Scanning Around With Gene: How Many Markers Were On Your Taboret?

For those poor young people who grew up entirely in the digital art era, I should probably explain that a taboret is a small side cabinet, often on wheels, and usually with a few drawers or cubbyholes. In the days before computers, all graphic artists had taborets tucked next to their drafting tables or light tables. There, along with a collection of Rapidograph pens, Bestine, tissue paper, and assorted knives, was often a large collection of colored felt-tip marking pens.

I was always jealous of pristine collections of neatly organized colored markers. My art was limited to pure paste-up — I couldn’t sketch a comp good enough to require colors. But every decent design studio or ad agency had at least one nice set to share among the artists, and if you were busy enough or lucky enough, you got your own set. Click on any image for a larger version.

These marking pens were used for any number of purposes, from sketching out illustrations to storyboarding to comping out type. In those days, long before any actual words were set into type, someone drew out the ad first, indicating with thin marker lines just where the actual type would go.

The smell of marker pens was only slightly overshadowed by the smell of Bestine, a volatile petroleum product that cleaned up stray wax and rubber cement. Between the two you could probably get a small buzz going if that appealed to you.

A particularly fastidious designer would be miffed if any one of the markers was missing from the set. Whether you kept your markers in proper color order was quite a statement, too. I always worked in sloppy shops, so the markers were usually put back randomly, if at all.

The most popular colors always dried out first. I suspect many an artistic decision was made based on which marker was available and working at the time.

Letraset licensed the Pantone library and made Pantone markers along with Pantone colored film for when you needed big patches of color. But if you think the color gamut of CMYK is a little weak, you should see what markers once produced. Let’s just say they didn’t exactly jump off the page, though they did a decent job of simulating the final product.

The claim for inventing felt-tip markers goes to Sidney Rosenthal, who, in 1952, came out with the Magic Marker line. These markers were actually small glass bottles with a screw-on lid that held the tip. When you tipped the bottle over you could see the ink flowing, though they discouraged you from opening the lids.

Rosenthal called his marker Magic because of its ability to write on almost any surface, and indeed that was the appeal of the marker “movement.” Quite a few companies released brands, each tackling a slightly different niche. The Marsh company specialized in markers for packaging; Design was another brand for artists; Carters and Stanford went more after the home and sign markets; and there were even very early markers for overhead projectors.

Go to page 2 to see the Squeezo marker brand and many other images.

Posted on: April 9, 2010

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

42 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: How Many Markers Were On Your Taboret?

  1. Thanks for bringing back some great memories (that smell!) of my favorite type of illustration in art school! Sadly, not long after I started my first job, the “computer design age” was launched and I never did get to do much with markers again.

  2. I have a set of Design2 that rarely get used (except when I need to write on a CD). I am however completely addicted to Sharpies. And now that they make a pen…Sharpie is all I use. Thanks for another great article.

  3. Loved this. I’m also from a (pretty recent) ‘older’ time.. now awash with pixels, and wondering how we got anything done then. Was taking an Adobe Certificate Web Design course recently, and describing (or trying to describe) Letraset and Chart-Pak type sheets to my 30 some yr old instructor who’d never heard of it. Then I tried to describe how we spec’d and laid out type.. His eyes got really wide. (sic)..”you did it by HAND??!!??”
    Would be really cool to see more of your columns devoted to these ‘ancient’ graphics processes (from only a few years ago). Type lay-out, mechanical layout.. hot wax and rubber cement, airbrush re-touch. Brings to mind a sad story.. I’m a photographer. Went ‘digital’ 10 years ago. About 2 years into the ‘new age” I had a need for actual airbrushing on a print. Took me several days to even find my old retouch guy.. he’d moved several times in 2 years to cheaper and cheaper studios. When I found him.. he was sadly sitting alone in a tiny place with dried up inks.. and no work. He never went digital. That was the last I ever heard of him

  4. Talking along the lines of designs driven by which markers were not dried out…
    I remember smell as well as the “squeeky” sound they made when you filled a large solid area with line after line of color usually guided by your T-square or straight edge… and once even had to replicate the linear effect created by this method of fill in film as the client liked the look and thought we meant to indicate that rather than a solid fill color as planned… 24 years later, one of my current clients is still using this background “texture” that was completely accidental all those years ago.

