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