The Field Artist Watercolor Journal: A Review

August 27, 2018
Platinum Carbon Black ink in their fountain pen; watercolor. Notice the texture on the left page compared to the smooth surface of the page on the right.

It has been several months since I first picked one of these up. This review will be heartbreaking for me to write.

They came so close with this commercially bound journal—sewn signatures, paper that actually liked watercolor, several convenient sizes, a covering material that’s pleasant to hold…

So What Is Wrong With This Book?

In this watercolor portrait I used light washes as well as heavy applications of color (background). I was able to easily glaze color in the face, hat, and beard. On the dark background on the right I was also able to lift off color with spritzed water. Most non-staining pigments will do this on quality watercolor papers, but it’s unusual to find a paper in a commercially bound journal where you can do this easily.

The surface of the paper used for this book is not collated to match facing pages. That means that for each spread one page is textured (the front of the sheet) and the opposite page in the spread is smooth (the back of the sheet).

For many journal artists and sketchbook artists working across the spread is one of the main reasons they use a sewn book construction for their sketchbooks.

This manufacturing quirk makes the book a no-go, so I lead with that. Stop reading and go do some sketching if you’re a page spread sketcher and surface matching matters to you.

For me it’s a deal breaker. I want to work on the same surface across the spread so that I don’t have to handle my pen or brush differently or have to look at different paint puddling effects. If a book has pages collated so that the surface matches across the spread and each spread alternates, even if the texture is somewhat pronounced I’m totally fine with it. I can easily work on each spread. Sigh.

Here is a detail from the previous image. I sketched with the Platinum Carbon Ink Fountain pen and then applied watercolor layers with regular watercolor brushes.

In less than 10 seconds after opening this book I knew I wasn’t going to be buying them as a staple book. But I enjoyed working on the paper so much that I kept working in the book, mostly using the textured page of a spread to sketch and watercolor on, and using the smooth page to take notes or make color swatches.

As I worked through the book I found out another problem with the construction. Between each signature in a book made with a book block of signatures sewn together, there is a “gap.” The signatures are joined to each other at the head, tail, and a number of the other sewing stations depending on the stitched used. But this is one of the weak points of the book. Most constructions insert glue in these areas when the spine is prepared. 

For many books made with watercolor paper, the glue joins at the end of a signature and the beginning of the next signature pull apart when the book is opened and that “glued” spread is used. Sometimes it’s the manner in which the artist pushed the paper open in the gutter that pulls them apart. But even a careful artist will often find that in books with watercolor paper these pages pull apart—exposing a part of the spine backing. 

Here I began with a light outline of graphite suggesting placement of the features and built up the detail with layers of watercolor that I put on and pulled off. The paper will pill after several rounds of this, but I was very pleasantly surprised by its strength and the fact that it let me do any of this. With patience, if you let the paper completely dry, you can get even more layers out of it.

Now spine backing is there for a purpose: to keep the signatures together at just these points and reinforce the sewing and the sewing holes.

When you open this book at those points it immediately, with no pressure, exposes the spine backing. (In other books sometimes the glue holds a little bit of the pages together so that the book doesn’t fully open there.)

Why when there is glue do these pages pull apart? Well if you push glue into this area but you are using a soft paper without much sizing, the glue actually pulls off the surface of one page because it’s too soft to hold it. (Rives BFK will do this in a case bound book with a book block of sewn signatures. You still need to make books out of Rives BFK because, come on, it’s Rives BFK.)

Detail for the previous image.

Other times, and this is true of some watercolor papers, the sizing used on the paper to aid with the application of watercolor actually repels the glue. When the book is open at that point the glue simply pulls away from the sized paper.

If that happens in a book where the spine has been prepared carefully you’ll see through to the spine lining and all is well for working in that book. (Handbook Watercolor Journals have this issue.)

In a poorly constructed journal with no spine lining or a poor spine lining you’ll see all the way through the spine and find yourself staring at the inside of the spine on the cover! That’s going to be a week construction as only the threads hopping from one signature to the other hold the book together, yet those stitches aren’t supported by any lining to ease the tension. They continue to stretch until, worst case scenario the threads break, or bad scenario that isn’t fun—they sag and the book is sloppy to hold and sloppy to use.

So What’s Great About This Book?

If you’ve read this far there is a lot of good news. Some of it surprising and fun.

Let’s start with the physical construction:

The book is pleasant to hold. Unlike many commercially bound books which have gone with the faux leather cover materials, this material is actually pleasant to touch, even when your hands are sweating as you sketch in 98 degrees Fahrenheit.

