Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Brush Pen Markers: Are they really comparable to watercolors?

I have been trying out new art media each month for several months now, and this month was all about the brush pens that are cropping up everywhere. Many are marketed as “watercolor” pens, and they are, technically, watercolor in the sense of water-based dye or ink. I wanted to try a few to see how they compare to actual watercolor. Spoiler: there really is no comparison, but these pens are still worth trying.

Products I am reviewing: Tombow Dual Brush Pen Art Markers, Spreey Brush Pens, and GenCrafts Watercolor Brush Pens.

Affiliate Disclaimer: For full transparency, you should know that many of my links in my posts are affiliate links. As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when readers purchase items using my affiliate links. This helps me fund the blog domain costs, and you will not be charged extra if you buy anything using my links. 

Tombow Dual Brush Pen Art Markers: (Portrait, Pastel, Muted sets)

graphic with images of Tombow Dual Brush Marker Pen sets, portrait, pastel, and muted colors
The product images in this graphic are from Amazon.com

Colors in portrait set: Peach, Tan, Light Sand, Baby Pink, Blush, Pale Cherry, Saddle Brown, Chocolate, Black

Colors in pastel set: Carnation, Pink, Light Ochre, Pale Yellow, Mint, Sky Blue, Process Blue, Mist Purple,Lilac

Colors in muted set: Wine Red, Burnt Sienna, Yellow Gold, Hunter Green, Navy Blue, Dark Plum, Chocolate, Cool Grey, Black

Tombow Dual Brush Marker Pens are pretty popular with artists and colorists (adult coloring book enthusiasts) for many reasons. First, the dual tips (one "brush", one fine bullet felt tip) are handy for coloring in various sized spaces. The colors are gorgeous, and many are hard to find in other brands. What I liked most about the colors was that I could find the pale pastels and earthy muted tones that I use most in my artwork. I bought the three 10-piece sets pictured above, but there are several more sets, including some 20-piece and the 108 color set that is the entire collection except for a few new colors sold in a 12-piece pack. (Note: the 10 packs have only nine colors and one blender each).

I need to get a few nitpicks out of the way now. These markers are not really brushes like you might be used to in other brush pens like the Micron brush tip or various fude style drawing pens. It is a semi-flexible felt tip with a brush shape that will not perform like a paintbrush. This is not necessarily a bad thing depending on what you use them for, but some people are very disappointed by this feature. Also, they are overpriced, in my opinion, and if you buy the smaller packs, you will get some repeat colors. Finally, the colorless blender is crap, and I would rather have a tenth color for the price.

Despite the gripes, I do enjoy working with these markers, especially in coloring books. I have tried them on watercolor and mixed media papers as well, and the results are great as long as you don't overwork any areas. These are water-based, water soluble markers and will leave streaks and lift the paper if you layer them too much. All the blender does is tear up the paper surface, but a water brush is very useful in its place.

Can you use them for watercolor effects? Not really, the ink is too opaque. They are basically nicer markers. Your results will depend on the paper you use and how much pressure you put on the "brush" tip. The Tombow website lists all of the sets available, and you can download a color swatch list with the color numbers and names. The pens are labelled with the numbers only.

I made the swatches below of all my colors on Canson XL Mixed Media paper. You can see how the colors are more opaque than the other brush markers I will be reviewing and also note the streaking.

graphic with images of Swatches for Tombow Dual Brush Marker sets: portrait, pastel, and muted colors

Amazon prices vary between $12-15 for the 10-piece sets, while the sets of 96 and 108 markers run well over $100. Tombow is a great brand, but their items can be a little spendy!

