Between the lines
Making sense of the adult colouring craze
By Richard Cooke
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“Do you sell the pencils as well?” I asked the woman in the bookstore. She had already recommended her favourite colouring books for adults. They didn’t sell the art supplies, though; I would have to try the stationery store around the corner. At its entrance was a large display, lined with packs of felt-tip pens and tins of pencils. Next to them were more of the colouring books. “It’s one of those crazes, isn’t it,” said the man behind the counter, handing over my Stabilos.
It is indeed one of those crazes: 2015 will end with “adult colouring” as the bestselling category in books. In November, Nielsen BookScan showed eight of the top 20 books for the year were colouring titles. Each of these sold significantly more than any Australian novel. Star Wars Art Therapy, for adults, was selling twice as many copies as the Star Wars Colouring Book, for children.
Publishers say they haven’t seen anything like it for decades, and perhaps its closest precedent was half a century ago. According to William L Bird’s Paint by Number: The how-to craze that swept the nation (2001), around 32 million paint-by-number kits were sold in the United States in 1953 alone. By the end of that decade, there were more paint-by-number artworks in American homes than any other kind. The fad provoked anxiety among intellectuals, who pooh-poohed this mechanisation of culture (even though Leonardo da Vinci had used the technique of assigning colours to numbers, for his assistants to follow).
There has been some of that high-culture anxiety this time around, too. Ivor Indyk in the Sydney Review of Books said there is a view “that the phenomenon plays on the infantilism of the reading public, and is a sign of the progressive devaluation of the significance of the book”. But it’s significant that “art” is rarely mentioned in today’s debates. The key word in today’s colouring-in book titles is “therapy”. Rather than being an enjoyable or creative hobby, colouring in has reached its zenith as something therapeutic, even neuro-scientifically beneficial.
The real beginning of this phenomenon didn’t come from the publication of these books (the genre has existed for decades) but a change in how they were marketed. In 2012, Hachette republished a sluggish-selling British title called Colouring for Grown-Ups for the French market, but changed the name to 100 Coloriages Anti-Stress. It immediately sold 300,000 copies. According to publicist Ana McLaughlin, who spoke to the Guardian last April, the anti-stress rationale “gave people permission to enjoy something they might have felt was quite childish”.
The books now come larded with mandalas and mindfulness, and are called things like Calming Art Therapy: Doodle and colour your stress away. Therapists recommend the books to their patients. Australian neuroscientist Dr Stan Rodski is one of the most vocal advocates for the practice (perhaps unsurprisingly, as he has released his own book series, Colourtation). “Usually if someone doesn’t like colouring in,” he told ABC News Radio, “I find they’ve had a bad experience as a child.” Even not liking colouring in means there may be something wrong with you.
Not so long ago, psychologists thought the opposite about colouring. “There is no place in colouring books to express anxieties,” wrote Dr Viktor Lowenfeld in Creative and Mental Growth (1947). Lowenfeld loathed them, blaming them for stunting childhood artistic development and even linking their rigidity to the rise of Nazism. In the second edition of Creative and Mental Growth (1952), he added:
Having experienced the devastating effect of rigid dogmatism and disrespect for individual differences, I know that force does not solve problems and that the basis for human relationships is usually created in the homes and kindergartens. I feel strongly that without the imposed discipline common in German family lives and schools the acceptance of totalitarianism would have been impossible.
Now that it is socially acceptable, it’s clear that many adults enjoy colouring in more than children do. As I filled in a page of Millie Marotta’s Animal Kingdom: A colouring book adventure while waiting for a bank teller (“Tiny, delicate hairs cover the moth’s wings. Create your own intricate pattern”), many curious adults stopped to spectate, while kids remained resiliently uninterested. In childhood-learning circles, it’s common to find endorsements of colouring books that invoke the germination of social control. Online, one widely circulated justification says colouring books teach “how to accept boundaries … for many preschoolers pre-printed colouring pages are their first exposure to printed boundaries”.
Colouring-in books have received enthusiastic support from corporate workplaces. Bupa, ANZ and others have distributed Colourtation books to their employees. Not coincidentally, it is a rare hobby that can be performed while working, say, on the phone. This is occurring at a time when unprecedented work conditions have produced epidemic levels of anxiety. A 2013 Gallup survey found that 70% of American workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” and are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces. “I think we are all finding that the work environment is getting busier than ever with technology changing the way we work and are connected to the office,” ANZ human resources executive Kerrie Harris told the Sydney Morning Herald. A photo of her colouring in accompanied the article.
Many trends popularised in the past few years – knitting, cooking, dress-making and colouring in – are repetitive activities based on following instructions, deriving a pleasure often described as “mindless”. The Creative and Mental Growth 1970 edition seems prescient, stating that the enjoyment of colouring “may be because these youngsters do not have to think for themselves. The dependency upon someone else’s outline of an object makes the child much less confident in his own means of expression.”
Or as Millie Marotta’s Animal Kingdom: A colouring book adventure puts it, “The snail lives in his shell. Help to decorate his home.”