In little over a year, adult colouring books have made a monumental impact across the publishing world. You need only to take a look at Amazon’s Best Sellers Book list to garner how popular they have become. Various titles are sprinkled all over the top 10 list and beyond. They have well past their craze phase and transitioned to a staple in everyday culture.
However, colouring books for grown-ups is not a new concept. Ruth Heller, a children’s author and graphic artist produced many colouring books aimed at children and adults alike throughout the 1970s up until 2000. I also remember a rather tongue-and-cheek Gangsta Rap Coloring Book, which came out in 2004 to favourable reactions. So what has changed? Why is adult colouring books now a ‘thing’?
Well, I had the opportunity to find out for myself. Phoenix Yard Books are publishers of The One and Only Colouring Book series. They currently have five books in the series and I sat down with two of them, The One and Only Mandala Colouring Book and The Second One and Only Colouring Book for Adults. Both books have inspiring full-colour glossy covers. The interior pages are thick lightly textured paper, around 200gsm. The images are not printed in solid black, rather they vary from mid to dark grey. I am not sure why this is, perhaps grey is more calming than black, however, it is something that stood out to me.
The Mandala Colouring Book is, as you would expect, a collection circular Hinduism and Buddhism patterns. Many of the illustrations are very intricate with tiny details and appear to be drawn completely freehand. Colouring Book for Adults has a variety of subjects, mostly floral, but some abstract shapes and even a page of people, which appealed more to my representational sensibilities.
Colouring in has never been my strongest suit, staying within the lines was off the table from the get-go, but none of which hindered my experience. once you get started, you can very easily lose yourself. On first glance many of the images are daunting, I found myself dotting around the book, only colouring in the sections of the illustrations, then moving on to another page. Which is completely fine, you can always come back to an image at a later date.
I tested the books by using colour pencils, fibre tip pens and promarkers. Not being able to remember the last time I used colour pencils or felt tips I naturally felt more comfortable and grown-up using the promarkers. They glide across the page and left the most consistent solid colour behind. Their only downside is that the bleed, a lot. You pretty much kill the reverse of the page using them. Which may not be a sacrifice most people are willing to make.
Spending about an hour of my day with these books, I can easily see their appeal. They do a great job of zoning you out and really punch that nostalgia button. Though I didn’t actually feel like a kid again, I’m pretty sure looking at my face would have said otherwise. I had to regularly bite my lip to stop my tongue from sticking out. I would highly recommend having a timer nearby as you can quickly become engrossed by the process and lose track of time.
To address my opening question, why is adult colouring books now a ‘thing’? Some could argue, it’s their therapeutic qualities, helping you to switch off and de-stress in an evermore onerous world. But stress, like colouring books, have been commonplace in modern city life for over a century, so adult colouring books could have quite easily been just as popular in the 1980s, but yet they weren’t.
I believe the answer is we are experiencing a second Arts and Crafts movement. Just as the first was a reaction to industrialisation, we are seeing a strong response to digitisation. Just as the first Arts and Crafts movement had strong floral motifs, it stands to reason that much of the imagery in these books are inspired by nature.
Independent magazine publishing is proof of people’s reaction towards digitisation. Looking at its resurgence and growth in the last couple years emphasises the demand for a vessel of culture that is more tangible than the glowing screen of a tablet. For many years now there has also been numerous authors and practitioners, such as Matthew Crawford, Richard Sennet and Jonathan Openshaw, crying out about the virtues of craftmanship in the modern age. It would seem the populous are finally catching up.
Our fingers are itching to do more than just tap. Colouring books are the open door for grown-ups to enter the world of craft without the hindrance of facing a blank page. Adult colouring books let our hands run free. They reinforce, one does not need to be a creative to be creative.