Why Adult Coloring is So Popular
Coloring For Adults?!
When most of us were growing up, coloring books were for children. The pictures in them were usually of playful scenes with recognizable people, places, and animals that would appeal to kids. The pictures were deliberately simple and straightforward to match children’s intellectual and physical development.
The Adult Coloring Phenomena
Enter the adult coloring phenomena in 2015. During that year, the sale of coloring books jumped from one million to over 12 million almost overnight. This dramatic rise has been attributed to an interview with Johanna Basford, illustrator of The Enchanted Forest and The Secret Garden coloring books. The interview on NPR’s All Things Considered in April 2015 synchronized two trends one the growing wellness movement and two social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook which were inviting people to explore and share their creativity with each other. During Basford’s interview, she promoted coloring for adults as a way to get a break from our high-stress lives and ‘detox’ from our digital devices.
Convergence of Factors that Made Coloring Take Off
Basford tapped into a zeitgeist that was on the cusp of emerging. A synchronistic realization that:
We needed to focus more seriously on managing stress
Coloring was a fun, practical, creative, and rewarding way to do that
This pastime could be joyfully celebrated with others
It seemed like simultaneously across the globe, people discovered that coloring, which before had been relegated to children, was not only enjoyable and relaxing, but it was a legitimate tool for reducing stress, for successfully exploring their creativity, and for finding community.
Were Coloring Books Just a Fad?
Despite these benefits, it initially appeared like the coloring book craze might just be a passing fad. Although sales of coloring books tapered off after the first couple of years, the appeal of coloring persists. For example, as of August 2020, Facebook has dozens of coloring groups some of which have 30,000 members from across the world. Generally, these groups encourage people to share their favorite coloring books, offer suggestions for drawings supplies and techniques that they are enjoying, and upload photos of their coloring projects (they usually insist that the original illustrator is credited). Perhaps not surprisingly, since the outbreak of the COVID virus with stress levels high and people forced to isolate themselves from one another, coloring sales have begun to shoot up again.
Why Coloring Books Are Still So Popular?
The adult coloring book phenomenon exploded so quickly because it seemed to make perfect sense that coloring was an easy and accessible way for people who are stressed to channel that tension. For example, coloring can be especially useful for folks who have trouble meditating or doing yoga; it effectively yields many of the same results. For people who aren’t ‘crafty’ but know that having a hobby or doing crafts helps manage stress, it is a way to cultivate a creative outlet. The pre-existing images give people a place to start, some structure if drawing free-hand makes them anxious. It gives people a way to be express themselves artistically without needing any training or skill.
Coloring is Portable and Compact
It’s easy to jump in and out of coloring. When you need to get to other tasks, you can quickly put what you’re working on to the side and then come back to it. It’s also portable so you can travel with it. In fact, many people use coloring to make their travel time pass more quickly and enjoyably. Along the same lines, coloring is an effective way to help you stay present and engaged during meetings and lectures. Although it might seem like it would be a distraction, it actually helps people be more attentive and focused.
Adult Coloring Books on Almost Any Theme You Can Imagine
The variety of coloring books now available cater to almost every imaginable demographic. You can find adult coloring books of grumpy cats, swear words, fat ladies in space, the Civil Rights movement, serial killers, Megan and Harry’s wedding, and holiday sweaters, just to name a few. Many are geared to special audiences such as coloring books for “real men”, surfers, moms, veterans, the OB coloring book for gynecologists, and even raised-line coloring books for the visually impaired. Some of the most popular include Basford’s books as well as the Color Me Stress-Free series by Art Therapist Lacy Mucklow and artist Angela Porter.
So Why Is Coloring So Helpful?
Perhaps the most compelling benefit of coloring is that it is relaxing. This is not only subjective people report feeling calmer after coloring; but also objective they undergo constructive physiological changes. For example, they experience the relaxation response which includes a range of biological markers from lowered blood pressure and heart rate to shifts in brain wave activity. These combine to not only improve physical health and immune functioning but to counteract the negative effects of stress.
What Other Benefits Does Coloring Hold?
Research is revealing other benefits that coloring promotes (*see the reference list HERE for many of these studies). Because the benefits of coloring are truly copious, we list them below in bullets: Coloring is meditative and helps us focus:
It quiets the ‘monkey mind’ and stills the steady stream of racing thoughts that can dominate our attention and keep us from truly being in the moment.
It provides a positive distraction.
It puts us in a meditative state and makes us more mindful.
It induces a relaxation response.
It counters the damaging effects of stress.
It helps us focus and concentrate.
It gets us into being fully engaged and in flow.
It makes us more alert, aware, and present.
Coloring stimulates whole brain thinking:
It stimulates right-brain expansive and creative thinking.
It involves left-brain thinking through organization and planning.
It improves hand/eye coordination and hones fine motor skills.
It taps into parts of the brain that are not accessible through language and speech.
It tells a story by reflecting in visual form the unique way our minds work.
It gives us information about ourselves that we can explore.
Coloring taps into our creativity.
For those of us who don’t have artistic training, it warms us up to creativity and gives us some structure to start with.
It helps overcome the ‘blank canvas’ anxiety that free drawing can cause.
It lets us explore our creativity: in the materials we use, the color combinations we choose, and the way we emphasize different parts of the picture.
The structure they provide can help us feel like we can be more successful at doing art.
We can create something that is beautiful and that we can feel good about.
The artists among us enjoy that it lets us take a break from the pressure of having to create something original while still inviting individual artistic flair and personal aesthetic choices.
Another Unexpected Benefit: Connection and Community
Coloring has also become a way for people to connect. In fact, those connections are part of what has made coloring so popular. People not only enjoy the process of making their art but they want to share their work with others e.g. as gifts, in meet-ups, and in Facebook groups. For example, the Adult Coloring Worldwide Facebook group has 32,000 members sharing their coloring projects with each other.
But Wait, I’ve Heard That Coloring Stifles Creativity! Is That True?
Many of our art therapy clients come to us with what we call “art trauma”. Memories of having been shamed at an early age for not being able to draw and/or of being punished for “not coloring in the lines”. Although some well-intentioned but misguided educators may have insisted that you color neatly and perfectly “in the lines”, we now know that coloring actually promotes creativity. Research shows that when children engage in coloring and are then given complex tasks to navigate, they show more divergent problem-solving skills.
In addition, in terms of artistic creativity, the structured outlines in coloring images seem to warm people up to doing art rather than inhibit them. It seems to give them what one of our favorite art therapists, Judy Rubin, calls a “framework for freedom”.
Using Coloring and Art Therapy to Overcome Unhelpful Messages About Doing Art
Granted, some people might still struggle with negative internal messages about doing art in general or coloring more specifically, and we have no desire to re-traumatize you. However, we support you if you want to use coloring as a way to revisit those unhelpful legacies and discover (or rediscover) the playful and relaxing fun that art and coloring can be.
If you want to take that a step further and work with an Art Therapist, like Rebecca and her business partner Gioia Chilton, they can help you overcome internal and external barriers to your creativity and wellbeing.
There has been some confusion about whether coloring is Art Therapy. Often that is because there is confusion about what Art Therapy itself is. Art therapy, like most therapy, is designed to help people cope with challenges and experience a higher quality of life. The way art therapists do so is through art and the creative process.
Art Therapy relies on two essential components:
Doing art is healing