Hummingbird (colored pencil).

Permission to Color!

Get out the Crayolas with no apologies! A report in this week’s Huffington Post on coloring as a great stress-buster for adults is making a splash on Facebook and other media outlets.  It seems coloring—for adults—is all the rage in Europe, and just starting to be trendy in the U.S.

Well, ha! We’re on the cutting edge!

So in honor of our super-trendiness, I have three treats for you this week:

  • two coloring book pages you can download and color—for stress-relief, or just to look ever-so-trendy, AND
  • a fun technique for making drawings with magical multicolored lines (which you probably learned in kindergarten, but might have forgotten about), PLUS,
  • links to the article I mentioned earlier and two others on the health benefits of kid-style art-making that you can use to silence the scoffers

Oh, and my personal permission to buy a GIANT box of Crayolas with NO SHAME! Just tell ’em I made you do it.

In case you need a quick fix, here are two mandalas for you to download and print at home for your coloring enjoyment.  (This might not work from within the email.  If the links don’t show in the email, click here to go to this article on the website.)

Geometric mandala for coloring.

Geometric mandala for coloring: Download mandala as PDF

Hummingbird mandala.

Hummingbird mandala.

To be honest, colored pencils (as I used here) or markers might work best for these at the size you can easily print at home. (But you can also take them to a copy shop and make them bigger, if you like.)

Hummingbird mandala for coloring: Download mandala as PDF

Hummingbirds colored.

Hummingbirds colored with colored pencils.

If coloring in someone else’s design isn’t your thing, how about making “magic rainbow-line” drawings?

Remember this from kindergarten?  Take a line drawing, flip it  over and scribble all over the back with different colors of crayons or colored pencils.

Line drawing of a lion.

Start with a line drawing. Any line drawing will do.

Scribble all over the back with crayons or colored pencils.

Scribble all over the back with crayons or colored pencils.

Then place it scribble-side-down on another piece of paper and trace the drawing, pressing firmly.  The color will transfer, leaving a multi-colored line.

Multi-colored line drawing of lion from tracing.

Place scribble-side-down on another sheet of paper and trace.

I sometimes like to color in my my multi-colored line drawing, letting the rainbow-colored outline inspire my colors.  But, if you are clever about where you put what colors, you can create some very interesting effects as the traced line changes color.

Multicolored drawing of hummingbird.

Drawing colored in, using the multicolored line as inspiration.

Instead of coloring in a simple outline drawing, as I have here, you might choose instead to traced a more complex pattern.  People who have forgotten this little kindergarten trick will wonder how you managed to get your line to change colors.

But, you don’t have to make too much of it.  It’s the color, the repetitive movement of your hand and the opportunity for your brain to focus on something besides responsibilities and chores for a few minutes that alleviates stress.

Oh, and probably that intoxicating crayon aroma!

Happy coloring!

For more about the health benefits of kid-style art for adults, see

“Create more than you consume.”—James Clear

Green and yellow mandala with lettering.

Mandalas for Meditation, Prayer and Transformation

Making a mandala (circular drawing or painting) has long been considered an act of devotion in many cultures all over the world. No matter what your religious or spiritual beliefs, it’s great to have a way to take a bit of time out from the busy-ness of your schedule for contemplation, meditation and renewal.

Circles have universal appeal, and powerful symbolism. Starting from a basic formula and adding your own color choices, simple symbols and meaningful words, you can extend this basic formula in infinitely many ways to suit all sorts of different situations and feelings.

Although you can make mandalas in many different ways and mediums, this activity uses primarily watercolor for three reasons:

  • Watercolor acts at its own pace and in its own way, enticing you to slow down and become absorbed in the creative flow by its own flowing nature.
  • Watercolor is a bit unpredictable, offering you little gifts and surprises, so it encourages openness and a spirit of acceptance.
  • Watercolor is the perfect medium for vivid or subtle color and transparency, so these mandalas appear to have an inner light and life. They are naturally uplifting.

This week, I’ll describe a basic formula for adapting the “Stained-Glass” Mandala activity to create a meditation focus or “visible prayer”. (Have a look back at the earlier article if you need a refresher in how to create the “stained-glass” effect.)

