Artistic Coloring- Adding creativity to your Copic projects: Loosen Up!


I color upside-down and backwards

Not kidding. 

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

Do you want to add more artistry to your Copic projects? You need to loosen up a little! |

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?

  1. You sat down at a table- because sitting stabilizes your body and the table stabilizes your arm.

  2. You pressed the entire length of your forearm (from elbow to wrist) directly to the table, adding even more stabilization.

  3. You lifted your wrist but that was really only to elevate the marker over the square. Aside from that hovering, you locked your wrist.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

Do you want to add more artistry to your Copic projects? You need to loosen up a little! |

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.

Brush nib.

A brush.

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.

Do you want to add more artistry to your Copic projects? You need to loosen up a little! |

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.

Do you want to add more artistry to your Copic projects? You need to loosen up a little! |

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:

Artistic Coloring- Adding Creativity to Your Copic Projects: Your Brain Lies!


Artistic Coloring- adding creativity to your Copic projects: Your Brain Lies!

Want to add artistry and creativity to your Copic Marker or colored pencil coloring projects? Stop listening to your brain and start trusting your color sense. Read more about why your brain lies... |

what color is an elephant?

I know what you’re going to say.

And you’re wrong.

Go look.

Google “elephant” and look at the photographs. Don’t just say “oh how cute!” I want you to really look at the color of the elephants on your screen.

Some of the photos show grayish elephants but by far, most wild elephants look to be a range of muted browns and dusty taupes. Some even have pink splotches on their face and ears.

Want to add artistry and creativity to your Copic Marker or colored pencil coloring projects? Stop listening to your brain and start trusting your color sense. Read more about why your brain lies... |

But, but, but… but elephants are supposed to be gray.

I know. It’s a common mistake.

Most Copic colorers use gray markers to color elephants because the elephants stuck in your brain from childhood are gray. So you might grab a few N markers to get the job done, some would grab the C markers since the cool bluish grays are so pretty.

A rare few would have pulled out their W grays. Not because they’re thinking about brown elephants but because there’s some silly Copic rule floating around out there that says “If the object is alive, use a W gray”.

So all living things that are gray are warm gray?


Tell that to the koala, the gorilla, and my Russian Blue cat. I guess they’re all dead because they sure aren’t Ws.


Your brain lies 

It makes generalizations, it takes shortcuts, it believes the illustrations it sees in children’s picture books.

It tells you to follow stupid rules about warm and cool grays.

You can't trust your brain when it comes to color.

Which is why you’re going to be shocked when I tell you that pumpkins and school buses are basically the same exact color.

I know. That’s a hard one to wrap your brain around. Give it a moment.


We all make color assumptions

Chalk it up to faulty memory, general laziness, or the fact that we tend to believe everything our kindergarten teacher said.

Yep, that sweet lady lied to you too. She was the one who started a lot of this bunkum, that elephants are gray, that pumpkins are orange, and that clouds are white.

Clouds are not white?

Boy, this day is just full of revelations, isn't it?


One way to add artistry to your coloring...

... is to stop coloring stereotypes and start looking at the color things actually are.

Which means that you might want to rethink using that black marker to color hair.

Aww, geeze... my brain lied about hair too?


The weird thing is that when you color things the color they actually are in real life, people get all excited about what you’ve done.

“Wow, that looks so real!”

“You’re so creative!”

“She’s such a talented artist!”

Uhm, yeah. As if it takes great talent and skill to use the eyeballs you were born with.


So I have an assignment for you

This is really simple. It won’t take more than a few minutes a day. No special tools, no travel required. In fact, you can do it on the sly at work and no one will even know you’re doing it.

Want to add artistry and creativity to your Copic Marker or colored pencil coloring projects? Stop listening to your brain and start trusting your color sense. Read more about why your brain lies... |

I want you to start taking little color tours.

Look a the color of objects around you. I mean really look.

What kind of yellow is that pencil? 

What Copic marker matches your living room walls? Would you use the same marker in the corners of the room?

What color is ketchup and can you find two more things that are the exact same color?

Exercises like this will stretch your definition of color.

Most people have a very limited color vocabulary. They stop at “Robins have a red breast” and never define what kind of red.

When you start paying attention, you’re going to discover something interesting:

The more you look, the more you see. 


People wonder at my color choices

It's very rare that I don't throw some odd colors into the blend.

