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 |

"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 |

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.

Troubleshooting: 6 Tips to Solve Copic Marker Blending Problems


Listen to your marker strokes. The strokes do not lie.

One of the many benefits of attending live classes is that a good teacher can spot your technical problems as they occur and help you adjust your technique.

But how do you do this for yourself when coloring at home?

As a teacher and experienced colorer, I can usually look at your project and tell you why your markers are not blending well. I don't actually have to see your process, I can read it on your paper. That ability has nothing to do with my world-renowned psychic talents. I'm not an Indian guide in my free time and I can't put my ear to the ground and tell you how many horsebacked banditos are following us through the canyon...

But that doesn't mean that I can't read the obvious signs.

You can read the signs too.

Marker strokes do not lie. They're like footprints that either lead to success or odd little boo-boo areas.

Everyone has a few projects sitting at home that they're not very proud of. You don't hang these on the fridge because you know something isn't quite right. What you might not realize is that these goofs are valuable; you can learn from your previous mistakes. Failed projects can tell you exactly what you did wrong, if you're willing to listen.

So let's take a look at the 6 most common blending mistakes I see in classroom settings. Then I want you to pull out your most recent project o' shame and see if you're guilty. Spotting the tendency is half the battle to solving the problem. Once you're aware of your bad habits, you can remind yourself to avoid the same mistakes during your next coloring session.


1. Bleeding Strokemarks

6 Tips to Solve your Copic Marker Blending Problems |

Do you have hairy looking marker strokes?

If you're happily coloring along and that mean old ink is bleeding uncontrollably, with every mark you make, STOP IMMEDIATELY.

Please check your paper. Is it good quality blending card or marker specific paper?


I've met a few students who can't quite understand why they color so awesomely in class but never get it right at home.

And while I'd love to take the credit for creating a magical classroom atmosphere where unicorns dance and students tap into the universal well of artistic talent... 

Nope, there are no leprechauns under my classroom tables. The magic comes from using the right paper. I give all my students great quality blending paper, especially designed for marker use.

Marker paper is hot pressed for maximum smoothness and then coated with pixie dust (or more likely, a polymer coating) that both slows down the marker dry time and encourages blending.

So if you're coloring at your kitchen table on a sheet of Office Barn's Bargain Bin copy paper...

Do I really need to explain this one further?

If you want to blend well at home, buy the right paper.


2. Inadequate Moisture

6 Tips to Solve your Copic Marker Blending Problems |

When you bake a batch of box-mix brownies, what happens if you decide to cut back on the wet ingredients? Let's say you put in half the water and fewer eggs.

How awesome will those brownies turn out?

Tender and chewy brownies require the correct amount of moisture in the batter. Half dry brownie batter full of powdery lumps will never bake properly.

We all know this and yet we take squeaky, pale tipped Copic Markers and try to squeeze one last project out before we refill it.

I know, I'm right there with you. I don't own a bottle of refill ink for every one of my markers and there's no way to get some refilled when I'm coloring at 9:30pm in my pajamas.

Beautiful blending requires moisture. The solvent that is present in the inks is what allows the two colors of dye to swirl and merge into a third color. If you're missing out on the juice, you're simply not going to get a proper blend because you're lacking the lubrication that allows two different inks to get together and get happy with each other.

Your marker doesn't need to be at the squeaky stage to be running low. Run the edge of your fingernail up the side of the brush tip to check how juicy it is. You should see the ink shine as you press into the brushtip with your fingernail. Your fingernail should come away with quite a bit of color on it too. And lastly, that brushtip should feel smooth and slick to your nail, any trace of gumminess means it needs more juice.


3. Hesitation Blobs

6 Tips to Solve your Copic Marker Blending Problems |

When I was five, I was the flower-girl in my aunt's wedding. I got to toss confetti from a basket that was about twice as full as it needed to be. I was told to toss one handful to the left and one to the right, until I got to the stage.

What they didn't count on was a traffic jam.

I tossed like a pro. Left, right, left, right. And when the line stopped mid-way down the aisle, I kept tossing. Left, right, left, right, as confetti piled up around my feet. I ran out long before the bridesmaids all made it up on stage. Never ask 6 ladies to quickly climb stairs in long, tight column gowns.

That's how markers work too. You don't have to go anywhere for them to release ink. With colored pencil, you have to physically drag and press to make a mark. No movement, no mark.

Not markers. They gush as soon as you touch down and keep gushing until you lift up.

That feature works against people with hesitant strokes.

See the ink pools on either end of this orange stroke? That's a 1 second stop in my movement. One second is enough to put little blobs on the beginning or end of any stroke you make.

Smooth blending is the result of an even layer of color and an even dry time. Concentrations or pools are difficult to blend because they require more attention and then stay wet longer than surrounding areas.

