My thoughts on the coloring-book craze

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A rack of adult coloring books at a local arts and crafts store. Just the front side!

Over the past couple of years, you’ve probably noticed the huge influx of “adult coloring books” in bookstores, art supply stores, and even supermarket magazine racks.  The books’  linear designs range from simple garden flowers to incredibly intricate mandala patterns.  This type of “coloring” has been noted for a calming, soothing, therapeutic effect, somewhat like meditation or knitting.  It has caught on in rehab facilities and senior centers.

Adult coloring books are still growing in popularity, so sales of markers and colored pencils have skyrocketed, and some artists have successfully self-published their own coloring books.  There is even a new brand of colored pencils made in China and marketed to the coloring-book crowd as much cheaper than the better-known brands, albeit lower in quality.  Since I have published free swatch charts for many popular brands on my website, someone asked if I’m planning to publish one for this new brand, too.  (No, and I’m not going to name the brand here.)

As an artist whose primary medium is colored pencil, I have mixed feelings about this fad.  On the one hand, it’s great to see so many people (re)discovering colored pencils, and hopefully they’ll be inspired to take the next step to learn how to create their own original drawings and master the medium.  On the other hand, it’s also leading to an impression that colored pencils aren’t a fine art medium, they’re for very casual hobbyists.  And that’s an impression that the Colored Pencil Society of America has worked hard since 1990 to dispel, so it feels like a giant step backward.

Recently, Time magazine published an article “How coloring inside the lines came into fashion” which examined these impressions.  Today, I was glad to read the CPSA’s response to it.

I personally have been told “Oh, you should make a coloring book!” and I take that as a compliment about how interesting my subjects are and how easily they might translate into linear outlines.

But on a Facebook group for colored pencil artists I have read accounts of fellow artists being asked about their original work “What coloring book is this from?” and the questioner not being able to grasp that it was not from a coloring book.  I think if this was asked of me I’d have a hard time responding without curse words!  I can see how this confusion might arise, since some people who color in pages from a coloring book post them to social media with the idea that it’s now “art”.  It’s not.  There’s an important distinction: all art is artwork, but not all artwork is art.

The latest ridiculousness resulting from this fad is a report of a community college offering a five-day “Coloring Book Technique” workshop, for which people pay $130 and bring their own coloring books and colored pencils.  Really?  Since when do we have to be taught how to color in coloring books?  Every seven-year-old knows how to do this.

So on balance, although I recognize the value of adult coloring books as therapy and for relaxation, so far I’m not happy about what it’s doing for serious artists who work with colored pencil.  For any such artist, I recommend that if someone asks what kind of art you do, don’t say “I do colored pencil drawings” or they’ll likely assume you mean you color in coloring books.  Instead, try simply saying “I work mainly in colored pencil”.  The subtle difference in wording may trigger a better mental image.

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The back side of the same rack.

Making time to make art

As I’ve mentioned in at least one previous blog post, I work full-time as a software engineer in Silicon Valley but art is not my “hobby”–I consider it my other career.  I had to scale way back on some other time-consuming activities I enjoy in order to make this possible.  However, you don’t need to do this in order to make some time for art in your own life!  Here are a few suggestions I have for how to work art creation into your busy schedule.

  1. Set up a small area in your home as a dedicated “art space”, where your drawing board, chair and supplies are always ready.  They will be right there inviting you to sit down and play, and you won’t have to waste a single minute on setup or takedown.  This makes it so much easier to decide you have time!
  2. If you think you need at least three hours of uninterrupted time to merit starting, think again.  Sure, we’d all like to have that luxury, but you can make a lot of progress by accumulating much shorter time increments.  Maybe today all you have time to do is select and print out your reference(s).  Maybe tomorrow all you have time to do is cut the paper.  Maybe the day after that all you have time to do is draw the basic outline.  That’s all progress!
  3. If you’re tired or don’t feel like drawing, tell yourself “just 30 minutes”.
  4. Divide and conquer. Some people like to work all over an image as they go, developing it as a whole.  And that’s fine, but it makes for a long wait before you finally start to see the finish line.  Depending upon your temperament, you might lose patience or interest before you get far enough along to see it take shape.  So an alternative is to fully complete one small area at a time.  If your subject is a bunch of grapes, focus on just one or two grapes until they look finished (you can always come back later for finishing, unifying touches).
  5. Keep the colors you have used so far on a drawing out from the rest of the set until you’ve finished the drawing, so you don’t have to remember them to proceed with the next section.
  6. Only work on one drawing at a time.  This doesn’t apply to painters who must wait for hours or days for layers of paint to dry, but for dry media you’ll have more work to show sooner if you focus on one at a time.
  7. Have the references for your next few pieces queued up.  If you’re like me, it can take days to decide what to work on next–a big time suck!  By choosing in advance, you can launch right into the next one as soon as your finished with the previous one.  If you change your mind later, that’s fine, but at least you have a plan.
  8. Work small.  You’ll finish sooner by working smaller.  If you’re still learning techniques, you’ll learn more and faster by trying something small and moving on, rather than trying to struggle your way through a larger, long-term piece.  This is the philosophy behind the painting-a-day-for-30-days challenge.

I hope this helps you fit a little bit of art-making into your life!

Know what your framer is doing: a horror story

Here is a horror story worthy of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as told to me by the victim who lived it.

It took nearly a year for one of my CPSA chapter members to finish a drawing which she decided to enter in this year’s CPSA International Exhibition. (Her first time entering.) After spraying it with coats of workable Krylon fixative and final Lascaux fixative, she took it to a local privately-owned frame shop which was recommended by several artist friends. He told her he’s framed “thousands” of drawings, so she was sure it was in good hands.

For some reason, the framer chose to permanently heat-mount her drawing to foam board, as one might do with a photographic print. The heat reacted with the wax-based pigment, and possibly the layers of fixative. The drawing was covered with blisters which broke and flaked off!

But wait, there’s more! When he permanently adhered it to the foam board, he didn’t even use a large enough board to leave a margin around it for more flexible framing options–the board was the same size as the drawing.  And then he taped it to the back of a window mat, with the drawing barely covering the opening!

To top it all off, before she got to the shop to see this butchery, the framer took it on himself to “repair” a section of the drawing with oil pastels!  Oil pastels are not compatible with wax-based colored pencils, and of course nobody has any business “repairing” an artist’s work except the artist or a conservator (think of Smithsonian art restoration specialists).

Her artwork was completely destroyed. One has to wonder, WHAT WAS HE THINKING?

The framer apologized, didn’t charge her for framing, paid her the declared value of her drawing, and paid for her non-refundable CPSA IE entry fee (since she had already entered).

She brought the destroyed drawing to our CPSA chapter meeting to see if anyone had suggestions for how to save it. We were all aghast.  The best we could come up with was maybe solvent. The oil pastel probably already disqualified it for the IE anyway, but we suggested that if the piece is accepted she could relate the story to the national exhibitions director for a judgment call.

I think it’s important to share this story as a public service.  Make sure you know what your framer is doing.  Make sure you both agree on exactly what will be done with your artwork, before you leave your artwork in their hands.  Ask questions.  If he/she uses a term you don’t understand (e.g., “preservation fit”), don’t feel stupid, ASK.   It’s irrelevant whether you take your work to a large chain store like Aaron Brothers, or a privately-owned local shop that’s been in business for 30 years.

I’ve never felt the need to go over specs in great detail with my framers before, but after seeing and hearing this story directly from the victim, I certainly will from now on.