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A Guide to Watercolor Markers, the Perfect Tool for Casual Artists

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. I always 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 made me acquainted with 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 use them both as regular markers if you favor areas of flat color, or as straight-up watercolors. Their brush tip already mimics the feeling of a real watercolor brush, which can be used both 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. Here are the ones I recommend. 

Watercolor Paper

Use watercolor paper for best results if you intend to use them as watercolors. If you are just using them as standard markers, even xerox sheets are perfectly fine, but forget about blending. See ARTnews’s product guide for more watercolor paper recommendations.

Kuretake Clean Color Real Brush 

My first foray with watercolor markers was with Kuretake Clean Color Real Brush, a line of watercolor markers that come with a brush tip with 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 a colored tip 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.

Tombow Dual Brush Pen

As the name suggests, Tombow Dual Brush Pens have a fine-point felt-tip on one end and a larger brush pen on the other. Unlike the Kuretake Real Brush, Tombow’s “brush” pen is made of felt. This makes them easy to control as they have a more consistent color payoff, but they are harder on paper. The fine-point tip, on the other hand, is ideal for writing. 

Available in 96 colors, Tombow Dual Brush 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 I can best describe as acid pastels, recreating a 1960s color palette; while “Landscape” has 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 own interests and specific subject matter.

Winsor and Newton Promarker Watercolor

While the majority of watercolor markers are dye-based, Winsor and Newton’s ProMarker Watercolors 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 marker, from the lightest to the deepest, is chubby, easy to wield, and has an incredible color payoff that looks and feels luxurious. On the downside, the price point of Winsor and Newton’s Promarker Watercolor 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.

Bonus: Get a Portable Brush

What’s the point of having versatile watercolor markers if you still have to make room for a jar of water to dip your brush in? Portable brushes are the ideal complement to watercolor markers. They come with nylon bristles and a built-in refillable water reservoir in the hollow plastic handle, which ensures that the brush will stay clean no matter how many different hues you’re blending together. All you need to do is squeeze them for the desired amount of water. I recommend the Pentel Trio. (See ARTnews’s product recommendations for more brush tips.)

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