Saturday, 6 August 2011

FLEXmarkers...the review.Get a cuppa and a biccie...

Just in case you haven't read Pen-gate, last week I was asked to demonstrate a brand new product from Letraset on Ideal World's Pick of the Day shows - the brand new FLEXmarker.

So when I agreed to do the shows I had no real idea what this product was other than a marker with a brush tip and to be honest with it being a brand new product and exclusive to the channel for a month and, to boot, a WORLD launch of the product I felt a bit of pressure and started to stress a little at only having 2 days to prep before going live before the world with it. Yes, that IS how much notice I got!

So they arrived on Friday afternoon and I RIPPED the package open I can tell you! As soon as I saw it I thought ooohhh just like a Copic! So I got on the phone to Letraset and asked for the full product info and couldn't wait to read through it.  I have to say I was a little underwhelmed at first, it takes a LOT to get me excited about a craft product these days, nothing seems to be brand new or unseen before and nothing seems to stand out much from the crowd these days, we seem to be in a craft hiatus as far as "new" is concerned. Anyway I scribbled on a bit of paper just to look but didnt have time for anything else as I was demoing in Leeds all day Saturday.

So Sunday, feeling really tired from a heavy week and not very inspired I retrieved all 24 of the Flexies (as I will call them here) and made a swatch board for the shows. By the time I'd got to the 3rd colour in Set One I was "ooohing" and "aaahing" and my excitement levels were kicking in a bit as I realised how lush the colours were and how smooth they went on the paper.  So here are my findings:

I'm not in love with the packaging and the whole look of the barrel in it's grey, I think these markers could look a lot more exciting than they do, but let's be honest what it looks like on the outside is irrelevant if it does a great job on the inside.  BUT I was absolutely over the moon to see that Letraset have taken heed and finally colour coded the ends of the markers. And not just one end, people, BOTH ends, both coloured and numbered! And also, not just a printed colour and number which will rub off over time, it's encapsulated into both ends in a way that I think it will be there forever.  A fantastic start if you're a geek like me who likes to have them all colour coded and filed into number order etc.  Also, I found that the colour indicators did actually reflect the colour of the pen really well - nothing more annoying than getting a different colour to what you think you picked!  Now, one more thing I'll say about the caps before I go onto the pen itself is that you MUST make sure you really click the caps on when you use them, they are a bit firmer than Promarker caps with a definite click. I must admit when I was on TV demoing with my hot and sweaty hands I did find the caps a little bit harder to remove, they have a band around them rather than the little nodule you find on a Promarker so if someone does have dexterity issues and not much strength in their hands they may find them a little more tricky to remove sometimes.  And as we were rushing and the presenters were also using them we kept leaving the lids off which made mine dry out a bit in the studio heat (it was el scorchio that day).  Also, I do wish they'd kept that nodule on there so the pen doesn't roll around so much - missed a trick there Letraset I'm afraid, no idea why you decided to take it off but I do wish you'd put it back please!

So, the pen...double ended, alcohol marker. Non refillable. Onto the big thing first, let's get it out of the way - the price.  I asked Letraset what the RRP would be for a single pen and was told around £3 each. Wowser! Much steeper than the £2 for a Promarker but PLEASE don't dismiss them for just this reason, please read on and if you only buy ONE to try you will realise why they are the additional money.  When a marker has a brush tip added, the brush (I am told from a reliable source, and to add credence to this, Kuretake told me this so it wasn't part of any sales pitch, people) the brush has to be inserted into the barrel by hand rather than machine filled, and clearly this additional labour cost will really increase the price.  But I also personally think that if something is hand finished it will also be much better quality than anything made by a machine.  I also have to say that in MY opinion I much prefer this brush to the Copic brush which is clearly it's biggest competitor...

The Flex brush is, well, flexible! But not in an out of control, too much movement kind of way.  Copic users adore their brush tip and I do too, I originally began with Copics but found that I always went outside the lines when I was doing fine detail. So I tried Promarkers and then moved over because I just found it so much easier to be neat with the hard nib of the PM. But I've always missed that softness of the brush and I think that's why I end up using the chisel so often so I can get those big sweeps of colour and work much faster too.

