Alcohol Based Markers Vs. Water Based Markers

Edited October 26th 2015 for accuracy and completion.

What are Alcohol Based Markers?

Photo and art courtesy of Heidi Black, markers are mine.
A lineup of alcohol based markers showcasing the diverse selection in nibs and brushes.  Note:  The Chartpak marker's solvent is not alcohol based..

Having soldered my way through several reviews of these things, I realized that many in my audience may not know what I mean by the term 'alcohol based marker'. Alcohol based markers differ from water based markers in that the color (dye or pigment) is suspended in an alcohol or another fast evaporating solvent, rather than water or glycerin. This means that alcohol based markers are not water soluble, but may be alcohol soluble. Alcohol based markers tend to be permanent, and you can use them to mark on just about anything. I know several cosplayers who use Sharpies or Copics to add color to their wigs, in fact.  Many crafters use alcohol markers or inks to color plastics and metals, and there are a variety of tutorials on how to do that available online.

Alcohol based markers tend to perform much better than water-based markers, though I must admit, my experience with waterbased markers is pretty much limited to Crayola and it's ilk, or to watercolor markers .Editor's Note:  This has drastically changed in 2015 and 2016, where I focused on waterbased markers and finding papers that work with waterbased markers.  If you're interested in this topic, please check more recent posts, and keep an eye on my YouTube channel, as several of those tests were recorded and will be uploaded.

For many artists, 'alcohol based marker' is synonymous with Copic marker, although Copic is just one brand among many. Prismacolor Letraset, and many other companies make alcohol based markers. For the purposes of this blog, markers that are reactive to alcohol or alcohol based Colorless Blender fluid are lumped in the 'alcohol marker' category.  This includes Sharpie LePen Permanent markers, Bic Mark Its, and even Sharpies, as all three are alcohol solvent reactive.

There's a variety of uses for alcohol based markers, and for each use, there seems to be a marker that suits that need. From stamping to fine illustration, graffiti to card makining, there's plenty of options to choose from.

Alcohol based markers tend to cost more than waterbased markers, particularly if the comparison is between school-grade markers and illustration grade markers. School grade markers, which are often priced below a dollar per marker, are rarely sold open stock, are not designed to be archival, and are not really intended for professional artist use. They are not refillable, and the nibs are not replaceable (nor very sturdy), and the inks not color fast. Alcohol based markers, originally designed to facilitate graphic and concept artists in generating mock ups, are intended to be archival. You probably can achieve some very impressive effects with school grade markers, but it would take a lot of artistic experience, trial, and effort.

I've been using alcohol based markers (Copic Sketch primarily, before that, Prismacolor) for a little under six years. I use them primarily for commission and illustration work, and my technique leans toward my penchant for unsaturated color and watercolor-esque effects. Of course, they're not limited to that. Alcohol based inks come in a wide variety of colors, hues, and saturations, and one is not limited to watercolor mimicry. You can achieve some very bold effects with alcohol based markers.

What originally drew me to alcohol based markers was the fact that they could be blended, unlike water based markers. Both marker types are capable of overlapping color, but with alcohol based markers, you can blend two dissimilar colors utilizing either a blender marker, rubbing alcohol, or a color between the two. With alcohol based markers, it's easier to avoid the streaky color fields that all grade-school marker enthusiasts are familiar with. To do so, you can 1. saturate the paper with blender before applying your color, 2. saturate your paper with the color you intend to use, or 3. blend out the streaks. If you were to attempt similar effects with a water based marker, you'd have to give each application time to dry, or the water saturation would make the paper weak.

Because alcohol based markers can be blended, you actually need fewer colors than you would with water based markers, which cannot be blended.  A well planned set of alcohol based markers can go a long way if strategically used.

Waterbased Markers

For many people, the term 'waterbased markers' is synonymous with Crayola, or other student grade classroom markers.  While these markers are certainly waterbased, they are not the only markers that fit in this category.



Waterbased markers also include watercolor markers like Winsor & Newton watercolor markers, Akashiya Sai markers, or Tombow ABT markers).  Unlike alcohol markers, which use alcohol as a solution for the dyes inside, waterbased markers use water, or a combination of water and glycerin as a solution for the pigments or dyes inside.  Some student grade waterbased markers like Crayola Supertips can be used like watercolor markers, although all brands are not created equal, and I recommend swatching your markers first.

