Monday, June 01, 2015

Watercolor brush markers: Akashiya Sai and Zig Clean Color

I've had several requests for more comparative info on the Zig Clean Color Real Brush Pens and Akashiya Sai markers I've been using, so I've compiled my thoughts here. These have been a lot of fun to play with, and they're a neat and unique addition to my collection. If you're thinking of purchasing either or both of these marker sets, I hope I can give you some helpful and objective information to guide your purchase.

Appearance and Structure
Visually and structurally, the Zig markers have a nice feel - the body is shorter and has a sleek look to it. The diameter is just slightly larger than the Sai marker, which is slim and longer, with a minimalist design that sort of looks and feels more disposable. (They are both disposable, so that's not a big deal - just a first impression! It's what's inside that matters anyway.)

Both markers have see-through lids, and are color indexed at the tip and on the end. The marker bodies are hard plastic, unlike some brush pens that are flexible to allow a little squeeze for extra flow. Neither marker is refillable.

The brush on the Sai markers is bigger around and longer than the Zig brush tip by 2 mm (the Sais are 9mm long and the Zigs are 7 mm). I do like the larger brush for coloring broader areas. Both brushes come to a very fine tip and can achieve extremely fine lines. They're both great for getting concentrated color into tiny areas, which is hard to achieve with paints and a brush. I haven't had or used the markers long enough to know if they'll fray eventually on the tips with extensive use. My experience with the Zig waterbrushes (new and used ones shown below) has been that they don't last forever.

Color Range and Price
Sai markers come in 20 colors (the best price is about $27 for the full set at the affiliate link above (Amazon 3rd party, ships from Japan), a great price at $1.35 per marker) - they can be purchased individually for about $3.50 from Jetpens... so not a great long-run savings unless you plan to replace the full set at once... but a great way to start a marker collection at a lower price.

The Zig markers come in 80 different colors, and are available in a variety of sets (the largest packaged set is 60 markers, and the remaining 20 colors can be purchased from vendors who sell open stock). Individually they range from $2.50 - $3.50. They are available from Japanese and US vendors. If you're an 'all the colors' collector, you'll appreciate the wider range here. There are also a wide variety of light colors and some great earth tones. I made sure to get the light grey for pale shadows.

Color Integrity
Neither marker is recommended for lightfastness, so these won't be replacing other artist-grade watercolor paints in my collection for work that will be displayed. If that's an issue for you, take note. If you're just going to be using these on small art pieces or cards that will be stored away, this shouldn't be a concern. (If you are looking for watercolor markers that are lightfast, try artist brands such as Winsor Newton or Letraset AquaMarkers.)

I was curious about how the inks would react to saturation, so I put a few ink spots on a coffee filter and sprayed generously with water. Both marker types did show separation of color into their mixed components. Some colors performed better than others, but the separation was still noticeable; sometimes the colors separated completely. Sometimes this can add an interesting effect, and you may like the variation in color, but it may not be a quality that you want in your watercoloring. If you're blending the markers with each other or with a light amount of water, this shouldn't be a concern for you, but if you're wanting to create washes or tend to use a lot of water to blend, be prepared for some surprise bonus colors from both brands. I didn't compare every color, but here are a few of my test samples (Zig on the left, Sai on the right)

(Note that Distress Marker ink is specially formulated not to separate into its component colors, if that is a quality you want to avoid completely in a water-based marker.)

As far as blendability, both marker types perform similarly. In both brands, one color can be blended with another without adding water. This can be done directly on watercolor paper, by touching markers tip to tip, or by lifting color from a palette. The flowers, leaves and stems below were blended directly on the paper (color press watercolor paper) using the markers alone.

With water blending, the Sai markers seem to 'move' more, and the color 'jumps' into the water more quickly. Both blend well with water though, leaving only a faint indication of the original strokes, if any. Paper choice makes a huge difference in how much of the original brush stroke is left after blending. Hot press paper seemed to perform the best for me, and was the most friendly with the brush marker where smooth laydown was concerned.  My favorite results were on Fabriano Medioevalis Stationery.

Here's a short video where I demonstrate some different techniques for using the markers, and play with some of their different properties side by side.

If you can't decide between the two brands and want a few of each, be assured that these markers do play well together.

Here's a blank chart of the 80 Zig Clean Color markers that can be used to keep track of your collection or wish list.

