How to Use Watercolor Brush Pens (Beginner’s Guide)


Have a set of watercolor markers but aren’t sure how to use them?

This handy guide has everything you need to know about watercolor brush pens, including how to paint with them, easy techniques, and best papers to use.

There are so many fun ways to use watercolor markers, so I hope this guide leaves you feeling totally ready to start playing with them!

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What are watercolor brush pens?

Watercolor brush pens are brush pens that can be used to blend and create watercolor effects. They usually contain a water-based or dye-based ink.

The brush tip can be used like a paintbrush to make thick and thin strokes, depending on the amount of pressure applied.

This, along with the easily-blended ink, makes using watercolor markers similar to painting with regular watercolors.

Many sets include either a water brush (which has a built-in water reservoir) or a colorless blender pen.

Colorless blender pens look like white brush pens, but instead they are filled with a clear, water-based liquid that can be used to blend colors without needing a paintbrush and water.

What are watercolor pens for?

Watercolor pens are perfect for creating watercolor effects without the additional set-up and supplies you’d need for regular painting.

They’re also easily portable. You can toss them in your bag with a water brush – without having to worry about paints, palettes, or water – and do some easy painting while you’re out and about.

Watercolor markers are not without their own mess, though. When I use them for a piece of artwork, I often end up with smears of colorful ink all over my hands!

how to use watercolor markers

How to use watercolor brush pens

Here’s how to use watercolor brush pens in several different ways.

  1. Make marks on paper.

    Use a watercolor marker to put ink on the paper. how to paint with watercolor markers

  2. Activate and blend with water.

    Use a paintbrush and water to activate and blend the ink.how to paint with watercolor markers

  3. Scribble markers on a dish or palette.

    Scribble the pens on a non porous surface like a ceramic dish or paint palette.paint with watercolor markers

  4. Paint with the ink.

    You can then activate the ink with water and paint with it like regular watercolor.how to paint with watercolor markers

  5. Add ink directly to wet areas.

    You can use the markers to “charge” more color into wet areas in a painting, working wet on wet.how to use watercolor brush pens

  6. Press the tips of two markers together.

    Take a light and dark color and press the pen tips together, holding them straight up and down so one bleeds into the other.how to use watercolor brush pens

  7. Let the colors blend on paper.

    Use the lighter marker to color on paper to get a blended gradient effect. Scribble the pen clean when you’re finished.how to blend watercolor markers

  8. Use a colorless blender pen to blend the ink.

    A water-based blender pen adds wetness so you can blend the marker ink without extra water.how to use blender pen

  9. Add ink to paintbrush bristles.

    You can also color directly onto paintbrush bristles with watercolor markers, then paint with the ink on the brush.water brush with watercolor brush pens

With the above techniques, you can create beautiful gradients, washes, bleeds, and blends, just like regular watercolor painting!

Experiment with your pens and the amount of water you use, too.

As with any watercolor, diluting the color with water makes it lighter and more transparent. Using less water keeps the color more saturated and less transparent.

Quick Tip

Try to do the blending while the ink is still somewhat wet. It’s harder to blend colors when they’ve dried. This means you’ll want to work fairly quickly, or work on one area at a time.

Additional tips

  • Don’t worry about damaging watercolor pens by getting other colors, water, or watercolor paint mixed with them. They’re meant to blend with water and water-based substances. Just scribble all sides of the tips clean until the original color comes back.
  • Start using watercolor markers by swatching the colors. Fill a page with the colors and blend them out so you can see each color’s darkest and lightest values. Not only is this a good way to make your own color chart, but it can also be very relaxing!
  • Check pen packaging for the recommended way to store watercolor brush pens. Most watercolor brush pens should be stored horizontally, but some need to be stored upright.
  • Remember that water-based ink can be reactivated with water, so protect your finished artwork from splatters.
  • Clean-up is easy with watercolor pens – just use water!
simple landscape idea, painted with Karin markers
A landscape painting created with Karin Brushmarker Pro pens on Fabriano watercolor paper.

(Want to paint a landscape like the one above with watercolor markers? Here’s the tutorial!)

Do you use water with watercolor markers?

If you want to get watercolor effects with watercolor markers, you’ll have to use water. You can add water with a paintbrush.

Of course, you don’t have to use water if you don’t want to. You can also use the markers themselves – or a colorless blender pen – to blend colors together, just like with any water-based marker.

It’s best to avoid dipping watercolor pens in water, since that will wash out the color temporarily.

If you want to dilute the ink, though, that’s one way of doing it!

(I like to use a wet brush to lighten the color instead of dipping the marker itself into water.)

Water brushes are a great tool to use with watercolor brush pens. Here’s a guide I wrote about how to use water brushes.

Painting with a watercolor brush pen
Adding more concentrated color to a wet area.

If you’re not interested in watercolor effects, you can definitely use these pens for regular coloring, drawing, or brush calligraphy.

Keep in mind that watercolor markers are typically a wet pen, so they can smear easily and take longer to dry. If you’re left-handed, this may be especially frustrating for you.

