An Actual, In-Depth Look at Why Thousands of People Are Coo-Coo for Coloring
By Cristina McAllister
“Adult” coloring books. It’s just a goofy fad, right? Just infantile escapism! It’s just a way for people who don’t have a creative bone in their bodies to feel good about themselves without having to actually do anything creative…right???
I’ve been immersed in the Adult Coloring Book Phenomenon for about a year now, and I’ve been paying attention. I’ve been thoughtfully observing both my own experiences, and the expressed experiences of other colorists (a term we’ve adopted to describe enthusiasts of artful coloring books).
Most of the articles I’ve seen about this trend have been from the outside – and they tend to not really get it at all. Few of them even bother to actually ask colorists about their experiences, instead opting to make assumptions and then criticize based on those assumptions. How is that exploring anything?
The reality is that coloring is bringing a lot of joy to a lot of people. It’s allowing people to explore their own creativity in legitimately beneficial ways. It’s helping people cope with stress in a healthy fashion – something most of us need in this overwhelming modern world. It is spawning communities that provide social interaction, emotional support and an outlet to share their ideas and creativity with others. It is providing a fun, relaxing activity that can be done alone, or with friends and family. It is inspiring people to reach out to others and share the joys they have discovered.
A friend of mine spends her Sundays coloring with her family. They turn off the TV and phones, put on some music, pull out the coloring supplies and hang out together, visit and color. Mom, dad, boys and girls, all unplugged and engaged in the present moment, enjoying each other’s company, coloring pictures that they find beautiful or interesting.
Coloring spans generations. There are mothers, daughters and grandmothers coloring together. And it’s not just the ladies. At this point, women do outnumber men – but that’s shifting. Husbands are giving their wives’ hobby a try and discovering that they get enjoyment and satisfaction from it as well. More books catering to more masculine or more broadly-appealing themes are being published. When you think about it, men often have fewer socially acceptable creative outlets than women do. They deserve to pursue activities that offer them stress relief and the satisfaction of creating something beautiful, too.
And the books ARE beautiful. There has been an unfortunate glut of low-quality “let’s jump on that bandwagon – quick!” books, but that doesn’t dim the glorious, lush imagery of the good ones. These books are beautiful and fascinating to begin with – and when you add the element of color, they become even more spectacular.
Beauty, in and of itself, can have positive psychological effects. Color, in and of itself, can have positive psychological effects. Art, in and of itself, can have positive psychological effects. Just looking at colorful, beautiful art stimulates that same part of the brain that processes pleasure, desire and love. It can inspire joy and wonder, uplift our spirits, boost mood and distract us from relentless anxieties.
Ah-HA! So it IS just a distraction, then!
It is indeed a distraction – but not JUST a distraction. Anxiety is a real thing. Stress is a serious danger to our health and it has become an epidemic. Most of us are overwhelmed - bombarded with responsibilities, expectations, distressing media stories, too much work, not enough work, financial worries, fears about the future. Many of us (myself included) suffer from bouts of anxiety and depression. These are the kinds of things that you can’t just opt out of. We have to deal with it.
Coloring is one (quite effective) way to cope with these things, and it doesn’t have the side effects of pharmaceuticals or self-medicating (although some colorists do indulge in a glass of wine while they color to add a little flavor).
When you can’t fix the situation, but your brain still uselessly worries and worries and worries about it – coloring can help distract that pointlessly upsetting inner voice and get it to shut up, even for just a little while. This is one aspect of coloring that has been compared to meditation.
I don’t think coloring offers all of the benefits of a true practice of mindfulness meditation, but it does offer some of them.
Quieting that inner voice is one BIG benefit. Interestingly, it works because coloring is NOT a mindless activity. It’s an actively engaging activity. It requires focus, patience, dexterity and lots and lots of thoughtful choices.
