Historic Urban Sketching with Promarkers

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I love watercolour. The way it billows out into whatever it's next to when it's wet. How the colours crawl out towards each other and mingle into a new colour. And I love the splashes. Lots of splashes. 

But I started to feel really comfortable painting with watercolour. It was fun, but it was starting to feel too safe for me, especially as I was painting with them every day. It was time for a new challenge, something different to learn. And knowing how I'd started to become obsessed with bright colours and a looser style, I decided to buy some Winsor and Newton Promarkers

16th century cottage at Buckside, Caversham, Reading. © Jo Romero

They weren't cheap. At £73 for 48 pens (the day after I ordered them they went up to £90) they were one of my priciest purchases of art equipment - but I'd seen urban sketchers like Housesketcher using them and had always admired not only his sketches but the vibrancy and texture of the colours he was using. They'd been on my wish list for a good year, and when I had the money saved up I couldn't wait any longer.  

The Promarkers come with a chiselled tip at one end and a finer, felt-tip-style tip at the other end of the pen, so you can make broad, sweeping lines but then swoop in and add all the detail with the finer tips afterwards. I started off using pencil to make my first 'guide' lines. so I could be sure I'd fit everything on the page, and then went over it in my usual permanent 0.1mm Unipin black fineliner. Having rubbed out all the pencil, I then got to work with the markers, adding colour, shadows and other details. I loved it. 

17th century gazebo, Caversham Court Gardens. © Jo Romero.

Working with the markers is so much quicker and a bit more naturally intuitive for me than with watercolours. You don't have to wait for your work to dry before you add the detail in your sketch. They're easier to throw into a bag (I just bundle them up together with an elastic band in my sketching bag) or you could buy a special wrap for them, or carry the box they come in in a larger bag and use them straight from there. You don't need to worry about things like carrying water with you or waiting for your work to dry in the sunlight before you close your sketchbook to go home.  The only problem I could see was if certain coloured markers run out before others in the pack (for me this would be the browns and greys) but you can buy individual 'top up' colours online at art shops. There's also no buckling of the paper like you get with watercolours. You can layer colour over the page and your designs and sketches stay flat and beautifully scannable. 

There aren't many drawbacks to these pens, but there are some. 

The first is the paper. Promarkers are notoriously bleedy, and can go straight through the page that you're drawing on and onto the one underneath. I used Winsor and Newton's bleed-proof A4 75gm paper, and it worked well, although the paper is very thin - thinner than the regular A4 stuff you put in your printer and feels a lot like a thicker tracing paper. It does have a coating on it though, to prevent the bleeding and even with a few layers of ink on the page, that works well. 

Reading Town Hall, 19th century. © Jo Romero. 

The other thing I noticed is that some of the pens seem to splatter tiny dots of ink around the place that I'm colouring. It's almost like the pen gets too full of ink and spills out too quickly onto the page, or bubbles up and then splats. It's only happening with a couple of the colours in my set and from my online searching it doesn't seem to be a consistent problem with these pens so maybe I just had a faulty set. Regardless, I'll keep an eye on it and see if it settles down.

So. Promarkers. 

Yes, you miss out on some of the techniques with traditional watercolour paint like drips, splashes and you don't get billowing or the same level of dreamy translucency. But there's just something I love about these markers. I honestly didn't expect to love them so much, but I do. They give me a beautiful clean, smooth blanket of colour and you can build up areas of shade and texture really easily. The colours in the 48-pack that I got are varied enough to give you a decent image that's fairly true to what you see and sketches work up - and dry - really quickly. I still don't have a fully functioning taste and smell (after a Covid infection in January) but the family assure me there's no strong alcohol smell, like you get with Sharpies and other pens. 

It's all good. 

I'm looking forward to taking them out with me on my urban sketches this summer. Can't wait. 

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Edited To Add: About the spilling of ink through the nib and the splattering - I realised I was storing my pens upright in the box (rookie error). When I laid it on its side as depicted on the side of the box and on the advice of my teenager daughter who sees sketchers on TikTok, I found the problem vanished. I think the ink was running into the nib of the pen, which points downwards when the box is upright, getting too full and then spilling out onto the paper. Problem solved. Store your Promarkers on their side.