Colour me bandwaggoned ~ the rise and rise of adult colouring books
You’d have to have been living under a rock or in a cave (mmmm…caves…) to have missed the latest phenomenon in stress relief: colouring books for adults. At the risk of sounding like a hipster, I was into it a few years before it started becoming big. During the last proper summer school when I was TEFL’ing, I inherited a class of mixed nationality teenagers from another teacher. The class has already had three weeks of teaching and travel and activities and were all tired, jaded and probably about ready to go home. I struggled on for the first four days of the week, forcing them to work, and on the last day, I knew I was on a hiding to nothing. I prepared a lesson, but as I was doing that, I spotted a book lying in the resources room. It contained geometrical designs for colouring in. I photocopied some of the ones that appealed to me, nabbed the coloured pens and pencils and left them on my desk. The morning was dire; students were yawning, detached and uncooperative. To be honest, I empathised with them; they had all taken in more English grammar than a person ever should in a short space of time. So I made a decision and declared it was a conversation class from now on, and handed out the boxes of pens and pencils and the colouring designs. They fell on them like puzzled but starving lions and the rest of the morning was spent in happy discussions and colouring. At the end, they declared it had been their best lesson and I got a lot of hugs for taking pity on them.
After this, I went in search of more colouring books, but in 2011, all you could find were ones for children so I stuck with the ones I’d photocopied and pined for something better. It struck me as such a good idea, having seen how tired, stressed, grumpy teenagers (average age in that class was 15 or 16) had become smiling, happy, cooperative human beings. Fast forward to late 2013 when I spotted an article in one of the newspapers, about how colouring in had become a big thing among high-powered French women. There was a Facebook group for it (which I joined) where those French ladies compared notes, admired each other’s colouring and swapped tips for books and pens/pencils.
The first book I bought was The Secret Garden by Joanna Basford. It’s a classic now, and she has another one out and yet another one due for release in October. The first ones to be sold in the UK had poor quality paper that allows bleed through if you use felt tip pens, but the French ones had MUCH better paper. One of my old friends I made when I was teaching, came to visit this May and brought me a whole pile of colouring books, including the French versions of Joanna Basford’s books. After The Secret Garden I bought myself a Mandala one by Lisa Tenzin-Dolma; these ones take it to a very different level, as the process is very meditative and the end result is intended to be meditated upon. I use this one when I am in need of deep calmness, but as the drawings are so fine and detailed, you need to be quite focused and centred to start with. While going over the lines isn’t a problem, for this type of colouring, the precision is important to the experience.
Since I bought my first few books, the range available has expanded to such a degree that I think it’s actually hard to find one that suits. Some of the major bookshops now have a large section devoted to them, and it’s worth going and having a flick through to check the interior because there are some disappointments out there. Poor paper quality is just one factor. Many have a kind of built-in expectation, usually using the words meditation, mindfulness or mandala or some spiritual phrase. I’ve seen some magazines (oh yes, there are now magazines!) that say the designs are mandalas, and yet, they are not mandalas at all but simply designs that are circular and geometrical. There is a big but hard to define difference. Some books also have large expanses of white which personally I find unsatisfactory; it’s difficult to colour large blank areas smoothly. It’s the intricate details that interest me. Most books use themes of nature, but there’s everything from cupcakes and shoes to cityscapes and even one that uses the art work of Heath Robinson (Weird Inventions). Medical students have long had anatomy colouring books as part of their studies; weird, but it really works to learn the names and locations and tiny details of the human anatomy. These are available too if that’s your bag.
What you use to colour is also tricky. After some experimentation, I found that the best value and best quality coloured pencils are the Ergo-soft ones by Staedtler. They give good, clear coverage that doesn’t rub off as a powder, and the colours are bright without being garish and they’re quite affordable. Cheaper ones are available but I’ve found most to be a disappointment. Pens are equally variable. The finer the nib the better, in my experience; one range has two ends, one broader for covering larger areas and one fine for details.
So what does colouring do for a person? Well, for me, it’s a way of doing something creative and enjoyable without the pressure of being original, of creating from scratch. It slows the mind from frantic scurrying to a smooth pace; it blocks out all other distractions. The colours themselves have beneficial effects; blues are calming, greens soothing and reds energising.
It may be a short-lived craze but I’m glad it has happened. There are many artists leaping to take advantage of the phenomenon, and also a lot of opportunists offering shoddy, sub-standard work but at least we have a vast range now to choose from. Just as story time still appeals (lots of us use audio books, which is pretty much the same thing) it’s nice to have our colouring in back, too.