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The Joys of Adult Colouring

Colleen Hoover fans and anxious onlookers will be aware of the scandalous Colleen Hoover colouring book which was cancelled back in January, a result of backlash over its insensitive approach to domestic violence. Morbid curiosity makes me wonder what exactly these pages would have looked like. Luckily, though, no one has to wonder too hard, as many artists have since released their own versions of it! Something about the adult colouring book refuses to be suppressed.

If you have tried it you probably understand what I mean. The tranquillity which comes from the repeated back-and-forth pencil motions, earnestly trying to stay within the lines, the funny scratchy noises it makes … not to mention the dopamine boost from the delightful completed picture at the end. It’s addictive in the best possible way.

Johanna Basford from Aberdeenshire thought similarly when she first pitched the idea of an adult colouring book to her editors. Received with silence at first, they thankfully took the risk, and the book was published in 2013, to great demand. Hundreds of thousands of colouring books for adults have since been circulated. Basford dryly notes that “there’s been an underground adult shading movement for years” — her colouring books are simply vessels for people to express the urge.

Why this impulse to take the time to colour in pictures? De-stressing and the nostalgia factor, Basford believes. Colouring in is solitary by default, meaning it is unavoidably quiet and meditative. It forces you to be present, and to make your own decision, without self-judgement, as to what colour you are going to use next. Do you want to colour some leaves blue? That is okay. No one is grading you on this, nor is your future contingent on the results.

The function of colouring books is almost like self-administered art therapy. For many people, it involves confronting ideas of perfectionism, as well as the embarrassment of being caught in a ‘childish’ activity, and making peace with these things. Basford uses childhood experiences as a basis for her colouring books, with her natural imagery inspired by the Isle of Arran on the West Coast of Scotland, where she used to holiday as a child. Artists like Chloe McFeters even create hybrid colouring-book-slash-journals for processing real trauma, from living with autoimmune diseases to surviving domestic abuse. Whilst no substitute for actual therapy, one can see how the gentle reflexivity arising from the practice would help with processing. Perhaps there would have been a place for the taboo Colleen Hoover colouring book, had it seen the light of day.

Colouring doesn’t have to be done alone, either. You could invite a friend and scribble in parallel, silently appreciating each other’s company — or colour in the same piece — and work to reconcile your differing opinions on colour theory in a low stakes environment. It is an activity which can be enjoyed across ages, abilities, and cultural differences.

I don’t see adult colouring as diminishing individual creativity. Whilst someone else’s work is always the basis, it is surprising how differently people can interpret a colouring picture. Adult colouring simply offers a framework in which people can pursue their imagination without the daunting prospect of a completely blank canvas. It tends not to be the end point of people’s experiences of arts and crafts, too — many find it a gateway drug into making their own illustrations, or pottery painting, or glass blowing, or a myriad of others.

Can adult colouring books be maligned and used for commercial gain? Undoubtedly. But so can most things, and it isn’t sinful to enjoy these sometimes. Colouring can help us be present, which is never a bad aim. Maybe we would spend less time invested in Colleen Hoover scandals if we actually spent more time scribbling.

Illustration by Mya Shah

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