Anyway, the brush tip on the Flexies is made up of fibres and you will find that after even just a few minutes of using it, the brush just gets softer and softer and after a few hours it is just baby soft, which can only do one thing as far as I'm concerned - help you.  I can actually see the tip of the brush fibres parting slightly as I move it which means it gives superb blending because it's manipulating the colour onto the paper of it's own accord. Very clever.  The reason I prefer it to the Copics is that the brush is shorter. And that means more control as far as I'm concerned.

Now, we have exactly the same dye based ink formulations that are in the Promarkers and Tria's and that also means we can mix into our other markers too.  There will be 72 colours in the range to begin with but they won't be available to retail stores until the end of August as C&C had 4 weeks exclusivity for the launch.  There are 4 sets of 6 pens, and I have also seen 4 sets of 12 although I don't have these yet, and presumably the remaining 24 will be launched at the end of August but Letraset haven't confirmed this with me yet either. There will also be a Flexmarker blender, but you can also use  your Promarker blender too. Sets 1 and 2 are completely brand new colours in the alchohol family at Letraset, so never ever seen before.  All 4 sets (6 packs), 1,2,3,4 (24 colours in total) will NOT be available in Promarkers, but Sets 3 and 4 are currently available as Triamarker colours - again these other 12 colours will not be available within Promarkers. Phew! Took some getting my head around that one.

One really important thing to note - you really need to prime these on the brush, especially on the light colours in Set One and Two, so don't think they're not working if no colour is on the brush!  So just take the brush end and scribble onto some scrap paper or card for a minute until the colour flushes through into the brush - then you're off! You should only ever need to do it once.

So, I decided to colour exactly the same image as I did for Pengate as it was only fair and I wanted to be able to make a direct comparison, and this is the result.
(sorry I forgot to take a pic of the reverse before I glued it down to compare the bleedthrough).

When I first started to use them I kept veering towards my blender pen simply because of late I've been liking the really subtle shading this gives me but to be honest, after about 20mins of using the Flexies I never really gave the blender another thought, the brush is so smooth it kinda removes some of the necessity of it.

The brush is so, so soft. I know I'm banging on about it but it really is and at the end of the day this is what makes these markers so special, otherwise they're just a Promarker and 99% of us crafters know what they can do.

I have to say, the colours in Sets 1,2,3,4 are not the best colours for Christmas! I'd geared myself up to do Christmas colouring and printed loads of images off and couldn't use them, but because the colours are so pale and translucent you can layer them to make new colours.
I don't know if technically the formulation has made the colours extra translucent compared to a normal Promarker or Tria, I suspect it may be the case to enable an even flow through the brush (ie it may have to be slightly thinner to flow better through the longer fibres) or it could probably just be that because there is less colour we have more alcohol which lets it flow better, but the colours certainly seem to layer better which means you can make loads of new colours. I did this in PM's anyway but sometimes a lighter colour on top of a pale one seems to sit on top and look dappled rather than blending in and you seem to get less of this here.
The brush just sweeps the colour on in even brushstrokes BUT Promarker users - you need to work more slowly! Well, I do anyway, or I find I work too fast for the inkflow in the brush and it gets a bit dry on me until it's replenished. But that's no biggie and might be just me when I'm used to using the giant chisel! If it does happen all I do is hold it vertically for a few seconds until it's back again.