Hesitation blobs are especially problematic when you leave one in the middle of a face or in an area of what should be smooth sky or background.

A smooth stroke will touch down, move, and lift in one smooth stroke. It's evenly timed and balanced, without leaving a beginning or end blob.


4. Walls

6 Tips to Solve your Copic Marker Blending Problems |

Walls occur when you forget to flick or feather.

It happens when you start coloring too fast and your flicks turn into a zig-zag back and forth stroke that never quite lifts up off the paper.

I've used YG67 here in a zig zag application. See the blunt tips on the left ends of each stroke? There's no lift off or triangle tapering-off, the pigment just stops dead and reverses direction.

That makes it harder for the YG63 to come along and blend with it.

Think about it- if you're building a road, you don't want to leave a big pile of unusued asphalt at the end of the road when your shift ends. By the time you get to work tomorrow, that pile will be hardened and you'll have to grind it down before you can continue the road out smoothly.

So why would you leave a big pile of pigment at the end of your strokes? You're going to have to melt down that wall before any blending can begin. Often times, you'll have to really scrub at a wall. If you taper your strokes instead of zig-zagging, you will have a much easier time blending.


5. Tip-Flicking

6 Tips to Solve your Copic Marker Blending Problems |

My most timid students tip-flick.

Maybe it's because they're intimidated by the color, perhaps they're conserving ink, or maybe they figure that small marks are easier to correct than big marks.

It doesn't really matter why you tip-flick, you make your life harder when you don't give yourself adequate space to blend.

Here's tip flicking at it's worst.

In order to feather, we need a nice build up of each color plus an area where the two colors can meld and blend and genrerally overlap each other.

So that's three zones you need:

  1. Color A all by itself

  2. Color A & Color B getting happy with each other

  3. Color B all by itself

Tip flickers cheat the first zone and leave no ink for the blend zone. You simply can't blend if you don't have enough color there to blend with. There's lots of BG05 here but who is she supposed to dance with? The BG09 strokes need to be longer and closer together in order to survive the blending process, otherwise it's going to look like all 05 by the time you get it all smooth.


6. Oil Slicks

6 Tips to Solve your Copic Marker Blending Problems |

Oil slicks happen when your paper becomes saturated beyond its holding capacity. Basically, you've dumped a gallon of ink on a one teaspoon area.

When your paper can't absorb more ink, the remaining ink begins to congeal in a jelly layer on top of the paper. It looks dark and can sometimes be sticky. With Copic inks, it will have a slight metallic sheen, just like rainbow oil spills on the street after a rainstorm.

Oil slicks usually happen for one of two reasons:

  1. You made a mistake and over-corrected with a lot of colorless blender plus a second (and third layer) of the original marker colors.

  2. You tip flicked or built a wall, then overused your lightest marker in an effort to coax out a decent blend.

What you can't see in this scan of my oil slick is the sticky area in the center. I had to use a bit of alcohol on a tissue to clean off the glass of my scanner because this picture left an ink smudge.

I have a few students that if I don't keep their hands busy, they'll go back to previously colored areas and add more. They add more to everything. They'll re-blend perfectly good areas, they'll re-smooth the smooth sections. I'm not sure why but some students have trouble just letting things be.

6 Tips to Solve your Copic Marker Blending Problems |

If you know that you have a heavy hand with your inks or that you're a frequent re-blender, you need to monitor the back of your paper- CONSTANTLY. If the backside starts looking identical to the front, you're on teetering on the ledge between a-okay and Exxon Valdez.

Once the paper gets this colorful on the backside, no good can come from adding anything more.

Oil slicks will not dry, they will not lighten. In fact, I've long suspected that oil slicks actually get darker as they get rubbery- exactly like the ketchup that congeals inside the bottle cap.


Well, there are the top six major blending errors.

I'm guilty of all of them at one time or another, especially dry-markering.

Oh boy, do I love to dry marker stuff. Nine times out of ten when the thought runs through my brain "Huh, guess you can't color very well today, Amy" it's a sure sign that I need to stop and refill the darned marker.

Instead of berating yourself for having a bad coloring day, next time take a look at your marker strokes. What are you doing to create the problem. Diagnose the problem and you can turn a gray day into B14!

What's your private pitfall? Tell us about it and let's commiserate together!

7 Secrets to Make Perfect Dots with Copic Markers, Pencils, or Paint

7 Secrets to Make Perfect Dots with Copic Markers, Pencils, or Paint

Making beautiful dots is easier than you think. You can make them with Copic Markers, with colored pencils, with a paintbrush, or even with your finger. I use pointillism dots and stippling a lot in my coloring lessons…