Do you rub and scrub and work really hard to make the blend smooth and it just doesn’t work? Are you beginning to think that you’ll never blend well?
Can I ask you a question?
I see this question a lot on marker discussion boards. And usually eight to ten very nice and well meaning colorers respond with:
“I love frog paper!”
“Hammermill is awesome!”
“I”ve been buying coverstock for twenty years now and it’s the best!”
“You can’t beat the paper that I found stuffed behind a dumpster in the alley off 53rd Street!!!!”
Okay, maybe not that last one… but honest to Betsy, I want to stab myself in the left eyeball with a flaming marshmallow on a sharp stick every single time someone recommends the wrong paper for Copic coloring.
Yes, I said it.
Office grade copy coverstock is the WRONG, WRONG, WRONG paper for Copic coloring.
I always preface these One Tiny Thing articles with a warning that there are no amazing tricks that will instantly improve your coloring with zero effort on your part.
There are no marker life-hacks.
But that’s not entirely true.
There is one thing which absolutely, positively, and most assuredly will improve your coloring instantaneously.
Let me ask you this:
How many races would Dale Earnhardt have won if he’d decided that Coca Cola was cheaper than gasoline?
Would Michael Jordan have dominated the basketball court if he had worn six inch peep-toe stilletos?
How far would Neil Armstrong have gotten in a space suit made up of duct tape and Hershey’s Kiss wrappers?
Ohhhhh… so some things are not interchangeable?
Huh. So you totally understand that to do something well, you need the right tool for the job?
And yet you still try to blend Copic Markers on paper designed for computer printers?
In fact, I firmly believe that your choice of paper is far more important than which brand of alcohol marker you use.
You can get good results from the worst markers on great quality paper.
Marker paper and marker cardstocks are designed for use with marker inks.
It’s not a case of finding a paper which doesn’t bleed through or get feathery. Lots of papers are thick enough to prevent bleed through and there are a ton of papers which do not feather. That doesn’t make them good for Copics.
Marker paper is more than thick and smooth.
On the right paper, you don’t have to do the blending. The blending happens automatically.
Specialty Marker paper and cardstocks don’t just allow you to blend well, they actually make the blends happen.
Students who come to me with blending problems often assume it's something they're doing wrong. In most cases, a simple switch to marker formulated paper solves at least half of their blending problem.
I can’t state that firmly enough. Your choice of paper is the number one thing affecting the look of your blends.
Paper is more important than your marker selection.
Paper is more important than your blending combinations.
It’s more important than your application technique.
It’s more important than artistic talent.
Paper is a vital tool. Substandard paper gives you inferior results.
Look, I get it. You’ve shelled out a bunch of money on Copics. You’ve blown your budget and you can’t stand to think about spending another fortune on paper.
When you purchased the markers, you essentially signed up for the cost of the correct paper.
And you won’t get a lot of sympathy from me about marker paper prices given that I routinely shell out four to five times that cost for my watercolor and illustration papers.
Artists are very particular about paper because we’ve learned from experience that the price of paper is part of the cost of doing art. We’re willing to pay for good paper because we see how it improves our process and our projects.
Colorers don’t get that life lesson quite as fast because they’re generally not coloring multiple projects every single day. And because most colorers never try anything other than inappropriate computer paper, they don’t realize how much easier blending can be.
Let's say your dumb cousin Jimmy called you up and asked to borrow your dog. Someday he wants to race in the Kentucky Derby but he can’t afford a horse yet. So he wants to ride your Labradoodle until he scrapes together enough money for a thoroughbred.
I feel like that sometimes when I’m talking with people who will complain all the live-long day about their blending problems and yet they won’t switch to a better grade of paper.
“But what if I try a different marker combination? Or what if I take more classes? Or what do you think of that tutorial that recommends coloring upside-down by the light of the full moon?”
Or how about if you get the correct paper to go with your markers?
