Can you use Copic Markers over pencil?

Illustrations of the blurring that occurs when Copic ink is applied to graphite marks.

While inked lines (providing they are the right type of ink) provide a solid, predictable structure to colour around with Copics, working with a pencil is not so straight forward. Let’s take a look at how the Copic pens interact with pencils across varying degrees of graphite and different paper types.

While the outcome isn’t always ideal, there are some interesting aesthetic results we will explore in this Copic marker tutorial. All examples on this page were achieved using a single Copic Sketch C2 (Cool Grey), which I highly recommend if you are looking for Copic Markers to start with.

Losing definition in a pencil line

Often pencils are chosen as a tool for the artists because of their flexible nature, perfect for sketching, finding the right lines and blending/shading. The nature of graphite on the page results in unpredictable outcomes when Copics come in to play. The alcohol in the Copics (or Copic alternatives, if you are starting there) will pick up the loose fragments of graphite on the page and redeposit them as the alcohol dries and lays the dye on the paper. The result is the colouring process ‘pulling’ your lines slightly, a loss of definition and definite ‘smudginess’ being introduced. Often pencils are chosen as a tool for the artists because of their flexible nature, perfect for sketching, finding the right lines and blending/shading.

The nature of graphite on the page results in unpredictable outcomes when Copics come in to play. The alcohol in the Copics will pick up the loose fragments of graphite on the page and redeposit them as the alcohol dries and lays the dye on the paper. The result is the colouring process ‘pulling’ your lines slightly, a loss of definition and definite ‘smudginess’ being introduced. Of course, this doesn’t matter if you are bringing some serious saturation to the page, like if you are using Copic Markers to colour darker skin tones. Similarly, the surface you are using can have an impact. For instance, using Copic Markers on canvas can be thirsty work for those inks, meaning any smudging of lines is irrelevant because the colour is all that is visible by the end anyway.

The burring of graphite underneath copic marker
Smudged lines on the left because of Copic ink on top of pencil, and unsmudged pencil lines for comparison.

Mitigate the impact Copic Markers have on pencil lines

Illustrations of attempts to mitigate the blurring of pencil lines by Copic ink.
Attempts to mitigate the Copic/graphite problem: blowing, erasing and erasing and recovering.

Given that the alcohol from the Copic Marker is collecting loose graphite and spreading it around, I had thought that giving the page a jolly good blow might help shift the particles. Not so, as you can see. It seems there’s a little less blurring of the pencil lines compared to not blowing, but we still lose definition.

Lightly rubbing an eraser over the line does shift the loose particles of graphite, but with the obvious drawback of taking the sharpness out of the line. The result is we lose the blurring, but we had already reduced the definition of the line ourselves, so not an ideal option. As with any of these approaches, none are wrong, and these faint pencil lines overlaid with Copic ink has its own aesthetic charm – it really depends on what you are after.

If the sketching process creates an element of your aesthetic (multiple lines, quick, expressive marks) then an approach which combines light erasing of lines, application of the Copic ink and then re-sketching over your initial marks is possible. No smudging, but while there is a definite aesthetic consistency that can be reached with this approach, it doesn’t have the purity of Copic ink on top of original sketch marks.

Using different types of graphite with Copic Markers

The type of graphite in the pencil has a massive impact on this Copic/pencil interaction in two different ways.

First, the harder your pencil is, there will be fewer flaked particles to be found on your page. As a result, there will be less blurring. Here I have put a 4H through its paces, and while there is some identifiable blurring of pencil lines, it is noticeably lower than when using a straight H pencil.

And second, the pencil marks, when under the wash from the Copic marker, are so faint that it is almost comparable to the marks left after lightly rubbing an eraser over the H pencil.

Illustrations of 4H pencil interacting with Copic ink.
Pencil marks from a 4H interacting with Copic ink, with less smudging but less definition on lines.

Taking this fact to its logical conclusion, using a 9H as seen here results in pretty much no discernable smudging of line, but also leaves us with a barely visible line even under a light Copic Marker.

Illustrations of 9H pencil interacting with Copic ink
Copic ink overwhelming pencil marks from a 9H.

