Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Product review: The Derwent Safari Journal

Derwent recently sent me a Safari Journal which I took out last week for a trial run. It's probably best if I start by saying something about what I look for in a sketchbook - as I'm a bit picky!

I like my sketchbooks to:
  • lie flat easily as I often work across a double page spread. Which basically rules out wire bound sketchbooks and any where some or all the pages fall out as soon as you crack the spine and force the sketchbook to lie flat. What seems to work best are the stitched sketchbooks.
  • be big enough and small enough. Size is a very personal issue - how big does it need to be? It all depends on the size you like working - and how you carry your sketching tool kit. If you're a "slip it in the pocket with pen or pencil" type then you probably like your sketchbooks to be on the small size. If it has to fit into your everyday handbag/holdall then obviously you can go larger. Personally speaking I'm a "kitchen sink merchant" who collects rucksacks like other people collect handbags and salivates over clothes with zipped pockets for secreting all sorts of useful things like battery powered erasers while out on sketching expeditions! So - on the whole - I tend towards being happier with a larger sketchbook. However the ideal sketchbook is the size which can go anywhere without me having to think too hard about how to carry it - and smaller than ideal seems to leave home more often.
  • have paper which works well with my media. It might seem an obvious thing to say but in discussions with people I often find people buy sketchbooks because they like the look of them. Personally speaking I can't buy them unless I've got the cellophane off and can feel the paper. Yes, I'm that funny person over in the corner in the art shop surreptitiously running my finger tips very lightly over the paper to feel how it's been made and pressed. The reality is some paper just sets my teeth on edge and I can't work on it at all. I'm looking for a plate feel finish on a paper which can absorb and deliver saturated colour. It has to work with pen and ink and a dancing line - as well as with graphite and coloured pencils, burnishing and erasing with a battery powered eraser - and not become abraded in the process. I don't need it to work with watercolour as I don't tend to use it - and tend to leave other people to do those reviews.........but I've had a little go with this one! ;)
So - what are the features of the Derwent Journal?

Overall it looks remarkably like a Moleskine with a few differences. The question is - how important are those differences to a dedicated Moleskine user like me?

Design: Anybody who has a Moleskine will recognise this straight away. Rounded edges on front and back covers - good because they then don't get damaged and bent back when tucked into any sort of space available. A nice big fat expanding pocket at the back for 'things' (so useful when it comes to tickets and mementoes!) plus they go one better and have a smaller one at the front as well. I missed the 'in case of loss' printed info bit on the first page. I'd have happily given up a page for this - as I tend to record what's in the sketchbook on that page - but I'd started my sketch before I realised!

Cover: The cover is designed as a tactile faux animal hide and it comes in two shades warm terracotta and rich earth. It's jolly nice to the touch but feels like it would be heard wearing. It also has one of those elasticated bands (like the Moleskine) which keeps it shut when not in use. I think the should be mandatory on all sketchbooks as they avoid paper being damaged inadvertently.

Derwent's website tells me that each journal contains 80 sheets of high quality, 200 gsm acid-free cartridge paper. For American readers cartridge paper is a high quality drawing paper - and there'll a post about its origins and other uses on my other blog Making A Mark later today. (see What is Cartridge Paper?)

The paper has a slight creamy colour which will be very familiar to those using Moleskines. It's very smooth but I have a slight feeling that it is not quite as 'bond' like as I like it and it's weight suggests it's lighter than the 250gsm paper used in a Moleskine - which I really like. I think the Moleskine might also be just a teeny weeny bit smoother.

Media - pencils:

The Ecology Park Pond - pencil study
pencil, 6.7" x 9.25"
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

This journal's paper takes pencil very well indeed. I was using a mechanical pencil with a slightly soft lead to get a good range of values in my sketch of the willows around the the bridge over what the park authority call a lake - and what I call a pond - in the local Ecology Park.

A quick tip for those out with only pen and pencil to hand. Write out colours on your sketches. Those light coloured reed in the centre have an annotation of "zinc yellow"!

On the next nice day I'll take a trip back to try this sketch again in coloured pencils!

Media - pen and ink: I tried a pen and ink sketch of the Regents Canal just north of the Old Ford Lock. There's a nice wall for parking oneself on while sketching the canal and the barges.

The Regents Canal looking towards the Approach Road Bridge entrance to Victoria Park
pen and sepia ink, 6.7" x 9.25"
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

My feeling is that it's well suited to pen and ink work. The paper did not abrade with repeated hatching and the surface was smooth enough to enable me to work quickly

While processing my sketch in PS I discovered that the format of a double page spread gives you a perfect 5x7 aspect ratio! A double page spread actually measures 6.7" x 9.25" - but the ratio is the important bit if you use it for large thumbnail sketches before embarking on a larger drawing plein air or back in the studio.

Media - pen and ink and coloured pencils: my very first sketch was actually of the Arts Pavilion in the Arts Park in Mile End Park - which turned into a bit of a mess - I should remember not to do reversed out neon signs! However, the mix of pen and ink and coloured pencils worked just fine.

Similarly, laying down coloured pencils for the next test back home also suggested that this paper is very receptive to coloured pencils.