You can see here on the tree how seemless the blending is and I really didn't have to work too hard to achieve this - the blending is definitely easier than with Promarkers, the brush spreads the colour around for you. I found working the Copic way, ie in small circles rather than pushing back and forth is the best technique and that also helped to soften the brush anyway, not that it was ever hard in the first place.  EXACTLY THE SAME as on the Speccies image, I used 4 colours here to get the tree green - in fact, no, sorry I lie, I had to use 5 colours as I had to mix Surf Blue into the Chartreuse to get the darker green because my colour palette was limited. If you directly compare this to the brushstrokes you can see on the Speccies image you will see how much smoother and softer it is and that is primarily because of that brush.
I also have to say, that although I had to go a bit slower than I would normally with the chisel tip, I could still work really fast and on Sunday I coloured 30, yes, 30! images in with the Flexes, all for the show samples (not just simple stuff either, I will post those samples at some point so you can see). On Monday all I did was assemble the 30 cards - I don't think I'd have done that many if I'd been using anything else to be honest, I was amazed how quickly I got them done.

Now for the jeans, this is where I found I really had to lay a lot of colour down for the Speccies so I wanted to ensure I used a really pale and a dark blue again in the same way. I used the celestial blue and then glacier blue, just pushing the colour around in circles again and I was so pleased with this result. There is more of a hard edge on his inside leg (ooer) but I could've got rid of that if I'd really wanted to. Obviously when you lay a lot of colour down and keep blending and blending then you will get bleed over your lines and I won't lie and say I didn't but it wasn't anything out of the ordinary compared to what I'd expect from using a Copic or Promarker. Although I didn't take a pic, the bleedthrough on the back (again same 160gsm Ultimate Graphic paper) was a little more than with a Promarker but I did work the pen more to get that subtle soft shading so I wasn't really surprised.

Face: I completely adored the colours in Set One for skintones. This set completely fits into those skin shades of Promarker and the Antique white will replace my ivory Promarker almost. The colours are SO very pale they now compare to those wonderful Copic shades which enable the Copic users to achieve all the fantastic shading on faces and cheeks that we see on Tilda stamps and the like. Quite simply, Copic have more pale tones to work with which means the blending becomes easier. If you can use 4 or 5 colours which are very similar and blend them in a circle, you're going to get a very smooth blend compared to something you would achieve with 2 or 3 similar colours.  Add the brush and that blend becomes even better.

(Now I have to say, this is something I didn't really say enough about on my Speccies review and I should have, so I'll say it now. As I said before, Leann Chivers has put a lot of work into the sets of colours and the Speccies do have some great colour choices and lots of pale and pastels to choose from. The difference is that to achieve that blending you will need to pick more colours and  you will need to work that bit harder to get them smooth. But hey, you're not paying £3 a pen so you need to expect that in my opinion.)

Coming back to the Flexies vs Copics vs Promarker debate, I really do prefer the Flexmarker brush to the Copic one. It's softer, shorter so I can control it better and it also is more pointy I think. As I said right at the start, I find the Copic one makes me go over the lines on detail and this one is much better for that.  Also, because I changed over from Copics early on I only have about 50 Copics and I've never been able to achieve those Tilda faces, I've always just blended a bit around the edge but found it always bled so much I didn't want to overwork it. With Promarkers I generally only use 3 colours and leave more of that harder edge. Not any more! Now I have those extra shades I am going mental with faces and I was really surprised at how easy it was to get that nice flushed face feel I see all over blogland.  I do find the Copic brush is a bit drier than the Flex one and generally I would say that a brush tip is drier to use than the Promarker nibs, it's just down to the fibres and how the ink flows I think. I don't care, I can sweep, feather, push and do what I like with this brush and I adore it.

Recently I've been demoing a bit at Hunkydory's Inspirations shop and they only sell Copics and each time I've had to use them I've decided I'm taking them up again, not that I've really stopped, I just don't use them as often because professionally I have to use PM's more.  And I think I shall now, along with the Flexies. Now, I have to admit I haven't used them alongside each other, although I have used Copic and Promarker together and because the ink formulations are different they sometimes are a bit difficult to work together and I'm assuming it will be the same again with Flexmarkers as they are the same as a PM but there are loads of uber talented people who won't have a problem with making it work better than me.

