Coloring Outside the Lines

Kath Weider-Roos is the Creative Arts Producer at A&D. She snaps photos and asks questions.

Coloring books.

Granted, they are not what you fantasize about when you think about art school. Neither are they an obvious place to start when approaching a lesson in abstraction and conceptual thinking.

Yet, (somewhat to the dismay of his freshman students) this is exactly how Ed West began his  CFC (Concept, Form & Context) class this winter – by handing out coloring books and a fresh pack of crayons.

“My dad, who wasn't crazy about the idea of art school in the first place, was mad when he heard about what we were doing,” said freshman Della Paul. Other students thought it was a demeaning exercise, and protested that they were being treated ‘like children.'
“I always get some resistance when I first start this exercise,” Ed admits.

The students, and even Della's father, eventually grasped Ed’s point – that nothing is too mundane to be a source for creative ideas. As Ed sees it, this class is a journey from representation to abstraction – why not start with our earliest experience of representation?

Summed up, the journey looks something like this:

Sit down with your crayons and a stack of coloring books. Enjoy the soft, cozy pleasure of not having to think.
And then... start thinking.
Start looking.
Start asking questions about what you see.
Start responding to assumptions.
Experiment. Play.


So, after the coloring, came a series of exercises that gradually moved farther and farther away from the conventional use of coloring books.

The first exercise asked students to work with representation, but mix it up through collage. For example, an exquisite corpse:

Gradually, the collages became more this one from Mary Rountree,

Charlie Naebeck, who clearly remembers those Spiderman days,

and Sarah Banks Uffelman...


Questions are posed: The plane of a coloring book is flat – does it have to be?

Below, Della Paul and Travis Reilly respond to this question...

Next comes looking at the lines. Coloring books are basically line drawings: what do you see? How can you experiment with line?

Sol Park begins mark-making around an action figure...

In fact, if you look really closely at the lines of coloring books, you'll notice lines showing through from "the b-side", as in this image below:

To really see this, Ed had the students put the pages up against the window so they could trace all the lines, including those that showed through from the other side.

Stephanie Love's tracing produced this lovely result:

Using a projector, the students experimented with scale.

Mary Rountree enlarged her window tracing to create this...

then enlarged it further to create this....

which finally, became this...

This window line drawing...

got shredded...

and transformed into this final piece by Sara Banks Uffelman.


And so on.

Below are more final responses to the coloring book assignment. It's safe to say that all of the students ended up in a place they never could have predicted when they first sat down with their crayons.

For Ed, the final destination is not the main point – it's learning how to travel without a map. 


Ellis Mikelic


Sol Park

Della Paul


Charlie Naebeck



Charlie Naebeck


Fantastic! What an original way to develop creativity. As our grandson would say about anything he liked and thought successful..."Good job, Ed!"

Posted by Russell Thayer on March 19, 2012

As a 1957 A&D graduate who is now teaching drawing & painting in Grosse Pte. and who is struggling with adults that are too left brain, the thought of using an expressive medium such as crayons and coloring books of their youth to make them think differently, is profound, and is an eye opener for me. I plan to adapt this idea for them.

Posted by Charles Myers on March 19, 2012

I absolutely love the idea. It makes total sense to me. Keep feeding these creative ideas to all of us!!!!

Posted by Leona Webb on March 19, 2012

Terrific concept and thrilling results. Way to go Ed!

Posted by Dennis Guastella on March 19, 2012

I was never taught Abstraction while at UM so thanks Ed from me and my daughter who will be learning about it this way from me. As mentioned, keep sharing such wonderful lessons with us.

Posted by L. Sieczka on March 20, 2012

Its my personal opinion that a class with Ed West should be a requirement for all A&D undergrads. Really awesome stuff and an important perspective shift!

Posted by Teshia Treuhaft on March 21, 2012

I'm a big believer in crayons as a path to world piece. Big hat tip to Ed West for using coloring books as a prompt for art students.

Posted by m .j. bronstein on April 05, 2012

Looks like a really fun CFC assignment.

Posted by Chris on April 24, 2012





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