Vanilla Voices: Growing from Intermediate to Advanced level coloring with Copic Markers

A student tells how they moved from intermediate Copic Marker coloring to advanced level realism, through use of photo references and colored pencils. | | #copicmarker #coloredpencil #realisticcoloring

The other Amy?

We have a secret here at Vanilla Arts Company. There are two Amys.

Yep, we’ve got 358 Copic Markers, 150 Prismacolor pencils, 2 Amys, and a partridge in a pear tree.

There’s me for starters. I’m the Amy you know about.

Then there’s my secret weapon, Amy Mills. She’s our Vanilla Education Manager, handling all the online class details at the Marker Painting Workshop and for the Livestream Demonstrations at Patreon. Basically Other Amy makes me look far less scatterbrained and I get all the credit because we share a name.

Pro Tip: I highly recommend hiring someone with the same name as you. If a SWAT team ever flattens the front door, my plan is to look innocent and point at her.

Here’s the coolest part: before Other Amy came on board to help me crank out monthly classes with less sturm und drang, she started as a Vanilla Arts student.

Yep, she’s been on both sides of the internet tubes now. She’s a giver and a taker.

Which means she’s sitting on some valuable insight, stuff that can definitely come in handy as you decide which classes to take and what to watch out for.

Today we’re going to hear from Other Amy about the new Jellybeans Workshop. She’s taken the class twice now - the intermediate version in 2017 and the advanced version out now.

You’ll be amazed at her growth!


One Class, Two Levels

By Amy M.

Hi, this is Other Amy.

I’m a homeschooling work-from-home mom and I tend to color late at night. Growing up, I enjoyed art in school but I focused my energy on music.

I’ve been a Vanilla Arts student for two years. In that time I’ve read nearly everything Amy has written, watched every video, and bought every class.

I love to absorb information, taking it all in before I do anything with it. Unfortunately, I spent about a year thinking about coloring instead of actually coloring.

Then I signed up for Amy’s first art retreat. Amy challenged us at the retreat to use photo references to accurately represent details in our projects.

A student tells how they moved from intermediate Copic Marker coloring to advanced level realism, through use of photo references and colored pencils. | | #copicmarker #coloredpencil #realisticcoloring

And would you believe it? She did not give us a color recipe! We had to use the photo references to pick our own colors!

What was she thinking?

How could she trust us so much?

And what was I going to do with only her brief demonstrations to rely upon?

I felt a little thrown to the wolves. Actually, I felt a lot thrown to the wolves.

As I pushed through the retreat curriculum, my confidence grew. For the first time, I began to sense that I could be artistic in my own right - not just copying Amy but using her as the starting point for my own ideas!

But then I went home.

And I went straight back to my old habits: absorbing the next workshop video, reading the blog, but not coloring much.

When I did color, I followed the videos exactly. The thing she always warns us not to do!

It wasn’t until the pencil stages that I felt comfortable getting creative. Only then would I add my own unique flare to the project.

And in the videos, every time Amy would say, “Use those photo references. Don’t just color like me,” it scared me.

How could I color on my own?

But I did it at the retreat, right?

Slowly I started to challenge myself to put a little more faith in my coloring. As a result, I’ve improved. I enjoy my coloring more.

But honestly, I still tend to color with the videos.

A student tells how they moved from intermediate Copic Marker coloring to advanced level realism, through use of photo references and colored pencils. | | #copicmarker #coloredpencil #realisticcoloring

Jellybeans Take 1

Jump ahead to last month and because I work at Vanilla Arts now, I knew the Jellybeans class was coming out soon.

I decided to pull out the old Jellybeans 2017 material from my Patreon folder.

I’m not sure I finished the original Jellybeans project. So this is technically my “before” project, colored a few weeks ago using the old class recipe and the original learning aids.

I felt like I did pretty well with it.

I know more now than I did in 2017 and it was fun to apply my new skills to an old project. I was underpainting like a mad fool, pushing and pulling like nobody’s business! My colors were rich and bold. Some of those jellybeans started looking really tasty. I knew there should be color bouncing, color kissing, bounce shadows, and lots of glorious highlights. I slapped them all in.

But what I didn’t do is look at the photo reference.

Up to my old habits, I watched Amy’s video closely, coloring right along with her, taking all my cues from her project.

And though my finished project is nice and all my friends liked it on Instagram…

Something is not quite right.

It’s a little plastic and doesn’t feel fully like my own.


Jellybeans Take 2

After I shared my first jellybeans with Amy, she suggested I do a “before” and “after.”

In Amy’s enigmatic way, she didn’t say much else and left me to ponder what she meant.

No, it doesn’t get better when you work for Amy. She’s still cryptic.

So, I dutifully watched all the brand new videos and took copious notes.

This time, I was determined to follow her instructions but not follow her coloring.

I got the photo reference on my iPad and made my very own color map over the grayscale reference (see photo).

Then I started to color and freaked out!

A student tells how they moved from intermediate Copic Marker coloring to advanced level realism, through use of photo references and colored pencils. | | #copicmarker #coloredpencil #realisticcoloring

I had the wrong shadow colors. They weren’t blending. I panicked.

So, I ate some chocolate and collected myself.

I can do this.

The biggest struggle I had was making the Copic behave. It was hard to get the ink to go where I wanted and blend the way I needed it to.

But still, I kept going.

I did have to re-watch some of the video instruction, reminding me of what to do, but then I went right back to my photo reference. I really tried to see what was there and apply it to the paper.

As I kept going, this got easier.

Plus, I gave myself permission to look back at Amy’s project but only after I had in fully decided in what I saw in the photo. The majority of the time my suspicions were confirmed and that was such a confidence builder!

