When I was in second grade, I learned how to color. Not to say that I didn’t color before then. I did. I could scribble a crayon across a Cinderella coloring book with the best of them. But I’m talking about shading, outlining, using soft, short strokes so that the color looked like it was poured onto the page.
Throughout elementary school, I used to draw and design dresses purely for the sake of shading and outlining long flowy skirts. I was never an incredible artist, but the margins of my school notebooks were perpetually adorned with flowers, each meticulously colored, petal by petal. Ever since then, I’ve loved to color. So, imagine my joy when adult coloring became “a thing.” I could finally stop scamming off my daughter’s Dora the Explorer pages and make some serious art (okay not really, but you know what I mean).
Although I’m sure adults have been coloring for years (*raises hand*), the adult coloring craze kicked off in 2013 with Johanna Basford’s best-selling coloring book Secret Garden. Each page boasts beautifully rich designs, and the symmetry and detail of each picture makes the coloring experience rather meditative. But beautiful illustrations aside, why did this book jumpstart a full-blown craze? Why is coloring so popular now? Our desire for rest, leisure and relaxation is nothing new, but I have a couple theories as to why coloring and other child-like activities are pulling focus these days.
To start, we desperately need to escape from our responsibilities. According to the American Psychological Association, Americans “report that their stress levels are higher than what they believe is healthy.” This information isn’t surprising, but the reality is that not all of us can afford to regularly get away for the weekend, spend a full day at the spa, or indulge in tropical vacations in order to alleviate stress. However, we can find small windows of time for personal leisure and play.
The pressure to work is always there, but we need to seek out activities that bring us joy and breathe vitality into our day-to-day.
Dr. Stuart Brown, who runs the National Institute for Play, says that “Play is something done for its own sake,” he explains. “It’s voluntary, it’s pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.” The pressure to work is always there, but we need to seek out activities that bring us joy and breathe vitality into our day-to-day. We need to step into a free-flowing creative space, and nostalgic, child-like artistic activities like painting on pottery or coloring provide the necessary release from the routine day-to-day “adulting” that can really bog us down.
New York-based art therapist Nadia Jenefsky notes that we “usually stop making art when we finish middle or high school. It’s an activity you’re not encouraged to do unless you’re demonstrating some kind of talent for it.” As much as I loved that elementary school art class, I knew that I was not an artist, and I’m never going to be a professional adult colorer (if there even were such a thing). Adult leisure activities are fun because we are not going to engage in them at a professional level. We can enjoy them as they are, showing up as we are. The pressure is off.
We also want to feel restored. In a recent CNN article on mental health, Marygrace Berberian, a certified art therapist and the Clinical Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator for the Graduate Art Therapy Program at NYU, noted that, “Just like meditation, coloring also allows us to switch off our brains from other thoughts and focus only on the moment, helping to alleviate free-floating anxiety.” Because coloring centers us on the present, and the detail in adult coloring books requires focused attention, we’re able to achieve a level of mindfulness that we can’t accomplish in front of a screen.
The bottom line is that adults need to engage creatively in life just as children do. Our brains and our bodies need us to relax and be present, and child-like activities have a way of connecting us to that creativity. Whether you want to jump on the adult coloring bandwagon or imitate a classic work of art, you need to find a way to have fun for fun’s sake. Take it from me, I’ve spent several evenings in the past few months curled up on the couch with a glass of wine and a printable coloring page. It’s wonderfully relaxing: the swirl of the design, the soft scratch of the colored pencil. It’s an artistic release and a creative break from my daily tasks. Even the most serious of us shouldn’t adult that hard. Go play!