I have so many watercolor mediums and I'm happiest with my pencils and tube paints, so I don't feel like I'm going to need a new rainbow of markers as well. I think I'll be content with the markers that I have (the set of 20 Sai markers and 18 Zigs). Using a palette, even a small number of colors can be blended to create new colors, so I don't feel limited, and again, these aren't going to be the medium I reach for most often.

If you don't have a preferred watercolor medium and you're looking for something to fill that gap in your collection, you tend to color small or detailed images, and you're not concerned about lightfastness, these may be for you. This type of marker is great for vibrant images and allows for portability, and they're a lot of fun to play with. The waterless blending is so vibrant and easy, and I love the ability to get a fine, consistent line of concentrated color too - that's hard to do with paint and a brush.

You'll get comparable results from either brand. If you're wanting to save a little money, consider purchasing the Sai markers ($27 from Amazon) and then filling in with favorites from the Zig line (catch a discount special at Blick for the best price). For me, the color movement, larger brush, and lower price are what make the Sai markers special. The color range of the Zig markers is much more extensive, if that's what you're looking for.

My main concern with both brands is the way the colors separate when saturated.

Here are the links again - these are affiliate links that kick a small commission my way if you make a purchase, at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

Whichever you choose, or if you decide to move on without new markers, I hope that I've helped you make an educated choice. If I can answer more questions about either marker, please leave me a comment. Have a great week!

Thanks for stopping by!


  1. I have been anxious to see this post. I tried out the Zig pens but ended up buying the Akashiya Sai markers a couple of weeks ago. Love the longer bristles! They are a fun addition to my many watercolor choices. Thanks for all the details!

  2. Your comparisons are always so in-depth and informative! And appreciated! TFS.

  3. Great comparison post! Thanks for sharing such a great and in depth review of these both!!!

  4. Thanks for a very thorough and helpful review!

  5. So helpful Dina! I'm not jumping in, I have many other mediums that I've not mastered. But so appreciate this comparison!

  6. You did a fantastic job on comparing these two markers and I felt it was very impartial. Great information. Thank you so much for doing this. You are so knowledgeable in this area.

  7. Thank you Dina....great review! For a portable marker, I am happy with my SAI markers that I just purchased.. Your video answered my questions so may have to also buy a few ZIG to fill in the gaps.
    Paper Hugs,

  8. That was a WONDERFULLY helpful video! I just dipped my toe into the Zig color pool (they should be here soon) so I'm interested to see how they turn out. I LOVE my Distress Markers though.:)

  9. Thank you for doing that video. I've been eyeballing the zig but just haven't committed to all that money. You've given me food for thought with the Sai. I wouldn't have known there was something else out there comparable if not for your video.

  10. Such a great review! Thank you so much for sharing, Dina!

  11. Thank you so much Dina! You responded to my question on Amazon and the link you sent took me to a blank page but I google searched and found your post, yay! I bought a few Zig's to test and I found the same issues that you mentioned. If I didn't lay down any water first, the original brush strokes remained as I tried to do a color wash, so the color just didn't want to blend. I hadn't thought of dipping the pen tip directly into water and then color, I loved the look you got when you did that! I saw from Japan on the MFT design team use the Sai pens on tiny little tulip flowers, and I thought they looked fantastic, so I understand what you mean by what you said about the one advantage they do offer is getting intense color in very small areas as a water color medium. I think I'll order the same sets you have now that I've read and watched your review. I'll order through your affiliate links. You are so cool. Thanks so much!

  12. THANK you for this extensive review! I have my Faber-Castell PITT pens (brush tips), but not a wide range of colors and they're india ink. I don't think this is something I *have* to have after reading your review. I love my Gelatos & Aquarelle watercolor pencils.

  13. Hi, I have a question. What did you use to outline the flowers at 3:53? The black one?It looks really nice.

    1. Hi! That is actually a sticker from Elizabeth Craft Designs.

    2. Wow!Such a cool thing. Do you think if there is anyway to be able to make the same outline ourselves? I really love the crisp effect but I like to be able to make whatever motif I want myself!
      Thanks a lot for the reply!You seem such a professional I guessed you know everything!:)

    3. You're very kind! There are embossing pens that you can use then coat with embossing powder that melts when heated - that would be a similar look.

  14. Such an amazing blog about the Watercolor Brush Pen Set and I really appreciate you work which you have done well.
    Watercolor Brush Pen Set