February 05, 2016

The Colouring-in Book Craze Explained


In a boardroom at the Art Gallery of NSW, Count Andreas Wilhelm von Faber-Castell casts a critical eye over a miniature kingdom of pencils. A rainbow army of brightly coloured sticks lies in orderly formation, next to trays of connector pens, pastels and graphite pencils. The dapper eighth-generation scion of the global family company, supplier of art and writing products since 1761, adopts a rigorous approach to his work — right down to drinking ink destined for children’s pens in quality control tests. 


“Yes, of course I taste it. I try every pencil, I test everything — our products, our competitors’ products — I can’t help myself. In restaurants when I see children struggle with those cheap colour pencils, it makes me angry.”

This morning, though, the count, better known as Andy, looks a content man — and there’s good reason. Business is booming for the company, the world’s oldest family-owned manufacturer of writing instruments. The first wave of an unprecedented surge in sales was initially detected in Brazil, says Faber-Castell, managing director of the company’s Asia-Pacific operations. This South American swell was soon mirrored in productions outposts around the world, quickly gaining momentum before hitting Australia last April and “going absolutely crazy”.

“We were wondering why we were running out of colouring pencils,” he says. Inquiries revealed the company had sold 600 per cent more colouring pencils than usual. He adds: “This year we expect to be up anywhere between 40 and 50 per cent from last year, which is really unbelievable. If you had asked me a year ago if that was possible, I would have laughed at you.”

The company couldn’t stock its warehouses fast enough, with the ripples being felt from its rubber factory in Malaysia to pine tree plantations in Brazil. So what was driving this sudden pencil mania? “We were scratching our heads. I thought, ‘Hang on, we are not such good marketing people. There must be a reason.’

“We did some market research and it was confirmed why.”

The reason for the surge? The adult colouring-in book craze, marketed as the new face of the “mindfulness” movement, which has swept all before it as the latest global cultural phenomenon. Browse online or walk into any supermarket, newsagent, bookshop or indeed art gallery gift store, and you’ll see books catering for every conceivable taste as eager publishers fast-track new titles. You can colour in movie stars, royalty, tourist landmarks and ­famous cities. Your creative touch can transform geometric configurations, botanical wonderlands, tribal mandalas, boy bands and the Mona Lisa.

There are Game of Thrones books, Kate Middleton books and Ryan Gosling and Benedict Cumberbatch books, books devoted to one’s favourite television show or pop star crush, or even for those with a predilection for redheads. There’s also an emerging market in parody books — see Oslo Davis’s This Annoying Life: A Mindless Colouring Book for the Highly Stressed.

And what’s a lovingly crafted artwork without an audience? You can, of course, share your masterpiece among fellow addicts in local clubs or online, such as Facebook group ColourFull Addicts, formed by Victorian woman Chrissy LoRicco last year. Virtual collections are swelling on Pinterest and Instagram and the colouring galleries hosted on the websites of the mostly 30-something queen bees of the genre — freelance illustrators who’ve helped spark a huge new niche publishing sector with their intricately detailed colouring books. Fans judge and swap designs with fellow “ink evangelists”. Chat groups are filled with acolytes discussing the merits of Prismacolor versus gel pens, or trading tips on cross-hatching, feathering and pointillism.

Leading author Millie Marotta highlights the communal nature of this so-called cult of Crayola: “These books can be a great way to bring people together, from families ... to people who are making it a social event and have set up their own colouring clubs.” LoRicco, from Colac in Victoria, oversees a lively forum of colour addicts sharing where to get the best discounts on Derwents, how to sharpen chalk pastels, prevent ink bleed and source pencils with the best pigments or “anti-breaking” features. “I’ve had quite an amazing journey since starting ColourFull Addicts in June. We were the first dedicated colouring page on Facebook and we’re currently Australia’s biggest colouring book page/blog on Facebook.”

Artist Tom Carment, a recent judge in the annual Art Gallery Society of NSW kids’ drawing prize, says the craze could make coloured pencils cool again among today’s tech-savvy children. 

“When I was at school, you had the single decker or double decker or triple decker Derwents, and the person who had the triple decker was envied. I’m sure that’s happening again.” (I recall that status symbol, and eventually got all of them:72!)

Colouring is big not just in the “kidult” market — adults seeking nostalgic pleasure in childhood pastimes. It’s making big inroads, too, in the billion-dollar mindfulness market catering to a global army of the anxious. On offer are innumerable titles touting colouring’s therapeutic and even spiritual properties. Feeling overwhelmed? Slow down, breathe, pick up a crayon. Many titles, such as Emma Farrarons’s The Mindfulness Colouring Book, are marketed specifically — and sometimes contentiously — as “art therapy” for reducing stress.

