Dual brush pens – Tombow or WHSmith – at less than half the price, are they half as good?

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.

I tested pens on cartridge paper, similar to sketch books to see how the pens blend with water. Look at the pink tone in the black of the Smith’s. On the right, I used the Tombow blending pen which worked well on both sets.

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.

The pens did not blend with water as well on watercolour paper, though the ink did move, and the blending pen did not work well at all. I guess this is because the paper is more absorbent than cartridge. Note the pink again!

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.

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