Hands-on Review of the Illo Square 8×8″ Sketchbook

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It really is fair and square

With its smart design, versatile paper, and cool square shape, the Illo sketchbook is a hit. It isn’t just a pretty face for Instagram; it’s a sketchbook that truly delivers.

Pros

Unique square design

Thick, luxurious paper

Sturdy build quality

Cons

Not acid-free paper

Faux leather shows fingerprints

Considering the vast amount of sketchbooks available, you wouldn’t think it would be possible to reinvent the wheel, right?

Perhaps ‘wheel’ is a poor reference, because this sketchbook is a real square. I mean it. It’s literally a perfect square.

But these days, it’s hip to be square. Illo’s unique format was designed for a very specific purpose: social media. Apps like Instagram use a square crop for every image uploaded. This has led artists to either cut-off parts of their work, or try to leave margins on the page beforehand.

By making the entire sketchbook a square, it means every page is perfectly sized for social media.

But is it actually a good sketchbook in its own right? After 12 months of use, I’ll share my honest review of the Illo sketchbook below.

example sketches on a sewn spine square sketchbook
illo sketchbook hands on review for artistsillo sketchbook hands on review for artists

Design and build quality

The Illo sketchbook (officially called “fair and square”) makes a strong first impression with its sleek design. The hardcover is cloaked in a grippy kind of faux leather finish and keeps the book from bending. Its charcoal gray is easy on the eyes and the attached bookmark is a handy feature.

The addition of an elastic band closure is a nice touch and keeps the pages from flapping during transit. There’s also an expanding pocket on the back cover just like you’d find in a Moleskine sketchbook. This is a convenient place to stash loose paper or even a few pencils.

illo sketchbook back pocket storage
illo sketchbook back pocket storage

The robust build does add a bit of weight, which might be a downside for those who prefer lighter sketchbooks. You’ll easily be able to squash spiders however.

Does the Illo sketchbook have good paper?

I found the paper quality in the Illo Sketchbook to be excellent. It’s very comparable to more expensive Moleskine journals.

The 112 pages of 122 lb paper are thick and resilient, supporting a wide range of mediums without significant bleed-through. There’s just enough tooth to give pencil sketches texture, while still being smooth enough for ink art.

In fact, it’s become my go-to sketchbook for inking. Markers also work well with this paper, as it’s thick enough to keep from buckling.

illo paper quality with markersillo paper quality with markers

One downside? The paper is not acid-free, which can be a deal-breaker for professionals looking for longevity in their work.

Does the Illo sketchbook lay flat?

I typically avoid spine-sewn sketchbooks because I don’t like to fight to keep the pages flat. The Illo sketchbook specifically has a lay-flat design, which I can attest to actually working. Even the first few pages spread easily without wrestling the binding.

You should know that the pages are not perforated, so if you want to remove a page, scissors will be required.

Performance with different media

Over 12 months, the Illo sketchbook demonstrated impressive versatility. It handled pencils, markers and ink with ease, showing minimal warping or bleed-through.

Unlike the Strathmore 400 series sketchbook, I did not encounter shine or reflection from heavy graphite areas.

bug sketches on an open sketchbookbug sketches on an open sketchbook

The paper’s slightly textured surface provided a good grip for dry media while still allowing smooth strokes for inks and paints. Watercolor is not recommended, but Illo does sell a dedicated square watercolor sketchbook just for that.

Are Illo sketchbooks worth the money?

Short answer: I think so, especially if you want to save a few bucks over a Moleskine.

Illo offers 3 sizes for their “Fair and Square” line of sketchbooks:

  • Pocket 4.5″ x 4.5″
  • Original 8″ x 8″
  • Xl 10″ x 10″

Prices range from $12.75 to $24.99 for 112 pages. It’s not the cheapest on the market, but for the features it offers, the Illo sketchbook presents itself as a strong contender for a wide range of artists.

illo square sketchbook sizesillo square sketchbook sizes

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