John Purcell, the chief buyer for Australian online bookstore Booktopia, says “the mindfulness movement found something people could do to be mindful, a much better prospect than just telling people to be mindful. The idea that practising some form of art has been wonderful for self-esteem has been long known. But for many art is too difficult. This trend is art with the training wheels still on — a much more attractive option.”

The message of colouring’s apparent health benefits is being heard by big business, with blue-chip companies such as ANZ, Wesfarmers and BUPA providing colouring-in books to stressed workers.

One of the first titles to appear on office desks at ANZ was Colourtation by Stan Rodski, a Melbourne-based neuroscientist who hit on the idea for his bestselling series of books while working with frazzled corporate executive clients. He did not realise he had hit the cultural jackpot until he put the first book online last April; within a month, it sold 25,000 copies.

“There was just the four of us — my wife, son-in-law, daughter and myself,” Rodski says. “We operated out of our home in Melbourne. We were totally self-published. Suddenly we had an online presence and we started selling these books all over the world. Within two months, we had something like 20,000 Facebook followers … and we started selling books into every single state in America.”

Publisher Hardie Grant has since bought the latest books in the series, but “just from our online endeavours, we have over six months sold between 50,000 and 100,000 copies”, Rodski says. Apart from corporations, his customers include schools in China, Sydney’s Yoga Institute and even the New Zealand Defence Force.

But for all its fans — from booksellers and stationery suppliers to celebrities such as Nigella Lawson and Zooey Deschanel — the trend has its dissenters. Some art therapists see the genre’s health claims as overblown and even misleading. Authors and literary critics have framed it as a sinister sign of everything from the infantilisation of culture to the death of the book. Writing in the Sydney Review of Books, Giramondo publisher and academic Ivor Indyk casts a baleful eye over the craze. “Books for adults to colour in! Books without words! What a relief!” Russell Brand satirised the trend in a video called Adult Colouring Books: Is This the Apocalypse?

Such books have been around for some time but all fingers point to France for sparking the global craze after French publisher Hachette released a series of anti-stress colouring books three years ago. Around the same time, up popped Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford with her 2013 monster bestseller Secret Garden, which kickstarted a juggernaut of similar titles.

To the besieged international book industry, these titles have been lifesavers, sparking a lucrative new book category. Amazon’s bestseller lists in the US and Britain have been topped by such titles for more than two years. In Australia, they’ve had a similarly big impact. According to Nielsen BookScan, these titles recorded $15 million in sales in the first eight months of last year. This was from an unimpressive start in March 2015, with sales of fewer than 4000 copies a week growing to more than 115,000 in September. Adult books made up 55 per cent of the market in that time and adult colouring books made up 20 per cent of the total. In most weeks since April, the majority of titles in the top 20 Australian bestsellers have been colouring books. In the year to date, 1.58 million copies were sold, totalling $22.2 million in sales.

Australian authors cashing in include Thomas Pavitte with Querkles Masterpieces and the 1000 Dot-to-dot series, and Joel Moore’s hipster-inflected Mulga’s Magical Colouring Book.

For the local book industry, it’s offered a “very well-timed” boost, says Purcell. “We have sold many thousands of adult colouring books [last] year, which was great for business. Over the last 10 years the book industry has been very fortunate with trends — from Harry Potter to Dan Brown, Twilight to Hunger Games to Fifty Shades. Colouring books came in to fill the void left by the decline in sales of young adult books and erotica.

“[Late in 2014] I was told by one of our sup­pliers that adult colouring books were doing well in Europe. As such trends often don’t translate I ordered some stock but not a great deal. Early [last year] Thames & Hudson were the ones who urged me to order stock of their two Johanna Basford titles. But even they weren’t prepared for what happened next, with Basford going on to sell over 1.5 million copies and counting, worldwide.”

Basford, a 32-year-old freelance illustrator, is the undisputed queen of the sector — the JK Rowling of the adult colouring-in book world. Her three titles (she followed up Secret Garden with Enchanted Forest and Lost Ocean) have been translated into 40 languages, topping the New York Times bestseller lists and selling more than 10 million copies worldwide.