Using Copic Markers on pencil marks on different types of paper

I’ve tested Copics against two basic types of paper; bleed proof vs non-bleed proof. There are obvious benefits to using Copics on bleed proof paper, and we have explored the best types of paper for Copic markers.

The results of the standard, non-bleedproof (300gsm) you have seen above.

Copics become a different type of pen when used with bleedproof paper, with deeper mixing of shades and the ability to still work the ink while wet. Of course, the treatment applied to the paper to make it bleedproof also impacts the way pencils work with the paper. My H lead results in both significant blurring of lines, and almost deletion of the original lines. A harder surface means even more loose graphite for the Copic alcohol to pick up and spread, and significantly less graphite committed to the page (there’s less for the graphite to stick to, not as much roughage).

Taking the 9H to the bleedproof paper had predictable results. The hard nature of the graphite made it difficult to lay the mark on the paper in the first place, so of course there would be significantly less loose graphite around to blur the lines. On the flipside, after applying a fairly neutral Copic C2 (Cool Grey) wash, the lines pretty much disappeared, having been so light in the first place.

Illustration of H and 9H pencils interacting with Copic ink on bleedproof paper.
Copic and pencil interaction on bleedproof paper. An H pencil on the left, showing a complete smudge-fest, and the 9H lines on the right almost disappearing.

In short, the non-bleedproof paper feels more forgiving when working Copics over your pencil marks – but unless you have determined a particularly scrappy sketch and colour style, it’s going to take some getting used to. In using bleedproof paper, pencil would only be an initial guiding layer, replaced with ink and erased before the Copic shading or colouring begins, otherwise it ends up as a real warzone.

Inking is the most predictable line making approach when using Copic

Speaking of ink, this is the real sure fire solution to losing the bleed of lines when it comes to working with Copic Markers. So long as the right ink is being used (and it is hard to go past Copic’s own fineliners for this) you will get a guaranteed smooth, clear and defined line every time, no matter how hard you wash over it with your Copics.

With that said, it is overly prescriptive to say fineliners were the only way to work with Copics. As with any creative endeavour, much of what you want your tools to do comes down to your own vision and personal style. Yes, perfect manga style line work and shading is impressive to view – but there’s also a lot of it out there, and plenty of room for more sketcherly, slightly blurry, personality fuelled work to sit beside it.

The sequence of pencil into Copic is important

It’s important to remember that all the flexibility we love from working with graphite evaporates when the Copic pen hits the page. The alcohol in the Copic Marker ‘commits’ the pencil to the page (smudges and all). Regardless of your aesthetic approach, you need to make sure everything you want to get rid of pre-Copic is erased, because there is no going back. This of course exacerbates the smudging issues – you don’t know it will smudge until the blur is already committed to the page.

Pencil over Copic works fine

As already discussed, once the Copic layers are down, there’s nothing to stop you bringing pencil marks back into the mix, to mix up the approach to shading or drawing attention back to the lines that might have lost definition.

It’s worth noting the pencil you lay over the Copic ink is not committed to the page, and can be erased. You also see this in the sequence below. This sequence of images also demonstrates how those lines caught by the ink remain ‘trapped’ on the page when everything else can be erased.

Illustration of the process of drawing a head, showcasing rubbing pencil from on top of Copic ink.
Stages four into five above show how pencil can be erased from on top of Copic, but not from below.

Going over pencil won’t damage your Copic Marker

Just as you are trapping and staining your image by redistributing the graphite when you combine Copic Markers and pencil lines, so the graphite can also discolour the nib of your Copic Marker. This does not damage your pen, nor will it compromise future drawings. It is merely discolouration and shouldn’t cause you too much concern.

However, if you are reading this it tells me you are a user of Copic Markers, and as such probably a bit of a perfectionist. So if the discoloured nibs are enough to irritate you, you can of course replace the nibs in your pens without the need to throw the whole thing out.

The verdict on using Copic Markers over pencil

Yes, for those of us who are fans of perfect lines, manga-esque colour blocking and overall precision using Copic Markers over pencil can be problematic.

However, the variability and differentiation in line can lead to more expressive work. For people getting started with Copic Markers, it is well worth experimenting with graphite and getting a feel for how the combination can work in a drawing’s favour.