The Field Artist Watercolor Journal: A ReviewAugust 27, 2018
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?
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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!)
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.
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.