Blog ♥ Playing with Copic markers

I got really into Copic markers when I was in design school. Available in more than 350 shades and accompanied by a whole cast of accessories and modular parts, Copic markers can become a dizzying (and expensive) obsession. So, why all the hype?

Copic markers and pens

After building up a small collection over a few years and doing lots and lots of experimentation and reading, I thought I'd share my experiences and reflections on Copic markers.

What are Copic markers?

Copic ("koh-pick") is a brand of refillable alcohol-ink illustration markers and associated supplies from Japan. They're primarily used in comic or manga illustration and for papercrafting. Copic markers have some features that you won't find in your standard Sharpie or Crayola marker. Notably, they are customizable, refillable, and blendable.

While sets are available, Copic markers can be purchased individually, allowing one to build a custom set of colors from over 350 unique shades. Copics come with smooth felt-tip nibs that can be swapped out, allowing for a variety of brush, round, and chisel styles for any given marker. Not only can the nibs be replaced, the alcohol ink can also be refilled, meaning that Copics can be used indefinitely as long as they are maintained. The refill inks can be blended together as well, meaning you can make your own custom "in-between" colors.

Copic Sketch markers, which are the most widely-available variety in my local art supply stores, are double-ended markers with one chisel nib and one brush end. The brush nib doesn't have bristles, but the felt tip is quite flexible and can be bent or flicked to vary the thickness of a stroke.

Copic Sketch nibs

One major difference between Copics and many other markers is the smoothness and sheer, buildable color. Copics don't lay down fully-opaque color, allowing for gradient and color-blending effects. Copics are not prone to streakiness, though the color does have a bit of noise to it. It's a nice noise, though. Like a perfectly-tuned noise filter in Photoshop.

If you want to learn more, the newly-revamped website for the North American distributor of Copic markers has an immense amount of information and resources, including color charts, product photos, and articles. You should also check out the official Copic Japan website, which has free coloring pages, video tutorials, and visual guides not available on the North American site.

How the fuck are you supposed to pick colors?

The vast array of Copic colors from which to choose can be overwhelming. And the Copic price point, at $6 to $8 USD per marker, only ups the anxiety factor. (This is about double the retail price in Japan.)

While much of this comes down to plain old personal preference, there are a few things that you can know going into Copic selection that will help you make the best decisions.

First, it's really helpful to understand how the Copic color numbering system works. In addition to a color name, each Copic marker color has a code made up of letters and numbers. This code will help you understand the relationships between different colors, which is essential in choosing colors that you want to use together.

The letters in a Copic code represent the color family, such as "B" for blue or "YG" for yellow-green. The first number represents the saturation of the color. You can think of it as correlating to the amount of gray in a color. Low numbers are very vibrant, while higher numbers look grayer or muddier. After this first saturation digit, any subsequent numbers represent the color's brightness. Low numbers are lighter, brighter colors, while high numbers are darker or deeper. It might help to look at a few examples.

Copic colors B01, B02, and B21

Let's break down the color B01. Its color family is B (blue). Its saturation number is 0, meaning it is a very vibrant, pure blue with little muddiness or gray. And its brightness number is 1, meaning it's relatively light. Color B02 is the same vibrant blue but with a larger second digit, meaning that it's simply a darker or deeper version of B01. Compare this to color B21. It is just as light as B01 but has a higher saturation number, meaning it has a grayer or muddier appearance. (To my eye, it looks more purple, too; the perception, theory, and reality of the color system aren't always in alignment.)

In the center column of swatches shown here, there are three colors that have the same saturation and brightness digits but come from different color families. You can see that they go together fairly well.

Copic colors YG13, BG13, and RV13

Understanding this color system is particularly helpful if you're looking to blend colors. You'll typically get the best results by blending colors that have the same saturation digit (the first number). If you mix colors that have differing amounts of gray, your result can look muddier than expected. YG91 has a dramatically different saturation digit than YG13, for example, so these two wouldn't be good candidates for blending into one another.

Note that some families—earth tones, grays, and fluorescents—have a slightly different coding system. The first number in the earth tones actually denotes whether the hue is warm (lower numbers) or cool (higher numbers). Very confusing, I know.