The “Formula”:

I’ll describe this for a finished mandala about 12 inches in diameter, but you can scale it up or down as you wish.

Step 1: Make your pattern.

I recommend you start with a repetitive pattern, although you can certainly let your mandalas “grow” organically in a free-form way.  Take the basic idea and adapt as you see fit.

Make a small circle in the center, somewhere between an inch-and-a-half and three inches in diameter. Then make another circle about a half-inch to three-quarters of an inch around it (to make a “ring” about a half-inch to three-quarters of an inch wide). Then make a larger ring about 8 or 9 inches in diameter.

Mandala showing the two "rings" made by the pairs of concentric circles.

The two darker green rings in this example are made by the series of concentric circles in the first step.

Divide the outermost circle in 4ths, 6ths or 8ths (4ths and 8ths are easy; if you’re not familiar with how to divide circles into 6ths, there are instructions and illustrations in the “Stained-Glass” Mandalas article.)

Using a compass, circle templates, meaningful symbols or shapes you find appealing, make the same pattern in each section of your mandala.

hearts 2

This example was divided in fourths, and a heart motif was used, along with some geometric shapes.

Step 2. The light areas.

Using the “stained-glass” technique described in the earlier article on “Stained-Glass” Mandalas, wet the center circle (or parts of it that are not overlapped by areas you want to make darker), and drop in color along the outside edge. The color will run a bit away from the edge, but leave the center generally clear.

This light area in the center is important to the overall “glow”, so be careful not to get carried away adding color here. (If it moves more than you wanted it to, you can blot the center with a tissue to remove some color and keep the center light.)

Next, wet other areas that you wish to have lighter in the finished mandala and add color to the edges of each area, letting the centers of the areas stay lighter.

Notice how dropping the color primarily along the edges allows you to place relatively "light" areas next to each other (such as the "wave" shapes and the light wedges behind them), and still have the appearance of light glowing through them.

Notice how dropping the color primarily along the edges allows you to place relatively “light” areas next to each other (such as the “wave” shapes and the light wedges behind them), and still have the appearance of light glowing through them.

Step 3: Add darker color to areas surrounding or alongside the light areas to add contrast and intensify the sense of glowing light.

The concentric “rings” created at the beginning of the pattern are a good place to add dark color. But you can also get fancier with the pattern of light and dark, as in this example:

Deep purple and white spiral-shaped mandala.

This stained-glass mandala was inspired by moonlight peeking through some heavy clouds on a windy night. The spiraling shapes suggested movement to me, echoing the movement of the clouds sailing across the sky.

Step 4: Add medium-to-very-dark color around the outside.

You can either use darker watercolor, or if you want a lot of contrast, black ink or acrylic, around the outside of the entire mandala. This will further intensify the sense of light in the light areas.

Black ink has been used to surround this "prayer for the bees" mandala.

Black ink has been used to surround this “prayer for the bees” mandala.

Step 5: Embellish by outlining the individual areas of color, adding words, and/or drawing patterns on some areas.

The example above has been outlined in black ink.  Metallic inks, gel pens or colored pencils also work well for outlining or adding words, poetry or other meaningful text.

peace love hearts

The words “peace”, “love”, “strength”, “courage” were added in metallic ink, using a lettering template, and the individual areas of color were also outlined in metallic ink.

Spiral grey and gold mandala design.

In this example, metallic inks were used to add some line work, embellishing some of the dark areas.

Green and yellow mandala with lettering.

A mandala celebrating summer mornings and starting the day with joy and kindness. It’s difficult to see in the photo, but a quote from a favorite poem has been lettered around the two dark rings in metallic green ink.

That’s the formula!

I think you can see that this basic idea can be adapted to just about any purpose you can imagine. And of course, you can make your mandalas far more elaborate that these examples. The examples are typical of what might be completed in a 3-hour mini-retreat, but I often create more elaborate mandalas that I work on over many sessions, particularly if I am trying to reinforce some positive changes in my own life.

Displaying your mandala.

