Tuesday, January 30, 2018

When In Doubt, Dance It Out, Or How I Have Come To View Grief As A Creative Energy Source

by Michelle M. Johnson

The community that I live in experienced a great loss yesterday. My knowledge of this blithe spirit's passing came in the midst of a beautiful day, an amazing day; the sky was a brilliant blue, the breezes were strong and cleansing, the temperatures were crisp but not chilling, the clouds few and high. Yesterday morning was the sort of morning I had been pining for for ages, it seemed. And, then the message came that my friend, who had been living with illness for some time now, had died.

It is incredible to me how my experience of a day or a moment can change so rapidly: one minute I'm looking up and thinking forward, the next I'm brought to a complete stand-still and pulling inward. Grief has this power that other emotions like anger, happiness, love, jealousy, fear, don't seem to have; it works instantly, or at least it does in me. Grief changes everything around me, becomes all an encompassing lens through which I see the world. Upon hearing of my friend's passing, the day was no longer blue for me, no longer holding promise of productivity towards my goals; the day belonged to them, my energy belonged to them, my thoughts belonged to them. 

This is the power of grief.

Grief demands us to believe the impossible, or to believe that which we desperately hoped was impossible. Grief demands our attention.

Grief has been a constant companion of mine. From a very young age, grief began visiting me every few years or so. One would think that after having a lifetime of practice with losing people that I cared about that I would somehow have found peace with the process, that I would recognize the human experience when I saw it in front of me once again, the inevitable beginnings and endings of life, and just be.

But, that is not how grief works, does it? Practice doesn't make perfect.

Each time we go through the experience of losing someone we care about, grief feels brand new, sometimes even shockingly so. When I was younger, I used to believe that I had been shaped by grief, that the person who I had become was molded not by her achievements or lessons, but instead by her losses, that I had come to understand the value and preciousness of life not by living it fully, but by having it taken away from me so early, frequently, and unexpectedly. Grief made me a serious sort of child and young person, the sort that was told she should smile more. But, as I was never given any lessons in how to process my grief and I didn't grow up in a culture that engaged in open discussion about loss and how it can affect us, I did what I think is natural for any human being: I let grief sit silently and heavily inside me. Grief became the bedrock upon which the person I was becoming was formed, and through my 20s, I believed my relationship with grief kept me safe, kept me making good decisions for my health and my relationships.

As I lived through my 30s and now a smidgen of my 40s, I can see now that the lessons that I thought grief had taught me were not benevolent, were not sustainable. Holding grief inside of me, allowing each new and unique loss to become a part of me, wasn't helping to keep me safe or helping me to cherish the people around me. As I allowed grief to shape my worldview, I unknowingly also allowed anger, fear, and anxiety to sneak silently into my day to day understanding of life as well.

I didn't wake up one morning and realize that this build-up had happened to me, though. No, the process of coming to the conclusion that I had created a toxic worldview for myself was slow, painful and difficult. Loss keeps on coming, doesn't it? And, society has gotten no better at giving us a blueprint for how to handle it, nor has the openness to discuss grief and its depths become the standard for our workplaces, our schools, and even our homes.

I am only getting older, and if there is one thing that stands true for every human being is that with gift of aging comes the absolute certainty of loss, and the older we get, the more frequently it seems the losses come.

How, then, to endure the build-up of grief? At about age 38 or 39, my stack of grief, view it as a collection of solid and polished rocks if you will, became too tall and unstable for me to keep standing; there was no more room to build, the structure that I had created with them wasn't sturdy at all, and there was the constant threat of it overtaking me. Loss kept coming.

We never have time for loss, do we? "Life goes on," it is said, and while the evidence of that truth is all around, our hearts are still screaming, "No sh*t, Sherlock, but Death keeps knocking, too, and I'm f*cking tired of it!"

In my late 30s something inside pushed me to view my grief not as an object to hold or a feeling that dwelled in me, but rather an energy that overtook me and demanded that I put to use. I'd like to be able to say exactly why this switch in metaphor came for me, but I believe the answer is simply necessity: I had no more room inside of me to hold grief and its stowaways anger, fear and anxiety. 

But, grief doesn't (and shouldn't) go away simply because you don't have room for it anymore. That isn't how life works. Allowing grief to be an energy, a resource, though, and being aware of using it as such, has helped me. I imagine experiencing grief in this way is similar to that energy that motivates folks to participate in fundraising athletic events running, walking in honor of someone they love. Grief and loss create questions that we desperately want answers to, and what is the pursuit of answers but intellectual energy? 

I lost someone yesterday, the community I have called home lost someone yesterday. Their spirit was unlike any I have ever known: full, vibrant, generous, energetic, kind. I know without a doubt that I am the better for having had the opportunity to know them, that my family is better for having had our paths intersect. This person made a huge, positive impact on their community, a lasting impact, even through illness. Their death is a devastating loss.

What was I to do with this grief, with this unexpected and overwhelming surge of painful energy? I used it: I drew, I danced, I wrote. As I struggled to draw the letters of the next coloring page for my feminist coloring book just right, I thought of the tireless way my friend came at every obstacle life presented them with. I erased and erased and erased in their honor until I found a solution where every letter looked fun and inviting to color. As I entered my evening tap dance class full of exhausted teenagers, I smiled to myself and shuffle-hopped away thinking of my friend's boundless energy, how in their healthier times they were able to dance circles around folks half their age. I know losing their physical strength and endurance was very challenging for them, so as I danced with my students last night I tried to feel and take note of how amazing it is to be able to ask your body to jump and its only response is "how high?" And, when I got up this morning and saw that it was another beautiful day, a day that they would have loved to go for a jog in, I began to feel the energy of grief moving me to write, to think more deeply and publicly about loss and how its role in my life has evolved. 