Scrapbookers understand that some decorative papers are better than others. I’ve been told by more than one cardmaker “Don’t get those multipacks of paper from the dollar store. They’re not as nice as the good stuff!”
I’ve also heard from colorers and art journalers that you have to be careful about the paper quality in coloring books and journals.
So why do so many people not make the same connection about Copic Markers?
Why do so many colorers wholeheartedly recommend the wrong type of paper for marker coloring?
When you recommend frog paper, you’re essentially saying “This is the best of the worst kind of paper. But hey, enjoy!”
I’ve got a few other articles about paper here in the Studio Journal. The links are at the end of this article. I encourage you to read them and think about the paper that you use.
Unfortunately, these great papers usually cost more than computer paper. That's because paper for copy machines and printers is a low-grade paper that's designed to be inexpensive and disposable.
If you’re cheaping out and selecting copy paper based on it’s bargain basement price, then you need to beware. You aren't getting the great deal you think you are. There are hidden costs-
You are using extra ink to smooth your blends.
You are starting over more frequently because of unfixable mistakes.
You are paying for it emotionally every single time you crank out yet another mediocre looking project.
Part of your blending problems have nothing to do with you. It’s the paper.
Using the best marker cardstocks and papers available is One Tiny Thing you can do to improve your coloring.
FOR A COMPARISON OF MY TWO FAVORITE PAPERS:
MORE ARTICLES ON PAPER SELECTION:
THE ENTIRE TINY THINGS SERIES:
Remember that feeling you had when you first learned to ride a bicycle? The speed, the wind in your face, the feeling that you’d fly to the moon if you could just pedal fast enough. You probably spent the entire summer riding up and down the street. That first burst of freedom is pure joy.
Copic colorers experience the same thing when they finally pin down the mechanics of smooth blending. And once we get a taste of it, we’re hooked. We will blend and blend and blend… just for the sheer happiness of it.
I’ll admit it, even after years of marker experience, I still love it when a satin smooth blend appears. It’s a special kind of satisfaction.
But at what price?
Yes, there’s a price to be paid when you blend.
Most colorers don’t even realize they’re paying for blends. They’ll blend all day long- smoothing and re-blending their projects repeatedly without recognizing the damage they’re doing to the overall image.
Yep. Every time you blend, you loose some of the deep dark color that is essential to realism.
The more you blend, the more value you loose.
Value is a measurement of the strength of a color. You can’t say “light” or “dark” because light and dark are relative terms. Lighter than what? Darker than what? Is dark yellow darker than light blue?
Lighter or darker is an opinion.
Not value though. Value is a exact way of measuring the strength or visual potency of a color. Now I’m not talking theoretical art terminology here. You use color value measurements all the time; you just don’t realize it.
In Copics, the last number on the marker cap indicates the value of the ink color. Copic has computer measured the strength of that color and they’ve told you where it rates on their value scale.
That last number is consistent across all the color families and it sets up a relationship between colors that you might think are completely unrelated. A Y38 is the same value as a BG78 because they both rate an 8 on the value scale. R17 measures the same value as E77 even though they’re from completely different color families.
Value is important because capturing accurate values are one key to realism. In order to make something look rounded and three dimensional, you don’t just need shade, you need shade that’s deep enough and potent enough to simulate depth. If you skimp on the values, your shaded areas aren’t strong enough, and that flattens out your coloring.
And as I said before, blending robs your project of value.
Because we blend with our middle and lighter Copic markers.
In Copics, a low last number indicates a higher level of colorless blender in the ink. Colorless blender destroys value. E33 has far more colorless blender in it than E37. So when I hit that E37 with a low value brown marker to blend it out, I’m moving some of that level 7 color around to make the entire area feel lighter and less potent. The more you blend, the more that E37 starts to look like E36 or E35.
You may have used a dark marker but it no longer carries the original value after you complete the blending process. Once you’ve blended it, it’s no longer as dark as it once was. You have removed some of its value.