The material also wears exceptionally well. I have been carrying one in my fanny pack for 4 months (that’s a long time for me; I’m using other journals at the same time). The cover looks only slightly scuffed and not worn. They chose well for this material.

On Amazon the cover color is listed as gray and the photo makes the cover look black. All the books I bought seem to have a warmish tinge, looking almost chocolate brown in some lights.

Like many other commercially bound sketchbooks this one has a bookmark ribbon and an elastic closure that comes from the back of the cover, over the head and tail to align vertically on the cover holding your book shut. I am typically not a fan of these closures, but for some reason I really like it on this book. I think it related to the way I feel about the cover material. I like pulling that elastic over to close the book 

The book also has attached (i.e., non-functional, which is normal in non-handmade books) headbands at the head and the tail of the spine. On my book the headband at the tail was not attached properly and now seems to be only attached at a single point and seems to be more of a “flag” than anything else, but that happens. It’s not a big deal.

The pages open perfectly flat. On those spreads where you have the glue joins I’ve written about above the pages open flat, with about 1/32 of space where you see the spine lining. Many people will not even notice this.

The book comes in various sizes of either landscape or square orientation. (I don’t care for landscape books so the books I purchased were square.) There’s a 4 x 4, 5 x 5, and a 6.5 x 6.5 inch square. There is a 4 x 6.5 inch portrait. I can’t tell if a smaller version is still available. You can go to their site and check it out.

I find the square 5 x 5 inch book is great for a constant companion book the fanny pack I use to run errands. I also find the 6.5 inch square book (I bought one of those as well) also fits easily in most of my packs and is a great size to hold while sketching.

They are also reasonably priced. The 5 x 5 inch book cost me $13.99 through Amazon. 

What About The Paper?

Each book contains 80 pages of 300 gsm/140 lb. acid-free, 100% recycled, cold press paper. It has a great opacity even when using heavy ink on the previous page.

I’ve worked on it with all my favorite pens and it takes them all well, regardless of which surface you’re working on. Inks that are waterproof on most other papers are so here: the paper’s sizing doesn’t repel them or float them so long that you cannot go right in with watercolor.

Here is a detail from the very first image in this post. Where the letter A stands you can see how I have intentionally worked the paper hard here to see if I can get it to pill. I could, you can. I was amazed at how resilient the paper was. I can be very hard on paper.

I’m going to comment beneath individual sketches about how the paint goes on, but basically it goes on well, you can move it around. You can build up colors to quite a density. And even when you do that there is little to no rub-off on the opposite page.

All in all the paper is surprising resilient.

If it were not for the fact that the surfaces don’t match across spreads I would buy many more of these books. It came so close to being an excellent watercolor journal.

Here’s Your Surprise

Instead of a pocket that many commercially bound journals include (to compete with the Moleskine) there is a FOLD OUT PANORAMA Sheet! (I think this is vastly more useful than a pocket!)

A close up of the paper texture showing the linear cold press texture on the left page and the smooth texture on the right page.

The folded panorama sheet is the same watercolor paper as the rest of the book. The four-panel fold out stows away tidily. It did not have a tendency to fall out of the book while I stood and sketched, holding it with one hand.


How I Use These Books

As I mentioned above, spreads with non-matching surfaces is typically a deal breaker for me. But there is so much to love about this petite sketchbook, that I purchased another 5 x 5 and a 6.5 x 6.5 to use for my “running about town” book in my fanny pack.

Sometimes I’m using both pages for sketching, but that’s not usual. Here I sketched a woman in an adjacent car in the grocery store lot, but she left before I could get into details. There was no one else around so I pulled out my phone and found a muse on the Sktchy App (recto page).

In the current journal I’m typically using one page of a spread for my sketch and painting and then using the opposite page for notes and color swatches. This is not horrible. But it is constraining. It means I can’t turn the book vertically with the gutter running horizontally, and sketch a long vertical face. It means I rarely do a landscape that runs across the full spread. I either crop everything to fit on one page or use a smaller scale for my sketch. For someone who likes to go large, that’s a huge handicap. When the current books I purchased are filled I probably won’t reorder, unless they wake up and start collating their paper so that the paper surfaces match across a spread. Sigh.

It has been difficult for me to write this review. The manufacturers were SO close on this one. But to fall short on a key factor like matching surfaces across a spread puts them out of the running for many sketchbook artists who want complete flexibility in their sketchbooks.

Maybe they’ll rethink it, and correct this flaw?

