When Caldwell artist Pamela Smart published her first “Color Me Your Way” coloring book in spring 2011, she was thinking about her husband, who worked in construction but was having money trouble because of the poor economy.
Having been an artist all her life, with fine art on display around the world, Smart decided to make a children’s book filled with fun, innocent pictures paired with playful verses, similar to the work of Dr. Seuss.
“I realized when I was drawing all those drawings I didn’t have time to color them,” she said, explaining why that plan did not go into effect. “... We were going to lose our home. … I was outlining my pictures, and then I go, ‘I don’t have time to color this.’ And I go, ‘Coloring book.’”
She self-published the first book through Caldwell-based Caxton Press using money her husband won from a lottery scratch ticket and soon sold the first 200 copies out the back of her car.
So she approached the Costco Wholesale in Nampa to request the store begin carrying it. Troy Allen, assistant warehouse manager at the Nampa location, said, “The employees just loved it. They were actually buying (the books) from her.”
That led to his support for the book. While hers was not the first adult coloring book to ever be sold, Allen says, “Hers is just special.”
And once Costco Wholesale decided to begin selling it, the series took off. It is now being sold internationally and has been a No. 1 seller, with a million books sold.
The books are printed using acid-free paper so that people can frame the completed drawings — and they do. The drawings are also being made into T-shirts, puzzles, sweatshirts, posters and even a leg tattoo, in the case of one individual.
“All I was trying to do is get people to appreciate art again,” Smart said. “That was one. Especially children. … But then I found — these adults all of a sudden start writing me letters. And I just got flooded with phone calls, letters saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you, you have no idea what this has done for me, the therapy.’ And I go, ‘Therapy?’”
Since realizing this use for her books, Smart has donated books to cancer treatment centers, homeless shelters and elsewhere, hoping to become actively involved in helping people.
Smart describes her first husband as “the biker type” with a caring heart. They used to take in street kids a dozen at a time, she said, and feed and clothe them. They would go camping with them and treat them like family — one, they actually adopted.
“I just feel there’s a lot of people who need help, and I know what it is to struggle,” Smart said. “... I’ve had my days where I’m on someone’s couch just getting by or whatever, you know. As the starving artist.”
Her first group of kids was not a group she took in under her wing — it was a group of youth who helped each other. Smart was in her 20s, living independently in Santa Barbara, California, and she said this group of friends “changed her heart.” She credits them with helping her become less calloused to the world around her and changing her view of art.
She describes these experiences as giving her compassion for others, and adds that the people she has helped have become like family. Many came to call her “mom.”
“Those are forever people in your life,” Smart said.
Having done work like that and also having run a soup kitchen, Smart says she misses helping people in a hands-on way.
Without the responses from people using her coloring books for stress relief and other therapy, she said she probably would not have made more than one book. The series is now up to five books.
She gets the therapy association, though.
“(Art) was my own escape as a child, too,” Smart said.
Smart said her mother was an impressionist painter whose art hung in galleries, and she calls her mom her first inspiration for entering the art world.
“... When she would color (in) my coloring books,” she recalled, “one blade of grass would have three colors to it. … Mom played in my coloring book and I (would) just cherish it and go, ‘I want to do that.’”
The “Color Me Your Way” books are done in fine-tipped marker; it was her high school art teacher who brought her around to using pen and ink instead of the paint her mother used. He noted her tight, detailed drawings and “he knew exactly where my heart was,” Smart said, noting her love for the works artists like M.C. Escher.
Smart did not go to art school because she did not like the commercialization she saw happening there. However, beginning at age 20, she was able to make a living off her art, along with odd jobs. The first piece she sold was to a lawyer’s office, which had her design a stained glass window.
Even then, she had people approaching her about her black and white pieces — which lacked color because she couldn’t afford it — asking if they could color them in.
From the stained glass window to these black and white drawings, “Color Me Your Way” brought Smart’s life full-circle.
Her current style also has its roots in her youth: A neighbor used to travel often and brought her souvenirs from India. She loved the designs and animals — and that love is clearly portrayed in the animal drawings in “Color Me Your Way.”
Smart keeps her work playful and innocent in theme, often incorporating phrases or puns into the drawings. For instance, a camel in one drawing might represent “camel-flage,” and three birds whose bodies merge into one recalls the phrase “birds of a feather flock together.” Hiding animals in the drawings is a regular game she plays.
Some of the scenes come from her life, such as one of her cat peeking through a window at her children’s two dogs relaxing on a rug.
Smart said she takes over the dining room table when she is working, and it takes about a week to complete each drawing, from preliminary research into animal anatomy to the drafts and the final product.
Smart said that if she were to color the drawings as well, that would tack an extra two weeks onto that time.
The Works in Progress
Despite each page starting out the same outlined drawing, Smart points out how each colorist makes it their own and prides her work on its ability to help others grow as artists.
A look at the series’ fan page, “Color Me Your Way Enthusiasts,” reveals a group of colorists doing just that.
“Have to admit this one took me many hours of focused work,” one poster said. “I’m working hard to improve shading and blending. … I’m pleased with my progress.”
Others use the space to compare their “WIPs,” or “works in progress,” or to discuss which pastels, colored pencils, crayons, markers, gel pens or other art media they are using.
Each finished product is unique in its own way, even though each had the same start.
Smart said she enjoys seeing what each person comes up with.
“(Art) is something special,” she said. “... Like your own fingerprint.”