The geranium image here uses a bright blue underneath green and there’s a bold purple over the red.

I’m not a genius and I don’t have magical coloring powers. An angel didn’t descend from above and bop me over the head with his harp until I agreed to use dark purple on red.

I got it from looking at an actual, real life geranium long enough to understand the colors I was seeing.

I was color touring.

It may look like I'm day dreaming, or (if I remember to close my mouth while thinking) it will look as if I’m meditating. But actually, I’m exercising my sense of color.


The more you look at color, the more color you see

You’ll see hidden blues and violets everywhere. You’ll see hints of pink or yellow in things that are sitting in sunshine. There are skies and tree trunks that will move you to tears.

The more color you see, the more color you can add to your projects.

This skill is not going to hit you all at once. It takes time to develop a sensitivity to color.


And the number one thing standing in your way?

 An over-reliance on the standard Copic blending trios.

Want to add artistry and creativity to your Copic Marker or colored pencil coloring projects? Stop listening to your brain and start trusting your color sense. Read more about why your brain lies... |

Because nothing in this world is R29 - 27 - 24.

The R20 series is not a combination found in nature and you’re fooling yourself if you use it to color fire trucks, ketchup, bricks, strawberries, stop signs, and geraniums.

When you expand your color vocabulary and start paying attention to the subtle differences in the reds around you, you’re naturally going to start using color more intelligently in your projects.

That’s artistry.

Expand your awareness of color and your unique color style will emerge.

Color like an artist. Not like a kindergartener.    

You can do this!


Let's Talk about Copic markers: Is abundance killing your art?

It's not how many Copic Markers you own, it's understanding how to best use your collection! Why abundance stunts growth. |

We are extremely fortunate

It’s rare in human history for people to have enough free time to practice hobbies. It’s also unusual for so many people to have the financial means to invest in good quality art products for those hobbies.

Heck, it’s only in the modern era that good quality art products even exist.

So yes, you were born at the right time and under a lucky star.

But is this abundance a good thing?

Now I’m not suggesting that we go back to the days of painting with mud paste on cave walls. But let me explain a bit of what I’m seeing recently…

It's not how many Copic Markers you own, it's understanding how to best use your collection! Why abundance stunts growth. |

I’ve got students who own more good quality art supplies than I do.

And they don’t know how to use most of it.

Before you jump to the conclusion that I’m jealous or that I’m some sort of art dictator, banish that thought entirely! I love the fact that artist grade products are easy to acquire and I’m thrilled that good information is  readily available on the internet, in shops, and in classes.

Viva la freedom!

But here’s the thing- a lot of people are emotionally invested in owning ALL the best items.

It’s the owning that rocks their socks, not the using.

They’re obsessed about a medium just long enough to collect all the materials and then something fresh starts trending and they’re off to collect everything that’s new in that aisle of the craft store.

People have thousands of dollars of art and craft supplies and yet most aren’t producing anything of worth.


Owning all the Copic markers will not make you a great Copic artist

Owning all the colored pencils in the world doesn’t tell you what to do with them.

Collecting every color ever made doesn’t improve the look of your projects.

Abundance hampers growth.

Yep. I’m serious. I think owing all the Copics or all the Prismacolors stunts your ability to learn and to improve your artistry.


For a long time, I had 24 Prismacolor pencils

Yep. I went through art school with just two dozen pencil colors.

Now granted, I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to use my pencils because they kinda frown on using colored pencils in an Oil Portraiture class.

But looking back, I only had a few tubes of watercolors and fewer tubes of gouache. Same with oils and acrylics. And sure, part of the reason was that art school is darned expensive but I wasn’t the only student working with a very limited palette.

It's not how many Copic Markers you own, it's understanding how to best use your collection! Why abundance stunts growth. |

Necessity is the mother of artistry?

That’s not too far off. 

When you work with a limited number of colors, you get to know the product really, really, REALLY well. You learn how to manipulate and manage your colors to get the values and saturations that are needed. 

To go all zen master on you, you become one with the medium.

That doesn’t happen when you own 358 colors.

If you had 358 kids, you’d barely know their names much less how they behave under normal and abnormal conditions.

You also don’t get to know your products when you spend only two weeks using them before you bounce off to the next crafty medium.

