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?
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.