Water based markers vs Alcohol based

3:02 PM

Let's talk markers shall we?

Wether you are a hobbyist or a pro, a bullet journalist or an illustrator, chances are you have worked with markers at one point or another. You might love them or hate them, and if you are new to them, probably super confused about the different types, brands and nibs.

This blog post has been inspired by a chat I had with a lady on Instagram, lady who is new to bullet journalling and once picked up an alcohol marker without knowing and wondered why it was so "bleedy"

Many do not know that not all markers are created equal and that they more or less fall in two different categories :

Alcohol based or water based

They both have their pros and cons, but the most important to remember is that they aren't used for the same tasks. 
As an artist/designer and a bullet journalist, I use both type for different things so let me explain what each marker is what a bit more clearly. I'll post affiliate links to Amazon below, this means if you make a purchase, I get paid a commission at no extra cost to you. 

So let's start our journey in the magical world of markers shall we? 

Water based markers

If you are a beginner, or remember your childhood sketch pens, you are familiar with what is known as "Water based" markers, and chances are you've only worked with those. 

They are called water based simply because the pigments in those float in water, making it a water based ink. 
They are also water soluble and as far as I know, never permanent on paper or elsewhere. This means you can use a wet brush to create gradients and watercolor effect provided the marker you are using is made with quality pigment. 

The elephants on that phone case were colored with those Sakura Koi brush pens and diluted with a water brush to give the proper effect in some places. 

Water based markers have their pros and cons though, like everything, and depending what you plan to do, they might not be your best choice of medium. 


- They are fairly affordable, depending where you buy them, Sakura Koi Brush pens are around 100 or less rupees a piece. Tombows dual brush pens are around 170-80 rupees a piece and come in a wider range of colors. 
There are cheaper brands around too, even Camlin does them.

- They are all non toxic and child friendly

- They are water soluble so you can make cool effects just using a blender pen or a water brush.

- Most work on any paper and many can hold their own and not ghost too much in notebooks. This makes them ideal if you are into bullet journalling. Tombow and Sakura Koi are both holding their own in my bullet journals, though some of the darker shades of Koi do tend to ghost a little. 


- They destroy the paper fibre. Water seeps through the paper and bloat it, there is no way around it, and this means that you can't do a lot of shading or add too many layers of water based ink on an illustration. Even the best Bristol paper WILL suffer with a water based marker. People assume that there is no damage done to the paper unless there is ghosting or "bleeding through" and that is simply not so. Just try blending colors with a water based marker and you will notice the top layer starting to "plush". 

- They are streaky. This means that even with professional grade water based markers, you will never really get a super even color if you use them on a wide surface. This is because the water in the ink evaporate slowly and  controlling the amount of pigment that goes on paper is always going to be tricky.

- They aren't refillable. While not all alcohol markers are either, I am yet to come across one brand of water based markers that can be refilled at all. This means that the pretty brush pen you bought, will run out, and you'll need to replace the whole thing. They also don't come with replaceable nibs either. They are disposable, and in the long run, not very budget or environment friendly.

- They don't scan well. This means if you are creating an illustration you are intending to digitize, you are better not using them. This is due to the whole paper destructive nature of water based markers. A bloat and destroyed paper fiber might not be noticeable with the naked eye. It becomes a HUGE problem when you are going to scan it at 1200 DPI to turn into a commercial artwork. Trust me, I spent way too many hours cleaning up markers blotches in Photoshop, the worst of them came from water based markers. 

What they are best suited for : 

If you are a bullet journal addict, hand lettering artist or enjoy coloring in those adult coloring notebooks, they are you best bet. 
They do well on regular paper, as well as marker paper and if you aren't planning to scan your artwork to apply to products, you can safely stick to those and get the best out of them. 

Alcohol based markers

Alcohol based markers are really the next level in the marker world, and pretty much what designers, illustrators and graphic artists use for their work. 

They get their name from the fact the pigments float in an alcohol based ink that evaporates very quickly on paper, once dry the pigment is permanent on all paper and in some cases, other surfaces as well. This means you need to work fast if you want to blend colors and there is definitely a learning curve you must scale before your get any satisfaction working with them. 

I'm not going to lie, I disliked them the first time I tried them. But as I got the hang of them, I started appreciating their pros and the possibilities they offer. 

There are many brands out there, the two main ones are Copic markers and Touch markers. In India, if you are deciding between those two brands, I suggest you go for Copic as they are distributed in India, and finding the refill inks and replacement nibs is going to be less of an issue than with Touch. 

But those while being the biggest brands and the most standard in the design industry, they aren't your only choice. Chameleon pens are another cool option, they come in a big range of color and have a unique system that allows you to mix and blend colors directly on the nib. Each pen comes with a white/transparent "blending chamber" and you have the possibility to buy colored "blending chambers" as well. 
They are a bit more costly than Copic in India, but you can get away with owning less colors and still make amazing gradients. Like Copics, they are refillable and the nibs can be replaced, so the pen is a one time investment. 