And I’ll also extend this thought to cover to those of you buying multiple brands of colored pencils or every kind of marker ever made. You can’t learn a product’s ins and outs if you’re also using four other products at the same time.


Owning everything gets you nothing

A lot of people are using some amazing products on a regular basis and not learning anything in the process.

Remember when I said that art school required very few colors? I wasn’t kidding. One class used only four colors- Titanium White, Ivory Black, Cadmium Red, and Yellow Ochre- and we were painting human figures with realism! I learned a ton of things in that class and 22 years later, I still use that information every day.

Why am I telling you all of this?

Well, there are a lot of people wasting money buying more supplies than they need.

And there are a bunch of people having pity parties because they don’t own enough supplies to “make anything good.”

The swan image shown here used 12 markers. Four of those markers were used on the background, they’re not on the swan.

So that’s 8 markers for a swan and I could have easily dropped another three without you noticing. 

And those eight markers are the same markers I’ve used on tons of previous images. They’re not swan colors, they’re colors I use on many other things.

It's not how many Copic Markers you own, it's understanding how to best use your collection! Why abundance stunts growth. |

You do not need tons of supplies to color well

What you need is a good understanding of the supplies you own.

There are giant holes in my Copic collection because I haven’t purchased the colors which I know I’ll never use.

And while I own the entire line of several brands of colored pencil, the vast majority of those pencils sit untouched because I rarely have a need for some colors.

And that’s not unusual for artists. Yes, you’ll meet some color hoarders who own absolutely everything but most artists use the same colors over and over in everything they do. In fact, the majority of us are a little OCD about using just our favorite red and no other red will do. So you could buy out Dick Blick for us and we wouldn’t appreciate it much.


I want you to take a good look at your color collection

This isn't for inventory purposes. I don’t want you to count your colors like Scrooge McDuck.

Instead, I want you to take a good hard look at what you own and ask yourself “do I really understand how to use all this?”

Rather than running out to buy more green pencils because you want to color botanicals and you don’t yet own the magic combination…

Maybe consider the fact that it’s not the supplies you’re missing, it’s the product knowledge.

There’s a big difference between owning everything and understanding everything you own.

Which category are you in?


This isn't Paint by Number- Change your Copic Marker Blending Philosophy

This isn't paint by number! Change your Copic blending philosophy to increase your artistry. |

Back in the 1970’s, if you did crafts, you made them from a boxed kit. We didn’t have the internet for inspiration and instruction. We crafted by the box.

I loved one kind of box more than any other- the paint by number kit. I lived for the moment when all my weird globs of paint on the canvas finally coalesced into a prancing horse or a spray of roses.

The rule in paint by number was to stick to the numbering system. Bad things happened if you went outside the lines, put the wrong color in a spot, tried to blend two sections together, or if you ran out of paint and had to start substituting.

Up close, paint by number paintings are eye-scalding but from 20 feet away? You might be mistaken for Van Gogh… or so the box claimed.


Times have changed…

... but I still see a lot of similarity between the paint by number kits of the disco age and the coloring tutorials being published today.

"Here’s the list of markers I’ve used- don’t change anything. Here’s where I put those colors- don’t change anything."

Copic fans live by the numbering system and you folks get all squidgy in your seat when I start talking about deviating from the project sample.

It’s a tutorial mindset, something you’ve carried around since grade school.

"Here is how to solve the math problem. Here is how to structure a paragraph. Here is how to draw a tree.”

This isn't paint by number! Change your Copic blending philosophy to increase your artistry. |

That’s not how art is supposed to work

The do-what-I-do tutorial mindset gives you the impression that there’s one correct way to do something. 

Sure, you tell yourself “there’s not one right way to make art” but you don’t really, really, really believe that in your heart. 

If you did believe it, Pinterest would be a barren Copic wasteland. No marker recipes all over Google and how to color grass tutorials would be impossible to find.

Nope. You say “I can make art” in the same way you say “I can be president someday”. In the meantime, you scramble around trying to buy the same exact markers and pencils that your coloring hero uses.

And here's the catch, if there’s one supremely-ideal marker color to use, then it’s smart to study the original project super-duper close so that you can use R29 in all the same exact places I’ve used it.

That’s nuts.

When you do that, you’re painting by numbers. You might as well be coloring a crying Elvis on velvet because you’re not creating art. You are re-creating someone else’s art.


