Colour me bandwaggoned ~ the rise and rise of adult colouring books

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.

Why perfectionism is more of a threat to creativity than almost anything else.

Why perfectionism is more of a threat to creativity than almost anything else.

I’m often saddened by the carping, the petty and the pedantic more than I am by other things because they seem to single out a tiny blemish and declare an entire face ugly. I’m not among those who believe a few typos in a book render the whole thing worthless, and it’s taken me a long while to get past that fear that says unless my appearance is perfect I don’t deserve any sort of a life. I grew up with a belief that I’d never be pretty if I didn’t lose weight and get rid of my acne. It’s taken till my mid forties to leave the acne behind and the weight seems to be a part of me now. But I’ve started to shed the belief that everything needs to be perfect for the whole to be worthwhile.
There’s a continuous battle currently raging, between those who think that less-than-perfect books by independent self-published authors are ruining the market for those who strive to turn out polished manuscripts edited to the nth degree, encased in professional and eye catching covers, and with those who think that it really doesn’t matter if there are crap books on sale. Some have declared that sub-par books are the greatest of threats to any author serious about their work.
This last week, I came up against my own neurosis about needing things to be perfect. I bought myself two rather wonderful colouring books, as a part of a kind of therapy for myself, a de-stressing hobby that has become a huge thing among French women. I even joined the Facebook group. But the books were simply too lovely, too exquisite and too good for me and I had a sudden dip into misery because I couldn’t bear to set pen to paper and potentially ruin them.
A lot of writers obsess and rewrite paragraph after paragraph, chapter after chapter, seldom if ever completing a draft. Those who do complete a draft then spend years rewriting and rewriting and never quite come to the point that you HAVE to come to: this is done, this is enough. There’s something to be said for rewriting; it can be when you find your way past the chaos in your own head to what the story needs to say, but the endless polishing, the shifting of sentences here and there, becomes a form of procrastination. It puts off the horrible moment when you need to say, “It is finished.” No book is ever truly finished with and completed; there is always more you could do. Yet to become a book rather than a work continuously in progress, it’s vital that you stop and step away and let it alone to fly into the hearts of readers.
If you’ve ever painted, there’s a pivotal moment when you know that if you add any more paint to a canvas, you will destroy the picture. The same is true about books; there’s a point at which any more fiddling (whether adding or removing words) is going to annihilate what you have created. Seeking to write “the perfect novel” is never going to happen because most of the skills needed to create something that powerful are employed unconsciously and in spite of the author’s own agendas.
That’s what’s been so pleasant about the colouring books. Once I got past the “oh they’re too nice for me to spoil,” fear, it became a matter of relaxation. There is no great personal weight of expectation of creation involved. I am applying colour in a personal way to a work of art someone else created for me to PLAY with and enjoy. It doesn’t need to be perfect when it’s finished because the only person who sees if completed is me (and anyone I show it to) and as much as anything, it’s been the process of creating that has been important, not the finished product. It takes a great burden off the person colouring; if you make a mess of it, you can start again with another picture, or if you ruin the whole book, you can buy another and try again. There’s no great inherent creativity involved yet the process surely inspires creativity.