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Friday, August 5, 2016

Coloring Books

Today, many adults have rediscovered the childhood
joy of coloring books.
There as was a time not so many years ago when art instructors, myself included, considered children's coloring books to be an anathema to everything we stood for, everything we wanted to instill in our young students, and every aspect of the creative process. We looked upon them as stifling creativity by inhibiting the child's natural urge to develop eye-hand coordination and render from their imaginations that which made childhood such a marvelous period in their youthful mental development. There is still a good argument to be made as to each of those points. However today, those dealing with children in the fine arts are not quite so vehement in their objection to pre-composed, pre-drawn, pre-printed line drawings where the primary aim, at least on the part of students and their parents, is to "stay inside the lines." Art educators are starting to come around to the fact that being neat and staying within the lines are important, if not overriding skills.
Coloring books and Olympic figure skating star, Sonia Henie,
changed quite a bit in just a couple decades.
I can still recall to this day the first moment I became intrigued with art. My Aunt Margaret (who had had some training as an artist) was supervising my use of crayons and a coloring book. I must have been about five years old at the time. The picture was a house with trees in the background and a chimney on top. She took a crayon and demonstrated by coloring one side of the chimney a dark brown and the other side a lighter brown. The result was a three-dimensionality that astounded my pre-school mind. It looked "real." She then proceeded to draw and color some branches within the confines of the tree foliage and then, using various shades of green, blue, yellow, and black, she create a visual texture emulating leaves. WOW! A door had been thrown wide open. I learned to "paint" through the use of crayons and a disreputable coloring book. This would have been about 1950. The visual history of coloring books from about 1887 up through the present gives some idea as how they developed, as well as some of the best and worst up through the years.
Coloring books have long reflected children's entertainment and
current evens and the popular culture of their time.
One of the chief objections among art educators to coloring books is not the pre-drawn images, but the crayons. Crayons are a poor substitute when it comes to learning to paint and, within that process, learning about color. Crayons come in a virtual multitude of colors (usually sixty-four to as many as a hundred or more). In other words, this nearly infinite selection short circuits the act of mixing colors and the learning of color theory. Certainly, even waxy crayons can, to some extent (and with no small amount of skill), be layered. But few children do so. In the years I taught, I always preferred students use colored pencils, the higher grade the better. By purchasing them through their art fees, I was able to control the selection of colors available, thus encouraging the layering (mixing) of dry pigments in much the same way as a watercolorist uses washes. And of course, still better, was the use of paints at as early an age as practicable. Here, most coloring books fall short. Their paper is simply not intended to stand up to water based (and certainly not oil based) paints.
Lower image, Copyright, Jim Lane
Except for the very young colored pencils should replace crayons as the preferred color medium in the art classroom.
Now, having said all of that, we come face to face with the fact that coloring books are seen as inhibiting creativity and the development of drawing skills. BOTH are myths. Creativity is not a fragile item within children or adults of any age. It can, to some extent, be cultivated, but for the most part, it's either present or it's not, and certainly the presence of something as inconsequential as a coloring book is not going to have much impact on this God-given gift. As for drawing skills, such objections presuppose that drawing skill is something every student should develop. It's good that every artist have at least a modicum of familiarity with drawing both from two and three-dimensional sources, but the fact is, that with the ease and ready availability of various projection devices, digital cameras and the like, fewer and fewer artists find the need to employ such time consuming and inaccurate skills.
There seems to be a coloring book associated with
virtually every subject in the world today.
Although there are many ideas floating around as to why adults have taken to coloring books with their crayons or (mostly) colored pencils during the past few years, I for one, cannot account for it. I can only repeat the theories proposed by others such as people having (way) too much time on their hands; a search for quiet, peaceful solitude; a need to express themselves creatively without having to endure the steep learning curve demanded by developing drawing skills; or perhaps a renewed interest in color itself and the modest skills needed in dealing with dry pigments (as opposed to far more cantankerous paints). I don't know. All I do know is that whatever your interest there is a coloring book (often several) into which you can apply your skills. If you like, you don't even have to stay inside the lines.
Some of the coloring books available online today are...shall
we say, pretty weird. Some encourage you to draw in certain
details yourself or to drink and draw.
Incidentally, for those with a little more of a creative urge than others, there's a couple little tricks I picked up in researching this item. First you can "paint" with colored pencils using a "Q-tip" and a little baby oil. Check out the pictorial demonstration below. Don't substitute a paint brush for the Q-tip and high grade colored pencils work best (Prismacolor, for instance).
(1.) Apply a color base in the normal manner. (2.) Use a drop of baby oil on a Q-tip, to gently brush outwards, blending and enhancing the colors. Use the same angle as your pencil stroke. (3.) Allow the area to dry for a few minutes before proceeding. Too much oil and it will "bleed" into the paper leaving a dark halo around your image.
And for those with access to photo editing software and a few minutes to experiment, you can easily create your own coloring book type images to lay around with. Start by selecting a clear photo, loading it onto your screen. Then convert it to 8-bit grayscale (usually under the "edit" function). You'll get a sharp, black and white image. Once satisfied with that, find the software tool or function allowing you to enhance the image. Click on "lighten" (or "brighten") in conjunction with the feature allowing you to increase the contrast of the image. Any gray areas should disappear leaving a simple line drawing (dark areas will simply turn black). This takes a little trial and error. This requires just the right combination. Too much contrast or too much brightening of the image will cause important outlines to disappear. Then you simply enlarge the image to the size desired and print it out. The image of Hilary Clinton (below) was based upon her official First Lady portrait in the White House. Might I suggest a Democratic blue background? Have fun, but please, no moustaches. You should be above that. The picture of Nixon at the bottom, you're welcome to add a few facial follicles. He was well-known for his five-o'clock shadow. It would probably improve his looks.
See if you can match the flesh tones in the photo.


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