Improve your Copic Marker coloring- Color for Yourself

It's okay to be selfish in art. If you only color cards and presents to give away, you're killing yourself slowly. Why you need to start coloring for yourself. | Copic Markers, colored pencils, watercolor

There is no golden egg

No tip, no trick, no coloring hack that will instantly transform you into the Mystic Queen of Markers.

But there are tiny things which you can do today to improve the quality of your coloring projects. They’re not fairy tale enchantments but they really do help.

Today’s tiny thing:


Stop coloring for everyone else

Your niece Polly loves unicorns. Her favorite color is lime green. And when she grows up, she wants to be a dentist.

So now you’re stuck coloring a green unicorn holding a toothbrush for her birthday next week.

And I’ll bet you’re less than inspired.

It's okay to be selfish in art. If you only color cards and presents to give away, you're killing yourself slowly. Why you need to start coloring for yourself. | Copic Markers, colored pencils, watercolor

That’s because you let the people and events in your life determine what you color, which colors you use, and how often you color.

If the only thing you're crankin’ out is hand-colored cards for other people, you are killing yourself slowly.

What I’m about to say is going to sound selfish.


I want it to sound terribly and horribly selfish.

Cardmakers and scrapbookers are some of the most generous people I’ve ever met. You folks think nothing of investing 2 hours on a single card or layout page and you give them away as if they were dandelion fluff.

Your projects are not nothing. You invest time, effort, supplies, and you even shed some tears in the process.


So how about coloring for yourself sometime? 

You’ve earned the right to be a little selfish.

Here’s the Mother Theresa catch: If you only color for other people, you’ll never color the things that truly inspire you.

Inspiration is rocket fuel for artists.

You can’t grow if you’re handcuffed to projects that don’t make your heart beat faster.

When you’ve got your soul invested in the project, that’s when you make significant leaps in technique, skill, and artistry. You stay at the table longer, you filter out distractions better. And because of that focus, your hand and brain start making connections which lead to learning.

That hand-brain conversation doesn’t happen when you color green unicorns with toothbrushes.


Don’t kid yourself

I teach in a papercrafting shop. I’ve watched you folks shop for stamps…

“This stamp will be good for Holly’s anniversary card” and “this stamp looks just like my little Jamie.”  Even when you find a stamp you really like,  you still rationalize it. “I’ll be able to use this for a wedding shower, Norma's birthday, and maybe even a Christmas card!”

I have worked on commission. I’ve made art to fulfill stringent class requirements. But the things I’m most proud of making, the projects where I’ve learned the most, the art that speaks with my true voice… that magic stuff didn’t happen on demand or by client request. 

It's okay to be selfish in art. If you only color cards and presents to give away, you're killing yourself slowly. Why you need to start coloring for yourself. | Copic Markers, colored pencils, watercolor

Art happens when you listen 

You absolutely must listen to your inner muse and let her guide your hands.

If the muse is telling you to add pink and you can’t because you’re coloring a stamp for your grandson’s bar mitzvah… well, you shush the muse at your own risk. She’s fickle. If you rebuff the muse, she may not visit again for a while.

Here’s the other problem with giving all your work away.

You don’t have it anymore.

I know that sounds kind'a silly, but there’s a reason why artists keep a lot of their own work and why every artist has pieces they will never sell.


Favorite artwork is a baseline

We look at our best work and plan how to improve upon it. 

That improvement process takes time- more time than you might expect. You may love a project but not understand why you love it. It might take several months or several years to figure it out. All you know is that somehow, you captured a little magic. You have to hold on to the project until you understand the secret.

You can’t do that if Aunt Doris throws your card into the recycle bin after everyone leaves the party.



May I suggest a change to your coloring routine?

I’m not going to tell you to go cold turkey and stop coloring all birthday cards.

But I am going to suggest that you start paying attention to the ratio of coloring you do.

How many projects are heart-projects and how many of your projects are duty-bound?

Make sure that the ratio leans very heavily towards heartwork.

It's okay to be selfish in art. If you only color cards and presents to give away, you're killing yourself slowly. Why you need to start coloring for yourself. | Copic Markers, colored pencils, watercolor

Art requires heart

It’s okay to color mostly for yourself.

Psssttt… there’s an added bonus:

when you color for yourself, you will gradually build up a really nice collection of awesome projects.

Many of these projects can be scanned or color copied to make beautiful cards and scrapbooking elements.

You’ll be amazed at how universal some of your heartwork images are. The robin’s nest in this article could work for a baby shower card, a sympathy card, a get-well card, a birthday card… unlike that green unicorn with the toothbrush.

Your heartwork on a card, even if it’s a just color copy and not the original, is a often a better gift than the package you attach it to.

Stop coloring for everyone else

Or at least color for yourself a little more often than you have been doing.

Color where your heart leads you...

It’s one tiny thing you can do today to improve your coloring.


