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As seen at Barnes & Noble (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Here’s a story: Once upon a time, in an apartment far, far away — so far it was right next to the BQE — my friend threw a party. I attended said party, where I drank alcohol and smoked a plant only legal in certain states, and at the end of the night, I found myself sitting on a couch, next to my friend, coloring in a coloring book. It was relaxing yet deeply absorbing, as I stared at the pages in non-thought and tried to determine which blue should go where and what shade to use for a figure’s hair. (Was it Dora the Explorer? It just might have been.) My friend explained that she and her boyfriend did this sometimes — smoked and colored — and in that moment, in that situation, I totally got it. I determined to go home and get myself a coloring book, to use when I needed to unwind.

And then, dear reader, I never did. That was seven years ago. I haven’t colored since.

My friend and her boyfriend were ahead of the times. In the past three or so years, coloring has become a massive trend for adults: there are coloring clubs and parties, YouTube channels that let you watch people color, and more importantly, there are books — millions and millions of them. Some 12 million adult coloring books were sold in the US in 2015, a number so high it helped determine the boom in the year’s print book sales. “If it wasn’t for coloring books,” Fortune wrote, “the printed-book business would likely look substantially weaker than it does.”

Lately, Hyperallergic has begun receiving a generous sampling of the adult coloring books that have been hitting the market. To name a few: There are Color London and Paris, whose cutesy, unremarkable street scenes you can fill in while reading short blurbs about their locations; Collaborate with Zio is filled with “open source hieroglyphics” that you “coauthor” by coloring them; Jon Burgerman’s scribbly Burgerworld “doesn’t take itself too seriously”; Inspiring Patterns is filled with entirely uninspiring patterns, allegedly “in the style of modern and contemporary art”; Fairies in Wonderland is a journey filled with riddles and thus, according to its press release, “a one-of-a-kind addition to the growing coloring book canon”; and Another F*cking Coloring Book was written by someone trying unbearably hard to be ironic and sound cool — one page shows a little bird surrounded by shooting stars, saying, “Have a great day, you worthless turd.” Um … OK?

Coloring books sent to the Hyperallergic office thus far this year

But my favorite is Color Your Own Dutch Masters. This book, whose back cover is a solid, thick board, allows you to recolor such already colored masterpieces as Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (c. 1665) and Rembrandt’s “The Jewish Bride” (c. 1667). What the point of this activity might be, I really can’t say. Just to see what the girl would look like if she had a green face? To try and recreate Rembrandt’s expert handling of oil paint with colored pencils? Because you’re dissatisfied with the originals?

Look, sure, coloring is fun. Not only that — it can be vaguely meditative, it can help you get through trauma, it’s creative in its own way, and it can offer something tactile to focus on when you’ve spent too many hours staring at your computer or phone. I’ve read the arguments. I don’t think they’re wrong, per se; I just think that maybe we’ve gone too far. A press release appeared in my inbox the other day, pronouncing, “Miami’s Most Important Art District Comes Back to Life After the Zika Scare.” It was a press release for a coloring book. Apparently, somehow, a coloring book produced by the businesspeople who have art-washed and gentrified a Miami neighborhood beyond recognition have defeated the Zika virus with a coloring book. That sounds like the plot of a lost Captain Planet episode.

As many have pointed out, with coloring, the stakes are low. The process amounts to making a series of small, manageable decisions that can consume your brain enough to distract it, but not enough to further distress it. Coloring is easy, which is why we love it — it offers an outlet in a world where so much is difficult.

The thing is, disconnecting from digital devices, meditating, creating, and processing trauma — all the activities coloring supposedly engenders — aren’t easy. They are, in fact, varying levels of hard. Making a painting takes work. Quieting your mind is exceedingly difficult. Finding a way to deal with your trauma can be impossible. Coloring may help in some small way with these things, but it is not these things — or, as Thu-Huong Ha put it so sagely in Quartz, coloring is “therapeutic without being therapy, meditative without being meditation, creative without being creation, artsy without being art.”

