Colored Markers Part II: Alcohol-Based Markers

In this second part of our markers series we look at alcohol-based markers, and the differences between alcohol- and water-based markers.

Colored Markers

Click here to read Colored Markers Part I: Water-Soluble Markers

Alcohol-based markers can give you smooth coverage and vibrant colors, which make them a favorite for coloring. They are fast-drying and waterproof.

The differences between water-based and alcohol-based markers boil down to their inks and how the inks interact with the papers used in coloring books.

The Ink
Water-based markers use a mix of water (obvious, eh?) and dye. Dyes are made of tiny molecules and are easy to dissolve. However, they are not fade-resistant and will run or spot if they get wet. And, if you rub the color with fingers that have any moisture on them (water, lotion, natural skin oils, etc.), you’ll end up with color blotches on your hand and possibly parts of your coloring page. Dyes and water are not too expensive, so generally water-based markers are cheaper than alcohol-based markers.

The more expensive pigments used in alcohol-based markers are made from molecules that are much larger than dyes and are harder to dissolve – hence the alcohol. However the color is less likely to fade, and you can, to an extent, “push” around the ink after you put it on the paper. These two qualities make alcohol-based markers favorites with designers and artists.

The Paper
Now, if you look at a piece of paper under a microscope, you will see that it is made up of fibers – thousands of cellulose fibers tangled together. These fibers are like long, spongy ropes. When you color on the paper, it sort of looks like this:

DYEPIGAfter a few passes of coloring in the same area with a water-based marker, the fibers fill up with the water, and as they get saturated, they burst like tiny water balloons and the paper pills and eventually tears. Because the water takes some time to dry, the molecules of dye haven’t yet fixed inside the paper fibers, and you can intensify the color with more strokes (until you start destroying the paper, that is). This is why you get banding: the dye molecules build up making the color darker with each pass.

Colored Markers
10 strokes of colored marker on paper

Alcohol-based markers do not fill the fibers with liquid. If you color over the same area with an alcohol-based marker, some of the ink sits on the surface of the paper, some very quickly “flows” around and through the paper’s fibers, and the alcohol dries almost instantly. This flow is why you get bleeding to the other side of the paper. Additional layers of ink will make sure as few of the white paper fibers will show through, giving your colors a much smoother, richer look. Of course, you will have more bleeding to the back of the paper, but in this case it can be a good thing to “embrace the bleed!”

Colored Markers
Marker point on paper for 5 seconds

The ink in alcohol-based markers will also bleed from the tip of the marker; water-based markers usually not so much. So you should practice a bit to see how close to an illustration’s lines you can get. The extent of the bleeding from the tip changes for different types of paper, so always test in an inconspicuous place before starting your coloring. This can be a trial and error process.

Since alcohol dries quickly, the pigment in it sticks in and on the paper. As a result the colors don’t combine: they don’t have room to create a much darker version with repeated passes of your marker. More marker strokes will, though, ensure coverage of all the fibers and eliminate any white spots. For the same reason if you color over another color, the paper takes on the color of the most recent, darkest color: if you layer red over yellow you get red. Layering water-based markers  will result in a color mix: red over yellow will give you orange.

COlored Markers
Layering Marker Colors

Finally, because some of the molecules are on top of the paper, with alcohol-based markers you can – with the right techniques and tools – push them around or even remove them. This is why you can almost seamlessly blend different but similar colors.

But you ask: “I see artists shade and blend water-based markers to get a similar effect as alcohol-based markers – why can’t I “? Artists typically use a special paper when creating with water-based markers. This paper has a material, often gelatin, coating the surface and sometimes mixed in with the fibers. The coating delays the absorption and drying of the water and dyes, and the artist can then blend with another color or even a brush dipped in water.

What about the smell?
Water-based markers usually don’t have a scent – if they do it is probably fruity like you had in your Mr. Sketch set when you were a kid. Most alcohol-based markers do smell like alcohol, but some are stronger than others: my Sharpies are strong compared to my Prismacolors. This alcohol is technically not a safety hazard, but too much can still irritate you eyes or lungs. When using alcohol-based markers make sure you color in a well-ventilated workspace.

If you are particularly sensitive to or bothered by the smell of alcohol-based markers, head to your art supply store and do a smell-test with the open-stock markers before you dive into buying a whole set. If they all bother you, stick to water-based markers, gel pens or colored pencils.

So, what colored markers are best?

It depends: on what you like, what paper you are using and what kind of look you want your coloring project to have. Here are some of my “quick-pick” recommendations with great reviews in the colorist community:

Water=based Markers : Student Grade
 Crayola 50-Count Super Tips Washable Scented Markers A great selection of colors at an unbeatable price, although sometimes out of stock. And you you get 5 scented markers – yippee! $4.99 – nope, not a typo, $4.99 right now on Amazon


Water-based Markers: Artist Grade
Tombow Dual Brush Pen Set 20-Count, Jelly Bean and Groovy Colors. Don’t be put off by the description of the colors. These have a fine tip and a brush tip. $33.99.


Alcohol-based Markers: Student Grade
Sharpie Ultra-Fine-Point Permanent Markers, 24-Pack. These are great for detail – my favorites for Johanna Basfords coloring books. $14.01


Alcohol-based Markers: Artist Grade
Prismacolor Premier Double Ended Art Markers, Chisel Tip and Fine Tip,12-Count This was my first set of artist-quality markers and when I have single-sided illustrations they are my go-to. $18.98


What is your experience with the different types of markers? Do you have a preference?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Colored Markers image from

4 thoughts on “Colored Markers Part II: Alcohol-Based Markers”

  1. I don’t have a comment, but I do have a question. I am having the hardest time finding out what coloring books are best for alcohol based markers. I know you talked an about the different papers but I can’t find any information on where I can find books strictly for the alochol based markers. I just got the Chameleon pens and am excited to use them. If you have any input on this I would really appreciate it. Thank you

    1. Good question, Sarah! First, because publishers use so many different papers (some thick, some textured with “tooth”), you want a coloring book with images printed only on one side of the page. Regardless, you should slip a sheet of paper behind the page while coloring just to make sure the ink doesn’t bleed through to the next design. Also, the smoother the paper the better to minimize how much your markers’ ink “feathers” on the design itself – creeping outside the specific area you are coloring or even outside lines. You will find that coloring books that take markers well will state that in their description, which will be confirmed (or not) by customer reviews.

      If you are printing your own pages at home, the best printer will be laser, and the best paper (if you don’t want any bleeding or feathering) is one made specifically for markers, such as this one: and this one: Marker paper also makes blending easier. The downside? Marker paper is quite thin, so you will need to clip it to a hard surface when you color.

      Hope that helps!

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