I just finished teaching a four-day illustration class, which was an absolute blast! We talked about using art as a visual storytelling device, and went through the design process for creating believable characters, mood-enhancing settings, book covers, and comic strips. The first things parents said when picking up their kids on the last day? “So-and-so had a great time!” Quickly followed by… “Can you tell me where to get these Copic markers my kid keeps talking about?”
Let’s be honest. Copic Sketch markers are just about the most expensive markers on the market right now. Are they the right tool for 6-12 year old kids to be using in a summer art camp? Are they the right tools for parents to buy for their children to use at home? In large part, the answer to these questions depends on the maturity of the child and the oversight of the teacher/parent. I will admit that I was concerned before teaching this class – concerned that these beautiful markers would be beaten and battered, abused by youths who wouldn’t appreciate their creative value, much less their monetary value. But I was pleasantly surprised by how well they treated them! There were only one or two minor instances when I had to emphasize the importance of respecting the materials… and I believe that is partly due to the fact that they are so fantastic it’s hard to disrespect them!
So they turned out to be exactly the right tool for my illustration class… but does that mean they’re the right tool for you, as a parent, to buy for your child? Or maybe you’re a young artist reading this, wondering if you should buy them for yourself? Here are the three major questions you should always ask yourself before purchasing new, expensive art materials:
What’s so great about these markers anyway? Copic is one of many brands producing alcohol-based inks, which are awesome for blending, layering, and making really vibrant, detailed illustrations. Copic markers also have the juicy brush-tip nibs, which everyone loves!
My Personal Choice: Copic Sketch markers are the style of marker that everyone raves about. They’re the most expensive of the alcohol-based marker types, but for good reason. The Sketch line of markers are all refillable and have replaceable nibs, so with long-term use (don’t ever throw them away) they actually come out cheaper than some alternatives. However, because of the expense it can be hard to decide which set to start with. Choose based on what you’ll be drawing. Portraits, you’ll want the skin tone set. Most other things, a primary set and/or a secondary set can be a great start. Refills cost about the same amount as the individual markers, but one refill tube can refill a single marker about 7+ times. Replacement tips aren’t cheap, but not as expensive as new markers either.
Slightly Less Expensive Option: Copic Ciao markers are the exact same inks and tips, but they aren’t refillable and their nibs aren’t replaceable. This means they’re somewhat more affordable in the short term, but more expensive if you plan to use Copic markers long-term.
More Affordable But Still Expensive: Prismacolor Premier Brush Tip Markers are nice for vibrant colors, but I personally had bad experiences with their skin tones. They just seemed to look unnatural. But if your style involves lots of vivid colors, Prismacolors might be perfect for you! These markers have a brush and bullet tip, and can also be found in bullet/chisel variety (without the fancy brush nib everyone loves). Their colors are more vibrant and slightly less blendable, but significantly less expensive.
Most Affordable Option: I have never used these, but I know folks who claim that the Blick Studio Brush Markers are the best Copic alternative. They aren’t refillable, but supposedly have a similar feel and similar inks. At about half the cost, they might be a perfect starter set!
The alcohol-based inks in these markers will bleed and feather on normal papers, making them a hugely unsatisfying mess! If that sentence sounded like gibberish… Bleeding is when the ink spreads downward through the paper, and comes out the back side onto your table or whatever is underneath. Feathering is when the ink spreads sideways across the paper, making it look like you don’t know how to color inside the lines! So what kind of paper do I need if I’m using Copic markers?
Affordable Option: I personally use Hammermill Color Copy Digital Cover, 100lb thickness. This paper provides a great balance between blendability of the inks without too much feathering. Alcohol inks will still bleed through to some extent, but only if they are applied with heavy saturation.
Expensive Option: A more expensive recommendation is XPress It Blending Card. This paper is specifically designed for Copic Markers, by a subsidiary of the parent company that makes the markers. In my experience, it operates exactly the same as the Hammermill paper listed above, at a much higher cost.
Sketchbook Option: I recently bought one of the RendR no-show-through sketchbooks, and I’m way more impressed than I thought I’d be. It’s kinda expensive for a sketchbook of its size, but the paper works really well with Copics without any bleed through to the back or other pages, so you can use both sides of every single sheet. It does have a bit more feathering than the other papers mentioned above, but the colors blend even better on this paper than they do on the above papers.
Marker Papers: There are many papers out there that are specifically labelled as Marker Paper. These are typically a translucent white paper with a coating on the back to prevent bleeding. As with the RendR sketchbook, markers tend to blend more smoothly on these papers, with the trade-off being that the ink feathers more.
Highest Quality Option: The pens we used in Illustration Class were Sakura Pigma Micron pens. These are reasonably affordable and also the best for doing line work in Copic drawings. The ink is smudge-proof, waterproof, and permanent. Once it’s on the paper, it won’t move at all, no matter how rough you get with erasers or markers around your line work. They come in a variety of nib sizes for different line weights, and also come in a variety of colors.
Cheap Option (Not Recommended): You can find cheaper alternatives for fine liners, but most are not worth getting. They are typically easy to smudge with hands or erasers. Most off-brand fine liner pens are also not waterproof, meaning that coloring with markers over or near your line work isn’t going to work. Cheap pens also have a tendency to dry out quickly. And the cost difference doesn’t make up for the quality difference.
Really Expensive Option: You can get fine liner pens from the Copic brand. I’ve used some of them, and I don’t think they’re any better than the ones listed above. The exception is that the SP line from Copic are refillable (just like the markers are), and they have replaceable nibs (just like the markers do). But they’re SUPER expensive…
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