Which is perfectly OK! I am not an anti-coloring Nazi! But as Thu and others have noted, it also means that coloring plays a little too perfectly into the self-help industry, which generates massive amounts of money for businesses and “gurus” while offering dubious amounts of real help to real people.

Mainly, I find those 12 million adult coloring books to be something of a missed opportunity. Where we could be encouraging folks to dream up and draw their own creations, then color them in, we’re instead prompting people to shade in images made by real artists (each of these books has a prominently listed artist). Where we could be pushing people to try something demanding, we’re instead telling them to go for what’s mindless. Many of us are deeply afraid to fail; conveniently, it’s impossible to fail at coloring (straying outside the lines is an artistic choice, of course). Everybody needs an escape sometimes, myself included. But in my experience, a more satisfying one comes from knowing the drawing will suck and insisting on making it anyway.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

12 replies on “I’ve Had My Fill of Adult Coloring Books”

  1. My experience with it is that it basically ends up being Sudoku you can’t do with just one pen or pencil.

  2. I think the author needs to take a crayon break. Maybe the point of the coloring book is mindless fun, not doing your own drawing, whether it sucks or not.

  3. I’m a professional fine artist. My dad was too. We weren’t allowed coloring books when little…”Draw your own pictures”…we painted on vacations… every one in the family. I can’t imagine creating a coloring book. I just can’t bring myself to do it. I do make blank sketchbooks for an Etsy shop though!

    1. I’m an artist too, and we weren’t allowed colouring books. My Mum was an early childhood teacher, and believed they affected children’s creativity, and narrowed their ideas about what was an acceptable image to draw. Maybe she was right, I turned out this way, art is my occupation and I still paint and draw every day.

      1. I’m an artist as well, and though after the age of five I could not be bothered with coloring books they were nevertheless not verboten. But then again, Mom also made certain that I was well supplied with all of the surplus paper, cardboard, markers, pens pencils and anything else she could salvage, recycle or ‘relocate’ from work. I was probably the only kindergartener with a text on drawing the nude, among other artists’ references.
        My dearly departed sister, blessed with Downs Syndrome, had a remarkably idiosyncratic coloring style. In retrospect, her finished coloring books looked uncannily like some Jasper Johns paintings.

  4. Some of us don’t enjoy drawing our own images. I personally find it stressful and aggravating. But I DO enjoy colouring images that others have drawn. That’s why I love these colouring books.

    I think you need to get down off your high horse and stop being an entitled dick who enjoys belittling others’ way of enjoying themselves.

  5. I think you’re missing the point. The parts of your brain that you engage when you color are vastly different than those that you engage when you are actively creating. For those who use adult coloring for meditative/therapeutic purpose, the whole POINT is to not be thinking too much. Those who do so, don’t take it as a substitute for therapy, but as a complement. It’s actually called complementary care. Unless you’re actually in a psych facility, you don’t have access to a therapist 24/7, so you learn how to cope, and you find aids that help you do so. Coloring can be one of them. There have been studies, not only on coloring, but on walking, fly-fishing, knitting (all of which have highly repetitive elements), that have proven they are all beneficial. Certainly not everyone who colors does so for this reason. I have my 91 year old Grams color for physical therapy reasons. Some people do it just for fun. So you’re “over it.” OK, move along. But if it’s all the same to you, I’m gonna sit here and continue coloring my paisley owl.

    (And for the record, I help run a charity for people with PTSD and we host an annual national coloring event)

    1. I actually have PTSD and it does help. It keeps me from cutting and stuff. Cutting is actually a cathartic activity for me and this is a healthier alternative that cutting.

  6. I both draw and color as well as do graphic design. You do realize that there are artists who do nothing but color pictures that work for Disney and other animation studios. It’s a legit career. I think this is article is a bit over the top. Of all the things to be aggravated and done with adult coloring books shouldn’t even been a blip on your radar.

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