Walking down the aisle, the familiar fluttering of pages greeted my ears as I skimmed the shelves for anything that might pique my interest. A quick glance at the new arrivals, my attention settled on one book in particular – Johanna Basford’s Magical Jungle: An Inky Expedition and Coloring Book for Adults which stood out amongst the familiar stacked copies of fantasy or dystopian fiction and biographies. Flipping through the book, I was transfixed by the labyrinth of patterns before me. As an artist, my preference is to start with a blank canvas rather than being restricted with an outline. Despite this initial reservation, I found the idea of filling up the intricate patterns strangely appealing. Struck with a curiosity to comprehend how this fragment from our childhood could be transformed for an adult audience, I eagerly picked up a copy to find out more about the intricate lines and mesmerising patterns in these colouring books.
At first, these books seem to be a mere relic from the past…
In our fast-paced digital lives, anything that can hold our attention for more than 5 minutes has become as rare as casket tapes. Modern life is a myriad of fleeting moments, with each one flying past the other as quickly as we rapidly scroll through webpages, Facebook and Twitter posts. Each second, our brains are flooded with enough information to sink whole continents – so much, that the corner of our minds in which ‘peace-of-mind’ resides is dwindling day by day. While there are means like music or sports to help reclaim that corner, it is a rising trend for people to find relaxation from within the pages of a colouring book. As the frantic drumming of fingers on keyboard starts to drown out the scrapping of pencils on paper, the recent re-emergence of the colouring book prompts this question: how is it that this simple task found a way to reenter our lives?
Typically, colouring books bring to mind books filled with cartoons and other childhood delights. What appeal do these books have for adults? You can say it is the challenge of tackling a complicated pattern or illustration but the fundamental reason is this: their simplicity. The simpler the task, the lesser energy is needed to perform it. By utilising the basic “colour in the blanks” principle, these books provide less strain on brain for a length of time, before it needs to gear up to tackle other activities.
It is fascinating to examine the therapeutic effect a few pages of illustration can have on our minds. In a sense, it’s like booking a massage for your brain; and just like the experience at the massage parlour, it functions as a collective engagement of our senses. The sound of pen on paper, the sight of colours filling up the spaces and the tactile feel of a pen in hand – these sensual stimulations combined creates a great sense of engagement for the audience. Like old photos, these books sate our desire for childhood nostalgia and wraps us gently in a blanket of warm memories.
As someone all too familiar with the pleasures of illustrating and doodling, I was fascinated by the versatility of these colouring books. With the skeleton provided in the form of outlines, it presents the chance to start with a clean slate without the uncertainty that often looms over an unfinished work. With this eradication of the “worry” of messing up, creating something beautiful becomes as simple as the act of filling a cup with water.
In that sense, great art is made accessible and achievable for those who aspire to but lack the artistic chops. Through pen strokes, fans can emulate artworks by great artists within the pages, an act similar to role playing. Like an interactive storybook we are given possibilities to explore without constraints.
However, It is also a matter of choice…
For perfectionists, colouring books give them a chance to indulge. The more adventurous, however, are not confined by the given lines or colours. For those in search of visual satisfaction from the illustrations, the books are a collector’s delight.
The freedom to participate as we please, is one of the top reasons for the highly addictive nature of these colouring books. It is on-the-go and self-paced, providing a space for those who are in need of temporary distraction from the hectic reality. This way, the process of colouring becomes less of a chore, even becoming as rewarding as the sight of the completed work.
Colour is a vital essence that fuels the human soul…
Staring at the outlines within a colouring book, one would be plagued by this sense of emptiness and the nagging urge to fill in the blanks. Colour is more than a pigment; it embodies certain emotions and moods. The absence of it spells a lack of vibrancy and life, which explains why the sight and feel of colours spreading across the page can evoke a huge sense of satisfaction and calm within us.
To me, the colouring book embodies a continual process of creation. From the book designers’ first illustrations to the end user’s completed work, it relies on the dual efforts of the creator and user to make the illustrations “whole”. Perhaps this chance to participate in the creation of beauty is one of the reasons that fuel the rising popularity of these colouring books.
Something as simple as a colouring book can foster creativity…
Creativity comes from the willingness to expose oneself to different experiences. Adult colouring books are more often than not a collection of art – a reflection of the designers’ skills, and are good source of study for colour and composition. Within these books, every printed outline was not by coincidence, rather a meticulous arrangement of lines, dots and patterns. The blank spaces might be separated by lines, the colours to be filled within them will still be connected and should resonate with each other.
It takes effort to achieve a truly harmonious colour palate, and how else to do so than constantly exploring the possibilities page by page? The adult colouring book allows us to develop our flair for colour gradually, detached from the pressures usually associated with actual art classes. Through time and experience, we notice which colours complement or contrast each other, and which work the best together. The colouring book thus takes on the role of a personalised tutor, helping us hone our instincts for colour and composition in our own time.
They are also tools in which the creator can utilise to express a certain culture. Each colouring book has its unique style; ranging from floral or animal patterns to illustrations from Mayan roots, to doodles which showcase the landmarks and lifestyle of certain countries. Each page is a new chapter to explore, each newly completed page a satisfying stamp on the passport.
So, what do these books show about our society?
The emergence and rising popularity of such books is no accident. More than a simple pass time activity, they are a reflection of the society’s changing needs and priorities – a pursuit for simplicity in an increasingly complicated world. But these pages are not simplistic constructions in themselves. From the typeface to the art style and layout of individual pages, each element was a conscious choice made by the creators to portray specific moods or themes. Illustrations are generally designed so that the user’s mind can expand comfortably, while the wordings of the books’ titles often feature uplifting, therapeutic words like “zen” or “mindfulness” – every component works together to highlight the collective need for personal growth.
What’s more, these traits are not limited to colouring books. Increasingly, books focusing on self-help and self-therapy have been popping up on shelves worldwide as best-sellers. A few of these books include Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun (of which I have a copy) and Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. On the Internet, trending videos featuring “soothing or therapeutic” content, for instance: flames engulfing a “cake” of match sticks, or a water jet cleaning grime off the pavement are on the rise as well. Like the simple act of colouring, the contents featured in the previously mention books and videos are easily digestible, a condensation of abstract concepts into bite-size messages.
On the surface, these colouring books may appear as another hobby, but coupled with fun and nostalgia, this light-hearted activity is an easy platform for those of us who wish to achieve personal and spiritual fulfilment.
Contributing Writer YU XIN a.k.a FISH, is a mad doodler and literature enthusiast. A passionate believer in the power of design, she loves to investigate how design influences the way we think and behave. Her obsessions include crafting puns and cooking up crazy ideas.