In the more budget friendly brands you have Bianyo markers, which I haven't personally tried but have good reviews. And Brustro which I have tried in one color, they recently launched a range of markers that have a brush nib rather than a bullet nib. 

Another well known name in the alcohol markers department is "Promarker" by Winsor & Newton


- The ink is non-streaky. This means you'll have a better finish on larger surface provided you learned how to use them well. 

- They are non destructive to paper even though they bleed through Bristol paper. The pigment is strong in them, but the alcohol evaporate quickly, which means the integrity of the paper is not compromised. I'll get to the paper thing later, just know that you can layer your alcohol ink for a while before any sort of damage is done to the paper. 

- Many brands are refillable, this is true for Copic markers, Touch markers, and Chameleon pens. This means the actual pen is a one time investment, and ink refills are cheaper in the long run. You can also replace the damaged nibs on those markers, making them a lifetime investment. 

- They scan well. Artwork made with alcohol based marker translate much better in the scanner and in Photoshop. This is because the damage to the paper is non existent in the first place and the color applies evenly to the surface causing less blotches and bleeds.

- Big color range. All big brands have a huge color range of markers, Copic has a whooping range of 358 colors if you go for the Sketch marker. This means you can really get into intricate shading and gradient. 

- The color can be layers and blended. Because the alcohol dries quickly, you can layer color or even add intensity to a color by adding another layer on top. While the ink is still damp you can also work and blend 2-3 colors and create an effortless gradient. There is a learning curve to master those techniques though, but once you have, you will not be disappointed. 


- They are expensive, there is no way to put it nicely, if you want the quality, and the color range, you'll have to pay the price. A Copic Sketch cost 385 rupees a piece. When you start with them, I suggest starting with a few basic sets in colors you are more likely to use rather than buying a huge set, and then build your collection a pen or two at a time. They have really nice basic blending trios in a variety of colors that won't put a huge dent in your budget. You can also go for Copic Ciao Doodle Packs. As mentioned earlier, Touch markers make less sense in India, and Chameleon pens are even pricier at around 420 rupees a piece. 

- You need a lot of colors if you are going to draw with them. You can start with a blending trio, but in the long run, you'll realise that a big color range is a must. To make a basic shading with alcohol markers you need a minimum of 3 blending shades : a light, medium and dark tone. 

- The learning curve is big. I have used various mediums in my artist life : pencil, acrylic, watercolor, oil, water based markers...none have challenged me the way alcohol based markers have. So considering the cost issue, I recommend the "less is more" approach to buying them. If you end up hating them in the long run, you don't want to face having spend thousands and thousands of rupees on them. 

- They bleed through paper, not because they destroy the paper (because they don't) but because the pigment is intense in those. This means that you can only use them on one side of the paper. And said paper HAS TO be premium bristol paper if you don't want to waste ink. That means they can't be used in a bullet journal. 

- While most are non-toxic, I don't think I would want a kid near them, the alcohol fumes in some brands is stronger than in other, and that could be an issue with little ones. 

- You must store them horizontally to prevent them from drying out, this means you need to plan storage for them carefully. 

What they are best suited for : 

Any professional grade work or artwork that will end up being digitized. They are the first choice for illustrations, manga character drawings, and work that need to stand the test of time (the ink in most markers is archival).
Give them a miss if you are a bullet journallist, they are totally incompatible with the type of paper you find in a BuJo. 

Let's talk paper

Now that we talked marker, and how some destroy paper while other don't, let's just talk about it a bit more shall we? 

Markers, be it water or alcohol based do better on smooth paper, no ifs no buts. That is because grainy paper will work against the nib and damage the nib, and in the case of a water based marker, absorb an insane amount of moisture and loose its integrity faster than a non grainy paper. 

With Alcohol markers you want to use a smooth bleed proof marker paper like a good quality bristol paper. For all my sketches, I use this Stratmore 300 Visual Journal and for my small illustrations including my "Art Nouveau ladies" I use this Bristol paper from Canson

NEVER EVER EVER use watercolor paper with markers, you are setting yourself up for a disaster. In fact, I found that using water based markers on any other paper but bristol paper leads to a disaster, a reason why I don't really use them a lot even in my bullet journal. So if there is one investment to make if you are going to be working with any type of marker it's the paper. 

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  1. Actually water based markers work awesome on water color paper and they don't hut the paper at all. An artist over 30 years and you can blend them the very same way as alcohol markers on express paper.

    1. The moment you have a water based medium, the water will affect the fiber of the paper. Yes, watercolor paper is designed to take huge amount of water in before it warps and yield to pressure, but that doesn't mean there is NO damage.

      Yes you can blend water based markers, in fact I have done commercial art with water based markers. But if you are going to do a lot of work that will be scanned and edited digitally, water based markers is not the best choice. It's a pain in the butt to edit water based marker work when you have scanned it at 1200 DPI, on the other hand the amount of work spent on editing with Copic markers is minimal.


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