Color Spree

Color Spree
My favorite color is "all of them." What's yours?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Tombow Dual Brush Pens

Tombow Dual Tip Brush Pens are my favorite medium, bar none, for creating notans. I used them to create the examples in the article I linked to. They're convenient, the brush tip keeps its shape for the lifetime of the pen and the writing tip on the back end is great for details or captions.

These would be the world's best brush tip pens if they were also lightfast and archival like the Pitt Artist Pens. There is a difference between Lightfast, Fadeproof and Archival in art products. Lightfastness means that it's rated to resist fading from exposure to light, as in a picture you hang framed on the wall. Fadeproof means that if you sketch within a sketchbook, it won't chemically age and fade even without light exposure - an important distinction for some types of art that won't see the light often, such as ATCs stored in an album or sketches within a bound sketchbook that you'd like to refer back to decades later. Archival and acid free means it's not going to acidify the paper, causing it to yellow and crumble.

Tombow Dual Brush Pens are odorless, use no toxic inks or pigments and are acid-free. I have not seen any fading in closed sketchbooks where I've done pen sketches years ago, but I also don't have any 20 year old sketches done with them either. I used these in the 1980s but lost my old sketchbooks in assorted floods and moves so I can't say how long lasting they are for scrapbooking. Acid free does mean that even if they do fade or change color over years, they will not harm the paper and ruin the book.

The barrel's anti roll design is mentioned in the description. This is true if you keep the pen capped. Leave off the cap on the brush tip end and it'll roll as easily as any round pen. The anti-roll design is a little projection on the brush tip cap that'll stop it neatly after one revolution. I do like it. You should still remember to cap your pens anyway to keep them from drying out. Very few pens can stand up to being left open for hours or days.

Tombow does not claim these pens won't fade. They're an illustration medium, intended for works where the reproduction is the original. When you do a fashion drawing or an illustration, scanning or photographing it and then printing it in archival inks can make it permanent. I recommend scanning anything you produce with Tombow Dual Tip Brush Pens, because without that claim I don't trust that they won't fade even in a closed sketchbook.

They are so expressive, powerful and easy to use that I love them anyway. The brush tip is a cone of spongy material that keeps a fine point. It will give marks comparable to using a high quality sable pointed round brush or a high quality Chinese or Japanese ink brush. Pressure will give you everything from a delicate thin line to a calligraphic stroke. If you want to learn Chinese or Japanese calligraphy, these pens will make practice convenient.

Tombow has been making these brush pens for a long time, they're still popular in Japanese markets and are probably their equivalent of a chisel tip calligraphy pen. Something you can write fancy gift cards and notes with to the level of your skill without fussing with bottled ink and dip pens or brushes. This makes them extremely useful to artists who start with drawing and are less experienced with brushwork.

Learning to handle a Tombow brush pen will improve your painting skills, especially in watercolor. Tombow has 96 colors available in these popular illustration tools. They used to come in a big square holder where each pen sits vertically, though I don't know if that full range set is still available. They are available in open stock and also in 6 or 10 pen wallet sets.

10 pen wallet sets include a colorless blender and most if not all of them don't overlap colors. I haven't systematically checked all combinations for overlaps and black does appear in about half of the 10 color wallet sets. Other colors don't seem to turn up repeatedly, so multiple sets will give you mostly new colors. Extra Black and Colorless Blender pens are always useful though, especially in comics art.

The nylon writing tip is a typical felt tip. It will get mashed down if you write too heavily with it and wear down with heavy use. It's still convenient even if it has mashed down a bit, just won't give as fine a line. It's no worse than most felt tips for mashing down either, but it's not the same material as the excellent brush tip. It's just a convenience to be able to write or stipple with exactly the same ink as the brush tip, they're fed from the same reservoir.

Tombow Dual Brush Pens are waterbased and non toxic. You can dilute the ink by dipping the brush pen into a dish of water for lighter values. Ten color wallet sets include a colorless blender pen with the same tips.

I love that colorless blender. One of my problems with illustration markers of every kind is that I can't get soft edges. If I wanted to create any manga or comics art with marker coloring, I'm faced with hard-edged shadows on skin tones and hard-edged trees in the distance, hard-edged shading within flower petals and often get "lawnmower stripes" within areas filled solidly. I'll be the first to admit professionals are better at handling those markers and do seem to get soft edges sometimes. Dang if I know how they manage it though.

I managed it in the following value study created with my new 10 pen Grayscale wallet set. It includes mostly cold grays, one warm gray, one very blue gray and a colorless blender. Especially look at the soft-edged mist on top of the water in the upper left background. It's even smoother and more gradated in person, the colorless blender gives gorgeous soft edges. I'd be happy with it shading out from a shadow in someone's skin tone for a natural soft edge in a portrait.

