A Moleskine (pronounced mo-leh-skeen'-eh) is a small pocket size blank book with black cloth cover textured to resemble leather, a permanently attached ribbon bookmark, a pocket on the inside back cover and elastic band to hold the cover closed when not in use. Moleskine pages are thread-bound, and this allows them to lie flat.
Moleskines are made by Italian manufacturer Modo & Modo, and are based on a style of blank book which used to be made by several manufacturers until the last one ceased operations in the mid 1980s. These blank books were called "les carnets moleskines" and were apparently popular with artists and writers -- some quite famous -- for two centuries, so the story goes. Modo & Modo began manufacturing the current version in 1998 and registered the name Moleskine as a trademark.
These feel classy, and are less conspicuous than a big spiral bound sketchbook when sketching around people since they will most likely assume you are just reading a book or making journal or calendar entries.
Of course, hardbound sketchbooks, even black ones, have been around for a long time. Moleskine does have an advantage over many other hardbound journals and notebooks because it is thinner and more portable. It will actually fit in your pocket, although it might not be comfortable unless it is a coat pocket. Its small size makes it the perfect traveling companion. Now you can carry a nice a sketchook with you everywhere, which means sketching may happen in your life more often. And most importantly, the Moleskine pages do lie flat when open, which I think is their biggest selling point. It's much easier to draw on a perfectly flat surface.
Modo & Modo have expanded current Moleskine line to include a variety of formats including ruled, unruled, and grid ruled notebooks, sketchbooks, address books, weekly planners, musical notation books, story board books, and even offer them in a larger version.
For line drawings and dry media (pencil, pastel, etc) most sketchers prefer the Moleskine sketchbooks or plain (unruled) notebooks. Some artists also favor the grid ruled notebooks. For watercolor sketches, Modo & Modo has recently come out with a Watercolour Notebook Moleskine. They call it a notebook instead of a sketchbook I suppose to keep it distinguished from their regular sketchbook. Also, they put a "u" in watercolour, so I will do the same when referring to the product, but not the media (watercolor) since I am in the habit of using the American spelling.
Apparently this new addition to the line up was in response to all the complaints that the regular sketchbook paper was very difficult to work with watercolor. Let's look at those problems to see why a new product was necessary. First watercolor beads up on the regular sketchbook paper. Then if you rub it a bit with a brush it settles down. It's still unpredictable and hard to control, but some artists might actually like the effects it gets. Another option is using watercolor pencils (the sketchbook was created with pencil in mind after all). Here are the results of an experiment:
On the left page I brushed on Winsor Newton watercolors with a waterbrush. On the right half of these swashes I worked the watercolor into the paper by going over it with the waterbrush until it stopped beading. It took about 4 or 5 successive strokes before the color settled down. If you stroke too many times, the paper surface will start to break up, and you'll have new problems. On the right page I scribbled with Mitsubishi UNI watercolor pencils in similar colors to the Winsor Newton paints. I went over the right half of the swashes with water from the waterbrush . These only required 1 or 2 strokes to convert the pencil strokes to a smooth wash. You can see how the color from the watercolor pencils actually behaves well.
For watercolor sketchers this was the best we could do until they came out with the watercolour notebook.
There was great excitement and anticipation when this new addition to the lineup was announced. I had to wait a bit longer than many of my artist friends, since these products usually don't show up in Japan until several months after their debut in the west. There were mixed reviews about these. For one, some people loved the landscape format (binding on the short end) while others were disappointed that they didn't stick with the traditional vertical book format. Also there were a lot of complaints about the perforated pages which made this version less "Moleskine-like" than its predecessors since the pages could now be easily torn out.
I recently received several of these watercolor notebooks from a friend in the west and was finally able to try them out myself. The first thing I noticed to my surprise (and delight) was the absence of perforations on some of them. The packaging used the term "detachable pages" on all the notebooks but some were not perforated. You can tell without opening them which ones are perforated because they are clearly visible on the side of the pages. The pages lie flat when you spread them out, which as I have said is their best feature, and one that Moleskine imitators don't seem to understand. The paper itself worked great with watercolors, and I found myself unconciously emphasizing the watercolors rather than line work in my sketch. So now there is truly a Moleskine for watercolor sketchers, and this looks like it will be my main sketchbook finally since I do love watercolor.
The watercolour notebook even took fountain pen ink very well as one would expect since it is intended for wet media. Those who like to sketch in ink may have difficulty with the regular Moleskine sketchbook, depending on what type of ink they use. Of course if your ink tool of choice is a ballpoint pen, then you can sketch on just about anything. Pigment pens such as the Micron also work fairly well, as do gel pens
. However, those who sketch with a fountain pen will find that most inks will bead up in the regular Moleskine sketchbook. The only fountain ink I've used successfully with the sketchbook is Platinum's Carbon black ink, and even this ink does feather slightly, and doesn't go on as black as it should.
You will have more success with the fountain pen
if you use either the regular Moleskine notebook or the watercolour notebook instead of the sketchbook. With the regular notebook, the challenge is finding a fountain pen ink that is compatible with the paper since many inks will bleed through or feather terribly on the paper.
There are several fountain pen inks which do work well on regular Moleskine notebook paper. I've found Platinum black ink and blue black ink work very well. Noodlers black also works well, and it becomes waterproof when dry. I haven't tried Noodlers' other colors. It also helps if you use a fountain pen that writes on the dry side, or one with a fine or extra fine nib. I'm sure there are other fountain pen inks out there that work well with Moleskine notebook paper, but since I have found two brands that work so well, I stopped searching. Over the past few years I've also filled several Moleskine notebooks with written notes using fountain pens
one of the above mentioned inks and have had no problems at all. Remember, if you want to use these inks, you will need an ink converter for your fountain pen, which will allow you to use bottled ink instead of a cartridge, unless you are using a Platinum pen, in which case you can just use their cartridges.
Sometimes I sketch with a brush pen filled with either Platinum Carbon black ink or Kuretake ink for brush pens. Brush pens
work great on Moleskine notebook paper since the line goes on relatively dry.
The paper in the regular Moleskine notebooks - and most other hardbound notebooks and sketchbooks for that matter -- is fairly thin, so you may want to just draw on the right hand pages when using ink. Even if the ink doesn't bleed through, drawings on both sides of one page can compromise each other's impact. You can save the left hand pages for notes (done preferably in light pencil).
So if you are primarily a pencil sketcher then the sketchbook will suit you fine. If you are an ink sketcher, either the notebook or watercolour notebook will be your choice, and if you use watercolors, then the watercolour notebook is your obvious choice.
The Moleskine in its past and current incarnations has enjoyed a long history of association with famous artists and writers, and its image has been greatly enhanced in recent times from a very effective marketing campaign. The current Moleskine is well made, and being used all over the world by dedicated fans. It has become a classic - an icon - and can often be seen in coffee shops and subways where they are recognized and acknowledged by other users as if they belonged to some sort of universal secret order. When you open a Moleskine, you do feel somehow connected to a great family of artists and writers from the past and present. For these reasons the Moleskine has taken on a magical quality, and its very apperarance seems to thrill and spur us on to greater creative activity. That little psychological "jump start" may well be the deciding factor in how big a role sketching plays in your life.