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Creativity August 10, 2016

Coloring Books for Grown Ups 101: How to Color!

When I first published Coloring Animal Mandalas, I just assumed that this would be a zero-instructions-needed kind of book. It’s coloring! Who hasn’t colored before?! To my utter surprise, how to color in coloring books has been THE most asked question I have gotten as a coloring book artist. I realized that most adults haven’t colored in 20+ years (or sometimes 60-70+ years!). Also, when you’re coloring as an adult, crayons just don’t cut it anymore. We want a great experience, and want to use great, grown up materials. So since I’ve been asked about this a zillion times, here’s my overview of how to color coloring books.

How Do You Choose Which Colors to Use?

I’ve been asked this question a lot. The question I hear when I read between the lines is that people don’t feel particularly artistic and are fearful that they don’t have what it takes to color something beautiful. To which I say: IT’S COLORING. 2 year olds can handle this. There is no wrong way to do it. And almost any color combination will look good. But in the interest of actually answering this question, there’s several ways to tackle color choices:

  1. Go with a rainbow spectrum. Who doesn’t love rainbows?
  2. Go in blindfolded. Meaning: just pick up a color and go. Let the spirit of spontaneity take over.
  3. Go hip. Pantone releases it’s trend forecast twice a year. Admittedly, they are pretty good at it.
  4. Go overboard. Find an image with colors you love (I have a Pinterest board full of them here) and upload it to this free online color palette generator. I take no responsibility for the hours you will lose once you start playing with this tool.

How Do You Maximize Relaxation While Coloring?

One of the main reason adult coloring books are getting so popular lately is because they are a major stress-buster and tension reliever. You know how artists create art to stay sane and get into The Zone? That’s what coloring does for non-artists. Personally, I don’t think that there is any wrong way to color for relaxation. I’ve heard of people coloring on planes, in front of the TV, in coffee shops, and even in therapy sessions. It’s all good. For me personally, I like to color in my studio, which is an enclosed porch and has tons of natural light. I try to do it when I know I won’t be interrupted for at least 30 minutes. I also like to color with my favorite music playing in the background. My go-to coloring music? The soundtrack to The Great Gatsby (2013 version).

What Materials Do You Use to Color With?

Below I discuss my favorite pencils, markers, and a few other non-traditional art supplies that are killer for coloring. This section contains affiliate links to products I have purchased with my own money and tested with my own hands. 🙂

Best Colored Pencils for Adult Coloring Books

Adult coloring books are intricate and have tiny details. Even if you have an attachment to the waxy smell of Crayolas, they are too fat to use for filling in tiny spaces. My number #1 go-to material for coloring is colored pencils. But I have a soft spot in my heart for art markers. There is a WIDE range of art supplies you can use, here are my favorites at every price point:

Sargent Art 50-Count Assorted Colored Pencils

I had a book signing at a local bookstore and ordered these for people to use so that they could play with some print outs and test the merchandise. I really didn’t want to bring my expensive colored pencils for strangers to use and abuse. I have to admit, for a cheap set of pencils these are astonishingly awesome. This is a GREAT beginner set for adults or teens. The colors aren’t quite as vivid or blendable as the higher priced pencils, but they are solid decent quality at a tiny fraction of the price. I’ve bought them for under $10, but the price fluctuates up to $14 or so.

Prismacolor Premier Soft Core Colored Pencils, 132 Colored Pencils

The best of the best when it comes to colored pencils, I’m always raving about my Prismacolors on Facebook or Instagram when I’m posting pictures of my works in progress. Smooth, blendable, layer-able… they just rock. They are also kind of expensive (currently $80). I actually have the 150 color set, but the price of that set is almost $50 dollars more than the 132 color set. That’s not very cost effective for an additional 18 colors. Wish I had noticed it before I made the purchase! My only complaint about Prismas: they break. A LOT. And since they are wax-based they wear down incredibly quickly, so that after you sharpen your tip, it will be gone within just a minute or two. But despite these drawbacks, they give me the absolute BEST results out of all my coloring tools. In fact, every single one of my coloring books covers (except for the first one) has been colored with Prismacolors.