  5. I remember thinking in design school how expensive it was to shell out $150 or even more for a good collection of markers. Little did I know that less then 10 years later I would be buying $2,500 computers and spending another $2,000 for software and fonts to do the same thing. I didn’t know how good I had it.

    I also remember that towards the end of the markers era, they came out with some pretty sophisticated products. One company I remember had two points in each marker, the standard chisel point at one end and a fine point at the other.

    They even came out with an air brush contraption that you could insert a marker into to get gradation effects. The only effect I remember was that it was possible to deplete your marker of all its ink in only a few minutes with the airbrush.

    Thanks for a pleasant walk down memory lane.

  6. I loved/hated the smell of the markers. I haven’t thought about my taboret in years. I still use the light table now and then. Thanks for bringing back the great memories.

  7. I was born in times awash with digital work processes, so markers were something of a novelty for my fellow students and I when we first began studying design. The marker-envy was still there, though, as those of us who could not afford a large range eyed the collections of those who could…

  8. Jennifer Wills

    April 9, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    I would love to see a collection of the art that was produced with the markers. I remember my fathers artists (he had an agency in Philadelphia in the 70’s) always using them to illustrate. I wonder if anyone is doing marker effects with pressure sensitive tablets?

  9. Taboret…you might even have to explain a drafting table to some of these kids. My final marker holder now tucked away in the closet is a “portfolio” sized Letraset number. It must hold 200+ markers. I was buying so many markers at the time that the art store owner gave it to me. I drag it out occasionally and some of the markers are still in working order…must be all those toxic chemicals.

  10. I had the Full Spectrum Magic Marker set mounted to my side table (I inherited it from my predecessor). All of the full reds and full blues were dried out, all of the darker fine tips were just gone, ‘borrowed’ by other artists for other uses.
    You didn’t touch on the hierarchy of what brand you preferred: true illustrators only used the MagicMarker jar-type markers (you had to hold them like a brush). Pantones were used only for client-specific color spec’s. All others were lowly MagicMarker wannabes.

    And, yes, you could definitely get a buzz from the vapors. You knew when it was time to take a break because you would always pull the cap off and hold it with your teeth, then just stick the marker back into the cap when you were switching colors. When you missed the cap and marked your nose, it was time to take a break.

  11. Late in the manual pasteup days (mid-80s) Letraset came out with an “airbrush” device that you could put a fine-tip marker into and spray the ink. Of course, it would dry up the tip really fast, so you couldn’t use it for any great length of time, and it required expensive cans of compressed air. But for a quick effect, it sure beat getting out the real airbrush and cleaning it out when you were done.

  12. I miss Design Markers. I still have a fine point and a regular point that I open up every once in a while to do a couple of doodles with.

  13. 45 years ago I was an advertising Art Director. I actually loathed magic markers, but they were a necessity you couldn’t do without. I still have a comp I did in magic markers for an unpublished Illinois Bell newspaper ad. The other thing kids can’t do these days is draw type. I love my Mac and Photoshop, but the coolest thing I stll own from the old days are my Bundsho type books. I still go through them when I’m trying to decide on a type face for a project.

  14. I still have some design Art markers in my drawer, Its next to the roll of aberlith. Not only are these markers so fantastic everyone should consider using them more often, but the print ads are fantastic! Thanks for the fond memory.

  15. I can remember adding lighter fluid to magic markers when they started to dry up. Working in an ad agancy – we used a lot of the grey colours to simulate type and black & white images (before colour adverts were the norm). We also used Pantone markers as they had fine and thick points. They became the marker of choice eventually as you could match the Pantone markers to the printed ink colours, although they didn’t have the brightness of the printed ink.

  16. Just reading your article brings back the smell, and late nights finishing marker comps for ad presentations! I still have my modest set from pre-computer studio days, and haven’t had the heart to throw them out. They never sat in a taboret, but filled a large plastic toolbox with a rack inside for standing them up. My 16-year-old son is considering seeing how many of them still work, while he saves up money to buy his own set of “Artist Markers” — the new generation’s markers for Anime and storyboarding. He already has marker envy when we visit the art store (so did I!), and I’m delighted that he has an interest in using my old markers, even for a little while. Thanks for stirring up the memories!