Student grade waterbased markers, like the Crayola markers shown above, typically feature inks and solutions that are designed to be easily removed from hands and clothing, sometimes at the cost of usability as an art tool.  Major brands include Crayola, Cra-Z-Art, Sargent, and Up and Up, and these are an affordable way to practice applying color.  These markers generally feature a single stiff conical nib that may abrade paper.

From left to right:  Tombow ABT, Zig Art and Graphic Twin, Lyra Aqua Brush Duo, Zig Clean Color.   Image from my review of Zig's Art and Graphic Twin Watercolor Markers
From left to right:  Tombow ABT, Zig Art and Graphic Twin, Lyra Aqua Brush Duo.  Image from aforementioned post.

Waterbased markers take longer to dry than alcohol based markers, and direct application of layers immediately following one another may result in the paper pilling and tearing.  Waterbased watercolor markers are GENERALLY twin tipped with a fine tip and a large brush tip, and are intended to be used like watercolors, on heavier papers such as watercolor paper.

Waterbased and alcohol based markers can be used together- I recommend applying the alcohol based markers first, then the waterbased markers on top.  Alcohol will dissolve and smear waterbased marker dyes, but waterbased markers will not dissolve or smear alcohol based marker dyes.  The key word here is 'dyes'- Winsor & Newton released Pigment Markers in 2015 that are alcohol based, but water soluble.

When I originally wrote this post, I claimed that waterbased markers cannot be blended.  This is not entirely true.  Many companies, such as Marvy LePlume and Tombow ABT make colorless blenders for their watercolor markers, which have mixed results.  The real answer is SOME brands blend better than other brands, and some colors within brands blend better than others.  As always, I recommend you test your markers first.  I have found, generally, that markers that contain more glycerin, such as Target's Up and Up markers, blend better than those that contain more water, and are less prone to tearing up the paper.  I have also found that almost ALL waterbased markers perform better on cold press, wood pulp based watercolor paper than they do on uncoated marker paper, cardstock, or cotton based watercolor paper.

Major Difference Between Alcohol Based Markers and Watercolor Markers

Alcohol Based Markers

  • Often refillable
  • Alcohol solution
  • Often feature replaceable nibs
  • Often sold open stock
  • Generally more expensive than most waterbased markers
  • Tend to stain/permanent
  • Sometimes have fumes- work in a well ventilated area
  • Tend to work well on a variety of papers- cardstock, watercolor paper, bristol, even sketchbook paper
  • Shorter drying time
  • Usually sold only in art or art and craft stores

Waterbased Markers

  • Two types- waterbased and watercolor
  • Rarely refillable
  • Water or water and glycerin solution
  • Often sold only in packs
  • Generally very affordable
  • Tendency to tear up paper if layered
  • Longer drying time
  • Sold almost anywhere
  • A little more difficult to use than alcohol based markers

More information about waterbased/watercolor/alcohol based markers

Walmart Art Supply Review:  Waterbased Markers (Crayola and Cra-A-Art)
How to Know if A Marker is Waterbased/Waterproof

Watercolor Marker Video Workshop

If you're interested in markers, be they alcohol based like Copic, waterbased like Crayola, or watercolor like Winsor & Newton, I highly recommend you scroll through my Reviews tab!  I've reviewed over a dozen brands of alcohol markers, half a dozen watercolor markers, and I'm working my way though several brands of waterbased markers, all to help you find the ones that are best for your needs and your budget. Got a kid who's intersted in alcohol markers like Copics for illustration?  Check out my post on Bic Mark It permanent markers- they might be a great fit for your family while your kid learns the ropes.   And if you haven't yet, I HIGHLY recommend you subscribe to this blog- in the upcoming months, I've got THREE alcohol marker reviews in the works (including a triple feature), and at least FIVE waterbased/watercolor marker reviews, plus tutorials, and lots of video!

If you have any questions that haven't been answered on this blog, or by my Youtube, please send me an email, and I'll try to answer them as thoroughly as possible.


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