I don’t recall being particularly fond of coloring as a child. I do know, though, that by the time I was a teenager I had discovered a few lovely, over-sized coloring books filled with fine, white paper and detailed designs clearly not intended for the under-10-and-crayons set. These intricate pictures required the finely honed point of a colored pencil to complete. My favorite had a ballet theme, each full-page illustration accompanied by text that told the story of the ballet being shown, but I feel certain I must have had a unicorn one as well, or possibly one with a general mythology theme. I also had a couple geometric design books (one cats, one just abstract designs) and of course the fabulous medieval stained glass coloring books that are still available.
In college, I graduated to poster-sized pictures. These were fantastically detailed pictures that came in a tube—mine were fantasy themed, naturally, full of dragons, castles, fairies and other magical beings. Freshman year, a classmate and I justified splurging on a 72-color Prismacolor pencil set for a class project we were working on together (set or costume design, for theater, I’m sure) and somehow the pencils ended up in my care when we were done. After four years of coloring, some of those pencils (forest green, in particular) were worn practically to nubs, but the remains of that pencil set lives in my kids’ art supply box even now.
It was a great stress relief, back then. Engaging the hand, but not the mind. Requiring a certain artistic sensibility (you had to choose colors, after all, and you had to pay enough attention to stay in the lines) but not demanding any great creative effort. Exactly what a young mind engaged in serious (ahem) studies needs for a break.
But since college, I’ve never done much coloring at all. I’m not sure why I stopped, other than perhaps I picked up a few other hobbies that occupied my hands without requiring a lot of thought (crochet, Internet). Even when I got into papercrafts and rubber stamping, I didn’t use colored pencils that often—ink and markers gave much bolder colors, after all. Of course, I hadn’t yet discovered the magic of watercolor pencils.
Have you ever tried watercolor pencils? They look and act just like regular colored pencils, except with leads that are a bit softer than what you are otherwise used to. That’s because when you add water to the pigment of a watercolor pencil, it melts turning into a puddle of paint on your paper. Rich, color-saturated paint that you can move around and blend with a brush, and has none of the scratchy, tell-tale marks that coloring with pencil leaves (my 7th grade geography teacher used to mark us down if all the pencil lines on our colored maps weren’t going in the same direction). I had never heard of them until maybe 5 years ago, and even so I’ve never given them much play before now, just coloring the odd stamped image or laying down a background wash. They’re wonderful to shade with, because of the way the colors can be blended.
The best kind of brush to use with watercolor pencils is a water brush, with a reservoir of water in the handle. It’s better only because it’s convenient: regular paint brushes and water work just as well, but they’re not as easy to carry around. You can get them in most art supply stores for very little money. Mine’s a little frazzled looking, but it works just fine. I usually keep a paper towel handy to blot off excess paint between colors, just to avoid unwanted mixing.
Look what a dramatic difference it makes—before water:
Here’s the full page, right after I finished “painting”:
And then a scan, after I outlined my sections with white pen for a more defined look:
Last Thursday, I made an important rediscovery. I came home from my writers group with a head cold settling in fierce, but the men’s figure skating final was on and I wanted to stay up and watch. I wanted something to occupy my attention between performances (so I wouldn’t have to listen too much to the chatty commentators), but because I wasn’t feeling well I didn’t want anything too complicated or elaborate. So I sat down with my art journal and a pencil and doodled: my creative inspiration was the decorations on the wall of the Olympic ice arena. After sketching out a pageful of wavy lines, I went in search of my watercolor pencils. Fuss-less, you know?
As I sat curled up in the chair, across the room from the one working lamp, I remembered how absolutely pleasurable simply coloring can be. The repetitive motion, the scratch of the pencil across the paper, gradually filling in a pre-defined shape with color. It was soothing, exactly what I needed to help me feel better.
(I did the waterbrush painting the next day, and added some highlights with markers. The background had been painted a few days previously, with watercolor paint.)
In fact, it was so soothing that I repeated the exercise the following day, this time with doodled swirls across the background of a larger spread. I was still sick, and increasingly worried about my also-sick cat, so this kind of low-key, mess-free activity was exactly what I needed. The bonus comes because of the watercolor pencils: not only do i get the old, remembered stress-relief of simply coloring, coloring, coloring, I can go back and finish it up for a very satisfying piece of artwork. It’s the best of both worlds!
I have long indulged in comfort writing—a little private world with some much beloved characters that I turn to when I am too tired or emotionally wrung out to deal with my current writing projects, but I still feel the need to write. After 10 years, I know them and their story so well I don’t even have to think about it, and because no one but a few close friends are ever going to see it I don’t have to worry about whether or not every sentence is artistically sound. It’s mechanical, almost. The words just go down on the page, filling in the lines that are already in place.
Just like simple coloring.
I’m really thankful to have rediscovered this old pleasure of mine. You can bet I’m going to be doing a lot more of it in the pages of my art journal.