Coloring 201: Why do markers bleed?

The frustrating qualities of “wet media”

This is probably THE number one question I see posed in various coloring forums, along with “What brand of markers can I buy that won’t bleed?” Often, in the answers, you see contradictory responses. One person swears Stabilo 88s are the best markers, and never bleed. Another person says they tried Stabilos and hated them, because they bleed all the time. This person swears by her Staedtler markers, while that person says they are the worst markers in the world! How is that possible? Did one person get a bad batch? Is someone lying because they work for the marker company?

To truly answer this question, we need to look at the nature of markers and how they work.

Wet Media

Unlike colored pencils, markers classify as a “wet media.” What is wet media? It is any media that uses liquid to transfer the pigment (or ink) to the paper. Other wet media include paint and watercolor. Because of the nature of wet media, the pigment is absorbed by the paper, rather than lying on the surface.

Think of a paper towel. When you dip the corner in a glass of water, what happens? The water is absorbed, right? Not only that, the paper wicks up the moisture, so that not only the corner gets wet, but part of the paper towel above the corner also gets wet. This wicking action is why markers “bleed.” It’s part of the nature of wet media.

Paper matters

So why do some markers bleed more than others? This is partly a function of the type of marker, but also of the paper used. Take our paper towel experiment again. This time, think of the same glass of water, but instead of a paper towel, take a regular sheet of paper and dip the corner in. You will still get the corner wet, but you will notice less of the paper above the water will absorb water. The paper is less absorbent than the paper towel, so there will be less wicking action.

As with our experiments, so it is with markers. The same marker will act differently on different types of paper, depending on the absorptive quality of the paper and its thickness. Thicker paper will absorb less of the ink than a thinner paper will. Even with paper of the same thickness, there can be a difference in material or processing that makes one absorb the ink more than the other. This in part explains the different experiences people may have with the same brand of marker. The pages they are coloring are using a different type of paper and so they see different results.

Marker brands

Different marker brands use different formulas to combine ink with water (or alcohol) which results in different intensities of color. They also use various materials to transfer the ink from the barrel of the marker to the paper – the various felt or other tips found on markers. All of these affect how much water and how much ink get transferred when you use the marker.

Let’s go back to our experiment again. Now, however, think of two glasses, one our original glass of water, and the other a glass of jello mix (before it’s been put in the fridge to harden.) Instead of dipping a corner into the glasses, think of dripping a drop from each glass onto the paper. The water will absorb immediately, and form a damp area on the towel that spreads until the water is fully absorbed. The jello mix will also absorb, but not as much, and will take longer to reach full absorption, resulting in a smaller circle on the paper. This is because the gelatin has already absorbed some of the water, so there is less for the paper to absorb.

So it is with markers. If you think about it, you’ll remember that you’ve noticed that some markers are wetter, or “juicier” than others, even within the same package. Just as different brands use different formulas, different colors of ink will also have differences, due to the materials used to get the different colors. Each of these variables will affect how much a marker bleeds.

The Effect of Technique

As if all of that weren’t complicated enough, two different people using the exact same marker on the exact same paper can also get different results! Back to our experiment again, let’s look at two different people putting a drop of water on the paper. The first one is a petite girl, the second is her football player dad. Each dips a finger into a glass and lets a single drop fall onto the paper. However, because the girl has a smaller finger, her droplet is smaller than her dad’s, resulting in a smaller expansion as the droplet is absorbed.

Test of 3 types of markers on two different papers – a quick dot, 5 second hold, and 10 second hold. (The quick dot was pretty much the same on both papers.)

Marker technique can also affect bleed rate. If you take a sheet of paper, and very quickly dot the page, you’ll get a small dot of color. But what if you carefully place the tip on the paper and hold it there for a while? You’ll see the same wicking action, where the paper absorbs more and more of the ink, causing it to spread out around the point of contact. This wicking occurs in all directions – out sideways away from the marker tip, but also down into the paper, eventually causing the ink to bleed through the paper. If there is another sheet of paper underneath, it will eventually bleed onto that as well.

Interpreting the Results

So, as you can see, due to the nature of markers as a wet media, all markers bleed. How much they bleed depends on a fairly large number of factors, including the type and quality of the paper you are using, the type and color of marker, and the techniques you use when coloring. So what should you do? Give up on markers and go back to using colored pencils? Not necessarily.

The first thing you need to understand is how to get the best results from your markers, which requires acknowledging that markers bleed, and accepting that as a feature of the marker, not something to try to keep from happening. Anyone who colors needs to learn the qualities of the media they choose and how to best use it to achieve results they want. Trying to keep markers from bleeding prevents you from fully realizing their potential.

“But my coloring book has images on both sides,” you say? That does make it difficult to use markers in those books. That’s why many publishers and artists are now publishing books with the images on only one side. By placing a piece of extra paper between the pages, or removing the pages before coloring, these books allow you to safely use markers without worrying about a second image being ruined.

For books with images on both sides, you can choose to use a different media, like colored pencils or gel pens, or you can make a copy of the image you want to color so that you can use markers. [As a publisher, I must say you should always check with the artist to see if it’s ok to make a copy for your own personal use. As an artist, I can say that many, if not most, artists don’t mind this particular practice of making a copy so you don’t ruin the image on the opposite side.]

Marker techniques

Water-based marker example. Left side is single strokes with as light a touch as possible. Right side is a more saturated application layering several strokes to get a smooth, even color.

OK, now that we’ve looked at the why, the next big step is using your markers. Many people try to use a very light touch and not go over any of their previously colored lines. This does make it less likely that the marker will bleed, but it has its drawbacks. With a light touch, you don’t get full saturation of the paper, which means that some of the paper fibers remain white. Just like blending two colors, the white fibers blend with the marker color. It’s the same effect, for example, as adding white paint to a cup of colored paint. Your color will change to a paler shade. This is why you often get streaks when coloring this way. The darker areas where the lines overlap have better saturation.

To get an even color, you actually want to saturate the paper fully. With water-based markers, though, you have to be careful, as over time, the water starts to break down the paper. As with any media, with practice, you’ll learn how much you can go over an area with your markers to fully saturate it without ruining the paper.

Same example, but with a Sharpie (an alcohol marker.) Alcohol markers are easier to blend, but will still streak. Top is single strokes; bottom is the saturated version.

With alcohol-based markers, the alcohol evaporates quickly, so you don’t have to worry about ruining the paper. You can go over the area many times to get full saturation. (Many alcohol-marker companies actually recommend you color an area until you see the color bleed through the back of the paper, proving you’ve fully saturated the paper. That’s right – they recommend bleeding!)

Of course, when doing multiple layers with markers, you also have to worry about sideways bleed. You want to stop putting color down before you get to the line marking the edge of an area, as the color will continue to seep toward the line. Again, with practice, you’ll learn when to stop so that you don’t bleed across the lines.

So there you have it. Embrace the bleed! OK, maybe you don’t want to go quite that far – but do recognize that bleeding is a normal characteristic of markers. By learning how to use markers the way they were intended, you’ll find yourself happier and less frustrated.

1 Comment for “Coloring 201: Why do markers bleed?”

Helen Kuhnsman


I am an anomaly. I WANT the color to bleed through to the other side of the image. I like the way the reverse image looks. I don’t use books that have images on both sides.

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