Staying in the Lines

DRAWING: Lousy coloring skills? What do you do?

Oh, just blame it on that "awful" elementary art teacher that students must have had who obviously didn't make them color in the lines - or, read the words of wisdom below.


How do you get students to slow down and take pride in their work? That's a topic that comes up on Getty TeacherArtExchange e-mail list group in one form or another from time to time. This most recent thread in response to a new middle school teacher was of special interest to me. Honestly, I hated it when I was substituting for a teacher who demanded the children all color a certain way -- and they were failures if they didn't meet her expectations for coloring "perfectly." Students were bored and the work all looked the same. Students traced patterns and colored them all alike, like little robots. There was no creativity and no thinking involved, just coloring perfectly.

This middle school teacher was concerned because she spent a long time planning their drawing lesson only to have student hurrying through the coloring. Some didn't even stay in the lines.

Stay in the lines! From an elementary teacher: "I know that on our kindergarten report card, students are actually assessed on whether they can fill in a shape with solid color. Doing all the things you said, staying in the lines, no white showing, dark color vs. light color, etc. For them it is a way to assess fine motor skills. You can imagine my shock when I first discovered they were graded on coloring in the lines!"


"Funny story... A kindergarten teacher came to me and said she had had a difficult parent conference. This parent was upset because the teacher had marked her daughter down on 'coloring in the lines.' The parent could not understand why the teacher did this. The student had artwork in art contests and loved art, she could not understand why the teacher had marked her down on coloring in the lines. When the teacher came to me, I pulled out the student's portfolio and showed her the work to date. The teacher said the student was not doing the same kind of work in her class as she was in art."


"So, my response to the question do we teach coloring skills in elementary? - I would have to say in art, I teach proper use of all art media. When we are using colored pencils we talk about layering colors, no white showing (this is a biggie throughout) etc. We talk about using oil pastels to have a "painterly look" rather than like a crayon drawing - again, no white showing. I think it would depend on what the elementary art program is like. For instance, you can't do much in half an hour a week. If I am lucky, I see my students one hour a week."

This teacher's philosophy: "It is hard to stay in the lines when you don't start with any!" Make your expectations clear and help them find ways to get there.

Patty Caiola
"Here is my take from my own experiences teaching K-6: From Kindergarten on up, during every lesson, I always teach them the proper technique for any medium and/or tool that I introduce/use in the art room. I was so surprised my first year at this school that my 6th graders did not even know how to hold a paintbrush properly. They were all holding them like they had "cooties" or something. The minute the 6th graders all received a pair of scissors, they were holding them open, spinning them around on their fingers, even putting their fingers in between the blades! Did no teacher ever teach them that scissors were for paper not for people? I had second graders who would cry uncontrollably if they made one line that was not "perfect" on their paper, instead of erasing it and trying again. Did no other teacher show them the magical orange thing on the end of their pencil called an eraser? From coloring with crayons, we teach students how to safely use tools (i.e. scissors) so there is no bleeding in the art room. We also teach them the proper techniques for colored pencils, I always stress to them that the more they know how to properly hold and use a tool in the art room the better their skills will become."

"I also agree that laziness and lack of caring about a project goes hand in hand with their neatness. I can point out to a student exactly where on their project they stopped caring or gave up trying. I applaud my students who take the time to use the tools properly and care about their work. It is like students forgot why erasers were invented! They assume that if they do not draw something exactly right the first time every time they try something, it is ugly and they have to give up right away. I tell them that art is like any other activity, you have to practice to improve your skills. Football players have to practice, if you want to read better you have to practice reading at home and not just at school, want to know your times tables... then you have to practice, and if you want to be better in art, then you have to practice your art skills. Art class is where you learn about new ideas and have the chance to practice them with me. I have students with poor fine motor skills complete some creative projects that may not look as 'neat' as my general ed students, but the difference is they took their time and made the effort to use their tools properly."

"So, for the past few years at my school I have been making it my mission to teach the proper way to use tools, to emphasis that it is more important to try and fail than not try at all, no "but mine is ugly" because that is showing disrespect to themselves, and no "scribble scrabble" allowed with any tool. (unless the specific project specifies scribbling, of course) I am noticing with my younger students who have had me for a few years now that their skill level with the materials are improving... and the fear of making a mistake has lessened a bit as well. Self esteem is also an important skill to learn in the art room."


