Creative coloring with an app

Susan Striker is holding a portrait of her created by Easton artist Kathleen Davidson using the Anti-Coloring Book App.   

Susan Striker is holding a portrait of her created by Easton artist Kathleen Davidson using the Anti-Coloring Book App.

Coloring books for adults seem to be all the rage these days, but art educator Susan Striker of Easton strongly disagrees with much of their positive popular press. “Some call them mindful, but I think coloring someone else’s picture is mindless,” she said.

“I think adults are gravitating to coloring books because they colored as kids; they’re familiar, like comfort food. But art should be self-expression,” she believes. “Art is a wonderful way of dealing with thoughts and feelings. Drawing about an emotion helps you to understand it better… I think it is good to process life, whether through writing, talking or making art. If you’re not looking to make money from it, it doesn’t matter what you make.”

Striker, who has been teaching at the elementary level in Greenwich for 20 years, has long been a proponent of self-expression. She established her Anti-Coloring Books brand in 1978 and has produced more than 21 books in art education as well as related activities books. Her approach encourages kids to draw from their own imagination, “not fill in a picture an adult has created.”

The pages in her books provide an illustration and related prompt and lots of blank space for creativity to be unleashed. A tree branch may invite children to draw a bird. Other sample prompts include: What treasures have you found in this junk yard? What does the bogeyman look like? What is the best story your grandparents tell about the old days? Put on a sidewalk art show with your friends.

In 1982, her publisher noticed the books were selling well on college campuses and requested one geared for adults; the result was The Anti-Coloring Book for Adults Only. It includes such question and statement prompts as: If you could see music, what would your favorite song look like? If you could go back to the womb for a while, who or what would you take with you? What does your id look like? Picture yourself at the ideal job. How will you look when you get old?

“The prompts allow people to think and express themselves, not settle for finishing something some pro started,” she says. “If you don’t give children the opportunity to draw or think for themselves, they are never going to learn how.”

Although more than a million of her books have been printed worldwide, in recent years, sales have plummeted, she acknowledged. “I don’t think kids make much art at home anymore, maybe they are afraid of making a mess. The big thing, of course, is that they are all on iPads or other devices now. And the schools provide iPads in class as well.

“I asked my students to show me some of the art programs and apps and they all seem to be about tapping on the pad to fill in the color of a block or shape; they are not getting the pleasure of doing something for themselves… thinking it through, solving a problem; they get a goal and meet it or fail and try again. Even worse are some of the games — they all seem to be about killing, maiming or crushing; everything is violent, full of explosions.”

In the spirit of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” Striker decided to translate her Anti-Coloring Books into an app, but the process was a frustrating one before she succeeded in 2014; the adult version was released last month.

“I spent three years developing the app, trying to find someone to do the coding to achieve the goal I was seeking; I wanted the users to be able to select a medium — crayon, chalk, marker, pen, paint brush — and have the color chosen reflect the textures of that medium, so that it should simulate working on paper with real materials like an artist would work. The coders I interviewed and hired were skeptical it could be done; one even told me ‘You’re so stupid, no app will work that way.’

“When I told my frustrations to a co-worker, she suggested I talk to Matt Meyers, who teaches chemistry and coding at Greenwich High School. We met for coffee, and after I told him my tale of woe, he offered to figure it out, or if I didn’t want to hire him, he’d oversee whoever I chose next. He called me a week later and told he had figured out how to do it — we hadn’t even shaken hands on a deal yet! And after three years of aggravation, the app was done in three weeks. I found out later he’d been selected that year by the National School Boards Association’s Technology Leadership Network as one of its ‘20 to Watch’ national education-technology leaders. He was such a delight to work with.”

Jean Richards provided the voice for the prompts for those who cannot yet read them, and Sally Schaedler did the logo and app art to complement Striker’s black and white activity pages. The app is available only for the iPad and mini iPad as “a phone screen it too small for children to draw on.” It also enables budding artists to print out their work or send it to Striker for possible inclusion on her website gallery.

Striker’s apps, which have about 40 activities, are available on iTunes for 99 cents each; there is also a free app with three sample activities. For a demonstration of the children’s app, see youtube.com/watch?v=bUkRuce7RiE&feature=em-share_video_user.

Striker always knew she’d be an art major, but her mother wanted her to be more practical: “She wouldn’t pay for my education unless I minored in teaching, which turned out to something I’m passionate about,” Striker said. “It just proves that you can’t always plan; that accidents, mistakes and compromises often bring good results.”

For additional information on Striker’s books, workshops and samples of children’s work using her app and books, visit susanstriker.com.

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