Faber Castell Polychromos

Polychromos are a close second to the Prismacolors. So close, in fact, that sometimes I prefer them over the Prismas despite the fact that I just said I usually choose Prismacolors first. Polychromos are oil based instead of wax based, and they are extremely high quality artist grade pencils (and priced as such!!!). They don’t have any of the problems I just mentioned in the previous paragraph – they keep a fine point for a long time after sharpening, they hardly EVER break, lay down smoother color and they are just as blendable. Sometimes, though, the colors are slightly less saturated than the Prismacolors. This can be a good thing a lot of the time, but other times I really want and need bright, saturated colors. Here’s a close up side by side comparison of the two. The difference is small, to be sure, and some people might feel like I’m splitting hairs. But I’m an artist, and I’m allowed to be picky about my colors. 🙂 Frankly, when I don’t need bright colors, I probably reach for my Polychromos first because they are smoother and last longer. So, with all that information, you’ll have to make your own choice based on what’s most important to you!

Prismacolors Vs. Polychromos Colored Pencils

Close up comparison of Prismacolors Vs. Polychromos Colored Pencils

Derwent Inktense Pencils in Metal Tin, 72 Count

I am also frequently raving about my Inktense colored pencils, which are actually like watercolor pencils. They aren’t ideal for straight coloring, but are definitely ideal if you want to add a little water to your page. Inktense pencils are bright, bold colors that once wet turn to liquid ink that is permanent when dry.  If you use just a tiny bit of water, they can be used in coloring books with normal paper, and they will make your colors super-smooth and jump off the page. Side note: they also work on fabric. On. Fabric.

Best Markers for Adult Coloring Books

Because of my carpal tunnel wrist problems, I tend to color more with markers than I do with pencils. I wish they were as blendable as pencils, but they are just SO much easier on my hands to use. So if you are older, have arthritis, or carpal tunnel like me, start with markers.

Copic Ciao Art Markers, Set of 36

I hesitate to recommend Copic art markers to anyone but the most serious of coloring fanatics because they are redonkulously expensive. Like, $3 bucks PER marker expensive. I actually buy them at a local art supply store a few at a time and pay more than that each. But seriously? They are like coloring with liquid velvet. Smooth. Blendable. And you can color large areas in one solid color with no worries about overlap. The alcohol based ink takes slightly longer to dry than regular markers, which means you can color somewhat sloppily and still get even, smooth color. Prismacolor makes art markers that are slightly (only slightly) more affordable, and I’ve heard they are comparable to Copic markers, but I haven’t tried them so I can’t say for sure.

On the down side, they will bleed through your paper. Even card stock, so they aren’t great for double sided books. And always use a scrap piece of paper between pages in a book in case it bleeds through to the next sheet.

By the way, if you’re looking for a recommendation for cheaper markers that are good for coloring, there are a few that I can recommend, but in no way will they live up to the Copics. See below.

Staedtler Triplus Fineliner Markers


My favorite thing about Staedtler markers is that they are the LEAST likely to bleed through the paper (almost any paper) to the other side compared any other marker I’ve used. They also have very tiny tips, which make them absolutely perfect for the most intricate of details in your coloring books. But because the tips are so tiny, they are decidedly not good for coloring any large areas. I also don’t like that the largest set of colors available is only 36, and they really aren’t blendable.

But besides these drawbacks, I use them almost every. single. time. I color. They are just extremely versatile, reliable, and their tiny tips fit better into tiny spaces than the Copic markers will. They are also extremely affordable, and very well made/high quality. You can’t go wrong with them.

Sharpies Ultra Fine Points

I wasn’t a fan of Sharpies at first because they shared the biggest problem with the Copics (lots of bleed through) with little to no blendability. But I had a set laying around from a different project and I tried them in my Coloring Flower Mandala Postcards book and I kind of fell in love with them. The fact that they bleed a lot actually helps to keep the wet edge where you are coloring, making it so that when you fill in an area there isn’t a darker strip where the strokes overlap. And the paper stock in my postcards book is nice and thick, and I was surprised as can be that the Sharpies didn’t bleed through to the other side. So I’m using them a lot more lately – the trick to getting good results with Sharpies is to color just inside the lines, and let the ink bleed out to the edges of the area you are coloring. That way the ink won’t bleed into adjoining areas and you’ll get nice, clean results.

Other Coloring Art Supplies

Sakura Gelly Roll Gel Pens

I was happy to leave this post up with my favorite materials above – but then I tried Sakura gel pens and I HAD to come update this post to rave about them for coloring. They came highly recommended to me by other colorists, so I ordered a set. I heard lots of complaints about other gel pen brands = that many of them skip or dry up, but I didn’t have either problem with these.  What I like best about them is that they are easy on the hands to use. I love my Prismacolors, but you have to press pretty hard on the paper to use them and after a few hours that can really mess with my carpal tunnel syndrome. These are like having opaque gouache paint in a pen – heaven! My only complaint is that they aren’t really blendable. For blending colors, stick with the Copics or the Prismacolor pencils.