It may not look like much, especially with the bright sunshine on it,
 but that collection of 5 faintly drawn letters in the upper left corner of this picture
took me over an hour to get right and is the final solution of over 15 attempts
 to get the word WOMAN spelled out across my 10X7 page. Typically I would
 give upon a design after 3 failed passes, but it was the visualization of drawing
 in honor of my friend, of wanting to not give up when presented with difficulty,
 that gave me the creative energy to keep at my original design. I am really
excited to finish this page, and it now holds deep significance for me.

Everything that I did yesterday and today was fueled by this loss, was in this person's honor, was given up for them as a sort of prayer or liturgy. And while this is by no means a solution to the pain and grief of the loss of those I love, perceiving grief as creative energy creates an inhospitable environment for the growth of fear, anger and anxiety in my mind. So, for now this is my knee-jerk reaction to loss and grief: create, connect, teach, build, all in that loved one's honor. It is what I hope that those who love me will do to the best of their ability in the inevitable event of my death, and I'm fairly certain that grief-induced-creativity is something that those that I have loved and lost would smile to themselves about.









Saturday, January 20, 2018

A Nerd's Coloring Supplies Guide Trilogy: Episode III, Watercolor vs. Water Soluble Colored Pencils

by Michelle M. Johnson

What started out as a single blog post to share, review and advise folks about the coloring tools that I use personally and in my coloring/creativity workshops has now become three posts, (and counting?) entering today into its third episode....

Careful, folks: this is what happens when you discover that coloring and creativity really are for everyone -- you end up with loads of different art supplies that you now understand you simply can't live without! 

No, just kidding. You can totally live just fine with blank drawing paper and a hearty black pen, but life is far more interesting when you start exploring coloring tools that take you out of your comfort zone. 

And, that is what this episode is all about, pencils that have the ability to take you safely out of your creative comfort zone. Why do I say "safely?" Because for all intents and purposes, the collection of colored pencils I'm writing about in this blog post are just that: colored pencils. You can use these lovelies exactly as you would use all of the other colored pencils I detailed for you in Episode I of my Nerd's Coloring Supplies Guide Trilogy. But, make no mistake -- these are no ordinary colored pencils! Half of them are watercolor colored pencils and the other half are water soluble colored pencils. 

What? You've never heard of water soluble colored pencils? Well, the goal of this blog post is also to help the reader differentiate the difference between watercolor and water soluble colored pencils, so read on with the confidence that you will have a full understanding of these two very cool types of coloring tools and perhaps an inkling of whether or not you would like to use some of your creative cash to add them to your coloring arsenal.

Oh, and just to reiterate from Episode I: the links that I attach to my blog posts are Amazon Affiliate links, which means that should you decide to purchase an item based on clicking the link from here in this post, I earn a small (really small, but every penny counts!) amount of money per purchase. I'm not suggesting that you do anything with this post besides read it and hopefully gain some useful information from it. But, should you decide to purchase something while reading this post or after reading this post, it would be lovely if you used the links found on my blog. Thank you:)

Episode III: Watercolor vs. Water Soluble Colored Pencils

Let me start off this episode by clarifying the difference between these two types of colored pencils, watercolor (a type of colored pencil most folks are fairly familiar with) and water soluble (a pencil that may be new territory for some folks).

If you've browsed the aisles of any arts and crafts store, you have surely run across the term WATERCOLOR. Watercolor paint comes in many different forms: bottles of liquid, palettes of hard color, tubes of color the consistency of toothpaste, markers with flowing ink, and pencils with a watercolor core. What these all have in common is that the color they lay down can be indefinitely affected by water. All of the above art supplies can create art without the use of water (with the exception of the hard palettes of color), but every time they come into contact with water, the pigment will be changed, regardless of whether or not you laid down the color 10 minutes ago or 10 days ago.

Now, a term you might not have seen on the packaging of colored pencils is WATER SOLUBLE. Or, maybe you did see these words and you might have breezed over them thinking, "Water soluble? That must be a synonym for watercolor, and I already have some of those," which is what I did when I first encountered the term about 5 years ago. Like watercolor pencils, water soluble colored pencils are affected by water. The pigment of the pencil dissolves when it comes into contact with water and becomes much more flexible, moving across your paper, your coloring page with ease while it is wet. But, that is the key phrase of that definition: while it is wet. Water soluble colored pencil pigment, when used with water, becomes a permanent ink once it is dry. This is a really interesting aspect of these colored pencils because it makes layering, creating depth and texturing a quick fun process; you can paint over already laid down color with these pencils so long as the previous layer has dried because every new layer of water only affects the most recent layer of colored pencil! 

Am I making your brain hurt? That's okay. I felt that way, too, until after I got the opportunity to play around with both types of coloring tools. Let's move on to the descriptions, reviews and pretty pictures!

Prismacolor Watercolor Colored Pencils 24 Count Set


The question I get asked the most about watercolor pencils is, "Do I have to use water with them?" No, watercolor pencils do not need to be used strictly with water. However, not all watercolor pencils are created equal IF you are using them dry. Without a doubt, of the water color pencils that I use, my Prismacolor Watercolor Pencils have the most vibrant and creamy colors when used without water. Other varieties of watercolor pencil tend to have harder color cores and require a more firm coloring hand to get the same saturation of color I expect from a basic colored pencil.
I never tell folks they can't color with watercolor pencils if they have no intention of using water, but if you are in the market for colored pencils only, watercolor pencils, as a general rule, are considerably more expensive than basic colored pencils for considerably smaller sets. The 24 count set of Prismacolor Watercolor Pencils runs anywhere from $25-$40 currently; for the same amount of money, you could get a far larger set of Prismacolor Premier Colored Pencils if you never intended to use water with your watercolor pencils. Basically, when it is all boiled down, these Prismacolor Watercolor Pencils are worth the money BUT only if you are looking to start experimenting with watercolor in your coloring and drawing. With their creamy color lay down, they layer nicely and blend color easily once they are made wet. I also enjoy dipping their tips into water and coloring or drawing when the pencil has a damp tip. With the color core of this pencil being so soft and thick, coloring with a damp pencil tip is akin to the experience of coloring with dampened sidewalk chalk, something I really enjoyed doing as a child; wet chalk became extra bright in hue and super smooth to draw with, and these watercolor pencils when dipped in water offer the same experience.

