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

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

We are extremely fortunate

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

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

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

But is this abundance a good thing?

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

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

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

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

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

Viva la freedom!

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Abundance hampers growth.

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


For a long time, I had 24 Prismacolor pencils

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

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

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

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

Necessity is the mother of artistry?

That’s not too far off. 

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

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

That doesn’t happen when you own 358 colors.

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

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

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


Owning everything gets you nothing

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

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

Why am I telling you all of this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

You do not need tons of supplies to color well

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Which category are you in?


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

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

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. | VanillaArts.com

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. | VanillaArts.com

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. | VanillaArts.com

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. | MarkerPainting.com

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.


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. | VanillaArts.com

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. | VanillaArts.com

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. | VanillaArts.com

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. | VanillaArts.com

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. | VanillaArts.com

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.


Gee, There are a lot of Copic Marker coloring classes right now...


You're doing it right…

You did not jump into Copic Markers blindly.

Not all coloring classes are equally good. Tips for finding great Copic Marker instruction. | VanillaArts.com

You read the blogs. You researched colors, paper, and storage. And you did all that before you made the big purchase.

Now you're reading every tip and tutorial you can get your hands on. You're watching videos and printing step-by-step guides-- you are eager to learn!

And yet everything you color still looks a little... well... childish?

So you upped your game. You took classes at a local shop or you purchased an online course from your favorite blogger.

And sure, you made some nice projects, met great people, and had a little fun with colorless blender. But when you're sitting by yourself at the kitchen table, just you and that notebook full of blending recipes and printed tutorials... you still feel lost.

You don't know where to put the shadows, where to put the highlights, or even which colors to use.


Feeling doomed to a lifetime of copy-cat coloring?

You are not alone. Most Copic colorers only color well when they're sitting in a classroom or watching a demonstration video.

But once you’re on your own? Meh.

The problem is not you, it's the coloring education system (or the lack thereof).

Anyone can call themselves an instructor. I see it a lot; someone posts a decent looking project on Instagram or Facebook and at least one person will comment, "Hey, you should teach!!!!"

And so some of them take that literally.

Now before I get anyone’s feathers all a’fluffle, I’m not pointing the finger. I’m not trying to insult anyone.

But there is a growing problem right now in markerworld.

There are a lot of people giving classes, a lot of people setting themselves up as education resources…

Sigh. I’m having trouble saying what I want to say.

Let’s try it this way…

There is a GIGANTIC difference between being a good colorer and knowing how to teach.

The glut of self proclaimed Copic experts has real life consequences for folks shelling out hard earned cash. People are spending a lot of money, not just on classes but on the required supplies for each class. 

And a lot of students are paying for classes that really only lead to needing more classes.

Many coloring classes are basically show-and-tell sessions. They're not teaching, they're demonstrating.

Students can only get so far watching demonstrations.

Eventually you hit a brick wall, when you've seen it all and yet you understand nothing.

So if you’re someone who just likes to color and spend time with other people who like to color… well that’s one thing. If that’s you, no problem. Stop reading right now because you’re in a class for the atmosphere and you already know if you’re in the right class.


But some of you want more

You want to learn and grow. The rest of this article is for those of you who are frustrated over classes you’ve taken before. You don’t want to get burned again.

Not all coloring classes are equally good. Tips for finding great Copic Marker instruction. | VanillaArts.com

Read onward if you’re one of those hopeful colorers who wants more than what they’re currently getting.

Because you want to learn and grow, you need more than social coloring sessions. You need a teacher who knows how to teach.

So how do you find a good instructional class?

What should you look for in a good teacher?

That’s a loaded question.

You can’t tell the good'uns from the bad'uns going by Copic Certification because right now, anyone can get certified. All certification says is that someone paid for the official class and they sat in a conference room for a few hours.

There is no minimum skill qualification to become Copic certified. Everyone who comes in, leaves with a certificate in their hand.

So the question remains, how can you tell if your instructor is a teacher or a just demonstrator?

Here's my suggestion:

Ask the instructor for the lesson plan.

A simple question, right?


What is the goal of this class?

“I’m here to show you how to color this “Happy Heart Balloons” image from The Happy Heart Stamp Company!”

That’s a demonstrator.

Or maybe the goal is to teach you how to use a colorless blender to create heart highlights. Or they’re showing you how a special red heart marker recipe.

That’s a little different than what a teaching-teacher who wants you to learn would say.

Teachers have specific lesson plans.

“Today, we’re learning to add subtle warmth to metals.”

“Today we’re looking at how highlights change from matte to shiny surfaces…”

“Today’s lesson is an introduction to layering objects for depth."

Notice the difference?

The demonstrator is showing you how they colored one stamp.

The instructor shows you how to handle a condition or a situation.

A demonstration is good for a single stamp. If you're intuitive, maybe you can apply that lesson to a few stamps that are similar. But if you want to color other things, you have to sign up for other classes.

True instruction is good for more than just a stamp. Real lessons are applicable to the wider world. And if you’ve got a really good teacher, you can apply your new knowledge to more than just markers. Good concepts and real technique will translate to colored pencil, or watercolor pens, or mixed media collage, or heck… it might even work with real paint.


Look, I know finding a great teacher is tough

You may live in a remote area. But actually, population doesn’t have much to do with it. There are large metropolitan areas that don’t have a teaching art store or good paper crafting shops.

Some stores rely on demonstrators to push product sales. And hoo, boy! A focus on sales certainly decreases the odds that the store is employing a good teacher. 

Not all coloring classes are equally good. Tips for finding great Copic Marker instruction. | VanillaArts.com

So I get it, live classes might be impossible to find where you live.

And the internet?

Well, that’s like shootin’ it out at the O.K. Corral, and dad-gum’it! You’re blindfolded too! 

If the course is hidden behind a paywall, how can you tell that there’s real instruction and lesson planning at work?

All I can say is: ask.

For live classes and for online courses. You are allowed to ask.

If the answer to your question is not provided in the course description, then ask the instructor directly. 

I’m more than happy to give potential students more info. That’s part of the job. 

No answer? Don’t like the answer? Don’t take the class.

I’ll even tell people when they’re not right for one of my classes. 

And don’t make the mistake of thinking that I’m unique!

All good instructors want to create a great learning environment. Selling you a class that you don’t need or aren’t ready for defeats our personal mission. 

Sure, I want to earn money, but popping you into a class that you’re not ready for? Well, that makes your money the hardest money I’ve ever earned. It’s sooooooo difficult to teach someone all the skills they’re missing PLUS help them keep up with the rest of the class. Good instructors want you in the right class for your skill level.


Lesson plans, class goals, and upfront honest discussion

Those are three signs that you’re dealing with someone who wants to help you learn.

It’s okay to ask questions before you take your next class. 

It’s not just your money you’re saving, it’s frustration too.

Ask. You are worth it!

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