Modular Coloring: 2 Simple Steps to Help You Sneak in Coloring Time When Life Gets Busy

by Michelle M. Johnson
(This post was updated October 4, 2019

I am utilizing the modular coloring strategy again this fall, 2019, to color along side folks with the 3rd Annual HCWT Coloring Contest (Online!!)! And, even though this year's contest illustration is a mandala (Which side is up and which side is down...you tell me!), these simple steps are still effective in helping me make progress with this year's competition page even though, yes, I'm ridiculously busy AGAIN this October...*sigh*

And, that is why I am re-sharing this post with y'all today; modular coloring WORKS, by golly, and if you're excited about this year's coloring contest but already feeling the overwhelm only 4 days into the month, READ ON!!


My coloring progress so far after a week of the contest going live for the public.
I am only letting myself use a small Blackwing Colored Pencils set (12 pencils total),
 which, sadly, is sold out on Amazon and the pencil's site. These are a fun, small, soft-core
set to use, so if they ever get restocked, I recommend picking them up:)

(Original Post, updated)
September has arrived, and even in South Texas there are itty bitty signs that fall is on its way.


The tallow trees are turning colors WAY early this year!
Is a good sign, a bad sign? I have no idea.
All I know is tallow-leaf red is one of my
favorite colors:)

School is back in session, football season is underway, store fronts are beginning to remind us of the proximity of Halloween, Thanksgiving and even Christmas (too soon, Hobby Lobby, too soon!). 

Yet even though most folks declare that fall is their favorite season of the year (Really, I Googled it.), it is without a doubt the most crazy-busy time of year. Social and work obligations are numerous, holiday demands start earlier and earlier, and all around is advertising reminding us of how lovely it is to take a stroll through brilliantly colored leaves, or enjoy a slow morning with coffee in the brisk-but-not-cold morning air, or create a fall meal from scratch that requires a full day...

Are they kidding me?! Who's got time for any of that during fall?

The reality is time for our friends and families is in short supply during fall, and any time for our creative hopes and goals most definitely gets put on the very back burner. I could feel the pressure building about the upcoming busy-ness of fall both in myself and in my friends and family all the way back in the beginning of August. And, it got me thinking: how do we hack this problem of always feeling "too busy" to do the things and activities that we love and that bring us relaxation and creative fulfillment? 

Now, I have no idea what to tell you if your passion is making meals that require days and days of preparation (Sorry - I'm an eater, not a feeder.), but if you love to get lost in black lined illustrations that sing to you to fill them in with all the colors, I have tried to come up with some simple steps that will help you find time for yourself to color every week, even during the busiest time of the year. Following these two steps *may* even help you find time to color every day (Gasp!). I'm calling this dynamic duo of steps Modular Coloring, because every good hack deserves a name to remind you that you are coming at your problem ("I just don't have time to color, damn it!") from a new and perhaps non-traditional way.

The ideas behind Modular Coloring came to me in the mail. Around the middle of last month, August, a friend of mind sent me a coloring postcard from her adventures in San Francisco.

Lombard Street: "the crookedest street in the world."

In her message to me on the back, she said that the package of postcards she'd bought had instructions to color the card BEFORE sending. Ever the rebel, she dared to send me the uncolored postcard with the words, "I can't wait to see the colored postcard when I get back!" 

Challenge accepted!

I had just received coloring homework - YES! Problem was, August was turning into a real whirlwind (I am a parent of a child in high school band - need I say more?), and I knew I was going to be seeing her the first week of September; there was no way I was going to have even this teeny postcard colored by the time I saw her - I. just. didn't. have. the. time.

Or didn't I? 

I knew I couldn't disappoint my friend: she'd taken time out of her holiday to mail a greeting to me that absolutely made my week. Saying "I was too busy to color your thoughtful gesture" just doesn't scream THANK YOU, if you know what I mean.

I may not have had time to sit down with all of my coloring supplies and spread myself out for an intensive coloring session where I'd only come up for air once the image was fully colored (Does anyone over the age of five *ever* have that kind of time?), but was I really so busy that I couldn't color a car or two on any given day? 

The brutal answer to that question is no. 

No matter how important we are, no one is too busy for that level of creative commitment. It was that realization, and the desire to see a smile on my friend's face when I showed her the completed coloring assignment, that led me to these simple steps, led me to the concept of Modular Coloring.

STEP ONE: Flip your coloring page upside down.


Often what takes up the vast majority of our time for our creative outlets is deciding where to start. Turning a coloring page upside down pushes our perceptions of the image into extreme focus: some things REALLY stand out, and others fade into the background quite quickly. Whatever catches your eye first, start coloring there; no more thought, no more pondering what to do, start with the first thing your eyes are drawn to.

On this postcard, both right-side up and upside down, the first thing that caught my attention was the lines of the stairway, so that's where I started coloring. Those stairway lines were the first module on that image I was going to find time to color completely, and when that section of the illustration was finished, so was I, even though the coloring page was no where near done.

STEP TWO: Pick only ONE coloring tool, technique, or color/color family and leave all the rest of your creative supplies tucked away and out of sight.



Look at your coloring supplies without thinking about your coloring page and ask yourself, "What do I really feel like using today?" 