For many of us, having to make lots of choices can be stressful. What makes coloring different is that it offers a very low-risk opportunity to freely explore our own ideas and choices. There are no Rules. There are no deadlines or bosses directing you and making demands. You can do whatever you want! It offers us a chance to play, to explore, to try things and see what happens without the fear of terrible repercussions.
|"Serenity Mandala" from the Sacred Beauty Coloring Book|
The power of play, exploration and experimentation is a revelation to many adults. As children, we are natural explorers, experimenters and creators. As we get older, we tend to have fewer and fewer opportunities to engage in these things. We get to feeling like we know how things “should” be, and aren’t often encouraged to explore other possibilities. Our ideas about who we are and what we are capable of calcify and stagnate. That’s a shame, because all of those things are fantastic for our brains, and can enrich our very sense of self, at any age.
Coloring is an activity that, in its basic form, requires no special talent and minimal skill. Anyone can fill in a shape with color. But that minimal skill can be improved. It’s something you can get better at simply by exploring and trying new things and practicing.
An exchange I’ve seen countless times in Facebook Groups dedicated to coloring goes something like this:
Person A posts beautifully colored page with delicate shading and color blends.
Person B (who is usually a beginner): “You’re so talented! I could never do shading or blending like that!”
Person A: “Thank you! I learned how to do it by watching this video tutorial and practicing.” (Posts link to tutorial).
Person B: “Thank you! I’ll give it a try!”
Later – Person B posts their fledgling attempts at blending and shading. She hasn’t mastered it yet, but she’s getting the hang of it. Her fellow colorists admire and encourage her, offer her tips, etc. Pretty soon Person B has, through her own effort and the support of others, gotten pretty darn good at blending and shading and is getting incredible satisfaction from her newly-honed skills.
The satisfaction that comes from working at something until you get it right is incredibly powerful, and empowering. Purely through our own explorations, experimentation and practice, we can get to know our colors, understand what our mediums can and can’t do, and integrate new techniques into our arsenal of skills. We can transform mysterious and intimidating art supplies into tools that we can use to express ourselves and create beautiful things.
This is something artists (myself included) already know. We understand the value and joy of playing with colors and art tools. It is absolutely thrilling for me to see thousands of new people being introduced to this aspect of creativity and self-empowerment through coloring.
Another thing artists know is that failure is not something to be feared and avoided. Failure is something that can teach you. Failure is something you move through and learn from, an experience that helps you do it better the next time.
Coloring allows just about anyone to experience many of the most enjoyable aspects of creating art without actually having to devote their entire lives to it. It involves a small set of basic skills that can be easily learned and improved, if you want to.
Making color choices is also a skill that can be honed. Colorists are learning about Color Theory and how colors relate to each other and interact with one another. They are learning how to use contrast to make things pop and analogous colors to create harmonious blends and gradients.
They are flooding Facebook feeds with brilliant, beautiful, funny, mind-boggling, charming, fantastic, uplifting images. I’m not exaggerating when I say that seeing all these colored pages every day not only delights me, but helps calm and center me. It helps me find some balance when coming to terms with some of the other, negative and distressing stuff that comes across my Facebook feed.
Another aspect of the coloring phenomenon that has impressed me is the open sharing of techniques and the innovation of new ones. There are now a ton of videos on YouTube that teach and demonstrate how to use various coloring mediums. There are many written tutorials online. These are all free resources that can enhance our coloring experience.
Over the past year I have witnessed the innovation and sharing of clever and inventive new coloring techniques. When I first read about someone dipping their colored pencil tip into Vaseline, I was a bit skeptical. But when I tried it, sure enough – it does melt the color a bit and makes it glide onto the paper more smoothly. Folks who didn’t have a jar of Vaseline on hand began experimenting with other, similar household items. Would coconut oil work as well? Lip balm? What if you rub it into the paper instead of tip-dipping? People play and explore and experiment – results are shared and everyone finds what works for them.
Not only are colorists exploring traditional art mediums (as well as the new coloring products now being made), they are experimenting with applying other kinds of colorful things to their pages. Using eyeshadow to create soft, pastel effects has become popular. Eyeshadow you can buy at the Dollar Store for 99 cents! Nail polish can be used to add embellishing, dimensional dots.
It’s truly inspiring to me to see what folks are coming up with, and sharing with enthusiasm.
The coloring communities I participate in are overwhelmingly positive, supportive, encouraging and respectful. They are populated by friendly and generous people of all ages from all over the world and all walks of life. Some of these Groups boast over 40,000 members!
