Let's Talk: Why You Should Skip the Three Marker Challenge

Why you should skip most marker challenges! | VanillaArts.com

Creative minds need to stay occupied

That whole "idle hands/devil's workshop" thing is pretty true when it comes to gifted people. Especially when creative adults congregate in small groups.

Back in art school, when we were young and convinced that we were the most talented geniuses to ever squat on this planet... well, we got bored pretty easily. Given that in one of our classes, we drew a single toaster for an entire semester (not kidding), you can understand why we started dumb challenges.

I'll bet you can't draw sixteen different dog breeds on this napkin in 4 minutes or less!

I'll bet you can't draw an accurate likeness of Jane using just this sticky fragment of vine charcoal that I found in the trash!

I'll bet you can't recreate Vitruvian Man using only spaghetti noodles!

Yep, that's what art nerds do when they run out of real stuff to do.

So I smiled when the whole Three Marker Challenge thing on YouTube started trending. It's been a long time since anyone dared me to MacGyver a masterpiece using two rubberbands and a wad of C-4. It's fun to watch other artists have fun.

Stand-on-your-head, color blindfolded, use-your-feet, and here's a scribble, make something out of it challenges are the way artists bond with each other. Look what I can do. Hey, try this. Wouldn't it be funny if Mark had to...

The only thing that has changed about the art-challenge culture is that now the youngin's are publishing the antics on YouTube. That stuff used to happen in dorm hall dining rooms, not out in public.

Let me state for the record: I don't mind people posting hi-jinks online. I think it's great that artists can show off their talents, develop a fan base, AND supplement their income while having fun with their peers.

But I've started noticing a downside to the well mannered frivolity

When you follow an artist over a period of time on YouTube, by watching their process in slow-motion detail, a lot of people begin to think "Hey, what they do is sooooooo easy! I can do it too!"

Which can indeed be true. Maybe you really can color/draw/paint just like your favorite internet star.

But for the vast majority of viewers...

....how do I say this gently?

You can't.

You haven't spent long semesters drawing toasters. You haven't spent years in life drawing sessions sketching really homely naked people. You haven't trained and sweated and drawn until 4 in the morning and then still got a D on the project because the perspective was off just a smidge. You haven't worked for a jack-ass clients and demanding art directors.

Please keep this in mind when you watch an artist make magic out of 3 highlighters on a piece of birch bark

You are watching a well trained and practiced person take their talents, skills, and vast knowledge base and make the most out of a crappy set of circumstances.

You're also watching an inside joke; one that you are not a part of. Just like weight lifters and surgeons, artists like to show off their skills by challenging established limitations. The lifter who presses the most weight, the surgeon who perfects the first head transplant, and the artist who figures out how to make Y99 plus RV02 look attractive- they all take victory laps in front of their peers.

I did it! Look at me! You didn't think it could be done but I showed you!

Beginning colorers should skip the crazy coloring challenges

Unless it's one of those color-every-day-for-a- month, week, or fortnight kind of challenges, please don't do it.

It is not for you.

I've seen two cases this month and I suspect this will be cropping up more and more.

Hey Facebook friends! I took the three marker challenge but I can't seem to get these markers to blend. Any tips?

Hello artists- I saw this online thing and tried it myself. What went wrong?

It takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill

Now I do not know about you, but I don't have a lot of free time to sit down and practice my Latin vocabulary or my blindfolded steeple chasing technique.

Time is precious. We have to ignore the dishes that need doing, put on kid-cancelling headphones, and hang a "YOU DISTURB, YOU DIE!!!" sign on the craft room door before we can log in any coloring practice time.

Productive Copic coloring time is a rare treat, so why would you waste it trying to color a seascape using E59, Y38, and YR000?

You learn what you practice

If the plan is to become famous for coloring with your feet, then by all means, take the challenge. Have at it.

But if you're still learning to color in the lines, to form basic blends, to color smoothly... you've got no business trying to do any of that stuff while standing on your head.

I know your coloring hero can do it, I've seen the video too. When you've practiced as much as she has, you'll be able to do it also.

But not right now.

You're not ready for it yet.

Would you ever strap rollerskates on toddler?

Nope. That's cruel. A baby deserves the chance to learn to walk on solid ground before you add wheels to the mix.

But it's okay for a nine year old to try roller skates. In fact, they might learn something from it. How to brace oneself for a fall, the importance of equilibrium. When you're a pro at walking, you can benefit from skating.

By the same token, Michael Phelps might gain something from swimming laps dragging a grand piano along side. That's because he has the muscle and the training and the know how to make the best of this seemingly impossible challenge.

When you watch someone really good try to color with three crazy markers, you can watch them go through the Michael Phelps piano process. At first, they struggle with the materials, then they get to know the colors and how they interact. Then they start thinking about what techniques they know to adjust the value, saturation, and interaction between the three inks. And sometimes their training or talent totally takes over and they conquer the marker combination. It's fun to watch that magic happen.

But that doesn't mean you can do the same thing with only a few months of marker experience.

