Art versus Exercise: Add artistry to your Copic Marker or colored pencil projects

"You're such a talented artist!" or are you just a good colorer? How to move from coloring to creating art with your Copic markers or colored pencils. |

I’m amazed by what my students can do

And while I’d love to hog all the credit and boast that I’m an amazing teacher who can turn complete schlubs into Rembrandts… that’s not true.

The fact is that there are some really talented people out there who work 9 to 5 jobs as dentists, accountants, and bus drivers. If you’re reading this, you’re likely one of them.  You are not an artist but you have hidden artistic skills. Coloring just happens to be a hobby which digs up your long buried, untapped gifts and shines a spotlight on them.

So it’s not me, it’s you. 

Yes, Dorothy. You had it all along.

A lot of people who take coloring classes could have gone into art. A lot of good colorers should have gone into art.

But there’s a divide that we don’t often talk about:


When does your awesome coloring turn into art?

"You're such a talented artist!" or are you just a good colorer? How to move from coloring to creating art with your Copic markers or colored pencils. |

And if you’re really good at coloring, how do you push yourself beyond mere coloring and start creating art?

For starters, let’s clarify the difference. Because art is one of those wishy-washy terms that gets applied to everything nowadays. Tom Cruise’s latest box-office bomb, fancy cupcakes, and the masterpieces in the Louvre all get called art. In order to make people feel important, we’ve trashed the meaning of “artist” so that it no longer stands for anything concrete. If everyone is an artist, then no one is an artist.

So let’s acknowledge that there’s a difference between making cool stuff and making art.

There’s also a big difference between coloring a class project and creating art.


Is it art or is it an exercise?

You wouldn't call the third jazzercise lady from the left a dancer, would you?


Sure, she’s dancing… kind’a. But there’s a difference between dancing and being a dancer. You can go through some of the same motions that a dancer would do but that doesn’t make you Lord of the Dance.

Art is the same way. You can go through all the artist motions but that doesn’t mean you get to tack your project to the wall at the Guggenheim.

"You're such a talented artist!" or are you just a good colorer? How to move from coloring to creating art with your Copic markers or colored pencils. |

This is important to keep in mind when you post your class projects to Facebook or Instagram and all your friends and relatives comment “Oh, you’re such a wonderful artist!” Your online buddies likely don't understand that what you’ve posted is the equivalent of taking a selfie in Zumba class.

Basically, don’t let the “You’re so talented!” go to your head. If you are following along with a teacher and copying everything they do, then you’re going through the motions of making art without actually making art.

For some of you, maybe that’s all you want to do. You just want to color and have fun doing it. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with recreational coloring.

But a lot of you want to take the next step and move beyond art exercises. And you’re feeling paralyzed because coloring classes aren’t set up to teach you anything beyond the exercises.

So Iet’s talk about the first step:


How do you begin to create art?

It’s head-smack simple, hardly the subject for an expansive blog post but I’ll bet you don't hear about it in a lot of classes.

The first step to creating art is to stop following the teacher.

In art, there’s something we call a “voice”. The way to begin moving from coloring exercises to artistic expression is to begin adding little bits of your voice to your coloring.

If you’re coloring something exactly the same way someone else did- whether a teacher, a project off the internet, or even the colored sample on the stamp package… Any time you try to match someone else, you are not making art, you are copying. You are not expressing yourself, you are mimicking someone else’s voice. 

Even though you physically colored it, there’s no you in a copied project.

"You're such a talented artist!" or are you just a good colorer? How to move from coloring to creating art with your Copic markers or colored pencils. |

The first step to artistry is to add a bit of yourself to everything you color.

Now I’m not telling you to chop off your left ear and add it to the card for Aunt Polly’s 90th birthday next week. 

I’m asking you to add one small unique touch to your next project. 

  • use a different marker palette

  • add a pattern or texture that isn’t on the original stamp

  • add something new or mask off part of the stamp

  • change the object (make a grizzly bear into a panda)

  • combine several stamps into a new composition

When you deviate from the sample project, you are injecting unique personality into the image. That’s adding voice. You’re using something old to create something new by adding a little bit of yourself.

You don’t have to redesign the whole thing. Baby steps are all that’s needed.

Don’t pressure yourself into turning a Easter Rabbit stamp into a Volkswagen Beetle. Just change one small thing every time you color a stamp.


Baby steps will snowball

Once you’re confident about using your own color palettes, you’ll want to change something more. And that more will lead to the confidence to add even more mores.

It’s a gradual process. As you break free from the confines of sample projects, you will naturally add more of your own voice to your coloring. Over time, you'll develop a look or a style that’s 100% you and instantly recognizable. Adding you to your images begins the process of artistic self-expression.

