Coloring for the Right & Write Brain

Since my word for 2016 is abundance, I decided to give myself the gift of taking the time to do some of the things I have never “had time for” (read: given myself time for). One of those pursuits is coloring. Perhaps because I grew up with a colorblind mother–Mom saw the world in black, white, and shades of gray–light and color have always fascinated me.

One of my earliest memories is the way the sunlight lay across the windowsill in my tiny bedroom in our family’s first house. I was entranced by the color, the warmth, and the way the light beam shifted, moving as the hours passed. 

As an older child, I thought I might become an artist like my great-grandmother, Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon, a California impressionist, member of the Berkeley art scene, and an initiator of the Carmel arts colony. I grew up with her paintings and lithographs around the house, and it seemed reasonable to think that my love of light and color would lead me into painting.

Until I took painting lessons and discovered I have no real talent. I was a passable scientific illustrator, back in the days when that meant being able to use a Rapidiograph pen and graph paper. I have half a degree in fine arts photography too. The truth is, my artistic talent shines with words, not images. 

A pen-and-ink illustration of a sego lily or mariposa lily I drew, oh, thirty years ago.

Still, I harbor a secret desire to play with color and form, and to remind myself what it’s like to sketch–just for me. A couple of years ago, I got as far as buying a gorgeous tin of colored pencils with the aim of practicing illustrated journaling.

Only the pencils sat on my desk untouched. The blank pages in my field journals filled with words, but no images. 

This year I decided to use those pencils. Even if just to color. 

Which is why today I whiled away a happy hour coloring a greeting card to send to a friend. At first I was worried I’d mess up the illustrator’s rendering of a rufuos hummingbird feeding at trumpet-vine flowers, and then I realized it didn’t matter. There was nothing to “mess up.” 

After that I relaxed and just enjoyed myself playing with the different colors and strokes and shadings. 

Why does coloring relax us? (Some of us, at least. Some people tense up trying to stay in the lines.)

For three main reasons, says Clinical Psychologist Scott M. Bea of the Cleveland Clinic’s health blog:

  • It takes us away from ourselves and focuses us on the present moment. Which makes coloring something like meditating, which has a host of physical, emotional, and psychological benefits. 
  • It relaxes the brain. Once we shut off our stream of conscious worries and thoughts and anticipations, what Buddhists call “monkey mind,” our brains relax. 
  • The stakes are low. As I realized, coloring is not a test. There is no failure. It’s play. 

And for me, it’s a way to exercise parts of the right brain that writing does not. Like strengthening muscles (or synapses) I don’t use often, but might need. 

Who knows what long-unused creative pathways coloring might re-open in my brain. Or how entertaining myself with color and shape and light might enrich my thinking and writing.

Not to mention that coloring is simply fun.

So excuse me, the colored pencils are calling. I’m off to play…