I have been working on a new artistic style for well over a year now and I’m finally getting it to the point where I feel comfortable talking about it.
Some time ago, I had a vision of creating large-scale paintings that are basically like blown up pages from children’s coloring books – a large canvas, painted a solid off-white, with black illustration lines and literally colored in with crayons.
I thought they would be a) hilarious and b) an emotionally rich medium with a lot of potential. A year into it, I’m feeling even more optimistic about this style.
Here, I wanted to provide a quick overview of both the themes/intentions behind this style, and also the process of actually creating the pages themselves, because that was a year-long journey in itself.
What drew me to this coloring page project is that I find it to be an infinite source of emotional content, which is always what I am seeking in my work. As an artist, I feel like I trade in emotions. The stronger the emotional response I can create in you, the more I have succeeded. IMO.
Coloring pages have emotion in droves. On the most basic level, they evoke a sense of nostalgia and innocence. It’s something we all did as children in quiet moments, rarely considering the subjects or what they meant.
However, those same images and feelings are turned on their head when you enlarge the pages and treat them as “art.” They look kind of grotesque, mysterious, or even emotional. I found this one in a Crayola book, with a bear buying circus tickets and I can’t forget about it. Literally 6 months after seeing this, I’m still thinking about what it means. I find it complex and nuanced and incredibly sad, actually:
My intention, though, is not to copy or recreate existing designs, but to make new ones that take the complexity and emotion to another level and express unique ideas.
As an artist, two things that really interest me are 1) exploring the identities we attach to ourselves, and 2) creating experiences that act like mirrors so that the observer can seem themselves / their identity more clearly. What I love about these coloring pages is that they tackle both of these themes at once:
Identity: the primary theme behind these coloring pages is the sense of being trapped between childhood innocence and the jaded full awareness of adulthood. They’re a way to take such an innocent medium and use it as a vehicle to explore much more complex emotions about humanity, society, and our own place in the world.
Mirrors: I’m finding that most of the designs I create are very closely cropped, often feature hands and feet, and have a sense of mystery where the viewer can come to their own conclusions about what’s happening. For example, everyone who has seen this one with the shoe falling on the sprouts has had a different interpretation based on their own experiences – and that’s exactly what I’m hoping for.
There is also something to be said about turning the cheapest, lowliest form of art into something much more serious. That’s an interesting dichotomy that I appreciate.
The process of creating these coloring page surfaces is something completely proprietary. I’ve never seen anyone do something quite like this. They’re expensive to make. They take several hours of labor. They have a high risk of failure during assembly. But the final quality is both robust and gorgeous. They look like one solid, seamless, borderless, half-inch thick piece of coloring paper.
Getting here, however, took about a year of
failure experimentation. Creating a surface that was beautiful and would project the “crayon on paper” texture was so much harder than I imagined. Here’s how it went down:
Early on, I just assumed I would use canvas, paint it a slightly off-white color, paint in the black lines, and then color. Easy! … or not. The problem is, you cannot color on canvas. Whatever drawing medium (crayons, pencils, pastels) you use, it will catch in the highest points of the weaved texture of the canvas and leave 90% of the surface unreachable. No matter what I did, there was always some texture that prevented the crayon texture from appearing on the page. Canvas wouldn’t work.
Wood Panels? Not Quite…
Fine, I figured, I’ll just use those pre-gessoed and sanded wood panels. Even though the surface was uniform and smooth, this was a disaster. It was impossible to get any drawing mediums to stick to the surface or create uniform fields of color. They became waxy and awful and just wouldn’t stick:
I came to the disappointing conclusion that the only surface that would replicate the crayon on paper texture is… paper itself. The good news is, it worked. Using 100% cotton hot press watercolor paper, I was able to get a beautiful crayon texture that I was after. This was disappointing, though, because paper is more fragile and has a reputation for being “cheap” in comparison to works done on wood or canvas.
So the next step was to mount my paper to hardboard panels to make it more durable. There’s a few tutorials online on this subject, for those who want to mount watercolor works to something more solid, but the edges fray very easily, the panels can warp, and overall it just has a cheap feeling that wasn’t working for me:
A final solution…
I don’t want to provide my step-by-step instructions on how to make these, because I’d like to keep that proprietary, but what I can say is that the final surface is a combination of cotton watercolor paper and a stable wooden frame. It’s a beautiful, seamless result that should be archival enough to last for hundreds of years. And most importantly, the black illustration lines and colored crayon texture look just right.
The only downside is that my final solution is limited in size to about 50″ on the short side (and virtually unlimited on the long side) but I can live with that…
Oh but there’s more. I spent nearly as much time finding the right drawing mediums as I did creating the surfaces. The idea of literally using crayons was attractive, as this would be the most authentic.
Obviously I’m not going to use a pack of Crayola’s, though. The vibrancy is terrible, they don’t blend, and have lightfastness that might last a few months before fading. Instead, I thought I would be using Caran D’Ache Neocolors. The water-based ones aren’t great because they completely melt on contact with a drop of water. The oil-based ones are not bad though. They’re vibrant, lightfast, and work really well (though they only make 40 colors).
These weren’t a bad option, but it turns out, they don’t result in the most vibrant color and texture. They don’t blend well enough into the surface and look very washed out. For that, I discovered that colored pencils actually work better to create a smooth crayon-like texture. So while I like the idea of making the coloring pages with actual crayons, I’ve switched to a combination of Faber Castell Polychromos and Caran D’Ache Luminance pencils (which cost like $4.50 EACH, but are the gold standard of vibrancy and lightfastness in colored pencils).
Note that the shoe page above is the first one I finished and it was still partially done using Neocolor crayons and also Prismacolors, which aren’t ideal either. I think the colors are still a bit garish and uneven. The new pencils have solved that issue.
Creating the black lines, thankfully, was much easier. I’m either using Golden fluid acrylic with liner brushes or Molotow markers with acrylic ink and that hasn’t presented any issues so far. It applies perfectly onto the watercolor paper.
Finally, the last hurdle I’ve faced with these is creating illustrations. I have never been a professional illustrator or draftsman, so creating quality illustrations was significantly harder than I imagined. One of the problems is that you have such limited means to convey your message. Everything you want to say has to be done in nothing but solid black lines in two dimensions. That’s hard.
I had to spend a lot more time practicing drawing in general, which I have improved greatly over the last year, and also studying the masters of comics/illustration like Lichtenstein, especially. I’ve made tons of copies of Lichtenstein’s work in order to get a feel for how he is able to explain so much with just black lines and solid colors (ironically, most of his stuff was itself copied from other comics, but nevertheless…).
Now, I’m using vector drawing Affinity Designer on iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil to create initial designs and that seems to be the ideal solution. Then, it’s easy enough to transfer the design to the paper and fill in with black outlines.
The most stressful thing about these pages is that they cannot be corrected. Because it’s an absorbent white paper surface, if you make one wrong mark with the black ink, the entire surface is pretty much ruined unless you can creatively change the design. It’s quite nerve-wracking to make marks after spending 3 hours creating the surface and 8 hours meticulously drawing in illustrations. Mistakes at that point are devastating. 😬
At the end of the day, it took a lot of experimentation, but these are a BLAST to make. With some types of art, I find the work to be really stressful/difficult, even if the end product is rewarding. These are not like that. Every step of the process is pure joy and I’m looking forward to kicking these into high-gear now that I’m finally happy with the technique.
Over the next year, I expect virtually all of my fine art work to be split between two areas: these coloring pages and something I’m calling “meta paintings” which is equally as exciting to me, but not quite ready to be talked about just yet…