  • Nine colors + 1 colorless blender per set (12, 20, 108 color sets available)
  • Beautiful colors, many not available in other brands
  • Blend/layer beautifully together/ with other brands
  • Features two tips, one fine felt and one "brush" tip 
  • Water soluble, works well with other media
  • Brush not as flexible as with other brands
  • Color number, not names on pens
  • Expensive compared to other brands

product image of Spreey Watercolor Brush pens, 48 piece set from Amazon.com
Product image from Amazon.com

Spreey Brush Pens (48-piece set)

Colors in 48 piece set:

Web image of color swatches for Spreey Brush Pen 48 piece set
Swatches image from Amazon product description
The Spreey Watercolor Brush Pens feature a flexible synthetic brush and Japanese ink in brilliant transparent colors. You can actually achieve some watercolor effects with these pens, but they would not be a suitable replacement for artists who use advanced techniques. Beginners are not going to learn how to watercolor with these brush pens, either. That said, there are plenty of artistic applications for these pens that make them worth buying, and they are extremely affordable.

I love the ink. It is smooth and transparent, layers well with no streaks, and plays nice with both waterproof and water soluble media. I tried them with dry colored pencil, technical pens, pen and ink, and alcohol markers as well as watercolor pencils. I used the included water brush to blend and dilute shades with excellent results. The tips self-clean, and if you dip them in water, you can lighten the color. The ink will return to the tip at regular strength once you stop using the water.

The only complaint I have is that there are no color names or numbers on the pens. There is a chart similar to the image I have embedded above on the back of the packaging, and the pens are packed in the same order as the chart. You can always find a way to mark the pens yourself or keep them in the exact order until you memorize the colors. Also, the color names seem a bit off to me, but that is subjective to the viewer.
As of today, the 48 pen set is under $17 (Prime member price), and you can use the coupon for another 5% off. This is the cheapest set I have bought so far, and the color selection is fantastic.

  • 48 colors plus water brush (24 color set also available)
  • Very flexible soft brushes 
  • Smooth-flowing Japanese ink in bold colors
  • Transparent color creates watercolor effects well
  • Blend/layer beautifully together/ with other brands
  • Water soluble, works well with other media
  • Very affordable
  • Colors not indicated on pens (packaged in order of color chart on back of box)

product image of GenCrafts Watercolor pens, set of 20 with water brush from Amazon.com
Product image from Amazon.com

GenCrafts Watercolor Brush Pens (20-piece set)

Colors in 20 piece set:

Web image of GenCraft Watercolor pen swatches from Amazon product description
Image from product description at Amazon.com

GenCrafts makes 20, 50, and 100-piece watercolor marker sets that you can buy on Amazon or from their website. If one were to strip all branding from these and the Spreey pens, you would not be able to tell them apart save for the slightly different caps. The ink and brush tips are also identical, so everything I wrote about the Spreey brush pens applies also to the GenCrafts.

The 20-piece set comes with a water brush, but the larger sets do not include one for some reason. These pens are labelled with the color names, however. so there is that perk. They are great and have all of the wonderful qualities of the Spreey markers, and the color selection is wider (100 vs 48 for the Spreey set). I would like to see the colors in the 100-piece set to see if there are a lot of similar shades in there. I balk at this because I can create new colors by blending and layering the colors I have. 

I bought the 20-piece GenCrafts Watercolor Pens set using a lightning deal, so I only spent about $15 for this set. Normally it is around $21 (Prime member price). The price is still comparable to some other brands (like Arteza, Art-n-Fly), but since the Spreey set was only a dollar more for 48 pens, I have to wonder if labelled pens are worth the markup.

  • 20 colors plus water brush (50,100 color sets available without water brush)
  • Very flexible soft brushes 
  • Smooth ink flow, bold colors
  • Transparent color creates watercolor effects well
  • Blend/layer beautifully together/ with other brands
  • Water soluble, works well with other media
  • Affordable, but likely overpriced
  • Colors are indicated on pens

One positive attribute for all of these pens is that they do not bleed through most papers. If your favorite coloring books have images printed on both sides of each page, this will be important. If you use alcohol markers, you have to choose which side you like more or buy two books, but these water-based pens allow you to use both sides. You won't get the flawless flat washes that alcohol markers give you, but you can put down base colors very quickly with the brush markers.

Can you fool an art critic into believing your marker masterpiece is a traditional watercolor painting? That's a probable nope, but it doesn't stop you from creating beautiful art with these brush pens.

Do you use brush pens for your art? I would love to read your opinions and see what you can do with these beauties!


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