It all began when a publisher spotted a series of illustrations Basford put on her website to download as desktop wallpapers for free and asked her to create a children’s book. Basford pitched the idea of an adult colouring-in book instead, based on feedback from clients. She tells Review she was taken completely by surprise by the demand; also stunned by the appetite for the books was Welsh illustrator Marotta, whose books Animal Kingdom and Tropical Wonderland have sold more than one million copies worldwide and are published in 30 languages: “It’s pretty astounding,” says Marotta.

It’s not just the book industry that’s cashing in, with flow-on effects being enjoyed by writing and art suppliers such as Crayola, which, like Faber-Castell, has launched an adult colouring book range (Australian managing director Doug Smith says last year the company experienced a 70 per cent sales jump thanks to the adult colouring trend).

Rival Staedtler, meanwhile, has rushed to appoint Basford as its global brand ambassador, much to the disappointment of the competitive Count Andy (“Yes, that was unfortunate,” he says.”).

Local stationery suppliers have also jumped on the trend, says Barrie Parsons, the editor of industry publication Stationery News, with diary specialist Collins Debden launching the Colour Your Days range. In his view “the trend is driven by a return to more relaxing/non-video/non-digital forms of entertainment”.

So why are these books so popular? There’s the nostalgia factor, says Rodski — colouring, for so many of us, is a lost pleasure from childhood. It represents a form of cocooning, offering an escape from the volatility — economic, political and environmental — of these times, according to Marotta.

The mechanical nature of colouring induces a sense of calm and relaxation, and “it’s a known fact that in unsettled times people find solace in small pleasures and pick-me-ups that make them feel good [or] better, or that segues as some kind of distraction”, she says.

Dot Kolentsis, art programs co-ordinator at the Art Gallery Society of NSW, sees the tranquillity emanating from workshop patrons — retirees, professionals, scientists — after taking a three-hour life-drawing class. “They walk out like they’ve achieved something, for their soul.” So many of us want to draw but are too scared to indulge our nascent creativity; colouring-in books offer a safe, cheap and accessible way back towards our frustrated artistic selves, she says.

Basford concurs: “A blank canvas can be daunting but the colouring page much less so.” She also thinks the demand is fed by a growing hunger for a digital detox. “We are all constantly plugged in and connected to our devices these days that it is hard to find the space to actually concentrate on a single task without being interrupted by the ping of an email or being tempted to scroll through social media.

“Colouring gives us the opportunity to indulge in some analog time, a chance to gaze at something other than a screen and to really focus without any distractions,” Basford says.

Carment believes it also ties in with a resurgence in old-fashioned craftmaking: “It’s nice in this digital age for people to make things with their hands.” And it’s an interest not just confined to adults, says Count Andy’s daughter, Countess Natalie, who points to the keenness of participants in the society’s children’s drawing competition, of which she was a judge.

Says Kolentsis: “These kids know so much about computers, iPad drawing, they play Minecraft, but when you give them a paper and pencil, they just shut up — you can hear a pin drop.”

Perhaps the biggest driver of demand for these books is our soaring anxiety levels: the trend emerged, after all, out of the French market’s hunger for colouring’s reputed anti-stress properties. Marotta believes it can go further than this: “There are many people who have found them to be effective in helping to manage certain mental health conditions. I have even heard from people who are using colouring as a form of physical therapy to help build up hand muscles after injury or illness.”

Rodski says scientific data backs up the health benefits of colouring; he first noticed this while working with a client with acute anxiety whose heart rate dropped, as measured on an electrocardiogram machine, after being given a simple sketch to colour. Further lab tests Rodski conducted found that beta waves measuring 30 cycles per second would morph into larger, gentler alpha waves at about 10 cycles per second when subjects started colouring — testimony to stress levels dropping.

Armed with this research, he recruited his son-in-law Jack Dowling, an architecture student, to create illustrations that had to be very specific “because the brain science of these drawings is that we’re not after pictures of things or villages or madonnas or what have you, we really need to feed the brain some cognitive nutrition”. In food terms, humans are wired to respond favourably to fat, salt and sugar; in brain terms, this equates to pattern, repetition and control, he says.

The success of the Colourtation series continues to astound him. “I enjoy the practical aspect of neuroscience, I enjoy giving presentations on how the brain works … but I’ve got to say, I’m now known as the colouring-in book man. My colleagues write these magnificent books on neuroscience and they sell a hundred copies, and then have to discount them for $9.95. And then I come along with a colouring book … How do you rationalise that?”