When I decided I really wanted to color the stairs after a busy evening of errands and responsibilities, I knew I just had to try out the new Color Technik Glitter Gel Pens I had ordered for a coloring workshop I was leading the following week. These gel pens had sat on my desk for a few days *untouched* (again, due to busy-ness), and I knew I needed to test them out before I taught with them.
So, problem solved, two birds with one stone: color the stairs, test out the glitter pens. I brought out ONLY the glitter pens to color with and left all my other supplies in tucked away, out of sight. 

Once I was done coloring the stairs (which took me less than 15 minutes), I stopped, even though I wanted to continue. And, instead of feeling deprived, I knew I had accomplished this one creative goal (or really, two): coloring the stairs in glitter pens. Mischief managed!

The next time I sat down to color this image, I briefly looked at it upside down again, and found a new thing that caught my attention (the leafed trees), and went into my studio and chose a different coloring tool (Derwent Inktense Water Soluble Colored Pencils).



I had been wanting to play with these super cool water soluble pencils for a while, but again, "I'd been too busy". 

So, I took the idea that worked with the glitter pens and applied the lesson again. 

However, there are two steps to using these pencils: coloring and then applying water. One evening I did the penciling and stopped there. The next brief opportunity I had to color, I enjoyed adding the water to the image, an experience very much like the old paint-with-water coloring books that used to be a mainstay for children back in the 70s and 80s, and totally relaxing fun!

I continued using these two very simple steps for weeks: 

1. Look for a single new module in the image to color.
2. Quickly choose a single coloring tool, technique or color family to use exclusively on that specific section of the illustration.

 Additionally, I only allowed myself to color between 5-20 minutes depending on my schedule:


Finally, my eyes settled on the little cars, and I chose
 Pentel Arts Sign Pen Brush Flexible Point Watercolor Markers.
They are awesome for creative lettering, but when you have
 to color quickly, their ink saturates and spreads with ease and speed:)

I chose the roads on a super busy night,
coloring them with Tombow Dual Brush Pens.
I was finished in just under 5 minutes, and still
had a lovely time doing it:)


I chose the smallest amount to color one night
(the windows of the buildings), but the biggest
box of markers to dig through, my
Staedtler Triplus Fineliners


Markers are super fast coloring tools for when
 you're squeezing your creativity into your schedule!
I chose a single color family from my
Staedtler Triplus Fiber Tips, and then created
a color sequence on the bushes so the greenery
would still pop:)


Again, this modular coloring experiment
lead me to play with supplies I had taught
with but not had time to use in my own
coloring. The buildings are a mixture
of Derwent Metalics and Graphitint, both
of which are water soluble. I just LOVE how the
structures turned out, and these pencils were soo easy to use
to create this effect!
The final spaces on the image chose themselves because
 that was all I had left to complete. I decided to complete the postcard
 in simple blue and green gradients using my Prismacolor Premiere Colored Pencils.
I did the greenery one night, and the blue skies another. I only had 3 colored pencils out at a time
 and had my trusty T'Gaal Sharpener close by to keep the points sharp
in order to be able to use the brief amount of time I had to color efficiently.

This 5x7 card took me from August 14 until September 3 to complete: 3 weeks. 

Should such a small coloring page take 3 whole weeks to complete? 

I don't know; you tell me! How long is too long if you're having a good time and expressing your creativity a little bit every now and then? 

I'm really happy with how the whole image turned out, happy with the individual modules themselves (I'm especially excited by the murals I decided to add to the two retaining walls in this illustration. I used Sakura Gelly Roll Pens  smeared on top of a 10% grey Prismacolor Premiere Pencil, a new technique we're going to be exploring at the Seguin Public Library and New Braunfels Public Library adult coloring programs later this fall), and happy with the collection of styles and coloring tools that I managed to have fun with over those three weeks all on such a small image. 

Squeezing in a little bit of time to let my creativity flow, even when life was running me ragged, somehow gave me more energy to do the things I *had* to do. On top of that, I felt really proud of myself for finishing this creative project I *wanted* to do in a way didn't cause me to fall behind on anything else.

And, I finished this coloring homework just in time - I'm supposed to meet my friend tomorrow morning at 9:30am. I'm going to have my finished coloring page in hand to show her, as well as a big thank you for inspiring me to think of my creative time in a whole new way.

So, my challenge to you is this: make room for teeny, tiny doses of creativity just for yourself this fall. 

These little moments we catch and hold onto just for ourselves do indeed add up!

They are a much better use of our precious little time than complaining about how much time we don't have or wishing we had more time. 

Our time never really belongs to us anyway, so why not color a little, read a few pages of that novel you had your eye on, write a haiku, turn on your favorite song and make up a few original dance moves to it, find some blank paper and a pen or pencil and draw for 5 minutes? An "all or nothing attitude" towards our creativity is a recipe for disaster; it leads us to feeling overwhelmed, and is, let's face it, a toxic attitude to have about our creative goals. 

Do a little something creative JUST FOR YOU today, no matter how busy you are. It feels good, and those effects last on into the next day, encouraging us to keep the creative sides of ourselves alive, even if it is just for a few minutes every now and then. 

If you give some modular coloring a go this fall, let me and others know what you think about this creativity strategy in the comments below! Does it help? Do you have suggestions? I'm all ears!!


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