General Pencil Kimberly Watercolor Pencils 12 Count Set


Like I said above, watercolor pencils are more expensive per pencil than basic colored pencils. But, that doesn't mean that you have to go broke to add some watercolor fun to your collection of art supplies! These General Pencil Kimberly Watercolor Pencils while harder in color core (and therefore not as relaxing a color lay-down experience as the Prismacolor variety) offer equally vibrant and easy to blend colors. And, because these pencils have a more dense color core, sharpening them to a super fine point is rather easy to do without the pencil tip crumbling. For this reason I like using my Kimberly Watercolor Pencils far more for my stamping and card making projects, two styles of creating I tend to want extreme precision in. This inexpensive set also is great for younger creatives as the pencils are more durable. Additionally, if you aren't sure watercolor pencils will be for you, but your curiosity is peaked, their price for a new creative adventure can't be beat.

Derwent Inktense Water Soluble Colored Pencils 72 Count Set

Here begins my list of water soluble colored pencils that I have in my coloring/creativity collection. And I have to say that after discovering the existence of water soluble colored pencils, they are by far some of my favorite coloring tools to play with! Again, I have the awesomely creative Tabby May to thank for sharing with me all about Derwent Inktense Water Soluble Colored Pencils because up until developing my friendship with her (she reviewed my coloring book Doodled Blooms when it was first published in 2016) I had never heard of half of the art supplies that I now use on a regular basis (the world of color is far larger than the offerings of Prismacolor)! Derwent is a British pencil maker, and their Inktense pencils are exactly what you think they are from their name: mix a little water with the color core of these pencils and you have a collection of bold, inky, permanent colors. Shown here in my color chart, you can see just how vibrant these colors are. I had intended to show a gradient of how water affected these pencils in this chart, leaving ample space for each color where I scribbled a bit of pigment down, but once I added water, the color exploded and was far stronger than any watercolor pencil I had ever used before. What that means is a little bit of laying down color with an Inktense colored pencil goes a LONG way! I have had great fun experimenting with these pencils in both my coloring and my card making. They work great in coloring books and on watercolor paper, and they are a super fun coloring adventure that I highly recommend. But, there are a few things to consider about before investing in them: 1. the size of their barrel is a little larger than a standard #2 pencil, so be sure you have a sharpener that can accept a variety of pencil sizes, and 2. these are basically permanent marker pencils, so these are not intended for young children, unless there is absolutely no concern for staining upholstery, clothes, furniture, or skin.

Derwent Graphitint Water Soluble Colored Pencils 24 Count Set

There is no easy way to explain Derwent Graphitint Colored Pencils. They are essentially a graphite pencil (think super soft Ticonderoga writing pencil) that is blended with some of the deeper, earthier tones of Derwent's Inktense color collection. I have never colored with any other pencil like it: dry, the graphite color is what dominates, but once wet, a simultaneously vibrant and soft tone of color develops. There is no other word to describe coloring with these pencils but cool! And, because they are water soluble and their color permanent when dry, layering lighter colors on top of these earthy, muted colors works really well, making shading and creating a sense of light in your coloring feel effortless. I really like these unique colored pencils, but I'm not going to sugar coat it -- they are expensive. At over $40 for 24 pencils (Derwent's largest Graphitint set), adding these super-cool colored pencils to your art supply collection is an investment. If I hadn't received them as a birthday gift last year, I don't know that I would have purchased such a small set with a hefty price. However, having experienced them myself, I can wholeheartedly say, these pencils are exciting to use and for the seasoned colorist looking for a new challenge for their creative time, Graphitints are money well spent. 

Derwent Metallic Water Soluble Colored Pencils 12 Count Set

If you are looking to give water soluble colored pencils a try, the most economic and interesting set I've found is Derwent's Metallic Water Soluble Colored Pencils. Laid down dry, the colors of these pencils have a slight metallic, shiny sheen to them. Once water is added the color gets a bit brighter and the aforementioned sheen gets less noticeable in direct light (it can be detected, however, when viewed from an extreme angle). Although this set is small (most "metallic" pencil sets are not larger than 12 count), I really like the color selection, and they definitely added new tones and hues to my collection of colored pencils. If you are looking for sparkly, shiny pencils with colors that pop metallic shimmer as a glitter pen does, however, these are not your pencils. To be honest, I have never encountered a "metallic" pencil that did actually that, add shimmer. For that sort of effect in your coloring, gel pens and metallic markers do a much better job. But, if you are looking for a true metallic look (which, if when you think about metal in the real world, those colors tend to have a dull, solid look - think pipes, auto parts, nuts and bolts), these pencils are interesting to use. Their water soluble properties mean that layering other coloring tools on top of them is quite easy. Used with water and then allowed to dry, gel pen, marker or additional colored pencil works smoothly over their surface, allowing for deeper textures to be created and shadow/light to be added onto any coloring/drawing.

Until about a year ago, the only brand of colored pencil I was familiar with that had WATER SOLUBLE colored pencils available in their line was Derwent. A quick Google search will show you that other makers of colored pencils have seen a new trend developing and now also have water soluble versions of their pencils. This is a good thing for us creative types as it means the cost of our coloring supplies may stay reasonable with competition. Dollar for dollar, adventuring into the watercolor or water soluble colored pencil universe gets you an interesting bang for your buck, one that will not set you as far back financially as say a collection of Copic markers. Add to that the benefit that these sorts of pencils will last for years to come as you explore their properties and what they can add to your creative experience, and you have a coloring/creativity win-win.

