If You Give an Adult a Coloring Book

What, exactly, makes a coloring book a coloring book for adults? Where are the lines that define this genre, and how can grown-ups make sure they are coloring securely (and maturely) inside them ...

What, exactly, makes a coloring book a coloring book for adults? Where are the lines that define this genre, and how can grown-ups make sure they are coloring securely (and maturely) inside them?

Those questions nag at the margins of a recent blurb in the New York Times heralding the publication of two highly anticipated adult coloring books: Johanna Basford’s latest creation, Magical Jungle, and Kerby Rosanes’s Imagimorphia. The brief announcement anxiously builds a case for adult coloring books, calling out Game of Thrones coloring books for the fan of violent high-fantasy drama, Trump and Hillary options for the political junkie, and “sweary” coloring books, because “how better to demonstrate that your coloring book is not for kids than by incorporating lots of four-letter words?”1 The Times includes with its review “A Page Just for You to Color,” featuring a group of adults wearing bored expressions and lounging against a patterned backdrop.

<i>A Page Just for You to Color</i>. Image from the <i>New York Times</i> article discussed above.

A Page Just for You to Color. Image from the New York Times article discussed above.

To my eyes, this image is immediately and surprisingly off-putting—something that inspires neither child nor adult to break out the crayons. It’s difficult to determine precisely what about it is so unpleasant, but I suspect it has something to do with its self-conscious but confused deployment of everything meant to signal “adult” about today’s coloring books. “This tessellated pattern fosters mindfulness! That doesn’t appeal to you? Then check out these hipster adults! When they color, they color … ironically.”

But maybe such hand-wringing is to be expected. Despite skyrocketing sales—Nielsen Bookscan reports that approximately 12 million books were sold in 2015, a phenomenal bump from the 1 million estimated sold in 2014—the adult coloring book has been subject to an onslaught of criticism.2 In January 2015, for example, Adrienne Raphel published an essay in the New Yorker under the title “Why Adults Are Buying Coloring Books (For Themselves).” Those sneering parentheses are a not so subtle jab at the regressive habits of the over-20 coloring set. Raphel situates the current boom in adult coloring in what she calls the “Peter Pan market,” which includes not only coloring books but also children’s and young adult literature (read by adults), summer camps (attended by adults), and preschool classes, complete with glitter glue and naptime (enjoyed by adults).

Raphel is just one of many suspicious of the “craze.” Kristin Hohenadel of Slate starts off her piece on Basford with the pronouncement that “adulthood seems to be having a regressive moment.” Even Russell Brand, an actor I do not think most associate with the high ground of maturity, released a YouTube video titled “Adult Colouring Books: Are They the Apocalypse?” He is baffled by what American morning-news programs explain as benefits of “coloring in.” “What has turned us into terrified divs that want to live in childish stupors?” he rails. “You can’t just retreat into childhood and hope that the adult problems of the world will disappear.” As of this writing, his rant been viewed nearly 200,000 times.3 Faced with accusations of childishness and cowardly escapism, those who create, sell, or enjoy adult coloring books are often on the defensive, insisting on the useful practice of adult coloring and, in particular, the substantial differences between books intended for adults and those for kids. Basford herself, the Scottish illustrator and “Queen of Coloring” who sparked the current trend with the 2013 publication of Secret Garden, told Raphel that the art in her books is “sophisticated––not like a car or a bunny with a bow in its hair.”

Some coloring books announce their appeal to mature audiences more loudly than others. In addition to the “sweary” books the Times jokes about, which invite consumers to fill in phrases such as “piss off” and “gutter slut,” there are those books that are most at home in retailers that peddle tongue-in-cheek coolness, such as Urban Outfitters. Consider Mel Elliott’s “Colour Me Good” series, which features outline after outline of desirable celebrities. Most seem pitched to a heterosexual female audience—they feature Ryan Gosling, Tom Hiddleston, Jamie Dornan—but there is a book featuring “girl crushes” such as Jennifer Lawrence, Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift (who coyly demands from the cover that you color her “swiftly”). The delight in these books, presumably, is not the same as Basford’s. The artist isn’t interested in watching a garden bloom with color. Instead, these books enable a masturbatory fantasy of repeatedly bringing color to the cheeks of the untouchable celebrity. Adult coloring books, indeed. In fact, just a few desultory Amazon clicks leads an interested coloring-book artist of a certain age to a library’s worth of erotic pictures ready for your pencil: Sex Position Coloring Book: Playtime for Couples by Hollan Publishing, An Adult Coloring Book for Gay Men (Who Are Gay!) by Scott Shannon, and Play with My Boobs: A Titstacular Activity Book for Adults, by the aptly pseudonymed D. D. Stacks, just to name a few.

