This isn't Paint by Number- Change your Copic Marker Blending Philosophy

This isn't paint by number! Change your Copic blending philosophy to increase your artistry. |

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.


Times have changed…

... 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 fans 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.”

This isn't paint by number! Change your Copic blending philosophy to increase your artistry. |

That’s not how art is supposed to work

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.

That’s nuts.

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.


I talk a lot about developing voice and artistry

One way to do this is to banish the paint by numbers mindset.

This isn't paint by number! Change your Copic blending philosophy to increase your artistry. |

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.

But don’t obsess about getting each color into it’s own designated area.

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.


I think most marker colorers get this concept

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:


Expand the size of your blend zone

This isn't paint by number! Change your Copic blending philosophy to increase your artistry. |

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.

The colors you create in expanded size blend zones become part of your artistic voice.


Here’s a little secret-

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.


Guess what else happens when you expand the blend zone?

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-


Large blend zones make smooth blending easier

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.

"Gray Matter" is a challenge level, online Copic coloring lesson featuring this cherry stamp. Learn to underpaint for realism, volume, and depth with Amy Shulke of Vanilla Arts Company. |

Do you like the cherry image featured here?

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.

More info here.


Troubleshooting: 6 Tips to Solve Copic Marker Blending Problems


Listen to your marker strokes. The strokes do not lie.

One of the many benefits of attending live classes is that a good teacher can spot your technical problems as they occur and help you adjust your technique.

But how do you do this for yourself when coloring at home?

As a teacher and experienced colorer, I can usually look at your project and tell you why your markers are not blending well. I don't actually have to see your process, I can read it on your paper. That ability has nothing to do with my world-renowned psychic talents. I'm not an Indian guide in my free time and I can't put my ear to the ground and tell you how many horsebacked banditos are following us through the canyon...

But that doesn't mean that I can't read the obvious signs.

You can read the signs too.

Marker strokes do not lie. They're like footprints that either lead to success or odd little boo-boo areas.

Everyone has a few projects sitting at home that they're not very proud of. You don't hang these on the fridge because you know something isn't quite right. What you might not realize is that these goofs are valuable; you can learn from your previous mistakes. Failed projects can tell you exactly what you did wrong, if you're willing to listen.

So let's take a look at the 6 most common blending mistakes I see in classroom settings. Then I want you to pull out your most recent project o' shame and see if you're guilty. Spotting the tendency is half the battle to solving the problem. Once you're aware of your bad habits, you can remind yourself to avoid the same mistakes during your next coloring session.


1. Bleeding Strokemarks

6 Tips to Solve your Copic Marker Blending Problems |

Do you have hairy looking marker strokes?

If you're happily coloring along and that mean old ink is bleeding uncontrollably, with every mark you make, STOP IMMEDIATELY.

Please check your paper. Is it good quality blending card or marker specific paper?


I've met a few students who can't quite understand why they color so awesomely in class but never get it right at home.

And while I'd love to take the credit for creating a magical classroom atmosphere where unicorns dance and students tap into the universal well of artistic talent... 

Nope, there are no leprechauns under my classroom tables. The magic comes from using the right paper. I give all my students great quality blending paper, especially designed for marker use.

Marker paper is hot pressed for maximum smoothness and then coated with pixie dust (or more likely, a polymer coating) that both slows down the marker dry time and encourages blending.

So if you're coloring at your kitchen table on a sheet of Office Barn's Bargain Bin copy paper...

Do I really need to explain this one further?

If you want to blend well at home, buy the right paper.


2. Inadequate Moisture

6 Tips to Solve your Copic Marker Blending Problems |

When you bake a batch of box-mix brownies, what happens if you decide to cut back on the wet ingredients? Let's say you put in half the water and fewer eggs.

How awesome will those brownies turn out?

Tender and chewy brownies require the correct amount of moisture in the batter. Half dry brownie batter full of powdery lumps will never bake properly.

We all know this and yet we take squeaky, pale tipped Copic Markers and try to squeeze one last project out before we refill it.

I know, I'm right there with you. I don't own a bottle of refill ink for every one of my markers and there's no way to get some refilled when I'm coloring at 9:30pm in my pajamas.

Beautiful blending requires moisture. The solvent that is present in the inks is what allows the two colors of dye to swirl and merge into a third color. If you're missing out on the juice, you're simply not going to get a proper blend because you're lacking the lubrication that allows two different inks to get together and get happy with each other.

Your marker doesn't need to be at the squeaky stage to be running low. Run the edge of your fingernail up the side of the brush tip to check how juicy it is. You should see the ink shine as you press into the brushtip with your fingernail. Your fingernail should come away with quite a bit of color on it too. And lastly, that brushtip should feel smooth and slick to your nail, any trace of gumminess means it needs more juice.


3. Hesitation Blobs

6 Tips to Solve your Copic Marker Blending Problems |

When I was five, I was the flower-girl in my aunt's wedding. I got to toss confetti from a basket that was about twice as full as it needed to be. I was told to toss one handful to the left and one to the right, until I got to the stage.

What they didn't count on was a traffic jam.

