The mystery of the unobtainable sketchbooks

I’ve finished my latest sketch diary, depicting our eight-day holiday in Devon and Somerset earlier this year.

I’ll be sharing it on here soon, as soon as I’ve scanned it, and fixed a couple of pages where the wording isn’t laid out in a very readable way. Such are the perils of drawing on the fly.

sketch diary by Myfanwy Tristram

Here’s my daughter flicking through the finished article. If you click on the picture you’ll be able to see a short video of the whole thing on Instagram.

Perhaps you can tell from the video how thick the pages of this sketchbook are. If it had sound, you’d definitely be able to tell, by the particular timbre of the ‘swoosh’ noise they make.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been using these mystery 44-page sketchbooks which turned up in TK Maxx, and its sister store Homesense, for £3.99 each. The only indication of the brand is this inscription at the back:

Valentina sketchbook

I’ve never seen another type of sketchbook with such thick pages, and I love them. I tend to draw in pencil first, then rub it out when I’ve inked over the lines, then I add watercolour. While that would cause problems with many sketchbooks – scuffing of the surface, or wrinkling of the page – it’s no issue at all on this paper: in fact these heavy pages would take acrylic just as easily. Colours don’t even come close to bleeding through, so you could also use any type of felt tip, even a permanent marker.

So far so good: but there’s a problem, which I’ve mentioned before, and which, several months later, seems all the more certain. They’re not available any more. If you’re familiar with TK Maxx and Homesense, you’ll know that they’re basically overstock outlets: they buy up surplus goods from the manufacturers and sell them on at lower prices. They even have signs up all over the shop to remind you to pounce on that bargain because you can’t rely on it being available next time.

The Valentina sketchbooks were around for a couple of years though, so I became complacent, just picking up a couple every now and then. If I’d known they were going to become unobtainable, I’d have bought ten or twenty!

Now, I do fancy myself as a tenacious Googler, so I wondered whether, with a little work, I’d be able to find this stockist and buy directly. Here’s what I found:

  • The same blog post that I’ve mentioned here before, asking if anyone knows where to find more. The follow-up comments are full of people who have found that post and shared the same desires and bewilderment:

Okay I’m an art student from Manchester and these are the only books I like using! me and two other of my friends have about 14 between us, after traveling to around 7 different TK MAXX we brought everyone we could find. you need to grab them while there in, its something that you just got to buy when its there! there an amazing price, I have everyone I know trying to find me a stockist to buy them from, no luck so far!

  • This Italian stationers appears near the top of results for “florence vip for valentina” but, despite offering many beautiful items, it does not stock the sketchbooks I want.
  • A company profile showing that Florence VIP shipped 1,572 kg of ‘journals’  from the port of Livorno in Italy to Georgia Ports Authority in the USA, as recently as 28 June 2016! This also provides an address for the company in Florence. If I was willing to pay for a subscription, I could view where else they shipped to…  But in general this is good news, surely, as it shows they are still operational.
  • Street view for that address does not look very much like there’s a stationer’s there, nor does it look like a particularly likely place for a notebook manufacturer. However, it would be a great excuse for a holiday to Florence, and while I was there, I could make another sketch diary… if I found something to draw it in. Heh.

For the meantime, please yell if you see these in a TK Maxx or Homesense near you. I travel quite a bit for work, and my colleagues live all over the country, so I might be able to nab them one way or another!

Right, off to my scanner.


How to make a sketch diary: my top tips

Tree by Myfanwy Tristram

Tree by Myfanwy Tristram


I’d keep a sketch diary every day if I could, but logistics forbid. After a while, they’d just be sketch diaries about drawing sketch diaries.

However, I do enjoy a splurge when I can: my last post shows my Bath holiday diary; last year I kept a similar diary in St Ives, and my Hourly Comic Day entry was a kind of sketch diary too.

Best Sketch Diarist in the World? Nah. But I have put quite a bit of thought into the dos and don’ts of sketch diarising, if that is indeed a word. And, because it seems silly to keep them to myself, here are my top ten tips.

1. Don’t expect to do your best work

A sketch diary is like any sketchbook. Unless you’re an amazing illustrator, at the top of your game, you are probably not going to produce page after page of beautiful, perfect drawings.