Maybe they have found enough artists who’ll put up with the constraints because of the other positives this sketchbook presents?

I just wish they had thought it through; because they didn’t I cannot recommend this book without reservation. 

Note: It’s Minnesota State Fair time of the year. I’ll be venturing out on several days to sketch animals, OK, some people too. I don’t think I’ll have time to scan anything. You might take a peek at me on Instagram as I might find it fun to post from the Fair. Otherwise, on the blog I’m taking a mini-hiatus. I’m leaving you with this long post, and things to think about. I’ll see you after Labor Day.


    • Gina Bisaillon
    • August 27, 2018

    Thanks for the great lesson in bookbinding! I started studying the craft mostly because I wanted to make my own watercolour sketchbooks. The foldout idea is fine one – I would even extend this into an accordion for extra fun. But most of all, you reminded me to keep the facing pages identical and you are so right, this is crucial.

    1. Reply

      Gina, I’m so glad you found this helpful. The fold out is panoramic with multiple panels so it is an accordion which tucks into the back of their book construction. You can add something like that to any book really but you have to make some accommodations to the space it adds and take pages out, leaving a tab to hold the paper thickness at the spine.
      Have fun with your binding. I prefer binding my own books because then I can use the paper I really want to use; but at some point I’m going to have to stop binding so it’s good to know what’s out there.

    • Gina Bisaillon
    • August 27, 2018

    P.S. Have you tried complaining to the company? Perhaps they’re not aware of the problems you cite and if you sound like you’re disappointed, they will probably send you a coupon or a few sketchbooks! (I complained to a different company about the declining quality of their paper and received a huge box full of pads, blocks and samples!)

    1. Reply

      Complaining to them wouldn’t do any good because I don’t want a coupon or a few sketchbooks that are like this. I want them to fix the pattern. By reviewing it they’ll probably eventually see it and that will do as much good or not. I doubt they’ll retool their production line.

      • Terry A Vital
      • July 18, 2019

      Field Artist has read this review and has since taken steps to correct the pagination to matching texture of facing pages. We expect this revision to be available across all journals for next year.

    • E.M.
    • August 27, 2018

    Thank you for your review.
    How do you feel about the recycled paper in this book? In your experience, does a recycled surface change what is applied on it over time?

    • Charlene
    • August 27, 2018

    Ross, some really dark faces in your book these days. Hope painting chickens will cheer you up.

    1. Reply

      Charlene, I’m very cheery right now, and all days in general.

      I’m not sure what you mean about “really dark faces in your book these days.” Do you mean they are dark colors? Or dark in emotional theme?

      If it’s the former I like contrast.

      If it’s the latter—well, I’ve always been a dark person, by that I mean someone who has a very dark sense of humor and who thinks about a lot of dark issues: good, evil, and of course the zombie apocalypse. So those kinds of dark images appear throughout my journals, throughout my life. But it doesn’t mean I’m not cheery. (I do get grumpy when I see all the evil in the world and chickens tend to jolly me out of that!)

      I don’t tend to write on a lot of “dark” topics because I like to encourage people to draw, and the rest is just what happens to come to the top of the heap when I’m deciding which pieces to show.

      But I really appreciate your good wishes and I hope that helps you understand what’s going on.

    • scone
    • August 27, 2018

    If this is cellulose paper, it’s a no-go for me, no matter how the book is constructed. I can get a cotton sketchbook for about the same price, in fact I just got a Strathmore mixed media 9 x 12 sketchbook for $12, which is a better value for my work. Maybe if I were a better artist, I might be able to work around the many problems I’ve had with cellulose paper, but at a similar price point, there’s no incentive.

    1. Reply

      I’m glad you’ve worked out which papers you like. I wouldn’t buy a book just to learn to work around problems you’ve had with a paper. Stick with what you love.

      I keep looking for a book that I can use when I stop binding.

      My favorite commercially bound journal is Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media Soft-bound journal in the 7.75 x 9.75 inch size. I need that size to work comfortably. You can find them online for about $17 but I like to support the local art supply shop and retail is more than that.

      It’s the paper that I use most to make my own journals. Then I can have the paper I love in any journal size that I want. And for now I’ll continue to bind my own. (When I’m not testing other books—again, preparing for when I don’t bind.)

      I wish you would write back and let me know where you are getting a 9 x 12 inch one of these journals for $12! I think perhaps you’re getting the wire bound version? I don’t work in those. (Someone put one of those on my former scanner and scratched the glass, so I don’t put any wire bindings on the new scanner.)