While this system is really helpful to know about when choosing colors, it's not a perfect guide. As I mentioned earlier, the system doesn't play out exactly as the codes might suggest. Some colors seem indistinguishable from one another; others are vastly different despite being only one brightness digit apart. So here are my personal tips, gathered the hard way by having done it wrong the first time.

  1. Think about the subjects you want to draw, the style(s) you might employ, and the format of the finished product. If the Copics are being used for comic art, it's a good practice to select lighter colors that can be layered into darker shades. However, Copics used for rubber stamping may need to be darker or more vibrant to ensure good stamp transfer. Skin and hair colors will be more useful to comic or portrait artists, while colors found in nature will be more useful to those illustrating outdoor scenes. I like using Copics to create flat Riso-esque zines, so I use a small group of coordinating colors but don't do much in the way of detailed blending or shading.
  2. Watch Copic speedpainting videos on YouTube to see different colors in action and to get ideas.
  3. Think of your marker collection as a wardrobe. You want as many markers to coordinate with as many other markers as possible.
  4. There are a number of Copic markers that are very similar to one another, even if they aren't sequential in the numbering system. For example, G00 and BG11 are basically indistinguishable, even though they have different color families, saturation values, and brightness values. A good resource to consult is Sandy Allnock's Copic Hex Chart. For $6 USD, you'll get a downloadable PDF of a custom Copic chart in which each color is arranged in space by color similarity. You'll get two versions: one that's been colored in with real markers and scanned, and another that's blank for you to print and fill in on your own. The Copic Hex Chart has saved me a lot of headaches when it comes to identifying colors I might be interested in trying. I take both versions of the chart with me to the art supply store and test in-store markers on the blank chart. (If you wanted, you could mark or outline colors you own to distinguish them from markers you tried but didn't buy.) For best results, the blank chart should be printed on a thick, toothy paper. Thinner, shinier printer paper won't highlight the subtleties of the colors as well. And if you can, bring a daylight-tinted flashlight with you to your art supply store; warm light is deceptive! The Copic Hex Chart is well worth the $6, but Copic does also offer free downloadable color charts and Photoshop swatch sets if you want to take a look at those.

In the spirit of the first point about choosing colors based on their application, I'm hesitant to make recommendations for a starter set. However, the three markers I use most frequently are T0 (Toner Gray No. 0), BV000 (Iridescent Mauve), and BG000 (Pale Aqua). They're all very light but can be built up into darker shades of gray, purple, and teal, respectively. They're also excellent for toning and shading. If pressed to make up a 24-marker set of my most-used colors, I'd probably select these. (I also super-love the black 0.35 Multiliner SP pen for outlining.)

These might not be the right colors for you. Heck, I don't even know if they're the right colors for me! But hopefully you can see which colors have relationships in columns and/or rows.

Other thoughts...

Years in, I'm still having fun with Copics. I've very much come to appreciate that a good 60% to 70% of my enjoyment comes from the mental satisfaction of systematizing the markers—organizing them logically, calculating their relationships, reorganizing them, re-reorganizing them... It's the same kind of satisfaction you might get from thinking about home organization or the periodic table of elements or Pokemon. Gotta incessantly classify and systematize 'em all, as they say.

I now like using coloring book pages to practice shading and color choice without also having to generate passable line art. I'm not much into the mandalas and stained-glass-butterflies found in the adult coloring books that are so omnipresent at the moment, so I've been looking out for old 1980s shoujo manga and Barbie coloring books on eBay and Etsy. Unfortunately, they're harder to find and more expensive than I would have guessed.

Recently, I started thinking about printing a small run of Copic-colored zines. I think I'd photocopy the line art and then color over each print by hand. Hmm. Hmmm...! But what should the zine be about? (It probably should not be about systematizing Copic markers, right?)

Where to find Copic markers and supplies

Copic markers can be found at art supply shops such as Blick and shops like Kinokuniya that carry Japanese stationery and art supplies. In my experience, the larger chains like Jo Ann and Michael's either don't carry Copics or keep them behind glass at the front of the store to prevent theft. Any art or craft shop should have paper for use with Copics. Try watercolor paper or an alcohol-marker pad. Or just experiment! And have fun!

Posted September 18 at 5:49 AM while staying up way past my bedtime.