You’re halfway into the Copic Marker or colored pencil project and things are not going well. There’s no way of dancing around it. The may only be half finished, but man! This looks TERRIBLE!!! What happened? Did you waste all that time and your expensive supplies? Should you just throw the dumb thing out? Maybe; just maybe… you’re not good enough to be a real artist? Stop right there! Today’s Inkwell is a blast of realistic insight on the normal creative process. Don’t pack up your Copics just yet!
I color upside-down and backwards
When I teach live classes, I demonstrate the entire project upside-down and backwards.
My students want to see what I'm doing. And because my classrooms are simple rooms and not high end instructional spaces, I don’t have the luxury of coloring at a fancy table with mirrors or a camera hovering overhead so that students can watch from afar.
Nope, we’re very low-tech. I tape my project to a small board and rest that board against my chest, project facing outwards. I walk around the room demonstrating and coloring, using my body as a desk.
I know it sounds strange but it works.
My project is upside down and backwards from my vantage point but it's right side up and easily visible to everyone else. Students can watch me color and see exactly what to do.
But here's the thing, my upside down and backwards projects don't look all that different from the ones I color at home sitting at my art table. Sometimes I can't tell which projects were colored which way.
I'm not telling you this to impress you with my amazing upside down coloring skills.
I'm telling you this because you need to loosen up.
Students can be very intense
They come to class to learn and they’re quite determined.
They want to mimic every little stroke I make. They copy my moves carefully. They analyze where my strokes start and where they stop; they count how many flicks it takes me to fill the space. Some even ask me to measure how long each flick is. They swoop when I swoop and dot precisely where I dot.
Students try to duplicate everything about my coloring.
Except in all my years of teaching, not one student has ever stood up.
Nobody puts their project on their chest and tries coloring upside down and backwards.
Which is strange.
They really think they're copying me exactly, move for move, and yet no one has noted that I'm doing it upside-down and backwards.
They’re all focused on what I’m doing without ever stopping to consider how I’m doing it.
And the how is more important, vastly more important than the number, the length, and the size of my strokes.
Remember when I said that I usually can’t tell whether I colored something in a demo or at home?
That’s because I color the same sitting down at a table as I do standing up.
I color from the elbow and shoulder
So it doesn’t matter where I am or what the furniture is like. You could hang me from a bungee cord over a pit of rabid sharks and I could still crank out a decent flick stroke because I color with my whole arm rather than my fingers.
Coloring from the elbow? Coloring from the fingers?
What does that mean?
Well, pull out a Copic and draw a small square. Now color that square in.
Go ahead and try it.
Right now, draw a 1 inch square and color it in. I’ll wait until you’re done.
Did you color the square? Good. Now think about what movements you used to fill in that square.
Which parts of your hand and arm were moving?
Need to color another square to find out? That’s okay. I’ll wait again.
Okay, so you colored both squares.
Now I’m going to make a few educated guesses about what was going on. Ready?
You sat down at a table- because sitting stabilizes your body and the table stabilizes your arm.
You pressed the entire length of your forearm (from elbow to wrist) directly to the table, adding even more stabilization.
You lifted your wrist but that was really only to elevate the marker over the square. Aside from that hovering, you locked your wrist.
For those of you who didn’t hover, you rested the entire pinkie side of your hand against the paper- and if you didn’t lock your wrist, you made every effort to keep it still and stable.
All of the coloring motion came from the movement in your knuckles- primarily your thumb, index, and middle fingers.
And all of that stabilization and support is why you make teeny tiny, up-tight, constipated looking projects.
You need to loosen up!
You've got to move your body when you color. You should be having fun dancing with your markers.
Look, it’s not your fault. You’re doing exactly what your kindergarten teacher told you to do when she taught you how to make your A, B, Cs. Printing and penmanship are finger actions. You work from the knuckle and that gives you the ability to make tiny yet precise movements.
But that isn’t how to paint.
I know, you’re coloring with a Copic Marker but that marker has a brush nib on it.
This indicates that the proper use of this tool is to treat your Copic like a paintbrush.
Painters don’t choke up to the tip of their paintbrushes. They don’t crab up on their canvas and work with their nose hovering two inches away from the painting.
And I see colorers do this all the time. You curl up around your coloring project like a boa constrictor, making teeny tiny movements that are tight and micromanaged. You white-knuckle the marker with a death grip. You give yourself carpal tunnel syndrome and pins & needles circulation problems.
