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Coloring Books for Kids and Adults: How They Can Support Creativity

Coloring books are all over the news these days, including my own Creative Cats and Owls, which I illustrated for Dover Publications’ imprint, Creative Haven. The experience of relaxation and stress reduction while coloring is confirmed by what so many colorists express and in the opinion of many professionals. But how does coloring relate to the creative process?

Is Coloring Creative?

Educators often frown upon coloring books for kids as thwarting creative development (1). And lately there have been blog posts asserting the limitations of coloring books for adults (2).  I believe coloring books have very much to offer. Here are my thoughts:

  • The activity of coloring is calming and promotes focused thought. While this benefit is not a creative thought process per se, focus is essential for bringing ideas to fruition. A child may spout imaginative ideas, but in order to put an idea into expression through an art form, invention, story, or song, requires a calm focus to see it through. When kids can turn ideas into an accomplishment, their confidence soars, and they’re more likely to become involved in additional creative activities.
  • The activity of coloring helps develop fine motor skills. Excellent motor skills support hands-on creative endeavors.
  • Coloring in a coloring book is not creating fully “original art,” but it can be a way to appreciate art, or advance into the arts. Viewing paintings in an art museum is not the same experience as actually painting, but masterful artworks provide insight and inspiration for painting. A reviewer of Creative Cats Coloring Book said it this way:
“I am using it [Creative Cats] for rewards in my elementary classroom. Coloring encourages decision-making, neatness, pride in work, and attention to detail. I am an ARTIST today because my parents encouraged me to color. I don't think of it as “play” because it takes skill and creativity. The mind remembers shapes and lines, so carried into the future, coloring creates artists.”
– Faith Page, Amazon Review, July 26, 2015

Learning from Experience

Coloring books that are imaginative and well done are masterful in their own right and can elevate colorists' understanding of drawing and design. Artists can use that enrichment to bring to their original works. Colorists learn about color itself through consistently making color choices and applying that knowledge in their daily lives. Home decor, clothes shopping, photography, and teaching are only a few examples.

As a child I was crazy about paper dolls. I collected them and observed the way the clothes were designed and the way the figures were painted. I learned a lot from professional paper doll artists and applied that knowledge to the original paper doll sets I would make to give as birthday gifts.

As an adult, I continue to learn from the works of accomplished professionals, both commercial and fine artists, and apply my knowledge in my own work. Recently I illustrated a new coloring book, Fanciful Fashions, which, in part, grew out of my experiences with paper dolls.

Creative Exercises

Because kids and grownups love coloring books, together they can use them as a springboard for creative exercises. Here are some ways:

  1. Try new coloring techniques, such as dotting, striping, swirling, etc. within the outlines. What new techniques can you or your child invent? Perhaps it's ideal to draw your own pictures first before exploring, but sometimes we just need a quick and easy way to test new ideas and materials. In this way, coloring books support creativity.
  2. Use unexpected colors. For example, make the sky yellow, the cat blue, and foliage red and white. Surreal effects will emerge.
  3. Try new materials for coloring, such as gel pens or watercolors. Try combining techniques and materials, too.  I love layering colored pencil over marker color. How about filling the outlines with rubber stamp designs, stenciled designs, or gluing torn paper within the outlines?
  4. Color outside the lines. Challenge yourself or your child to try it! It's fun to see how the final pieces turn out. They often have an expressionistic, contemporary feel.
  5. Make collages. I have a friend who colors the pages, then cuts them into geometric shapes and collages the pieces onto heavy paper. If she had to draw pictures first, she might never have time to finish a collage. Not every artist loves to draw.
  6. Limit the palette. Exercise fluency and stretch visual awareness by using at least eight shades of any given color.  This works especially well with paints that can be mixed, but pencils can be layered to create new shades of a color, too.
  7. Try various color schemes, such as using autumn colors for one page, or birthday cake colors for another, or analogous colors (next to each other on the color wheel) for the next one.
  8. Color me twice. Make a copy of a page and challenge yourself or your child to color the same design two different ways. Then notice the differences between the two. What colors look good together? Why do some colors pop off the page and others don’t? What do the color looks remind you of? This is a good exercise for critical thinking (observing and explaining) as well as creative thinking (finding new ways.)

