Alcohol markers are great for drawing and coloring, however, they do take unique working methods. I’ll show you how to use alcohol markers for the very best results! I own dozens of different brands, and I’ve run some extensive tests for you.
Learning all the ins and outs of working with them is crucial for success! Alcohol markers are quite quirky, compared to other color mediums like colored pencil, watercolor, pastels or oils. So let’s get started!
Read on for great information with my ProTips and really useful techniques.
General Information On How To Use Alcohol Markers
Alcohol markers are filled with colored ink, dye, or pigments suspended in an alcohol base. They are very fluid. The colors are applied via a barrel pen. Alcohol markers look and act like kid’s markers, yet they are not water-soluble, and once dry, the inks are permanent.
This makes them perfect for layering. They DO have a window of being influenced by additional layers though, which makes them capable of a fair degree of blending.
Let’s take a look at all the different kinds of nibs.
Some expensive markers have replaceable nibs. Most markers are made to be thrown away after the barrels are empty of colorant.
Many markers have double tips for versatility. The tips come in one of five designs: a solid rounded nib, brush nib (which is really just a soft round brush shaped nib, not a paintbrush), chisel end, a super-wide, or a fine point tip. Hardnesses vary from very hard to semi-soft from brand to brand.
Front left to right: chisel, fine point, bullet nib, brush tip
A flat, hard chisel is good for broad strokes and for blending large areas. The amount of ink coming out of the chisel is low compared to the brush. It is possible to use different edges of the chisel to create marks as varied as dots, thin stripes or wide stripes.
By far my favorite is the brush nib. It isn’t a typical paintbrush. They are more like semi-soft, long felt cones. The flexible tip wobbles enough that blending and swirling strokes are easy and smooth.
Expensive brands like Copic have excellent durable brush ends. Budget brands have less durable brush tips and wear out after a few days of heavy use.
Fine Point Tip
Designed to create even, thin lines, the fine point tip is ideal for tiny areas or for outlining or creating line drawings. Make sure you check the contents. Fine tip markers are often water-based, not alcohol.
The bullet nib is hard and fairly small. It works well for cross blending where two colors meet. Try using a swirling motion to blend colors.
Extra Wide Nib
Extra-wide chisels are often used to create bold signs. They are available in just a few colors in a pack or singly.
The colors of alcohol markers are one of their outstanding features. Really vibrant hues are common and the finished coloring and artwork are often spectacular!
The inks dry in less than one minute, making them a clean and fast way to color. They are perfect for a graphic style of artwork where there is no blending. Each color stays in its ‘own lane’, so to speak.
Take a look at this sample I created of a bunch of balloons and compare it to the blended version farther down the page. Which style do you prefer?
This graphic style is hard-edged with no blending.
Price Point Differences
The price of alcohol markers ranges from less than $1 per pen to over $9 per pen.
What a big variety of prices among different brands!! The inks are actually very similar across brands.
Higher-priced alcohol brands will have better quality pigments (the part of the ink that is the color hue), but honestly, it is not THAT apparent. (By contrast, poor-quality acrylics are dramatically different from professional-grade high-quality paints.) What sets the expensive brands apart are other factors like:
- Refillable ink chambers
- Replaceable nibs
- Interchangeable nibs
- Huge variety of colors (some have over 350 colors)
- Individual pens available for purchase, instead of in sets
- Super comfortable barrels
- Superior color labeling for easy and reliable picking of colors
- Very durable and organized storage boxes
- A smartphone app to keep track of the colors you own or want to own
How To Use Alcohol Markers
The Most Important Thing
Believe it or not, the most important thing is the paper. All alcohol markers will bleed through to the backside of the paper. The trick is to use a paper manufactured specifically and solely for them.
Paper needs to be somewhat absorbent and have a coating on the backside of the paper to keep the inks from soaking through completely to damage what is behind it.
I bought and tested five different well-known brands of paper made for alcohol pens and I was quite surprised how differently they all reacted!
Here’s a chart I made showing how these five papers fared using four different brands of alcohol markers. I was floored to discover that the most expensive marker performed on the papers nearly identically to the cheapest brand!
However, which paper I used made a huge difference. Here are the results of my tests:
Performance Ratings 0= poor 5=excellent
|Marker Paper Brand||good color lift-off with blender pen||no glare from a
|very little mottling||great color payoff||nice blending||sturdy paper||no puddling of ink|
|Canson XL Pad||3||0||5||5||3||0||4|
You can see the results from these samples. I used four different alcohol markers on five different papers.