Art versus Exercise: Add artistry to your Copic Marker or colored pencil projects

"You're such a talented artist!" or are you just a good colorer? How to move from coloring to creating art with your Copic markers or colored pencils. |

I’m amazed by what my students can do

And while I’d love to hog all the credit and boast that I’m an amazing teacher who can turn complete schlubs into Rembrandts… that’s not true.

The fact is that there are some really talented people out there who work 9 to 5 jobs as dentists, accountants, and bus drivers. If you’re reading this, you’re likely one of them.  You are not an artist but you have hidden artistic skills. Coloring just happens to be a hobby which digs up your long buried, untapped gifts and shines a spotlight on them.

So it’s not me, it’s you. 

Yes, Dorothy. You had it all along.

A lot of people who take coloring classes could have gone into art. A lot of good colorers should have gone into art.

But there’s a divide that we don’t often talk about:


When does your awesome coloring turn into art?

"You're such a talented artist!" or are you just a good colorer? How to move from coloring to creating art with your Copic markers or colored pencils. |

And if you’re really good at coloring, how do you push yourself beyond mere coloring and start creating art?

For starters, let’s clarify the difference. Because art is one of those wishy-washy terms that gets applied to everything nowadays. Tom Cruise’s latest box-office bomb, fancy cupcakes, and the masterpieces in the Louvre all get called art. In order to make people feel important, we’ve trashed the meaning of “artist” so that it no longer stands for anything concrete. If everyone is an artist, then no one is an artist.

So let’s acknowledge that there’s a difference between making cool stuff and making art.

There’s also a big difference between coloring a class project and creating art.


Is it art or is it an exercise?

You wouldn't call the third jazzercise lady from the left a dancer, would you?


Sure, she’s dancing… kind’a. But there’s a difference between dancing and being a dancer. You can go through some of the same motions that a dancer would do but that doesn’t make you Lord of the Dance.

Art is the same way. You can go through all the artist motions but that doesn’t mean you get to tack your project to the wall at the Guggenheim.

"You're such a talented artist!" or are you just a good colorer? How to move from coloring to creating art with your Copic markers or colored pencils. |

This is important to keep in mind when you post your class projects to Facebook or Instagram and all your friends and relatives comment “Oh, you’re such a wonderful artist!” Your online buddies likely don't understand that what you’ve posted is the equivalent of taking a selfie in Zumba class.

Basically, don’t let the “You’re so talented!” go to your head. If you are following along with a teacher and copying everything they do, then you’re going through the motions of making art without actually making art.

For some of you, maybe that’s all you want to do. You just want to color and have fun doing it. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with recreational coloring.

But a lot of you want to take the next step and move beyond art exercises. And you’re feeling paralyzed because coloring classes aren’t set up to teach you anything beyond the exercises.

So Iet’s talk about the first step:


How do you begin to create art?

It’s head-smack simple, hardly the subject for an expansive blog post but I’ll bet you don't hear about it in a lot of classes.

The first step to creating art is to stop following the teacher.

In art, there’s something we call a “voice”. The way to begin moving from coloring exercises to artistic expression is to begin adding little bits of your voice to your coloring.

If you’re coloring something exactly the same way someone else did- whether a teacher, a project off the internet, or even the colored sample on the stamp package… Any time you try to match someone else, you are not making art, you are copying. You are not expressing yourself, you are mimicking someone else’s voice. 

Even though you physically colored it, there’s no you in a copied project.

"You're such a talented artist!" or are you just a good colorer? How to move from coloring to creating art with your Copic markers or colored pencils. |

The first step to artistry is to add a bit of yourself to everything you color.

Now I’m not telling you to chop off your left ear and add it to the card for Aunt Polly’s 90th birthday next week. 

I’m asking you to add one small unique touch to your next project. 

  • use a different marker palette

  • add a pattern or texture that isn’t on the original stamp

  • add something new or mask off part of the stamp

  • change the object (make a grizzly bear into a panda)

  • combine several stamps into a new composition

When you deviate from the sample project, you are injecting unique personality into the image. That’s adding voice. You’re using something old to create something new by adding a little bit of yourself.

You don’t have to redesign the whole thing. Baby steps are all that’s needed.

Don’t pressure yourself into turning a Easter Rabbit stamp into a Volkswagen Beetle. Just change one small thing every time you color a stamp.


Baby steps will snowball

Once you’re confident about using your own color palettes, you’ll want to change something more. And that more will lead to the confidence to add even more mores.

It’s a gradual process. As you break free from the confines of sample projects, you will naturally add more of your own voice to your coloring. Over time, you'll develop a look or a style that’s 100% you and instantly recognizable. Adding you to your images begins the process of artistic self-expression.

"You're such a talented artist!" or are you just a good colorer? How to move from coloring to creating art with your Copic markers or colored pencils. |

They don’t let you perform your own routine in Zumba class but it’s totally okay to do it in coloring.