Value sketch of Athabasca Falls in 10 grayscale Tombow Dual Tip brush pens by Robert A. Sloan.

If you're interested in manga art, Tombow has 10 pen sets for manga in Shojo and Shonen assortments. Of course you may want to combine both sets to get a better range and add more colors, it depends on your personal style whether you want to limit your palette or not.

Because I liked the colorless blender in the Grayscale wallet set, I purchased the Landscape, Primary and Secondary 10 pen wallet sets as well. Below is a life sketch done with them and softened with the colorless blender pen. The colors in the Landscape set are cued to traditional landscape painters. All three greens are muted, you're not trying to manage electric writing pen emerald and mix by overlapping.

You don't get "Lemon Green" or bright emerald but one mid value yellow cast olive, one mid-value mid-hue olive and one blue-cast muted green. The light beige in the Landscape set would be fine for casually indicating light skin tones and the reddish dark brown is not as reddish as the cap indicates. The mid-value brown is Burnt Sienna. Other than Light Sand, the colors are all mid value or dark because you can lighten them with water dipping.

I haven't tried water dipping yet but did get some interesting effects washing over areas with the colorless blender to create a two tone effect - diluted color and true color. It broke up the sky fill-in beautifully and solved a problem I often have with my Pitt pens. I need a much lighter sky blue for sketching than is provided in the Pitt pens landscape set.

Price is quite reasonable, comparable to Prismacolor dual tip markers or Blick Studio markers, lower than Copic or Pantone for purposes of comics illustration or scrapbooking. They won't stink up your studio, do come in a lot of great colors and the brush tip is one of the best I've ever used. This is why I keep coming back to them for sketching purposes even though they're not lightfast. It's that responsive brush tip that maintains its shape till the pen is completely dried out.

If you want to frame something created with Tombow Dual Brush Pens, be sure to purchase UV protective museum glass for it and hang in an area that doesn't get much sun. Rotating it and storing in a cool dark dry place when it's not on display is a good idea too - or getting a good print made with archival materials and displaying that. It's almost a given that one of the best things you've ever created will turn out to be done in something that can't stand up to display, but there are ways around that. It's just another variation on Murphy's Law.

Don't throw out your dried-up Tombow Dual Tip brush pens. You can get some very attractive dry-brush techniques using them when they're on their last legs and start skipping. Only toss it when you can't get it to make a mark. Store it brush tip down when it gets to that point so that what's left of the ink runs into the tip.

Life sketch of view through my window using 10 Landscape set of Tombow Dual Tip Brush Pens plus a blue and a green from the 10 Secondary Colors set.


  1. Wow thanks that was extremely informative and insightful. I was not aware of the actual subtle distinctions between lightfast, fadeproof, and archival, but I have been shopping for archival waterproof pens as a default. My earliest exposure to brush marker pens were indeed these Tombow Mono dual brush pens, but stopped using since they were not waterproof. They will fade with time btw. Still might have to secure another set for the collection sometime. I gave out my last wallet sets to my nieces a while ago.

  2. Once again, a well constructed and informative post. A useful reminder also about the difference between lightfastness and fade-resistancy, etc. I was unaware of the term Notan so now I'm even wiser and will give them a go too! Thank you. x

  3. Very informative post. I bought just three of the cool greys/grays for value sketches but I like the way they react to water, even after drying, and may invest in a bigger set.

  4. Thank you, B2-kun. Archival waterproof pens are the Pitt Artist Pens, the Big Brush ones have a tip very similar to these Tombows. I just finally realized that lightfastness is not always important - not if the end result is online illustration or preliminary sketching where the original is not the final version.

    Gillian, I've got an article on doing Notans at my oil pastels site if you're interested. has some good examples and techniques for creating notans. Including taking your photo reference and playing with it in Gimp to see how it will look.

    Michael, glad you enjoy these for value sketches. They reactivate so easily, also the colorless blender is a pretty handy little water pen for use with any watercolors that reactivate.

    Thanks for all your comments!

  5. Thank you for your Tombow review. I am going for the portrait set. Slightly off topic, could you recommend a brand of oil pastels for a friend on a very very limited income?

  6. Ah, I just found your oil pastel blog. Thank you!

  7. I love these pens and use them a lot, the only problem I have with them is that the blender sadly doesn't seem to last long before it starts to leave a muddy colour behind in the picture whilst I'm trying to blend. Do you have any suggestions please?. I've dipped it in water and tried to clean it but no luck.

  8. Wow, thank you for such a detailed and informative review. You covered exactly what I was looking for and more -- the lightfastness vs archival and what the terms really mean. I've just gotten started with these markers for a watercolor background for pen and ink drawings, and your review does help. :)