I tossed like a pro. Left, right, left, right. And when the line stopped mid-way down the aisle, I kept tossing. Left, right, left, right, as confetti piled up around my feet. I ran out long before the bridesmaids all made it up on stage. Never ask 6 ladies to quickly climb stairs in long, tight column gowns.

That's how markers work too. You don't have to go anywhere for them to release ink. With colored pencil, you have to physically drag and press to make a mark. No movement, no mark.

Not markers. They gush as soon as you touch down and keep gushing until you lift up.

That feature works against people with hesitant strokes.

See the ink pools on either end of this orange stroke? That's a 1 second stop in my movement. One second is enough to put little blobs on the beginning or end of any stroke you make.

Smooth blending is the result of an even layer of color and an even dry time. Concentrations or pools are difficult to blend because they require more attention and then stay wet longer than surrounding areas.

Hesitation blobs are especially problematic when you leave one in the middle of a face or in an area of what should be smooth sky or background.

A smooth stroke will touch down, move, and lift in one smooth stroke. It's evenly timed and balanced, without leaving a beginning or end blob.


4. Walls

6 Tips to Solve your Copic Marker Blending Problems |

Walls occur when you forget to flick or feather.

It happens when you start coloring too fast and your flicks turn into a zig-zag back and forth stroke that never quite lifts up off the paper.

I've used YG67 here in a zig zag application. See the blunt tips on the left ends of each stroke? There's no lift off or triangle tapering-off, the pigment just stops dead and reverses direction.

That makes it harder for the YG63 to come along and blend with it.

Think about it- if you're building a road, you don't want to leave a big pile of unusued asphalt at the end of the road when your shift ends. By the time you get to work tomorrow, that pile will be hardened and you'll have to grind it down before you can continue the road out smoothly.

So why would you leave a big pile of pigment at the end of your strokes? You're going to have to melt down that wall before any blending can begin. Often times, you'll have to really scrub at a wall. If you taper your strokes instead of zig-zagging, you will have a much easier time blending.


5. Tip-Flicking

6 Tips to Solve your Copic Marker Blending Problems |

My most timid students tip-flick.

Maybe it's because they're intimidated by the color, perhaps they're conserving ink, or maybe they figure that small marks are easier to correct than big marks.

It doesn't really matter why you tip-flick, you make your life harder when you don't give yourself adequate space to blend.

Here's tip flicking at it's worst.

In order to feather, we need a nice build up of each color plus an area where the two colors can meld and blend and genrerally overlap each other.

So that's three zones you need:

  1. Color A all by itself

  2. Color A & Color B getting happy with each other

  3. Color B all by itself

Tip flickers cheat the first zone and leave no ink for the blend zone. You simply can't blend if you don't have enough color there to blend with. There's lots of BG05 here but who is she supposed to dance with? The BG09 strokes need to be longer and closer together in order to survive the blending process, otherwise it's going to look like all 05 by the time you get it all smooth.


6. Oil Slicks

6 Tips to Solve your Copic Marker Blending Problems |

Oil slicks happen when your paper becomes saturated beyond its holding capacity. Basically, you've dumped a gallon of ink on a one teaspoon area.

When your paper can't absorb more ink, the remaining ink begins to congeal in a jelly layer on top of the paper. It looks dark and can sometimes be sticky. With Copic inks, it will have a slight metallic sheen, just like rainbow oil spills on the street after a rainstorm.

Oil slicks usually happen for one of two reasons:

  1. You made a mistake and over-corrected with a lot of colorless blender plus a second (and third layer) of the original marker colors.

  2. You tip flicked or built a wall, then overused your lightest marker in an effort to coax out a decent blend.

What you can't see in this scan of my oil slick is the sticky area in the center. I had to use a bit of alcohol on a tissue to clean off the glass of my scanner because this picture left an ink smudge.

I have a few students that if I don't keep their hands busy, they'll go back to previously colored areas and add more. They add more to everything. They'll re-blend perfectly good areas, they'll re-smooth the smooth sections. I'm not sure why but some students have trouble just letting things be.

6 Tips to Solve your Copic Marker Blending Problems |

If you know that you have a heavy hand with your inks or that you're a frequent re-blender, you need to monitor the back of your paper- CONSTANTLY. If the backside starts looking identical to the front, you're on teetering on the ledge between a-okay and Exxon Valdez.

Once the paper gets this colorful on the backside, no good can come from adding anything more.

Oil slicks will not dry, they will not lighten. In fact, I've long suspected that oil slicks actually get darker as they get rubbery- exactly like the ketchup that congeals inside the bottle cap.


Well, there are the top six major blending errors.

I'm guilty of all of them at one time or another, especially dry-markering.

Oh boy, do I love to dry marker stuff. Nine times out of ten when the thought runs through my brain "Huh, guess you can't color very well today, Amy" it's a sure sign that I need to stop and refill the darned marker.

Instead of berating yourself for having a bad coloring day, next time take a look at your marker strokes. What are you doing to create the problem. Diagnose the problem and you can turn a gray day into B14!

What's your private pitfall? Tell us about it and let's commiserate together!