Media - watercolour: The type of paper suggests that it's propobably not suitable for 'proper' watercolour - like the Moleskine sketchbook. So I tested it for a modified form of watercolour.

Rather than proper watercolour paint and a proper brush, I used my watercolour pencils to create a swatch of colour and a waterbrush. A very light application of water over half of the swatch does not cause the paper to buckle. Adding water via the waterbrush created a pretty good intensity of colour if not too much was added to the pencil marks. Saturation could be lightened by brushing out the colour across the page without the paper buckling. See the swatch to see what I mean.

You can also see where I used a battery powered eraser to remove both pure watercolour pencil and WC pencil converted to a wash from the paper. The paper stands up well to the rapid abrasion from the eraser and allowed me to remove colour almost back to the pure natural colour of the paper - only a slight tinge remained. Unfortunately once water has been applied the removal is both less obvious and less successful.

Overall though it looks as if this journal is much better suited to dibble dabble using a water brush and/or dry brush watercolour rather than saturating paper and working wet in wet. Try the latter and no matter how heavy this paper is my guess is it will buckle or refuse to accept the watercolour. If you want to use watercolour you must get a sketchbook with proper watercolour paper.

Binding: The journal is stitched and consequently will lie flat - which is great. The real test always comes at the start or the end of a sketchbook when getting it to lie flat is most difficult (OK - I'll be frank "downright irritating" would be more accurate if it doesn't!) but this journal presented no problems on that front.

Overall it looks well made. However there are no perforations and this is not a sketchbook for people who like to remove pages. It's a sketchbook for people like me who like to keep their sketchbooks intact as sketchbooks!

If you want something to use for working drawings to extract and play around with this is not the journal for you

It comes in a choice of two sizes which seem to be variously described depending on where you look on the Derwent website or catalogue. The Medium/Mini - the one I tried - is 120mm x 170mm (that's 4.72in x 6.69in). The Small/Pocket is 90mm x 140mm (3.54in x 5.51in). Frankly the latter is far to small for me - and I'd be far more likely to use a larger size - if it existed.

The Medium is smaller than the larger Moleskine - and in some ways that makes it a more attractive proposition as a 'small' sketchbook compared to the larger sketchbook Moleskine is just a little too large for the handbag scenario. Personally speaking I find the small size of the Derwent Dafai Journal just a tad too small for me - but as I indicated earlier that's always very much an issue of personal preference.

Price: I note that Artifolk are selling these journals online for £6.99 for the small size and £8.99 for the Medium Size. I'm guessing you may see them at various prices in the shops - depending where your local retail version of heaven is.

Overall - I think this is a good quality product which will suit people who like to keep proper journals of times in their life or their travels. However, it's too expensive for people who just need some paper to try out roughs and i's not appropriate for people who want to do serious and/or 'wet' watercolour and/or want to remove their work from the stitched journal.

I'll certainly continue to use this Derwent Safari Journal and will add it into my basic toolkit - and I'll also report back again when I've finished it - I have a sneeking suspicion it's going to be the perfect size for the pocket of my heavy duty cold weather anorak.

I think on the whole the Moleskine continues to have the slight edge for me when I'm carrying a backpack - mainly because of the paper which has proved to be very reliable and very suitable for the media I use. However I couldn't find a Moleskine I'd happily use this instead and I think people who like slightly smaller sketchbooks would find it a good size.


  1. mmm I like the look of it a lot - but it's too small for me and the paper maybe too limiting. So not for me probably.

    I like moleskines - but only for occasional use. They are too small and won't take water which limits their usefulness for me

    I wish sketchbook manufacturers would do more books with the elastic band and pockets format - and BIGGER. Up to A3

    I'm loving the Canson watercolour hardback book I bought recently - it takes ANY medium happily on nice smooth watercolour paper and at 12x8 ins isn't too tiny - heavy though - the recent Cornish sketches are in that and I've used watercolour (often with lots of water), pencil, charcoal, coloured pencil, watercolour pencil, oil pastel and oil paints and it has coped with them all beautifully

    I totally agree about the paper - so many 'pretty' sketchbooks on sale but with flimsy paper which is no good at all or lovely looking hand made paper that doesn't seem to take any medium well.

  2. Looks very interesting and this was an excellent review Katherine. Nothing beats feeling the paper for yourself (I'm one of those people too!) so I'll be looking out for this as it sounds like my 'cup of tea'! Btw, I tried out a new little sketchbook a few days ago, bought in a fancy 'papeterie', and the first page is hanging off already. I should have known better!

  3. Nice review, Katherine. I've also used the Safari and found it very useful for line and light wash, which the Moleskine sketchbook can't handle. It's very useful for taking out and drawing in situ, and seems very adaptable and hard wearing.

    Best wishes

  4. You put Van Gough in the shade Katherine!


I always check identities and ALL links in comments for spam.

Due to excessive attempts to introduce spam via comments on this blog, I've introduced a regime where all comments with links in the ID or text to the websites of hotels/resorts/tourist destinations will NOT be approved and are deleted. The websites of repeat spammers are also reported to Google.

Nice, sensible people who are not new to blogging probably don't need to read my Comments Policy