And, it is here I leave you until next time...

Yes, I have come to the realization that there will be a 4th episode of my Nerd Coloring Supplies Guide Trilogy, and that perhaps my original title for this series of blog posts needs to be revised.

Or, maybe not. 

Nerds don't really do original-idea revision, do they. We just simply admit that the saga continues with a wink and wry grin on our faces;)  



Saturday, January 13, 2018

This Kid Is My Hero, Or How Watching My Son Become a Percussionist Has Helped Me Commit More Fully to My Creative Journey and Embrace the Title of Artist

by Michelle M. Johnson

This kid....


Sam Johnson-Vrooman practicing snare at a mostly deserted
Becker Vineyards with an an early-December Texas sunset
in the background in progress -- how could I not take a picture? 

Everywhere we go, my son, Sam Johnson-Vrooman, is sneaking in percussion practice. He's been that way for a while now, but for the last 7 months it seems like his practice pad and music are just things that naturally get taken along with him, whether it is on a day trip to our favorite vineyard as is pictured above, or if it's a longer journey to visit family and friends out of state. 

This year, my child's senior year at Seguin High School and in their music program, is all about auditions, and today begins the series of auditions that it feels like he has been working towards for the vast majority of his life, ever since he fell in love with the inexpensive but realistic bongos that my partner, Steve Vrooman, and I bought him for Christmas when he was only 6 years old. 

Today, he and a group of his fellow SHS musicians are in Austin competing at Area auditions for a spot in the State Band. And, it's crazy to me how calm and collected he was this morning as he prepared before dawn to catch the bus in comparison to the last two times that he went up for this annual competition. 

But, it makes sense: Sam has subjected himself to this kind of scrutiny and judging time and time again. Through loads of practice, my child has opened himself up to the experience of reaching for a lofty goal and taken the inevitable criticism and failure that comes along with that journey and learned to grow from it rather than be crushed and defeated by it. 

On days like today, this kid is my hero. 

Now, make no mistake, this kid drives me absolutely crazy, and we butt heads more often than not. For heaven's sake, Sam's 17 and chomping at the bit to graduate high school and start studying music full time in college, and I'm 44, recently thrust into full-blown menopause and chomping at my own bit to have just a smidgen of control over my schedule! Add in my college professor partner, Sam's father, and life in our little home can get pretty explosive!

But, when I take a step back from my role as Sam's mother and instead look at my son as a fellow creative, that is when this kid becomes my hero. 

There were many times over the course of the last four years where Sam could have given up on his goal to become a symphonic percussionist and attend college as a music performance major. There were auditions that didn't go as well as he needed them to, there was critical and sometimes emotionally painful feedback that was challenging to bounce back from, there was pressure from peers to spend his time differently, there was the eventual recognition that to achieve greater growth as a musician he needed to devote financial resources as well as time to his goal and therefore go without other typical teenage niceties, and all of these experiences were piled on top of the typical fears and doubts all creatives have on a day to day basis. 

My child is not my superhero. 

Sam has had moments of crushing doubt about his talent, experienced crippling performance insecurities, and he has made poor decisions and lived to feel the regret about them. My child is not graced with superhuman creative ability; he is not the Thor or Hulk or Superman of the percussive arts.

No, my child is my average, run-of-the-mill hero. 

Sam is the kind of all-too-human creative that helps me keep me pulling out blank drawing paper and putting more black lines on it even if the last few sheets that I've pulled out and gotten messy ended up balled up and thrown into the recycling bin. He is the kind of creative that reminds me that I need to be kinder to myself and reach out for the support of those I love and trust when fear and doubt creep into my brain, whispering to me that "no one needs to see any more coloring books created by you," "no one needs to read any more random and meandering blog posts by you," "no one cares that you have a passion to share a variety of creative arts with others so shut-the-hell-up on social media," "you're a fraud, a no-talent, a fake," "you're not an artist - you don't have a degree in art!" Sam is the kind of creative that reminds me that this is a journey I've chosen not a just a career, and that the goal of the journey is to keep experiencing it, keep finding new goals, keep challenging myself, keep learning, keep sharing, and that if that makes it difficult to answer the omnipresent question "So, what do you do?" when I meet someone new, so be it. If that person sticks around for the answer, well, then that's a good sign that perhaps they will be an interesting new acquaintance.

I don't know that I could or would have traveled on the artistic pathway that I have these last two years since publishing my first coloring book, Doodled Blooms, back in April of 2016 were it not for the fact that its publication coincided with Sam's decision to become a symphonic percussionist and study music in college. Were it not for watching and supporting him through this arduous, incredibly stressful process, were it not for seeing how many times he had the opportunity to throw in the towel, and were it not for observing that he continually chose to keep his nose to the grindstone, I don't think that I would have had the spirit to keep coming back to my drawing board, my computer every time my life got thrown a loop that took me way off course and threw me hugely behind schedule (something that happens quite often when you're the parent of a teenager) or every time someone asked me "So, you make money this way?" (Well, yes, a little, when people buy my book or think to hire me for a creativity workshop because they have enjoyed my blog or my library coloring meet-ups. But, you're right, super-smart-and-nosy person, I do not get paid explicitly for the lion's share of the creative work I do. Thank you for echoing my anxiety's biggest and most frequent concern!). 

Even last Saturday when we had ring-side seats to the San Antonio Symphony's struggle to keep this amazingly talented symphony going financially, Sam remained steadfast in his determination to pursue music professionally. After listening to conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing's ardent speech about the need for the arts to be present in a community for it to be a truly human society, but yet noting how consistently public policy was not in support of creativity, that somewhere along the way the word "sustainable" when applied to the arts had become synonymous with "cheap," I leaned over and queried my son about whether or not the SA Symphony's dire financial situation made him nervous for his own professional and financial future. Sam looked at me and simply replied, "no." 

