You do not have to be a genius to make beautiful Copic Blends!
No Mensa membership required!
Coloring with markers is a skill.
That’s good news; because if it's a skill, that means that it’s completely learnable!
Everyone can learn to color well with Copic markers.
But there is a learning curve-- and how quickly you progress depends upon your ability to diagnose the flaws in your technique.
Improvement means correcting mistakes
Because it’s mistakes that stand between you and flawless coloring!
It's not about talent, it's about diagnosis.
You must diagnose the mistake in order to make an appropriate correction.
I work with a lot of beginners
Here’s the weird thing though:
Even though I meet a lot of different students, I see the same coloring issues over and over.
Let's face it, it's a marker. Short of inserting it into your left nostril, there are only so many ways to screw it up.
So to help you diagnose what goes wrong when you color, let's look at the common mistakes I see from beginners.
Correct these mistakes and you're not a beginner anymore!
Copic Mistake #1: Using swirling or zig-zag strokes
A consistent and even layer of ink is essential to smooth coloring.
But you can’t apply ink consistently if you are coloring with swirls or zig-zag strokes.
Here's a close-up look at a swirl and a zig-zag.
Swirling uses circular strokes. Zig-zagging means working back and forth in a Z motion.
With both strokes, you rarely lift the marker up off the paper. It’s a long and continuous stroke that winds around the page.
And usually, the more space you have to fill, the more winding and wandering your zig-zag or swirl will be.
Now here’s the problem with swirls and zig-zags: the danger is in the repeat!
I've circled the areas in each stroke where the repetitive motion lays down extra ink.
Remember, extra ink means you’re creating a little stubborn spot which will cause problems when you start blending with the next color.
A touch down is where I started the stroke. Markers always give an immediate gush of ink at the beginning (plus our hand tends to hover at the touchdown site a few milliseconds longer).
Then every time the stroke overlaps itself, we get a double layer of ink.
The left lobe of this heart was zig zagged. The right lobe has the swirls.
This is only one application of R27 but in some areas, the ink is several layers thick.
Even though I’m coloring very neatly, it has a messy appearance due to the very uneven coverage.
Now when I add my next color, more swirling or zagging will continue to compound this unevenness.
The Ebenezer Scrooge in me would also like to point out that you are wasting ink this way.
You really don't need 3 coats of ink on the first application and I’m totally afraid of what your layer-count will be after the blend and the inevitable re-blending attempts.
That’s a lot of expensive ink you’re using there!
You need a controlled stroke pattern that is both regulated and consistent.
Balanced ink layers will improve your blending.
With brush nibbed markers like Copic, the way to regulate your ink layers is to use the flick stroke.
Flick strokes provide control.
When you work with flicks, you know exactly where the high and low concentration areas are.
There will always be a gush at the beginning (that’s the touch-down spot) and the ink level will taper off towards the end of your stroke.
Unlike the swirl or zig-zag stroke, when we color an image using flicks, we know exactly which areas of the image have the heaviest concentrations of ink.
To give this heart a raised or puffed-heart look, I know I need to concentrate my darker colors towards the edge of the heart.
I need less color in the highlight areas that are more central.
So I've planned my flicking intelligently to place the highest concentration of my darkest ink (R29) on the outer edges.
The concentration of ink softens as it moves towards the eventual highlight areas. Now when I introduce my next marker color, it will blend with a lightly concentrated area rather than having to fight with heavy layers of R29.
I can introduce flicks of R27 and know the greatest amount of blending will occur right in the transition zones, not on the edges but in towards the center.
A smooth and easy blend (one that happens with very little work from you) relies on even coverage.
To blend smoothly, we want an area in the middle that isn't super-saturated by either color.
The key to this heart is that the edges are 100% concentrated with R29.
As we move closer towards the center, there is less and less R29 and more of the lighter marker colors showing.
Flicking insures that the concentration of ink will land exactly where the color is most needed.
It’s all about you controlling the marker with intentional strokes. If you are not flicking, you're pretty much guessing where the high concentrations of ink will end up.
Guessing leads to bad coloring.
Mistake #2: Starting your marker strokes in the middle of the shape
Hoo, boy! I see a lot of people do this in demonstrations, especially on YouTube!
So it’s not totally your fault if you do this.
You likely picked up this bad habit from someone else!
Okay, so from Mistake #1, we know that we want the greatest ink concentration to be out towards the edge of the image, where our heart is naturally the darkest, correct?