"You're such a talented artist!" or are you just a good colorer? How to move from coloring to creating art with your Copic markers or colored pencils. |

They don’t let you perform your own routine in Zumba class but it’s totally okay to do it in coloring.

End the copy-catting is the first step to becoming an artist. It’s not the only step but it’s the first and possibly the hardest step. 

Letting go of the guardrail can be difficult but it’s worth it.

It doesn’t matter how well you color a project. You can be the most amazing student on the face of the planet,  but if your project looks just like the class sample, you haven’t done anything more than go through the motions. 

Artists invent their own motions.

Stop being the third girl from the left. Add a small bit of your voice to your next coloring project.

That’s the first baby step to become an artist.


One Size Fits All? Internet Coloring Tutorials Can be Misleading


I love not having to try-on Blue Jeans anymore!

It's so wonderful to go into any store, pick out six different pairs of pants, and not have to try any of them on.

Perfect fitting jeans- every time. No matter what I grab, it all fits!

Yep. Thanks to the new One-Size-Fits-All technology that Levi's is now using, fitting rooms are totally a thing of the past.

2, 4, 6, 8, or 18... it no longer matters. It's One-Size-Fits-All from here on out, baby! And here's the cool part. I'm a woman who's 5'6" married to a man who's 6'4"... now we can share the same pants! It's like double the wardrobe as long as he doesn't mind a few sequins on the back pockets.

Wait... that's not real?

It was all a dream?




Now Think about this for a minute:

  1. Your sister makes amazing chocolate chip cookies

  2. Your friend from work just gave you a recipe for killer chocolate chip cookies

  3. Mrs. Fields sells yummy chocolate chip cookies

Your head didn't explode. All three things can be equally true.

There are several ways to make a pretty darned good cookie.


one size doesn't fit all

This isn't a shock to you, is it?

Nope. And if the popularity of Life Hackers and other tips & tricks sites is any indication, we're all in search of ways to improve the way we do things. Heck, my Facebook feed is full of gif videos about how I've been tying my shoes all wrong and how to cook a whole chicken in under 15 seconds... recently it seems the internet is all about finding new ways to do the same old stuff.

Different is good. We like different.

So why then, do you beat yourself up for not being able to duplicate the techniques used by the Copic Goddess you've subscribed to on YouTube?

Isn't she the possessor of the one and only magically correct way to color something?

Gotcha there, didn't I?

Levi's doesn't make one size fits all jeans and YouTubers don't make one method fits all videos.

I know. Bummer.


There are millions of ways to skin a cat

Strawberry Tea, a lesson in coloring realism |

Disclaimer: I have never skinned a cat; I've never tried. I have never looked at my cat and wondered what she'd look like sans-skin. Where in the heck did that phrase come from anyway?

Anyway... back to coloring.

I color in the way that makes the most sense for me:

  • I work from dark to light

  • I rarely use markers from the same number family

  • I usually use two stroke patterns

  • I underpaint or overpaint shade colors with gray, purple, or blue markers

  • I rarely highlight with markers

  • I add details and texture with colored pencils

And these are the methods I teach in my classes.

But here's the thing- I don't expect my methods to work for every student.

You live in a different body than I do. Your muscles move your hands and fingers differently than my muscles do. Your eyes see things differently; your brain processes information differently. We have different styles, preferences, and most importantly, we have different goals for our coloring.

There is absolutely no reason to assume that we should color the same way.

I find that about 1/3 of my students require something different. Maybe we change their grip or the stroke direction. Maybe we adjust the color palette, the number of passes, or the order of passes.

Of the remaining 2/3 of students who do closely mimic me, every single one of them will take my method and slowly modify it over the months and years as they perfect their own unique technique.

Millions of cats...

A good teacher will show you more than one way to do something. A great teacher will watch what you're doing and tailor solutions based upon your unique situation.

Ultimately, the goal isn't to learn THE ideal technique, it's to find YOUR ideal technique.

You're a unique person, why would you assume that your ideal technique would be right off the shelf (or straight off an internet tutorial)?


So ease up on yourself!

Your YouTube or Vimeo Idol is demonstrating one way to color. But I can guarantee, it is not the only way to get the job done.

If you can duplicate what an artist is doing, then bonus points and a gold star for your forehead; that's just ducky.

But remember, all coloring videos are a performance.They are not showing you the one and only, end all-be all, ultimate way of coloring. It's a way of coloring.

Videos are great and I'm not trying to knock them. I've learned a ton about what (and what not) to do via videos. But keep it in perspective. It's a free video.