  17. Ha! It is amazing any of us can even remember our marker days with the buzz we got off of using them. How funny to remember our taborets and the hierarchy of who had the better set of markers. How about the numerous tattoo-like pen jabs we got when catching a rapidiograph pen careening off a drawing table to save it from getting bent. It’s amazing any of us are alive today! It’s is great to be from that era – it’s given me a huge appreciation for the two huge screens in front of me whizzing out newer, better and faster graphics. Thanks Gene!

  18. When I was at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh in the early ’80s, I so envied the huge Design marker holder. Only one student I knew could afford it; most were like me who had to store their markers in the bottom of a “tackle box.” We were the ones who when a assignment came up and new markers were needed, we’d go to Cappy’s or one of the other art supply stores and VERY, VERY selectively choose which ones we could afford and add to our small collection. Most of the time they were the Design markers, as they were a bit cheaper than the Pantone version. The stubby Magic Markers were very pungent, didn’t have a great color selection, and didn’t last very long. Pantone, with the square barrels, were the top-of-the line and had a really cool in-store rotating display. Our purcahsed broad point markers were usually supplemented by thin pointed water-based markers, but sometimes you had to break down and get the fine pointed alcohol versions as well since the colors had to match on the comps. This was usually for headlines, text, and logos, and you had to be so careful when rendering the letters with fine serifs, otherwise the marker would bleed into the paper and ruin hours of work. This usually happened late at night the day before the assignment was due. It was thrilling when the marker would hit their ‘sweet spot’ and be perfect — not too wet or too dry.

    I still have a few of those markers after all of those years; it is amazing how long they have lasted. One is still extremely juicy and I have it at work for creating swashes and broad underlines to scan in and convert to black-and-white TIFFs. Gone are the days of marker comps in tiny apartments filled with rubber cement fumes.

  19. I still have some of the Design markers with the wide point on one and the and sharp point on the other at home. We recently had a contest here at work to see who had the most graphic supplies/tools that are no longer used. It may be crazy to hang on to all those remnants from the past but I got a beer as the winner, so it was definitely worth it.

  20. Wow, I used Design Markers in school (I still remember the marker “high” from a small classroom full of Art students with new markers) and having my own set of Pantone Markers at my workplace. I remember how possessive we were about our sets; labelling each one. Many a small war erupted if a co-worker borrowed a marker without asking and then put it back in the wrong place.

    Also, it is a correct assumption that many colours for projects were picked based on what marker wasn’t dried out. Thanks for the smile, Gene.

  21. Thank you for the memories. I wasnt sure anyone remembered. The thrill of coming into my new designer job only to find a brand new FULL set of pantone markers in the tiered stand, PLUS a set of warm and cool gray design markers. The pure joy of it. I had landed in designer heaven!

  22. Just the photo of the markers makes my nose and lungs burn!
    Stinky! But they were fun and necessary at the time. Takes be back to design classes (mid 70s). Once the cap was left off, all the
    rubbing back and forth on scrap paper couldn’t bring back any color.
    I wonder if I still have work done with those markers. I’ll have to look.

  23. memories, memory,
    be, me
    Just the thought of those markers and that smell……
    Nice visual memories though – projects, friends, design classes.

  24. Thanks for a fantastic article. The advertisements were a special treat. Sadly I never owned any of the jar-type, true Magic Markers. Today I mostly design logos and I’ve switched back to markers and away from Adobe. I use Vector Magic to translate marker designs into vector images. I use the Adobe stuff only occasionally, for minor touch-ups or a special effect. Using markers is so much more fun than using software.

    When I was a youngster in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s (fourth grade to eighth grade) I used markers almost exclusively. I owned full sets (four to twelve colors depending on the product line) of Crayola, El Marko, Carter’s Marks-A-Lot, Flair/Paper Mate fine tip and ultra-fine tip, and Sharpie. I also had a set of a brand called Vis-a-Vis, an alcohol marker for transparencies that had a sort of brush-like tip. I owned various individual marker pens as well, usually in “odd” colors like secondaries, pastels or grays.