        • scone
        • August 30, 2018

        Hi Roz, yes, the Strathmore is the wire bound version, at AC Moore. It’s a back to school loss leader sale, so it may not be around long. I like wirebound books myself. I don’t scan or make two page spreads, I don’t like the look.

        Lately I’ve been buying papers that are in between 90 and 140 pounds, like the Arches drawing paper, in pads. And I have purchased full sheets of watercolor paper and had them spiral bound at the local copy shop. As you know, this ends up being cheaper than a comparable “store bought” watercolor sketchbook, and I can customize them.

        I’ve also thought about using a watercolor block in the field, and putting it in some sort of sleeve to protect it, like zip lock bags, which come in huge sizes.

        That said, my fall back sketchbook is one of the Cheap Joes Kilimanjaro books, or their brown hot pressed book. The new black Kilimanjaro book is all watercolor paper, without the useless sketch paper that’s in their paint books. HTH

        1. Reply

          Thanks for letting me know which one you’re using. I have lots of friends who love wire bindings and have the copy shop hole punch and bind their books with plastic coils. It’s a great way to have what you want in your book and mix a lot of different papers.

          I also have friends who take watercolor blocks into the field. You don’t need a plastic bag for them as they typically have a sheet cover that protects the first page in the block, but carrying a folder to put the used paper into for protection would be a good idea. When I’m working on journal cards as I did at this year’s Fair, I always have a folder to carry the fresh cards, and then I slide the used cards into the back of the folder for protection.

          Kilimanjaro is a fun paper. It’s a bit too textured for me for the type of sketching and writing I tend to do at the Fair, but I enjoy it in the studio. I agree those thin sheets of drawing paper interleaved in their book is annoying. I didn’t know they had a new black book with all watercolor paper.

          I’m quite fond of the TH Saunders/Waterford books he makes and just wish they weren’t in landscape format (which I don’t care for). I use those for my color charts when I test a new palette, since I work a lot on that paper and hand bind that paper into my books that I make.

    • Frank Bettendorf
    • August 27, 2018

    Roz, Enjoyable and thoughtful review on this. At this point in time what is your number one recommendation of commercially produced books for watercolor? Do you have a list of all the commercial books with rankings? I’d be interested to see your list. Thanks.

    1. Reply

      Frank, if you go to the home page of my website and use the search engine at the top of the page (or on any page of the blog) and search for “Commercially Bound Journals” you will find a bunch of posts reviewing them come up.

      Additionally you can to to the navigation menu at the top of the website and select REVIEWS on the right of the first line of that menu. When you hold on it a drop down appears with “Commercially Bound Journals.” Release on that and you’ll come to a compendium list of my reviews and links to the individual reviews.

      Here’s that direct link (but now you know how to find it)

      The list hasn’t been updated since last year and I’ve reviewed a bunch of other books, the Hahnemühle Watercolor Sketchbook, a New look at the Handbook Watercolor Sketchbook, and now the Field Artist. So you’ll have to look for those individual reviews using key words in the search engine of the blog.

      I divide commercially bound books into categories based on use—e.g., writing, visual journaling, wire bindings.

      Then list the ones I review.

      I don’t rank commercially bound books.

      As you know from being a long-time reader of the blog unless there is a real critical problem with a book (like poor construction or paper that dissolves) I don’t write it off.

      Every book has potential use for someone. I don’t like wire bound books, for instance, but some of my friends swear by them, so that’s why I do things in categories.

      By reading my reviews you should be able to tell from the specifics I mention whether or not a book is good for how you work, which may be totally different than how I work.

      In that way I hope the reviews are useful.

      I prefer to make my own books with papers that I enjoy working on, and currently there isn’t a commercially bound book I would give up binding for.

      The closest is the Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media Soft-bound journal in the 7.75 x 9.75 inch size. I would miss the hard cover but I don’t like the hard cover books from Strathmore as much as the soft bound one I just listed.

      The answer of course is to bind my OWN Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media journals using the Roz Method, which is a hardcover construction. (Not an online class at present; I have the simple round back spine up but haven’t had time to film the other.)

      Hope this helps.

    • Terry Vital
    • July 18, 2019

    Thanks for your review, Roz. This is Terry from UniverseArt and the Field Artist brand. So you know, we have found and read your review, and have since revised the manufacturing so that facing pages will have matching texture across the spread. We expect all inventory to reflect this change next year.

    We appreciate feedback from customers like you! This allows us to constantly improve our product.
    Thank you!
    Fellow Artists at UniverseArt

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