Sam is the kind of creative I have learned to trust and hold up as my hero not because he has accomplished so much or gained success upon success. My son is my creative hero because of how he behaves when the inevitable bumps in his artistic journey slam into him. This kid is my hero because he dusts himself off when he gets knocked down, he opens his ears and heart to the feedback of those he trusts, and he consistently gets back to the business of being a young musician, which is not performance, applause and accolades. The business of being a creative is creating, and in Sam's case, that business is practicing, researching, and auditioning. If you have a few minutes, here is Sam's full college audition set for your listening pleasure. This 18 minute video is the work of 7 months of practice, both at home and at school, and almost a full 8 hours spent videoing to get a seamless recording of his solo work on three different instruments. When Sam is asked by an adult what he is going to study in college and his response is met with, "So what'll you do with that?" it takes every ounce of control I have not to rip the questioner's face off. What my child has learned through the music performance application process alone will without a doubt help him earn a good living doing something anywhere. It has also helped him learn how to deal with such banal interrogations much better than I do.




This kid is my hero because he has taught me that I need to take myself and my creativity more seriously because no one else is going to do it for me. Music is what my kid has to do and so he does it. I have to create, and what that creation looks like from one day to the next is going to be completely different. Because of Sam, I have started to look at myself as the percussionist of artists:  I have a need to draw, dance, teach, write, paint, collaborate, share, choreograph, collage, and build. And allowing myself to engage in each different style of creation fuels me into greater creativity with all the other styles, and in my opinion, makes me a better artist, educator, teacher, partner, writer, painter, builder, creator. I have tried many times to take the alternative and more traditional path to the creative one I now find myself on. I worked hard to stay on these paths, I tried to make these jobs into something I could look forward to waking up to each morning, and for the most part I was successful. But, each time the opportunity presented itself for me to step off and away from these positions, I took it, eventually, and without a terrible lot of looking backward or hoping that I would return to that one specific profession someday. And, I think it is because of this kid and of my having access to the best seat in the house for his creative journey that I have chosen, only just recently, to commit to this business of creating and to engage with my own creative journey just as Sam has engaged with his, bumps, successes, fears, victories and all.

This kid is my hero, and I am really looking forward to hearing how his first of many auditions this year went today.

Monday, January 1, 2018

A Nerd's Coloring Supplies Guide Trilogy: Episode II, Markers & Pens

by Michelle M. Johnson

Welcome to the continuation of my Nerd's Coloring Supplies Guide Trilogy: Episode II, Markers & Pens!

Let me start off by saying that up until about a year ago, I wholeheartedly was NOT a markers and pens kind of colorist. When I colored, I engaged in colored pencils, and that was that (for more on the difference between being a colored pencil person or a markers & pens person, check out this post I wrote early last year)! But, so many of the folks that I lead through coloring and creativity workshops really enjoyed the deep saturation of colors and the speed of markers and pens that I decided to take a little bit of my own advice and start exploring that which puts me out of my comfort zone in my own personal coloring. This collection of coloring tools and my thoughts on them is the fruit of that deep dive down my very own rabbit hole, a dive that has, I'm happy to say (but my wallet isn't!), made me quite a bit more excited about coloring and creating with markers and pens:)

Oh, and just to reiterate from Episode I: the links that I attach to my blog posts are Amazon Affiliate links, which means that should you decide to purchase an item based on clicking the link from here in this post, I earn a small (really small, but every penny counts!) amount of money per purchase. I'm not suggesting that you do anything with this post besides read it and hopefully gain some useful information from it. But, should you decide to purchase something while reading this post or after reading this post, it would be lovely if you used the links found here in this post. Thank you:)

Episode II: Markers & Pens

Tombow Dual Brush Pen Art Markers 96 Count Set

As an independent artist and coloring book creator, I spend quite a bit of time on social media talking about my work, my workshops, coloring, creativity, etc. as I do not have a PR team or a marketing department behind me to let the world know all about what I am doing, my books, my ideas. It is a lot of work to take on, but because I do it all myself, I have had the opportunity to make really wonderful relationships with colorists and creatives around the world. It is through these international relationships that I learn about coloring tools that are not easy to find on the shelves of major arts and crafts stores in the United States. One such relationship is with the lovely Tabby May, a Dutch colorist and creative living in Spain. It is through Tabby and her exploration of my coloring book, Doodled Blooms, that I came to be familiar with the awesomeness of Tombow Dual Brush Pens. In her review of my coloring book, I discovered that Tombows are no ordinary marker: these lovelies are a watercolor marker, something I had not heard of until I met Tabby. What that means is that the ink used in this marker is water based and, therefore, incredibly blendable. You can blend the ink of Tombows in one of four different ways: 1. With the colorless blending marker that comes with each set the company sells 2. By using a water brush just as you would with watercolor pencils or actual watercolor paints 3. Through touching the nibs of these pens to each other, allowing ink to transfer back and forth, creating new shades and 4. By using a rigid piece of plastic (I like to use transparency sheets) as a paint palette, mixing new colors on the plastic and dipping either the colorless blender, paint brush or a different colored Tombow into the spots of "paint" and then adding the color to your page. Tombows are self-healing markers, so when colors mix up on a brush tip, all you need to do to clean the marker is scribble on a clean sheet of paper to return the marker tip to its original state. These pens also have 2 tips: a flexible brush tip and a "fine point" rigid fiber tip. Personally, the "fine point" fiber tip isn't nearly fine enough to get into the tiny spaces adult coloring books are known to have, but that doesn't matter to me as I love the flexible brush tip end of these pens so very much. I believe these markers have been my "gate way" marker, if you will, because after getting to use these babies and discovering I could have as much control over color, shading and blending with a marker as I did with a pencil, I became all the more curious to tap into the world of marker and pens. These pens are easy to hold, long lasting, come in a great selection of colors, are washable, and useful for far more than coloring in coloring books. I have used these pens in card making, stamping, lettering, and I have seen others use them in bullet journaling, fine arts and illustration. However, while I did say that they are washable, these pens have tips that will not respond well to being used by immature hands or extreme pressure. These are an artist's tool not an elementary school tool. But, if you have an artful child in mind for these pens, one who understands how to care for art supplies, these are a great and much less expensive alternative to Copic Alcohol Markers. I have introduced many creative folks to these watercolor markers at the Seguin Public Library's monthly Adult Coloring Club, and it is telling how many of the library's patrons decide to buy themselves their very own set of Tombow Dual Brush Pens to use at home - these markers are that awesome:)