Well, that's really hard to do if you start coloring in the middle of the heart!
This is R27. It’s a lighter red ink, so we want this R27 to end up in the centermost, raised areas of the puffed heart. We want the R29 to fall along the edges.
Now technically, the R27 is in the correct spot.
But here’s the problem: when you start with the lighter color, smack dab in the center, it accidentally creates a heavy edge of ink.
Yes, all around this blob of R27, there is extra ink.
And we know that extra ink is bad.
The edge build-up is what I call a "wall". A wall is an area of thicker ink (where the paper is more fully saturated).
Now when I try to add the darker R29, even if I flick it perfectly... I'm always going to be fighting the wall of R27.
Here it is up close. You can still see the heavy outline of R27 underneath the layer of R29.
This area will never blend easily.
Walls are very tough to disguise!
This is one reason why I work dark to light.
I know, 4 out of 5 dentists recommend working light to dark but hey, I've never been a lemming.
If you work light to dark, you can’t help but scrub the lightest colors down in the center of the shape. Unless you color the whole darned thing R22 (which Ebeneezer seriously frowns upon).
So this highlight zone now has 1 layer of ink and a wall of heavier ink all around it.
The wall isn’t going to magically disappear either.
Light to dark coloring really only works under ideal conditions.
If you're stacking your colors very evenly on a first pass, this is how it should look:
But instead, because we scrubbed in the highlight color into the middle, that means we left a wall around it.
Our layers really look more like this.
Layer one had the wall, Layer 2 had to be extra heavy to handle the wall…
That means it might take 2 coats of a darker pink to fight the wall on the highlight. You now have FOUR layers in some places and only one layer in others.
But wait, it gets worse.
At this point, you've only worked your way darker, you still need to work lighter again to finalize the blend!
Look at the incredible variation in the number of layers you have now that you've worked light again.
You've got SIX layers of ink in what is supposedly a lighter zone!
You’ve got one layer on the outer edge where you need darkness.
Is it any wonder your blend looks choppy and sloppy?
A smooth blend requires consistency in layers. You can't get that when you start in the center.
You make coloring very complicated by working light to dark.
Working dark to light saves time, ink, and heartache.
Now maybe you think I'm overthinking this.
I'll admit, drawing diagrams of microscopic ink layers does venture into overthinking territory...
Sure, it's a tiny 1 inch heart. When an image is this small, I'm not using a lot of ink, so who cares where I start?
But hold on… a lot of stamps are card sized. And if that stamp has a face, the faces are about 1 inch in diameter or less.
And layers matter a lot on faces!
If you start in the center of a face, you've killed your chance to create a smooth and even complexion.
Heavy build-up can make or break the look of a face.
If you put the blush and highlight colors on first, you are putting the most ink where you actually need the least.
Mistake #3: Not building a fence
I teach all my students to flick and I use flicks on every project.
I’m very pro-flicking, but even I’ll admit, there is one gigantic draw-back to flicking.
The start zone, where you begin each flick?
It’s always a little jagged.
No matter how good you are, no matter how much talent you have, even the best professionals rarely flick from a consistent starting point.
Personally, I've got a better chance of winning the lottery than I have of forming nice neat clean outlines on my images with just flicking.
Remember when I said that coloring was all about intelligent ink placement?
If we know the outer edge of our heart will receive a few coats of ink to get it dark enough...
Why not use one of our coats to sharpen the edge?
Yep, I build a fence along the edges of my image. Then, no matter where I start those flicks, I know the dam will camouflage the inconsistencies.
And here's the cool part, if you hit the fence while it's still wet, the fence will be less noticeable!
Here's how I typically work: I build a little bit of fence and then flick inwards from that fence. Then I move on to the next section.
By always hitting the fence while it's damp with the exact same color of flick, the two strokes merge smoothly and basically equalize.
If you wait for the flick to dry, then you're adding one layer on top of another and it's not quite as subtle.
Mistake #4: Over-blending
Over-blending is a problem I see more on the internet than I do with my students.
But that’s because I rush my students through the project. I do it on purpose!
When I keep the pace of the class moving, it prevents students from having time to think about over-blending.
Over-blending is when you put too much ink on the paper.
Paper is like a nice thirsty sponge until it can’t absorb any more liquid. All paper has a saturation point.
Most of the time, over-blending happens comes from “Fix-it-Againitis”.
You’re unhappy with your blending, so you go back and try to fix it.
But the fix doesn’t look good, so you fix the fix.
