Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Guest Review Ecosystem Large Sketchbook

(When the very kind folks handling Ecosystem saw my review of the hard back blank journal, they offered to send some additional goodies for me to try. Among them was a large Onyx Sketchbook with some incredible blank paper that I wanted to keep for myself. But having no artistic talent, I did want and artist with tons of talent to spare to try it out. And it just so happens that the marvelous Mia of Jadecow fits this description perfectly. So let me turn this post over to her, with many thanks on my part.)

I'm always on the lookout for a great sketchbook. I can never get enough of them, so when Diane at Pocket Blonde offered me the large Ecosystem Artist Journal to review, I jumped at the chance. (Thank you, Diane!)

If you've never heard of Ecosystem before, you'll be pleasantly surprised at their two-fold mission: to maintain a low carbon footprint in creating high-quality recycled journals, notebooks, and planners while fostering local manufacturing in the U.S. You can find out more about Ecosystem here at their website.

Now, just a bit more of boring history. I bought the medium-size Artist Journal last year, and I was disappointed with the results. The paper, though bright and recycled, was very thin and had no coating whatsoever. (See this photo and this photo.) As I like to work in watercolor and fountain pen, the paper wasn't really suited to me. But it was smooth and bright enough for pencil, ballpoint pens, and gel pens.

With this shiny new version of the Artist Journal, I was excited to see significant changes.

Appearance and Performance

The sketchbook I received was the large hardcover Onyx (7 3/8" wide by 9 7/8" high), constructed with the classic style popularized by Moleskine: leatherette materials, rounded corners, a ribbon bookmark, back pocket, and elastic band to keep the precious contents...uh, contained.

On the front cover, running along the vertical foredge in lowercase letters, is the word "sketchbook" in varnish. This can pose a potential problem for those of us who like to work en plein air and incognito, as this one word can effectively reveal our true purpose to our targets, I mean, subjects. Hiding it is a simple solution, but I prefer not to announce to the world what kind of book I have or expend the energy to hide the cover of a large book, especially since it's hard enough to remain incognito and ninja-like while sketching random strangers.

The book lies flat thanks to sewn binding and good construction that is characteristic of Ecosystem Journals (I regularly buy their small Author notebooks to use as a daily to-do, and let me tell you, those puppies are sturdy).

The paper is 80lb text weight, "acid-free super-bright." There are no perforations on the pages, which is wonderful for folks who like to work across the gutter and work on a spread of a book.

Pencils, Fountain Pens, Pitts, Copics

Using Mitsubishi Hi-Uni pencils in the B range (B, 3B, 10B) was delightful on this buttery-smooth paper, which was able to take layers of cross-hatching and blending as well as repeated erasing using both a kneaded eraser and a plastic eraser. There was hardly a noticeable disintegration in the erasures, but when I draw I don't press hard unless necessary, preferring to build darks in layers instead.

Next I used a fountain pen, a Sailor Regulus with a fine nib and filled with Platinum Carbon ink (my favorite waterproof ink). Again, the paper was smooth and a joy to work with. The lightest touch was the only requirement to render a faithful line. There was no feathering or bleed-through from the fine-nibbed fountain pen, or the double-broad stub Nakaya loaded with Sailor's Limited Edition Doyou ink (for those of you who like to use blank sketchbooks as their primary writing notebook).

The same goes for the Pentel Pocket Brushpen, one of my favorite tools for sketching on-the-go. Faber-Castell Pitt Artist pens simply pop on the bright white paper with just the barest hint of see-through on the reverse side of the page. Copic markers, as expected, bled through the page but did blend nicely. (Not a lot of papers take Copics well, so this wasn't a surprise.) I don't use markers often, and when I do it's usually in a painterly manner.


I love working with watercolors. This is a requirement that usually ends up making or breaking my decision to keep a sketchbook. Some are hits, a few are misses, but a large portion of the sketchbooks I've tried have fallen somewhere in-between. The Ecosystem Artist Journal falls in this last category.

While the Ecosystem Artist Journal definitely takes watercolor a lot better than the first version, it doesn't hold up well to heavy or repeated layers of washes and eventually seeps through the page. The wax-like coating on the paper beads the water in a similar way to the Moleskine sketchbook and buckles the paper.

Final thoughts

The Ecosystem Artist Journal is a wonderful value for a sketchbook: at $19.95, the book is well-constructed, its smooth paper takes a good variety of commonly-available materials, and the "super-bright" whiteness of the paper will make your colors sing. I wouldn't recommend using charcoal or pastel on this paper -- it's simply too smooth and these dry media prefer a toothier material to hold on to. For light washes of watercolor, they're okay, but not something I'd recommend for a serious enthusiast.

This is a great sketchbook with many fine qualities that make it worth the price to me. And while it doesn't take watercolors as I'd like, it's not something I have to work hard to work around. With any sketchbooks there are limitations to its performance, but that's just the way it goes. I applaud Ecosystem's commitment to the environment and support for local American manufacturers, and the company's responsiveness to customer feedback. I'm happy to see the Artist Journal revised and upgraded into a true contender in the art materials arena.

all photos here and artwork here