And that tension? Whoa! It definitely shows in your coloring.
Constipated coloring is a real turn-off.
Lighten up and loosen up. For your health and for your art.
It’s not good to grip your marker as if you just fell off the Titanic- as if that marker is the only thing keeping Celine Dion from writing a song about your death.
Uptight coloring hurts your hand
It also kills your project.
Good flicks are light and swishy. It’s like licking an ice cream cone- you don’t do it with all the force you can muster. There’s a delicacy to keeping everything from going splat on the sidewalk.
A good series of flicks is carefree and a little loosey goosey.
And that motion has to be generated from the largest pivot point on your arm that you can give it.
The smaller the joint you use, the more cramped and stunted your flicks will be.
Finger flicks are stubby.
If the movement of your flick comes from the wrist, that’s an improvement over your fingers. But it’ll be even better if you can move from the elbow or the shoulder. There should even be a little waist and spine twist action involved.
After a long coloring session, pay attention to what hurts. If your fingers are sore, that’s a bad sign. If you feel it in your triceps and biceps, that’s great!
I use the metaphor of dancing a lot, and it’s on purpose. Nobody stands out on the dance floor, moving just their index fingers. Gettin' down and grooving is a whole body event. Coloring should be too.
Now I’m not going to lie to you. It takes practice to color from the elbow with control but the effort is worth it. You’ll notice an improvement in the length and lightness of your flicks and improved blending powers, but also in the expressive nature of your coloring.
Expressive is good. That's the artsy stuff that makes you look like a pro.
It’s a mistake to curl your entire body inward when you color.
Most colorers concentrate too much
Concentrate, it’s right there in the word. Concentration isn’t just thinking super-duper hard, concentration is also the word we use to describe a reduction.
When you reduce your motion and microfocus everything into your fingers, you hamper your artistry.
Where is your heart located?
Your heart is inside your chest, in the core of your body.
When you are tightened-up and coloring with just your fingers, you are not coloring from the core.
You can’t add heart to a finger project.
Step back so that you can see your work. Move away from the table slightly so that you can freely swing your arm. Loosen up, bend and sway so that you can extend the length of your flicks and add some character to your strokes.
And relax. Because perfect blends and precise color placement do not make the art.
Artistry comes from your core. Use your heart and you’ll make better art.
Want to add more artistry to your coloring?
Read more Adding Artistry articles:
“How do you come up with these cool ideas?”
I get this question a lot.
Well, that and “Is this credit or debit?” I hear that one a lot too.
But back to the creativity question, a lot of people are curious where ideas come from.
And I used to respond, “I don’t know, things just kinda come to me.”
Which helps absolutely no one.
A better answer is needed. A lot of people want to be more creative, inventive, and interesting. It’s an earnest question, a noble goal, and it deserves an authentic answer.
So, I’ve had about 44 years to think about where creativity comes from. Here’s my conclusion:
There’s nothing really unique about me, you can be creative too.
Now we’ve all heard foofaraw like that before. Every single one of us grew up hearing that we could be an astronaut or the President of the United States. And even though we all believed it, very few of us are sporting a NASA jacket or have a cool Secret Service code name like “Big Tuna”.
But here’s what I’ve noticed about the self-described “uncreative” people in my life. They are pretty darned creative at things other than art.
That’s what sets humans apart from animals. Humans have this wild and boundless capacity to find clever solutions to problems. You were born to be creative the same way that a fish knows how to swim and that a spider knows how to freak the livin’ beejeebus out of me.
If you’re human and you’re breathing, you’re doing something creative. Right this very instant. The trick is to channel your natural creativity into something productive.
Creativity is in you, what are you using it for?
My husband is an engineer and a lab manager. He spends his day looking through an electron microscope. When he’s not doing that, he’s telling his employees to get back to looking through their electron microscopes.
It’s not a terribly creative job unless you look below the surface.
No, he doesn’t get to paint or make wonderful messes with paper and string. But he’s not totally uncreative. He designed a better lab setup. He teaches interns and new employees how to run very technical machines. And most of all, he manages to get 30 somewhat anti-social lab geeks working in the same room without anyone killing anyone else with readily available radioactive materials.
That takes creativity.
Each of us is creative in our daily lives. It may not be the Leonardo Da Vinci type creativity, but it is creative. Maybe you’re an accountant who is able to calm stressed-out clients. Maybe you’re a real estate agent with never fail presentation skills or you’re a kindergarten teacher who has gone 40 days without a Play-Doh up-the-nose emergency. Almost everything you do in your daily life involves some sort of creativity.
