Missing Burnt Umber (But Mixing My Own)

Coloring 2

Even the dog has given up and gone to bed. It is 1 AM, January 1st, 2016, and I am sitting at the dining room table, under the one light burning as the house sleeps.  I have sprawled my crayons, my colored pencils, and my markers across the shiny wooden tabletop, and, in the quiet of the year-changing night, I am coloring.

I am coloring a floral design from a book called The Enchanted Forest, a gift from my stepson Matt, his lovely wife Julie, and Alyssa and Kaelyn, their two beautiful daughters. It is a thoughtful gift on so many levels:  I love fantasy, and there is a fantastic story that undergirds these intricate visual designs.  I love puzzles, and as I color my way through the book,  I will find little clues hidden in each picture–clues that add up to a key. The key will unlock the castle door, and then I will know the secret.

I love knowing the secret.

But mainly, hugely, historically, I love coloring.


My very first memory has to do with coloring:  It is my third birthday, and I am unwrapping a stack of same-shaped gifts.  In my memory, the stack is at least twenty gifts high; I suspect, given family finances and a mother with frugal tendencies in the best of times, the stack might have been about half of that.  But still.  Each carefully wrapped gift was a coloring book.  With the stack came a box–16!—of Crayola crayons.

Even at age three, my predilection for coloring was clearly noted. And my mother had strong opinions on the tools required.

She liked the idea of us coloring, but she was picky about coloring books.  The ones that featured popular characters, back in the early 1960’s, did not always have the best art.  So I might find a coloring book in the supermarket that featured a popular doll  (a doll, it might be added, which I did not own. There was no point, my parents felt, in toys that played for you.  YOU make your dolls walk and talk, they said.  What do you need batteries for?  Use your God-given imagination.) I’d show that book to my mother, who would flip through the pages and snort.  “That’s crap!” she’d say.  “Look at these lines!”

And she’d show me where the hasty artist hadn’t bothered to finish a drawing, left a shape incomplete, or inked eyes flatly lackluster.  On a good day, she’d put that book back and take a moment to sort through the other offerings, finally selecting a book for me that met her standards.

On a bad day–or maybe on a week with not so much overtime in the paycheck–we would move briskly along.

“You’ve got paper at home,” she would tell me. “You can draw your own pictures.”

We did have an endless supply of newsprint, bought at the local newspaper office.  The staff cut the leftover paper into 8-1/2 by 11 inch pages and sold it by the pound, cheaply.  My parents kept a deep stash on hand.  We were encouraged, when the weather did not support outdoor play, to gather at the dining room table to draw and color.

We had the newsprint.  We had an array of coloring books, shared among us.  You put your name on a page to lay claim to it.  I tried, sometimes, to savor a book, to keep it all to myself, but it was never possible.  If I hid it, Mom the super-cleaner would find it, and put it back with the stacks in the dining room, and then anyone could lay claim to the best pictures in the book.

I particularly liked panoramas–those drawings that spread across two flattened out pages, and it made me sad when another person colored in half, necessitating a creative reach to match their style and complete the vignette adequately.

We had a three-pound coffee can filled with crayons. A crayon was good until it was too small to hold–full value all the way down the waxy stick, although coloring with pristine crayons that still had their points was an undiluted pleasure.  To find a color, one dumped the crayons out on the broad, dark wood table and spread them out. Once the wrappers had been peeled away, it was a challenge to identify black, which was always the prime, most-needed, crayon.  Purple looked like black; so did navy.  It was good to have a testing sheet of that reliable newsprint at elbow; we had sheets and sheets of paper with scratchy little scrawls on them–scribbles of dark colors, blue and indigo, blue-violet,–until one hit paydirt: BLACK.

She was not given to indulgences, my mother, but she would not buy cheap crayons. We always had Crayolas, but we rarely had more than the eight-pack.

“You don’t need someone else to mix your colors for you,” Mom would say.  “You have all the basics right there; make your own colors.”

She didn’t believe in big fat crayons for little hands, either.  In the first place, none of us was that tiny; we were tall, sturdy children with big, capable hands from a pretty young age.  And in the second place, she felt that providing some sorts of support tools–fat pencils, fat crayons,–put a young child at a deficit.

“You learn to use the fat one,” she’d say, “and then you just have to unlearn that when you get the thin one.  Why not start as you mean to go on?”

It was a rare treat to get a box of sixteen virgin Crayolas; it was unheard of to get the 96 box.  One memorable Christmas, I got the 96-box WITH A SHARPENER.  That was as close to perfection as I could imagine.


In the 1970’s, a phenomenon called the ‘anti-coloring book’ surfaced.  It was a book that didn’t provide pictures; it provided activities.  So, instead of a picture of a dog, there would be a blank page with a prompt.  Draw, it might suggest, the most wonderful pet in the world.

