Friday, July 14, 2017

Getting the Most Out of Akashiya Sai Watercolor Brush Pens

Watercolor mixing chart, using 11 of the watercolor brush pens in this set.

When I first got these, I was extremely frustrated, because their pigments are super-fugitive—any amount of water easily results in pigments separating dramatically. If you don't know this ahead of time, and yet for some reason want to do color mixing and blending, be prepared to slam your head against the wall repeatedly.

However, I have managed to get decent use out of these, once I learned how to work around their quirks. If you have these, don't waste your $25 to $38 investment! Here's how best to use them.

If you're into watercolors, a thing to know is that (a) these colors are all transparent, which is nice for certain effects, and (b) almost every color is a staining color, meaning that they (especially darker colors) cannot lift very well. They're not high-quality staining colors at that, because you need to move that color almost immediately with water if you're going to move it at all. Also (c) all colors are fugitive; expect dramatic color changes to occur within even just weeks to finished pieces. Scan in your pieces!

Because these colors are transparent, they actually mix well (see the top picture to this article, a color chart involving 11 of the colors). As a result, even a subset of these colors can result in vibrant, bold colors. However, note that for the most part you want to mix them on paper, like you would with watercolor pencils—a dry-brush of multiple colors and then immediately activating and blending them with water. An example of this is the two peaches below.

Left: Dry brush of yellow, yellow ochre, and rose madder.
Right: Watercolor applied with watercolor brush to one peach.

Cold press and hot press will give different results—typically you'll get smoother results on hot press and even bristol.

Similar technique as cold press examples above, but on smooth bristol paper (100 lb).

Because these are brush bristles, you can do a lot of fun chinese brush painting techniques, at least for line work and dot work—trying to do color shapes is difficult because these bristles aren't soft or flexible enough to do so.

Bone stroke branches and short strokes for pine needles.
Please note signature was not done with the brush pens, but with a technical pen.

You can also see the ultra-staining, stubbornly-not-lifting nature of the "rain" which was originally intended to be a blended gradient background. (P.S. never let people know you didn't intend the effect... this is like 67% of art, at least.)

One of the easiest ways to have fun with these brushes is to use them like you would water soluble pencils or fountain pens—draw the contour, and then apply water to spread out the color deliberately. Combining this with the light colors that don't stain much can result in neat effects. You can get very delicate petals or light glows this way. See below, in particular the bellflower closer to the bottom of the paper and the gelatinous cube.

A variety of small drawings demonstrating watercolor brush markers blended by water.

Washes are ... difficult. Water brushes like Pentel, Kuretake, and Niji will only take you so far, because their nylon bristles and weak water flow and water containment aren't up to the task—I destroyed my Kuretake water brush tip trying to make washes just 2 inches wide. A much better way to go about this is to use a real watercolor brush to apply water. See below for what you can do with dry brushing and then applying water with a real watercolor brush.

Left: Rose madder dry brush, overlaid with a navy dry brush.
Right: Apply water with a real watercolor brush (size 6-8).

Now, the super-staining qualities of these colors means that even careful dry brushing can result in unintended dark marks even after applying water. This is the point where you just kind of have to accept that you're going to get color separation through putting marker dye into a palette (just scribble the brush into a little palette well) and picking it up with a wet watercolor brush (water brushes do not do well at this). However, with careful practice, you'll learn how to reduce the effects of pigment separation, or at least choose colors where it doesn't look as bad. Plus you can use glazes instead of mixing color in a palette (a surefire way of getting unintended pigment separation in this set). See below for a dilute madder wash glazed over halfway by a light navy wash.

A dilute madder wash glazed over halfway by a light navy wash.
Wet-in-wet strokes making plant-like strokes at the bottom.

Wet on wet techniques are fun way to play with these markers as well, as you can tell by the bottom of that same picture, but due to their thin nature, don't expect much body from this kind of technique. You get very wispy stuff—even wispier than normal watercolors.

And finally, this pineapple dawn picture is something I did using but five colors. (Navy, yellow ochre, yellow, indigo, and madder.) As I said, color mixing is surprisingly good, and their transparency lends well to glazes (if only colors didn't separate so easily). I used concentrated marker dots to represent the flowers on the mossy/grassy rocks—although this is a place where the transparency does not help.

"Pineapple Dawn," watercolor brush markers in a Strathmore 140lb cold press watercolor paper Visual Journal.

Anyways, my tips are this: go buy a good watercolor brush that can hold water, maybe a size 6 to a size 8 for doing a good consistent wash depending on brush manufacturer, and go buy good paper (Strathmore at the very least), a little palette, and you can have fun and even produce some neat art.

And praise be that, mostly due to their nature, these colors aren't chalky like cheap watercolor paints are.

I don't know how well other watercolor brush pens work out, whether Akashiya Sai are just horribly cheap or if this is just a common thing with these types of markers. I just know I'm moving to Daniel Smith and W&N tube watercolors now that I know the mercurial nature of watercolors in their most mercurial of presences—this set in particular. I think nothing high quality watercolors can throw at me will phase me now.

Ava Jarvis is an ink and watercolor artist with a portfolio site at If you found this post useful, consider a one-time tip or supporting Ava on Patreon.