On the left side of the papers, I tried to blend three very different colors. The right side has a dark blue. Then once it was dry, I used a colorless blender pen and tried to lift a stripe off of it.
Strathmore marker paper test with lifting
Bee Marker Paper with blended marker reduction
Bianyo Marker Pad test with reduction swipes
Once you have decided which paper best suits your needs, then move on learning about blending techniques.
People have trouble learning how to blend alcohol markers. I’m constantly surprised at the tutorials online that never mention values.
The main reason why some colors don’t blend together isn’t from lack of talent by the user, it is from not understanding a concept called color values.
Try this exercise to learn by doing:
Create a black, white, and grey value strip by coloring in seven boxes. The farthest box (label it level 1) leave blank. That will represent pure white of the paper. Then color in the far right box using black. That will be level 7. Using two different darknesses of grey, (you can see my swatch on the far right corner where I tested my greys), color boxes 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 increasing the relative darkness each time.
Here will be your grey values chart that you ‘ll compare each one of your alcohol marker pens to.
For the next step, cut up little one inch squares of marker paper and color each one with one of your marker pens. Punch a hole in the center of each one.
Judging values becomes easier with this method
Then we’ll guess the value and place the swatch over the numbered box.
The real test comes next. Snap a photo of your swatch with your cell phone and change it to black and white. See what happened when I tried it with one of my swatches.
Here is a bright yellow swatch. I’m guessing that the value of it should be somewhere near 4, because it’s a dark yellow.
Then let’s convert this into black and white.
Now I can compare the yellow swatch with the number four value. It’s pretty obvious that four is much darker than the yellow swatch. So I’ll place the swatch onto square number 2 and recheck it.
It’s kind of like magic! Surprise!!
If you blur your eyes and look at the two black and white swatch samples, it is obvious that the bright yellow is actually a value 2.
SO…..I should attempt to blend the yellow alcohol marker with another marker with a color value of 3 or 4, not higher. THIS was very informative.
It’s a great idea to label all your marker swatches with the correct relative value!
Once you are sure of the relative grey values of your alcohol pens, you can master blending!
All alcohol markers are going to behave the same way, so these general instructions will apply to the most expensive brands as well as the most budget brands.
Make sure to read all my ProTips below for maximum success.
6 Techniques To Blending Alcohol Markers
1. Blending three or more values of the same color hue
Alcohol markers are unique in that they will create different colors even when you reverse the order of application!
Blending alcohol markers successfully depends on having enough pens of the color you’re working on. But, in different shades of lightness and darkness so that there isn’t too much of a jump between two marker value colors! For example, to create a graded blend of green, use at least three shades of green and transition them from lightest to darkest. Easy-does-it-transitions are much, much easier to perfect than big leaps of values!
Here is a sample I created using four different values of similar blue hue. In order to get a seamless blend from the darker blue into the lighter blue, I tried to blend values close to each other. Using swirling strokes back and forth across the connecting area, I try to keep the pigment semi-wet so blending will occur.
The tricky part is not to apply too many layers before the paper is too saturated. Every artist will have to experiment and decide where that tipping point is!
Four Values side by side blended
Just a side note here:
Spectrum Noir brand has a line of markers called Tri-Blend that are unique. Each pen has three different shades of color barrels snapped together so you don’t need three separate pens. It is perfect for traveling. The barrels are six-sided and fatter than most alcohol marker barrels, which may make them more uncomfortable to hold. It’s a clever concept, though.
2. Blending two or more different hued colors
Blending two different colors works best when they are close to each other on the color wheel. For example, blending a red to transition into an orange will be much easier and look much better than trying to blend a red into a green (which are opposites on the color wheel)
The problem with opposites on the color wheel is that they make MUD when mixed together. Therefore, trying to blend a green into a red will result in a muddy color where they meet. Not such a great look.
Understanding this will greatly help you create beautiful color blends.
Every artist You should refer to the color wheel often
3. Wet a first layer
Using the palest shade of the color family you are using (for example, for a red flower petal, apply a pale pink or yellow layer first for the highlighted area), then quickly added additional darker layers on top. Merge blend with the palest color again.
Sample sheet of several blending methods
You can also use the colorless blender as a first layer to prime the paper for easier blending. Here is the second version of the balloons, this time with lots of blending. I always started each balloon by prewetting each section with a colorless blender before I started in with the red colors.