The anti-coloring book was supposed to encourage creativity, which, the theory had it, the regular coloring books inhibited. But I never found it to be so.

Encouraged, perhaps egged on, by parents and brothers, I felt free to ignore expectations and to build surprises into my coloring book forays.  So, despite the fact that my friends informed me Cinderella’s dress was a beautiful sky blue, I made it rainbow striped.  I had purple trees.  I gave things auras.

We paid attention to coloring in the backgrounds of pictures, and I learned early on that the sky reached all the way to the ground. But it didn’t, necessarily, have to be blue.

A big discussion, when coloring with siblings, was whether or not to outline.  Most of us thought outlining was GOOD; you traced the picture with your crayon, and that created a waxy barrier that kept vigorous strokes pretty firmly within the lines.  Parents did not outline; perhaps, I thought, it was an age thing.  My father colored very lightly, I noticed.  I liked to hit the paper so heavily the waxy residue shone.


Perhaps coloring is usually a past-time of childhood, but I never left it behind.  In middle school and high school, I drew and colored pictures to illustrate popular lyrics. I might have an elongated figure about to step off a surreal lemon and orange colored rock structure, high above the burnt umber earth. (How I loved burnt umber!  How I mourned when it was retired in 1990!)  In Flair pen, I would write below the drawing: I’ve got the answer.  I’m going to fly away. What have I got to lose?  and credit Crosby, Stills, and Nash. I decorated my lockers and my notebooks with such flights of fancy.

I bought permanent markers with my babysitting money and created intricate two-color grids for myself and my friends.  We called them ‘op-art’, and we swore we got high on the strong alcohol smell of the markers.

I had an early job at a bookstore where we carried coloring books for grownups-books that had intricate symmetrical drawings; coloring them could pluck out patterns and create illusions of three  dimensions, or of movement.  I always felt good about supporting my store by buying those books.

And then my brothers began to get married and to give me the wonderful gift of nephews and nieces–little people with whom to color, enthusiastic little souls for whom I could buy Crayolas.  There was never a lag in reasons to color; after college, I fell into teaching at a K-8 parochial school, starting out in the gym and in the art room.

“I’m a teacher,” I could argue. “I must have crayons!”

Stepmama.  Mama. Home day-care provider.  There was always a need for crayons and coloring books, drawing paper, colored pencils, washable markers, in the house. Mark took to buying me a 96 pack of crayons every year for Christmas until I had such a supply that it became ridiculous.  I grew very attached to certain colors–burnt umber among them: sigh.

I rejoiced when burnt sienna was saved by popular vote in the early 2000’s. (http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1000466/posts )

I discovered other people were as fascinated by coloring as I am: Ed Welter did a whole history of crayons, and has his own website on the subject–a wonder to explore. (http://www.crayoncollecting.com/) Crayola tapped into that lifelong fascination with coloring and called for user input to name new colors.  A five year old named ‘Macaroni and Cheese.’ An 89-year dubbed a special shade of violet ‘Purple Mountain’s Majesty.’  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/22/crayola-crayon-color-history_n_7345924.html)

There is, clearly, no age limit on coloring.

So.  Solitary, absorbed, 1 AM, I color in my new coloring book.  The process relaxes and engages me; it taps into that other side of the brain, takes me out of official time into another realm, floats me down a restful stream away from mundane cares and worries.

I am NOT too old to color; no one is too old to color.  Publishers have sussed that out; every retail space, this year, has offered its variation on the adult coloring book theme.

I am delighted with mine.  I love the colored pencils Matt and Julie gave me; I’m using them and just them–eight color options which I blend and combine; thank you, Mom–to mimic the colors in my dining room curtains.  I will search out gently used picture frames and use my new matting equipment, and I will frame and hang this picture, once I’ve completed coloring the whole book.

And when I’ve completed this picture, I’ll add crayons and markers to the mix; I’ll experiment. I’ll play.  Playing is something, I’ve become convinced, we all, age and dignity notwithstanding, need to do.

So. Mark will call home to chat with Jim on Mondays (my day off), and he’ll ask, “What’s your mother doing?”

Jim will sigh and respond, “You know. She’s COLORING.”

And it will be so.  Relaxed, engrossed, not a whit repentant, I’ll be at the table on my day off. My duties done, I’ll have Crayolas rolling across the shiny surface: I’ll be bringing a lady bug’s glossy shell to life.

Oh, it’s a true, true pleasure. You should join me!

