Look into my eyes: images such as this “art therapy” rabbit now outsell traditional colouring books and more creative drawing challenges.
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Colouring books used to be fun. When did they get so . . . mindful?

I've always bought colouring books – but these new, "therapeutic" offerings make me feel faintly distressed.

Although I’m a grown-up, I always get a colouring book for Christmas. Last year, I knew something was up when, instead of “Tudor Fashions” or “Mythical Beasts”, it had the words “art therapy” stamped across the front. Staring back at me for my colouring pleasure was the baroque visage of a cat; the face was fashioned from tiny boxes, each of those boxes contained more tiny boxes and the miniature colour-me rhomboids in its unblinking irises – barely large enough to fit the nib of a pencil – receded to infinity. Looking at the image, I felt faintly distressed. Nothing about it said: kick off your shoes and crack open the Caran d’Ache.

“These exquisite art therapy patterns allow you to access your inner creativity, balancing your physical, spiritual and emotional well-being,” says the Bromleigh House series Relax With Art. “You will embark on a personal journey exploring the world of creative art, discovering the secrets of harmony, balance [and] tranquillity and accessing your inner voice.” Five minutes colouring the Inca moggie and my inner voice was baying for release.

Last year the Telegraph ran a piece saying that French women were turning to adult colouring books in droves. Sylvie, a crèche worker from Marseilles, described herself as “anguished and stressed by nature” and colouring was helping. Last year that melancholic nation sold 3.5 million colouring books in the art therapy category. Similar titles now have vast audiences in the US and UK. Clearly I was missing something.

I’ve always bought colouring books. As a child, I wasn’t very good at drawing but I was a girly swot, and there was tremendous satisfaction in being given a ready-made drawing and just finishing it off. Colouring is a rather anal business and that’s a fact – you’re completing a task within very strict guidelines, and unless you’re in the psychedelic business of mixing up colours for the sake of it, it is essentially uncreative – the artist equivalent of writing a shopping list. Knights in armour were my figures of choice. There were ample opportunities for the best of all colours – red – on shields and banners. I never went near the Regency era: all those wigs and pastel breeches. Your black pencil went down quick on the Victorians, but sometimes you got canaries, cakes and surprisingly bright domestic interiors.

It was all about getting a balanced grain. Use the side of your palm as a fulcrum, rest the pencil along your fourth finger and make confident, smooth arcs of even weight. The sooner you wear down the tip of the pencil to a shiny wedge, the quicker you hit your stride. KEEP IT EVEN! The ­efforts of my peers saddened me, their crayons practically drilling through the page. And the unfinished efforts! Why sign up to a picture of the sea if you’re not willing to do all that blue? How will you function in the world of work?

The bizarre thing about the new adult colouring books is they are virtually impossible to complete. They have to be difficult, because adults are still embarrassed to be seen working away at infant activities. “So many people have said to me that they used to do secret colouring in when their kids were in bed,” said Johanna Basford recently: her ornate Secret Garden colouring book has sold over 1.5 million copies and Zooey Deschanel is a fan. “Now it is socially acceptable, it’s a category of its own.”

This “category” is a piece of marketing ­genius. By branding themselves as “analogue” activities, the new colouring books seize on our half-formed anxieties about living a digital life, providing commercially packaged screen-free pastimes that promise to reconnect us with ourselves. The analogue hobby then becomes a craze, with people sharing their work on Twitter or Instagram, thus bringing themselves right back to the digital world they were so keen to escape.

But the main thing making colouring “socially acceptable” is the link to mental health. The mindfulness industry has planted its flag on the business and many books are being sold as an offshoot of meditation. So you can now buy one title that calms your nerves, eases your mental pain, helps you to live in the present and become a creative artist all in one go. Result!

In the progressive 1970s, when Lego was advertised by little girls in denim dungarees and Tee Corinne’s Cunt Coloring Book (“the drawings in this book are of real women’s cunts”) was helping feminists reclaim their vaginas all over the world, an American art teacher called Susan Striker prod­uced a hugely popular series called The Anti-
Coloring Book
, which fought against the “damaging effects” of giving a young child such a strictly-defined task. Striker felt colouring books turned children into robots. Her books had semi-blank pages and captions such as: “The artist got stung by a bee and couldn’t finish his drawing. You finish it for him.” In 1982 she produced a version of The Anti-Coloring Book for adults, too.

I called Striker as she drove to Manhattan for a jazz concert. Susan, I said, what do you make of the new colouring book craze? “I feel like my life has been a total failure!” she cried. “Even though my books sold really well, the message clearly never got out to the general public that colouring books are not just innocuous but they’re actually very bad for you!”

She recalled one case study from the 1960s in which a child drew “a wonderful, lyrical picture of a bird” from his imagination. He was then supplied with a colouring book in which birds were represented only as “Vs”, as adults often draw them, and was told to colour them blue. The next time he drew a bird, he drew a V: “No eyes, no wings, no nothing. That was visual proof that when you are working with colouring books, it sends children the message that they are supposed to be drawing like adults – but since you’re too stupid to draw like an adult, here’s an adult’s picture and you can colour it in.”

This put me in mind of the popular new title Animorphia by the Filipino-born artist Kerby Rosanes. His book is billed as an Extreme Colouring and Search Challenge: one page has 30 bats drawn on it, with a large space in the middle and the instruction “Fill the page with bats”. What hope for the adult who wants to unleash their inner Van Gogh?

“If you want to turn off your mind, instead of turning it up, then colouring is one way to do it,” Striker said. “It can allow you to tune out of your life – it’s a choice: should I take a drink, or drugs, or pick up a colouring book?”