I often make these mandalas right in my journal. If I want to hang one up somewhere as a meditation focus or encouragement for myself or others, it’s nice to make them on lovely professional-quality watercolor paper, or illustration board or watercolor board.

Watercolor paper can of course, be framed, but I don’t always go to that expense for something I’m using for my own meditation. I don’t usually have a particular one up for long enough. Watercolor paper can be tacked up to a bulletin board, or you can use “sticky tac” putty to stick it up to the wall.

There are also a variety of “clean removal” adhesive products that you can use to stick a sheet of watercolor paper up for a short period of time.  I would advise against using these to stick something up for years at a time, though. I did that with some cork tiles and the “clean removal” part didn’t work as advertised after that long. It was a huge job to get all that adhesive off the wall!

If you use illustration board or watercolor board, you can spray the surface with a clear acrylic finish (e.g. Krylon acrylic spray, which is available in the paint department of home-improvement stores. The board is heavy enough to display without a frame, if you like.

There are stick-on hangers that you can attach to the back of the board which allow the board to be hung on a picture hook. You can also make a cardboard fold-out support like those on the back of photo frames to stand up smaller mandalas on a desk or shelf. (These can also sometimes be purchased in office supply stores with the supplies for science fair and trade show displays.)

Or, you can pop the board into a frame without glass. Two or three coats of acrylic spray provides enough protection that you don’t need to frame these under glass, and the board is rigid enough to hold its shape, although you’ll get nicer results if you have a backing board behind it.

Let making the mandala be your meditation or prayer.

You can create a mandala as a focus for your own prayer or meditation, or as a gift to comfort or uplift a friend.  But for me, the act of making the mandala is the meditation/prayer.  (A prayer doesn’t have to be in words!)

Choosing the colors, words and symbols, watching the magic of the water and the paint, seeing the “glow” develop as the darker areas are added—it’s soothing and contemplative—a perfect way to fix my mind on a positive change I want to make in my life, a new endeavor, something I want to honor and celebrate, or a friend who needs some love sent their way.

Make it a mini-retreat with some friends!

This is a great stand-alone activity, so why not gather some friends for a mini-retreat and make these together?

If you don’t feel up to leading the activity for a group and you’re in the Twin Cities area, I do offer this as an “art-party” or “mini-retreat” activity.  More info about that (plus an announcement of an already-scheduled mini-retreat you can sign up for), at the end of the post.

Schedule a mini-retreat:  I provide all the supplies, templates to help get people started, and instruction for those who are new to watercolor. I bring everything to your home, workplace, meeting place or other location of your choice in the Twin Cities area. It’s a great stand-alone event, or I can work with you to mesh with a longer event you are hosting.  (Similar pricing to the popular “pub-and-paint” events, but with more of a “retreat” atmosphere—not to say there can’t be a glass of wine involved if you like!)


Colored pencil drawing with blue/green watery shapes and red/orange fiery shapes.

Union of Opposites

Several years ago, four of my students and I attended a workshop taught by renowned watercolorist Cheng-Khee Chee. One of my students asked Chee, “Do you plan your paintings out ahead of time or do you work spontaneously and intuitively?” Chee explained that he did both, and went on to say “Reason and emotion are the warp and weft of a painting.”

The warp and weft. Woven together, and both essential to the integrity of the fabric.

What a different metaphor than we usually use for the relationship between reason and emotion!

I don’t know if it’s a quirk of our language, a reflection of our cultural fascination with “winning” and/or being “right” or a reflection of our natural tendency to categorize, but we do seem to have a tendency to think in terms of opposites. And often, when we mentally place two ideas—or people—in opposition, we then conclude that more of one (or for one) must come at the expense of the other.

After hearing Chee’s remark, I began to see that my paintings—and my life!—were richer and stronger when they had both a good measure of reason (planning, analysis, critical evaluation, deliberation) and emotion (intuition, spontaneity, playfulness, passion). Furthermore, with a bit of practice I discovered that there really was no conflict. I could think rationally and respond emotionally at the same time. There was no need to squelch one in order to access the other.

All that was required was that I learn to stop thinking of them as mutually exclusive. The metaphor of a strong and beautiful fabric made of two interwoven yarns—both necessary, both playing a role in the character of the fabric—has been a fruitful one for me.