Bic Marking Permanent Markers Fine Point 36 Count Set and Ultra Fine Point 36 Count Set


I know many a colorist that loves to color with permanent markers, specifically Sharpies. I, however, have never been a fan: the ink was always too heavy, too irregular and way too smelly! But, then my friend and fellow co-host of the New Braunfels Public Library's Coloring Therapy program, Toni Davenport, introduced me to Bic Marking (sometimes labelled as Bic Markit) permanent markers...and I absolutely love these markers! They come in a fine tip (a tip very similar to a basic Sharpie point) and an ultra fine tip (exactly the same as the ultra fine tip from Sharpie) and in 36 unique colors. What puts them above any other permanent marker in my estimation is that they: 1. Do Not Smell 2. Have a lovely flow of ink which saturates nicely, leaving behind very few, if any, streak marks 3. They blend beautifully with a variety of techniques 4. The pens come with color names on them making it easy to remember which color you used and 5. The ink from pen to pen is consistent in color, depth, shade and tone (something that is wildly inconsistent with Sharpie permanent makers - every yellow Sharpie is a brand new shade of yellow, despite the caps all being identical). Because of all of this flexibility, I am finding myself using these markers more and more frequently, even though they are an alcohol based ink. These markers are also excellent for folks who have grip issues or very dry hands as each pen has a rubber hand grip making holding the marker quite effortless. Now, while I love these pens and they are not going to break anyone's creative cash budget, these still are PERMANENT MARKERS. I do not recommend these pens for young children as whatever these pens mark up, the ink will stay on that item. Additionally, they will not respond well to being banged up or left uncapped. These are markers for mature colorists.

Staedtler Triplus Fiber Tip Markers 20 Count Set


If you are familiar with the world of coloring, than you have probably heard of coloring book creator, Johanna Basford. It is through my discovery of Ms. Basford's books back in 2013 that I stumbled upon Staedtler Triplus Fiber Tip Markers. There is really nothing terribly remarkable about these markers: they are permanent, they come in a limited yet vibrant selection of colors, they are long-lasting (I have had mine 5 years and they still perform), the ink doesn't smell, and they are easy to travel with (I have flown with these markers quite a few times, and they haven't leaked ink or exploded). I include these in my Nerd Coloring Supplies Guide even though I personally have grown beyond these markers because they are ubiquitous ever since Johanna Basford endorsed them. They are a decent marker, but compared to the Bic Marking permanent makers, they simply do not cover as well or as enjoyably. Additionally, Staedtler is quite a bit more expensive than other comparable markers without having anything extraordinary about them (besides the artist's name that they are attached to) to warrant their expense. If you find these markers for under $15 dollars, go for it; it isn't money badly spent. But, if you already have a nice collection of permanent markers, the Staedtler Triplus Fiber Tips do not offer greater quality or color selection.


Staedtler Triplus Fineliners Markers 36 Count Set


I hold the same opinion about the Staedtler Triplus Fineline Markers  as I do about the Staedtler Tripulus Fiber Tip Markers. For the price of them, they do not offer much in addition to what you will receive from any other permanent marker. While these markers have a .3mm tip, a much finer tip than what you will find on a Sharpie or Bic permanent marker, Staedtler tends to run dry, meaning the ink flow of these markers is rather slow, requiring quite a few passes of the tip to get coverage of a particular section of a coloring page. Having a slow flow of ink is a plus for folks who are concerned about ink bleeding and causing colors to flow "outside the lines," but, if you are coloring anything but the tiniest of space on your coloring page, the likelihood of the paper of your book tearing because of the number of passes you have to make to get complete coverage is high. For the tiniest of spaces, I no longer pick up my Staedtler Fineliners but instead reach for a gel pen or use my Bic Marking Permanent Markers with a very fine, almost paint-brush-like touch to achieve the look I am going for. That being said, if I am traveling, I take these markers with me as they are hearty, do not leak ink, and if something should happen to them, it will not break my heart. Back when I purchased these in 2013, Staedtler Fineliners were an exciting addition to my coloring tools collection. Since then, though, the market has expanded immensely and creatively, and there are quite a few other tools that perform equally if not better than these markers do. But, as always, if you find this set for under $15, it is still money well spent, especially if the coloring pages you enjoy have microscopic sections to color.

Sakura Gelly Roll Gel Pens


Gel pens are all the rage in coloring right now, and Sakura Gelly Roll Gel Pens are the gold standard of all the many different brands of gel pens available for purchase online, in grocery stores, in art supply stores, in bookstores, in airports (you get the idea: gel pens are hot right now). And, they are a great little coloring tool that is actually higher in quality than the rest of the lot. But, they are expensive, come in trendy color packs that go in and out of availability rapidly, can be unwieldy for novice colorists (the ink takes quite a long time to dry, so smudges happen easily and ink gets on hands) and do not travel well (I read up on my coloring supplies before I take them through changes in altitude, and Sakura's pens have been known to respond poorly to air travel). Despite all that, I have had my eye on Sakura's largest set of Gelly Rolls, the 74 set, now for some time. Why? Well, due to their slower drying ink, these pens respond really well to dry brush blending and intentional smudging, things that are really fun to experiment with in both my coloring and my drawing. Additionally, Gelly Rolls layer over permanent marker and colored pencil really well, making creating of depth, shading, and patterns incredibly easy. As well, their roller ball system is unbelievably smooth, an added bonus when you are working with thin or over saturated paper; Gelly Rolls do not pull or tear at the tooth of paper. If you are looking to try something new with your coloring or looking to give an artistic friend or family member a cool new tool, Gelly Rolls are a good investment.

