Colouring Books: Is This Childhood Trend Worth Exploring As Adults?

Seeking refuge from excess stimuli, we as a group of engaged citizens-of-the-world have collectively tried a lot of different things. We’ve embraced yoga and meditation, created warm and nurturing environments, and simply tried to become more in tune with our own energy.

There is another haven for those looking to relax with a singular focus and creative outlet. It’s not an activity that necessarily requires turning off the mind, but rather focusing a part of it on something that is equal parts therapeutic, creative, and fun: colouring books.

Adult colouring books, that is; companies have worked diligently to make sure that everyone knows the difference. There is indeed a vast and growing market for colouring books for adults, which is not to suggest that they have adult content. (I’m sure that’s out there, but I will not do a Google search on it.) Instead, over the last year or so, someone exceptionally savvy came up with the notion of gearing  colouring books towards adults as a simple and creative outlet in a world dominated by all that is excessive and hectic.

It’s quite something, too. It’s estimated that last year sales soared; in 2014 about one million were purchased, whereas 2015 saw some twelve million sold. The book Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Colouring Book by Scottish author Johanna Basford is credited with starting this craze in 2013, and now around North America, they’re everywhere. Here’s what is going on.

The Brand

Most colouring books tend to have potent words on the cover like ‘Zen’, ‘calming’, ‘secret’, ‘magic’, or really anything to suggest wonder and relaxation and escapism. It’s a bit much, and we get it ­– though it does make sense.  Long were colouring books a bastion of childhood distraction, attempting to stay within lines of cartoonish offerings as a means of passing time and maybe stoking the flames of a bit of creativity. Now we’ve the same endeavor, but with more complicated projects whose contents feature elaborate design, international cities, exotic animals, and even Harry Potter. They’re elegant and intricate, which are all apparent euphemisms for being adult.

The Effect

The positive results are myriad, and like any hobby or escape, users get from it that which they seek. For some, it offers a creative outlet, an artistic project that is reasonable in scope, requires few tools, needs no space, and still allows for license within certain boundaries. For others, it is indeed soothing, an activity that removes screens and cameras and notifications from our daily lives, done to music perhaps or just in solitude. It requires little to no thinking, but still engages us with the simple task at hand. Drawing us into that task, as it were, also helps us stay away from our damn phones.

The Drawbacks

There are a few potential pitfalls of what is a massive fad whose endurance is yet to be fully seen. In a time when physical book stores are closing and more and more people are shopping online, colouring book sales are skyrocketing for places like Barnes & Noble. But it’s uncertain whether this new influx of money and support is buoying other book sales, supplementing it, or worse – taking away from it.

Secondly, another issue is the aforementioned branding. Companies are racing to meet demand, and in this new industry that is meant to support creativity, mainstream options can be reductionist and narrow-minded with what their ideas of ‘adult’ and ‘therapeutic’ mean. A lot of people like Star Wars, so maybe it’s okay if there are adult colouring book with silly movie characters in them. And really, are adult adult colouring books really that far off? (Okay, I did that search…)

Then there is the creative side. Following directions, staying within the lines, and working on what are sometimes elaborate, complicated, time-consuming designs can actually foster stress and limit creativity for some.

And rest assured there are also artistic curmudgeons. “I’m a snob. But I’m also an adult, one who remembers when adults relaxed with bourbon, not Crayolas and an outline of My Little Pony,” said writer and art curator Robrt Pela last month in the Phoenix New Times. Well – no reason you can’t enjoy both!

The Options

While yes, the majority of colouring books promote a calming, creative effect with designs of nothing particularly offbeat, there are increasingly niche books that cater to the more weird, hip, and colourful (as it were) among us. We’ve an indie rock book, one celebrating the nineties, and another commemorating our culture’s lost work force: dinosaurs. There exists the grotesque and gothic, and don’t forget Thrill Murray, a colouring book based on the exploits of – who else – Bill Murray. Still, these are definitely at the other end of the spectrum, more novelty and absurd than anything the least bit engaging. Team Art looks to have the best options among the perhaps ‘alternative’ colouring books out there: Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, comedians, actors, and musicians all have their own. There is even an Evolution of Beyonce book.

The Possibilities

The latest fad of this fad (yes, fads within fads are a thing) seems to be people – strangers – making plans to meet and colour together. Moreover, there are indeed therapists recommending coloring books to patients in order to help relieve stress and focus on something simple, positive, and productive.  While the industry is exploding, alternatives will surely spring up too. Already there are note cards catered to colouring, and companies are looking into calligraphy, illustrations, and other means for adults to express themselves artistically.

Ultimately, whatever gets people to put down their phones, feel less on edge, and focus on a single task instead of two or ten, is definitely something worth exploring.

Anthony Marcusa
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. But he’s always curious.

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