I love Tombow dual brush pens for urban sketching or nature sketching, but they are REALLY expensive. So when I spotted that WHSmith do a dual brush pen, I wondered if they would be any good. They are half the price, but are they half the quality?
Two artists I really admire, Ian Fennelly and John Muir Laws, both recommend the Tombow Dual Brush Pen, so I gave them a go and I love them. It’s great for your initial sketch and the lines will melt away when you put watercolour on top. They are good for adding tone, without adding water – so important when working on location. And the brush pen is fabulous for window panes! You are often fighting with time when sketching, so anything which saves a bit and lets you get information down is alright with me!
After a quick internet search, all I could find were reviews from calligraphers and they seemed to think the WHSmith ones were okay. In fact, more than okay. But hand lettering people don’t ask the questions I need to know the answers to, so I decided to do my own comparison. As an artist, I need to know about the colour range, the blendability, transparency, light fastness.
If you prefer a film, I have put one on my YouTube channel here: https://youtu.be/Dc7Z-hPXK2k
I’ve compared the two available grey sets, as they are the ones I use for urban sketching. Costs are correct as of April 2021. The RRP for the six Tombow pens is £21, though to be fair I found a site selling them for £14.16. The six WHSmith pens are £9.99, or £7.99 on ebay. I got them on a 3 for 2 deal, which worked out at just over £7.
I compared the colour range and how they blended on cartridge and watercolour paper. The Tombow set had a more interesting range of warm and cool greys, along with a blender pen, which is a bit useless for my purposes. So five pens for £21… Meanwhile the Smith pens where pretty neutral and simply shade of the same colour.
Both sets are water based ink, with a bullet nib one end and a brush pen the other. The Tombow are slightly longer, so I assume they have more ink. This might be wrong. Both sets have no clips on the lids, but a little protrusion to stop them rolling away – very handy. A little more research shows that neither is light fast. In this test, I couldn’t gauge how they wear. It’s fair to say that if you are using a cold press paper, it will take its toll on the brush pen and it might fray. A hot press would be less wearing.
The biggest test is whether they blend, and I am pleased to say that though the Smiths blended slightly less well, I would say only by 3% or so. The black in the Smith’s set separated out into a strange pink when I added water. If I planned to put water over the top of my work, I would avoid the black for sure.
So to conclude at less than half the price, the Smiths pens are only a few percentage worse, which means I will certainly be adding them to my sketch kit. I think they offer great value for money and hopefully they might do them half price soon.