As a creative journaling workshop instructor, I’ve made a career out of hoarding notebooks and sketchbooks. What can I say? I’m a sucker for cute covers and the smell of paper. Though after five years in the biz, I’ve become more discerning when adding yet another artist’s sketchbook to my collection.
I still think first impressions matter, though. The first sketchbook you baptize may very well set the tone for your next artistic pursuit. Nothing compares to the blissful feeling of a first paintbrush stroke on fresh, durable paper.
This is why my rule with art, as in life, is to never settle.
A good sketchbook is an investment that pays off the longer your creative journey.
Think of a journal or sketchbook as a record-keeper. Every page and every artwork is a celebrated milestone. One day, you’ll flip through these filled pages and marvel at your own growth, both as an artist and as a person.
So if you’re looking for the perfect paper companion along your creative journey, you’ve found the right guide. Here’s how to choose the best sketchbook for professional artists and amateurs alike!
Things to consider when picking a sketchbook
You might be wondering: What are the best sketchbooks for beginners? Simply put, it’s the ones you’ll use.
I mean it! What’s the point of buying all these sketchbooks if they’ll just gather dust in your room or studio?
There’s no one size fits all sketchbook that ticks off all artist’s boxes. Choosing the right sketchbook depends on your preferences and favorite media.
For example, I love to sketch and I love to play with wet media like watercolors, gouache, and markers. Over time, I realized it’s truly a disservice to myself and my work if I use a low-quality sketchbook that isn’t built for water-based media. Why waste all that creative effort on paper that’ll just wear and tear from a light wash of paint.
Don’t fall into the trap of getting a cheap and cute but low-quality sketchbook. Instead, invest in paper quality. It may seem like an extra cost now, but you’ll thank yourself in the future.
Sometimes finding the perfect sketchbook can be daunting though. So don’t worry, we’ve done all the work for you.
Orientation and Size
Many sketchbooks are bound in portrait orientation by default. But you can also find sketchbooks in landscape orientation as well—these are a go-to pick for artists who love painting nature and scenery.
There are square sketchbooks and round ones, too!
Again, this is all preferential. But personally, as a leftie, I gravitate toward portrait sketchbooks, which I can easily rotate if I want to create a landscape work.
As for sketchbook size, you'll mostly come across the standard A-series or B-series. The bigger the number (e.g. B6 or A6), the smaller the pages.
To make things less confusing, here's a chart of the best sketchbook sizes:
- A3 (11.7 x 16.5"): For large portrait or large landscape sketching. You might also find sketchbooks in sizes 9x12" or 11x14".
- A4 (8.3x11.7"): Standard copy paper size. The large pages are great for drawing on flat working surfaces.
- A5 (5.8x8.3"): The best sketchbook size (at least for me, since I can't leave the house without one). Big enough for detailed sketching, small enough to stash in a backpack.
- A6 (4.1x5.8"): A true pocket portrait or pocket landscape-sized sketchbook.
- B5 (7x10"): Also known as the standard composition notebook size.
- B6 (5x7"): A little bigger than the A6 pocket size so there's a bit more room for detail. My go-to for when I feel like squeezing in a quick sketch or two on one of my artists dates.
- B7 (3.5 x 5"): Passport size. The best travel companion for any artist with a serious case of wanderlust.
Cover and binding style
Sketchbooks come in a wide range of binding styles and covers. Though if you’ve developed a pickiness for certain notebooks, you’ll probably know what you want already. Still, we’re here to break each type down for you.
In theory, wire-bound or spiral-bound sketchbooks are great for beginners and perfectionists. They don’t just lay perfectly flat but they also leave room for making mistakes. You can easily rip out pages from your sketch pad if you don’t like your work. Or if it’s time for framing a beautiful sketch, just rip out the page and trim off the edges.
Some spiral-bound sketchbooks nowadays come with perforated pages for easy removal.
For lefties, I’d steer clear of spiral-bound or wire-bound sketchbooks, though. Unless you’re filling in your sketchbook from back to front. Speaking from experience, there’s nothing more uncomfortable than sketching or writing while the metal spiral binding digs into your hand.
Hardbound sketchbooks are usually held together via sewn-binding. The pages are thread bound and then glued to a hard spine and cover. They’re much less likely to fall apart over time than glue-bound sketchbooks or watercolor blocks. This is a good choice if you’d like to archive your artwork!
Many hardbound sketchbooks have interior pockets, which comes in handy especially if you like to collect paper ephemera.
My personal go-to, especially if the sketchbook can lay flat at a perfect 180°—just like the variety of sketchbooks and journals we have here on Zen Art (but more on that later). They're much lighter than a hardcover. These sketchbooks can still be thread-bound but with paper or flexible leather as a cover.
Don’t you just hate it when the paper you’re working on disintegrates at the lightest brushstroke? Or when it crinkles at the swipe of an eraser? That’s likely because your chosen art medium is incompatible with your sketchbook paper.
While it’s convenient and cost-effective to have just one sketchbook for all your artworks, this might not be the most practical choice in the long run. Wet media like watercolor and gouache need thicker paper that can absorb water without warping or thinning. Dry mediums like chalks, charcoal, and pastels don’t necessarily need thick paper, but they do need paper with tooth or texture. This ensures that the pigment can grip and stay on the paper.