4. Feather blending is a style of mixing two different colors or values
Check out the picture in Sample Two. Feather blending is where you start two pens to blend by flicking each one towards the center of the area. When you begin the flick stroke, more colorant is laid down. As you flick up, less and less colorant is laid down. When the two meet in the center area, there is just enough of a light coating of ink to create a great blend. Where they overlap into each other, use the lighter shade pen and swirl blend over the seam.
5.Isopropyl Alcohol dilution.
This won’t work for large areas unless you transfer ink from one barrel to an empty barrel filled with a bit of Isopropyl 97% alcohol.
It’s like making your own pen with a diluted mix of one of your existing pens.
Another method is to load an artist’s paintbrush with Isopropyl alcohol and stroke it across a pen nib. Alternately, you can smear a streak of pen ink onto a plastic or porcelain palette and load the alcohol brush with the ink.
It is my favorite way to use alcohol markers. By using it, it’s possible to get a watercolor-looking effect quite easily.
Load a slightly damp bristle brush on the chisel end
Here’s a sample sheet of different effects you can use with a dilution of Isopropyl alcohol. Notice the dry-brush effect in the upper right. So versatile!
Diluted alcohol markers can act like watercolors
6. Outline area with color.
This creates a mild dam for the paint to brush up against. It’s not foolproof, but it does create a clean edge for you to push up against so that the opposite edge can blend undisturbed.
In the sample under number three, you can see that I’m using an orange marker as the outline color.
7. Tip To Tip
This two tip blending is where you take one pen and touch the tip of it to another pen of a darker value like in this photo:
Here’s a company that uses this technique by packaging two different colored pens into one barrel. Clever idea!
Chameleon Alcohol Brush Markers is a brand that utilizes this concept in their pens. I find them cumbersome, in that it is difficult to control exactly WHEN the two colors will start to flow together and WHEN the one color will finish. But for a novelty, they are interesting to use.
6 Last Protips
These ProTips will really cut down on your learning time! Keep these in mind as you experiment with your blending and coloring!
Use a non-absorbent protection sheet behind your work to protect the next sheet of paper (or tabletop). In addition, this will cut down on the next sheet of paper wicking too much moisture too fast from the artwork surface. Here’s a good example of a protection sheet:
Wait 30 seconds to let the inks dry a bit before you look to see if there is a need for more layers or more blending. The alcohol inks actually keep moving and blending during that time, therefore, if you immediately add more layers, it may end up looking overdone!
If you later want to rewet an area, use a clear blender or a very light shade of the color and cover the entire segment. Then add more color and blend into that.
If you try and add more by rewetting just a small piece of the segment, you may risk accidentally creating a cauliflower ringed misshaped blob.
Timing of the wet vs. dry areas is really important for blending. It takes a bit of experimenting to learn to gauge it just right. Certainly, alcohol markers need moisture in order to blend and move correctly.
Given that they dry in 30 seconds or so, ya gotta move fast! Keep it slightly wet and damp for blending, but NOT soaking wet. You will become a ‘saturation expert’ when using alcohol markers!
Use a steady speed of stroking….the faster you go, the less pigment is laid down. The slower you go, the more pigment soaks into the paper. If you stop, WOW! you get a dark saturation of color. The old saying is true here: “He who hesitates is lost.”
If you lay down too many layers, at some point the paper will reach a saturation point where you can’t add any more. What remains turns the paper into a gelatinous mess. So the idea is to use as few layers of colorant as possible, yet still get the ideal look you are looking for!
Use the colorless blender pen to remove some of the pigment from your coloring. The result will act like a subtle highlight. It won’t remove all the dye ink down to the white of the paper, but it will lighten things considerably.
Apply color in a circular motion, rather than a zig-zag. That’s because if you change sudden directions, the pen will release more pigment and you end up with darker ink showing every movement of your pen. Use a swirling motion in a constant, even speed and the color will be consistent.
Be careful when traveling by air with alcohol markers because the changes in altitude can cause some colorant to leak out into the cap. They may splatter when you uncap your markers again.
- You can use silicon or rubber stamps with your alcohol markers, but make sure you use an ink pad that is compatible with alcohol like this one from Memento.
- Use a blender pen NOT for blending, but for lifting color. You can create subtle highlights with it!
- Use Micron-Pens to create outlines or fine black detail lines over OR under your marks.
- Try lots of different mediums with your alcohol markers like colored pencils, white gel pens, pastel sticks, pens and even watercolors!
Check out my additional articles about alcohol markers:
Here are my reviews of markers where I examine many of the top-selling brands and show you which may be best for your uses!