    My artist markers were made by Buffalo. I started with what I think was a 96 color set, then upgraded when those were used up to what I believe was a 144 color set, both purchased from the university bookstore at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I have not owned a marker set since those Buffalo markers that I thought was as high-quality or was as fun to use. I retain many drawings from those days and the colors are still quite good on them.

    I was also very fond of the El Marko markers. The Carter’s had a longer barrel and lasted longer, but the El Markos had a very supple chisel tip and very good ink flow. They laid down color in a rich and very satisfying way. As with the Buffalo pens, I haven’t found another chisel tip marker that compares to those old El Markos.

    I would enjoy a sequel to this article. If anyone can find some images or ads related to El Marko, Vis-a-Vis or Buffalo I’d really love to see them.

  25. I had a set of Pantone markers similar to image #2 – they were arranged on a tiered plastic stand so they resembled spectators in the bleachers at a sporting event.

    The newer Pantone markers were 2-ended. One side had a chisel point, the other a fine tip. The problem was that when you removed the marker from the stand, the cap for whichever end was pointed down stayed lodged in the stand. I kept a pair of needlenose pliers in my taboret for extracting the cap.

    Ahh, technology.

  26. This article captures the history of markers so well. As a digital age person, have’t personally had these markers or a taboret. Very educational!


  27. I have had all the markers you showed. Large complete sets, small sets. There were even brush tip sets. Between every shade of felt marker, colored pencils, prismacolors, all the letraset products. Press Type. As an artist you needed a full pallet of everything to do creative work so you were not limited as you indicated when a color was missing. When one dried out you replaced it. It is amazing but I still have many of those markers and am sad when one goes dry now as it can’t be replaced. It is even hard now to find a broad selection of watercolor pencils. In doing layout work and painting sketches you grab any and all media available to create your thumbnails. Crow quill pens, colored inks, tempera, gouache, acrylics. What ever it takes. Now we have to do it all digitally but it can be done and you don’t have to have a large, messy studio with that massive supply of media colors, brushes, pens and pencils. But to produce truly great illustrations — it was much easier with the old tools. Now the digital software tools and hardware are even more expensive and to remain competitive the individual artist has to spend as much as the large studios with their huge budgets, teams of specialists and well heeled clients. The old timers have the design skills developed over many years of doing it the hard way. Now we see a lot of really bad work from studios with no talent. There are great ones out there like the Bryan Christie site you led us to, but us old pros can’t come up with tools to match what they have. Love your articles on Thank You for sharing.

  28. Ohh Nice

  29. I have a set of Design2 that rarely get used (except when I need to write on a CD). I am however completely addicted to Sharpies for sohbet, sohbet siteleri

  30. I miss the smell of markers and Bestine… you can hardly find Bestine anymore!

  31. I started as a comp artist. A camera case held my 72 Prismacolor set when I freelanced at agencies, and also managed to fit smaller Pentel and LePen’s in smaller pouches. The 120 Prismacolor set stayed at my studio. I still have everything, but haven’t found much of a use for them in the past 20 years. Thanks for the memories!

  32. My first memory of Magic Markers was in the late 1950s, I think. I got a drawing table for my birthday, a pad of newsprint and a few markers. I immediately tore some pages from the pad and began sketching with the markers. I wasn’t until about the fifth page that I realized the top of my beautiful new drawing table was covered with permanent marks from bleed-thru. I lived with those marks for more than a decade until I could afford a “float top” drawing board.

    I couldn’t afford a proper rack for my 200+ markers, but I saw a El Producto cigar box that was about 6″ square that had cardboard dividers in it to hold the cigars upright. The markers fit perfectly in those spaces. I called El Producto’s PR department and they offered to send me a full carton of those empty boxes (about 24) and I used them for the next 20 years!

    The #9 comment above talked about having to explain to young designers what a drafting table was. Ha! Try explaining what a “drafting machine” was! I had a couple of those and loved them.