Learn from your favorite internet colorer, but do not feel pressured to perfectly mimic someone else's technique or approach.

Free tutorials are sometimes a hit and sometimes a miss. And oh boy, I've seen a heck of a lot of bad information on YouTube!

If something doesn't work, the fault is either in the YouTuber's technique or their presentation. It's almost never you.

Use the stuff that works and trash the rest.

Now if we can just get someone to develop those magical pants...


Improve Your Coloring today with One Tiny Thing- Stamp Evaluation


I don't usually make gigantic claims

I'm not the Sham-wow guy and I'm not a life hacker.

But I do know a thing or two about coloring.

What I know most is this:

How well you color images, actually how well you do ANYTHING in life is a direct result of how much effort you put into building your skills.

Even Mozart, who was born with boundless talent that practically dripped out his nose and ears... even he still had to practice, practice, practice before he became great.

But now that I've put a gigantic qualifier on everything I write below, there actually are a number of teensy-tinsy things that you (yes, YOU!) can do TODAY to immediately improve your coloring.

I'm serious.

There are small things you can start doing right now that will dramatically improve the quality of your coloring.


Introducing the Tiny Thing Series

Otherwise known as "Amy points out the little things some of you are not doing..."

Once a month, we'll talk about one small thing, one mind-numbingly easy step that you can add to your coloring routine that will allow you to color better forever.


Today, your Tiny Thing Assignment is to begin pre-evaluating your stamps

What the heck does that mean?

Well first, allow me to point out one small difference between an artist who colors and a crafter who colors. And this isn't a judgement here, I'm simply going to point out one key difference between the way I work and the way you work.

When I color one of my own digital stamps, I use the exact same tools and techniques that you use.

The difference is that I drew the original image and you're coloring an image that someone else has drawn for you.

It sounds like a small difference, because a drawing is just a set of guidelines, right?  Why does it matter who draws the stamp, as long as it's cute, eh?

Actually, it makes a world of difference.

Stampendous House Mouse "Pincushion" |

You see, when I draw a digital stamp for you, I do a lot of thinking. 

Take this House Mouse stamp here, it's "Pincushion" by Stampendous. 

As the illustrator (not me) drew out this scene of mice, thimbles, and a big pincushion, they went through a long thought process.

"The large mouse has two feet that he's lifting into the air on each jump. His ears are pinnned back in excitement. There are pins in the cushion but they're not right where the mouse is jumping, otherwise he'd stab himself. The sleeping mice are completely relaxed with limp ears and limp tails..."

Yes, artists actually think these kinds of thoughts as they draw.

This thinking process means that the artist is completely familiar with every single object in their drawing. They know what everything is, why it looks the way it looks, and where one object stops and another object starts.

They understand everything inside the image because they thought it through before they drew it.


As a crafter, you're working on a second hand image

Whipper Snapper Design's "Squeaky Baker" |

And your information about the image is completely second hand.

Here's Whipper Snapper Design's "Squeaky Baker".

Tell me quickly, what are the two things falling off the baker's tray?

Cookies? Muffins? Truffles? Spitwads?

It's a little hard for us to tell, primarily because we didn't draw this stamp. But the artist knows exactly what those roundish brown things are.


So how can crafters overcome this information deficit?

That's today's Tiny Thing: before you pull out your markers, maybe even before you stamp the image onto paper, stop and take a good amount of time to visually walk yourself through the entire image.

Evaluate everything you see.

Start at the most logical place on the image and work your eye around the entire image. Don't just look, actually think your way through every element in the stamp.

For me, I'd start with the face. Expression is key, so I'm not just looking to see how many eyes and noses he has, I'm looking at how his eyebrows are related to his eyes, is he happy? Sad? Surprised? Angry? Is he smiling or smirking? Where do his whiskers start and stop? All of these things are important to preserve the look of a cute and happy mouse. If we mistake a tuft of fur for an eyebrow, we could accidentally make him look evil and wicked. We don't want Satan's personal mouse baker on your grandaughter's birthday card.

Next I might move to his body. I note that I can only see one hand but I can almost see two feet. That affects the colors I choose for some of the foot-shapes.

From there I'd work even further outwards, evaluating every single item in the stamp image. What is it? What color should it be? How much of it can I see?


If you don't take the time to evaluate your image, bad things happen!

This is why I want you to perform the evaluation BEFORE you pick out your markers.

This prevents mistakes.

What kind of mistakes?

Well, here's one: Really look at that baker's hat. Now we're looking at a pre-colored version of the stamp. Lucky us, because the hat is shown as white, we can easily deduce that this is a chef's hat.

Chef's hat or Muffin? Look hard to find out |

But what if we were looking at that shape in just the black and white version?