Color Technik Glitter Gel Pens 50 Count Set


As I said before, gel pens are all the rage, so in an effort to keep my coloring tools up to date for my workshops, I went on the pursuit of a less expensive alternative to Gelly Rolls. My research into all pens sparkly and gel-ly this summer lead me to Color Technik's Glitter Gel Pens, which have been wildly popular with the folks who've had the opportunity to color with them in my workshops. These pens have a fabulous selection of colors, have a decent ink flow, and come in a nice carrying case to keep them organized. Glitter pens are great fun in coloring, adding interesting shine and glitz to coloring pages, especially intensely patterned coloring books. I was very happy with the purchase of this set of 50 unique glittery shades of gel pens, and half of that happiness was that the set cost less than $20 this past August. However, in doing my research for the links for this blog post, I am sad to say that the price on this Color Technik set has jumped to $50! This particular set of gel pens was going to be my cost-effective alternative suggestion to Gelly Roll gel pens for y'all, but at $49.99 it is no longer a huge savings as this product does not perform nearly as well. Like I said before, gel pens (and especially GLITTER gel pens) are incredibly popular and like any popular good, the principle of supply and demand can greatly affect the price we are going to have to pay for an item. This appears to be the case with the Color Technik Glitter Gel Pens. I am glad I bought them at the price I did because I enjoy them, but I do not recommend them at a price that is over $20.

Pentel Arts Sign Pen Fude Brush Tip Marker 12 Count Set


The Pentel Arts Sign Brush Flexible Point Markers share a few similar qualities with the Tombow Dual Brush Pens: they both are brush pens and have water-based, blendable ink. Where these pens differ is in the intensity of the ink (Pentel Sign Brush Pens have very vibrant, deep colors that lay down ink similarly to an alcohol-based marker) and the size and flexibility of the brush tip (Pentel Sign Brush Pens have a much smaller and more stiff brush tip than Tombow Dual Brush Pens). The 12 count set is the largest selection of colors in Pentel brush tip pens, but I still find myself really enjoying these throwback pens (the last time I had a Pentel set of markers was when I was in junior high!). Because the flexible tip is very tight, I find coloring with the point of the brush tip of these pens very easy. I bought these pens to begin my studies of brush lettering (an art form I plan to explore in 2018), but I have enjoyed using this simple set in bits and pieces of my coloring, card making and stamping. The set is also a great size to take outside when I feel moved to color and/or create out of doors. And, I am definitely glad I purchased them for my future brush lettering studies as having a smaller stiff brush feels like it will be easier for me to control as I am learning than a larger more flexible brush tip like the Tombows have.

For someone who a year ago wasn't really all that interested in expressing themselves with markers and/or pens, I have rather quickly amassed a diverse and dense collection of said coloring tools. I believe my embracing of markers and pens this year has had a lot to do with the busy-ness of my schedule (markers and pens really do allow you to finish a coloring page faster) and to my watching the participants of my coloring and creativity workshops enjoy experimenting with them so much (I taught folks about these tools, but I didn't really used them, which felt inauthentic at best and unprepared at worst). What I didn't expect to discover in my pursuit of a deeper knowledge of pens and markers was that I was going to come to love creating with them so much; in the past 5 months I have colored almost exclusively with markers and pens, and I have really enjoyed pushing myself to try new techniques with them. Markers and pens are so much more than broad-stroke-making art supplies!

That's not to say that I have left my precious colored pencils behind for good, not in the least! In fact, stay tuned for Episode III of my Nerd Coloring Supplies Guide where we will be returning to the world of colored pencils to discover the differences between watercolor and water soluble pencils. It will be absolutely gripping, I promise;) Duh, duh, duuuuuh!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A Nerd's Coloring Supplies Guide Triology: Episode I, Colored Pencils

by Michelle M. Johnson

For as long as I have been leading folks through coloring and creativity workshops, I have been asked to create a guide for all of the coloring supplies that I have used and/or taught with...so, for about two years...that's how long I have been procrastinating creating this guide of my familiar supplies for folks! Why have I procrastinated SO long? Well, every few weeks or so, I come across yet another coloring tool that I want to explore, so I delay writing a coloring tool guide as I go about gathering up more knowledge and experience (that, and I have been incredibly busy these last two years, but that's not a good excuse: EVERYBODY is busy!). If you haven't noticed, coloring is rather popular now, so popular in fact I don't think it is too far off to say that coloring for adults has helped to reignite a demand for art supplies as well as to reinvigorate the market; new tools are popping up left and right: shimmering brush tip markers? gel pens from Crayola? Just a year ago, these products just didn't exist. But, I digress. 

On to my guide to all of coloring tools, with photos, buying links, the works! This is Episode I of a proposed Coloring Supplies Guide Trilogy (you have no idea how awesome it feels to call my coloring tools guide a "trilogy" - the depth of my nerdiness seriously knows no bounds!). Why a trilogy? Well, I have quite a lot of coloring tools as I do this sort of thing professionally, and I have a lot of opinions on each of the supplies (which is why I assume you are reading this blog post, for my impression of these tools), so rather than smack y'all with a eye-bending monster of a saga of all the coloring supplies I'm acquainted with, I thought I would break it into bite-sized chunks of three categories: Colored Pencils, Markers & Pens, and Watercolor vs. Water Soluble Colored Pencils.