So stop beating yourself up about not being creative like the artists on your favorite blogs. You have it in you, the trick is to tap into it for more than just work.
Everyone needs to do something they love, even if it’s just a hobby. If you’re not reading a few books or taking a few classes to explore things you enjoy, you are doing yourself an injustice. Tap into the creative spark that is waiting within you. It was there when they told you that you could be an astronaut and it’s still there today. Use it.
Creativity isn’t stagnant. It’s like water, it goes where you channel it.
If you look at my lifetime portfolio, there’s a big gap of absolutely no activity from about the year 2004 to 2007. I wasn’t in my studio very much, except maybe to mourn the fact that I wasn’t in my studio very much.
I was pregnant and spent 3 months on mandatory bedrest. Meanwhile, my five year old daughter discovered the power of “NO!” and used it on everything from Cheerios to debates about why we should always wear underwear. Then my son’s 2nd grade class deteriorated into chaos when a student began using the other kids as punching bags. And when I finally had the baby, he had a mild condition which required numerous visits to a clinic about 2 hours from our home.
So yeah, so I was pretty busy doing other stuff.
I quit all but one teaching job. And I didn’t do much arting.
But here’s the weird thing. I did other stuff creatively. I taught myself to knit and made about 18 sweaters. I started writing quirky newsletters for a few area businesses. And I became known as the cookie mom. Because hey, if I’m going to bake cookies, I’m damned well going to make some freakishly artistic cookies.
I also convinced my daughter that the only way the Fairy King will ever make you a Butterfly Princess is if you’re wearing underwear when he visits. 10 years later and she’s still wearing underwear.
Creativity will find a way out.
But not if you’ve set up a mental or physical dam to prevent the flow.
If you fill your life with marathon television programing, if you do housework every night of the week or spend your weekends doing menial errands, if you fill your life up to the rim with constant chatter and activity and mindless busy-ness, artistic creativity has no place in your life to make an appearance.
The Art Muse needs a bit of quiet to germinate in your brain. You have to give her the time and space to peek out and say hello. And you have to give her some tools to play with.
And here’s something else to chew on:
Maybe now is not the time to be creative
Perhaps it’s not an appropriate time in your life to be channeling the Art Muse.
I’m a studio artist and I teach art classes, that’s me. It’s what I do best and it’s what I love to do. But when I had three very young and needy kids, plus a ton of absolute crap going on in my life, it would have been highly inappropriate for me to lock myself in my studio and devote my life to art.
Maybe today isn’t the day when you can tell your boss to shove it, move to the beach, and begin a new life assembling sea shells into frog sculptures. You might not be there now but what about a few years from now?
We all have creative and less creative points in our lives. Be smart and admit that this may not the right time to be totally immersed in a creative life.
Be patient but do not hesitate to seize the moment when it finally comes.
But just because you’re in a slow season doesn’t mean you should stagnate.
Do what you can, when you can.
This may require a bit of sacrifice. Maybe you forgo watching Project Runway this week. That’s an hour in which you could be card making or playing with clay or doing whatever it is that makes your Muse happy.
Maybe you say no to organizing the church picnic and use that time to attend open studio hours at the ceramics shop.
Or you buy a book on enameling techniques rather than a bodice ripper.
Or you actually use the new set of watercolor pencils that’s been collecting dust under your bed.
Your creative life will be reflected in the choices of how you spend your free time. Even just 5 minutes this week will improve your spirits. One step, no matter how small will get you a little bit closer to living a creative lifestyle.
Ultimately, please understand this:
Creativity doesn’t strike lucky people out of the blue like lightning bolts.
It’s pretty easy to sit back and say “Well, I could make stuff like that if I was creative.”
Nope. You are creative WHEN you make stuff like that.
Creativity is a practice.
I get my best ideas as I’m working on a previous idea. Thinking triggers more thoughts and making art gives birth to more art. It’s a groove that you get into.
Creativity is the product, not the source.
So if you’re sitting around waiting for the light bulb to appear over your head, you might just want to get comfy because you’re going to be stuck in the dark for a while.
In the coming weeks, we’ll talk more about creativity, talent, inspiration, and living more artistic lives.
In the meantime, let's talk. Are you in a slump right now or are you in a creative period? If you’re coming off a low point, what was it that pulled you out?