Should you use markers for urban sketching

In this guide, I'll share with you the pros and cons of using markers for urban sketching, and let you know what I switched from using markers to watercolour.

I actually started urban sketching with alcohol markers as my primary tool for colouring. I love drawing with pen and ink but as a beginner I had no idea how to colour my sketches so I went with markers because they are kinda easy and straightforward to use. It was fun for a couple of months but I soon discovered the many limitations of markers and eventually most of my coloured markers.

So now I'm just left with some gray markers that I use for tonal studies and thumbnail sketches. After these are used up, I won't be replacing them and will instead use gray inks filled in waterbrushes instead.

Pros of markers

Markers are great for creating stylised art, such as for manga, fashion illustration, presentations.

Markers are so convenient to use. Remove the caps and you're ready to colour. There are so many beautiful colours to choose from and so easy to bring them around.

Marker inks usually dry fast and they don't create a mess, and there's no clean up. If you want to work fast, markers are great.

Creating a coloured ink sketch in a train is just easier with markers than with watercolour.

There are markers with transparent inks that work well with line art, and there are opaque markers that can be used for painting and covering.

Working with colours can be considered easier with markers because the colours are so vibrant and can make your art look lively and fresh. With paint, you have to know the appropriate primary colours for mixing to get vibrant mixes otherwise you may end with muddy mixes.

Cons of markers

Markers have rather limited colour mixing potential compared to other media such as watercolour, gouache and even coloured pencils.

While you can overlay markers to get more colours, the colours you can mix is still gonna be limited. To achieve certain colours, it's just easier to add a new marker rather than mix it with existing markers.

Soon, without you even realising, you would have amassed a huge collection of markers. And markers are not cheap, even if you can use refills to bring down the cost.

You can learn more about colour mixing with paint or even coloured pencils.

The main reason why I switched from markers to watercolour is because even with a few primary colours, you can mix and create so many other colours. Imagine the colour mixing possibilities with 3 sets of primary colours with watercolour vs 9 markers.

Markers aren't the best for covering large areas because the tip shapes are limited to bullet, chisel or brush tips. Sure you can get a big chisel tip, but that may mean buying another marker. With paint, you can use the same paint tubes but different brushes for different purposes.

Alcohol markers work best on marker papers because those papers are made to prevent alcohol inks from bleeding to the opposite page (as shown above). Sketchbooks with marker paper are not common. Some brands of marker sketchbooks are Ohuhu and Rendr.

So you can't just use normal sketchbooks with alcohol markers. You can, but be prepared for ink bleeding, and for the ink to use up real fast on those absorbent paper.

Even with marker paper, sometimes there may still the ink impression from the opposite page, which means if you use a sketchbook, you can't use both sides of the paper.

Different types of markers

Generally speaking, the common types are alcohol markers and paint markers.

Popular alcohol marker brands include Copic, Shinhan, Tombow, Ohuhu and Spectrum Noir.

Alcohol inks are transparent and dry almost instantly. They can blend easily without streaking. Colours very vibrant. The inks are dye-based and hence not lightfast which means the colours may fade when exposed to light for long periods of time. As such, alcohol markers are not suitable for creating archival artworks.

Paint markers have inks with thicker viscosity and the inks are usually pigmented and more lightfast, fade resistant. The inks can be opaque such as those you may find in UNI POSCA markers or transparent such as in watercolour markers.

Opaque markers are useful for their covering strength. I love using opaque markers to add details on top my watercolour sketches.

With the introduction of watercolour markers, such as those from Faber-Castell and Winsor & Newton, now you can even get more colour mixing potential. You can use the watercolour markers on wet paper or add water to the paint that's already on the paper. But you will still have the same limitation when it comes to covering large areas with colours.

Urban sketchers to check out

While markers can be used for urban sketching, there aren't as many using markers compared to other media, the most popular being watercolour.

Here are some urban sketchers who use markers:

Should you get markers for urban sketching?

I probably won't recommend markers as your only colouring tool, but they certainly will be great addition to other art supplies that you may have.

Markers can be used alone or with other media to create mixed media art. You will have to experiment to find out which are the other media that work well with markers. The workflow for alcohol and paint markers are quite different. For example, alcohol markers are transparent and hence has to be used first on paper. Opaque markers can be used early or at later stages since they can cover other colours.



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