I talk a lot about developing voice and artistry

One way to do this is to banish the paint by numbers mindset.

This isn't paint by number! Change your Copic blending philosophy to increase your artistry. |

Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use project recipe guides. Supply lists are actually a great jumping off point for Copic projects. The artist successfully colored a mermaid or a smiling toaster in a way that you found appealing. Go ahead and use the recipe.

But don’t obsess about getting each color into it’s own designated area.

Trying to keep each area a single pure marker color is killing your artistry.

The biggest misunderstanding I see with students is that they think they can point to one area of a project and see one marker color there.

Now Keith Haring worked that way and so did Patrick Nagel but their work is purposefully flat. Artists who want dynamic depth and dimension layer their colors. You can’t just put your finger on one place and say “that’s pure sap green paint” or “that’s YG93”.

Van Gogh had some amazing yellows in his work not because he purchased good tubes of yellow paint but because he mixed, layered, and smushed his colors together to create original yellows.


I think most marker colorers get this concept

After all, you love to blend and that is mixing colors... sort’a.

The problem is that you think of a blend as a way to get from R29 to R22 smoothly.

An artist thinks about what color R29 and R22 might make when combined.

See the difference? You’re blending as a transition. I blend as a creation.

But I’m not tapping into any magical powers to do this. There’s an easy way to move from transition blending to creation blending:


Expand the size of your blend zone

This isn't paint by number! Change your Copic blending philosophy to increase your artistry. |

Yep, it’s that easy. Instead of trying to get from one marker color to another as quickly as possible, do it the leisurely laid-back lazy summer’s day way-

Double or triple the size of the area where your markers overlap.

Instead of jumping, meander.

In that no man’s land you’ll begin to develop amazing new colors.

Colors that are unique to you.

You can hand two people the same two markers and each of them will blend the colors in slightly different proportions. You’re not going to see the same two shades from every person. Heck, try it yourself sometime- you won’t blend the same color today that you will tomorrow.

The colors you create in expanded size blend zones become part of your artistic voice.


Here’s a little secret-

Your markers are begging for an expanded blend zone. 

Copic inks are ideal for the layering process. They’re transparent color and when you get enough layers onto the paper, they self-smooth all on their own. Your markers are waiting for the space to merge and swirl. They want create new and glorious colors; it’s what they were born to do. You’re holding them back with artificial paint by number boundaries.

When you color by numbers, using one marker per area, that’s like whistling a tune.

When you paint with your markers, layering and creating new colors over large areas, that’s like hiring the symphony to back you up. It’s the same song but a much richer experience.


Guess what else happens when you expand the blend zone?

Layering your markers decreases the need to own all 358 Copic markers. 

Because you aren't relying on a single marker to color each area, you don’t have to run out to Michaels for the Y35 needed to finish a project. 

Instead, you’ll be able to create the look of Y35 by layering a medium yellow over a light orange or by layering a light yellow over Y38. There are lots of ways to get there that don’t involve ordering Y35 from Amazon at 11pm on a weeknight.

And there’s another benefit to large blend zones-


Large blend zones make smooth blending easier

Have you ever tried going from 0 to 60mph in five seconds on a skateboard?

That’s a newbie trying to smooth blend in a short zone. Expanding the zone gives you more room to make the transition satiny and subtle. Quick transitions are hard, even for the pros!

So no. I can not point to a spot on my project and say “here’s nothing but R29”

In my projects, single color areas are pretty darned rare. 

I layer almost everything, so my answer is more like

“here’s the R29 with a bit of B32 underneath and there’s some R17 and maybe some R24 over the top and that’s all sitting below a light buffing of Poppy Red pencil… and… uhm, there might be some Tuscan Red there too, or maybe that’s Aqua, I can’t remember.”

I don’t paint by numbers anymore.

You don’t have to either.

"Gray Matter" is a challenge level, online Copic coloring lesson featuring this cherry stamp. Learn to underpaint for realism, volume, and depth with Amy Shulke of Vanilla Arts Company. |

Do you like the cherry image featured here?

Color your own cherries in my 2 hour online workshop.

"Gray Matter" uses the cherry image shown to teach an underpainting technique. Learn how to develop depth and realism by adding gray underneath your bright Copic marker colors.

Digital stamp, printable learning aids, and multiple videos help you move from beginner to intermediate level coloring.

More info here.