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!