Curious about how to use watercolor pens?

Watercolor pens, sometimes called watercolor brush markers or just watercolor markers, are an accessible medium that can be used to add fine lines and dimension to watercolor artwork. They can also be used on their own to create art with a similar effect to watercolor paint, minus the brush sets and cleanup.

Whether you’re new to watercolors or just new to watercolor pens, we’ve put together a quick guide to what you need to know to get started with this fun medium—including some helpful watercolor basics that you can put to use regardless of your favorite application method.

A stunning floral bouquet created with watercolor pens, by Skillshare teacher and ink artist Isa Cienfuegos. 

What Are Watercolor Pens?

Watercolor pens combine the effects of a watercolor paintbrush with the simplicity and ease of use of a marker.

Each pen is filled with a water-soluble, dye-based ink that can be applied directly to your canvas or dipped into water to dilute the color. Meanwhile, a malleable brush head allows you to experiment with different line shapes and densities based on the position of your hand and the extent of pressure that you put on the pen.

Other benefits to working with watercolor brush markers include:

  • Odor-free application
  • Easy cleanup
  • Non-staining ink
  • Can use with or without water
  • Ideal for watercolor lettering

Another fun perk of working with watercolor markers is that you can change up your artwork even once the ink has dried. Simply apply water to the dried pigment to activate the dye and lighten and spread your colors.

Difference Between Watercolor Pens and Paints

There are a few big differences between watercolors pens and watercolor paints that may lead you to choose one over the other.

The first big difference is the medium itself. While both are water-soluble, watercolor paint is made with a colored pigment plus a binder—usually gum arabic. This is a bit of a heavier paint solution, and as such, it tends to be slower to dry than the ink in watercolor pens. This can make it more difficult to get consistent results since unless you let each layer dry completely, you’re never totally sure what the result is until the very end.

The other differences have to do with application. Unlike paints, you don’t need to activate watercolor pens with water (unless you want to). Instead, you can modify the depth of the color by adjusting how hard you press, only bringing water into the equation if you want to lighten the shade or change the visual effect of the paint. 

There’s also no need to invest in a set of brushes. Watercolor pens have one brush that can be used in tons of different ways based on your technique.

Difference Between Watercolor Pens and Pencils

Both watercolor pens and watercolor pencils are portable, convenient, and provide beautiful watercolor effects with less mess. And for the most part, the difference between the two is the same as the difference between regular brush markers and colored pencils.

Watercolor pens and pencils will both give you the benefits of drawing and painting in one tool. Where they differ is that the pens give you a more concentrated color than the pencils, much as you would expect using liquid dye instead of lead. Likewise, the pencils require water activation to give off a watercolor effect, while the pens do not.

Basic Watercolor Brush Techniques

How to Watercolor With Brush Pens for Beginners

How to Use Watercolor Pens

squares of watercolor
Skillshare student Karen Silvestro tries out different patterns using watercolor pens.

Working with watercolor pens requires just a few basic supplies. And as you experiment more with the medium, you’ll be able to try out various techniques to refine and build on what you can do. Here’s how to get started.

Gather Your Supplies

There are only two things that you’ll really need, so do a bit of research before purchasing so that you buy supplies you enjoy working with.

In addition to the must-haves noted below, you may also want a graphite pencil and a kneaded eraser to sketch out designs before putting your brush pen to the canvas. (Just be sure to buy an eraser that can be used on watercolor paper, since not all erasers will work well on it.) Keep a small dish of water available, too, if you plan to dip your brush markers.

Watercolor Pens

Your most important supply—watercolor pens.

Watercolor brush pens are available for purchase online and at pretty much any art supply store. When deciding which set to buy, consider your budget, how many colors you want, and the brush tip itself—also called the nib. For the most versatility, buy watercolor pens with dual nibs: a pointed tip for fine detailing and a wider tip for broad strokes. You can also buy watercolor brush pens with fiber-tip nibs that don’t spread out, but these can only be used for fine lines.

