As my Facebook group has been growing, a lot of new members introduce themselves with the question “What should I use to color with?” The short answer, of course, is “Whatever you like best!” That doesn’t really help answer the question though, so I thought I’d talk a bit about the characteristics of the different types of coloring media.

There are dozens of different products you can use, but I’m going to focus on colored pencils and markers, as they are the most common. Very few colorists I know use paint (or ketchup!) on their projects.

The main difference between markers and pencils is that one is a “wet” medium and the other is “dry.” (Of course, to confuse matters, they now make watercolor pencils. Why choose one or the other when you can have both!)


When coloring with a wet medium like markers, you have to worry about two things. One, your paper can start disintegrating from the wetness, and two, wet mediums tend to “bleed” through the paper to the other side. If your coloring book only has the images printed on one side, this isn’t too much of a problem, although you may want to put a sheet of paper beneath your design to protect the following page.

For the first problem, the solution is fairly simple. Just wait a few minutes until the layer dries before adding an additional layer. Also, consider the type of marker – water-based markers will tear up the paper more than alcohol-based markers.

Wait, what? Now I have to worry about different types of markers!?

Well, yes, but it’s not that bad. In terms of colors, both water- and alcohol-based markers have a similar look. It’s just a matter of becoming used to the ones you choose to buy. Alcohol-based markers do tend to be more expensive, but they are also more versatile, as they allow you to blend colors much more easily than water-based ones. Here are some additional articles if you want more information.

Gel Ink Pens

An exception to the bleed-through problem can be found in gel ink pens. While these are technically a water-based ink, the ink is in the form of a gel. This prevents the ink from soaking into the paper, so it won’t bleed. However, because the ink lies on the surface of the paper, gel pens take longer to dry. (Think of how water beads up on a hard surface, and you’ll get the idea.) As you can imagine, because of this, you have to worry about smearing until the ink has dried. This is especially true of the pens that have bits of glass or metal in the ink for a sparkling or metallic effect. I’ve had sparkle gel ink smear after more than 2 days of drying! But as a final layer to add some pizzaz to your drawings, they do give a great look, as long as you’re careful when handling them.

An advantage of the gel ink is you can use it to draw on top of existing inks or pencils. Some colorists have taken advantage of this by using white or black gel ink for highlights and outlining after they finish adding color. I’ve seen some beautiful work where the finished image looks amazingly 3-dimensional!

More on gel ink pens:


Compared to markers, pencils may seem like a simpler solution. In many cases they are, but there is as much variety in colored pencils as there is in markers. To start with, there are actually four different types of colored pencils: wax-based, oil-based, clay-based, and water-soluble.

Whoa! FOUR types? That’s even more confusing than markers!

I know! But at least you know your pencils won’t bleed through the paper! 😉 In fact, since you can layer pencil over marker (or marker over pencil, actually,) you may be able to use pencils to salvage a design that has marker bleed through from the other side!

Here’s the basic breakdown.

  1. Wax-based pencils tend to be the most affordable, and have the softest, creamiest consistency. They lay down lots of pigment, and can give a very vivid final result. The downside is that pesky wax. When laying down multiple layers, you can get a wax buildup that makes it hard to add more color. Also, even if you don’t get a wax buildup when initially coloring, over time the wax can “rise” to the surface, dulling the image. Because of this, it is recommended that you use a fixative after you finish your drawing to seal the surface and prevent further wax buildup.
  2. Oil-based pencils tend to be more expensive, and can also smudge/smear. On the plus side, they don’t require a fixative, are water-resistant, and won’t break as easily as wax-based pencils.
  3. Clay-based pencils are very dry. They hold a point well and are great for adding details.
  4. Water-soluble pencils, often markets as watercolor pencils, can be used either dry or wet. They tend toward rich colors, but if you are planning to apply water to blend the colors, make sure your paper is durable enough.

This great article actually lists the different brands of pencils by type, as well as providing a little pencil history and describing the characteristics of the different types.

I hope this helps you a bit when deciding what medium to use for your coloring. As always, feel free to share your own experiences in the comments!

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