How often do you find yourself thinking in terms of conflict, of either/or, win/lose without even thinking to ask if the two people/ideas/paths are really opposed?

What would happen if you considered the metaphor of warp and weft? What if the two seemingly-opposed things could both be present, both be valued and celebrated, both employed or pursued at the same time?

The yin-yang concept and symbol carries a somewhat similar idea: that balance is dynamic and fluid and requires an interplay of yin and yang, and that even when it seems one is ascendant, it still contains within it the essence of the other (the little black and white dots in center of the big black and white “tadpoles”).

Exploring “Opposites”

1.  Choose two qualities, ideas, choices or people who you generally think of as being “opposites”.

For the first few times working with this exercise, you may be more successful if you choose something rather abstract and neutral, rather than something that causes you a lot of angst. It could be as simple as complementary colors, summer and winter, or as I’ve chosen for this week’s example, fire and water.

The goal is to reconsider your usual assumptions about the relationship between these two things.

If you start with something you’ve already been wrestling with and ruminating on at length, you may find it more difficult to wholeheartedly shift your thinking. Consider choosing something a bit less charged for your first experience with this exercise. Tackle more charged issues after you’ve had a chance to experience and understand how the exercise works.

2. Spend a few moments brainstorming or mind-mapping each quality/idea/concept/person.

What are some words and phrases that come to mind in connection with each? I like to mind-map these and allow myself to go off on tangents a bit before returning to the central concept. Here are my mind-maps for fire and water, as an example.

Mind-map of associations with fire and water.

Mind-mapping my initial impressions of fire and water. Working fast and without reflection.

3. Choose some visual qualities to suggest each quality/idea/concept/person.

I chose reds, oranges and yellows and pointy, flamelike shapes to suggest fire, and blues, green and purples and blobby droplet and puddle shapes to suggest water.

4. Set up either a “yin-yang” format or a “woven” format (or both) and create a mandala, doodle or “weaving” of the two visual elements.

In my example, I chose to work in a “yin-yang” format with colored pencils. I find colored pencil shading soothing and meditative. It helps me let my mind wander out of my usual modes of thinking. Perhaps interwoven doodles would appeal to you, or perhaps you’d like to work in watercolor and allow the water to mingle colors and forms as you create your yin-yang or weaving. If you like, you could even work on two different pieces of paper, cut them up and actually weave them together.

Radiating colored pencil drawing withlue/green watery shapes and red/orange fiery shapes.

Fire and water union-of-opposites mandala. This is by no means “finished”. I like to return to this sort of page and develop it slowly over time, meditating further on the union of these two “opposites”.

5. Focus on creating the image, but notice any thoughts or insights that emerge.

As you worked to represent the interweaving of the two qualities/ideas/concepts/people, did you realize anything new about them that allowed you to see them as not necessarily opposed or in conflict?

As I worked on my fire-and-water mandala, I was struck by the similarity of many of the shapes I associate with fire and water. I considered how they are both characterized by movement and fluidity. I realized that there are, of course, times when flames are blue, and times when water appears red.

I thought of how mesmerizing they both can be. We love to watch the flicker of a campfire or ripples in a stream.

I thought of how fire and water combine to make the steam that carries the soothing qualities of both in a sauna. I thought of the beauty of mist floating above a lake or rain clouds building as the sun warms the wet earth. I realized we use a combination of fire and water to cook foods that would be hard to digest otherwise. I thought of the flame of my gas water heater warming water for a hot shower or bath. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that fire and water play at least as large a role in our lives in combined form as they do separately.

Not a momentous example, and yet, each time I do this exercise, it shifts my thinking just a little. I’ve become more and more aware of how I make arbitrary mental oppositions, or at least separations, between things which are not opposed at all.

I’m more likely now to take a few minutes to ask if there really is a conflict, or if I’m just mindlessly setting up an opposition between two things that often work in concert. Is it really either-or? Or is it warp and weft?

One more way to step outside my usual worldview and encourage the open, flexible frame of mind in which creativity flourishes.