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The Rise of Colouring for Mindfulness

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I’m am not alone, I’m sure, in the association of colouring with childhood. Perhaps it’s because I wore away many a whimsical hour in my youth with my tiny fingers clasped around my favourite triangle shaped Fabercastel pencils. So many hours I spent, pigment poised upon the patterned page, whittling down the white until it’s previously bleached surface was perfectly full of colour. I’m an adult now. And, since my childhood, I have grown up and grown away from colouring-in pencils. As a (sometimes) serious, adulty person who works in a very serious, very mature, very adulty office supply store, I have recently noticed something truly baffling: business people are buying colouring-in pencils!

Over the last several months, I have seen a surge, no, a tidal wave, no … a tsunami the size of the Pacific Ocean, and the Indian Ocean, and the Atlantic Ocean multiplied 4.26 million times in adult colouring books. No social media outlet is without this flood. Type in #colouring into Instagram and you’ll find (as of right this very millisecond) 258,891 posts. Most of which, show photographs of meticulously coloured pages; pictures of people colouring together, of people colouring alone, of people colouring on the go, of people precariously placing mugs of vanilla-soy salted caramel lattes next their colouring. And, as I have been told by more than one person, there are clubs! Formulated, official colouring clubs with a club name and actual members and tea and biscuits and everything.

To the first lady I noticed, who was the perfect caricature of your average serious, tax paying, no-nonsense business person (coffee in hand, doused in perfume/cologne, shiny shoes, tired eyes), I asked the menial, ‘So are you just doing a bit of colouring in?’. I had (wrongly) assumed her to be buying the pencils for someone else. Perhaps as a gift. I had also (wrongly) assumed that she would laugh, say no, and assure me that they were for someone else. I was, however, interested. And bored. And wanted to make small talk as I scanned her items (Yes, I’m that person. I’m sorry.) She said ‘Yes,’ much to my surprise, and smiled. Shocked, was I. The personification of adulthood was standing in front of me and she was buying something as unproductive and childlike and fun as coloured pencils!? ‘It’s called colouring for mindfulness,’ she continued, with deliberation as if confirming the practicality of her venture, ‘It’s used to reduce stress’.

That was six months ago. Since then, there has been a veritable flood of popularity in adult colouring in books; most of which propose to increase mindfulness and dispel everyday stress.

So why the rise?

Well, mindfulness (which the OED defines as: “A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings…”) has been around for thousands of years, and draws mostly from Buddhist traditions. The colouring aspect of this mediative practise, however, rose with the popularity of Johanna Basford’s bestselling book. Published in 2013, Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Colouring Book has sold more than one million copies.

When Secret Garden was published, the market for alleviating stress though the act of colouring was considerably small; the book, itself, promising only enjoyment and fun (as opposed to stress release) within its pages. However, high income countries such as France, Korea, The UK, The US, and Australia have taken very quickly to the new fad; France alone sold 3.5 million copies of colouring-in books that fell into the ‘art therapy’ category in 2014.

The instant popularity of this colouring phenomenon has instigated a worldwide trend, with hundreds upon hundreds of illustrators, writers and book publishers quickly capitalising. Suddenly, into the market poured a sea of creative, self-help colouring books, each of them promising to dispel the famed health epidemic of the 21st century … no, not obesity. Stress.

But when was it that colouring stopped being about fun and started being about releasing stress? When was it that the activity became the antidote to a negative as opposed to a positive in and of itself? And why is it called ‘colouring for mindfulness’ and not, simply, ‘colouring’?

I, myself, have always hated colouring with pencils. As an artist and illustrator, my enjoyment has always been creating a thing from nothing – the colour was just a tedious, time consuming finishing touch. That I hated. With a passion. And still do. As soon as my impatient fingers grew out of fabercastel, they found acrylic paint, watercolour, pastels, digital painting and an all manner of other things that add both personality and pigment to my drawings without taking 3 and a half hours of clasping a pencil so tight I would spend the whole time mentally debating which will snap first: the coloured pencil itself or one of my fingers. But that’s just me. If I want to sit down in the evening, turn off all my devices and spend time doing something creative, I draw.

However, the majority of people who have purchased these books are not like me – not predisposed to spending most of their spare time in art stores. There are, of course, always anomalies, but, the flood of people buying these books are business people. Stressed students who don’t have to time to create their own drawings from scratch. Mothers and fathers of young children. People who wouldn’t else have the time or the energy to partake in creative ventures. Or, in some cases I’ve seen, people who seem too adulty and too serious to consider something as unproductive as colouring without intention or gain.

Just today, I served over six people who talked about using their colouring pencils to draw for relaxation or reduction in stress. They emphasised the practicality of it all, but their eyes lit up nonetheless. Their expressions were foggy, concerned with other things while they stood waiting in the line but when they reached the counter, they seemed to smile a little too hopefully when I handed them their excuse to be child-like.

And I wonder, why is it that we as a culture now need a reason to colour?

When we were kids, we just did. Just picked up the pencils, scribbled outside the lines and, for good measure, scribbled all over the table. Giggled as we chose our favourite colour, wondered why on earth they make white pigmented pencils, and enjoyed ourselves simply as we were. We were occupied. And happy. Stress was a term unknown and undefined.

The recent rise in popularity of ‘adult colouring books’ or ‘colouring for mindfulness’ has illustrated, to me at least, the innate want of most people to do things for fun. To be silly and colour. For no reason. To let bright hues and slowed breathing wash away the monotonous greys of the work day. I have, I might add, also noticed a recent correlation between customers purchasing colouring pencils and customers who beam with self-satisfaction when they make it to the counter.

Notice, of those 258,891 posts labelled #colouring, all of the faces that appear, appear happy.

Like accidently rolling out of the covers in the middle of an Adelaidian winter’s night, we draw the warmth back upon ourselves without waking. I wonder if this recent spike in popularity of colouring ‘for mindfulness’ is others drawing back the warm nostalgia and sunny happiness of childhood while keeping the façade of adulthood.

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