book Journals: An Updated Review (Part 2)

January 30, 2015


Above: My first page spread in my 8.25 x 10.5 inch Hand•Book journal.

This past fall I used one of the 8.25 x 10.5 journals from Hand•Book. I hadn't used one in several years. I've always loved the fabric covered boards they use. When I saw they had introduced this new larger size I couldn't resist. I started a new review about this brand of journal on Wednesday and it continues today.

Today I wanted to write a little about my unhappy experiences with wet media in my Hand•Book journal (HB hereafter). Note that I am writing about the "drawing" version of this brand. They make a watercolor journal and you can read my review of that version here (I am not a fan of the watercolor version).

I believe in jumping right in when I start a new journal and when I test a journal like to throw everything at the paper. That's what I did in the above image. I started with a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen sketch of a New Guinea chieftain—I was watching TV and it was late at night and it seemed like a good time to sketch. What can I say.

The sketch was just heaven to execute. Everything worked exactly the way I wanted it to and there was the perfect amount of drag on the tip of the brush pen. I was loving every second. Then I turned to watercolor to lay in washes on the face and body.

I found that the paper took watercolor in a splotchy way, not uncommon for drawing paper that hasn't been sized for wet media, but unlike some papers I've tested it was uneven over the entire surface. So some marks that turned out exactly as desired in the face (forehead for instance) could not be replicated elsewhere. Sometimes I had to push the paint about, other times I had to mop it up as quickly as I could because it wasn't going to be happy left in place. The two sides of his body are put down with the same amount of water and control (I'm the control here and my technique, which I pay attention to). You can clearly see it worked on one side of the body one way and was splotchier with more dried edges on the other.

This was repeated throughout the form, across the paper surface. 

But I kept barreling ahead. I added red gouache to the headdress as I wanted it to be very vibrant and opaque. Then I let everything dry and went in with a blue Montana acrylic marker for the background (and some touches of blue here and there) and a lilac Montana marked in some areas of the headdress and face.

Then it was past my bedtime and I took out a Sharpie Poster Pen in white and started what were to be highlights and just ended up as a crazy pattern that I couldn't stop making. (His beard was pretty gray flecked.)

What I found was the gouache didn't like the paper any better than the watercolor had. And even with the more opaque strokes I had to do more restating than I usually do because the surface didn't look the way I wanted it to look after one stroke.

You can see from the background that the Montana Marker got very streaky. I was surprised by that because those markers work so well on so many surfaces. It was as if the paper was soaking up the paint right off the wide 15 mm tip. And when I would go back to smooth it out it wasn't fixable. The paint went where you put it and the "dry wash/sunbleached wood" effect is what's possible.

By the time I added the other marks on the face and body there were other layers of paint already down and adding them was unremarkable—simply like adding them on top of paint on other papers.

The good news is that none of this seeped through the page to the other side. The bad news is that I wasn't so lucky with watercolor later.


Left: A sketch of Dick from a photograph. I have such trouble sketching his eyebrows (which are yellow and bushy and threaten to take over the world) that I thought maybe if I work from a photo it would help me out—but no, it's best to stick with drawing him from life. (The headache comment in my journaling text is related to a vision issue and has nothing to do with the paper and my experience of it.)

For the sketch I made of Dick I again used the PPBP. I threw the photo I had of him up on the computer and sat back and sketched. I wanted to test light washes of watercolor, layered over each other. It was particularly difficult to judge paper wetness because the paint doesn't sit on the surface of the paper as it does on watercolor paper and give you reflectivity clues.

I found I had to wait much longer before adding additional washes of color. If the underlayer wasn't perfectly dry I either disturbed that first layer of color with the addition of another or I messed up the paper (the surface would pill).

I became frustrated by this (because I like to work fast) and went into Dick's nose with an orange Montana Marker, thinking that I would do an overcoat everywhere with those markers like I did in this non-natural color sketch of him here (the first sketch in this linked post). But I found out immediately that this paper has to be thoroughly dry before you go in again because the orange maker chewed up the almost dry paper and actually bled through the sheet. That is the first time I have ever had an acrylic marker bleed through a page.

Overall working this slowly was too frustrating.

I did find that I was able to work the Montana marker more solidly on the background of this spread, which helped me to identify that the front and back of the paper used in this book are sufficiently different in surface for working that I would have to keep that in mind throughout the book, something else I wasn't interested in doing.


Left: A silly face in PPBP which I colored with light washes of gouache. I finished the page with a background made using Golden High Flow Acrylics in a Molotov empty marker.

In the third image in today's post I discovered that Golden's High Flow acrylics also lead to a streaky background, just absorbed into the paper. I got my watercolor washes to sit more or less where I wanted them to but realized this was a "good" spread with the paper side that was most workable facing me, and I had to wait so long for things to dry. I also found that picking up previous layers was difficult to avoid, as you can see in both cheek areas under the blue paint.


Left: Attempting a more delicate use of watercolor on the paper.

I then worked through the entire book using only the PPBP or one of my pigmented Pentel ColorBrush pens (typically I like to sketch with the thinnest brush tip). The only color I added would be bits of Montana Acrylic marker to key features like in this hairdo (and lips), or for backgrounds as in this hairdo. (In the last link you can see again the streakiness of the paint in the background. Streakiness happens on lots of papers and I'm not after a totally smooth application for the background. But I have to say the application is more tedious on this paper, there's more dragging and it's less fun. The color also looks duller. But you can see in both those hairdo images that I'm really loving how the pen works on this paper.)

I also made several attempts to use my beloved Bienfang Watercolor Brush Pens. The paint simply sank into the paper and wouldn't be resuscitated to shade and spread as it does on other papers. On some spreads any minimal attempt to do so resulted in pilling and severe wear on the paper.

For the final sketch in this post I'm showing you the last page of the journal. I had worked, as I just wrote, throughout the rest of the book without any more attempts at watercolor, but thought before I wrote the review I'd give it another crack.

I sketched a pigeon in an aviary with a Faber-Castell Pitt Calligraphy Pen. I employed some of my paint application methods that I like to use when sketching birds from life—floating colors into other colors working wet-in-wet, mixing colors right on the page, working in built up layers in tight areas. None of it worked. The paper rebelled and started to disintegrate in several areas, most notably around the eye. I gave up or I would have put a hole in the paper. In even lightly worked areas the watercolor seeped through in places on this sketch.

I've made journals using a lot of different "drawing" papers and I have been able to do all of these maneuvers, but not this paper.

This book would not be a suitable daily companion for me unless all I wanted to do was work with the brush pen.

Please keep in mind my comment from yesterday's part of my review: the dye-based Pentel ColorBrushes I sometimes use sporadically seeped through the paper either when held too long in one place or when wet with a Niji waterbrush.

Based on these tests I know I won't be using one of these for wet media. And because there are enough excellent book choices out there that love both pen and watercolor I know I won't be buying another one of these.

Thoughts on Watercolor in a Journal

If you are a beginning watercolorist, or someone who wants to have the ability to occasionally use watercolor in his journal I do not recommend you buy this journal. Instead get yourself a Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media Journal and work on some sympathetic paper. Or look into getting one of the many quality spirally bound watercolor sketchbooks. Yes, it's not ideal if you want to work across the gutter but the paper is what you need to really learn your technique on. 

Hand•Book makes a spiral journal with Fluid 140 lb. Cold Press watercolor paper that is serviceable. (Not the greatest paper in the world but it works like a watercolor paper; I wouldn't recommend you get the Hot Press version for learning watercolor technique on because it has some texture issues. Use my blog to search for my posts on Fluid Watercolor Paper.)

Cheap Joe's makes a series of watercolor journals that are spiral bound: American Journey (make sure you buy the watercolor, not drawing, paper ones; the watercolor books contain THSaunders/Waterford in either HP or CP, 140 lb.) and also one containing their Kilimanjaro paper. (The Kilimanjaro Watercolor Paintbooks have drawing paper interleaved between the watercolor paper. I have used this paper and found it excellent. I do not know what type of covers they have on the Kilmanjaro series and you should inquire. The American Journey series has excellent heavy covers but they are marred, in my opinion by having American Journey stamped on the front cover. I prefer subtle marking on the back cover.)

Arches, which is another excellent watercolor paper, comes in spiral pads, but I have only seen them with lightweight front covers. 

Update January 31, 2015: My friend Terri just alerted me to the fact that Arches makes a Field Book that has two hard, substantial covers. So if you go spiral there's a great choice.

I think beginning watercolorists should do themselves a favor and by a book more compatible to ensuring them a faster and less frustrating learning curve. Your time is worth more than what you will spend on suitable books.

You can of course, if you go with spiral bindings, select any watercolor paper you want to use, cut it down and take it to a Kinko's type store and have them spiral bind it for you. I've done that with sample books I make for watercolor and color theory classes I teach when I want to keep samples of different papers all together.

If you are an experienced watercolorist you will find, as I have, that it is possible to adopt your watercolor approaches to a variety of papers. You may find that you like the pen friendly aspects of this paper so much that you want to give these books a try. If you have a direct style in which you place considered strokes you won't run into any difficulty. If you like to push paint even a little it will be frustrating.

I have two more parts to this review that will post in the next few days.

  1. Reply

    Poof… comment gone… so I hope this isn’t a duplicate. Just wanted to report that the e-mail subscription worked perfectly.

    • Tina
    • January 30, 2015

    I wish I’d had this post to study three years ago when I first started sketching. I started out using these Hand Book journals, not knowing any better about the paper with watercolors, and I was continually frustrated, thinking that it was my ineptitude with watercolors that was causing such problems. As soon as I got some real wc paper, poof! Those issues were gone. I still use these as a writing journal, though, because I like the covers.

    – Tina

  2. Reply

    My experience with these journals does echo your observations: it is really nice for drawing but not really for painting. I like to use HYBRID technica pens, those Derwent DRAWING crayon type pencils, light marker, or colored pencil in them. The very small ones, palm-sized, are good for a gadabout sketchbook that can fit in a pocket easily- for quick notes and sketches.
    My favorite watercolor option in book form is to take all the random bits of paper I have lying about to the printer. I make a book board cover and they spiral bind it for me. Usually I use fabriano artistico CP.

  3. Reply

    Tina 3 years ago the books were probably still fine, based on what my friends were doing in their Hand•books at the time.

    But I’m sorry you were frustrated, and I’m glad the real watercolor paper sorted you out.

    I think the Hand•book journals would be great for writing journals.

  4. Reply

    Does the Hybrid Technica pen soak through the HB paper? I dont’ have any of those pens any more (I can’t remember why I didn’t replace the one I tested, I think it was a slight smell issue or drying issue, but I don’t recall)

    I think the spiral option is always a great one so we can have the paper we love, and unbind things for showing if we want!

  5. Reply

    This is so incredibly helpful and informative. Boy, I’ve tried so many sketchbooks. The one that I am the most happy with, hands down, for both dry and wet media, is the Stonehenge spiral pad. Stonehenge is wonderful under the pencil and pen. And it takes watercolour quite fine. Love the cover, too. But… I wish it was available in book form, too.

  6. Reply

    Kateri, glad this has been helpful.

    Stonehenge is a lovely paper. I love the way the PPBP works on it and in fact the way ALL my pens work on it. It’s also a great surface for dip pen.

    And I have always enjoyed painting on it. While I have purchased the wirebound books from time to time I usually just bind my own books with Stonehenge. Most of the colors work well for binding. Some of the newer colors (the ice blue, the Kraft color) crack badly even when folded with the grain, so I can’t bind them into case bound books, but I still love using them.

    In fact I have a new wirebound book of cream Stonehenge just sitting here for me to take to life drawing as soon as I stop coughing. I can hardly wait!

  7. Reply

    Your handmade books are so beautiful. One of these I will learn how to make a simple one.

    I’m going to try the Strathmore 500 Mixed Media. Ordering a hardbound book today. And I hope your cough goes away soon. I’ve been sick since New year’s Eve and I’m just feeling normal again the past two days. Coughing is exhausting.

    Thanks, Roz for such an incredible resource here. Not only of information, but inspiration. You really truly give.

  8. Reply

    Darn it gobbled my comment…Thanks for your diligence in testing these books. Makes me sad because they appear to be wonderful with that gorgeous linen cover. I had a yen for one of the odd ones at Binders – the 3×8(?) horizontal one. An intriguing size…but I walked on by knowing it would such a disappointment. Thanks…get over that cough!!

  9. Reply

    Thanks Kateri, I love making my own books and hope to return to it as soon as my shoulders are stronger, in the meantime I’m happy I can get my favorite paper in a commercially made journal—the Strathmore 500 series Mixed Media paper.

    So glad you enjoy the blog.

  10. Reply

    Margaret, sorry your comment got gobbled, but thanks for persevering. And thanks for the good wishes. I feel almost normal today!

  11. Reply

    Hey Roz: I know you are sensitive to smells and since the HYBRID technica pen is a gel- I bet you will sniff something I don’t. It does not soak through the paper and I like it for crosshatching. Since the paper is not very sized, it absorbs the pen better than a multimedia paper—the gel ink floats wet on top too long on multimedia and I end up smearing it with my hand. I have also done some noodlers ink in a lamy pen and it works nicely on HANDBOOK paper. Polychromos pencils do well too….Gouache makes the paper ‘ crisp + dry’ which is kind of funky.

  12. Reply

    Thanks for your thoughts on the Hybrid, Ellen.

    I can see how Noodler’s would probably be good on the Hand•Book paper.

    I LOVE colored pencils and graphite on the Hand•Book paper.

    The gouache works OK for me on this paper and is fun because of the texture, but I find that in most gouache paintings I do there is a mixture of thin and thick use and some of the thin usage is very dilute and that doesn’t seep through the paper in the way watercolor can (probably because of the coarser grinding of the pigments) but it can wear the paper out in the same way and make it difficult to get the next layer on the way I’d like it.

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