Erotic coloring books for adults often are marketed as jokey novelties; Magnus Frederiksen’s The Fetish Coloring Book, for example, is billed as an appropriate gift for bachelorette parties. But they may be more in line with the early history of adult coloring books than the collections of seascapes and mandalas crowding big-box bookstore shelves. Today’s sexy and satiric activity books are the offspring of radical coloring books for adults published in the 1960s and ’70s, an era that witnessed a similar boom in the genre, including the publication of Marcie Hans, Dennis Altman, and Martin A. Cohen’s sardonic The Executive Coloring Book (1961) and Tee Corinne’s Cunt Coloring Book (1975).4 Laura Marsh, in New Republic, traces the million-dollar mid-century adult coloring book trend, which included titles that offer wry commentary on everything from the Black Panthers to corporate culture.5 Colour Me Good: Benedict Cumberbatch might not offer the same sophisticated side-eye as these titles, but both operate according to a kind of in-your-face appropriation of kids’ culture, relying on the misalignment between adult material and children’s form for their punch. (Picture books are also prone to such reworkings and adaptations, as anyone who has read Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortés’ Go the Fuck to Sleep knows.)

<i>Eagle Pencil Company colored crayon advertisement</i>. Image courtesy of Boston Public Library.

Eagle Pencil Company colored crayon advertisement. Image courtesy of Boston Public Library.

But what about the two titles the Times singles out for attention—Basford’s Magical Jungle and Rosanes’s Imagimorphia? They don’t feature outlines of come-hither It Girls, stylized proclamations of “asshole,” or activity pages asking consumers to find the Communists. Like many (really, most) of the adult coloring books shelved in popular bookstores, they are identifiable by their obsessive attention to detail. For her books Basford chooses landscapes easily populated with an overwhelming array of flora and fauna—Magical Jungle is the latest in a series that includes, in addition to the bestseller Secret Garden, Lost Ocean and Enchanted Forest—while Rosanes’s Imagimorphia, as well as his previous coloring book Animorphia, features drawings of animals and landscapes that, in the words of the book’s back matter, “morph and explode into astounding detail.” Both are so densely drawn that they double as search-and-finds. Among the feathers of the eagle on Imagimorphia’s cover, for instance, you can find playing cards, a winged pig, and a tiny T. rex held aloft by balloons.

In their intricate designs, both Magical Jungle and Imagimorphia might be read as part of a new twist in the adult coloring book trend: the discourse of self-care, stress relief, and mindfulness. Titles such as Color Me Calm by Lacy Mucklow and Creative Haven Dream Doodles by Kathleen G. Ahrens feature labyrinths, mosaics, paisleys, mandalas, and symmetrical organic patterns in the form of flowers and butterflies, while Crayola’s new line of coloring books and art supplies for adults is called “Creative Escapes.”6 If the subversive coloring books of the ’60s incited social or political action, and more contemporary sexy titles encourage … well … action, many of today’s most popular coloring books are “adult” in an entirely different sense: they are meant to salve the souls of stressed-out grown-ups. Modern-day educators often decry the structured forms in coloring books for kids, which they argue stifle the vivid imaginations of young people.7 However, the repetitive and even tedious creativity of a predictable pattern is reinterpreted in adult coloring books as medicinal. Those mosaics are a bulwark against an increasingly unpredictable world. Some titles even try to marry the screamy aggressiveness of subversive coloring books with the Zen trend. See Sasha O’Hara’s “irreverent” adult coloring books, which include Calm the F*ck Down, Chill the F*ck Out, and Cheer the F*ck Up.

Yet something different is going on with Basford and Rosanes. These books are far less vociferous in their insistence that they are for adults rather than children. Certainly both artists engage with the idea of art as escape. Basford proclaims she “prefers pens and pencils to pixels,” suggesting a sort of Luddite rejection of an adult world plagued by cell phones and tablets, and Magical Jungle and Imagimorphia transport their purchasers into secret gardens and cartoon worlds. However, both artists encourage an amateur coloring culture that capitalizes not on disengagement and regression but on painstaking artistry. Rosanes sells not only coloring books but also facsimiles of his sketchbook, which intersperses his doodles and line drawings with tips and techniques for aspiring artists. And it wasn’t until I had colored in a third of one of Basford’s designs—an activity, I’ll add, that I do not find relaxing at all—that I discovered, at the back of the book, a “color palette test page.”

Oh. I’m supposed to have a palette? My toucan suddenly seemed less whimsical bird and more ill-designed ragamuffin.

It seems my approach to adult coloring is a little too devil-may-care. While today’s popular narrative of adult coloring books emphasizes meditative mindfulness or nostalgic pleasure—a perspective that, I assumed, accommodates a relaxed and nonjudgmental coloring environment—the online community of adult colorists focuses on finesse. I scoffed when I first discovered “how to” sections in early news pieces on adult coloring books. Surely one does not need directions for this activity. But I was quickly silenced when I stumbled upon the array of YouTube videos and Pinterest boards that recommend the best pencils and pastels, offer advice about color choice and blending, and reflect on the appropriate pressure between crayon and page. I have been coloring birds all wrong, it seems. Basford offers a tutorial on the appropriate technique on her blog, where she also hosts contests that reward the most accomplished coloring-book artists with prize packs of pencils and sharpeners.

