It’s quite difficult to buy 300gsm watercolor paper bound as a hardbound book. It’s impossible to buy a hardbound or spiral-bound sketchbook comprising different styles of paper – a combination of pencil drawing cartridge paper, paper with a tinted ground, watercolor paper.

I like outdoor sketching in a book because its covers provide a ready-made support. Books keep my sketches flat and relatively undamaged. However, I tend to work in different sketchbooks depending on the content: landscape, figure drawing, portraits. This keeps the sketches ordered by genre or theme, but it’s hard to see overall personal development over time.

Working on individual sheets means the sheets tend to get more easily damaged and I find it tedious to leaf through sheets trying to find one particular sketch. Work on tinted paper stays in spiral-bound tinted paper sketchbooks. Sketchbooks are easy to open and close out in the open air; individual sheets require a masonite backing board. Both require bulldog clips on windy days.

So I’ve come up with my own handmade sketchbook which keeps everything together, regardless of subject matter and paper type.

The advantages for me are:

* I can work on individual sheets, independent of issues such as working across the gutter of a double-spread;

* I can insert or remove sketches at will, while keeping my work in chronological order, or by order of theme (e.g. figures, still life, architecture, landscapes, etc.);

* I can insert at will different styles of paper – cartridge for drawing, paper with tinted grounds, watercolor paper of different thicknesses;

* I  can remove individual sheets for digital scanning and upload to the Internet, keeping the surface perfectly flat;

* The front and back covers work as an effective support while plein air sketching;

* The shoelaces can operate as an effective way of securing the sketch, without the need of bulldog clips;

* using two ordinary shoelaces means I can undo the clasp quickly while plein air sketching and do it up quickly when I’m finished.

Materials for my mockup comprised:

* two A4 sheets of 2mm boxboard (3mm is also possible but 2mm is really the minimum thickness, because anything thinner will bend too easily);

* a textblock of kraft paper, cut down from A4 sheets;

* two ordinary-length shoelaces.

I’ve not used cover papers on the cover boards yet, but I did cut the boards down to suit covering with commercially-available A4 printed papers.

The book format is inspired by the Balinese lontar and is also close to the traditional Western flat presentation portfolio made of cardboard.  The traditional lontar is very thin and long and secured by wrapping the string around a Chinese coin; its closest equivalent in the West is the panorama sketchbook. I’ve widened the textblock to accommodate my small-format sketching outdoors; the butterfly knot can be replaced with a button fastener, imitating the “button book” style.


Shoelace sketchbook: the front, with shoelaces wrapped around the covers.


Shoelace sketchbook: the exploded view of the book.


Shoelace sketchbook: a side view, showing the textblock securely tied to the two cover boards acting as a solid sketching support.


Shoelace sketchbook: the back view, showing an overhand knot at the end of the shoelace.


Shoelace sketchbook: the 20x16cm sketching workarea.

I acknowledge my sketching colleague at whose mention, in passing recently,  of the potential link between the lontar book format and outdoor sketching motivated me to think how I could come up with something to suit to my own personal needs.

My next step is to give this mockup sketchbook a proper workout in the field, noting in particular how the thin kraft paper responds to the two holes at either end.


Ox-plough books

May 15, 2011

Two ox-plough books made from a single sheet of Como paper, folded four-by-four, following Wendy Shortland’s Bookbinding & Sketching Workshop during March and April at the Royal Botanic Gardens. The folding of the second sheet of paper was better than the first and I used two covers made previously – boxboard covered with Japanese paper and handmade paper respectively.

Compared to the workshop, there was an extra challenge here insofar as the ‘square’ on each was smaller. I tried to keep the textblock as close as possible to the spine which allows the pages to lie flatter. I added small squares of Japanese origami paper so I know which side is up.

I haven’t exhausted the possibilities of sketching in the Royal Botanic Gardens, so these two landscape ones will go nicely with my portrait-format original. I can see at least one of them providing extensive coverage to the Canova Boxer statues and the other to ‘unfinished business’ concerning the buildings within the Gardens, the former Herbarium and Rathborne Lodge. The Como paper seems to cope with wet media and is smooth enough for sketching.

With some examples of the standard stab binding stitching (Kangxi, hemp-leaf and tortoise-shell) under the belt, time to experiment!

