On Adults and Colouring Books

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I have to admit that I’ve embraced “one of 2015’s biggest and perhaps most-unexpected art trends“: Colouring for adults. One night, about two weeks ago, as I was browsing the stacks at the local Chapters, I found a bunch of colouring books for adults. I was drawn in (heh) by the fun and complicated designs. However, I didn’t buy one of the books at the bookstore. Unsure if I was going to enjoy the activity, I went to my local Michaels and picked up a bunch of colouring books (meant for kids) for $1 before heading over to Staples, where I bought myself some shiny new pencil crayons. I went to work as soon as I got home and had a pretty good time of it. (I will say that my colouring abilities are a bit pedestrian and childlike still, but practice makes perfect, right?)

However, I refuse to call myself a “colourist“.

Publisher’s Weekly tracks the surge in popularity for adult colouring books:

Johanna Basford’s first book, Secret Garden (2013), which was published by U.K.-based Laurence King and has more than 1.5 million copies in print worldwide, is largely credited with the surge in popularity for adult coloring books in Europe and the U.S.—but the trend really began some months earlier in France, with the publication of Art-thérapie: 100 Coloriages anti-stress in 2012, by Hachette Pratique. The press’s decision to focus on the therapeutic value of coloring paved the way for Basford and a number of other artists.

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While colouring for adults is not necessarily a “new” phenomenon – colouring books for adults have been around since the 1970s – the recent surge in popularity of colouring books for adults “has helped to create a massive new industry category.” Social media – especially Facebook and Pinterest – have fuelled this popularity by offering tips and disseminating the activity to a wider audience. Marketing for the books associates them with mindfulness and other therapeutic ends such as relaxation as well as reducing stress and anxiety. Taken together, this has resulted in colouring books for adults appearing on bestseller lists, including Amazon and Publishers Weekly.

I do not participate in the numerous activities that are associated with being “colourist”, including parties, clubs, contests, websites, and social media. Colouring for adults is so popular that Dover Publications sponsored the first National Coloring Book Day on August 2, 2015.

I will admit that part of the draw for me comes from the fact that it’s such a low tech activity. It’s nice to unplug for awhile and get away from my ever present companions – the tablet, computer, and smartphone.

However, as The New Statesman points out:

This “category” is a piece of marketing ­genius. By branding themselves as “analogue” activities, the new colouring books seize on our half-formed anxieties about living a digital life, providing commercially packaged screen-free pastimes that promise to reconnect us with ourselves. The analogue hobby then becomes a craze, with people sharing their work on Twitter or Instagram, thus bringing themselves right back to the digital world they were so keen to escape.

I have to admit the benefits of colouring for my mental health and well-being is part of the reason why I was drawn to the phenomenon (and why such a childish activity has now become socially acceptable for adults). Many of the books advertise themselves as exercises in mindfulness and that they have meditative effects.

Hyperbole aside, art therapists do suggest the act of colouring to help their patients focus and calm
their thoughts. Psychologist Gloria Martínez Ayala believes that “the relaxation [coloring] provides lowers the activity of the amygdala, a basic part of our brain involved in controlling emotion that is affected by stress.”

Another benefit of colouring is that it trains your brain to better focus because it opens up the frontal lobes, the part of the brain that governs organization and problem solving.

Colouring is also said to help your vision and fine motor skills. According to psychologist Gloria Martínez Ayala, colouring:

involves both logic, by which we color forms, and creativity, when mixing and matching colors. This incorporates the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in vision and fine motor skills [coordination necessary to make small, precise movements].

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Other sources point out that “There is some sketchy (pun intended) evidence that the repetitive nature of coloring may be a form of self-regulation and self-soothing.” However, it’s important to note that all of this is just anec-data. Regardless,

it is easy to see that coloring serves a purpose for those individuals who are in need of some stress reduction. The motion of crayon or pencil moving back and forth within pre-made boundaries is perceived as a form of containment, mastery and mind-numbing escape from the here-and-now.

Some experts have started to question the therapeutic benefits, whether or not colouring is actually an activity that is meditative or mindful, and are quick to point out that “colouring is not creative art expression“. Most critics point out that, rather than relying on the anec-data of colouring books:

The benefits of actual art making (using one’s hands to create from imagination) are many and are well-documented, including not only relaxation via stress hormone reduction, but also increased cognitive abilities and attention span, decreases in pain and fatigue perception, improved self-awareness and enhanced sense of quality of life.

Other critics associate the phenomenon with a history of adults co-opting childhood objects and experiences (Lego, video games, comic books, etc.) as a means of escapist fantasy.

Another thing that critics point out is that the marketing of colouring for adults has a gender bias.

These [books] appeal primarily to the female market, but it’s crossed over into the male market, too, with tattoo images, skeletons, Day-of-the-Dead stuff.

Personally, I think it’s just a fun, thoughtless activity that lets me unplug from the world for awhile to recharge my batteries.

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