Updated: Oct 23, 2020
All you need to know before you go marker shopping.
Alcohol markers have made a dynamic entry into the art world the last few years, with brands like Copic having become synonymous with the medium. It’s a fun type of colouring medium that takes some time to master, but offers advantages that make it worth the effort and cost.
Several brands from Windsor&Newton to Prismacolor and my personal favourite, Kuretake Zig, have their own line of markers. Each has its own characteristics, number of shades, price ranges and of course quality. However, the aim of this article is not to distinguish between brands and review them , as there are plenty reviews throughout the Internet. One more countdown won’t help you make the best choice if you don’t go down your local art supplier and try them out!
So what I will try to help you with here, is understand the medium better and choose the best brand for yourself. This way you can justify your expensive choice, knowingly and willingly resort to a cheaper solution or make a mishmash between brands according to your needs.
About those needs!
Alcohol markers offer a plethora of different colouring techniques and can be applied into numerous art styles as well. You can learn basic shading and blending techniques that apply to all styles, but after that, depending on your specific needs you will have to finesse your technique with the medium towards the style you want to achieve.
This can mean very basic colouring without or little shading or blending between shades, all the way to photorealism.
If you have never used alcohol markers before, or if you are not certain what style you want to achieve in the end, I would say start with a starter pack of basic shades and also choose one colour you like and buy 4 or 5 tones that are close to each other. This way you will have a few basic colours to experiment in more opaque colouring and also will learn how to blend between shades with the set of similar colours.
Last but not least you will need a blender marker. This one is the clear marker. You need this for blending. Without wanting to go into much detail on technique here, what the blender does is it fades part of a shade so that you can apply the next over it and create a gradient. But thats not the only technique on blending. Click here for a series of tutorials on how to use those markers and the blender.
What about the paper?
A very important part of colouring with alcohol markers is choosing the right paper. There are paper qualities specifically made for alcohol markers, however those are not your only choice. In another entry I have elaborated on that. Click here to read all about it.
Not every art supplier will have all the alcohol markers available, so you may have to look around. Also you will notice a significant difference in prices starting from as low as 2 euros per marker all the way up to 7 or 8 euros. Some of the cheaper ones are not even worth their 2 euros. Thats for granted. But that doesn’t mean the pricier the better.
Personally I use Kuretake Zig markers for at least 80% of my shades and the rest 20% by Copic. At first Copic were too pricy for me but the rest of the cheaper brands just didn’t seem to offer me a good enough colouring experience, untill I found Zig. This brand which is also Japanese, has way less shades but for my taste way better results in vibrancy and opaqueness. Copic on the other hand satisfies my needs for skin tones which are very inadequate in the Zig line. Copic being not so vibrant and intense for my style and taste, works perfectly for those skin tones which need to be more toned down and natural looking. So here’s my choice! After trying them out I ended up using only those two brands as explained. You should do the same. Try them out see what works for you.
Still though…what am I looking for?
Ok so lets explain a few things on the ink that’s in those markers. Alcohol markers have either alcohol based dyestuff ink or alcohol based pigment ink. The different between pigment and dye is basically solubility. A pigment is a suspension, meaning that the colour particles suspend in the dispersing agent (alcohol). When you colour with a pigment ink the colour “coats” the material you are colouring on. A dye however is a solution, which means the colour particles dissolve in the agent (alcohol), thus when applied on the material it chemically binds to it instead of covering it.
Ok..why should I even care, you are probably asking. Well there’s a difference in performance. Some brands offer both, some stick to dyes, some only do pigment. A lot out there don’t even bother to define what’s in there . You can tell however. If you take into consideration the main difference between dye and pigment you will be able to notice how dye markers become one with the paper while pigment markers look like they have left a very thin coating.
The difference in texture somewhat resembles ink printing vs laser printing. Ink prints look like the colour is absorbed by the paper while laser looks like theres a thin film covering the paper.
This has a huge impact in blending between shades. Generally speaking dyes blend with each other better than pigments but Pigments are more opaque. Consequently depending on the consistency of the pigment ink if you use it in the same artwork with dye ink, you may notice a difference in texture with the pigment parts standing out more.
Not technique tips…literally…tips.
The most common set of tips (as most markers are double edged) are a chisel tip and a felt brush tip or a chisel tip with a liner felt tip. There are some with pointy tips both ways, a felt brush and line tip for example. But good news is you can change them with new ones and even change it to the shape that you find more to your liking. Be careful though because some felt brush tips are not supposed to be pulled out!
Replaceable tips is a must when you go marker shopping. You may dirty the tip with a different kind of ink (a water based for example) or it may become too damaged or too soft. You must be able to replace this otherwise you’ll be needing an entirely new marker. That being said look for markers that are refillable only. I will elaborate on that on the next paragraph.
Back to the tips! Yes tips on tips…
Chisel tips are the most durable but depending on the level of expertise and sometimes the shade or the type of ink (pigment or dye) you may find it a bit harder to create perfect gradients between shades. Sometimes its too hard to make those square edges vanish…
Felt brush tips blend way easier…but I personally ruin them in no time. As always, thats just me. You may find that actually they last for you just fine and if you find blending more satisfying with this tip go for this one.
Some cheaper brands have felt tips that tend to fall apart quicker. Squeeze them a little bit you’ll see, usually there’s no body to them, normally they should be firm, so don’t go for them, you’ll regret it.
Refillable you say?
Never go for markers that don’t offer refills. It’s just not worth it. You are supposed to spend an amount of money for one marker and about double or less on its refill, which will make the original marker last as much as up to 5-8 times. It’s worth the cost. And this is why you should go for the best tip and also a replaceable one because you want to keep that marker.
Furthermore when you get a hang of it you can get empty markers and create new shades by combining refills. And the extra joy in that is you can name your special custom made green “zombie vomit sundae” instead of “G870/LightOlive”.
Cool right? Well I find it cool…
Let’s sum up!
-If you don’t have alcohol markers yet, get a set of basic colours and one more set of different tones of the same colour.
-Alcohol markers are great from the simplest kind of colouring all the way to photorealism.
-Those markers won’t work on any kind of paper. Go ahead and read my article on paper.
-Some cheap markers are really bad but the pricier the better, doesn’t apply either.
-Most tips are removable and thats awesome.
-Only go for markers that offer refills.
-Each brand has its own characteristics in intensity, vibrancy, opaqueness, blendability etc.
On my Youtube channel, you will find a series of videos on how to use alcohol markers!
-Go deeper into dye vs pigment. Its extra knowledge you may find useful when learning how to use new materials and mediums. Even in other applications, when you least expect it. Simply hit dye or pigment on Wikipedia its worth the read.
-Read some of those “best marker” types of reviews, you will learn specific details on each brand and also you get to see how they work if you cant find them in a shop near you. Keep in mind however that many of those articles are sponsored so they may not be as objective.