Healthista writer Susan Dunne loves adult colouring in, here she explains exactly what grown people get out of this 21st century craze
‘Do anything exciting last night?’ It’s a question I used to dread. Whilst I’d like to reply with a smirk and an arcane reference to the Karma Sutra but as someone who comes home from work too knackered to do much except clean, cook and colour in pictures of whimsical provenance, admitting to how exactly I do spend a lot of my evenings can be decidedly tricky.
How do you explain that you spent three blissfully relaxed hours curled up on the sofa colouring in a circus menagerie?
How do you explain for instance that you spent three blissfully relaxed hours curled up on the sofa colouring in a circus menagerie? How can you get it across that the colours of the mandala you spent three weeks over was an inner journey to the soul? Why would an adult with a post-graduate education and a responsible job go all gooey-eyed at the sight of a pack of felt tip pens?
Hmm. Not easy. In the early days of adult colouring there seemed to be something inherently shameful about it all – a bit like saying you get excited about knitting or macramé (or, let’s face it, handcuffs). But with adult colouring books currently topping Amazon sales and some like Millie Marotta’s Animal Kingdom – A Colouring Book Adventure selling over half a million, these days spending time shading in unicorns is socially legit. Wielding a coloured pencil, we are told, is the new Mindfulness, the ultimate de-stressor, balm for the digitalised-out soul in a rushing angry world.
So how does it work? Psychologists tell us that the rhythmic act of colouring relaxes the amygdala (the fear centre of the brain), trains the brain to focus, improves fine motor skills and allows us to be in the moment. Colouring can take people back to their childhood – those halcyon days of innocence when the ring of the ice cream van signified 99s not drug peddlers. We are let off the hook of adulthood, guided by lines that someone had put there for us, freed up to enjoy a child’s pleasure in colour and creativity in a world where an emerald cat is as valid as a pink panther. It allows us to re-enter that time when we were absorbed for hours in the wonderful minutiae of existence.
Psychologists tell us that the rhythmic act of colouring relaxes the amygdala (the fear centre of the brain)
Inevitably there are critics with some psychologists seeing it all as an infantilizing retreat to the sandpit. Other say that claims to mindfulness and therapeutic benefits are overrated. Perhaps they sniff a rival – after all a colouring book and a pack of felt tips costing a tenner at Morrisons is cheaper than five minutes on the couch (it’s probably more fun too). If nothing else, colouring in doesn’t actually harm anyone. As someone whose former method of relaxing in the evening revolved around a bottle of wine on the sofa and mindless Youtube videos it’s come as something of a relief to know that colouring in is neither mushing my brain nor hammering my liver.
some psychologists see it all as an infantilizing retreat to the sandpit.
At this point I must confess to a fleeting smirk of superiority: I came across the benefits of adult colouring long before they were sold to us as healing for the soul, the new Zen. Some years ago working in a woman’s psychiatric ward where the occupational therapists seemed to be permanently off sick and resources were reduced to a few colouring in pictures, there was little else for patients to do in the long hospital day. It was a case of colour in or chain-smoke to death in the recreation area. Not much to be said for either I thought sniffily as I left for the art room one afternoon with a group of patients. Wondering sourly just how the hell this primary school stuff was supposed to help grown women get their lives back on track I doled out materials and tried to sound positive. We sat round a table dutifully colouring in seascapes and country cottages and the odd toadstool. As we coloured we chatted, our minds released from concentration by the provision of guide lines on the page.
To my surprise I found myself enjoying it and so apparently did everyone else. – the rhythmic stroke of a pencil, the engagement of colour, choosing this shade of red over that shade of red was, well… fun. I watched as we shared colours and suggestions and swapped anecdotes in a non-pressured accepting environment and how everyone seemed relaxed and focussed. In short, fun was had by all. Okay, perhaps we didn’t solve any of the problems that had got the women there in the first place but we had a good afternoon – and that in itself was a novelty. We pinned our pictures on the wall and returned happily for tea. I yearned to do more.
I wanted more than that: I wanted fifty shades of all colours. I wanted shade, hue, nuance; I wanted to be part of something beautiful.
But colouring in behind the closed doors of a psychiatric unit is one thing – to do it openly, to actually go out and buy a kids colouring book felt a little… shall we say regressive? For some time I eyed the kids’ sections of the bookshelves in my local supermarket wistfully before telling myself sternly to get something more adult – Fifty Shades of Grey down in the adult section for instance. But I wanted more than that: I wanted fifty shades of all colours. I wanted shade, hue, nuance; I wanted to be part of something beautiful.
The adult colouring craze arrived but still, I held back. What if someone saw me buying a colouring book? I blushed (probably a light shade of cerise) at the thought. It was only when I stood by and watched another woman blatantly take the last copy of The Can’t Sleep Colouring Book: Creative Colouring for Grown-ups without even borrowing a passing kid to make it look legitimate, that something rebelled. I let out an inner bawl: that was mine! I snatched up my first book and glared defiantly at the girl on the check out. Back home I dug out a pack of felt tips whose original purpose evaded me and I have never looked back.
I’ve probably covered a few miles in pencil and felt tip strokes by now and I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s been a beautiful colourful journey and it’s helped that a work colleague has also joined the colouring revolution. No one in the office sniggers when we openly swap experiences (you can jazz up a zebra no end with a bit of pink on the ears and muzzle). We share problems (‘Do you notice how the Octopi in The Art of Colouring have only got seven legs?’), exchange tips (‘Don’t be afraid of a bit of white’) and have a mutual understanding of what putting the final pencil stroke to a colour mandala feels like.
So, these days I’m out and proud of being an adult colourer. And should anyone ask – no, I probably didn’t do anything very exciting last night. But boy, my latest Unicorn is looking good.
Susan Dunne used the Michael O’Mara adult colouring books and Healthista used the Johanna Basford “Secret Garden” adult colouring book.