Color me curious

Laminated ink

Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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Surely, you’ve come across a coloring book at some point. It’s one of those things that you forget exists until someone mentions it. Purpose it as an elementary school pastime or a midlife crisis stress killer — coloring can really do it all. 

Apart from how they’re used, I bask in the idea of bringing something to life through color. Those books feel deeper than how much credit they are given. But, I concede. It’s tricky to argue the complexity of a cartoon when the cartoon is something resembling unfinished 2010 WordArt.

These coloring books are rigid in structure, the dark boundaries fiercely guarding each section. The lines strictly mark where you can and cannot cross. But all at the same time, it’s also liberating, where the white vacancies invite a splash of color, any color. Before I go on, no, this column isn’t a reiteration of the age-old cliche of coloring outside the lines. I’ll try to offer a changed viewpoint.

I’ve had my fair share of empty kitchen and kaleidoscope images to color in. Staring back at me, they patiently await both my energy and attention to fill them completely. Obediently, I do. My colored pencils shrink into nothing but helpless stubs. My desperate attempts to wipe away mistakes leave me with a stained eraser and its shreds everywhere. But by the end, I’m left with an actualization of how I imagined the colors should decorate that once black-and-white picture. 

I bridge a blank canvas to you, asking you to color along with me.

Where I select a green, you prefer blue. Or I’ll choose a yellow when you like pink. I grip my pen tightly, aiming this artistic weapon at the page, whereas you praise it as a frail feather. And when we finish, you and I have entirely contrasting outcomes. Usually, we distinguish color through one indisputable dimension — we can’t change the color of the sky or the clouds. But in these images, we create two idiosyncratic visions from the same starting point. 

Now, these minor dissimilarities we have are not detrimental to our relationship. But they offer us an understanding of how we are, in fact, unalike. I’ve dared to simplify life to the choose-your-own-adventure features of a coloring book. There really is more than just those choices to disagree with.

Moving from home and all its reliable familiarity to college has been, to say the least, challenging. I’m certainly not immune to homesickness, but moreso, I find the unavoidably predominant struggle lies in the infinite flurry of new faces. While the pandemic has decreased what would have been, the unstoppable influx of humans is still very much alive. Having never left my Southern California bubble until now, I wonder what everyone else’s coloring book is like.

This curiosity to understand another person’s experiences — I think it’s a part of growing up. For so long, I’ve been sheltering in a comfort zone I built through the friends I’ve grown up with since middle school. Sometimes, it’s just easier to fall back on what’s comfortable. Now, being thrown into a boiling pot of individuals from all walks of life is both eye-opening and daunting. I don’t know where these people came from and what their pasts may look like. And I don’t know how that all fits in with what they believe in and how they perceive the world.

It’d be unrealistic to expect another person to have the exact same perspective and thoughts as me. I would be chasing the impossible if I sought out these qualities in every person I encounter. So, I conclude that maybe the best I can do when meeting new people is to simply be open. 

I chose a green-colored pencil because it reminds me of my aunt and how much she adores nature. And maybe you chose blue because it’s the same shade as the walls of your childhood bedroom. I liked yellow because that color is laced with my carefree days spent in kindergarten, but you liked pink because it’s the color of your favorite animated character. Perhaps the subtle meanings beneath the colors we choose, the values we hold and the people we want to become, tread deeper. 

I’d like to think that our coloring books are just windows into who we are, and we are all working to understand each other’s. 

Armed with invisible crayons and stencils, I begin by listening to you and your story through the colors you use to fill in the lines. And you listen to mine. Our coloring books appear undeniably different, and our opinions may never overlap with each other. We might not be carbon copies of one another, but we find ourselves here together, just trying to color in the same page in the most varying and coexisting ways.

Ashley Tsai writes the Monday A&E column on art bridging the internal and the external. Contact her at [email protected].