The best watercolor brush pens

Here is a list of some of the best watercolor brush markers, in no particular order:

  • Royal Talens Ecoline Brush Pens – Juicy markers filled with liquid watercolor ink. The colors are beautiful, vibrant, and blend well. An added bonus is that if a brush tip gets frayed, you can pull it out of the pen, turn it around, and reinsert it to use the other end! (Includes a colorless blender pen in some sets.)
  • Karin Brushmarker Pro – Karin markers are some of the best out there, as well as one of the most expensive. They’re filled with concentrated dyes in a liquid watercolor base, making the colors rich and vibrant. Karin markers blend very well and give you beautiful watercolor effects. (Includes a colorless blender.)
  • Staedtler Double-Ended Watercolor Brush Pens – These have a brush tip on one end and a fine tip on the other, which is great for adding detail to artwork. The price is great, and they come in a beautiful range of colors. Filled with a dye-based ink.
  • Arteza Watercolor Brush Pens – The tips of these pens are similar to a paintbrush, with individual fibers that spread apart, so don’t worry about fraying these! The ink is water-based and there’s a good variety of colors. (Includes a water brush.)
  • Chromatek Watercolor Brush Pens – Also have a paintbrush-like bristle tip. They’re filled with water-based ink and come in a lovely assortment of colors. A bonus of these pen sets is that they include a pad of paper and a video tutorial series about watercolor basics, so you’re ready to start painting! (Includes water brushes.)
  • Kuretake ZIG Clean Color Real Brush Pens – Another pen with a bristle tip, so more like using a paintbrush. These come in a beautiful assortment of colors and contain a water-based ink. They’re a little more on the expensive side. (Includes a colorless blender.)

These are just several of the many kinds that are out there!

Best paper for watercolor markers

It’s best to use watercolor paper for watercolor markers, and the higher quality the better.

Good watercolor paper will hold up well to lots of water, blending, and layers.

My favorite student-grade watercolor paper is Canson XL watercolor paper.

For artist-grade paper, these are my favorites:

If you don’t use much water with your pens, a mixed media paper will work, too. Here are two good options:

If you’re only using these pens for brush calligraphy, you could use mixed media paper or Canson Bristol Smooth paper, which is a good thick paper for any brush pens.

Just like with any painting, paper makes a big difference in the results you get!

Blends with be smoother and colors more vibrant on artist-grade watercolor paper, so if you want to get the most out of your pens, invest in 100% cotton paper.

Below is a comparison of a blend on student grade vs. artist grade watercolor paper.

Comparison of a watercolor marker blend on two watercolor papers
Comparison of a blend on Canson XL (student-grade) vs. Arches (artist-grade) watercolor paper.

Rough paper – like watercolor paper – will fray the tips of your brush pens.

But I’m okay with the watercolor marker tips getting worn out as long as I’m using them to their full potential!

If you want to use yours only as calligraphy pens, use them on smoother paper to keep the tips as crisp as possible.

Related: Best Paper For Brush Pens: A Complete Guide

Dealing with marker lines in a painting

Sometimes when painting with watercolor markers, the ink will sink down into the paper and you’ll end up with harsh marker lines that you can’t blend out.

There are several ways you can deal with this.

  1. Work quickly to blend marker lines out with water before the ink fully dries.
  2. Use a higher quality paper. Fabriano Artistico paper seems to be the best for avoiding marker lines.
  3. Work wet on wet. Get your paper wet first, add markers to the wet paper, and start blending it out right away.
  4. Put the pen ink on a palette and paint with it instead of coloring directly on the paper to avoid the marker line problem altogether.

Carol of @carolicitydesigns, who often uses markers for paintings, created this Instagram video comparing how dye-based pens blend on different brands of paper.

She found that Fabriano Artistico is one of the best, and I’ve found that to be true, too.

What can you do with watercolor markers?

Here are some great ideas of ways to use watercolor markers for art:

  • Watercolor lettering – Use them for lettering and blend the colors together for some beautiful watercolor effects. Another fun technique is to dip the brush tip into watercolor ink like Ecoline liquid watercolor and then write as usual for a color blending effect (no, it won’t ruin the pen!).
  • Watercolor paintings – Watercolor pens can be used for watercolor paintings instead of – or in combination with – watercolor paint. (Although depending on the pen used, you’ll likely not get the same results you would with regular paint.) They can be great for adding detail or finishing touches to artwork.
  • Watercolor studies – These pens are perfect for quick watercolor studies or planning a painting concept.
  • Mixed media art – Mixed media art is another great way to use them. The ability to create watercolor effects with markers makes them really fun art tools to add to your collection, and they work well in combination with waterproof ink.
  • Art journals/sketchbooks – These pens are a great tool to use for art journals or sketchbooks. They’re perfect for adding color to doodles and sketches, plus they are portable and have very little mess, which is great for outdoor sketching sessions.

To get started using your markers for paintings, check out this simple landscape painting tutorial.

Do watercolor markers work on canvas?

Watercolor markers work on canvas just as any watercolor paint does.

Painting with watercolor on canvas is a little different from painting on paper, so take the time to experiment with it. Keep in mind that canvas will fray brush marker tips, too.

You can use watercolor brush pens on canvas the same way you do on paper, using either a paint brush or just the pens themselves.

It’s best to test using watercolor markers on a section of canvas before starting a project.

I hope this post was helpful and answered your questions about how to use watercolor brush markers.

Now it’s time for you to get out your pens and start making some watercolor art!

If you have additional questions, feel free to drop them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer.

everything you need to know about watercolor brush pens
how to use watercolor brush pens

6 Comments

  1. This is so cool! I thought you could only use those for hand lettering. Thank you for those ideas and techniques, I’ll definitely try them out since took interest in watercolor painting recently.

  2. Love this! I have used watercolor fillable water pens. I loved them. I’m not an artist but I sure enjoyed painting my scene with these pens. You’re inspiring me to get them out and try again with some of the ones you suggested, too. Thank you!

    1. I’m so glad to hear that! I like using water pens filled with water in place of paintbrushes since the tips always stay wet. They’re so handy!

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