This is a serious problem for a lot of intermediate level colorers who tend to be obsessed with blending. They’ll blend and reblend their areas, chasing the thrill of a perfect blend…
...and then they wonder why all their projects look flat.
Blending kills value.
Contrast is the difference between two values. There is very little contrast between E33 and E34, the colors are too similar. Conversely, there’s a lot of contrast between E33 and E39.
Artists care about contrast. The most pleasing images feature contrast AND a good range of values within that contrast range.
The Iced Joe illustration shown here uses markers that end in 9, 7, 5, 4, 3, 1, and 0. That’s almost a full range of Copic values from the darkest parts of the coffee to the palest gray of the glass mug. Realism relies on value and a balanced contrast range.
But think about what would happen if I started obsessing about my blends.
If I hit my coffee browns (E89 and E59) with lots of E35 to improve the blend, that lighter marker will eat away at my level 9 browns, lowering their values to maybe 7s and 6s. Even though I used E89, it won’t look like E89 anymore.
And it won’t look like black coffee anymore, it’ll look like chocolate milk.
Middle value washouts happen when you blend so darned much that you equalize the values between your lightest areas and your darkest.
You chase away the value and you ruin the contrast in the attempt to create a perfect blend.
Blending flattens your projects because it decreases values and equalizes contrast. And I hate to put you in a box, but 90% of the time when someone comes to me with the old “why does my coloring look flat?” question, it’s a case of an intermediate level colorer who blends the heck out of every project.
Your new skill is also your downfall.
Some amount of reblending is good but when you overwork your coloring in the quest for the perfect blend, you waste all the dark ink that you originally applied. “One more try” can be the kiss of death for depth and dimension.
When you over-lighten the color of an object in the blending process, it not only flattens out, but sometimes people can no longer identify what the object is anymore.
I can’t tell you the number of coffee projects I’ve seen where the coffee was peanut butter brown. I’ve also seen a lot of pink apples and yellow pumpkins. The colorer may have started with coffee brown, apple red, and pumpkin orange but when they blended the project to death, they killed off the color identity. Mis-colored food is confusing, unappetizing, and unrealistic.
Now I’m not saying that you should never blend a second time.
Instead, I want you to be aware that additional reblending passes will eat away at your value and contrast.
Knowing is half the battle.
If you’re aware of the damage your’e doing, you’re less likely to keep doing it. Mindfullness helps curb your tendency to reblend and smooth an area for the third, fourth, or fifth time.
Back in the 1970’s, if you did crafts, you made them from a boxed kit. We didn’t have the internet for inspiration and instruction. We crafted by the box.
I loved one kind of box more than any other- the paint by number kit. I lived for the moment when all my weird globs of paint on the canvas finally coalesced into a prancing horse or a spray of roses.
The rule in paint by number was to stick to the numbering system. Bad things happened if you went outside the lines, put the wrong color in a spot, tried to blend two sections together, or if you ran out of paint and had to start substituting.
Up close, paint by number paintings are eye-scalding but from 20 feet away? You might be mistaken for Van Gogh… or so the box claimed.
... but I still see a lot of similarity between the paint by number kits of the disco age and the coloring tutorials being published today.
"Here’s the list of markers I’ve used- don’t change anything. Here’s where I put those colors- don’t change anything."
Copic people live by the numbering system and you folks get all squidgy in your seat when I start talking about deviating from the project sample.
It’s a tutorial mindset, something you’ve carried around since grade school.
"Here is how to solve the math problem. Here is how to structure a paragraph. Here is how to draw a tree.”
The do-what-I-do tutorial mindset gives you the impression that there’s one correct way to do something.
Sure, you tell yourself “there’s not one right way to make art” but you don’t really, really, really believe that in your heart.
If you did believe it, Pinterest would be a barren Copic wasteland. No marker recipes all over Google and how to color grass tutorials would be impossible to find.
Nope. You say “I can make art” in the same way you say “I can be president someday”. In the meantime, you scramble around trying to buy the same exact markers and pencils that your coloring hero uses.
