The Best Sketchbook Ever, RIP

Some time ago, Barnes and Noble discontinued its Punctuate brand hardcover sketchbook.

It was something I’d feared for years, as this was a sketchbook I’d been using since 2008, and I really loved it. I’ve filled over 40 of them, and the consistency of this sketchbook in my life has made for some really great archive photos:

Sketchbooks from January 2012 – January 2017. There’s 25 of them.

I didn’t go into B&N very often, but when I did, I’d habitually check the sketchbook and journal section to make sure the Punctuate sketchbook was still there. If it was, I’d sometimes buy a few even if I didn’t need them immediately. There have been a few scares over the years — I’d go in, not see the sketchbook, check online, find it, then panic-buy like 5-10 of them.

But one day, it wasn’t in the store, and when I checked online, I couldn’t find it there either. I searched for the ISBN. I talked to the store employees. Nope. The sketchbook was gone. The day had finally come. And here’s a eulogy for the Barnes and Noble Punctuate sketchbook.

So why was this sketchbook so great anyway? The basic rundown:

  • Hardcover
  • 192 pages
  • Acid-free paper
  • Perforated pages
  • Satin ribbon marker
  • 8″ x 11″ size
  • $9.95

All of the above features were great, but the price was the real kicker. Ten bucks! Ten bucks for a hardcover letter size (ish) sketchbook at a higher-than-average page count is already amazing, honestly. Most sketchbooks at that price are either smaller in size or softcover (and spiral bound), and many are just 96-128 pages. The ribbon marker and perforated pages are nice bonuses; both are a rarity in sketchbooks, though the former has become more common over time.

But the best feature of the sketchbook wasn’t any of that.

It was the quality and weight of the paper. It never listed a paper weight, but it had a flat, smooth paper stock that felt like a light version of 300 series Bristol (100 lb / 270 gsm cover stock), which is way, way sturdier than your typical sketchbook paper. Based on comparisons with some other sketchbooks with listed weights, I’d probably guess it was around 180 gsm cover stock.

Barnes & Noble Punctuate sketchbook

The paper in most sketchbooks is toothy and thin, designed for graphite pencils and other dry media.

I mostly sketch with 0.5 mechanical pencil and brush pens, and I’m relatively heavy handed, which means leaving indentations on the backside of thin pages, which means not being able to draw on the backs of pages, which has always annoyed me as being wasteful.

The B&N sketchbook pages were thick enough, not only to never have any problems with backside indentation, but to take light, water-based markers, like the Tombow ABT dual brush markers, without any bleed through or buckling.

I use Tombow markers to add flat value to sketches and doodle comics, like all the dumb Fire Emblem Heroes comics I did, and it was no problem at all to draw those comics back to back on pages because the paper was so sturdy.

Tombow ABT dual brush markers did not bleed through and the paper was sturdy enough to marker on both sides.

And what about alcohol-based markers?

Well, those bleed through the back side even on Bristol, so it’s expected that they’d bleed through any sketchbook page. I usually put something between the pages when coloring with marker to protect subsequent pages from bleed, but even when I don’t, the marker usually only penetrates the next page. It was rare that it affected any additional pages.

Meanwhile, unprotected alcohol markering on flimsier sketchbook paper is likely to bleed through two, three pages or more, especially if you go over the same area several times to blend.

But blending was nicely facilitated by the Punctuate’s smooth, non-textured paper, so over-markering wasn’t a common thing anyway.

Copic marker back-of-page bleed-through on Barnes & Noble sketchbook.

While the sketchbook didn’t specify that it was intended for dry media, the smooth pages suggested that it wasn’t for wet media.

Even so, the paper held up well enough to light watercolor. The page would buckle, sure, but it wasn’t dissintegrating under water, even when you went over an area several times.

I’ve been so spoiled by the paper quality that it’s been difficult to adjust to most other sketchbooks, especially on the cheaper end. And when you’ve been paying $10 for super high quality pages for years and years, it’s hard to adjust and justify more expensive options.

Barnes & Noble sketchbook
Watercolor did buckle the paper, but it otherwise held up well.

The only downside of the sketchbook that I can think of is the perforated pages.

I’ve noticed that especially in older sketchbooks, or ones I’ve stored for a long time before using for the first time, the pages come out pretty easily. It’s not uncommon to accidentally tear the perforated area a little bit in normal use, but while usually this isn’t a huge deal, sometimes it will lead to the tear growing until the whole page is out.

I rarely have reason to remove pages from my sketchbooks, so this is pretty annoying.

Still, I think it’s nice to have the option. For the rare occasion I do want to take out a page, this is a far better way to do it than cutting it out (or tearing it out without perforation — don’t do that).

Barnes & Noble sketchbook
Perforated pages sometimes come loose on their own.

The Punctuate sketchbook occasionally came with different cover designs.

These were done in partnership with Pratt Institute of Art and those sketchbooks were a dollar more, $10.95. Still a great deal! It’s nice to have a shelf of identical black sketchbooks, but I didn’t mind the occasional variant sketchbook either, haha.

Barnes & Noble sketchbook
Non-black cover design. I can’t source all these stickers, but the ‘saurs are by @mildwalrus, Renamon by @cheesysoup, glitter uni by @pepperonccini.

While I’m a strong believer in the fact that materials won’t make or break you, and that you can draw with and on basically anything, there’s nothing wrong with having nice materials, either.

Hardcover sketchbooks are great for longevity. Softcover books do little to protect your art from being tossed around in bags and backpacks, falling off desks, or being chewed on by pets. I know a lot of artists prefer spiral-bound books so they can fold over the cover and have a flat surface to work on, but I hate them because I always mess up the spirals?? And then you can’t turn pages properly and the pages get stuck outside the spiral and orderliness is ruined forever.

Letter size is my ideal size for sketchbooks because they can fit in my lap comfortably. I’ve always struggled with smaller sketchbooks because while I don’t mind working small, smaller sketchbooks are hard to use because you can’t rest your hand on an even surface with the book (since you can’t rest your hand on the page you’re working on), which means your hand is either hovering (which is exhausting) or you’re putting another book under your hand while you draw, which is weird and inconvenient.

Some people love toothy dry media paper, but it doesn’t lend itself to the sort of dry media I prefer (mechanical pencil and ink), so I generally prefer smooth paper.

Sketchbooks are highly personal, and a lot of things come down to personal preference, but man, this sketchbook was made for me, and I’m going to really miss it!

Barnes & Noble sketchbook
Super blendy marker piece in the sketchbook. No problemmm.

After using what I thought was my last Punctuate sketchbook, I went and bought a few of the other sketchbooks Barnes and Noble offered. If you’re wondering, I’ve always gotten sketchbooks from B&N out of convenience and price — I know there are lots of other options out there. I’ll seek them out eventually, especially now that the B&N in downtown Seattle is closed.

I’ve tested a few of the other sketchbooks already, with mixed impressions, but none can hold a candle to the old Punctuate book.

I did end up unearthing another small hoarder stash of the Punctuate sketchbooks though. For now, I think I’ll work through the rest of the new sketchbooks I got. It’s comforting knowing I still have a few of the Best Sketchbooks Ever left, but I also know that I will use them eventually. And then I guess they’re gone forever…

…Do you think if I harass Barnes and Noble enough they’ll bring back the Punctuate sketchbook? 🤔

Barnes & Noble sketchbook
Pile of more recent sketchbooks, and a few blanks from the hoarder stash…