Today made two sketch books from 110gm cartridge paper, starting with the very manageable A5 format I’ve been doing in class. They both have 25 pages each and the pages are interleaved with each other, from two stab-bound spines. They are small and designed for Object Drawing at home, along the lines of Every Day Matters sketching challenges: one is a square of 168mm and the other a square of 160mm, with kraft card covers decorated with a small square of Japanese yuzen paper. The front left-hand covers are cut away slightly around the yuzen decoration.

When ‘read’, they show three pages at once, which is unusual. In hindsight, I could have left more space at the spines to counteract the effect of the interleaving. As it is, there’s a tendency for a bump in the middle, simply because of the compression at the sides provided by the stitching. But for me, they form serviceable small sketchbooks for use at home, including colour studies, testing media, etc.

Further plans by next week’s class include a French Door structure and a do-si-do, where one stab binding is stitched on the back of another. Time too to graduate to an A4-sized stab-binding, possibly with some printmaking or watercolour paper. Time too to graduate to experimenting with including a separate spine cover made of paper with stab binding: I’m wary about complicating the overall look, but there’s potential for subtle colour palette involving cover, stitching thread and spine.

Moving on to buckram-covered spines for stab-binding with hard covers obviously resonates with me in terms of getting some heavy watercolour paper together for a text block.

Lastly, this Saturday is the book launch and talk at the Museum of Sydney by Louise Hawson who photographed 52 suburbs in Sydney in 52 weeks. I’m still keen on sketching 26 Sydney suburbs between June and December. With this in mind, I’m looking at an old Sydney suburbs street directory of mine which is falling apart and wondering about incorporating the pages alongside my sketches in some sort of hand-bound sketchbook.

I am getting a lot out of Rosemarie Jeffers-Palmer’s Introduction to Bookbinding, organised by the Sydney Community College. The secret for me personally is to reinforce what I’ve learned with as much private practice after each class as possible. What really impresses me is the ‘hidden agenda’ in Rosemarie’s curriculum – key concepts and important principles are introduced extemely subtlely and with a lot of economy. There is both innovation and a nod to tradition. I love for example the way she’s introduced folded endpapers, a nod to the Japanese tradition of using folded textblock pages. Her methodology is streets ahead of similar info already in the public domain and in textbooks.

Priors. My previous hand-made books were about getting a handle on different book structures, with an eye also to the calligraphy I was studying at St George TAFE at the time. I followed the workshop examples and ended up with nice finished ones: concertinas (oblong and triangle), flag books, Langstitch without adhesives, etc. My main problem was following the instructions at home and ending up with unfinished examples. So years later, I have several personally hand-made books, but little idea of how to make new ones and in particular what pitfalls to avoid.

Ox-plough structure. Things are already working out a lot better this time round because I immediately made additional ox-plough books following Wendy Shortland’s Bookbinding & Sketching Workshop recently. Notes are going into a Bookbinding journal so all be explained at some time in the future. More importantly, I have time on my hands to make my own at home between classes, time to go out and buy materials and tools.

Oriental stab binding. At home this week, I’ve made four A5 sketching journals using the Oriental stab-binding with a textblock made up of standard cartridge paper. I’m now confident to move on to Como paper and other more expensive drawing papers for textblocks, though obviously they can’t be heavier than the card of the covers. The books highlight the use of dark thread on light covers and vice-versa. Also I’ve managed to work up the Kangxi “noble” binding as well as tortoise-shell (kikkoh) and hemp leaf bindings. There are some additional “Western” variations on the Etsy craft retail website: one looks like a streetscape of house fronts which would match well with a book of architectural sketches. My next step is to make larger A4 ones, incorporating a ‘square’ and stiffer covers, probably with a spine. I’ve overcome my prejudice about stab binding being difficult to open and close; admittedly there are better structures where the pages lie flat when open. Roz Stendhal is currently doing a journalling online course organised by Strathmore and individual folios prepared in her style using acrylic fluid paint or ink could well be effectively later bound using stab binding.