Most of the Groups have stated rules and active Admins who do not tolerate negativity or meanness. There’s no need or room for it. They also tend to respect the artist’s rights and have brought a lot of awareness to the issue of copyright and the legal and illegal use of artwork on the internet (which is a huge problem for artists these days).
Which brings me another awesome thing about the Coloring Phenomenon – it’s giving independent artists a chance to publish their work and actually sell it directly to people who really, really appreciate it at a wonderfully intimate level. That’s an amazing thing!
In the Internet Age, images come cheap. Why bother paying for stuff you can look at online for free? It’s a situation that has made it incredibly difficult to make a decent living creating original art. The explosion of this genre has created a market that truly values the skill and creativity of artists and is willing to pay for it. It’s made it possible for people to support artists they admire without having to spend thousands of dollars on original paintings or expensive prints. And it’s not just a passive experience of merely looking at the artwork – it’s a participatory experience of actually being a part of a creative process.
It’s also a genre where artists and colorists can communicate directly with one another, effectively shaping the experiences together. Artists are participating in online communities, asking what themes and styles colorists want and creating books that fill those niches. Some of these books are published by established book publishers, but there is also a new, growing industry of self-publishing artists that are able to get their books out there on their own, utilizing crowdsourced funding and/or print-on-demand platforms like Createspace.
Colorists are buying those books, loving them, and promoting them through sharing their colored pages - allowing the artists to earn more money, which allows them to create more new imagery for colorists to enjoy. It’s a thriving ecosystem where everyone wins.
I truly believe that coloring is a creative collaboration between the artist and the colorist. One of them starts the picture and the other finishes it. The unique combination of skills and choices creates a distinctive work of art, every time an image is colored.
Coloring celebrates diversity. The variety of interpretations of a single image is fascinating to me. I have seen dozens of versions of a single picture, and each one has its own unique and wonderful sense of color, style and mood. So often, I’ll see color choices that I would have never thought to make and they turn out to be dazzling.
|Color Wheel Page from The Lumina Chronicles|
There is room for everyone here, from the beginner to the expert and everywhere in between. There are people interested in designs that are whimsical or wicked, realistic or way-out. There are books that appeal to the devoutly faithful, and books that amuse the irreverently rebellious. There are coloring pages that offer easy-breezy, elegant simplicity and books that offer mind-bogglingly intricate challenges.
For some people, it’s enough to stick to the basics, and that’s a-okay. There are No Rules. Do what makes you happy!
Truth be told, even the most basic aspects of coloring can be almost magically satisfying. This effect can be most powerfully felt when coloring abstract designs like mandalas and repeating patterns.
There is something about flowing your color into a space and filling it up. It’s addictive. Once one space is filled in, the next space must be filled in. You’ve started down a path and now you want to see where it’s taking you. You want to see what it’ll look like if you put this color here and that color there. You want to see how alternating two colors will turn out. Sometimes you get stuck. You’re not sure which way to go. But eventually you just pick a color and get on with it.
It can feel just the tiniest bit dangerous, because there’s an element of unpredictability to how things will turn out.
Often, at some point, I’ll begin to have doubts that my color scheme is working. Maybe I shouldn’t have used that reddish brown there...? But 9 times out of 10, if I push through my doubts and keep working on it, it’ll all come together beautifully.
For me, there is a magical moment – when the last white space has been filled in and suddenly the image is Whole and Complete. The interplay of shapes and colors comes together into a harmonious rhythm, a dance of beautiful balance that creates Order from Chaos. All my doubts melt away, and any little mistakes just disappear as I shift my focus from all the little details - to experiencing the page as a cohesive and complete image. It is a legitimate and gratifying act of creation – even if I didn’t draw the picture myself.
To my mind, this is a lovely little reinforcement of some valuable things to nurture; perseverance, patience, making a leap of faith, overcoming self doubt, pushing through fear of failure, learning from things that didn’t work out, not letting it stop you from moving forward, “older and wiser”. I also see in it the truth that this kind of pure beauty is not diminished by imperfection or flaws. Coloring is a kind of journey, and it can be so much more than merely “staying in the lines”. But that might just be me waxing poetic and perhaps over-thinking things again.
