Colouring books are not just for children
Colouring books as a kind of therapy for adults are becoming increasingly popular
A Stephen Merritt image. ‘My remit is to make elaborate and detailed imagery, because otherwise you lose interest fairly quickly. But it can’t be so detailed that it’ll turn you off doing it’
My parents weren’t huge fans of colouring books when I was little. The only ones I remember having in the house were The Anti-Colouring Book, and its sequel, The Anti-Colouring Book of Masterpieces, in which you were given bits of an image and encouraged to draw the rest yourself. So how did I end up, at the age of 39, sitting at my kitchen table with some colouring pencils and a packet of markers, concentrating fiercely on turning a monochrome parrot all the colours of the rainbow?
Blame France. Over the past year or two, colouring books for adults have become hugely popular there. Why? Because they are being sold not as a pointless amusement but as a form of self-help. Books such as the Art-thérapie: Coloriages Anti-Stress series now outsell cookery books in France, with some titles selling up to 300,000 copies. On a recent trip to Paris, I saw colouring books prominently displayed in most of the bookshops I visited. You could colour in detailed images of lions and houses, butterflies and birds, or mandalas and other abstract patterns. The monochrome pictures were intricate and detailed, not like the simple pictures in children’s books. And just looking at them made me want to grab some colouring pencils and markers and start colouring.
But could it have a positive effect on my mental health? Pyschologist Allison Keating of the BWell Clinic in Malahide says that doing something with your hands that demands a certain level of concentration can lead to the mental state of contented absorption described by the psychologist Mihály Csikszentmihalyi as “flow”. “If you’re anxious, you’re very aware of your thinking,” says Keating. “But in a state of flow, you lose that preoccupation with thought because you’re losing yourself within something, whether it’s a jigsaw, drawing or knitting.”
Or indeed colouring. Children have always enjoyed colouring, and Keating believes we can learn a lot from them. “When they play, they fully engage in the process, whereas adults become quite distracted. If you want to know how to do it well, watch children.”
Padraig O’Morain, author of Mindfulness on the Go and the forthcoming Mindfulness for Worriers, isn’t surprised that people find colouring calming.
“Mindfulness involves returning your attention again and again from what’s going on in your mind and putting it on to what’s happening outside your mind right now. Activities from brushing your teeth to walking, or indeed colouring, provide really good ways to do this.”
Many mindfulness practitioners focus on their breath. “This might be no more than maintaining a sort of 5 per cent thread of awareness of your breathing as you go about your business,” says O’Morain. “But it’s also really good to sit down and bring your awareness to a calming activity for 20 minutes. Many people find awareness of breathing too boring to keep up for 20 minutes, but something relaxing, such as colouring, knitting or other such activities could work really well to de-stress people.”
Anti-stress colouring books aren’t confined to France. British publishers have also adopted the idea – and indeed are selling colouring books to France. Richard Merritt is a British illustrator who has contributed to a number of colouring books, including Art Therapy and Creative Therapy.
“When I started to tell people I was doing it, they thought, ‘that’s strange’, but when they actually try it, it is surprising how [they] do get into it.” So what makes a good colouring image? “My remit is to make elaborate and detailed imagery, because otherwise you lose interest fairly quickly,” says Merritt. “But it can’t be so detailed that it’ll turn you off doing it.”
Mandalas are a popular design, which doesn’t surprise Allison Keating. “It’s a very intricate pattern, and you get absorbed because you have to pay attention to it.”
So did I feel better after colouring in the parrot (and a street of buildings, and a steampunk-style airship)? As someone who always preferred doing my own drawings to colouring in someone else’s, I was surprised at how focused I became on colouring the detailed pictures. I already knew that working on a creative project can be utterly absorbing. But for those who don’t consider themselves creative or aren’t used to drawing, a blank page can be too intimidating, which is where the colouring book comes in.
“I’m just laying the foundations,” says Merritt. “You’ve got an image in front of you that’s appealing to colour in. Half of the job is done for you. But that’s the point of a colouring book. All you have to do is colour and enjoy it.”