"You're only given a little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it."
For me, brand-new journals are an incredible sensory experience before they ever see a drop of paint or glue or ink: the smell of fresh, clean paper, the sound of a crisp spine cracking open, the feel of pristine pages under my fingers! I also love blank journals for their potentiality, the promise they hold for future art projects, ideas and imagination brought forth into the real world.
I'll be honest though: I am a paper snob. I decided long ago that life is too short for cheap paper. I like the paper in my journals and sketchbooks to be courageous, to stand up to any media I might throw at it without warping or bleed-through. I want to be able to scrub the surface repeatedly without deterioration and I want my tools to glide effortlessly across the page without skipping or dragging.
Enter what I consider to be the Cadillac of journals: the Stillman & Birn Beta series sketchbook. I purchased an 8-1/2 x 11", hardbound Beta several months ago. After it arrived in the mail, I spent time simply running my hand over the pages, marveling over the quality of the paper. I confess that initially, I spent a lot of time stroking the paper but zero time working on it. It seemed too precious; I couldn't imagine any work of mine worthy of such a lovely substrate. So this beautiful journal sat on my shelf, empty, a monument to both quality journals and my abject fear of ruining said journals.
Finally, after a long time of contemplation and bravery-building, I cracked that journal open and began a new project I titled "A Little Spark of Madness." I am using this journal to open the door for all the creatures and critters in my head who are clamoring for the light of day.
The Stillman & Birn Beta journal features 180 lb natural white, cold press paper that has held up to watercolor, gouache, paper collage, markers, pen & ink, acrylics, and colored pencils. (Here you can see that I am experimenting with different media, trying to find the illustration style I like best.) The journal is hardbound and unlike so many other hardbound journals on the market, this one lies flat when open! Awesome! (The spine will feel tight when you first open the journal but as time goes on, the spine loosens up and the book lies flat easily which is handy if you need to photograph or scan your work.)
In fact, Stillman & Birn offers all of their journals in hardbound and wirebound styles. Their journals feature either 100 or 180 lb paper and you can also choose between natural white or ivory-colored pages and three different surfaces: vellum, cold press, and smooth. Check out this link for a handy chart of the technical details for each journal series.
Whenever I post a product review, I like to present both pros and cons. Clearly, I love the Beta series journal but here's what you also need to consider.
These journals are not cheap. I paid $24.95 for this 8-1/2 x 11-inch journal on Ebay and I think that was pure luck (both finding it & the price.) Currently, there a couple of Ebay listings for the Beta ranging from $33.59 to $42.98. Yikes! On Amazon, a 5-1/2 x 8-1/2-inch Beta is going for $27.61 right now (with free shipping if you're an Prime member.) I'm an Amazon affiliate but I'd recommend caution when shopping for Stillman & Birn journals there and thus, I'm not including an affiliate link; the prices on Amazon & Ebay are high compared to other shopping options. Instead, try an art supply store like Dick Blick. They carry all of the Stillman & Birn journals except....
...the hardbound version of the Beta journal! I've found that the hardbound Beta, particularly the larger size, is sort of like the unicorn of journals. After much searching, I was finally ordered my journal through Ebay and a stationery store in New York that no longer exists. The seeming rarity of the hardbound Beta is a mark against it for me simply because it makes me scared to work in it for fear of using it up and not being able to find another! I've fallen in love and I am terrified that I might get my heart broken when I'm ready to move into another volume of my illustration work. Still, I'll carry on and tackle that issue when the last page in my Beta looms large.
So in summary...
Superior quality, heavyweight paper that withstands multiple media without warping, bleed-through, or "pilling." Hardbound style lies flat when open (as does the wirebound version obviously.) Extra sturdy black covers are easy to alter with collage and paint.
These journals are costly and that, combined with the quality of the journal itself, can be an intimidating one-two punch. In my personal experience, the hardbound version of the Beta series can be hard to find; watch out for price gouging. I advise checking Dick Blick (or similiar source) for best selection and price. (If you want to buy elsewhere, at least use Blick's catalog to get a good idea what these journals cost on average so you don't pay more than the list price.)
Overall, I consider paying a little bit more money for a lot more quality a great trade-off. Stillman & Birn journals are the premium option for commercially-produced journals. And just a heads-up: if you love to make your own journals, Stillman & Birn is now offering the paper from their fabulous journals in 22 x 30-inch sheets!
January 30, 2017 Edit: I am still head-over-heels crazy in love with Stillman & Birn journals which now also come in lovely softcover versions. They are much easier to find in stock as well so just look to your favorite art supply store.