Even if all of us don’t find deep insights and profound lessons in coloring…it’s still fun! It’s relaxing. It’s satisfying. It’s something to do with our free time doesn’t involve sitting passively in front of a screen.
However, a recent development of the genre has brought up an intriguing point. There are now apps that you can use to color. With a few taps or clicks, you can add your chosen colors to digital images on your computer or mobile device. While I have seen some lovely results from these apps, discussions about them have revealed that for most people, the digital version of the activity clearly does not capture the depth of experience that coloring by hand does.
Working with our hands, using actual tools to create, connects the mind and the body. It stimulates our brains, nerves and muscles. It promotes dexterity.
I have even heard stories of people with injuries who have used coloring as a form of physical (and mental) therapy while recovering. One woman recovered the use of her hands and arms after paralysis left her unable to lift them. People with chronic pain have reported that coloring helps them manage their pain. People who are bedridden with illness or injury have found that coloring helps alleviate their physical suffering and frustrating boredom.
People suffering from severe chronic disease, anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, PTSD (look at all those acronyms for things that greatly reduce the quality of life for millions of people, and are also notoriously difficult to treat)…are finding solace and relief in the simple application of color to black and white (or grayscale!) pictures.
It’s truly astonishing and almost miraculous.
Many colorists report the experience of time flying by, everything else fading away as they get lost in their work, intent upon their colorful endeavors. Coloring is one way of inducing an altered state of consciousness that can sooth our psyches and reduce our awareness of physical pain. This is commonly known as “Getting in the Zone”, and it can be experienced during all kinds of activities; playing sports or exercising, dancing, singing, solving puzzles, making or listening to music, making art, crafting, reading, writing. Just about anything in which you can fully engage your attention and intention can create this “Flow State”.
When we reach this state of consciousness, our brains actually start working differently. Our brainwaves shift frequency. Our patterns of blood flow and neural activity alter, integrating our subconscious and conscious minds, allowing us to tap into our intuition and explore novel ideas. We also tend to slow our breathing and relax. Awareness of time, discomfort and worries drop away. This is a state of enhanced creativity, clarity and often, bliss. It has been an essential component of many ingenious innovations, brilliant works of art and extraordinary human achievements.
It is very real, it is very fun, and it has concrete benefits.
I’ve managed to reach this state , ever-so-briefly, through meditation. But meditation is hard for me. Like, REALLY hard. Getting my inner voice to shut up for more than a few seconds is ridiculously difficult, and often impossible. My brain does not seem inclined to rest. But when creating, making art, letting my imagination take flight…I can access the Flow Zone with relative ease.
My theory is that coloring, unlike meditation, doesn’t ask you to try to do something as infamously difficult as turn off your thoughts. It just allows you to focus them. It gets your inner narrator to cooperate with you on a single, chosen task instead of letting it drag you down into useless worries, doubts and painful ruminations.
For some of us, this is a true blessing. It can give us some mental rest, help us clear our minds, offer us moments of peace. And when you are finished, you have a beautiful picture to enjoy and take pride in. You have the satisfaction of completion. You have a unique work of art that makes you happy.
I haven’t even mentioned the sometimes delirious excitement of getting new coloring supplies (so full of colorful potential!), or the soothing contentment of organizing your colors into glorious rainbow order (or whatever order you want), or the warm glow of receiving admiring comments on a page you’ve colored and posted.
I think there might be as many ways to enjoy coloring as there are people who color. There’s a vibrant, shining spectrum of goodness to dive into and explore. For some it’s a passion, for other’s a casual hobby. But everyone who has found enjoyment, relaxation, creative inspiration and even healing through coloring understands that color can make life a little brighter.
So to those who consider coloring an infantile escape, or a pointless distraction, I invite you to grab a coloring book and some colored pencils or markers or gel pens and give it a try. You might discover (and create) something beautiful.
Are you a grown-up coloring book fan? Have you experienced some of these things? Do you have any other experiences or benefits to share that I haven't mentioned here? Please comment below!
Some references and relevant articles to explore: