colouring therapy

Colouring Books

ADULT COLOURING BOOKS: WHY WON’T WE GROW UP?

STEVEN MACKENZIE MAR 2, 2015

Is this stress management? Or the infantilisation of society? Drawing conclusions about the rise of adult colouring books…

MPs playing Candy Crush, Twitter trolls acting like schoolyard bullies, grown-ups in onesies. The lines between childhood and adulthood have got so blurred that Britain has become Neverland peopled by a generation of Lost Boys (and girls), chidults clinging onto eternal youth.

This notion of perpetual youth is feeding a publishing trend that is sweeping the world. Colouring books aimed at adults are selling in their hundreds of thousands. In France, a country known more for its cuisine than its colouring, the titles outsell cookbooks. Last year, Johanna Basford’s Jardin Secret (published in the UK as Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Colouring Book) sold more than one million copies.

In these adult colouring books, there are no Peppa Pigs or Disney princesses to colour in, instead intricately drawn animals and symmetrical shapes to finish as you fancy. Facebook groups and Tumblr pages have sprouted up allowing people to share their homemade mini-masterpieces with others. You can also have a go at redesigning a Da Vinci or Klimt, and Mel Elliott’s collection, Colour Me Swooooon, allows you to make Harry Styles’ eyes whatever colour you please, and dye George Clooney’s silver hair.

Colouring in is billed as an alternative way to beat anxiety

But this is not simply child’s play. Colouring in is billed as an alternative way to beat anxiety and disconnect from modern life’s constant connectivity… So does it work?

I bought some Crayola felt tip pens to tackle Colour Therapy: An Anti-Stress Colouring Book, which promises that I can ‘doodle and colour my stress away’. It is handsomely bound and contains dozens of ornate line drawings, skulls, flowers and a mesmerising menagerie of animals. The designs are so detailed they are almost intimidating. The intricacy of the patterns makes it impossible not to trespass over the lines, so the experience increases rather than soothes anxiety.

Maybe I had been doing it wrong. I decide to ring Richard Merritt, a graduate of St Martin’s College now described as a colouring-book guru. He created this nightmarish Vernian octopus pattern (pictured) and it is his buffalo head drawing in Art Therapy (which I decide to pen in red and yellow, making it look like it is on fire) that is proving so frustrating.

“It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it,” he assures. “Occasionally people might think it is daunting, but when you get started you lose yourself. You go into a trance. Your brain switches off. You almost go on autopilot. All around are digital devices singing and dancing at you. If you have a phone you’re always checking it. It’s nice when all you’ve got is a piece of paper, colouring pencil in hand.”

What about when you worry about going over the lines?

“You can go over the lines, you can do a colour wash over it all if you want!” he says.

I have already done that. I made a wolf, a completely grey wolf, and constantly wonder what it would look like if I filled in this happy bunny rabbit totally black. Van Gogh’s paintings would look more or less vibrant depending on his mood, so I wonder what my bleak colour choices say about my psyche.

“Oh, colouring books can only do so much. I think you need to see a therapist.”

On Harley Street, the offices of Renaissance Life Therapies are decorated with kaleidoscopic coloured-in designs. The company’s co-founder Libby Seery regularly prescribes colouring-in books to clients. What would she think if someone painted them all black?

“Black can be the most positive colour,” she says. “I don’t necessarily associate the colour black with being in a black mood. Black is classy, black is strong, black is sexy.”

Seery obviously knows her stuff. She believes that colouring in can reduce the stress hormone cortisol, increase levels of serotonin – the lack of which can lead to depression – while also combatting insomnia, lowering blood pressure and relieving headaches.

“It is a form of active meditation, which is brilliant for people with ADHD”

“There is overwhelming scientific evidence to support that,” she says. “It is a form of active meditation, which is brilliant for people with ADHD, for example, because it’s very difficult for them to sit and do conventional yoga. It’s also far more effective for people starting meditation for the first time. You can’t take your yoga mat out in the office, but pop a couple of pieces of paper and a few felt tips in your bag and you can meditate any time, anywhere.

“It’s a matter of concentrating on the strokes, what your hand’s doing and not worrying if you go over the edges – it’s not going to be on exhibition at the Tate.”

Seery has clearly not seen my flame-coloured buffalo. “That was a bit presumptuous of me,” she admits. “Colouring is a nostalgic indulgence. We’re reminded about whimsical times of being a child. Who cares about age? If it brings goodness to you, how can it be a bad thing?”

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, knows why. “We can’t pretend that we’re kids all the time,” he says. “We have to take responsibility for younger generations, guide them rather than imitate them.”

Furedi has studied the infantilisation of society and sees the growing trend in adult colouring books as a desire to retreat into childhood, that implicitly reinforces a sense of passivity and powerlessness.

“There’s almost a comfort zone that people imagine exists with childish things. Usually it’s very old people who get nostalgic about their childhood, now it kicks in at a much earlier stage. In western societies there is a sense of estrangement about getting older. There are no clear signposts about what a grown-up person is all about.

“It’s not people’s fault, it’s just that our culture finds it really difficult to give a 35-year-old some kind of positive aspiration, rather than always saying once you’re beyond 25 you’re gone.”

Those in their 20s are less likely to have flown the nest than ever before

– 49 per cent of 20-24 year olds, 21 per cent of 25-29 year olds and eight per cent of 30-34 year olds still live with their parents. That makes a total of 3.3 million chidults living at home, a figure that has increased by 25 per cent in the last two decades.

Economic factors are undoubtedly partly responsible, but Furedi thinks there are additional reasons.

“The aspiration for independence has been diminished,” he says. “People do not get excited about the adventure of striking out on your own and having to rely on yourself. They are looking to have at least one foot in a safe comfort zone, which is why you have this cultural imagination that is rarely of adult culture.

“Look, you do whatever you feel like but I do think it’s a problem when people evade the challenges of adulthood. Create and do stuff according to who you are, instead of retreating from reality or trying to immunise yourself from the pressures of everyday life by adopting the playful manners of young children. You would imagine that at a certain point you would throw your toys away.”

Colouring books may be the perfect symbol of our need for instant gratification. Why study how to become an artist when you can finish somebody else’s drawing? Why train to be a singer when you can find a sob story and become a star overnight on the X Factor? Become an overnight millionaire with the National Lottery. A reluctance to cook has resulted in a taste for fast food and microwave dinners, resulting in an obesity epidemic. It’s enough to make you want to pick up some felt tip pens and colour in this ship to help you navigate the stormy seas of modern society.

Colour Therapy: An Anti-Stress Colouring Book is published on March 5 (Michael O’Mara, £9)

Help us to help our vendors. By subscribing to the Big Issue you get more great articles like this one every week and provide us with the additional revenue to build our street-based support for our vendors. Subscribe here