After rabbit-holing through this thriving culture of online coloring-in experts for awhile, I returned to Raphel’s essay maligning adult coloring books as nostalgic and ultimately irresponsible escapism. I noticed that the article includes, as an illustration, an impressively colored page from Basford’s Secret Garden. The caption indicates that the image was completed by Henny de Snoo-van Breugel, a woman who blogs and posts video tutorials under the title Passion for Pencils. She sometimes spends months on a single page. Breugel seems more aspiring Bruegel than stubborn adult kindergartner.

Escape, for these amateur artists, is not the same as nostalgic escapism, although the one might resemble the other. In the hands of this community, adult coloring books are not a childish retreat to crayons. Certainly some adults turn to Rosanes’s enticing spread of lithe hares leaping between enormous mushrooms to blot out the more pressing concerns of adult life, and others consider an hour spent coloring in Basford’s landscape of macaws and creeping vines a casual form of art therapy. For others, however, the pages of Imagimorphia or Magical Jungle allow them to inhabit a space between what is imagined as the creative freedom of youth and the demands of professional craft.

In many ways, expertly colored-in pages from these books are akin to the carefully landscaped environments of model-train fanatics or the finely designed interiors of dollhouse enthusiasts. Like those miniature fantastic worlds, the landscapes of Basford and Rosanes invite an array of both child and adult desire. Rosanes’s riff, in his titles Animorphia and Imagimorphia, on the Greek root morph—suggesting shape or form—is appropriate. It gestures toward the ways the coloring book molds creativity through its preprinted shapes and figures, but also holds out the possibility of transformation, a shifting from one figure, one artist, to the next. Adult coloring books, in fact, have already been making their way to child audiences; parenting and lifestyle bloggers, as well as major retailers, have published lists of the best adult coloring books for the under-18 demographic. (Your child will “feel oh so mature and sophisticated with her fancy adult coloring book,” a Barnes & Noble blogger promises, “and she’ll leave yours alone.”)8 In other words, it is useful to reframe this new wave of coloring books not as artifacts that point, accusingly, to the infantilization of adults. Instead, it is new evidence that the tools of creative play have long shuttled between young and old. The adult coloring book makes clear that such play is plastic and malleable, able to respond to projects mature and immature, serious and nonsensical, initiated by artists from the classroom to the corner office. icon

  1. Alexandra Alter, “We’re Buying Paperbacks, Audiobooks, and Coloring Books—but Not E-Books,” New York Times, May 26, 2016.
  2. Sarah Halzack, “The Big Business behind the Adult Coloring Book Craze,” Washington Post, March 12, 2016.
  3. See Adrienne Raphel, “Why Adults Are Buying Coloring Books (For Themselves),” New Yorker, July 12, 2015; Kristin Hohenadel, “These Coloring Books for Adults Are More Addictive Than Smartphones,” Slate, April 7, 2015; and Russell Brand, “Adult Colouring Books: Is This the Apocalypse?” The Trews, YouTube video, April 9, 2015.
  4. Corinne’s coloring book has been appropriated and celebrated as part of feminist and queer popular culture, but it was first published as a resource for sex education. This book gestures toward an entire genre of adult coloring books designed for educational purposes, the most famous examples being those that help students learn human anatomy.
  5. Laura Marsh, “The Radical History of 1960s Adult Coloring Books,” New Republic, December 28, 2015.
  6. Claims that adult coloring books are akin to art therapy have led members of the American Art Therapy Association to distinguish solo coloring from art therapy, which is guided by a mental health professional. See Jordan Potash, “Art Therapy and Authentic Creative Expression Emphasized at TEDx NYU,” American Art Therapy Association, May 23, 2016.
  7. The argument that coloring books inhibit children’s creativity was popularized by Viktor Lowenfield in Creative and Mental Growth, first published in 1947 but reprinted into the late 1980s. Some scholars have since challenged his theories. See, for example, Irvin L. King, “In Search of Lowenfield’s Proof That Coloring Books Are Harmful to Children,” Studies in Art Education, vol. 33.1 (Autumn 1991), pp. 36–42. However, some artists, educators, and designers focus on creating coloring and activity books meant to foster rather than structure children’s efforts. A particularly noteworthy example is Susan Striker’s “Anti-Coloring Book” series, which features prompts for children to create their own drawings (e.g., to fill in the future in a blank crystal ball or to provide a cover image for a newspaper front-page proclaiming an alien invasion). Striker began publishing her anti-coloring books in the 1970s, and they are still available today at her website and through online retailers such as Amazon.
  8. Molly Schoemann-McCann, “Children Will Love These Coloring Books Almost as Much as Adults Do,” Barnes & Noble blog (accessed November 10, 2016). See also Steve Schiff, Fatherly, September 2, 2015. Schiff recommends a number of “adult” coloring books for parents and children to share, including Secret Garden by Basford.
Featured image: Caran D'Ache Colored Pencils. Photograph courtesy of Pat Anzanello / Flickr