Stillman & Birn Alpha Series

A lot happened since I wrote the last Sketchbook Selection post, mostly in my life. One interesting thing is that it is really hard not to buy stuff if you are used to just buy stuff when you feel like it. The feeling came to me again when testing this sketchbook. This is a 14,0×21,6cm portrait hardcover book in the Alpha series meaning it is white and has a Medium Grain texture at 150gsm. It’s suggested usage is “Dry Media, Light Wash, Ink”.

You see, the thickness of the paper is nice and the absorption is minimal but the texture is rough. That is kind of the thing for the Alpha Series, for marker and fountain pen, one should use the Epsilon series. Same thickness and paper but smooth. I had one of these books but I gave it away to a friend over the holidays, she wanted to start art with marker and I happened to have the Epsilon series book in my collection. Only had to buy markers and almost a free, gift, right?

Over the past week while working the the Alpha book, I considered a few times to buy a new Epsilon book or call the friend to ask if she used it already. I did neither and instead used what I have, that was the goal of this challenge, the goal of this series as well. It means the Alpha has to be judged based on my experiences with the Alpha only, not with “the one that got away” in mind. Besides, I have a tiny Epsilon series sketchbook in the back of the book shelf that I will test one day.

Filled a few pages and this book has very obvious downsides and very obvious upsides. The pricing is rather high end at ~€16 for 124 pages of heavy duty 150gsm, non-absorbing paper, for a sketchbook this is pricey. It takes pen super strong, it is not as good with watercolor but with some practice I am sure it will be fine. I did not try anything but pen, ink brush and watercolor but I am confident it will take all dry medium well.

The massive, huge, very hard for me to overcome issue I have with these books is the super sturdy cover and binding. How is that ever a downside? Well, it makes drawing in it actually hard, the book does not lay flat easily and pages in the beginning and the end will be folded before use. It can be mitigated by really abusing the book, bending it back a ton and basically “breaking in” the book before use. This does not feel good.

Second solution is to buy the softcover or ring bound version of more or less the same book size and paper but easier to lay flat for art but then are easier damaged in your bag. Everything is a trade-off. To make matters worse, when looking over various webshops to see what the manufacturer has on offer, I had to exercise self-control again not to buy anything. Little successes are everything but only now I realize I might as well go to the Stillman & Birn website and look at what they offer in terms of Alpha and Epsilon sketchbooks.

Let’s go over the bullets, this could be interesting.

  • Absolutely no ink absorption, it dries neatly on top of the paper. When using carbon ink for the doorway, it bound to the paper perfectly and I could then go over it with the watercolor wash. That then laid on top of the paper, streaking all over the place. 5/5 if used for ink which is what we are doing over here.
  • The Alpha series is a bit rough, while I am happy I gave the Epsilon away to someone, I did a quick test in the small Epsilon sketchbook I still had and indeed it is perfect for pen and ink. 5/5
  • When laying the pages flat there is minor transparency, which is a bit disappointing for such thicc paper. 4/5
  • This hardcover is *hard* and I mean, you can rob a liquor store with it hard. Super tough, hardly bends. Seriously, this cover can run a marathon and call for seconds. It is overdone, buy the softcover. Oh, I almost forgot to mention sticker. They stick better to the softcover as well, criminal I tell you. 3/5
  • Price per page is €16,31 / 62 = 26,3ct per sheet or 13,2ct per page and that is double that of the Sakura book for example but similar to the Hahnemuhle which is heavier at 190gsm where this is 150gsm. 4/5
  • The binding is indestructible and trust me, I tried when trying to get it to lay flat. The same with the soft cover and therefor I would recommend the softcover unless your sketch meetings are particularly violent. 5/5?
  • Nothing to mention in “other” which is nice, no ribbon, no pocket, just a book, with blank pages and honestly, that is refreshing. 4/5

Now this is weird, here is a sketchbook that did everything right. Tough hardcover, awesome paper (although the wrong one for what I want to do, they have alternatives that suit me), crazy strong binding. And yet, not 5s all around, how is that possible? I think it is about balance and this book leans too much towards “Indestructible” and not enough towards “Pleasant Use”, it is missing some elegance so to say.

However, if you really want a US made sketchbook (all the others are from Europe), make sure you pick the correct paper for your needs and buy the softcover.

Author: Koen

human, putting down lines, splashing pigment on page, exist.