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Paint Pens: Product Review and Artist Tips

Updated: Feb 19, 2023

Creating art is ideally a seamless and blissful experience - don't we wish - but sometimes things go wrong. As an artist for many decades, I have suffered a few disasters and learned the hard way what not to do. Trying a new product on your valued artwork is high risk, because it isn't necessarily compatible with your other mateirals or the effects and look you are seeking for your art. ALWAYS test new products for compatability before using on your special pieces of art.

This blog is a paint pens product demo and review, because these pens and markers are extremely popular and commonly used by artists of all types, and they are widely available.

Tip #1 - The right Paint pen for the Right Project

Your surface and how you intend to present it is key in choosing what types of art paint pens are best suited for your project. Works on paper that will be mounted, matted, and framed behind glass are the most flexible when using paint pens. You can use any type of paint pen, creating the effects of your choice: graphic or blended art, colorfilled or detailed with much embellishment. Works on paper don't need to be varnished because they will be protected behind glass. No need for the sometimes treacherous process of varnishing.

If you are working on a non-protected surface such as canvas, wood, fabric, or any nonporous surface, you will need to be sure to use acrylic paint pens that don't smear or blend when varnished upon completion. Look for descriptions such as UV ratings and archival inks when buying pens for these projects. You will also need to let your finished work cure for at least 48 hours and up to one month before varnishing over the work - especially if you have used paint pens. This allows all the mediums you used to cure completely to prevent smearing on varnishing day. I promise you it will save you from experiencing a meltdown.

I have had the horrifying and agonizing experience in the past of varnishing my work too soon only to have the details smear, ultimately destroying a painting that I spent hours or even days working on. In particular, paint pen work needs to set up properly, because it is much quicker than regular acrylic paint to reactivate when it maked contact with the varnish, and then smear under your varnish brush, resulting in choice words and tears. So wait you must.

Tip #2 - Experiment on Purpose

EVERY time you buy a new product you should test it on something inconsequential before using it on a serious piece of work, especially when mixing different brands. Some art products work beautifully together and the work stays exactly as you intended when you varnish. Other products are designed to blend and they will reactivate even days later when coming into contact with any liquid material. Other products will peel off whole, getting stuck in the varnish but not smearing. Keep a small art sketch book around for testing product compatability, so you can conveniently check back at a later date and not have to waste time retesting.

Because I make mostly one of a kind pieces of art and collectibles, I can't afford to ruin my work by moving too fast and slapping things together. I like to use paint pens to sign my work so my signature is legible, especially on small works like the one below. Taking the extra time to get it right is worth it.

Tip #3 - How I do it

I write on my test paper the details about each specific paint pens and product used when I do testing: brand, type, form of paint or ink, and any significant details. After at least 48 hours I do my varnish test and document the results.

POSCA pens: I frequently use POSCA paint pens for fine details, but I also like Arteza pens. POSCA pens are acrylic based and they do NOT smear when varnished. The quality is excellent. They come with various tip sizes, but I only use them for fine work, so I get the small tips. For small pieces like ornaments, these paint pens can't be beat. This Nordic Blue Sweater Set of ornaments is a great example of using paint pens effectively. I add hand painted ornaments to my repertoire just about every every holiday season.

Concept Pens: I use Concept ink markers for some parts of paintings. Concept markers are handy for some specific details and for back fill colors, but they will smear a bit under varnish. So when I use them I let the color set up - a week or longer - and then I gently apply a thin layer of matte medium over the ink color to set it in place. The matte medium seals it, and if you are careful enough, it all stays where you put it. Later it can be varnished over with no fear of smearing.

I used POSCA and Concept pens for the details of this painting of a very large scale music mural on a very large brick building painted on canvas, along with 29 other paintings in this series.

Arteza ink based pens work just as well as POSCA pens and they stand up to varnish.

Creative Mark Super Black ink based pens allow for painting fine black details and they have different sized tips and a brush tip. They are great for illustrative work on canvas or paper.

Micron Pigma Color Archival Ink based pens are amazing high quality pens that come with a variety of tip sizes and they do NOT smear at all. They also won't fade over time because they contain archival ink. Sharpie permanent ink markerswill smear if applied heavily and varnished too soon. With light application and enough drying time, they hold up to varnish when used on paper. I would not try them over acrylic paint because they would likely smear when the varnish goes over them.

There are pens designed specifically for blending and they quickly smear and blend with any contact with liquids. Tombow water based ink paint pens are a good example. Tombows come in beautiful color palettes and create a water color looking artwork. Do not use them with acrylic paint or varnish, but do enjoy them on paper!

Papermate Inkjoy Gel Pens are very nice for custom tags, signs, and hand written notes. They come in beautiful sets of many colors. Because they are water based and highly water soluble, they can't be used on acrylic paintings or with varnish, but they work well on paper that will stay dry and protected.

Tip #4 - Product Demo

Here are some demo photos of the paint pen products I listed above applied to water color paper, and then varnished. Before and after photos show you how the different products behave when varnished. I used Liquitex matte varnish for this demo. You can see a video of the demo here.

Before VArnish


AFter VArnish

Tip #5 - Performance Matters

Once you test your products you can decide what types of projects they are best suited for. I rarely work on paper anymore, so I tend to stick with POSCA pens, Arteza pens, Super Blacks, and Microns, with limited use of Concept markers for back fill. They work well with my acrylic paintings and with the use of matte medium to assure a good seal over them, so I am safe to apply varnish to my finished artwork after curing time.

Here are some examples of work done with paint pens to achieve crisp details that withstand either brush on or spray on varnish:

Paint Pens Can Enhance Your Work When used Correctly & Effectively

To see more examples of my art, visit my website here. In particular, look at the art boxes in the webstore. They are a great example of using paint pens for details. I am in the process of loading my current solo show, ARTchitecture, onto the website. Feel free to leave comments on this product demonstration. There may be other paint pen products that you have tried and loved, and I welcome your information on the subject.

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