So, time for Pro's and Cons again, or in other words, throw me to the dogs time :D
Brush tip gives a superior blend and is easy to work, gets softer with use
New, pale colours are must have's
Seem more translucent, easier to build and layer colours to create new one
Packs give good colour collections if you're not good at choosing your own
Work with Promarkers and Tria's so they complement your collections, you don't have to replace them
Colour and number coded ends at last for easy identification

Price. At £3 rrp for a single pen they ain't cheap and they are more than the entry level Copics. BUT the brush compensates for that and I think most of us will collect these in value packs which will bring that price down anyway.
Non refillable. Bit disappointed Letraset chose this path but also I'm lazy and more inclined to buy a new one on a whim rather than refill I think so for me personally, it's not a huge negative, but I know it will be for some.
Caps can be a tad tight to get on and off - make sure you get them back on properly!
Roll - PLEASE Letraset, put the little cap nodule back on so they don't roll off the desk!
Prime - remember you have to prime right at the start. Not really a "con" but as I'm struggling to find anything much negative I feel I have to put the picky things in!

So overall, you may be able to tell that I love my new Flexmarkers! Definitely a step up in terms of quality from the Promarker and yes, I will have to have them all as having used them extensively this week I can see me preferring these to that hard nib. In fact, Letraset, if you don't bring out loads more colours pronto sharpish you may find you drive me back to Copics again because once you get  used to using a brush properly you find it hard to go back again I think. And with the Flexmarkers you really do feel like you're using a paintbrush to colour in but in a very controlled way.

For me, when I was demoing these live I knew I was right to rave about them when I got the non-craft presenters Sean Ryan, Martyn Parker and Andy Love using them live on air. Each and every one of them picked them up for the first time and coloured in a fantastic image. Ok, I told them what colours to use and what to do, but they did it themselves having never even used Promarkers before. Actually, Andy told me after that he had used a Promarker a couple of times. But even so.  I was really anxious that all I was going to demo was skintones and clothing blends and it would be boring but I also figured that was what would blow you away because I know it did me at first.  So, as I said at the first Pengate review: this is my opinion, Letraset haven't asked me to do this review, I only have 24 Flexmarkers, they haven't paid me to say this, although obviously they did pay me to demo them on C&C (my OH had a pop and said I was "selling" them on the shows but believe me this was really just because I think they're amazing). All the opinions above are my own and relate to my own findings. Choose to like it, choose to loathe it but they're my words, from my experience.

At the end of the day, my philosophy is this - if I can buy a marker for 50p and it does what a £3 marker will do I will buy it and I will rave about it and recommend it. But in life, I do find that you get what you pay for - Flexmarkers are firmly pointed at a particular market and that market will adore them. I am impressed that Letraset chose to launch a new product with Crafters first rather than the professional art market, it shows their commitment to providing us with better products which will work for us.  Professionals are going to snap these up too and not even give a hoot about the price compared to the really high end Tria's and Kurecolors and whatever others are out there.  But as a crafter and a self-taught designer (no, contrary to what people say I am NOT really a graphic designer, never have been and haven't been to Art School or got a degree, all I have is an O Level Art) I WANT the best because they will make me better. Simples.  I don't see why, just because we're "crafters and not artists" we do have to settle for something inferior.  Why shouldn't I have the same pen as David Hockney uses, or use the same paint as Rolf Harris? And I want to embalm my cow in the same resin that Damien Hurst uses thankyou very much.  If they use it, I want it because I know if I'm not compromising on my materials, what I make is the best I can do. And if it's not, then that's down to me and my ability, not just that I was using something not very good.  And in craft it's so important - we all know the importance of good cardstock and what a difference that makes - hells bells we have mountains of the bloody stuff at home!  So yeah, I unashamedly LOVE these Flexmarkers - and everyone else will adore them too but may not feel they need them or indeed, feel they need to pay a higher price for what they think they get elsewhere. We are ALL different and we all have different choices to make for whatever reason, that doesn't make anyone better than anyone else.  So, go forth, make your own decision, use this as impartial information that you're forearmed with, the choice is yours. I think loads of you who got them are going to leave some reviews under this post and by golly, please feel free, I can take it, believe me! xx