Frankly, if all I could see was that cloud shape sitting on a cylinder shape, I might think it was a muffin.

I've seen stranger things in stamps. A mouse with a muffin on his head isn't out of the realm of possibility.

Without properly evaluating the entire image, I might grab a brown set of markers. I could give that muffin some blueberry spots. I could give it a pink cupcake liner. I could color that shape the best darned muffin you ever did see.

And then feel stupid later when someone asks why my mouse is wearing a dirty chef's hat.

C'mon. We've all done something similarly wrong.

How many times have you been coloring leaves in a tree, only to discover there was a bird in the tree AFTER you've colored his tail green?

Or colored a flower petal green?

Or thought you were coloring a long lock of hair that turned out to be a wind-blown scarf?


Thoroughly evaluating an image helps you to become completely familiar with the image

You want to be as familiar with the images as the original artist was.

To color it well, you need to know it well.

Don't believe me? Think I'm being silly because you would never-ever color a muffin on a mouse's head?

Well check out this image:

What do you see in this stamp image? Evaluate for better coloring! |

This is Penny Black's "Dear Mice, Watering Can" stamp.

I'm going to ask you a few questions now. And don't write them off as stupid questions because the answers won't be obvious to everyone.

Analyzing Stamps for Clarity |

What is the object at #1?

Is this a strap for overalls or a strap for the backpack the mouse is wearing?

What is the mouse standing on and what is the item at #2?

If the mouse is standing on a terracotta pot, that's the brim of the pot. Or is the mouse standing on an aluminum bucket with a small rolled brim on a hill of grass?

What is going on at #3?

Is that a water leak or is the watering can sitting on a paving stone?

What is item #4?

More water or a rock?

Think I'm kidding? I'm dead serious. I can easily color a very convincing version of every option I've listed.

And these options aren't as dumb as a mouse with a muffin on his head. Every question I asked was entirely reasonable based upon the drawing.

Only the original artist knows the correct answer. We can make an educated guess but we can't be totally sure.


This is why you need to evaluate every single item in an image before you color it

Make an educated guess based on careful thought and consideration.

Don't just color away at it without stopping to think about what you are coloring.

Evaluation is One Tiny Thing you can do to improve your coloring immediately.

It's a simple thing to do; it takes very little time and it prevents a lot of weird stuff from happening.


One Tiny Thing: Stamp Evaluation

Try it today. You'll appreciate the results!

How to Choose the Best Stamps for Copic Coloring


What makes a stamp good for realism?

Whether you're scrolling or strolling through a craft supply shop, we've all experienced that magical moment...

You spot the cutest stamp...

You hear harp music and fat little winged babies start fluttering around your head. You can feel your pulse in your eyeballs and darned if you aren't suddenly smelling fresh-baked cinnamon rolls...

I must have that stamp! I'll simply die without it!

But then you hear your father's practical voice and you can just tell he's rolling his eyes.

"Sure kid, but what'cha gonna do with it? Because it's not cheap and at that price, it better not just sit around gathering dust!"

"Oh no, dad. This is a good one! I can make a card for Jean with it, I'll make a card for Aunt Judy, and I'll make gift tags, and use it in my journal, and it could be in at least a dozen scrapbook layouts..."

So you fork out the bucks and cart the stamp home where it sits on your craft table for months, first as a source of inspiration, later as a reminder that you simply must make time for it.

Finally you tuck it away so that you can't hear your father tsk-tsking at you.

Yeah, not all stamps are golden.

Even worse are the stamps that you thought would color up well and yet... somehow... not sure why... but... meh.


I look for a very specific style of stamp image

Not every stamp image works well for Copics.

And the ones that do? Well, they sometimes look a little strange.

Like this month's free digi image.

Father and daughter? |
November's Free Digi Club image, fully colored |

Uhm yeah, the similarities are not lost on me...

But there's a reason I didn't draw the whole nose for you.

And it's not because she's the heir of Slytherin.

I didn't draw nose because you can shade the nose more realistically than I can draw it. Same with her lips.

Noses and lips don't have outlines in real life. If I draw them for you, I limit the amount of realism you can get from the stamp!


the more a stamp draws for you, the less realism you get

What do I mean by that?

I know it's counter-intuitive, but the more lines, or texture, detail, shading, hatchings, cross-hatchings, scumbling, hair, fur, motion lines, dust dots, fru-fru, or miscellaneous doo-dahs... The more the artist draws into a stamp, the more useless that stamp is for realistic coloring.

Simply put: if the stamp artist gets too artistic, there's no room left for YOU to be artistic.

