Project Friday: Working with Tombow Markers (Or Other Markers)

October 12, 2012


A 9 x 12 inch page spread in my Fabriano Venezia in-studio journal. (Note that I frequently get interrupted or write so quickly I misspell—that’s “rockford” with a d.)

I’ve written other Project Fridays suggesting you work with a particular medium and give it a go to see what you can do with it over a block of time (2 hours, 2 days, 2 weeks…). Today I thought I’d be even more specific because that way I can combine a Project Friday with a product review.

My friend Tim Jennen has been working on a series of sketches made while watching movies. He doesn’t have a website so I can’t show you any of these, but he is on Facebook. His sketches aren’t really sketches they are more like full on paintings with Tombow markers and some graphite (recently he’s been adding color when he watches a movie filmed in color). I don’t recall how many of these he has done so far, but he is past 200. 

A couple weeks ago a rep came to Wet Paint to let customers try out a new line of colored pencils and Tombow Markers. I went to see the pencils and came home with a set of 10 grey markers.

Let me say this up front: Tombow states that the markers are acid free and suggests them for use in scrapbooking. DO NOT USE THESE MARKERS FOR SCRAPBOOKING unless you want your scrapbooks to be useful for only a very limited number of years.  When I quizzed the rep on how archival the pens were there was a bunch of hemming and hawing. He seemed uncomfortable even talking about 20 years—what person making a scrapbook doesn’t want it to last longer than 20 years? Most people don’t even get grandchildren until well after that and aren’t future generations the readership for scrapbooks? 

Tombow markers are DYE based and their colors are fugitive. They are going to fade whether or not you have them exposed to light—the dye is going to break down.

I’m using them because I wanted to PLAY and Project Friday suggestions are about play. (Well and sometimes about work too, but you get the idea.)

Another spread in the 9 x 12 inch journal. This time with dogs as the subject. I found it very fun to quickly apply light shades with one pen and then darken things with the other. You don’t have the watercolor drying time. (Note: the quotation at the bottom of the page is from Cesar Millan—I was watching “The Dog Whisperer” while sketching. He was speaking about how dogs pick up on a person’s energy and if a person feels sorry for a dog that energy is perceived as weak by the dog.) 

Over the next week or so I spent time with these markers seeing how they felt and what they could do. They have a solid brush tip that is responsive, but very different from the brush tipped pens I use which have hair or synthetic hair tips. There is also a solid writing tip on the other end of the barrel.

Another feature of these pens is that their ink is blendable. You can use their blending pen, or you can use a waterbrush, or you can use one of the other pens to mix right on the page. 

This makes them unsuitable (even if lightfastness weren’t an issue) for sketching and then painting over when you want your lines to be preserved. But it makes them totally suitable if you want to play with melding your ink lines.

Another 9 x 12 inch page spread.

In some ways I found working with these pens freeing. I could work faster, because I was working in a lighter shade of grey that I could easily work over or “correct” later. There was definitely a mental shift needed from how I work with the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen.

But at the same time it seemed a little tiring—restating things. I like to go in and be done. Or I like to be playing with paint. That’s just how I like to work.

What I did find is that I enjoy these pens enough that I will continue to work with them off and on when I want to make quick value or compositional studies. In other words, I will use these pens as a tool to make decisions but not for final artwork. 

Another study on a 9 x 12 inch page in my in-studio journal. I’ve noted the shades in order of usage.

With this in mind I used them the other night in life drawing. My approach didn’t work and I ended up going back to my PPBP and also graphite for my final drawing of the evening. In life drawing I’m making a lot of quick sketches, few of which I ever want to keep—and frankly if I get something I want to keep I can scan it—so archival issues are not issues for me in that usage.

I’ll definitely keep using the Tombow pens in life drawing, because I can learn some things about seeing and relating values quickly with them; and I’m not after archival pieces.

I also found in my endeavors with these pens that I most enjoyed working on them in the Fabriano Venezia journal. The paper seemed slick enough to not suck the ink out of the pens yet created some drag (which I like to feel). Softer papers I’ve tried included newsprint, Strathmore Charcoal Paper, and Magnani Annigoni Designo (a tan, wet-media paper). They were all too absorbent and the pen tips didn’t feel right or as fun on those papers. Blending also didn’t work as well as the papers absorbed too much of the ink.

So if you decide to try these markers be sure to test them on several types of paper to find one that has a feel you enjoy working with.

If you want to work with markers but want a marker that is lightfast then check out Faber-Castell Pitt Artist’s Brush Pens. These come in a variety of colors, including a range of warm and cool greys. The inks are a form of India Ink. I use the Calligraphy pen in that line all the time. The ink is waterproof so you can paint over it (which of course I like to do). This aspect of the Pitt also makes it more difficult to get blended outcomes. 

Artist Don Colley continues to do incredible things with the Pitt Pens. He was in town last week at several events: the Bell Museum Sketch Out, Wet Paint, FallCon, and the MetroSketchers sketch out at Lakewood Cemetery. If you weren’t able to see Don in person on his visit  you can see Don Colley’s stunning work on his blog, Buttnekkiddoodles.

I urge you to make a point to see Don in person as well. It’s just plain fun to watch him draw. I mentioned on Facebook, while urging people to go to the Wet Paint event, that his demonstrations are like mini-master classes. He talks quietly and quickly about the points he wants to make while his hands make it happen before your eyes.  Have a question, don’t understand something, he just keeps drawing so that his point is clear. Don works on paper with a smooth finish and does some blending with his finger before the ink sets up to its permanent state.

For this Project Friday explore your favorite brand of marker, or discover a new brand of marker (perhaps one of the two mentioned here). Give yourself some time to explore the types of lines and layers that are possible. Work on a variety of subjects—subjects that you love. I frequently test new materials with a new portrait of Gert because I’m so comfortable drawing her that I can focus on what the new tool or medium is or isn’t doing. 

During your experimentation you might discover that a certain brand of markers works well for the tasks you had hoped to use it for or for tasks you didn’t think it could handle. You’ll never know unless you get in there and give it a try.

UPDATE OCTOBER 28, 2012—Ellen Ward sent me a lightfastness test she did with Tombow markers, exposing them for about 2 weeks. The results are interesting. The link takes you to her test card image on Flickr. While the fading is pretty significant (and happened very quickly) remember that dyes can fade without exposure to light as well. Keep that in mind. Thanks Ellen, for sharing your test!









  1. Reply

    I bought 2 Tombow markers months ago and knew right away I didn’t like them. However, I didn’t think to use them for experimenting in designs. That way I won’t use up my favorite pens which are Pitt. I’ve noticed that using Pitt for several years has made me shy about using the new pen I got – the Pentel Brush. I think I’ll just doodle with it till I get used to it.

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