How indeed, claim some sceptical observers of the trend. “These colouring-in books cannot be considered ‘art therapy’,” says Jo Kelly, president of the Australian and New Zealand Arts Therapy Association. “Colouring-in books are enjoyable and can provide stress reduction in that they are a relaxing distraction. They can also be soothing in the kinaesthetic action of repetitive colouring. My clients sometime use them at home to help them relax.

“However, this should not be confused with the profession of art therapy, which is a specialised form of therapy.”

To Indyk, these therapeutic and spiritual claims are simply a clever marketing strategy to give heft to superficial works that steal oxygen, market share and shelf space from “real books”. Besides, in his view, the “colouring book phenomenon is regressive and infantile” — part of a damaging cultural shift that encourages adult backwardness. This Peter Pan market, as it’s sometimes called, takes in everything from summer camps to preschools for adults (yes, you can connect with your inner toddler by making art with glitter glue and having nap times at Preschool Mastermind classes in Brooklyn, New York).

Says Indyk: “What is doubly alarming now is that this regressive tendency should be using books to achieve its ends — as if people had forgotten that books were things you think with.”

University of Queensland Press publisher Madonna Duffy isn’t a fan either. “Independent publishers such as UQP tend not to be fad-driven in our publishing … It’s frustrating to see the adult colouring-in books dominating the BookScan charts as they barely qualify as books, given they are for colouring, not reading.”

For the traditionalists, there’s plenty to be concerned about. Print book sales are up in the US, but publishers told the Associated Press last year this was due to the surge in colouring books and books authored by YouTube stars.

However, the queen of the genre, Basford, is a fierce defender of her domain. So what if some people think the trend is infantilising? “As to the Peter Pan reference, yes, I think it does encourage adults to be a little childish. I think that’s marvellous! I don’t see any problem with giving people a new perspective on some familiar and nostalgic past times.” As to claims of these books hijacking bookshelves and the tight book-buying dollar, Marotta notes that “reading and colouring co-exist happily, as they are really different activities”.

Purcell, too, takes a pragmatic view. “End of culture? To my mind, the culture we all should have protected died long ago. The intellectual war was lost. This is a new age, and in this age we do what we want, albeit somewhat less worthily than we once might have. But as booksellers said in the last days of the Roman Empire, at least they’re buying books. There could be a case for saying this is just one more step on the path to Western culture’s intellectual expiration. But we are diversifying rather than expiring, I think. We can read the internet, books, e-books, newspapers, listen to MP3s, CDs, LPs and radio, watch YouTube, TV, smart phones or DVDs, we can practise art digitally or physically, we knit, sew, brew beer, preserve food, garden, and we can pick up a pen and colour in.”

To New York-based international toy industry consultant Richard Gottlieb, of Global Toy Experts, “all creatures want to play and adults are no different … I think [these books represent] a long overdue recognition [of this fact]. Are they a fad or permanent? I’ll give you that answer in a couple of years.”

While there may be a nostalgic familiarity with the childhood dot-to-dot puzzle, general consensus would be that the end product is not worth framing.

Australian graphic designer Thomas Pavitte thinks differently. The creator of the first internationally popular series of adult dot-to-dot books has always seen the potential for the simplistic format to deliver more complex artworks, ones that are worth putting on display.
“I think it’s a big surprise to people that such a dynamic image can come from just a single line,” says Pavitte, 30, originally from New Zealand and now living in Melbourne.

“Most people’s impressions of dot-to-dot drawings are that they are highly simplified outlines of basic objects and are something that only children do. I wanted to see if I could use the same format to create much more complex results.”

After creating a replica of the Mona Lisa,using 6239 dots, three years ago, Pavitte was approached by a publisher to create the 1000 dot-to-dot books, which are now available in Australia, Britain, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Russia and New Zealand.

Pavitte says there are several reasons dot-to-dots have gained traction with an older demographic. Like colouring in, the process harks back to simpler days without being too simplistic, yet it allows no room for error. “It needs absolutely no instructions, you just instinctively know what to do. Because the process is so simple, it allows you to switch off from any external thoughts and just concentrate on the task at hand,” he says.

Pavitte is unsure what will be the next adult art therapy craze. But his latest venture, complex colour-by-numbers books called Querkles, could be it. He says: “It’s similar to where I got the inspiration for the dot-to-dot books from — the idea of taking something that couldn’t be more basic and challenging myself to create something out of it that people wouldn’t think possible.”

By Sharon Verghis

With many thanks to The Australian

Picture credit for Derwent Pencils: Paper Stone

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