One disclaimer I feel I should add though: the links that I attach to my blog posts are Amazon Affiliate links, which means that should you decide to purchase an item based on clicking the link from here in this post, I earn a small (really small, but every penny counts!) amount of money per purchase. I'm not suggesting that you do anything with this post besides read it and hopefully gain some useful information from it. But, should you decide to purchase something while reading this post or after reading this post, it would be lovely if you used the links found here in this post. Thank you:)

Episode I: Colored Pencils

Prismacolor Premiere Colored Pencils 150 Count Set


Up until just recently, Prismacolor Premiere Soft Core Colored Pencils were the top of the line colored pencil a coloring enthusiast could have. I bought my set back in early 2015, and I was thrilled by the selection of colors: the numerous greys, the enormous depth of purples, blues, oranges, browns, etc. What I was not so thrilled with was the quality. Prismacolor Colored Pencils do have a great lay down feel, soft and smooth, their colors are vibrant and blend well, and they still can't be beat by any product for size of color collection, but they are quite fragile. Additionally, the color core of these pencils is not always intact, which leads me to believe that there must be decreased quality control at the manufacturing level than what there used to be before coloring got big. Don't get me wrong, I love my Prismacolors and I am very happy to have them! But, if you have a heavy hand when coloring or your pencil sharpener is a brute, these expensive pencils will not last you long. 


I stumbled upon this little workhorse of a colored pencil when I was trying to outfit many loved ones with their own collection of colored pencils for Christmas a few years ago. For the price (which oscillates on Amazon between as high as $25 and as low as $17 depending on the season), the collection of colors one gets with the Marco Raffine 72 Colored Pencil set can't be beat. Where these pencils may frustrate some folks is that they are hard rather than creamy. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially if you have a heavy hand when coloring. But, if you have any issues with your hand joints or grip, getting deep dark colors out of these pencils will be difficult. I still recommend these pencils to folks just getting into coloring because they are very easy to shade with given the lovely color values  of the major color families present in this set. These pencils also respond to using Vaseline as a blending and softening agent very well, so the problem of color lay down is easily solved if you are on a creative-cash budget. Additionally, if you color with children, these tough pencils hold up nicely to immature hands trying to sharpen them and to being dropped and/or stepped on. These are not a preferred artist tool like the Prismacolors, but because of the price, the color selection, and the durability, they cannot be beat, even by Crayola, which typically is the brand of colored pencil folks think of as the place to start for adult coloring.


I love coloring in coloring books with Koh-I-Noor colored pencils! The colors are vibrant, the color cores are soft and creamy, and they lay down color easily and without much pressure. Polycolors are also durable, so these pencils make a great "step-up" colored pencil for folks looking to invest in an artist's quality colored pencil. I have even used this set successfully with my nieces and nephew, who were pre-schoolers at the time, and had no pencils broken and smiles all around at being encouraged to be big coloring with Auntie. There is one caveat to these lovelies though: they have a very limited color selection. The largest collection Koh-I-Noor makes in their Polycolor line is 72, which for me is a huge let down. I absolutely prefer coloring with my Polycolors to my Prismacolors, but when I am trying to create color gradients and depth in my coloring, I find I have to reach for my other colored pencil sets to achieve the look I am going for due to their limited color selection. 


As I said before, I absolutely LOVE coloring with Koh-I-Noor colored pencils, and their Progresso Woodless Colored Pencils are some of my absolute favorites! These pencils respond the best, I think, to coloring techniques that utilize pressure and hatch-marks because they hold a point beautifully for a really long time, much longer than my Prismacolors or my Polycolors. I also love that they come in this handy, dandy traveling case, making them my go-to colored pencil for when I travel. But (and this is a BIG but!), these lovelies are VERY fragile, not when you color with them, of course, but if (or really when) you drop them onto a hard surface (like a floor or table, two things that are required when coloring). Progresso Woodless colored pencils are a solid core of color, no wood barrier to protect them from any impact, so despite the fact that they have a thin lacquer on them to keep the color from getting all over you, that coating does NOTHING should a pencil be dropped onto a hard surface...nothing. These pencils shatter on impact, no joke (I bet you're asking how I know that's true...yes, I learned the hard way.). So, these are not a pencil for the rough and tumble sort, the clumsy sort, the under 13 sort. They are also probably not a pencil for folks who have issues with their grip as they are very slick as well. That being said, I love them. Even with the 24 count set being their largest selection of colors, I find myself turning to my Koh-I-Noor Woodless more often than not, probably because when I get to color for myself, it is that we are traveling, and these are my traveling coloring buddies:)


Another option for the coloring enthusiast who is looking to take a step up in their colored pencil game is the Faber-Castell Art Grip Colored Pencil. This pencil has similar qualities to the Marco Raffines, but the color lay down is smoother, the barrels are triangular making them easier to hold, and they have a grippy texture, great for hands that have issues with gripping. My creative son prefers these pencils to my other sets as he deeply loves to shade and create gradients with layers and pressure. These pencils have a very dry feel to them, which is why they are so great for layering colors and varying pressure. They are neither expensive nor inexpensive. They only come in 36 colors, which I find to be a downfall. They are durable, come with a carrying case, and are easy to color with. They are pleasant middle of the road pencil, in my experience, so if you find them for under $25, grab them and add them to your collection:)







Well, there you have it: a buyer's guide to all the colored pencils I have thus far had the opportunity to explore. And, I say a "buyer's guide" because I have quite few other sets of colored pencils that I still use that are no longer being produced. In fact my favorite colored pencil of all time, Spectracolor (colors so lush and dreamy, absolutely buttery color lay down), are all but extinct. A quick Google search will show you that they go for a pretty penny on eBay as there are many folks like me that still love using this pencil. I have a set of 48 colors that I received as a Christmas gift when I was in high school that I use sparingly as they are quite literally irreplaceable. But, I still use them because how sad it would be for such beautiful colored pencils to become museum pieces!

As I said before, this is Episode I of my proposed Coloring Supplies Guide Trilogy, so stay tuned for Episode II, Markers & Pens, to be published sooner rather than later...I hope ;)