Are Grown-Up Coloring Books the Future of Publishing?

I was never capable of the precision required by childhood’s frequent forays into organized arts and crafts. My personal style was much too messy, so my many artistic endeavors were more of the sketch-and-doodle variety; I often colored outside the lines, literally and figuratively (indeed, coloring outside the lines was my favorite metaphor in my teenage diaries).

Yet at the same time, I remember the peace that fell upon art class, whether at school or camp, with great fondness.  Quiet concentration, knitted brows, a group of kids age seven or 12 or 16, sitting around a table covered by acrylic self-portraits, shoebox dioramas, Popsicle-stick sculptures, or poorly sewn quilts. When we’re working on art, our brain’s “right side” takes over, and we lose track of numerical, left-sided concepts like time.

It’s blissful, and  not the kind of experience most of us can easily replicate nowadays, as “grown-ups” — when we’re  being quiet, we’re usually either consuming information on a screen of some sort or sitting in a meeting. Knitting circles are hard to come by these days, even feminist ones. This evident lack of a creative outlet provides an easy explanation for the adult coloring book craze, a phenomenon that is taking the publishing world by storm.

YA books like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter set the stage for this ultimate throwback to childhood, some critics say. This summer, The New Yorker and The Guardian examined the craze from highbrow perspectives, the former by linking it to phenomena like paid summer camp and preschool-style vacations, a chance for adults to purchase commodified childhood experiences, while the latter asked whether coloring’s therapeutic qualities are actually substitutes for traditional therapy. (They’re not — but that’s not really what “therapeutic” means, anyway).

Johanna Basford, from Aberdeen, Scotland, is the biggest superstar of the genre. Her previous books The Enchanted Forest and The Secret Garden have sold millions of copies worldwide, and now she has a big book deal at Penguin for Lost Ocean, an October release.

lost ocean

That release is likely to be one of the year’s biggest, attendees learned at a luncheon in honor of Basford on Tuesday, an event which included a package of colored markers and sample pages from Lost Ocean for us to try our hand at.

Around the table, this trend was examined and discussed. There was something both joyful and uncanny about watching a group of journalists and book editors, all people who craft stories with words, quiz Basford about being at the vanguard of the next big thing in books. The artist spoke charmingly about the materials she uses (pencil, followed by pen, followed only then by a computer), her inspiration (the natural world around her Scotland home), and her fans, who vary widely in age and nationality.

I wondered whether the financial future of the book business was a wordless one. If coloring books flood publishing houses with revenue that lets them buy more word-filled books, though, is there really anything wrong with that?

As for the timing of the adult-coloring craze, another obvious answer is that American “grown-ups” with disposable income are increasingly becoming both digital and artisanal. We spend lots of money on gadgets that keep us plugged in, and then we spend more money to unplug or get “handmade” items that counteract the digital incursion — writing in Moleskines, for instance . It makes sense that similarly handmade-seeming books for amateur art-making would follow on the heels of the ones that are so popular for writing. At the luncheon, Basford mentioned the “analog” nature of her work repeatedly, its organic quality and its existence exclusively offline. She said her theory was that the blank page can be too intimidating for those who want to explore making art, so the framework of her intricate drawings provides a scaffolding.

While many other new coloring books bill themselves as supporting mindfulness or being therapeutic, Basford’s stays strictly within the realm of whimsy and art. Her drawings are a more sophisticated take on visual themes found in fairy tales and fantasy novels, including little pieces of buried treasure for fans to unearth. And the fan-colored pictures submitted to Basford’s gallery show that the work many people do on her pages is far from childish, but genuinely artistic — even to the extent of adding self-portraits and beautiful shading in the white spaces left by the artist, who sees her books as a collaboration with her audience.

We learned at the lunch that bookstores are planning coloring parties. Professionals are having group coloring lunches. For my part, I took four breaks while drafting this piece to carefully color in a single fish. Then, I let the draft sit as I went home, where I took out boxes of colored pencils, crayons, and the markers I’d received at the luncheon. I sat on the floor and worked on one sample page from Lost Ocean and another from a less intricate book called Color Me Mindful: Underwater (Simon and Schuster). Both experiences were fun. With the broader space in the Color Me Mindful book, I experimented with all three drawing implements, mixing different colors and shading playfully and with a rather free hand; on Basford’s page, I had to use the markers and focus much more carefully on staying within the lines. My husband came home and joined me for half an hour; overall the process was, as advertised, calming  — and more addictive than  expected.

Coloring seems to me to be the sedentary equivalent of taking a walk, a chance to preoccupy yourself on a basic level while your mind runs free, within parameters. I doubt that it can cure anxiety, but it can slow down a person’s thoughts. My hope is that coloring fanatics might eventually move outside the lines, creating their own artistic projects and playing with drawing or designing things themselves. Basford’s book and others leave white spaces just for that purpose.

A society where more people make art for fun has to be a better society — and maybe it has something to teach us about our notions of what creativity actually looks like. My favorite quote about writing is from the brilliant Brenda Ueland, who said, “I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like child stringing beads in kindergarten, — happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another.” The coloring craze isn’t just a way back to childhood, but a path back into a state of creation where process trumps results.