As I said, there's something weird about the YouTube art experience...

You watch someone color twice and suddenly you feel like best friends. And best friends can do everything together, right?

And yet I doubt you will watch this video and suddenly start doing back flips off the side of parking structures.

And I'll bet you were able to watch a few episodes of The Apprentice without deciding to run for president.

Save the crazy coloring challenges for when you're fully grown

It's okay to be a coloring toddler. There's no shame in having beginner level skills.

In fact, I greatly admire the accountants, human resource managers, and engineers who take a look at Copic markers and say "I want to learn to do that".

Cradle yourself during this time of early learning. Don't be so quick to take on more than you can manage.

Don't strap a grand piano on your back when you barely know how to swim. Instead of impressing Michael Phelps, he'll be dragging you out of the pool with an ambulance crew watching.

Project Portfolios are not only for Professionals


My students often bring old projects to class

Because of the way my classes run, very few students actually finish a full image in class. Class time is essentially for learning a technique and for troubleshooting problems. The real work happens at home, so I'm always thrilled to see finished pieces.

I also love seeing what students have learned in other classes. It's great to hear about what other teachers are teaching, that helps to keep me on my toes!

But here's what I've noticed:

It's very rare for a student to show me a portfolio.

Nope. Most students bring one of two things:

Do you shove your projects into a sketchbook? Boy, do we need to talk! | VanillaArts.com
Do you store projects in file folders? Boy, do we need to talk! | VanillaArts.com

Either they drag out a sketchbook with loose drawings shoved in-between pages of other drawings.

Or they bring the File Folder of Death.

Can we please talk about this?


I'm about to make a suggestion...

And I know about 50% of you are going to object.

Or at least feel a little squidgy about the concept.

You need to start compiling a portfolio.


Yes, you.

Okay, let's hear the objections:

You're not an artist you're just someone who likes to color and this stuff is just class exercises and it's only mediocre work at best because someday you're doing to do these projects again and it'll all be perfect then and you'll think about putting THOSE perfect projects into a portfolio but why in the world would I tell you this stuff is worth putting into a portfolio???

I know. Portfolios are something artists do.

Real artists. The kind who wear berets and striped shirts and have officially been licensed as artists by the Worldwide Bureau of Artists Who Do Real Art (that's the WWBAWDRA for short). 



Portfolios are not an artist thing. They're an everyone thing.

But here's the twist-

I'm not telling you to start a portfolio to protect your artwork.

That's a given. It's common sense; proper storage of your pile o' projects helps keep them from getting torn or dog-eared.

And yes, it's especially important to protect Copic, colored pencil, or watercolor projects from sunlight. Sunlight does do nasty things to projects sitting out in the open. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

That is not the reason why I want you to start binding your projects together in portfolio format.

Here's my ulterior motive: 


You will learn more from your own history than from any other source

And that includes teachers like me.

Do you have a pile of projects just sitting there? Boy, do we need to talk! | VanillaArts.com

I can only teach you a technique.

You have to discover how to use that technique to your best advantage.

It's a self discovery process.

You need the ability to look back at projects you did last month, last year, two years ago, and even the stuff from wayyyyy back when you thought Donny Osmond was hot stuff.

Your cache of work is a record of what worked and what went horribly wrong. It's a valuable learning tool.

Flipping through the pages of a portfolio is the ideal way to make observations and comparisons. You forget most of what you learn in class, I'll bet 90% of what I tell students is completely wiped from their brain within 48 hours.

But you knew it long enough to use it in the project. Seeing that project helps you remember. Seeing a good project next to one that failed helps you diagnose and prevent carrying that bad technique on into future projects.

Portfolios aren't just a collection of past projects, they're the key to success on future projects.


So what kind of portfolio system should you look for?

Easy is the best.

You want your portfolio to be as simple as possible, something that takes only seconds to house your projects.

We're trying to eliminate the tendency that humans have to stack stuff. The last thing that we want is for you to stop shoving your projects into a sketchbook and start shoving them into a "to be filed someday" pile.

Portfolio sleeved-books are an easy solution to storing your past coloring projects | VanillaArts.com

Back when I freelanced, I used to mat all my good stuff and slide it into an acetate sleeve, then the whole thing was bound into a screw-post style hard-bound booklet. I also had a digital portfolio where everything was professionally photographed and then stored on a website. And yeah, both of those portfolios styles are pretty much a beret-wearing-mustachioed artiste kind of thing. 

But this is what I do with my class projects now and this is what I'm suggesting.

Plastic cover presentation books with clear PVC sleeves inside.

There are two styles, one with the sleeves permanently bound, the other is more of a ring binder system (usually 5+ rings). The ring style make it easier to re-order your projects but the perma-bound style is more compact and easier to store.

Pretty much all portfolio binders come with black sheets of paper in each sleeve, so it takes only a millisecond to pop your project into an empty slot.

Mount your projects to cardstock before placing them into a portfolio binder | VanillaArts.com

If you're feeling fancy (and I do recommend getting fancy) you can center mount your project on a piece of cardstock before sliding it home. Projects mounted to the correct size cardstock are less likely to fall out later.