Various brands differ in color saturation, ease of use, and final appearance when they dry. We’ve got some brand suggestions below, but check out online reviews or talk to an expert in-store to get a feel for what you can expect. Many stores also have sample pens out so that you can create and compare swatches before you make a purchase.

Watercolor Paper

You only want to use paper that’s designated for watercolor use since using water on regular paper can degrade it and cause it to wrinkle or tear. If you’re just getting started, you should be fine to purchase students’ quality watercolor paper, which is an affordable option that’s great for practicing on. Then when you’re ready to start creating works for display, switch over to artists’ quality watercolor paper, which is acid-free so that it won’t yellow with age.

Another thing to consider when buying watercolor paper is the texture. Cold press paper is a good choice for beginners and has a slightly rough texture that gives you good control over ink spread. Hot press paper is slicker and smoother, so you won’t have quite as much control over how your colors bleed on the page—though some watercolor artists do prefer it.

Create a Color Chart

color chart
Create a color chart to get a sense of how your markers work before you start creating.

This step is optional, but it will help you get an idea of the range of colors that your pens can produce.

On a piece of watercolor paper, draw a row of squares, filling in each square with a pen from your set. In a row below that, do the same but dip each pen in water first before you color in the square. If you want, you can also do a third row adding more water to the dye. You can also do another small chart that illustrates the effects of various levels of pressure on the brush tip.

Keep this chart with your watercolor pen set so that you have an easy point of reference later on when you want to know how certain colors will appear on your canvas.

Get Familiar With Watercolor Pen Techniques

Get a feel for all that you can do with your watercolor pens and see the full potential of what you can create. A course (like this one on expressive brush pen florals) is always a good place to begin.

Some things you’ll want to get comfortable with:

  • Brush strokes: The brush nib is what you’ll use to alternate between thin and thick lines. You can also change up the effect by using upstrokes instead of downstrokes, or vice versa. The more you practice the different types of brush strokes, the easier it will be to switch between strokes as you work and choose the right pressure and direction for the component that you’re working on.
  • Layering: The translucency of the ink means that you can layer your pen colors to make new shades and to add depth and shading. Some colors will layer better than others, so play around to discover what your best pairings are.
  • Blending: One of the great things about watercolor pens is that they’re super easy to blend. Layering is one way to do it, as is using a separate brush dipped in water and applying it to the area where two colors meet. If you want to create an ombre blend, take two of your watercolor markers and lightly touch the nib of the darker color to the nib of the lighter color. Give the ink a second to absorb, then draw as usual. (Hint: the ombre effect is an excellent addition to watercolor calligraphy.)

To keep your pens in good condition, be sure to cap them tightly when you’re done so that that ink doesn’t dry out. If you mixed any pens at the tip and need to clean off excess ink, take a blank piece of paper (it doesn’t need to be watercolor paper) and run the nib over it until the color comes out clean.

Watercolor Pen Brands to Try

You’ve got a lot of options when it comes to the brand of watercolor pens that you go with. As mentioned above, brands differ in price, brush tips, and color vibrancy, so you’ll want to do some research before deciding what to buy.

Here are some of the brands that you might want to look at:

  • Ecoline
  • Akashiya Sai
  • Arteza
  • Winsor and Newton
  • ColorIt

If you want to try before you buy, go to your nearest art supply store and see if they have samples out.

Are Watercolor Pens Good for Beginners?

Absolutely! There are a lot of techniques that you can learn to improve your skills, but even at their most basic, watercolor pens are easy to use—especially when compared to other watercolor mediums. They can also be used in conjunction with pencils, paint, and even non-watercolor mediums like ink and charcoal, so if there’s a tool you’re already used to working with, consider bringing watercolor markers into the mix. 

Improve Your Watercolor Skills

Beyond Beginner: Tips and Tricks to Level Up Your Watercolors

Written by:

Laura Mueller