My panic moments began to diminish, but I still had to coach myself-

I can do this. Just keep going. Mistakes are okay. Learn to fix them. Look at the photo reference. Color what you see. You can do this!

By the end of the project, I only looked at Amy’s project where the drawing had been changed from the original photo reference.

I was trusting myself and I think that shows in my finished project.

It actually looks like my work!

It reflects the details that I thought were import. It leans towards greater realism. It looks like Amy Mills colored it. It reflects me as a growing artist.

I feel proud and what’s most shocking is that I actually had fun working beyond my comfort zone.


Other Amy’s Advice:

1. Go Big!

Print your project larger than you’d initially be comfortable with. My first Jellybeans project was printed on half-sheet letter size paper. It was just too small to color well with the big Copic nib and there wasn’t enough room to capture all the detail I wanted.

My “after” project was printed on a full 8 1/2 x 11 sheet. It took a little longer to color and I had to top off my markers a couple of times, but I wouldn’t trade the ease of coloring or the room to capture important details on the larger size.

A student tells how they moved from intermediate Copic Marker coloring to advanced level realism, through use of photo references and colored pencils. | | #copicmarker #coloredpencil #realisticcoloring

2. Find What Works For You

I took notes with good ol’ pen and paper and printed some extra course material to mark up.

Usually I keep a nice binder with crisp, clean and pretty print outs of all the Vanilla Arts workshop material. Though my binder full of printables is nice to look at, it doesn’t help me interact with the information.

Marking up the grayscale printout forced me do a lot of thinking about the project before I ever picked up a marker.

I also learn by watching, so the videos really help me.

But what helps even more is letting the demonstrations serve their intended purpose - to teach.

They’re not meant to be training wheels. We’re not supposed to copy everything Amy does.

Does note-taking work for you? Do you need to re-watch the videos? Do you need to read the class materials thoroughly? Or do you need to just jump right in and learn by trial and error?

Use what works best for you to absorb the lesson and apply it. Then give it a go on your own.

3. Trust Yourself

Take a risk. Look objectively at what isn’t working for you anymore and what you need to practice. Be honest about it too!

I knew going in that:

  • I needed to stop coloring along with the videos.

  • I had to stop constantly guessing what should or shouldn’t be in my coloring.

  • I really needed to start looking at the photo references.

Maybe my project wouldn’t turn out exactly like Amy’s sample, but I had to let go of that standard because I knew deep down that copying was hurting my creativity. The hardest part was accepting that my Jellybeans would look different.

The coloring isn’t hard, it’s the mental stuff we struggle with. I was uncomfortable taking that risk. But without Amy’s gentle push out of the nest, I don’t think I’d be learning to fly as well.

What do you need to make the next leap in your coloring and artistry? Trust yourself enough to try. Love yourself enough to follow through.

You can do this!

Marker Painting Workshop classes offer artistic challenges for intermediate to advanced colorers. Jellybean class teaches how to read photo references for greater realism in your coloring projects. | | #copicmarker #coloredpencil #coloring #howtocolor

Jellybeans Workshop Now Available!

Want to learn how to take a basic oval shape and turn it into a jellybean? The Jellybeans workshop will take you beyond underpainting…beyond push and pull. We will be delving into

  • Form and surface shaping

  • Reading photo references for realism and accuracy

  • Color sculpting

  • Color bouncing and highlights


Instructor Observations:

by Amy Shulke

What Amy M describes above is exactly the kind of growth that happens when we take responsibility for our own education.

As Other Amy shows, I can warn you not to color along with the videos. I can tell promise great things to those who turn the videos off. I can tattoo on the back of your left hand a bullet point list of what not to do…

A student tells how they moved from intermediate Copic Marker coloring to advanced level realism, through use of photo references and colored pencils. | | #copicmarker #coloredpencil #realisticcoloring

But that’s all I can do.

Amy is a smart woman. I know if we hopped into a time machine to interview her a month ago, she’d faithfully recite all my warnings.

She knows what not to do.

You know what not to do.

But I can’t physically stop you from copy-catting the demonstrations.

I can’t grow your skills for you.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 

1 Corinthians 13:11

Notice that Paul says that he put away childish things? He did it himself.

No instructor can put away your childish things.

Amy had to set down the learning aids on her own. She had to take off the training wheels. Amy had to make the decision (and stick to it), to think for herself and to follow her own thoughts rather than toddle after me.

That’s what it takes to move from an intermediate level to advanced.

Too many people think that the crown of advanced status magically appears on your head after 3,600 hours of coloring practice.


Too many students assume that after 12 classes or 6 awesome projects or 240 likes on Facebook, that someone will bestow upon them a certificate of advanced level skills.


It’s on you.

Copying the instructor’s project is a childish thing.

You must put away your own childish things to become the artist you were meant to be.

A student tells how they moved from intermediate Copic Marker coloring to advanced level realism, through use of photo references and colored pencils. | | #copicmarker #coloredpencil #realisticcoloring
Amy Mills, advanced coloring student and Education Manager at

Amy Mills is the Education Manager at

She has beautiful taste and a demure nature. However, she lives in a house full of midwestern menfolk, so we’re pretty sure she can burp her A-B-Cs if necessary. Amy plays the piano and loves to travel to historic sites across Europe.

You can follow Amy (dreammillarts) on Instagram here.



Watch Amy color “Jellybeans” with Copic Marker and colored pencil, a free taste of her new online advanced coloring class.

Students learn to look at the form of objects rather than the color to create greater realism in all their coloring projects.