From Marvin Bartel - Professor Goshen College

"This has been a good topic and I've seen some great responses. This web page is a Poinsettia ball point color drawing that I did last Saturday. It was inspired by reading your question about coloring skills. I send it as my holiday greeting to all of you on the list. I did the pencil work on a piece of drawing paper on my clipboard while soaking in the tub with the plant setting next to the tub. I then carried the plant to the table where I colored in the lines with ball point pens."


"My two-bits worth about coloring in the lines:

1. I agree with those who say that some styles work much better for tight and structured working and others need a playful and carefree approach. Often a project can use the playful approach during the ideation stage and then move to the intense focus during the execution stage."

2. "I agree with those who say careful work takes focus and patience. I can identify with this because I can do this type of work much easier on certain days. For me it really requires intrinsic motivation. As teachers, we need to trick their minds into wanting to do it - not an easy trick. I also find it much harder to color in somebody else's lines than in my lines. Here are two ideas I have used to try to add motivation by offering technique."

1. "Ask them to figure out the drawing in very light pencil line using Magic Rub Erasers. to get it the way they want it before adding any tone or color. I also ask them to make an outline for the cast shadows, dark tone, and mid-tones. Part of the preliminary drawing must include the outline of the white highlight on each item where no tone or color will be added - just white paper. Obviously, they begin to see much more when these requirements are part of the preparation. I do not draw for them. They work from something real - not copy work. Then in another medium such as markers I have them add tone and color but no outlines. Then they have to erase all the pencil outlines so only tone and color remain. I find they are more likely to care about the work if they have done more preparation before adding the color and tone and if they are learning to create a special effect."

This web page shows a small stippled example where the drawing lines have been removed:


2. "Show how to use a half stencil (pieces they cut as needed from construction paper) to protect an area so the crayon or marker can slide onto another area without messing up the protected part. I don't demonstrate, but I have them do preliminary practice how to hold the stencil card and how to move the crayon to avoid getting color where it is not wanted."


"I use this method myself to save time when I creating architectural presentation drawings and other illustrations such as the Poinsettia drawing. It works well when darkening a background to make the foreground objects pop forward. A clean stencil also works great to isolate an area for an eraser to bring out a highlight."


This web page has other ideas.

Marvin Bartel, Ed.D., Professor of Art Emeritus
Goshen College, 1700 South Main, Goshen IN 46526

Susan from Long Island
"One of the things that has amazed me is how poorly the students color with Colored Pencils., Crayons., and Oil Pastels.. They just scribble the color on in different directions, using long strokes which make the color streaky, making the colors look pastel, not pressing down to get a richer color without all the "holes" of white paper showing through. And, *gasp*, they go outside the lines. They are often resistant to my demos showing how to fill in their shapes with solid color."

"It's funny that this is why I have an aversion to colored pencils and especially Crayons.! I NEVER give them crayons or colored pencils because of exactly what you describe."

"So here's my secret - When the project calls for it, I always have them use water soluble colored pencils. Prang Colored Pencils. are expensive but absolutely wonderful. And, the kids love coloring with colored pencils and then using clear water over the colors to blend. Ahhh, the pencil turns magically to paint, and voila!, no scribble marks! Cray-Pas. can be more easily blended, but I find that painting large areas is the most successful technique with this age group. I always thought that my kids are always painting because paint is my favorite medium to use in my personal work. But, now that you brought up the subject, I realize that everything my students color look better painted and that they have the most success and control with paint."

"For example, I did a version of Bunki's lesson, the 3D boxes with the "squiggles" running through the holes. Thanks, Bunki, for sharing that project with us, my kids loved it! It was a disaster for my 5th graders when I tried to get them to color neatly with the Prang colored pencils. As soon as I switched to the Prang water soluble colored pencils, their art took on a "finished" look. I'll get around to putting it on my school website, or I should say I'll eventually get someone to show me how to do it, so you can see what I mean."

From Linda Woods
"I use oil pastels and colored pencils on black paper. I love the way they look on black paper. If the paper shows through the color a bit it just enhances the color and makes it look richer. I demonstrate blending and shading with my youngest kids on up, and a big part of my demo is about creating movement by the way you apply your color. I tell them that they must outline the edges of their shapes with their color before they fill in with color to keep their drawings readable when they color. I demonstrate what those choppy zigzaggy edges look like and how they make their nice, carefully drawn edges disappear. All kids agree that not paying attention to edges is the worst thing you can do to your picture. I also demonstrate how to make furry edges, like dog's tails, Feather Assortment., etc. Not all edges are hard. I tell them that their coloring MUST show attention to edges, and they must consider the direction that they apply their color for things like pet fur, flower petals, clouds, water movement (never up and down for water), the way grass grows, for contrast with another section, to show radial movement in a background, etc.) I also tell them that if they scribble or rush they will start over. I think the black paper will make your colored pencils and oil pastels look 1,000 percent more exciting with young children. Try it. One more benefit... no fingerprints from oil pastels on black paper!!! They can work on white paper when they are older and have more control." Linda Woods.