End the copy-catting is the first step to becoming an artist. It’s not the only step but it’s the first and possibly the hardest step. 

Letting go of the guardrail can be difficult but it’s worth it.

It doesn’t matter how well you color a project. You can be the most amazing student on the face of the planet,  but if your project looks just like the class sample, you haven’t done anything more than go through the motions. 

Artists invent their own motions.

Stop being the third girl from the left. Add a small bit of your voice to your next coloring project.

That’s the first baby step to become an artist.


The Secret to Amazing Coloring

The secret to amazing coloring isn't what you think it is. Improve your Copic or colored pencil coloring with this one secret. |

Are you a fixer?

Readers of my weekly Vanilla Beans newsletters (subscribe here) have heard me mention the fixing process in the last two issues.

Yes, I’m a fixer.

But so is every other professional artist I know.

The secret to amazing coloring isn't what you think it is. Improve your Copic or colored pencil coloring with this one secret. |

Fixing flaws, making adjustments, and making corrections is part of the artistic process. Nobody throws paint at a canvas and calls it perfect.

Artists labor over their artwork. Sometimes the adjustments are major, like adding a tree to balance the composition or painting over something that detracts from the focal point.

But the vast majority of fixes are so minor that you’d hardly even notice them.

I’m constantly fiddling with the temperature of things. I’ll add warm colors over the top of an object when it feels too cool (because cool colors tend to recede and feel far away). And I’ll cool something off when it feels too bright and boisterous.

I play with depth too. I push things deeper by adding more dark, desaturated colors or I’ll pull them forward by lightening and brightening certain areas. I almost never get depth right the first time, it’s a process rather than a single step.

I also reshape things a lot, especially with botanicals. I’ll round off the edges of things or loosen up the outline if that’s what’s needed. I’m rarely happy with the original way that I draw anything; shapes always morph as I work my way through the project.

Wise people know that everything in life requires some form of adjustment. 


Are you a color-it-once kind of person?

I hope not.

It’s the equivalent of a race car driver who refuses to pit for fuel or a singer who knows the microphone isn’t working but continues to sing softly anyway.

Who does that?

Colorers. That’s who.

The secret to amazing coloring isn't what you think it is. Improve your Copic or colored pencil coloring with this one secret. |

There’s this weird mindset within the coloring community that coloring is a one-and-done process. Once you color an area, you’re done with it forever.


So wrong it makes my left eye twitch…

Trying to get everything right on the first pass? Wow, that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself.

But I can’t blame you. Tutorials never seem to mention the “go back and fix that thing you just did wrong” part.

And coloring bloggers and video makers try to present themselves as amazingly awesome coloring super-stars, so the parts where they screw things up often gets edited out.

I guess I can’t fault folks for thinking that they’re not very good at coloring when almost every Copic colorer you’ve ever seen pretends that they do things right every time and every step of the way.


The truth is...

...the good stuff really only begins to take shape when you go back and perfect things. 

In the beginning stages, you color on white paper. Your colors will change as you build up more and more intense color throughout the project. There’s no way to predict how strong something needs to be at the beginning of a project. You absolutely have to go back and make value adjustments later- it’s part of the coloring process

Shapes change as you color the spaces around them. I usually do floral leaves before I color the petals. I almost always have to go back and reshape the leaves, especially when they overlap a blossom. Refining shapes is part of the coloring process.

Sometimes a shape isn’t what we thought it was. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve colored something as background, only to find out later that it was actually a flower petal or a lock of hair. You can’t skip that kind of correction. Correction is part of the coloring process.

And lastly, sometimes I look back and realize that some of my blends look choppy. As you work your way through any project, your blending gets better and smoother as you get into the groove. So it’s natural that you may need to go back and smooth the first few things you colored.

Are you sensing a pattern here? Smoothing your blends is also a part of the coloring process.

And yet in the coloring community, no one wants to admit this stuff.

But artists? Hoo boy, we mess up all the time and most of us will gladly talk at length about all the corrections we make. We kind'a take pride in rescuing projects that were heading southward... "man, I fixed the heck out of that area over there!"

The difference between a mediocre artist and a great artist is that great artists fix and adjust the mediocre stuff until it looks great.

The secret to amazing coloring isn't what you think it is. Improve your Copic or colored pencil coloring with this one secret. |

Fixes are essential to making great projects

I’m a better colorer for making these changes.

I’m an honest colorer for admitting that I do this. It serves no purpose to pretend that I got it right from the start. Hey world, I almost never get it right from the start!

So the next time you’re knee-deep into some online tutorial or internet video, don’t beat yourself up for not coloring it all perfectly.

There are steps missing from that tutorial. They are not showing you everything.

Correcting and adjusting… we all do it.

You should do it too.

It’s okay to go back and fix things. In fact, it’s vital that you go back and fix things.


What’s the secret to amazing coloring? 

It’s as simple as going back and making adjustments.


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

Why you should skip most marker challenges! |

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... 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.