Recently, I found myself in a debate with another art student on the merits of coloring. With the rise in popularity of adult coloring books in the last two years, it seems to be creating some tension in the art community. You cant walk the aisles of a grocery store without finding yourself face to face with one of these books. The other student used the term “wannabe artist” to describe someone who would participate in the act of coloring a drawing that is pre-fabricated. This is the age old artist dilemma; is it better to make something that has never been seen before or is it better to take something that exists and add another layer of depth to the original by using context, rhythm and personal narrative? I don't think we can fairly say that one is better than the other.
I have colored in one of these books almost every day since I started my B.F.A. program. I find the rhythm, the sound, the smell and the varied texture of stroking a layer of color to be cathartic. It gives me time to breathe and plan for current projects while physically engaging in the process of making. Instead of breaking my creative concentration, I make quick color and material decisions that help me protect the decision making process without extra noise in my own mind. Usually, I end up with a beautiful work that visualizes my inspiration and stream of consciousness in those moments.
Back-to-basics is a term that I hear overused all the time, but it does apply to this situation. Using a coloring book helps an artist use basic color theory without the extra pressure to consider form. Sometimes, you just need a framework to start with and then you can refocus your energy on just color or medium. For instance, I have started using a combination of ink and colored pencil to create my drawings and illustrations but that technique would not have been applied without the use of a coloring book. Using someone else’s form allowed me to intensify my attention to shading, and saturation quality of color to fill in each little shape with multiple mediums. Coloring books provide a safe space for experimentation because the final product is typically not for a deliverable to another person.
If you subscribe to the belief that there is no universal truth but similarities in our understanding of organizational structures, then why would a coloring book enthusiast not be considered an artist? If someone can use a pre-fabricated urinal and put it in a gallery space, then why can someone not color in a coloring book and set it in a gallery space and have it be considered art? Realistically, someone could spend hours and hours coloring one page to their taste and it would take the same amount of time as writing “R. Mutt” on a junkyard toilet and driving it to a gallery. Appropriation is not about time or physical effort. It's about conceptual repackaging of a set of symbols. The reaction comes from the piecing together of a puzzle which has made the careers of people like Duchamp, Ono, Warhol and countless others. We never refer to them as “wannabe artists”.