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The Search for the Perfect Sketchbook

About a month ago, I came across a video of French cartoonist Joann Sfar cut into four parts (one, two, three, four).

Here’s Part Two (Sorry, no subtitles.)

In the video, Sfar is shown sketching with pencil, ink, and watercolor. I’m immediately impressed with the paper quality of his sketchbook to accept those mediums so freely. Any artist who uses sketchbooks (and are slightly particular about them) will tell you that finding a book that has great paper is a rare thing.

Let’s rewind many years ago when I was first starting to draw and the search for the perfect sketchbook began.

I fell like I’ve tried every brand on the market. I settled on a few over the years (mostly the 5.5″ x 8.5″ Watson-Guptill books recommended to me by Jeffrey Brown), but they still had room for improvement. Moleskine has a (fake) story which makes them a glamourous choice, but paper is the most important part of a sketchbook.

I watched the video again to get details about this book.

  • It’s a hardcover that seems to be wrapped in a gray linen cloth.
  • The corners are squared and it’s on the thinner side so it probably has about 60 sheets.
  • There’s no bookmark or elastic band around the book.
  • It comes in a large portrait format and a landscape size.
  • It’s probably made in France because Sfar lives in Paris.

Drumroll… Let the internet search begin!

Over the next few days, I Google all of the U.S. online art stores only to come up empty handed. Then I get more sneaky and start searching in French and Italian. That returns different results, but still no matches.

I email Sfar through his website, but as of this writing haven’t heard back. The guy probably gets lots of mail. I discovered art supply review video blogs where they put pens and paper to the test on film and contacted them to see if they have come across these books, but still no luck. After 2 weeks of daily searches—I’m like a dog on a bone with this stuff—I’m forced to concede ask for help. I reached out to my friends and colleagues who I know would be familiar with Sfar and/or European art supplies.

Matt Madden let me know that cartoonist Sarah Glidden was in Angouleme, France in a residency as we speak and I should reach out to her. I had only met Sarah once, briefly, in 2008 when I introduced the “Promising New Talent” category at the Ignatz Awards at SPX. That night she won for her then mini comic “How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less” which later turned into a book.

Here’s Sarah winning big:

I email Sarah. She’s 6 hours away in another country, but I get a quick reply—she’s willing to help! Serendipitously, she’s even heading to Paris the very next day and was planning on visiting an art store there anyway.

I’m hopeful, because for the first time in 3 weeks, I have my first lead.

To my surprise, the next day I get an email:

“So I think I found your sketchbook! A friend in Angouleme had recommended this super old and amazing art supply store so I went there to look around for inks and things and there in the sketchbook section were what I think are the sketchbooks Sfar uses.”

The book is made by the Sennelier art store in Paris. I ordered one to give it a try. (Insert foot tapping and anxious waiting until the package arrived.) I promptly tore it open to find, what I’m 99% sure is, the exact book I was looking for.

The sewn binding and cloth cover are really nice. The book has that wonderful broken in feel so the pages lay flat right away.

I don’t know how it escalated to this ridiculous thrill-of-the-hunt, globe-trekking level, but it did! Ironically, during this process I found a new U.S.-made sketchbook made by Global Art Materials called the Hand•Book Trav•e•logue. It’s a quality book whose pages have a slight tooth, but takes pen (Uni-ball and Micron), brush, and watercolors well so I would recommend trying it. After seeing the Sennelier book, the paper used in the Hand•Book is very close to it in color, tooth, and weight. I’m just waiting for them to make it in a larger size.

So what lessons were learned in all of this?

Surely, I have to be a more enriched human being as a result of this wild goose chase.

  • Artists need to write and share more about their experiences with the tools they use.
  • Sketchbook manufacturers are cheapening their materials using thinner papers and weaker construction.
  • Online shopping in Europe is difficult.
  • When in doubt, ask your friends for help.
  • If I’m ever in a similar situation (á la Sarah’s place in this story), I want to be able to return the favor for someone else.

10 Responses to “The Search for the Perfect Sketchbook”

  1. Cassie

    Good story telling with practical lessons! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  2. Frankie Woods

    Dear Mark
    About 25 years ago I discovered the best ever sketchbook. Made by the French company, Sennelier, it was called the Grande Luxe, had a red linen cover, perfect paper (for pen, watercolour, chinese brush pen etc) that you could draw and paint on both sides without it showing through, beautifully bound, hard wearing, portrait and landscape formats in about 3 different sizes. Expensive but so worth the money. I must have filled about 40 over the years. Then two years ago when I needed to buy a new one (my supplier was Cornellisons in London) they were no longer available. Ever since I have been looking for a replacement of equal quality with no joy so I was very interested to read the above. I will certainly try the US sketchbook you mention.

    Could it be possible that someone out there has some old stock of the Grand Luxe? Two years ago the Grande Luxe Portrait 32cm x 24.5cm, my preferred format, cost about £25 with postage. I would pay double that if I could find them again! Most of the images on my website are taken directly from my sketchbook.

    Well done for your persistence. You are so right – it all about the paper!

    Best wishes

    Frankie

    Reply
    • Mark

      Frankie, the Grand Luxe sounds great. It’s so hard to switch once you’ve become used to your tools. The more comfortable you are with your tools, the more confident your artwork will be. I hope you find it again someday!

      Reply
  3. lynne

    hi mark,

    this post came up in search results because i’m trying to find a different sennelier journal! but! if you’re still interested in the linen covered sennelier journals, they are available here in the U.S. i have a friend who brought one back to me from paris, and since then she’s given me two more that were purchased (i think) in san francisco. if you’d like to know the name of the store, drop me a line and i’ll ask her what it is. they’re wonderful journals. the paper is unlike anything i’ve seen in other books. smooth enough for colored pencils but it also accepts watercolors (and ink) beautifully with hardly any buckling. and no bleedthrough to the other side no matter what you do to the page. the cover is black linen, however – don’t know if this is significant or not…

    as a fellow hunter for perfect journals i thought i’d offer my services. : )

    lynne

    Reply
    • Mark

      Thanks Lynne. I would love to know the name of that San Francisco store. I hope you have great luck in your search. You may stumble across something even better.

      Reply
    • Mark

      It does look like my book! Frankie’s previous comment mentions finding Sennelier books at Cornelissen over the years. Thanks for the link.

      Reply
  4. Beatrice

    NY Central Paper carried them for years. I called a few days ago and the young man on the phone couldn’t figure out what I was saying. I think it’s worth another call. You can also order the sennelier books throughout their own website.
    Lately I am so frustrated, I am making my own sketchbooks. I am experimenting with 90lb paper (Arches) and so far so good. Might even cover it in linen. It only takes me an hour to. Make them….

    Reply
    • Mark

      I checked NY Central Paper during my search, but at that time, they didn’t carry them. I have since ordered direct from Sennelier. My hat is off to you for making your own books.

      Reply

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