Colouring books for grown-ups

READ IT by Bruce Mason

Adult coloring book• For millions of folks, 2015 was the “Year of the Adult Colouring Book.” After occupying at least five spots on Amazon’s Top-10 bestsellers for all 12 months, ACBs (a Common Ground acronym) are the current “most-wished-for gifts” in Canada and elsewhere.

Stressed-out, screen-weary grown-ups of every stripe are seeking digital detox from ubiquitous desktops, laptops, tablets, smart-phones, E-readers and dumb-downed TV. They’re unplugging Wi-Fi and Ring Tones to de-stress and self-express in good-old-fashioned, interactive, tactile analog. Opting for a time-out – in a world vibrating with anxiety – they’re taking a recess from the relentless news of recession, terrorism, climate change, the boss, the mortgage; pick your poison.

Art Therapy Cover
A fad among fashionable French ladies has morphed into a “niche,” the latest “literary” craze and the biggest publishing phenomenon in decades. Entire sections and display areas have cropped up in virtually every book and big-box store. Heather Reisman – CEO of Canada’s Indigo Books – recently credited them with “significantly lifting sales throughout the chain.”

Forget about freebie restaurant colouring sheets. We’re talking hyper-detailed doodling here: tropical birds and Tiffany designs, historic ships and tattoos, aircraft and luxury cars, human anatomy, art masterpieces and mandalas – endless mandalas. It’s worth pointing out that Carl Jung prescribed colouring to his psychiatry patients; clients received black and white mandala drawings in therapy.

And also forget about those bygone primary crayons. They don’t cut it anymore. Think Prismacolor and gel pens for a contemporary palette. Think spectacular spectrums and new rainbows to choose from to make that tricky owl in the corner really pop!

Much of the paper is heavy duty so colours can’t bleed through. And authors often include little treasure hunts of extra images in their exceptionally detailed illustrations, as well as blank spaces, encouraging personalized elements. There are pocket-sized editions for the commuter, detachable pages for the keepers among us and spiral-bound versions and flexible spines. Publishers and marketers are burning the midnight oil, keen to keep up with the almost insatiable demand, which is not going away anytime soon.

As well – and as usual – there are also myriad “experts,” scratching their heads on the sidelines of the dizzying array of paper playgrounds. Colouring is touted, and sold, as a boon to the housebound, to help one achieve mindfulness, banish anxiety, even deal with trauma. The plethora of themes and patterns include the Art Therapy Colouring Book, Stress-Relieving Cats and Can’t Sleep Colouring. The American Art Therapy Association shrugs, admitting it’s beneficial, self-care. A tad therapeutic, but not art, say critics who don’t like it, claiming it’s analogous to listening to music, not making it, or art inside pre-drawn lines.

Among the skeptics is Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason. She quotes the Bible: “When I was a child, I thought as a child, but as an adult, I put away childish things.” She describes the phenomenon as bad colouring books, regressive, escapist fantasy, a general decline in effort and broad Great Recession cultural shift, presumably including jobless, indebted 20-somethings moving back into childhood homes, experiencing psychological retreat instead of maturity.

Guilty as charged. But consider new forensics and the technology to measure brainwaves and heart rhythms. Turns out colouring relaxes the amygdala – the fear centre of the brain – enabling our mind and bodies to get required rest. It opens up the frontal lobe, the home of organizing and problem solving, focuses the mind and helps us forget to worry, a critical skill in our interesting times. It unleashes free expression and facilitates relaxation in the moment. Much like crossword puzzling, it can help delay or prevent dementia.

Dr. Stan Rodski, a consulting neuro-psychologist and author of Anti-Stress: Colouring Book for Adults (Volumes 1-6), isolates three key elements – repetition, pattern and detail – as prompts for positive neurological response.

It’s limitless creativity with satisfaction gained from watching colour slowly spread and thought and effort becoming tangible and beautiful. Wander and wonder through the paper labyrinths, with no traps and nothing to solve. So, unlike some fads, this one is actually really good for you.

I think it’s part of our unacknowledged desire to do “nothing” sometimes, to let the liminal brain take over, without technological murmurs as ever-present cognitive buffers, to simply zone out. Frankly, I want to garden in colour, in winter.

“Peter Pan market?” Sure. Who doesn’t want to be “a kid again” and ditch technology, momentarily, in favour of our inner child? And DIY is all the rage. Common Ground readers know that the first step in mindfulness – or is it mind-fullnes – is to gather one’s attention and halt the mind’s repetitive ruminating and anticipating, shifting from linguistic to the somatosensory cortex, becoming grounded in body sensations and breathing.

There’s a good reason why Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford’s first two books – Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest – became instant best-sellers, now available in 14 languages. And why her latest, Lost Ocean, sold tens of thousands in its first week out in late October. She wanted to relax and share a little fun. Don’t we all? Especially with blockbuster franchises like Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and Doctor Who, now out with their own ACBs.

Want to colour? Knock yourself out; fill your boots. It’s cathartic, quintessential and the gift that truly keeps on giving. And there are lots of free samples to download and print; just Google free adult colouring books.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. brucemason@shaw.ca

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