53 thoughts on “Missing Burnt Umber (But Mixing My Own)

  1. Separated by time and space, so many of your blogs touch and inspire me! I LOVE COLOURING! For the longest time I just sat and coloured patterns, finding which blues and greens worked together and how great they looked with shades of purple. Then I started making my own writing paper. Imagine my delight when I found colouring books for adults and I have lots now and enjoy every one. Just imagine if I could come over for a play date and we could colour together. Thank you for an inspired blog!

  2. I love coloring too. Old and mature as I am supposed to be, it is one of the little-girl habits I still cherish. Great to find someone do it too!! Happy New Year 🙂

  3. Burnt Sienna was a lovely color, one well worth saving. It went especially well with the last leafy green and the emerging orange of October in the pictures we used to color. I was deeply envious of my friends in grade school who had the 48 and 96-pack crayons. They were far more skilled than I was at staying within the lines. Of course, now, the memory of that envy lets me see how generous my parents and my sisters really were: I had all the writing paper and pens I ever wanted. Still, it would have nice to, just once, create a picture with the colors that were in my head. . . .

  4. What a wonderfully descriptive post about coloring. Your parents were really special to have encouraged you to color often.
    My little boy has almost stopped coloring unless it’s his favorite superhero’s picture or something. According to him coloring is for small children and not ‘big’ boys and I never tried to change his perception about coloring. Maybe I should, it’s such a creative form of art!
    Actually I didn’t know that there were adult coloring books, I really liked coloring as a child but never really tried after I grew up. Maybe I should buy a coloring book and try it out that way I can teach my son by example that coloring is for everyone! 🙂
    Coloring seems like a lot of fun from your experience, thank you for sharing, Pam! 🙂

  5. That was such a lovely recollection! I didn’t realize that some of the adult coloring books had clues to unlock secrets…I will have to look closer at them…Thanks for sharing your experience Pam 🙂

  6. Vibrant

    Such a lovely post and your sketches look so beautiful. I used to enjoy coloring a lot as a child and I also got appreciation for my sense of beauty but as I grew up I left coloring.

    I enjoyed reading it but still couldn’t figure out fully what you meant by ‘burnt ember retiring’

    Was that shade of color discontinued in crayons?

    Thanks for sharing this Pam 🙂

    Love and light ❤


  7. So many shared memories here. Seems coloring books are all the rage for adults now. I made a homemade coloring book from really color.com for my cousin’s daughter and face her the 64 pack of crayons.

  8. Ah, the marvelous memories I have of Crayolas…esp the super-indulgent box of 96! For some projects only crayons will do. When making paper crowns from paper bags, for example, the gold, silver & bronze crayons are a must, as is the technique of pressing really hard to layer on bright colors for rubies, sapphires & emeralds. 🙂 And yes, the loss of Burnt Umber was felt keenly; was never a fan of the fake Mac ‘n Cheese color haha. Thanks for the fun post!

  9. nugget59

    I apologize for being repetitive in my comments, but I love the way you write and what your write about. Happy New Year and thanks for the reminder of how much fun it is to color no matter what your age.

  10. I didn’t know about burnt umber! It was always one of the paints in the box when I was a child. It took me back to the “babies” class where we had large pots of hard paint shared by all, which we would attack with a thick wet paintbrush, stirring it around to make a hole in the centre of the pot and loading the creamy bubbly fresh paint onto the brush. I remember cobalt blue but the names of the rest escape me.
    I loved this piece, what a lovely calm way to bring in the new year.I have the same kind of joy from a case of paints & crayons with all the bits & bobs.
    Happy New Year!

    1. Oh…you bring back a whole sensory raft of memories–remember the smell of that paint? It was always such a treat when we were allowed to use it…Thanks, Maddy, and happy new year to you and yours!


  11. 🙂 🙂 🙂 Loved this
    My kids have been instructed that if I ever end up in the loony hospital 😉 they must bring me a new box of crayons and a colouring book in every visit . Then I will have time to colour I guess 😉
    Turtle Hugs

  12. Pam,

    I, too, love coloring. When I learned about Zentangles, I was in–totally in. I have a large book of outlines, blank pages, bits and pieces of design, and, best of all outlines of wonderful things to color. My husband knows I love to color, and gave me a huge amount of colored felt-tip pens–heaven!

    My four-and-a-half year old granddaughter loves to color, and whenever we are together, she will always say at some point, “Lulu (my grandma name), color with me!” And we both lie down on our stomachs and color to our hearts’ content.

    What could be better?

    Thanks for this post!


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  14. Well, this post sure drew a colourful nostalgic arc over my own numerous decades. 🙂 Beautifully described! You might also be interested in this blog I recently came across: http://cadyluckleedy.com/ “The Travel Lady in her Shoes”has a series called “120 Days of Crayola” with beautiful photos to go with an interesting, brief history of each colour. You guys make all this colouring sound like lots more fun than actually writing! 😉

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