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" | VanillaArts.com

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" | VanillaArts.com

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 | VanillaArts.com

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! | VanillaArts.com

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 | VanillaArts.com

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!


Feedback is Essential to Improve your Coloring Skills


Critiques are important to the learning process...

Which is why they're a feature of every class I teach, both live and online versions. After all, you can't fix what you aren't aware of.

But not everyone is comfortable having their skills evaluated. No one wants to be criticized, mocked, and to have their flaws paraded out for the world to see.

Believe me, I know. I had a panic attack the morning of my first graphic arts class critique. Just the thought of hanging my project on the wall and having 20 other students nit-pick it to death... it had me up most of the night with worry. Then I almost hyperventilated myself to death the next morning. 

But that flop-sweat inducing class critique turned out to be a tremendous mental boost for me. I learned an incredible amount of helpful information that day. Not just from my critique but from the critique of all 20 projects. I also learned to buy a better brand of antiperspirant for such occasions.

So let's talk a little about evaluation today. Good critiques, bad critiques, and how you can add constructive feedback to your own learning process.


First off, what is a critique?

Let's not get to bogged down with details and rules. What you need to know is that critiques come in many forms.

Class critiques are where an entire class is presented with a variety of similar projects. A good teacher will focus the student conversation on diagnosing problems and brainstorming helpful solutions for future use.

One-on-one critiques are usually between a mentor and a student. They can be formal portfolio evaluations or single project feedback. The most helpful sessions occur mid project before the portfolio or art piece is completed because it's better to correct a problem mid-stream than to be finished and unable to change the flaw.

Lastly, there are informal critiques when you draft a friend, fellow student, or the teacher into a quick discussion. The kind of conversation that usually starts "Hey, what'cha think?"


Good Critiques offer usable information

"I like that background but what if you softened the edges a bit?"

"That's cool, I really like the boy's face. Can you make the girl's eyes look similar to his?"

Helpful critiques improve your art | VanillaArts.com

"The shadow feels a little heavy under the apple. If you lighten it slightly, it won't feel quite so dreary."

It's not enough to hear only sunshine and purple-dinosaur wishes. On the flipside, "that really stinks" is pretty unusable information as well.

A good critique gives you information that you can use to either fix your problem or that leads you to think differently on future projects.


Bad Critiques offer no challenges

I think we can all agree that "Your painting looks like dog vomit after a day in Death Valley" is a bad thing to hear.

But so is "That's awesome, you rock!"

Why? Because neither statement asks you to change anything about your future performance. But you could magically transform either sentence into a good critique if you added a second half to the thought.

"Your painting looks like dog vomit BECAUSE a pink to green blended background creates an unpleasant brownish middle color that detracts from the overall cheerful tone of the image"

Huh, now that awful sentence is a little more usable.

Sure, a really good critique will use nicer language and sound a little less judgmental than "dog vomit"... but seriously, if the first thing that crossed my mind when I looked at your piece was canine regurgitation, don't you want to know about it?


Honest friends and generous teachers are worth their weight in gold

My husband is the love of my life, my best friend, and he's better than the better half of me.

But I DO NOT ask him for art critiques.

"Huh. Looks good."

The same goes for my parents. "That's nice, honey" is pretty darned useless.

But we all have someone in our lives who will not just point out the spinach in our teeth but offer a hand mirror and a tissue to help you fix it.

Find that friend and never let go of their hand.

I'm part of a small group of local artists. We have an informal, please-check-my-work email circle where we've pledged to try our darndest to stop members from publishing stupid mistakes.


Like the time I made a tee shirt design with wings that pointed to both nipples. Or when my dear friend submitted a painting to a national contest that had a hidden (and completely unplanned) "F U" in the negative space.

But I've also found that I can run projects by my 15 year old daughter. She has a pretty good eye and can often vocalize the problem with trouble spots.

And it goes without saying that a good teacher will look at your project several times each class and offer guidance. If your instructor isn't doing this, that's a serious problem. You're paying for more than a lesson, you should be getting feedback too.


Your attitude determines the effectiveness of any critique

Attitude Matters! Learning from art critiques | VanillaArts.com

Ultimately, even the most positive feedback is useless if you do nothing with it.

How can you make the best use of evaluation and observations?

  1. Pledge not to take offense or to dwell on feedback. Sure, no one wants to hear "dog vomit" but you need to know. And I wish I'd heard about the nipple-pointers BEFORE that shirt went to print. But if you're clearly dragging around baggage from your last critique, no one is going to feel comfortable pointing out the current flaws.

  2. Listen rather than rationalize. The person offering feedback doesn't need the four hour backstory of why you colored the the Christmas Tree magenta. He/she is simply trying to tell you that it doesn't feel very Christmassy that way. Remember, you're not going to walk around explaining your art to every viewer from now until forever. If your work doesn't make sense to your trusted critique partner, it's really not going to make sense to strangers. Listen and learn.

  3. Ask questions. If your feedback partner is telling you something you disagree with, like "I think the fireman should wear a red jacket rather than yellow", find out WHY they feel strongly about it before you write it off as nonsense. Maybe firemen don't really wear red jackets anymore, but if your partner mistook your fireman for the Morton Salt Girl, that's a very valid reason to make the jacket red.

  4. Watch the first facial reactions. I often hand items to people cold and watch for that first expression. If I'm trying for humor and they look puzzled, I've failed. Remember, people often try to censor themselves; an initial grimace tells you far more than the "uhmmmm... yeah, that's nice".

  5. Be sure to thank your feedback partner. Honesty is hard and truth tellers are rare. Show that you appreciate the time, care, and help that someone has offered you. Treat them with respect and kindness to insure that they continue helping you in your growth process.


Most of all, learn to enjoy and crave critique.

It's a growth process- the rewards are well worth the occasionally dented pride.