All my life, I’ve always been attracted to anything dual-purpose or multi-use—such devices always make me feel like I got let in on some secret that will make my life better. I remember being particularly enthused by a Cinderella doll made by Mattel in 1991, which came with a detachable sky-blue bodice and a reversible full skirt that was sky-blue on one side, for her ball look, and a vision of white tulle on the other, for when she (hastily) gets married to the prince. There was also a Polly Pocket set that, much to my amazement, allowed you to blow bubbles. In makeup, multi-use sticks—that work on lips, cheeks, and eyes—are a godsend.
The same draw applies to art supplies. My artistic precociousness as a kid prompted a very generous relative to gift me with a set of 40 Caran d’Ache watercolor pencils upon my sixth birthday. In later years, I loved the sheerness and ethereal quality of watercolor paint but I was always too messy to be precise enough with brushes, watercolor palettes, and blending—my blending tray immediately yielded muddy greens and browns, regardless of what I wanted to go for.
Then, lurking on fandom-adjacent forums with vibrant fan-art activities I became acquainted with Winsor and Newton’s Promarkers, alcohol-based markers that actually let you blend together colors, dilute the intensity of a hue, or layer multiple colors. But they do require a special kind of paper and have a short lifespan: Mine dried out after just one month.
But it was during a random stroll in an art supply store in Chelsea that I stumbled upon a life-changing tool: watercolor markers. As the name suggests, these are markers made of water-based ink that can be diluted with more water to recreate the appearance and texture of watercolor paint.
These markers are buildable and blendable both with other markers and with water and a brush. You can either use them as regular markers, if you favor areas of flat color, or as straight-up watercolors. Those with brush tips mimic the feeling of a real watercolor brush and can be used to create different strokes while painting or coloring or to indulge in calligraphy experiments.
As a very amateur artist, I realized that the versatility of watercolor markers instantly upgraded any of my lackluster attempts at coloring the human figure, for example, or even depicting a succulent. Creating a satisfying chiaroscuro is easy when all you have to do is add a layer of color for shadow and a brushstroke of water for highlights.
What’s more, watercolor markers are basically mess-proof: unlike watercolor pans or tubes, you don’t need a tray to blend them and you don’t need to carry them in a firm case. I took them with me on international trips; to cafés to sketch the surroundings when we were still able to idle in a space that was not our home; and to art classes that took place in bars and cabaret clubs, where counter space is extremely limited. And while my art skills managed to stay about the same, my collection of watercolor markers increased over the years. To get started with watercolor markers, here are the tools I recommend:
For Watercolor Paper
If you intend to use your markers as watercolors, use watercolor paper for the best results. If you are just using them as standard markers, even copy paper is perfectly fine, but forget about blending. See ARTnews’s product recommendations for our guide to the best watercolor pads.
For Brush-Tip Watercolor Markers
My first foray with watercolor markers was with Kuretake’s Zig Clean Color Real Brush Pens, a line of watercolor markers whose brush tips have actual nylon bristles. The fact that bristles splay out when you press your marker onto paper creates an effect that is quite similar to the one produced by real brushes, giving any sketch an immediate painterly effect. Plus, their minimalist aesthetic, with a white barrel, a see-through cap, and color-coded end, makes them a valid element of decor. While they’re great for smaller areas, they’re too dainty to cover bigger surfaces. They come in 80 different colors.
For Double-Ended Brush Pens
As the name suggests, Tombow Dual Brush Pens have a fine-point pen on one end and a brush on the other. Unlike the Kuretake Real Brush, Tombow’s “brush” is made of felt. This makes for a more consistent color payoff, but it is harder on your paper. The fine-point tip, on the other hand, is ideal for writing. Available in 96 colors, the pens also come in several themed sets, which I find very well curated. “Portrait” has a selection of muted pinks and browns for a range of skin tones; “Retro” has a series of what are best described as acid pastels that call 1960s to mind; “Landscape” has a range of greens, browns, and blues for, well, landscapes. Sets are a great gateway into art markers: they allow you to save some money and to build a palette catered to your specific interests and subject matter.
For Pigment-Based Watercolor Markers
While the majority of watercolor markers are dye-based, Winsor and Newton’s ProMarker Watercolor Markers are pigment-based.This means that they are more lightfast than their dye-based counterparts and that you can easily revive any dry paint with water. Each dual-tipped marker is chubby, easy to wield, and from the lightest to the deepest hue, has an incredible color payoff that looks and feels luxurious. On the downside, their price point makes them more of an investment, which sometimes makes me hesitant to use them lest I waste any precious color on a casual piece of art. Keep an eye out for discounts and promotions at your local art supply store. I snagged mine (a set of 12) at 65% off. Collect all 36 of them if you’d like.
For Water Brushes
What’s the point of having watercolor markers if you still need a brush and a jar of water for washes? Portable water brushes are the ideal complement to watercolor markers. They come with nylon bristles and a hollow plastic handle that serves as a refillable water reservoir, which ensures that the brush will stay clean no matter how many different hues you’re using. All you need to do is squeeze the soft plastic handle for the desired amount of water. I recommend the Pentel Aquash Water Brush, available in sets of three different sizes.
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