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If you've been following me for a while then you know that most of my illustration work is done with ink and alcohol markers. As a result, I get a lot of questions about what kind of markers to buy either as gifts for kids just starting to show an interest, somebody with a dedicated art practice or for yourself.
So, I thought I would share some suggestions for choosing markers that might help!
Understanding the Different Types of Markers
There are so many different kinds of markers out there - it can be overwhelming trying to figure out where to start!
There are two basic kinds: water based markers and alcohol based markers (not including specialty pens like paint markers). I use both depending on the look I'm going for.
PRO MARKER TIP: Regardless of which markers you buy, swatch them before using them. Swatching is simply colouring a small patch of each colour marker on a piece of paper that's close to what you'll be using for your projects and letting them dry. It will show you what the final dried pigment will look like and, in the case of many markers (I'm looking at you Sharpies!) the dried colour will look totally different from the wet ink AND the pen cap! It's the best way to avoid surprises in your artwork!
Water Based Markers
IN A NUTSHELL: Water based markers are cheaper, have fewer colours and are disposable. They can also fade quickly and warp your paper. However, they're very versatile, great for hand lettering and they don't bleed toooooo much (all markers will bleed depending on the paper you use). You can also blend them using water.
STYLE: water based markers can have a streaky look to them - especially when you try to layer colour or blend. This is not a good or bad thing. It's just a style thing.
WATER BASED MARKER BRANDS I LIKE:
Water based markers are what you'll find in almost all children's marker sets (think Crayola) but, you can buy higher end professional level water based markers that have superior colour ranges, lightfast qualities (meaning they don't fade as easily) and, most importantly - at least for me - superior brush tips. The brush tips can make all the difference in how your finished art work looks!
These are the ones I use the most with the Pitt Markers being my favourite (Miss Doodle is drawn entirely with Pitt Markers). You can buy them in sets (great as starter gifts) or individually (great if you use certain colours more than others or want to fill in gaps in your set)
- TOMBOW DUAL BRUSH PENS - these come in an impressive range of colours for a water based marker and with their dual brush tip and bullet tip, they give you great versatility in one marker. This makes them very popular for hand lettering.
- STAEDTLER FINELINERS - these are lovely for very fine line work and come in a wide array of colours and I use them in a variety of tasks.
- FABER CASTELL PITT ARTIST PENS - come in a good range of colours, have a soft, easy to use brush tip and use a water based India ink that has a better fade resistance and, unlike some water based markers, is permanent once dry.
- CRAYOLA MARKERS - there is nothing wrong with good old Crayola markers. I personally love them for just messing about. But, I don't recommend them as a gift for somebody who's showing serious interest in marker illustration. Having said that, they're great fun for mucking around and you can do a lot of fun things with them! Check out this great article artist Alisa Burke wrote: Kids Markers - Tips for Adults.
Alcohol Based Markers
Alcohol markers have been incredibly popular recently, especially with the popularity of Manga art.
IN A NUTSHELL: Alcohol based markers are generally more expensive than water-based. They come in an astonishing range of colours (there are over 300 Copic Sketch Marker colours!) and have superior blending capabilities. They are also more lightfast than water based markers but can still fade. Because of the alcohol, they tend to have an odour. And, some are refillable and have replaceable nibs, making them a much more cost effective and environmentally friendly option in the long run.
Because their blending qualities are so good, they're a lot like paints in that, you can make a wide range of colours and tones from just a few markers. This is great when you're starting out and can't afford the whole set!
One cool thing about alcohol based markers is that different brands can still blend with one another! Your cheaper Artist's Loft markers (Micheals brand) can be used with high end Copics. This is great if you start out with a budget brand starter set and then want to upgrade to a premium brand!
STYLE: alcohol based markers are dreamy when it comes to blending. The blending is smooth with an organic look to it for a very realistic finished work. This is especially great if you're working with skin tones or a lot of light and shadow. The Rag Tag Robots and my Umbrella Stickers are all done with Copic markers and have almost a watercolour illustration feel to them.
WHY ARE ALCOHOL BASED MARKERS SO EXPENSIVE?
Alcohol markers are actually available in a wide variety of price points - I've even found no name ones in the dollar store in a very limited colour palette! From an ink perspective, I find the performance very similar at every price point.
