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.


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.