I use double sided tape but if you want something less permanent, consider using adhesive photo corners to hold your project down.

Crop your art in a manner that best shows it off. I prefer keeping things square with a guillotine trimmer but occasionally it's nice to fussy cut an image (especially if the finished project is close to the binder page size).

For smaller projects, you can mount two projects to a page.

The point is to keep it all clean and crisp looking. Don't mount projects on colored or patterned paper, you want the art to shine, not the background! Stick with gray or black for best results, and keep the entire book uniform, this isn't the time to show off your extensive collection of cardstock.


What about the exceptions?

Maybe some of you work large (or teeny-tiny). Good news, portfolio/presentation books come in many different sizes.

And for all you card makers, those who generously give away their best projects? I definitely recommend photographing or scanning your art before you work it permanently into the card and send it off to Timbuktu or Kalamazoo. 

The same holds true for those who make 3D items or work on alternative surfaces like canvas or wood. Your camera, even a phone camera can be a life saver.

and psssttt... if you're photographing your own handi-work, please resist the urge to do the card-making blogger thing. Don't photograph the whole entire card from a pleasing angle in front of a nifty backdrop with four props alongside. That looks great on blogs but we're looking to record the art itself, not memorialize your still-life-shooting skills. Take that photo dead-on with no angle, in good light and with crisp detail.


Begin your portfolio today and keep using it

You'll thank me later.

It's a valuable learning resource and it looks great on your coffee table!


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 | VanillaArts.com

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...


Art Supplies: Worthless if you never take them off the shelf


"Remember that you must die"

My daughter and I were digging through a box of art supplies the other day. She offered to throw away a bag of old tubes of paint she found.

Notice that I said "old tubes of paint" not "empty paint tubes".

That's because I own 15 tubes of worthless oil paint- completely full but totally dried out.


What's the story?

I purchased them back in art school. They cost me dearly.

Art school isn't cheap and scholarships were rare, especially for a private art college.

I worked two jobs. I lived way-way-way off campus. I drove a car that left engine parts in my wake, almost as if I'd need the broken bits of rusty muffler to find my way back home each night.

I probably ate a lot of Ramen noodles to purchase those paints.

the paints are dead but the lesson isn't- use your treasures before they die | VanillaArts.com

It was a big investment for me. I didn't buy a kit. Instead, I methodically chose smart, versatile colors. I didn't buy the small sizes because I had big plans. Nine foot long canvases kind of plans.

I kept my new paints in an open cigar box on my desk. Sometimes I unscrewed a lid, just to smell the linseed.

But people with a day job, a night job, and 16 credit hours do not have time to paint for fun. With each semester and every change of major, the paints moved further from my sight. First, they slid into the drawer, then into a supply tub, then into the closet.

But I knew they were there.

And I didn't want to touch them until I had the time to use them with passion.

The years passed, a husband, three kids, two houses, three careers...

By the time I could use the tubes with passion they were hard and crumbly. Oil leaked out and now the entire set is coated with the sticky sheen of pure regret.

But I won't throw them away.

Because they remind me that tomorrow never really comes.


We live in one big long today.

Unless we face a serious tragedy, there is no magical moment when life makes a 180 degree pivot. Most of us never have a grand demarcation point. The closest we often get to an instantaneous life alteration is watching it happen to others in books or movies.

And yet we all expect the John Williams anthem to build and for a fairy godmother to show up and sing "Now is your moment, now you are changed!"

But honestly, most of us just trudge along, day after day. Real change is a slow morph over spans of time. Our changes are so subtle and slow as to be hardly noticeable.

Tomorrow never really arrives because today always feels a little too much like yesterday.


But Real time is finite.

And art supplies do not last forever. 

Colors fade, solvents evaporate. It's lost money if you don't use paint or ink while it's fresh.

You can't treat paints and glazes and pastels as if they are too pretty to waste.

Even if it's something non-perishable, maybe a beautiful rice paper or a fabric that makes your soul sing... If you horde it in a box, waiting for the perfect project, there's a pretty good chance that by the time you get around to actually using it, your taste will have completely changed.


And here's the real tragedy: I may never paint with oils again.

I have no interest in oils anymore. There are other things to love now.

I am no longer the girl who wanted to paint gigantic slices of fruit on canvases too large for your living room. I have slowly morphed into a grown woman with a more mature approach to art.

And because I didn't use my paints while I was still that oil obsessed girl, the only record I have of her are color studies and class assignments.

I have cracked tubes of paint, not beautiful art.


Think about your own beautiful supplies. What are you saving for someday?

Stop waiting for the perfect project, the perfect idea, the perfect touch of inspiration.

There is no perfect... or at least there won't be a perfect anything until you sit down and start making something.

Time flies. "best if used by..." dates expire. Tastes change. We move on to other passions.

The pleasure doesn't come from setting up a shrine of colorful supplies. It comes from using wonderful tools to make beautiful art.


Use your treasures while you can

Memento Mori- remember that you must die.