Now if you’re on the go and working with heavy media like oil or acrylic paint, you’ll want a canvas pad. These are bound sheets of paper or cotton with a texture like canvas. Great for practice!
If you like to experiment, the best sketchbook paper for you will be mixed media. Note that mixed media sketchbooks can handle most but not all wet media.
Paper type and quality
Paper quality and your preferred media are closely related. So here’s where you should get picky. My top tip for beginners is to know the difference between a blank journal and an artist sketchbook.
Blank journals are just notebooks without lines or grids. They typically have lighter paper and can handle at the most some light sketching and artworks done with colored pencils or water-based markers. At the most, blank journals are for casual doodling and some dry media.
Pay attention to the weight of the paper, commonly measured in grams per square meter or gsm. The higher the number, the thicker and heavier the paper—and all the more can it withstand washes of paint sans warping.
Here’s a list of common weights you’ll run into:
- 75 to 100gsm: Sketching or drawing paper. For charcoal, aim for 90gsm or so. Might be too thin for markers and ink, which will likely bleed through.
- 90 to 120gsm: Drawing paper suitable for most dry media.
- 180 to 260gsm: Heavy drawing paper suitable for mixed media and markers. Similar to card stock.
- 300gm and up: Suitable for watercolor painting. Can come either cold-pressed (textured, more absorbent) or hot-pressed (smoother, better for illustrations).
Another feature to look for is acid-free paper. This means the pages have better archival quality.
Lastly, think of paper color. Most sketchbooks use white or ivory (off-white) paper. The advantage of ivory paper is it doesn’t glare under sunlight or harsh overhead lights. If you’re drawing with dry media like pencil, chalk, charcoal, and graphite, opt for a toned sketchbook. With tan or gray-toned paper, these sketchbooks bring out the darks and lights in your art. There are also dark sketchbooks with black pages that bring out white ink and the shimmer of metallic paint!
Best Sketchbooks on Zen Art Supplies
Now that we’ve walked you through the technical stuff, here’s a rundown of our top picks from our very own shop.
As mentioned earlier, if you can’t choose just one preferred art medium, you can always grab a sketchbook that can multitask and handle ink and paint. Lucky for you, our sketchbooks can do just that!
Our journals and sketchbooks are made with acid-free, off-white paper, with 160 pages or 80 sheets of paper. They’re perfect for drawing with pencil, ink, and even markers! Plus, it’s part of our artist series—you get amazing artist-grade quality without totally breaking the bank!
As an artist, I never stop learning. I’ve been making art since I could hold a pencil, and I still consider myself a beginner at times. I love to join art classes and workshops as much as I love teaching them. It’s important to find new ways to unlock my creativity.
I find that a B5 sketchbook is an ideal size for an artist who loves creating and learning. It’s not as bulky as an A4 sketchbook nor is it as compact as the A5 and A6 sizes I’m used to. With B5-sized pages, I can make big artworks and I can also half or quarter the pages for smaller sketches.
Plus, it has enough space for me to add notes. Many artists go through several pages of sketches and studies before creating a final piece. Lots of said pages are splattered with notes on tiny details and revisions.
Never leave home without a pen or pencil and a sketchbook. You never know when the creative mood will strike. That’s why this is the best sketchbook and travel buddy for artists who like to sketch anywhere, any time.
After two years in a pandemic, I’ve realized the life-changing magic of taking my inner artist out on a date or on a walk. Artists love drawing inspiration from their surroundings, and there’s no better place than the great outdoors. If you can, go on a hike, a beach trip, or a stroll down to your nearest park. Take time to sketch scenes en plein air.
(lays flat; portrait orientation; dry media and wet media;
Pair this B6 Artist Sketchbook with one of Zen Art’s travel-friendly watercolor palettes. Though the paper is quite light, trust me it can handle a fair wash of ink and watercolor paint! I also love its water-repellent and scratch-resistant softcover design. Plus an elastic band to keep the sketchbook shut and your artwork safe from the elements.
This dotted journal is a solid choice for making magic on the page—whether it’s for bullet journaling, diary writing, art journaling, or all of the above! The dot grid gets rid of that fear of the blank page. At the same time, it gives you guidelines for where to write or place your artwork without the constraint of a lined or ruled page.
Sure, this isn’t a true sketchbook per se. But it’s got the artist-grade quality of one. As with the other sketchbooks in this list, the paper quality is next level—120gsm but still friendly toward fountain pens, watercolors, and markers.
It’s good for jotting down thoughts or drawing them out. I love this journal, too, because it’s made with sustainable materials—and all without compromising on quality and aesthetic. It comes in five different colorways. Also, the paper edges are reminiscent of Japanese kimono patterns.
We’d love to hear from you!
Have you tried our other paper products?
Which ones are you eyeing? And how do you like to fill up your sketchbooks? Let us know in the comments below!
For more inspiration, join our community! Artists can’t thrive in a bubble after all. Find inspiration from like-minded folks and get insider tips on all your creative needs.
Here’s to your watercolorist journey! Your next masterpiece is just a sketch away!
- MEET THE AUTHOR-
Belle O. Mapa is a writer and artist based in Manila, Philippines. She believes that everyone is born with an inner creative spirit—we just need to nurture and discover it on the blank page. Currently, she lives out her passion: writing stories, hosting journaling workshops, and advocating for mental health awareness.