Why Colouring is No Longer a Little Kid Activity #NationalColouringDay

I’m sitting in the kitchen of a friend’s beach house on the Victorian coast. It’s midnight, and we’re perched atop a wooden table, Sangria in one hand, and water colour pencils in the other. We haven’t said a word since we last topped up our glasses – and it’s not because we’re inebriated or socially awkward. We’re in the zone, colouring in mandalas and a fun assortment of zoo animals.

We take our turns going around the table sharing pencils, and praise each other for our impromptu works of art. And at the end of the night (a session in the jacuzzi), I fall into a deep, relaxing sleep. Probably the best I’ve had in months.

It’s hard to pinpoint when the adult colouring in book trend started. These customisable drawings have seemingly come from nowhere, have skyrocketed to the top of book seller’s best of lists, and are now coveted by everyone from mainstream media to indie presses.

But why the sudden inclination to colour in?

Was I really lulled into a state of calm and concentration via creating my very own piece of fridge-art, or was it something else? Perhaps it was the Sangria, or the sense of kinship being surrounded by other women, or maybe the slower pace of coastal living?

In light of National Colouring Day on August 2, I was determined to take a closer look at the booming popularity of colouring books for all ages, so I turned to two different experts; one skilled in the art of creating colouring in books, and the other a psychologist focused on stress management.

Sarah Wilder, artist and creative director of The Fifth Element Life, popped up on my Facebook feed some years ago. Her bespoke, hand crafted mandala rings caught my eye originally, but it’s her artwork and corresponding time-lapse videos that have kept me liking each post. Fairly soon after that first initial Like, Sarah began creating an e-book of mandalas for adults. Although she wasn’t the first to create a colouring book of mandalas, she describes it as a natural progression for her.

“I’ve worked with mandalas for a few years now with The Fifth Element life. Creating a colouring in book of mandalas interested me because the activity of colouring a mandala isn’t a mindless activity,” says Sarah. “With a lot of other colouring in books – ones that feature nature and animals – you already know what they look like and what colours to use. When you colour in mandalas, they’re not familiar to you. You have to use your intuition to guide you, and have free reign over how you complete your image.”

For Sarah and her community, the venture wasn’t focused on aesthetics for aesthetics sake. Instead, it was about creating a community focused on decreasing stress and anxiety through creativity.

“So many customers of mine make it a priority in their lives now. People are so surprised at how soothing it is, and how beneficial it is to their mental health.” Although she’s not a mental health expert, Sarah does speak publicly as an advocate for physical and spiritual health and wellness. “Colouring in is a really good way to get back in to the present moment. It’s a form of meditation as it doesn’t require you to over-think or use your intellectual mind, as it taps into your intuition and creativity,” said Sarah.

A meditative state.

Bingo! I’d landed on the money. But I was still skeptic. Colouring in isn’t exactly conducive to stillness, is it?

Well actually, as I found out, it’s a sneaky way into meditating. You can trick your brain into thinking you’ve been productive as your hands are kept busy, but you’re actually tapping into the same cognitive and physical processes you utilise when you meditate. You switch off your monkey mind, your breathing starts becoming slower and more regular, and you just start going with the flow.

Ever the skeptic who wants to believe, I wanted to know more about our cognitive mind when it’s in a state of child’s play. Merryn Snape, a psychologist who specialises in anxiety and stress reduction, has recognised the benefits of colouring in books for years.

“I used to be an elementary school teacher, and when it was raining we used colouring in as a rainy day activity. Reflecting back, when we’d get a new colouring in workbook, I’d always complete one first. I actually liked doing it,” said Merryn.

It’s not an activity far removed from our adult lives. We watch children’s cartoons to relax, we plug into Pokemon Go to kill time, and we eat our Mum’s baked goods to feel like we’ve been taken care of. We all turn to childhood pastimes to enjoy ourselves.
But is there a more significant effect that colouring in has, whereby it reaches beyond pure nostalgia and into the realm of self-therapy?

“One person I’ve spoken to who’d been battling depression said that colouring was very soothing for her. For people with mental health issues, colouring with form allows them to relax. But it’s not just about relaxing – it’s also a form of creativity that reveals a lot about a person’s mental state.”

For Merryn, she has noticed that if people are dealing with depression and anxiety, they usually go for bolder colours like red and orange. Colouring in allows them to process these emotions and reflect on what they’ve created, as well as the colour choices they’ve made. This aside, colouring in is not something Merryn prescribes from a professional, medical perspective. “It’s something I speak to people about as an option, but I don’t give them an actual task in a workbook,” said Merryn.

As someone who’s been dealing with their own mental stew since pre-puberty, I was interested to see if incorporating the practice was, well, practical. In an age where people use therapy apps to save time, is colouring in something that requires  time-specific dedication in line with therapy? Would I have to commit to a certain amount of minutes per day without a break, in line with usual forms of meditation?

Based on Merryn’s persective, what’s really important is creating a habit. Ten minutes a day is a good place to start. She said “one of the things about colouring is that if you step away from it, it doesn’t really matter. Your pencils won’t go away.”

However, on the other side of the coin, adult colouring in has been criticised for stifling creativity. In an article for New York Daily News, writer Wendy Woon explains how colouring within the lines – conforming to a structure – limits our minds to explore possibility. The result? Tension, anger and anxiety.

“The pleasure of translating what is inside of you; your experiences, your opinions, and your unique way of seeing and being in the world, is much greater than can be contained within the printed lines of a colouring book,” claimed Wendy.

Nonetheless, Wendy’s claim is countered by Sarah on how it’s the intuitive part of your brain that fills in the gaps. We might not all have the capacity to create a work of art from scratch, but we can escape for just half an hour to trace the outlines of our emotions.

In light of National Colouring Day on August 2, I would encourage more adults to indulge in their nostalgic side, particularly those who find meditation hard. Whether in the name of exploring your internal world, or just to disconnect for a brief 10 minutes, putting pencil to paper is a fail-proof task that asks little of us. It’s a low investment option for stress release.

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Camilla Peffer

Camilla is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She began practising yoga 2.5 years ago after taking a break from running. You can find her perfecting her handstands, eating her way across her adopted home town, or bothering people for a vino.