From Judy Decker
There are all sorts of ways to color. I did lessons that required them to try different techniques. Design a lesson that USES their messy way. My favorite was an abstract/Impressionistic landscape. We used oil pastels on black paper (Each student started with three 6" x12" [15.25 x 30.5 cm] strips). Blending many colors on each strip (they had to decide on which colors to be sky - the other two were land colors - or water if they chose). Then tore the strips to make an "Impressionistic" landscape. Torn strips were glued to 12" [30.5 cm] square white paper - no white could show - colored strips overlapped. They colored additional strips if needed... and shared extra strips from others at their table. Added in torn trees/bushes, too. My "worst" students made the best projects. It is a no fail lesson - they all turn out - and they get to color their way. I did a crayon etching where they HAD to color hard and heavy. Did not matter if they got outside the lines slightly. They couldn't put the black ink on until I gave them the OK. Then they scratched off the ink (like a Scratchboard.) - and the colors showed. Following are a few lessons on IAD:

Try crayon resist/batik. They HAVE to color heavy on that one, too. See Ken's Illumination lesson, Crayon Resist Illumination. They need a reason to do it "your way". Design a lesson that shows the reason.


See Mixed Breed animals: - Select 2006 5.1 & 2 Mixed Breed. Lesson plan on IAD, Mixed Breed Fantasy Animals. This would be a great lesson for 5th or 6th grade. Sixth grade learn about middle ages in social studies - bring in Beastiery and Gargoyles. Check out these pastel drawings - See how rich they look with not-so-perfect coloring: (Select 2006 3.1 & 3.3 Still Life). Linda... I may just have to add these to IAD, too. Another great project to teach coloring skills is Cubism. I have done it with grades 3 through 7. See Bunki Kramer's Cubism with Construction Paper Crayons.: Crayon Cubism. My lessons used colored pencils - but the technique is basically the same."


"Here is another Bunki winner - Jim Dine Hearts: Tribute to Jim Dine - This is another lesson I used that was successful. Wish I had some of the better examples. Egyptian Time Warp - The Hieroglyphics don't show up in this image. The best ones were the first year I did them - but I didn't have a digital camera then. Hmmm, I see I never added the other lesson using Watercolor Pencils. and Washable Markers.. My kids liked using the special crayons - and special pencils (like the metallic ones and Watercolor Pencils.). The Metallic Oil Pastels. were a big hit on the landscape collage I told you about. Hope this helps."


Light Lines: Make them "Whisper"
Coloring Skills - High School Perspective from Wendy Free

"For my beginning art 1 class, i intentionally start out with all black and white projects - the entire first nine weeks. i emphasize drawing skills and really stress creating a range of value with pencil and ink work. to me this makes a lot of sense curriculum and skill-building wise, but i also get mileage from dramatizing the fact that we're "working up to" using color, so that students are really gung-ho to have "earned" the right to go into colored media. then we start with colored pencil, since i think its the easiest media to use to demonstrate good coloring skills. i do a practice exercise with my students - they watch me demo and work along - for good coloring: smooth, even, gradually built up layers of color. we do a lot of practice with directional lines and coloring, creating value with one color, and then mixing colors. i make my students do a monochromatic rainbow piece (will post those next on my photo site at yahoo) and for the rainbow they can use only primaries - the rest must be made by blending. i also make them do a project where each major area of solid color has to be faded according to light source using light and dark analogous colors and the complement of the main color (this year it was the words and picture project - will put those up at the yahoo site, too, prob. over break). i show my own examples of good and bad coloring, and talk about how bad coloring just screams "lazy! i don't care about my work!". I really belabor the coloring technique stuff and talk about it nearly every day but also show them lots of fantastic work by other artists, past students and pros. they do complain about how Ii go on and about the exercises they have to complete satisfactorily before they can color their project, but i have to say i think it pays off because their final work is usually pretty good and they seem to put a lot of time and effort into doing it well. they act like they're pleased with themselves when we're finished, too!"