You might have heard that some people like to ‘color’ with eyeshadow – considering my eye shadows are about $10 bucks a pop, it’s a CRAZY expensive way to color!!! Coloring with PanPastels is exactly the same – but cheaper than eye shadow and come in real colors you’d actually use. Not to diss neutral colors or anything, but a girl needs a big spectrum to choose from, ya know?! PanPastels are essentially chalk in the shape of a disk and are applied with a sponge, in the same way that you would apply eyeshadow to your skin. They really aren’t good for tiny areas. Where PanPastels really shine are in covering large areas, and unbelievable blendability. I use them, and have seen them used extensively on backgrounds, skies, and sometimes filling in the white space around a colored image.

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  • Aileen
    October 18, 2016

    Hi Wendy,
    I just wanted to say thank you for this fantastic post on different colouring mediums. I have Copics, Sharpies, Inktense Pencils and Coloursoft pencils. I have been thinking of getting blending pencils with more vibrancy such as the Polychromes or Prismacolors but had heard there has been a lot of breakage with the Prismacolors with the leads not being centred properly within the core. I love seeing colouring with these and the Polychromes but to get them in Australia is extremely expensive. I would still like to get them and wonder if its a. necessary to get the full set, I love using all the brights and pastels not much in the more autumn colours but would hate to limit myself. My other concern is I have Osteo Arthritis and my hands can really ache, would I be wasting my money?? I love my copics and colour with them all the time, yes they are even more expensive over here but being able to refill makes them very viable. (might be worth mentioning in your article cause a lot of the cheaper versions coming out these days don’t refill). Anyway if you have time to comment that would be great but if not it doesn’t matter. I totally enjoyed your article.

  • Karen Herman
    Karen Herman
    December 24, 2016

    Hi Wendy! – I’m just starting my coloring adventure. My question is: do you frequently mix materials in the same picture? Colored pencils and markers both?

  • Ingie Miller
    Ingie Miller
    December 26, 2016

    what do you place your pages on? And do you have to use something to hold the page down?

  • Stephanie
    January 1, 2017

    I am fairly new to coloring and find most pictures in coloring books have the very small details which at times I know is needed but when most of the pictures are mostly so detailed ( as small or smaller than this type ) it is very discouraging instead of relaxing. Do you have or can you recommend any books where all or most of the pictures are not so detailed. Your example above is perfect and I could even go a little smaller but spending $8 or more for a book that you can only 5 or 6 pictures is disappointing. By the way, I have looked at many of your pictures and they are wonderful ! I appreciate any suggestions you may have.

  • Victoria
    June 19, 2017

    Hello! I just came across this while trying to google a coloring issue. Perhaps you have some advice? I color with markers generally, and found a new coloring book for Game of Thrones that I love! It’s very intricate, and I find if I do the entire thing in markers it’s just too intense. Are there markers out there I can shade with?

  • Bryn
    July 14, 2017

    Thank you for your comparisons, and I agree about markers (I’ve had both wrists operated on for cts). I’m new to it all and spent $50 for 32 tri-plus Staedtler at Michaels. After one coloring book of inspirational sayings and part of another book, (and total elapsed time is under 2 months) half of the pens are already dry! I don’t leave the caps off and I use all the colors, not just that half. Is this all that can be expected of markers? I emailed Staedtler, but they did not send a reply. I can’t afford $25 to color one book. That isn’t relaxing at all. What do you think about this?

  • AJFlamingo
    July 27, 2017

    Thank you for posting this blog. After a tough time w/ a slew of serious medical problems, I decided to try coloring after finding some cool, adult wire-bound coloring books in the hospital gift shop. I’ve never been a fan of colored pencils; the upkeep is a PITA. But I’ve always loved markers and didn’t want to invest in a cheap set only to discover bleed-through. I’m kind of nervous about actually taking action to stretch myself in this new direction. I’m afraid to feel like I’m wasting time and should be doing something else. But I hear coloring can be a relaxing activity so I’m willing to try it.

  • Crystal
    August 13, 2019

    I love all books and coloring materials it makes the pictures so much brighter

  • Jennifer
    September 15, 2019

    I know how to color in Adult coloring books. I like to order ! But I have a problem. This year for Christmas I am getting a few Christmas coloring books but I am not sure on how 2 color snow? Someone told me they make white markers but what kind should I buy?