 Here is a palette that displays a soft and subtle look. (Image courtesy of Debra Maupin ©2015)

 Rich and vibrant colors echo a look of 1950s toys. Image ©Marjorie Sarnat from Creative Cats Coloring Book.

Coloring books are not a substitute for making fully original art, but they can play an important role for supporting many aspects of creativity. 

What are your experiences with coloring and creativity?

Marjorie Sarnat has taught art on the elementary, high school, and adult level. She has maintained a lifelong passion about creative thinking and the creative process. Marjorie received her Certificate of Training for “Putting Ideas into Action” from the International Center for Studies in Creativity from Buffalo State University, N.Y. and has written two books on creativity, including the acclaimed, Creative Genius: How to Grow the Seeds of Creativity Within Every Child. and Creativity Unhinged: 120 Games for Kids to Spark Creative Thinking.



(1) Susan Striker author page on Amazon
(2) Innercanvas blog post



Fourteen 5-Minute Games to Spark Kids’ Creativity




Teaching creative thinking to kids helps them become independent learners and achievers for a lifetime. Nurture their imaginations and get ready to have fun, be challenged, and be amazed at the awesome ideas that flow.

In honor of 2014, here are fourteen favorite games that fire up creative thought and let imaginations run wild. Kids can play these quick games in groups or independently.


  • PUT IN A GOOD WORD – The first player says a simple sentence such as “Birds can fly.” The next player must then add one or two words to the original sentence. For example, he may say, “Blue birds can fly.” Then, the following player adds another word or two. Now the sentence may become “Blue birds can fly quickly,” then, Blue birds can fly quickly toward Florida,” and so on until a player cannot think of another word to add to the sentence.
  • LAST WORD – Say a sentence such as “I like peaches.” The next player must then create a sentence using the last word of the former sentence for the first word of his sentence such as “Peaches do not grow in the ocean.” Continuing the example, “Ocean and sand make a beach,” then “Beach toys are fun,” and so on. Play goes back and forth until one player gets stumped. For an extra challenge, restrict the sentences to a specific topic. 
  • ALLITERATION NATION – Have a conversation with another player using alliteration. Choose a letter of the alphabet and create sentences using as many words that begin with that letter as possible. For instance, for the letter “w,” your sentence might be: “We want water whenever we waltz,” or “We will work with your wish.” Challenge your partner to an alliterative standoff to see who can create the longest sentences with any given letter. For younger children use three or four word sentences such as "a dog did dance."
  • ACRONYM NERD – To begin this game, the first player calls out a four- or five-letter word. The next player must then think of an acronym for that word. For example, if the word is “nerd,” the next player might say, “Nine elephants rolled downhill.” This player then calls out another word, and play continues. The sentences must be complete, but need not be entirely logical.



Wishing You a Season of Fun and a Happy New Year of Ideas

“See what happens when we run out of crayons?” Illustration by Fred Crump Jr.When we think of the holidays we can't help but have visions of sugarplums and toys. Some toys have endured along with our traditions.

These toys are classics that generations have, and continue to, grow-up with. These playthings have a universal appeal that satisfies something within us, young and not-so-young. 

It was creative thinkers who gave them life. 

A Doll with a Dream

As Ruth Handler watched her daughter, Barbara, play with paper dolls, she observed that Barbara gave them adult roles as she dreamed of her own future.  

Back then dolls represented babies and little girls. Discovering a gap in the market, Ruth mentioned the idea of an attractive grown-up doll to her husband, Elliot, who was co-founder of the new Mattel Toy Company.

Mattel believed in the idea and began development of a doll they named Barbie, after the Handlers’ daughter. She made her debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York in 1959. The Barbie Doll is now a cultural icon and remains a best selling toy.

Ruth Handler had taken a commonplace doll, which had been around for centuries, and adapted it to meet a need. 

