Serena Rios McRae will humbly tell you she doesn’t know how to draw people — but if you flip through her recently published coloring book, you wouldn’t believe her.
“She Dreams of the Desert” is a 43-page adult coloring book available through Amazon that features desert-inspired images — flowers, thunderstorms and lots of saguaros. But more importantly, the $14.99 coloring book includes outlines of Rios McRae’s friends — many of whom are artists or small-business owners in the Tucson community.
Thanks to memories of sixth-grade art class, Rios McRae knew there were certain measurements to use when drawing faces. She also pulled reference photos of random women off the internet, sketching them for practice.
“I drew two people and I was like, this would be way more fun if I drew people who I know — who (are) a variety of shapes and sizes,” says Rios McRae, who is also known as Cactus Clouds Art. “I could use a reference photo of people on the internet and they were all a certain type of beautiful. And if I used the mechanics of how you draw faces like you learn in art class, it gives you the ideal version of a face — which is also not great.”
“I was like, I should ask my friends if I can use their faces and bodies because that’s when you get double chins and eyes that are closer together and kinky hair.”
“Real women and their real bodies deserve to be the center of our creative and artistic focus,” she writes in the coloring book's introduction.
Here's what Rios McRae calls the big secret, though:
“I would ask for somebody’s permission to draw them and once they gave me permission, I would watch their Reels or Stories (on Instagram) and take screenshots of moments in between,” she says. “I used to be a photographer and I only gave people the photos in between, of them in their natural state. I never gave them the posed ones because you tell people to smile and they smile really hard and then they’re like, ‘phew!’ And that’s when I snap the photo.
“It’s those little pauses before speaking or when you pause to think — I took screenshots of those moments,” she says.
From there, she embellished the images to make them look a little more ethereal and dreamy, using her friends’ passions as a guiding factor.
For example, Yōlia Botánica owner and bruja Lulu Tineo is on one of the pages. “I made her picture like it looks like she’s blessing the Earth or something — it’s just the vibe I got from her,” Rios McRae says.
She also drew Margaret Elandt, the local jewelry artist behind Juvelarto Designs, with crystals sitting behind her.
“I was so flattered and surprised when Serena invited and included me in this project. I then immediately felt some of those insecurities about being looked at/seen,” Elandt said on Instagram. “But my love of animation and illustration and appreciation for Serena's vision and approach pushed me forward. Plus, all her language was really positive and full of care.
“I just loved that she was drawing and celebrating these regular women in our community and I felt lucky to be part of that.”
Amanda Quintana, the local maker behind the playful earrings at Sundown Club, is pictured on the cover. The book also features former Hotel McCoy VP of brand and creative Nicole Dahl, local gardener Sprinkled with Plants, fashion icon Honey Pie and photographer and Tucson Wildlife Center volunteer Lisa Roden.
“It was really fun drawing women who I knew so they could give me inspiration just from having walked through the world,” Rios McRae says.
“I want you to use it up”
Rios McRae has wanted to create a coloring book for years, but the process really started in 2022 when she sat down to doodle saguaros — something she hadn't done in a while.
She initially left the saguaros black and white — until she realized the 130-pack of rainbow gel pens that she got her daughter for Christmas were actually glittery.
Using the pens, she colored a rainbow inside the saguaro and filmed herself doing it. When she posted the clip on Instagram, she asked her followers, “Should I make a coloring book?”
Nearly 40,000 people saw the video and the response was pretty much unanimous: Yes, please.
Serendipitously, Rios McRae was at Tucson Comic-Con when she met Rare Dragons' Jessica Feinberg, who told her all about the world of coloring books.
“She was like, ‘DM me any time and I can talk you through the process.’ And she did,” Rios McRae says. “I texted her after the con was over and she gave me so much information and she sent me so many links. If I had any questions, she was right there.”
Since publishing the coloring book in November, she’s sold nearly 70 copies — “She Dreams of the Desert” is now roaming through Spain and Germany. She hopes to sell 100 copies by Christmas.
Beyond the Christmas goal, Rios McRae wants to create another coloring book ... and another and another.
“I want to do more people because Tucson’s full of women and they’re all amazing and I want to draw all of them,” she says. “I thought about doing a volume that’s all generations — asking somebody who has a living parent and a child and use all their pictures in one image. I want to do one with old people — with wrinkles and texture and turn them into mountains or something awesome.”
“It’s really cool — the idea of people being able to sit down and experience my art for a period of time where they’re interacting with it,” she says.
Sometimes we buy things that are simply too pretty to use — a cookie decorated so beautifully you don't want to eat it, stickers so cute you don't want to take off the sticky backing.
“I think it’s really common for people to splurge on a new journal or coloring book and then they never use it,” she says. “I want you to use it up. I’m giving you permission to ignore your tasks so you can enjoy yourself and have a good time. If we let the tasks of life run everything, then we’ll never spend time with ourselves.”
“Here is my message to you: use the nice things in your life,” Rios McRae writes in the book. “Burn the good candles. Write in the pretty journals. Stop saving that drink for a special occasion. You are the special occasion, my friend, and you are allowed to use the things that make you happy any moment of any day you wish to.”