Coloring Books for Adults

There is something  delightfully nostalgic about opening up a coloring book and willing yourself to stay inside the lines as you fill in blank spaces with bright color, just as you did in kindergarten. And it’s likely your kindergarten teacher knew this activity could calm boisterous five-year-olds, forcing them to focus quietly for several minutes.

Rediscovering that calming, stress-reducing, repetitive motion has led to an explosive  resurgence in coloring books for grownups in the past three years. If you’ve been to any book, craft or hobby store lately, you probably have come face-to-face with this hot trend ––maybe on even the “impulse buy” rack of your supermarket.
 
Today, adults who want to tap back into a favorite childhood pastime can choose from Buddhist mandalas, Mehndi designs from the East, Japanese kimonos, Art Nouveau designs, paisleys, geometrics, international cityscapes, florals, butterflies, fairies, mermaids, unicorns, birds, sea creatures, religious images, Native American symbols and Day of the Dead tableaus. Dover, one of the leading publishers of coloring books of all kinds, lists 163 different titles for adult coloring books on its website, in addition to another 229 for children.

A July 2015 article in The New Yorker called the coloring book trend just the tip of the iceberg in a larger, escapist “Peter Pan” syndrome sweeping the country. However, some coloring books cover very adult themes such as a guide to sexual positions and one irreverent title called Calm the F__ Down by Sasha O'Hara, which encourages grown-ups to “color the things you can’t say.” 
 
A lot of grownups are certainly buying the idea. The Nielsen Book Scan reported 571 million paper copies of books were sold in 2015, compared to 559 million the year before. While a leap of 16 million books seems like a big victory for print publishers in a digital world, industry experts attribute a large part of that increase to the rise of adult coloring books. 
 
Five of Amazon’s top 20 best-selling books of 2015 were coloring books for grownups. The biggest seller in this genre came from a Scottish textile designer named Johanna Basford. Her Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt, ranked number four on the list, two places higher than the late Harper Lee’s  Go Set a Watchman, the controversial sequel to her classic To Kill a Mockingbird. 
 
Basford now has sold more than 10 million copies of Secret Garden in 40 foreign editions –three million copies in China alone. With three other titles now on the market, she is widely recognized as the artist who, in 2013, opened the door for the latest wave of adult coloring titles, with many other artists rushing to cash in.
 
Even though they are hot sellers right now, these books are hardly new, having been around since the 1960s. 
 
The Anatomy Coloring Book by Wynn Kapit and Lawrence Elson, first premiered in 1977, and continues to be a bestseller among high school biology and college pre-med students nearly 40 years later. 
 
Elissa Davis, director of customer service and retail sales for the Jung Center in Houston, says that institution has carried adult coloring books in its bookstore for decades –– primarily mandalas for meditation, but current demand has prompted them to expand their                 offerings. 
 
Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung was a big believer in the power of expressive and creative arts, and he also did a lot of work with painting mandalas –– an intricate spiritual and ritual symbol in Eastern religions. Those spiraling symbols lend themselves well to coloring book designs, Davis said. 
 
“Creative activities allow the brain to work on its problems while the hands are busy,” Davis said. People who were told as children that they had no artistic talent are rediscovering there is a value to creative pursuits, and coloring books may serve that purpose, she added. 
“They absolutely force a person to slow down and focus on what’s directly in front of them,” she added. 
 
That impetus to focus may explain why some therapists offer coloring pages to help Alzheimer’s and other dementia patients. The calming effect of the coloring process is one of  many reasons people have taken to this new art form –– even if working on a computer all day has already given them carpal tunnel syndrome. 
 
Judy Reagan Hughes, a funeral director with the SCI Corporation, finds stress relief in her paisley patterned book.
 
“I concentrate on coloring each paisley differently, and it helps me forget about work or other things,” she said. “It clears my mind and the time flies.”
 
Hughes was so taken with her book that she decided a small box of colored pencils wasn’t enough. So, she bought herself a new set of 152 crayons. 
 
The Crayola company has taken note of the trend and introduced its own line of adult coloring books, along with pencils and fine-tipped markers to fill in intricate spaces. Another company, Painterly Days, offers books printed on watercolor paper for those interested in that medium. 
 
One small coloring book can often lead to larger investments in supplies, as Raequel Roberts learned. The communications manager at Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston said she hoped $50 worth of new pencils would improve her coloring skills. 
 
“The books are certainly much harder than the books of my youth,” Roberts said. “Of course, my expectations of perfection are much higher, too.”
 
Roberts said striving to be perfect doesn’t add to the stress at all. Instead, she said, “It’s really fun and totally mindless.”
 
Deborah Quinn Hensel is a freelance journalist and a staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.
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