Fortunately, you don’t have to show the bits that went wrong. You can stick something over the top, paint right over them, or, thanks to the digital age, delete the parts you don’t like when you get home.

Or you can keep them in place. I’m getting better at showing everything, even the drawings that make me wince. To my surprise, other people often like them perfectly well – even, sometimes, point them out as the bits they like the best.

I guess that the mere act of doing the drawing, and putting it out there, puts you streets ahead of everyone who never made it that far. Even if your drawing is crap.

But also: if you adhere to point 4, below, you’ll find it makes up for an awful lot of imperfect sketching.

2. Take materials you’ll actually use

There are two rules for travelling with art materials, really: 1) take the stuff you’re already familiar with, and 2) take stuff you can use on the go.

Rule 2 trumps rule 1 if you are used to working in oils, on an easel, with a three-foot brush.

For drawing on trains, felt tips, pens, and pencil crayons are best. You also have to not mind if the train jogs you, or if a woman walks past and knocks you with her bag, causing your pen to draw right across your picture (happened to me on page 1 of the Bath diary. Still bearing a grudge).

If you’re staying in a holiday cottage, you’ll have all the comforts of home: a big table, running water, a receptacle to put water in, etc. In a hotel, you might not be so lucky.

But I tend to find that you can use a box of watercolours in most situations. If you take pens, pencils and paints, you can cover a lot of bases. You have the ability to do line drawings, to colour in large flat areas, and to add more ‘artistic’ flourishes once you’re back in your accommodation.

3. Collect everything

I like to stick things into my diaries. The bog-standard orange train tickets and glossy leaflets might look mundane now, but I’m willing to bet they’ll look historic and interesting within the next two decades – you know, when we’re all using holograms for tickets, and have leaflets beamed directly to our Google Glass.

There’s a different type of collecting, too, and one which can make your diary very readable: gather details of the people around you. Snippets of their conversation, drawings of what they are wearing, descriptions of their behaviour… human nature means that we find such details compelling.

4. Include the personal

Similarly, people find your own personal thoughts interesting, strange as that may seem to you, when you’ve had to live with them all your life.

It’s tempting to leave out details like doubts, insecurities, stupid in-jokes, things you did wrong or embarrassing encounters, because they don’t seem ‘professional’ – but they are what make the diary uniquely yours, and all the more readable.

5. Nothing is too dull (probably)

I hope this is true, because actually my Bath diary does make my ‘who cares?’ radar twitch a little. Middle class family take a week in a UK city? Big deal.

But I hope that one day, someone from Fiji, or Korea, or Alaska, or, I don’t know, Timbuktu, might read it, and to them, it’d seem as exotic as their own account of a holiday would to me. Context, see. And the great possibilities of the internet for bringing us all closer together.

Then, there are the people *just like me* who might be considering taking their family down to Bath, but aren’t sure what it’d be like. They’ll hopefully find it useful, especially small details about things like where the playgrounds are, and that the swimming pool is good for kids.

And there are Bath natives. I know I’d like to see a diary like this about my own home town, Brighton.

6.  But you don’t have to include everything

..or draw everything. First, you’ll go mad if you try to record every tiny detail. Like why your partner drew a picture of Alan Bennett and an earthworm and stuck it on a noticeboard at Bath Fashion Museum (true story. No, you really don’t want to know).

Second, your audience may not stick around if your diary starts to take on the proportions of War and Peace.

7. Find time

Keeping a sketch diary while you’re on holiday can be a bit too much like hard work – it really can take hours (depending on your style, I guess).

But if you’re having fun you’ll find the time: on train journeys, in cafés, and in the evenings. With a husband and child in tow, I can’t sit and draw on location for hours, so I take photos on my phone to work from later.

It does help if, like me, you have a kid that gets you up at 6 every morning, and then just wants to play Minecraft (and if , like me, you are a lax enough parent to allow this).

8. Don’t worry about blots

You can clean up later when you scan them in. See also: food stains, child’s mucky fingerprints.

9. Choose a good sketchbook

It’s stating the obvious, but you want one that fits in your bag, and it needs to be robust enough to be carried everywhere with you without the cover falling off.

For Bath, I took a book I’d been saving up. I found it at the TK Maxx spin-off shop, Homesense. It’s beautiful: it has a shiny royal blue cover, almost like a tinfoil effect, and such thick pages that no amount of paint would show through. On the back cover it says it’s made by Valentina – turns out it’s a bit of a mystery brand.

Anyway, now I’ve experienced it, I’m reconsidering my What is the Best Sketchbook? post – and I want to dash back to Homesense to see if they have any more. (I have another couple, but they are lined. I like the ‘painting on top of lines’ aesthetic as much as anyone but I have a feeling they might be a nightmare for my kind of scanning – I like to bring everything back to a white background).

10. Be ready to scan, scan, scan, when you get home

And if you have any sense, you can help yourself here by not using a faint grey pen like I did. It probably added two hours to the scanning process, as I rescanned portions and added them back in.

I think it took me about five hours to get the 17 pages scanned in, cleaned up, resized and formatted for web. Not my favourite task.

11. Share!

I’m editing this post to add a final step – sharing your sketch diary. Once it’s online, of course you want people to see it.

Put the link on Twitter and Facebook; grab your favourite page and stick it on Pinterest, along with some hashtags. The right tags will mean that people who are searching for things like your holiday destination, or sketchbook work in general, will find it easily.

Think laterally. If you’ve included visits to museums or favourite shops in your diary, it is worth tweeting the link to them. Maybe the tourist board would be interested too. You may well get a retweet and lots more viewers.

Some favourite sketch diarists

I’d love to have some recommendations for others to follow; here are mine:

  • Lapin (master of the drawing on lined pages aesthetic)
  • Joanna Neary (queen of the personal detail)
  • Joe Decie (life as a dad; may not be 100% true)
  • Sarah McIntyre (great on holiday sketchbooks)
  • Geo Parkin (demonstrating point 7 rather well with this post)


The best sketchbook

baby by Myfanwy Tristram

For years I used to carry tiny sketchbooks around with me – A6, they were. Fine for drawing a surreptitious portrait of another passenger on the train, and great for fitting into any bag or pocket, but there’s no denying they were limiting in some ways.

I do tend to draw tight, but there’s nothing like a tiny page to make sure you never challenge your own boundaries, say, by sweeping an ink-laden brush with great abandon.

buffy sketches by Myfanwy Tristram

A few months ago, I picked up an 8″ square sketchbook from Paperchase. Actually, I don’t think it’s even branded a sketchbook; they call it a notebook. The inner pages are cream, with a bonus centre section of several unbleached brown kraft paper. I’ve been back for several since, and I’m now in that precarious position of someone who has a favourite sketchbook and fears the manufacturer will discontinue it one day.

It’s not exactly enormous, but one way or another it has vastly multiplied the amount of sketchbook work I now do. (Also, it still fits perfectly well into my bag; I’ve never been one for dainty clutches).

I don’t know why this sketchbook has been the one to change my habits – I have plenty of one-off books in all shapes and sizes where I’ve only drawn a few pages. Maybe it just happened to coincide with an upturn in my drawing; maybe it’s just uninitimidating: I didn’t buy it, as I sometimes do, because it’s so beautiful and perfect and OMG I can never sully its pages what if my drawing goes wrong. Nope, it’s easy to pick up and start drawing in this workaday book.

crouching by Myfanwy Tristram

These days, it’s my go-to for trying things out. It’s never going to be one of those sketchbooks that you proudly show round, or god forbid, publish in a book form. There’s lots of failed drawings in there – if they really start to irk me, I stick something over the top or draw right over it.

Faces by Myfanwy Nixon

plastic in the tree by Myfanwy Tristram

The paper is smooth. It takes pen fine (my habitual drawing pen is a Unipin, although a recent post by Dan Berry is making me think about that (qf reference to tightness above).

It’s not as brilliant for brush and ink, though it will take it – the ink sits on top and slides around a bit rather than sinking in. The brown pages are better because they have some tooth.
baby by Myfanwy Tristram

pleats  by Myfanwy Tristram
portrait by Myfanwy Tristram

When you run out of space, you can even draw on the back cover.
backcover by Myfanwy Tristram

So – that’s my sketchbook these days. If you: draw in pen a lot; find Moleskinnes too expensive, too thin-paged or too intimidating; want a good chunky book that will last a while but will still fit nicely into a medium-sized bag, I recommend it.

But just in case they *do* stop making them, I’d be interested to hear what your favourite is.