  33. I dressed as el Zorro for Hallowe’en this year… Here’s the rib: I run with a pack of old school graphic designers, and as soon as I set foot in the place I was pegged as “el Marko!”

  34. My art director uncle gave me a small set of the bottle ones in 1972. That’s when I knew I was going to be an artist ( read Ironworker turned surveyor). I still have about 70 or so Design markers in a big box from doing trade show signage and comps and stuff, now the kids get to use them when I’m in the studio studying or painting.

  35. I remember the Buffalo Artist felt-tip pens. I recall seeing a set of 60 but I had a set of 24 when I was in 6th grade. Excellent quality fine-point water-based markers they were, them and the 36-color Pentel Markers. I also had a couple of 20-marker sets of Doodle Art Markers around that time, a set of 10 Bic Banana Ink Crayons, a set of 10 Flairs, and a couple of 12-marker sets from Target and TG & Y (in Houston, TX), all in the late 1970s. My mother could never understand why I wanted/needed so many sets; I tried to tell her that a hot pink in one brand was never the same as a hot pink in another brand, for example, and the more colors I had, the better.

    The first large set of markers I ever got was a set of about 60-80 Staedtler-Mars water-based brush markers in 1985, thanks to my financial aid bookstore voucher at Texas Southern University in my freshman year. Over the years I began buying a few Designs, Magic Markers, and Pantones (xylene-based) and Prismacolors (alcohol-based) here and there whenever I could afford a few. I later added a set of 50 Stabilo 68s and bought about 70-80 Chartpak ADs by the end of the decade.

    In the mid-to-late ’90s I put my markers in storage because I was not using them–I had discovered oil pastels by then, and still use them, along with acrylic paints and oil paint sticks, for my fine art efforts. About five years ago I began feeling nostalgic for my markers; I also wanted to re-hone my graphic design skills, so I went looking for my old markers. Oh what a happy day it was when I found them again!

    Just about all of these still work (though some need an occasional squirt of alcohol/water/rubber cement thinner, depending on the marker), even a couple of my old glass-bodied Magic Markers, and thanks to Ebay, I’ve expanded my collections of Designs, Design 2s, and Pantones in recent years. Also I’ve got a bunch of fine-tip and ultra-fine-tip Sharpies in various colors and I was fortunate enough to catch a sale on Copics at a local art supply store when I also had some extra money. I got about 70 or 80 of those, along with a few Shin-Han markers.

    I’m now learning Photoshop, and although it is wonderful for doing several things, there’s nothing like the old-school tools as well, like the markers. You had to have actual art skills for the markers, mostly drawing, and work produced with these has a certain look and feel that just isn’t there with today’s computer programs. I still hold on to the hope that one day, more people will discover/remember the work made with markers and our other favorite obsolete tools, and markers will be popular once again.

  36. Even though I was lousy at illustration that didn’t stop me from proudly displaying my Pantone set of 96 broad nib markers on top of my Pickett Plan Hold Designer stand. I used 6, maybe 7, including PMS 375 on everything when the first go-round of enviro color connectivity was vogue. Black, I think Warm Grey(s), chrome yellow – PMS 137 – and that was about it.

  37. gotta love the smell too!

  38. You absolutely nailed it with the smells…working in a small space with lots of volatile substances…ah…the good old days of walking out with a raging headache! Not to mention the stained clothes from markers that dried a little slowly on anything other than paper or card stock. I don’t miss the good old days…LOVE my Photoshop and Wacom tablet and especially the ability to undo. I take a lot more chances with my work knowing that I can step back and remove the bright idea that didn’t turn out so great.

  39. Oh, this brings back memories!!
    Thank you for sharing.

  40. In a last-ditch emergency, you could unscrew the bottle and revive an almost exhausted one with a little rubber cement thinner. It beat waiting for the stores to open in the morning!

  41. I’m more a fan of Pantone Purple.  That is such a unique vivid cobalt violet-like color that no other marker manufacturer (other than perhaps Copic) makes.

  42. In 1978 I bought one of those huge sets of Buffalo Markers. Yesterday the fuschia went in the wastebasket. In my hand is #27 color 1300, a khaki colored marker that I use a lot. Sole survivor. What a product!

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