Here's are the big factors that impact the price of alcohol markers:
- Nib Tips: there are three common nibs: brush, chisel and bullet. A high quality marker should have two nibs - one on each end. And one of them should be a brush tip - brush tips are absolutely key to achieving the stunning blending that alcohol ink offers. Cheaper brands will often only have a bullet and chisel nib.
- Quality of the nibs: nibs wear out. A good quality alcohol marker (like Copic) will sell replacement nibs so you don't have to replace your whole marker when the nib wears down. Cheap markers tend have very poor quality brush nibs - I've had a few that have barely lasted a month of what I would consider normal usage. I've had this issue with a number of store brand markers
- Refillable Ink: ink runs out. A good quality marker can be refilled, which means the initial investment may be higher than other brands but, long term, the marker is MUCH more cost effective (and environmentally friendly).
ALCOHOL MARKER BRANDS I LIKE:
- Copic Sketch Markers: these are my markers of choice. I use them for everything except Miss Doodle. The physical marker is exceptional quality, the nibs are replaceable, the inks are refillable (all 300+ shades) and you can't beat the colour range. They also have excellent small starter sets for skin tones and blending. I started out with blue and green 3 marker sets and one red, one yellow, one purple, one grey and a colourless blender and added colours as my budget allows. Even today, I'm nowhere near the full set!
- Sharpie Permanent Markers: yes, the every day sharpie is an alcohol based marker - with a few extras added in that give them ability to be permanent on a variety of non-traditional surfaces. I love my sharpies! But I don't use them for blending or illustration work (they are terrible blenders!). They are strictly my "fun type" markers or for when I want really bold, evenly layed colours that will last! If you want tips for using Sharpies for colouring, check out my Instagram story highlights where I have a short tutorial.
- DeSerres Brand: DeSerres is a Canadian art store chain and I have had good success with their store brand. It's a little more budget friendly than Copics. I've also heard that the Blick's brand is a good lower cost option. I have not had good luck with any other store brands. It is always the brush nib that fails too fast.
- Ohuhu Markers: I personally have not used Ohuhu markers but know many emerging artists who have and love them - until they tried Copics lol. But from all word of mouth accounts, they are an excellent budget brand and a great option for somebody just starting out or wanting to experiment with the medium. They can slowly upgrade to Copics if they decide they love the medium! (be careful when purchasing - some Ohuhu sets are actually water based and some are chisel and bullet tips markers)
IMPORTANT NOTE: There are two very important considerations when using alcohol based markers. Especially if you're gifting them:
- Lining tools: If your artist likes to outline their alcohol marker work with a fine black marker, it's very important that it's a WATER based liner and not an alcohol based liner. Alcohol blends with alcohol and you'll wind up with a big, smudgy mess and no clean lines. I like Staedtler Black Pigment Liners for my line work when working with my Copics
- Paper: porous paper sucks up alcohol ink like a Bounty commercial and you'll drain your markers way too fast. Don't use them regularly on regular printer paper, watercolour paper, or regular sketchbook paper. I find even mixed media paper isn't great. Look for a smooth bristol finish or marker paper.
Pro Tip Best Buy: Most of my work is marker illustration and I rarely use marker paper! Another Copic artist turned me on to Hammermill 100lb cover stock copy paper. A 250 sheet pack is $32CAD on Amazon and usually qualifies for Prime shipping. It works brilliantly and it's much, much cheaper than the marker paper you'll find in any art store. I never get precious about paper when it's that cheap!
Any artist will appreciate new tools - whether it's refilling the tools they use all the time or, giving them something they've never tried. We all love to experiment with new things and we definitely appreciate refills of the things we use all the time!
DON'T UNDERESTIMATE GIFT CARDS
My absolute favourite art supply present is... gift cards to my favourite art store! Then I can be a kid in a candy store and get exactly what I want or try something new.
Michaels is great for kids and teens or people just starting out who don't know what they might like to try or use.
But if you've got a kid showing a true, steady love for drawing and illustration or an experienced artist on your list, Michaels or other big box chains might not be the best choice - their brand selection is limited and they usually focus on beginner or student grade materials.
Aim for a gift card to their favourite art supply store that they can use in person or online. Opus in BC and Curry's or Above Ground in Ontario are all great places I shop at regularly and they all ship across Canada. Blick's is a good choice if you're in the US. They have fantastic marker sales but if you're in Canada, the taxes, exchange, shipping and duty can quickly negate any price savings so shop strategically!
I hope these tips help you choose the perfect markers for yourself or as a gift for the artist in your life!
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