Let's call it the Lichtenstein Effect- all the stuff that makes for a great looking stamp on the store shelf limits your creative potential.

Especially when that detail is on a face or on flower petals.

Unfortunately, really good coloring stamps are hard to come by. Trust me. I go through a ton of catalogs in my never ending quest for teachable stamps. I can't use 90% of the stamps I see. For my most advanced classes, the ones where the students are the most artistic? I'm now drawing stamps because the pickin's are so slim.


Signs of a good stamp:

1. Goldilocks sized.

Small stamps are hard to color with a big ol' Copic brush nib.

And large stamps require too much ink to get a good blend.

Not too big, not too small. Find the stamp size that's just right.

2. Wide open real estate.

The individual shapes that make up the stamp image should be  large enough to allow space for blending or texture.

YOU should add the texture, not the stamp artist!





3. As few details as possible.

A good stamp artist doesn't micromanage the final outcome of the project.

We all know that sheep have curly hair; a good artist will let you decide how curly to color it.




4. Only basic facial features included.

I'm sure the tire tracks on her forehead seemed like a good idea at the time...

And only Jenny from the Block wears black lip liner.

This is what I meant by the Lichtenstein Effect. If an artist makes lots of big black details AND then they pile texture marks on top of that?

Well, how do I say this nicely? This artist doesn't trust you to color it yourself.

If they don't trust you, don't give them your money.

10 qualities to look for in a good stamp for realistic coloring |

5. Few (if any) solid-fills.

Hey, I'm coloring.

So please let me color it myself.

Again with the Lichtenstein effect. Let the colorer decide if the eyebrows match the drapes...

Finding good stamps for realistic coloring |

6. No shadow indications.

You wouldn't believe the number of stamps that I eliminate based on this one feature alone.

I hate those little hatch marks that stamp artists throw in to indicate shadows. It limits what I can do with the stamp!

Worst of all is when the shadows are inconsistently placed!

10 things to look for in a good stamp for realistic coloring |

7. No drawn highlights. This is a big pet peeve of mine!

Highlights are bright spots of light being reflected off an object. Highlights = light.

So why would I want someone to outline my light with a big black line?

You can search the whole world over and never find a real life object with outlined highlights. It simply doesn't occur in nature.

And here's the kicker... what if I want to color the handle on that stamp a very light color? If I color it black or navy blue, I can hide the outline on the highlight... but what if it's baby pink? There's no way to hide that freak of nature outline and I'm stuck with it forever.

No thanks. My rule is simple, drawn highlights = no sale.

Find good stamps for realistic coloring |

8. Complete shapes.

I see this with hair quite frequently. Long flowing locks that lead... uhm... where?

Now I'm not talking about the artistic skips and stutters that you can get with a nice dip pen. I'm a big fan of interesting line quality.

But there are a lot of stamps on the market that have missing information.

Ruffles on clothing are a major offender. It looks great on the shelf but once you sit down to color, you find you're not sure where the edge lies. And halfway into the shape is a lousy time to find out that you need to pull out a multiliner pen to fix the image.

A coloring image lives or dies by the information provided by the artist. Let's say it's an ice cream cone, and cones are triangles, right? But if the artist only gives 2 of the three lines that make up the triangle... sure it looks fancy and artistic on the stamp but it'll be pretty darned hard to color. Especially for colorers that are afraid to draw. How do you color something that is missing a boundary line?

10 things to look for a in a good stamp for realistic coloring |

9. Shapes must be understandable. 

Okay, what is that oval there?

Is it the morning sun rising up behind the stamp? Is it the edge of someone's thumb? Is it part of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval?

How am I supposed to color things I don't understand?

I taught a class once where we debated if we were coloring a moose, a reindeer, or a dog with antlers. And you know what? All three sides of that argument had some pretty good points.

A stamp needs to make sense.

10 things to look for in a stamp for realistic coloring |

10. No extra anatomy.

Sadly, I'm not kidding about this.

I find extra stuff all the time.

Mermaids with three thumbs.

Mystery arms or legs that don't seem to belong to anyone.

Extra stems on flowers. Or flower heads with no stem...

It's kind of creepy.

Happy Birthday! Here's hoping all your birthdays have extraneous disembodied limbs!


I'd like to say the problem is getting better...

One would think so...

In a perfect world, the more people who color, the more incentive stamp companies have to churn out lots of good quality images especially designed for realistic colorers.

But sadly, it also means lots of let's-make-a quick-buck stamps and coloring books flooding the market.

When you find a good company, a good artist, a good line of stamp images- spread the word. We're all on the lookout for great new images!

Uour support tells companies to make more colorable images and to dump the stuff that will never color up well.

Good customers support good stamp art!