Learning How to Draw with Markers and Ink

By Greg Albert


Drawing with markers offers almost instant gratification—markers are simple to use, require little prep time and dry quickly. Because the marking material is fluid, the smooth marks are unlike those made by dry drawing mediums. Drawing with markers will offer you a range of brilliant color that surely will excite your creativity. They’re ideal for creating loose lines, calligraphic designs and  precise technical illustrations. One drawback to using them is that it’s not easy to correct mistakes; to work successfully, you need a bit of confidence and some drawing experience. The many different types of markers go by various names, such as art markers, marker pens, artist pens, brush pens and paint markers. Art pens and markers come in every color you can imagine and can be purchased in sets to save money. They vary in size and tip shape and are further distinguished by their colorant, which can be dye, ink or paint, and alcohol-,  water- or  solvent-based.

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"I Live Here" (6x9.5) by Miguel Herranz | Drawing with Markers

“I Live Here” (Copic markers and Pigma Micron pen, 6×9.5) by Miguel Herranz


Different Types of Markers

When wondering how to draw with markers, it’s important to consider the different types of markers. There are three kinds listed below: alcohol-based, water-based and solvent-based markers. Discover which markers are best for your drawing.

Alcohol-based markers are fast-drying and waterproof. They don’t smell as strong as solvent-based markers, but they can still cause eye or respiratory irritation, so make sure your workspace is well ventilated. Because alcohol-based markers dry quickly, the paper you work on doesn’t stay wet and is less likely to be torn as you layer colors. Brands of alcohol-based markers popular among artists and designers include Prismacolor, Letraset Tria and Copic, whose pens are refillable. Sharpies, the all-purpose permanent markers, are also alcohol-based.

Markers and Ink Pens | Drawing with Markers and InkWater-based markers are odorless and safe to use, so they’re the best choice for children, but adults can make good use of them, too. Some have brush tips made of foam or dense fiber; others are chisel-shaped or have nylon brush tips that distribute the color. Water-based paint markers, such as Sakura Permapaque markers, are opaque, generally quick-drying and water-resistant when dry.

Most brush pens and markers are water-based and have flexible nylon or foam tips shaped like traditional brushes. They make marks similar to small round bristle brushes and have a similar feel in the hand. Many brush markers are double-ended, with a fine point on one end and a wider tip on the other. Brush pens and markers often use acid-free ink, which is ideal for calligraphic work, art journals and book arts; try Staedtler Marsgraphic 3000 Duo, Pitt Artist Pens, Pentel Brush Pens or Marvy Brush Markers.

Solvent-based markers create brilliant color and are waterproof and long-lasting. A popular brand for design and drawing is Chartpak Ad markers, whose solvent is xylene. The solvents in markers can be xylene, methyl isobutyl ketone or butyl acetate, all of which can cause dizziness, headaches and nausea. Markers with these solvents should be used only in studios with excellent ventilation. Solvent-based markers aren’t suitable for children.

Many paint markers are solvent-based and opaque. You can use paint markers on porous and nonporous surfaces; they’re generally waterproof, but not necessarily permanent. Paint markers are most useful for craft or decorative projects and signage. Shake the paint markers to mix the paint inside, and ensure your workspace has proper ventilation. Paint markers, which come in many colors, including metallics, can be blended with Turpenoid or other solvents.

Using Dip Pens

Hand-Carved Bamboo Pen | Drawing with Markers and Ink

Hand-Carved Bamboo Pen

Long before markers hit art store shelves, artists drew with pen and ink. Dip pens have been made from reeds or quills since ancient times. The simplest is a Japanese hand-carved bamboo pen that has its shaft shaped into a tip that can be dipped into a pot of ink.

A bit more refined is a pen with an interchangeable metal nib held in a simple wooden or plastic handle. Drawing nibs are pointed metal tips that are somewhat flexible so the lines produced are thicker or thinner depending on the pressure of the hand. Similar nibs are also available in pens that hold a reservoir of ink inside the handle, like a fountain pen, obviating the need to dip the pen into a pot of ink. The reservoir can be a disposable or refillable cartridge.

Refillable Mechanical Pen | Drawing with Markers

Refillable Mechanical Pen

Mechanical pens have a metal, needle-like tip instead of a nib and produce a controlled line of predetermined width from .13 to 1.4 millimeters. Mechanical pens can be used for precise drafting and technical work or for sketching, although the unchanging width can become monotonous.

Black India ink is pigment-based ink that is permanent, lightfast and waterproof. Colored inks are acrylic- or shellac-based and can be thinned with water. Some colored inks aren’t lightfast and shouldn’t be exposed to direct sunlight for long periods.

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Techniques for Drawing with Markers and Ink

Line and wash: First do a line drawing in pen or ink. When it’s dry, add light washes with markers, watercolor or brush and ink. If the initial drawing is done in water-soluble ink, the wash will soften the ink lines, creating an interesting fusion of line and tone.

Layering: Markers lend themselves perfectly to blending and layering color. Start with the lightest colors, building up rich layers of color and texture. Colorless blenders, such as those from Prismacolor and Chartpak, can be used to soften edges and combine colors.

Combining media: Watercolor brush markers can be blended and lightened with a brush dipped in water or can be used in combination with traditional watercolor

Try Transferring an Image

You can use solvent-based colorless blenders to transfer laser-printed images to paper. Run a wide tip colorless blender over the area of the image you want to transfer.

Using Solvent-Based Colorless Blenders to Transfer Images | Drawing with Markers

Flip the paper over onto the surface you want to mark, and run the blender over the image area on the back side.

Transferring the Image to Another Piece of Paper | Drawing with Markers

The printed image, to which you can add color, will appear in reverse on the surface.

The Transferred Image Colored with Markers | Drawing with Markers

Learn more image transfer tips here.

FAQs for Drawing with Markers

Are art markers permanent and lightfast?
Art markers were originally developed for design and illustration work that only had to retain its color long enough for the artist to make a presentation or reproduce the work for printing. The dyes weren’t lightfast and would fade, some relatively quickly, when exposed to light. Markers today are more permanent, but this varies by manufacturer, so check the product literature. One solution is to scan or photograph your marker art as soon as it’s completed.

At this date, there are no American Society for Testing and Materials for Artists’ Materials (ASTM) lightfastness or permanence testing standards for markers. If a marker is described as “permanent,” it means that you can’t wash the marks off—not that the mark will never fade.

What are good surfaces for marker work?
Fine art papers, bristol board and illustration board are all good surfaces for marker artwork. A smooth, cold-pressed surface resists the bleeding that can occur with markers. Bristol board is heavier than drawing paper, but lighter than illustration board, and comes in two finishes: plate (hot-pressed), which is slick and hard; and vellum (cold-pressed), which is softer and has more tooth. Illustration board has only one working surface, which comes in hot- or cold-pressed.

Several manufacturers make paper specifically for markers; this paper is bleed-proof and retains the true colors of the markers. Some examples are Canson Pro-Layout and Bienfang 360.

Can you work with multiple brands of marker at a time?
It’s best to stick with one brand through a whole piece. Each marker line has a unique chemical formula, so blending brands may lead to unsatisfactory results.

Is India ink really from India?
India ink was first used in Asia in the 4th century B.C. and was made from soot and burnt bone; colonists introduced it to Europe. Formulas now generally use shellac.

This article, by Greg Albert, first appeared in the September 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.


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