Sketchbooks. I haven’t decorated the covers because the decoration clashes with the stab binding. I have cut silhouettes into cover card before, so I’m not missing out on that technique and skill. If I toned down the stab binding (e.g. matching the colour of the thread closely with the cover colour) then I’d feel happier about decorating the cover perhaps.  Perhaps I’ve become more conservative: previously I lavished a lot of colour in my books, but now I like understated covers (framing more colourful textblock content). I’m glad to have done some beaded jewellery work in the past if I wanted to decorate the stab binding with beads.

Sketching journals more or less demand hard covers mainly to protect the sketching textblock from damage, as a support foundation when sketching plein air  and to withstand wear-and-tear if sketchbooks travel with you at all times. My stab-binding A4 sketchbooks are covered in card, and their Italian printed paper endpapers introduce a note of refinement, but will be useful for indoor drawing. For example, I need to work through the exercises of “Structure of Man” as part of my revision of anatomy and figure drawing: stab-bound notebooks in cartridge paper (or even photocopy paper) will be useful for this.

The current round of Every Day in May 2011 (Every Day Matters challenges) indoor Object Drawing is a useful foil to the March-April plein air drawing organised by the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. It’s a good structure for binding finished single-sheet sketches, a method dear to the hearts of watercolour sketchers working plein air. The potential for binding watercolour sketches is a driver for me to sketch outdoors (and indoors) in watercolour!



A little aside from sketching proper, I’ve been getting a handle on books written by Alisa Golden. She is wild about print and matching book structures with text, but has the knack of simple, straightforward explanations of all manner of book structures and accompaniments such as slipcases. 

I’ve also recently enrolled in a local handmade book course which starts in a couple of weeks, so it’s a good time to review structures I’ve made in the past, with a view to the future in terms of sketchbooks.

Having recently filled up a 5×7″ ox-plough structure with sketches in portrait format based on work done in the Royal Botanic Gardens, I’ve made two more in landscape format: both with hard covers, one in heavily-textured green momogami paper and one in grey handmade paper. I have no set purpose in mind for them; I just wanted to consolidate some of the learning from Wendy Shortland’s Bookbinding & Sketching Workshop series. I’ve identified the front covers of both sketchbooks with a small square of temari-patterned Japanese origami paper. All three use a single sheet of Como paper. They turned out reasonably respectably and I’d give myself 7 or 8/10 for them; I need to watch for both the size of the boards so they can open out flat and the chance of excess paste at the outside near the spine end of the accordion, not just  what’s happening  with the square and the fore-edge aspect of things.

I’ve pushed this idea  a bit further in making a smaller and longer version: a single , large sheet of Como paper, but cut ox-plough with four folds going one way and eight the other. This creates 32 pages which I will use for the daily sketching initiative, EDM Every Day in May ( Since the content is largely Object Drawing done at home rather than Location Drawing plein air, I may end up putting on the boards after having done all the sketching. Because of the thickness of the book, it may require more than just two separate hardcovers on front and back; Golden’s The Elephant Lesson (p.53) in her Expressive Handmade Books might work instead. Because of the pace of the daily sketching and for other reasons (sketching touching at least two if not three sides of the page; variety of media, working small), I’m happy with pages not much bigger than playing cards. The finished sketches will go up on Flickr, but I know already that some sketches will give rise to other material, worked out on much larger pages, which will be useful here on the weblog.

Expressive Handmade Books is a good book to start with because it’s first 30 pages deal with materials. In terms of structures suitable for sketching, The Circle Accordion (p.32) would work, especially with a soft cover in ‘credit card paper’. Another which would work with a soft cover would be the Japanese Album Accordion (p.49) and the 7-or-8-Panelled Book (p.52). Many sketchers involved in Location Drawing work on single sheets, especially when working in pen-and-ink or watercolour, so the Single-Flag Book (p.57) would work: do the sketches first, rearrange in an appropriate order and then glue to the accordion. More advanced structures include the Single-Signature Book (p.77) and Multiple-Signature Binding (p.88). Certainly by the end of the course I’m attending, I hope at home to have had a go at the Coptic Binding with Accordion (p.97).

Unique Hamdmade Books starts off with an Ox-Plough Quilt in 12 panels (more complex ones are described in Shereen LaPlantz’ Cover to Cover). I’m intrigued about the sketchbook potential for her Back-to-Back Accordion Book (p.32) for a limited series of, say, 12 (portrait) sketches. In terms of drawing the figure, there is potential too in the Exquisite Corpse Book (p.94).