And here's the catch, if there’s one supremely-ideal marker color to use, then it’s smart to study the original project super-duper close so that you can use R29 in all the same exact places I’ve used it.
When you do that, you’re painting by numbers. You might as well be coloring a crying Elvis on velvet because you’re not creating art. You are re-creating someone else’s art.
One way to do this is to banish the paint by numbers mindset.
Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use project recipe guides. Supply lists are actually a great jumping off point for Copic projects. The artist successfully colored a mermaid or a smiling toaster in a way that you found appealing. Go ahead and use the recipe.
Trying to keep each area a single pure marker color is killing your artistry.
The biggest misunderstanding I see with students is that they think they can point to one area of a project and see one marker color there.
Now Keith Haring worked that way and so did Patrick Nagel but their work is purposefully flat. Artists who want dynamic depth and dimension layer their colors. You can’t just put your finger on one place and say “that’s pure sap green paint” or “that’s YG93”.
Van Gogh had some amazing yellows in his work not because he purchased good tubes of yellow paint but because he mixed, layered, and smushed his colors together to create original yellows.
After all, you love to blend and that is mixing colors... sort’a.
The problem is that you think of a blend as a way to get from R29 to R22 smoothly.
An artist thinks about what color R29 and R22 might make when combined.
See the difference? You’re blending as a transition. I blend as a creation.
But I’m not tapping into any magical powers to do this. There’s an easy way to move from transition blending to creation blending:
Yep, it’s that easy. Instead of trying to get from one marker color to another as quickly as possible, do it the leisurely laid-back lazy summer’s day way-
Double or triple the size of the area where your markers overlap.
Instead of jumping, meander.
In that no man’s land you’ll begin to develop amazing new colors.
Colors that are unique to you.
You can hand two people the same two markers and each of them will blend the colors in slightly different proportions. You’re not going to see the same two shades from every person. Heck, try it yourself sometime- you won’t blend the same color today that you will tomorrow.
Your markers are begging for an expanded blend zone.
Copic inks are ideal for the layering process. They’re transparent color and when you get enough layers onto the paper, they self-smooth all on their own. Your markers are waiting for the space to merge and swirl. They want create new and glorious colors; it’s what they were born to do. You’re holding them back with artificial paint by number boundaries.
When you color by numbers, using one marker per area, that’s like whistling a tune.
When you paint with your markers, layering and creating new colors over large areas, that’s like hiring the symphony to back you up. It’s the same song but a much richer experience.
Layering your markers decreases the need to own all 358 Copic markers.
Because you aren't relying on a single marker to color each area, you don’t have to run out to Michaels for the Y35 needed to finish a project.
Instead, you’ll be able to create the look of Y35 by layering a medium yellow over a light orange or by layering a light yellow over Y38. There are lots of ways to get there that don’t involve ordering Y35 from Amazon at 11pm on a weeknight.
And there’s another benefit to large blend zones-
Have you ever tried going from 0 to 60mph in five seconds on a skateboard?
That’s a newbie trying to smooth blend in a short zone. Expanding the zone gives you more room to make the transition satiny and subtle. Quick transitions are hard, even for the pros!
So no. I can not point to a spot on my project and say “here’s nothing but R29”
In my projects, single color areas are pretty darned rare.
I layer almost everything, so my answer is more like
“here’s the R29 with a bit of B32 underneath and there’s some R17 and maybe some R24 over the top and that’s all sitting below a light buffing of Poppy Red pencil… and… uhm, there might be some Tuscan Red there too, or maybe that’s Aqua, I can’t remember.”
I don’t paint by numbers anymore.
You don’t have to either.
Color your own cherries in my 2 hour online workshop.
"Gray Matter" uses the cherry image shown to teach an underpainting technique. Learn how to develop depth and realism by adding gray underneath your bright Copic marker colors.
Digital stamp, printable learning aids, and multiple videos help you move from beginner to intermediate level coloring.