Zen and The Art of Colouring

Alana Brookes had always been an artist, and had a regular meditation practice as well. But when her sister died in June 2015, she turned to an unlikely source to help work through her grief: the pages of a colouring book. “When you undergo stress you have trouble concentrating,” she says. Filling in the lines of elaborate mandalas and whimsical flower gardens with rainbow-coloured pencils helped the Armstrong, BC-based Brookes “occupy my mind ina healthy way.”

And she’s not alone: as anyone who has stepped inside a bookstore over the past 18 months can attest, adult-oriented colouring books have exploded in popularity. Far from the Disney princesses and cartoon animals that many people associate with colouring, these books have been created with grown-ups in mind, actualized with fine details that require precision with a pencil, or sexy themes from books and television series like Outlander and Game of Thrones. They were the runaway success of book publishing in 2015, led by Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford, whose books of intricate nature-inspired line drawings have sold more than 16 million copies. Demand has trickled down to the makers of coloured pencils, too, who have been ramping up production to compensate.

While most of us see colouring as a harmless hobby, or even a conduit to better mental health, a backlash has emerged, too; from negative Internet commenters to think pieces decrying the popularity of “childish” activities. But the trend is gaining steam, stemming from our social media-driven visual culture. “It’s a safe, accessible way for people who don’t identify as visually creative to feel creative, because everyone remembers colouring from when they were kids,” says Toronto designer Iris Glaser, co-creator of the mix-and-match colouring book, Color Her. Glaser links the trend partially to a general appreciation of creativity in the zeitgeist and sees colouring as a conduit to relaxation and socializing, as well. “At a recent colouring event, I met all these strangers sitting at a table on a Friday night, and we had some pretty deep conversations about the benefits of [the activity],” she says.

Rachel Ricard of Campbell River, BC, has been colouring for about four years. For her, the hobby is a way to relax, and something she can do with her daughters, aged 7 and 12—who have graduated to their own adult-oriented books. “We started taking it camping,” she says. “It’s something you can do and still talk to people.” In a world where we spend so much time in our heads and interacting with screens, she appreciates the tangible nature of the craft, too, down to the pleasure of keeping her pencil crayons sharp enough to handle fine detail. “There is something relaxing about that pencil stroke and the pressure you have to use that’s satisfying when you get it right,” she says. “Maybe that’s the mindfulness piece of it—you have to be aware of what you’re doing.”

For Montreal-based clothing designer Katrin Leblond, the other half of the Color Her team, the physical aspect of colouring is paramount—especially in contrast to the constant barrage of new information we’ve become accustomed or even addicted to. “In the busyness of contemporary urban life, you can always interact with something digital so quickly and immediately,” she says.“Colouring is almost like a meditation, but it’s easier to do than meditating—you can turn off your brain for an hour and sit and do something really slow, something that’s easy.”

Dr. Patricia Rockman, senior director of education and clinical services at the Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto, believes there’s something to be said for the benefits of colouring when it comes to mental health. While she doesn’t know of any studies that have addressed the value of colouring specifically, she says several studies have shown positive effects from knitting for patients with diseases such as anorexia nervosa and clinical depression. Dr. Rockman adds that, like knitting, colouring is a way for people who might not be comfortable with doing nothing to sit down and focus on a single task. “With colouring, you can’t be walking around doing it, you can’t be cooking while you’re doing it—there are aspects of it that require you to be more singular with your attention.” When done with intention, she adds, colouring can be used as a mindfulness practice—and it can be especially helpful for anyone who has trouble engaging with other meditation practices. “Mindfulness is about developing your ability to be,” she says. The physical and visual components—the use of sight, touch, even smell—can provide an anchor for attention, helping those who might struggle with “doing nothing” to “combine doing with being.” The trick, she notes, is to focus on what you’re doing with your hands, to notice when your attention wanders, and to bring it back to your drawing, also known as focused-attention training. “Mindfulness is about engaging the senses,” she says. “It provides a focus for attention that is stimulating enough but is also simple.” The benefit of learning to control one’s attention in a practice setting, she says, is being able to do so in real-life situations—say, when you get in a fight with a friend and can’t stop thinking about it, to the point where the anxiety has become a problem in itself. “When we try to problem-solve in that way it’s not effective,” she says. “Focused practices are designed to help you be able to haul your attention away.” Brookes, for her part, is certain that colouring has helped—and continues to help—her through a traumatic period of her life. “For me it wasn’t a creative outlet. It was more about being able to turn my brain off and do something that occupied my mind in a constructive way,” she says. “The picture was already there, so I didn’t have to stress about that—I just had to put the colour in.” As someone with experience in meditation, she does believe that colouring can bring the mind into a similar state, and that the pastime can be therapeutic. She also notes that many people she knows who are colouring are also going through grief or loss. “Some people have trouble with meditation—the idea of sitting and trying to focus drives them crazy,” she says. “The [act of] colouring gives them a purpose.”

Of course, for some, colouring is simply an artistic outlet. Crystal Gibson of Toronto, for instance, became attracted to the craft when she spotted a fashion colouring book at a store a couple of years ago, and notes that colouring makes her feel creative. “I love fashion, but I’m not able to draw—I have no talent in that realm,” she says. “It was fun for me to go in there and do my own custom colouring.” As Glaser points out, while the colouring trend seems to skew female, at least publicly, there is no one demographic that dominates, nor is there one particular need being addressed. Creativity, relaxation, mental health, socializing, or quiet alone time are all valid reasons to pick up the hobby. It has also resonated strongly as a multigenerational activity. “I sold it to someone, and they took it on holiday with three generations: a seven-year-old boy, his mom, his grandmother, and his aunt, and they were all happy [to take part].” And that’s kind of the point—if the pastime makes people happy or helps them find inner peace, who’s to judge? “It took me a long time to understand that my commitment to making beautiful things wasn’t a superficial and frivolous occupation, but that it actually had value and contributed to mental health,” says Leblond. “Sitting meditation, for what it is, is not for everybody. Not everybody enjoys yoga. If people feel like colouring is their meditation, I’m not going to judge them for that.”