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Do you put dark or light first in alcohol markers?

When using alcohol-based markers for coloring and artwork, a common question that arises is whether you should start with the lighter colors first and build up to the darker colors, or vice versa. Both approaches have their merits, and experienced markers tend to use a combination of techniques depending on the desired outcome. In this article, we’ll explore the pros and cons of starting with light vs. dark colors when using alcohol markers, and provide tips on how to achieve the best results.

Starting with Light Colors First

Many artists recommend starting with the lightest colors first when using alcohol-based markers. There are a few reasons for this approach:

Avoids Contamination of Light Colors

When you start with the darkest marker colors first, you risk contaminating any light colors you add later. The pigment from dark markers can linger on the brush nib and get transferred to lighter color areas. This muddies and darkens those lighter hues. By starting light, you keep the nibs of those markers completely clean.

Easier to Build up Colors Gradually

Starting with light colors allows you to slowly build up the tones and shading. You can start by laying down the lightest base colors, then add slightly darker layers on top to deepen the shades gradually. This gives you excellent control over the end result.

Creates Beautiful Blends

The alcohol inks allow colors to blend beautifully, especially when you start light and move to dark. The light colors will naturally fade and blend into the new layers seamlessly. This creates lovely color gradients and textures.

Maximum Highlights

Saving the lightest shades for last allows you to lift out those colors for bright highlights and accents. Starting with darks first makes it hard to recreate those vivid highlights later on.

Pros Cons
– Avoids contaminating light colors – Can take more time building up gradually
– Easy to control shading – Highlights may need to be re-applied later
– Creates beautiful blends – Can require more layers to build up darks
– Allows maximum highlights

Starting with Dark Colors First

On the other hand, some artists prefer to dive right in with the darkest shades first when alcohol marker coloring. Here are some potential benefits of this method:

Quickly Lays Down Dark Tones

You can rapidly block in large areas of deep, saturated color by going dark first. This allows you to establish the main shadows and tones straight away.

Avoids Need to Re-apply Layers

When you start by gradually layering up light to dark, you often have to go back and deepen some areas later. Starting with rich darks avoids the need to re-apply extra layers.

Creates Depth and Contrast

Leading with dark, dramatic tones can help instantly create bold contrast and visual depth in your artwork. The dark colors stand out against the light ones.

Dark Nibs Don’t Contaminate

While dark nibs can contaminate light colors when blending, the reverse is not true. You can safely color light areas after laying down dark colors without contamination issues.

Pros Cons
– Quickly establishes dark tones – Can overpower light colors if not careful
– Avoids re-applying layers – Blending not as seamless
– Creates bold contrast – Harder to control shading subtly
– No contamination from light to dark

Tips for Best Results

The good news is that you don’t necessarily have to choose one approach or the other exclusively. Here are some tips for getting the best outcome combining both techniques:

Use Both Methods in Different Areas

A good compromise is to start with dark colors in some areas, and light colors in others, depending on the desired effect. Use the quick, dramatic darks for some shadows or background elements. Use gradual light building for complex shading on main subjects.

Start with a Light Base Layer

Consider first applying a light base layer over the entire artwork. This prevents the paper from getting over-saturated in any one area too quickly. Then go in with darker accents and layers.

Blend Gradually Outwards from Darks

When building up colors from a dark base, gradually blend outwards into lighter hues, softening the edges as you go. This creates a nice faded, shadowed effect.

Use Light Pressure with Darks

When applying those first dark marker layers, use very light pressure so the tones aren’t too overpowering. You can always go over them again to deepen areas. But you want to leave room for light accents.

Lift Color with Blenders

Keep colorless blender markers handy. Use them to lift and soften colors, creating highlights even after applying dark tones first. This removes dark pigment and allows light colors to show through.

Example Alcohol Marker Techniques

To help illustrate both techniques in action, here are two examples of alcohol marker coloring processes starting with light vs. dark tones:

Light to Dark Example

1. Lay down a light base layer for the flower using a light yellow marker. Use minimal pressure.

2. Add a slightly darker yellow in the center of the flower and buds. Overlap the colors, blending outwards.

3. Deepen shades gradually on the flower by layering darker yellow tones towards the edges.

4. Switch to an orange marker to add color variation, darkening towards edges.

5. Finish with dark browns and reds in center and edges for depth.

6. Accent with bright yellow highlights.

Dark to Light Example

1. Lay down deep purple marker heavily in the background area. Use heavy pressure.

2. Switch to a slightly lighter purple, softening and blending outwards from the initial dark color.

3. Add more purple layers, continually lightening and softening as you move outwards.

4. Add bright white highlights in background by lifting color with a blender.

5. Switch to light yellows and oranges for the tulip, blending together.

6. Deepen the tulip colors with darker yellows, oranges and reds, leaving highlighted areas.

As you can see, both light-to-dark and dark-to-light techniques have their merits. Experiment to see which works best for your specific alcohol marker coloring project for the desired mood and effects. Often, combining the two approaches results in the most interest and depth. The colors and textures of alcohol markers lend themselves beautifully to artistic experimentation.

Other Alcohol Marker Tips

Here are a few other quick tips to take your alcohol marker coloring to the next level:

  • – Use high-quality, acid-free paper for the best blending and color lifting.
  • – Work in multiple layers for smoother shading.
  • – Overlap and blend colors into each other for natural looks.
  • – Keep marker nibs inked but not over-saturated for ideal coverage.
  • – Clean nibs frequently to avoid contamination.
  • – Work from light to dark for overt blending. Dark to light for vibrancy.
  • – Use blender markers to soften and add textures.

With their incredible flexibility and endless opportunities for creativity, alcohol-based markers are a joy to experiment with. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and use both light-to-dark and dark-to-light techniques together for your unique works of art.


When using alcohol markers, both starting with light colors and building up to darks, or beginning with darks first have their advantages. Light to dark provides excellent control, clean blending, and bright highlights. Dark to light offers speed, bold contrast and avoids re-layering. Most projects benefit from a combination approach, tailoring technique to each color area and desired effect. Use lights first for critical shading zones, darks first for rapid background coloring. With practice and an open, creative approach, alcohol markers can produce incredible artistic works in vivid color.