So what does she make of the link to art therapy? “People really have been educated to believe that they cannot do art,” she said. “A colouring book can help you empty out your mind. Yet to be ‘mindful’ is not to escape from your problems, but to face them head on. The new mindful colouring books are mindless. You should be drawing your own pictures!”

Even if you’re convinced you can’t draw, surely there are better ways of exercising your creative muscles – or destressing, for that matter – than by embarking on the sad face of a complex bejewelled rabbit, which, incidentally, appears in The Art Therapy Colouring Book half coloured already. If you want to experience the simple, untherapeutic pleasure of colouring, start with Tom Tierny’s Tudor and Elizabethan Fashions (Dover, £5.99). Then go wild and do that ermine cloak whatever colour you want.

Susan Striker’s “Adult Anti-Coloring Book” is reissued this month as an app and will be available on iTunes

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double

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Fasting and Feasting: the eccentric life of food writer Patience Gray

Journalist Adam Federman clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. 

It is hard, these days, to open a food magazine or a news­paper’s colour supplement without finding an article extolling the charm of foraging. So fashionable has the Instagram-friendly pursuit become that the botanist James Wong recently  wrote of his alarm at finding pictures of food – often published on blogs proclaiming the evils of sugar, gluten and dairy – prettily decorated with flowers of extreme toxicity: narcissus, catharanthus, lantana and rhododendron.

The food writer Patience Gray loved narcissi, whose springtime appearance on Naxos she described in her 1989 account of a year spent on the Greek island, Ring Doves and Snakes; but she would have known better than to use them as a garnish. Her passionate interest in foraged and seasonal food, which began during her wartime years spent in a primitive cottage in Sussex, where she pursued a scholarly interest in edible fungi, developed over the many decades during which she lived with her partner, the sculptor Norman Mommens, in some of the remotest parts of the Mediterranean.

On Naxos, in Carrara in Tuscany and for the last three decades of their life together at Spigolizzi, a masseria (farmhouse) in Apulia, Gray and Mommens found a way of life still governed by the elemental rhythms of sowing and growing, feasting and fasting – rhythms they adopted and incorporated into the practice of their work. “Métier” was a talismanic term for Gray.

“It sometimes seems as if I have been rescuing a few strands from a former and more diligent way of life, now being fatally eroded by an entirely new set of values,” she wrote in Honey from a Weed (1986), her evocative fusion of memoir and cookbook. “As with students of music who record old songs which are no longer sung, soon some of the things I record will also have vanished.”

Patience was one of a formidable cohort of female writer-cooks whose celebrations of food in muscular, elegant prose sprang from the privations of the Second World War. A contemporary of Elizabeth David, M F K Fisher and Julia Child, she wrote just three cookery books, only two of which were published in her lifetime: the bestselling Plats du Jour (1957), co-written with Primrose Boyd and warily subtitled “Foreign Food”, and the eclectic Honey from a Weed. The Centaur’s Kitchen, a book of Mediterranean recipes written in 1964 for the Chinese cooks of the Blue Funnel shipping line, was posthumously published in 2005. She also wrote two wayward volumes of memoir: Ring Doves and Snakes and Work Adventures Childhood Dreams (1999).

Despite this comparative reticence (she wrote bitterly in Work Adventures Childhood Dreams of her mother, whom she accused of valuing only published work: “But Patience, is there anything you have written that is actually in print?”), the publication of Honey from a Weed turned her into a celebrity, and the austere household at Spigolizzi, devoid of electricity, telephone or sanitation, became a place of pilgrimage for such keen food fanciers as Paul Levy (the co-author of The Official Foodie Handbook) and the late Derek Cooper of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. As her biographer, Adam Federman, remarks, “A full account of her remarkable life is long overdue.”

Gray divided her adult life into two parts: before 1962, when she began living with Norman Mommens, and after. On either side of that meeting her life was eventful. Of her upper-middle-class upbringing she wrote, “I have listened to other people’s accounts of their happy childhoods with sadness mingled with disbelief.”

Educated at Queen’s College in London (where Unity Mitford was a contemporary) and the London School of Economics, she worked for the designer F H K Henrion on the agricultural and country pavilions at the Festival of Britain, and had three children by Thomas Gray, an elusive  married “artist-designer” whose name she took.

Having left him, she won a competition to become the women’s editor of the Observer. Sacked after three years (by the paper’s new features editor George Seddon, under whom things “became dull, more serious”), she “began a different and more creative life”, sharing and recording the ancient traditions of seasonal food production and preparation of the communities among which she occupied an ambiguous position as both participant and observer until her death in 2005, aged 87.

Federman – a journalist, academic and “former line cook, bread baker and pastry chef” – clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. While Gray possessed the sharp observing eye, selective memory and comic timing of an instinctive writer, Federman is dogged and respectful.

His book is dutifully strewn with the names of Gray’s wide acquaintance, but he lacks the gift of characterisation and conveys little impression of their personalities. Even Gray, so vivid a presence in her own books, seems oddly muted in Federman’s portrait (though he gives a lively account of her exhilaratingly awful behaviour at her daughter’s wedding).

For admirers of Patience Gray’s remarkable prescience in anticipating what has become known as the “Slow Food” movement, Federman’s exhaustively detailed biography will be a valuable resource. But for those who long for a flavour of her personality – as pungent and earthy as the dishes she recorded – it is best read with a copy of Honey from a Weed to hand. 

Fasting and Feasting: the Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray
Adam Federman
Chelsea Green, 384pp, £20

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder