A high-quality sketch pad is a must-have for students, whether for experiments with new techniques or materials, quick studies, or freewheeling ideas. Compared to drawing pads, which are meant for final works of art, sketch pads are designed with practice works in mind. This means the paper tends to be thinner and won’t be archival—but the products are also more budget-friendly. Still, sketch pads feature paper in a variety of weights and surface textures to satisfy different needs. If you anticipate needing, or your child needing, to work in dry media such as pencil or pastel, lighter weights will be suitable, and you’ll find that you have more paper options; for work in pen, marker, or watercolor, a pad made specifically for multimedia use may be best. Sketchbooks also come in many sizes, but all of our picks below measure around a handy 9 by 12 inches—large enough to accommodate many ideas, but small enough to slip into a backpack.
How we pick each product:
Our mission is to recommend the most appropriate artists’ tool or supply for your needs. Whether you are looking for top-of-the line equipment or beginners’ basics, we’ll make sure that you get good value for your money by doing the research for you. We scour the Internet for information on how art supplies are used and read customer reviews by real users; we ask experts for their advice; and of course, we rely on our own accumulated expertise as artists, teachers, and craftspeople.
1. Canson Mix Media Pad
Canson’s sketch pad can handle a variety of dry media, is economical, and comes with 100 bright white pages to last at least one or two months, if not the whole semester. It’s a safe bet for most students because it features acid-free, 65-pound paper, which falls around the middle of paper weights, leaning a touch on the heavier side. You can use it with pencils, charcoal, and pastels, and even inky pens, though wet media will cause the paper to buckle. If using with markers, remember to put a spare sheet between pages to prevent bleed-though. The surface is also slightly toothy, which is ideal for sketches. The sheets feature convenient perforations and are bound with a sizable double wire that lets you flip through quickly without pages catching.
2. Strathmore 400 Series Sketch Pad
The Strathmore name and thistle logo have been synonymous with high-quality artist papers for more than 120 years. Though not suitable for even small doses of wet media, the 60-pound, fine-toothed paper in this 100-page sketch pad is perfect for drawing with graphite pencils, colored pencils, chalk pastels, charcoal, or Conté crayons. The sheets’ hint of texture will make sketches pop without being so rough as to obscure detail, and they hold up well to erasing. A sturdy chipboard back makes this pad easy to work with even when there is no surface to rest it on. Finally, its perforated pages tear out easily and are true to size. Comes in a pack of tw.
3. Stillman & Birn Premium Sketchbook
Stillman & Birn’s mighty 180-pound paper, double-treated with sizing for extra strength, stands up to wet media better than our other choices, though it will still buckle if soaked. Bright white with a bit of tooth, it grabs dry media and makes light glazes and washes glow. Though most sketchbooks aren’t suitable for finished art, young artists could use this upgrade pick for all levels of work, and if they do, you could keep the results for posterity—the acid-free paper is archival. A minor drawback is that the pages are not perforated, but this book’s overall quality more than makes up for having to trim the pages after you tear them out. Each pad comes with 50 sheets of creamy white paper.
4. Arches Sketch Pad
If you or your student are serious about their art, consider the very best. Arches is the gold standard for watercolor paper, but the brand also makes these exquisite sheets for sketching. The 70-pound papers of this pad are made out of 75 percent cotton, which makes them thicker and more rigid than those composed of wood pulp—though we still wouldn’t use them with heavy watercolor washes. Ink, pen, and light brushwork look beautiful on their surface, which looks natural with subtle grain that helps to anchor pigments and capture details. The medium tooth also makes this paper great for pastels and charcoal. One downside is that you get only 20 sheets, measuring about 10.2 by 14.2 inches, to work with. They come adhered in block form—a little tougher to remove than perforated sheets, but they deliver a much cleaner look.
5. Bienfang Notesketch Paper Pad
Bienfang offers a unique option that is ideal for students who need to annotate their art, whether that means notetaking in a classroom or jotting down personal reminders. The spiral-bound book features 64 pages that are each split into a blank section and a lined section, so images can always be described underneath. The 19-pound pages are the thinnest of our picks here, and they’re also quite smooth, so they’re really best for pencils and pens. Each measures 8 1/2 by 11 inches and is made of recycled fibers.