But that fix doesn’t look great either, so now you’re fixing the fix of the fix.
See where this is going?
Some papers will start to seep and bleed along the outlines when they are oversaturated. Some papers leak out the back. On many "layout" grade papers (used by Manga artists), you'll see an oily sheen where the ink is too heavy.
If you oversaturate X-Press It Blending Card (my absolute favorite marker cardstock), you will get what I call Copic Jelly.
Jelly is a puddle of concentrated ink that can’t be absorbed into the paper. It doesn't have anywhere else to go so it coagulates on the surface of the cardstock. The solvent eventually evaporates and leaves a sticky mess.
But bleeding edges and Copic jelly aren't the only things that happen when you overblend.
When you add more ink to smooth a blend, you actually lose a bit of your color variation.
Here I've used the same 3 markers to make a blend. On the bottom sample, I blended and re-blended, three times.
Look at how flat it looks! Re-blending kills dimensionality.
Not only does the bottom swatch look flatter and less dimensional, it's also significantly darker.
R22 x 3 coats is more like an R25!
1. Work dark to light. The fewer times you have to go up and down the blending scale, the less opportunity you'll have to over-blend.
2. If you are unhappy with a blend, stop working on that area. Go color a new area. When you finally come back to the mistake area, you'll look at the bad spot with fresh eyes. Chances are, the blend isn't nearly as tragic as you originally thought.
3. Take a step back. The average colorer hovers about 2 inches away from their paper when they're analyzing a mistake.
I know, I watch you folks cram up close and squint!
Here's a question: When you want to see if a pair of pants makes your butt look fat, do you stand two inches away from the mirror?
How about when you check your makeup?
Whoa! Nothing looks good at at two inches away. Even freakin’ Kate Upton looks like a fat hag from two inches away!
Step away from the paper.
Can you still see the mistake from 2 feet away?
Unless your card recipient is grandma who forgot her spectacles, your viewer is going to be looking at your project from about an arms distance away.
Things always look better when they're not under a microscope!
Mistake #5: Coloring very Slowly
I see this problem develop when students finally understand the blending technique but they’re still shaky and unsure about how to do it perfectly.
The drive for perfection is the killer here.
So you know how to flick and where to flick but you still make a lot of mistakes… so you slow down.
Maybe it's because you're overthinking the process. It's natural, when your brain gets busy, your hand slows down.
Or maybe you figure if you color slowly you’ll be able to correct yourself, mid-mistake.
But pay attention to the teacher or demonstrator… they’re not coloring slowly, are they?
Not if they’re good. Good colorers are almost never slow colorers.
I'm a jack-rabbit. I don't waste time dinking around. Seeing a molasses colorer makes me want to honk my horn at them. Beep-beep, hurry it up buddy!
But it's not just an I'm annoying Amy problem…
When you color slow, you lay down a ton of ink!
Slow colorers easily cause themselves more problems than they're solving. Pokey-slow is a problem.
Beep-beep! Hurry up!
Here is one stoke. One long and slow (and painful) stroke.
For the first peak, sooo slow. Look at how much it bled!
The second peak was a teeny bit faster.
The third peak was faster yet but still slow compared to my normal flick rate.
Now check out what the speed did to the line color.
The squiggly line I made isn't just fuzzy and weepy, it's also several shades darker! It looks like I used different Copics but I didn’t. That’s one marker giving me significantly darker coloring based on speed alone.
If you are regularly getting bleed-through, oil slicks, or Copic Jelly on the surface of your cardstock, maybe it's not how many times you're re-blending, maybe it's your speed!
So there you go: 5 Beginner Copic mistakes and 5 solutions
Swishy strokes and zig-zags lead to sloppy, choppy blending.
Use a flick stroke for greater ink control.
When you start in the center, you build an unblendable wall.
Work dark to light, you’ll use less ink and ruin fewer faces.
Flick strokes have messy starting lines.
Build a small fence and hit it while it’s wet for clean, crispy edges.
Fixing the fix of the fix of the fix of the fix…
Stop and take a breath. Come back to it later to decide if you really need to fix it again.
Slow strokes and deep thoughts…
Turtle coloring leads to over-saturated paper and flat color.
But wait, that’s not all!
There are more mistakes coming.
I sat down to brainstorm five mistakes and came up with a big bunch. I'll cover five more beginner mistakes in another post.
And hey, I'm not above the law either. I'll point the magnifying glass at myself and see what I come up with.
We can all improve at least a little, don'tcha think?