Click to read more ...


Celebrating Dr. Sydney J. Parnes, a Pioneer in Teaching Creativity as a Cognitive Skill

“Creativity can be considered a function of knowledge,
imagination, and evaluation.”

Dr. Sydney J. Parnes pioneered creative thinking in education and creative problem- solving with Alex Osborn, and was founder of the Creative Education Foundation (Where Brainstorming Began™) in 1954, for which he served as president for many years. Dr. Parnes died Aug. 19, 2013 at age 91. 

The concept that imagination is so important and that there are ways to stimulate it captivated Parnes for a lifetime. He became the world’s leading expert on the topics of creativity, innovation, and problem solving. This groundbreaking educator, researcher, author, and keynote speaker founded the International Center for Studies in Creativity at the State University at Buffalo, N.Y. and its Master's degree program, the first of its kind.  

See and hear the great Dr. Parnes himself in this recent two-part interview:

Dr. Sydney J. Parnes Interview Part 1

Dr. Sydney J. Parnes Interview Part 2

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100 Years Later the Imagination of John Martin Still Delights

Meet one of my favorite Creative Heroes. Morgan van Roorbach Shepard had a lonely life in the 1870s. He was orphaned at 9 and raised in a series of American boarding schools where he was an outcast. Yet he believed in the power of creativity (whether he knew the word as we mean it or not), and he believed in the potential of children's minds.

Later he renamed himself John Martin, honoring a colony of Martin birds he enjoyed watching as a child, and began writing and illustrating children's stories and verse. In 1908 he founded an imaginative publication called John Martin's Letters, which he mailed to 2000 children each month. 

By 1913 the letters had grown into a popular children's magazine, John Martin's Book, which continued through 1933.

WORDS AND PICTURES – These stylish, whimsical silhouettes with accompanying verses were characteristic of the illustrations in John Martin's Books.

Click to read more ...


What We Can Learn About Creativity This Flu Season

Artist Brian McKenzie depicts amazing Animalcules that are his “purely imagined beings.” Image ©Brian McKenzie. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.The holidays are over, but it’s still the season—of the flu.

After Jan. 1, “Season’s Greetings” takes on a whole other meaning, and not a friendly one either.

Our natural world provides us with endless beauty, from the grand mountains to perfect little rosebuds, from magnificent orca whales to exquisite little ladybugs.

Flu viruses are Mother Nature’s children, too. Yes, they’re nasty and we should avoid them as best we can, but in the spirit of creativity (flexibility of thought, open-mindedness, and seeing new perspectives) viruses, bacteria, and other microscopic creatures on Earth are visually aesthetic. There’s a whole life system we can’t see with our naked eyes but it’s as stunningly intricate and beautiful as anything else in our natural world.

Microscopic life was first discovered by Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) in the mid 1600s. He called the organisms he saw “Animalcules.” His story is one of passion and the spirit of creativity.

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The Creative Kid: A Personality Apart

Many children have amazing creative potential that is yet to be identified.  Kids who play incredible music, paint amazing paintings, and invent astonishing inventions are obviously creative. But there are others whose creative genius is every bit as powerful, yet appears in more subtle ways and can even be mistaken for problematic. 

Such kids do not try to be incorrigible; they have creative forces running through them that resist being suppressed. Highly creative personalities are often incompatible with the routines of everyday life and the typical school expectations. 

These kids need outlets for channeling and expressing their creative talents. You can help by letting them know you believe their creativity is important, offering them tasks that challenge creative thought, and by rewarding them for their creative accomplishments.

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Good News to Share

Congratulations to Marjorie and the team who contributed to the book, Creative Genius: How to Grow the Seeds of Creativity in Every Child. Prior to the book's release we shared advance copies with some key creativity experts. The response was validating and hugely positive. Marjorie feels honored by their praise of Creative Genius.

I have watched Marjorie for years pore over much of the academic literature and information about creativity. Her art studio looks like an Amazon warehouse. In the book's creativity guide, she is able to take this research about the creative process and make it accessible to the layperson.

Click to read more ...