Color Me Happy

Adult coloring books offer a low barrier of entry to creative expression, relieve stress.
Photograph By Robert Nixon

Feeling stressed? Can’t stay focused? Try coloring.

Adult coloring books seem to suddenly be everywhere — topping Amazon sales charts, dominating the shelves at crafts stores like Michael’s — and their devotees say they foster creative expression, relaxation, and even a meditative mindfulness.

“We live in a stressful culture,” says Wendy Case, director of the art therapy program at the Brighton Center for Recovery, which treats drug and alcohol dependence. “Coloring is something that’s familiar to people and that’s easy to do. It’s a tremendous tool in terms of relieving stress. The one thing we hear people say again and again is how relaxed they are when they get to use the brain in a kinetic way.”

For those new to the trend, coloring books for adults bear little resemblance to those for children. The designs tend more toward intricately created illustrations than images of Mickey Mouse and friends. Nature is a common source of inspiration, but the designs run the gamut — one can even buy swear word coloring books.

The phenomenon, which first took off in Europe, was sparked in large part by the works of Welsh artist Johanna Basford, whose 2013 book, Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book, has sold several million copies worldwide. (A blog post on Basford’s books for last year was titled “These Coloring Books for Adults Are More Addictive Than Smartphones.”)

The books jumped the pond in force in early 2015, and today are being used everywhere from senior centers to workplaces looking to help employees unwind. The American Art Therapy Association even issued a statement supporting the use of adult coloring books, saying they are “reintroducing art as an important component of health and wellness.”

Part of the books’ appeal seems to be the low barrier of entry to creative expression they provide. Creating from scratch can be daunting; coloring in someone else’s drawing is something virtually anyone can do.

“People that aren’t artists are always a little concerned about delving into a blank sheet of paper,” says Karen Larson, a Lathrup Village-based designer and co-owner of LM Studio Art and Design. “It’s really giving somebody a canvas for them to work on.”

Larson has produced two coloring books of her own. She says she’d always been a doodler, and decided to compile some of her black-and-white illustrations into a saleable coloring book.

“At first I was just doing the illustrations; I didn’t even do any coloring until after my first book came out,” she says. “Then I was up with a group of girlfriends coloring until 12:30 one night. It’s a great group activity. I’m super busy with my business, and if I stop and color for five minutes, it lowers my stress, gets me away from the electronics. It’s actually amazing how cathartic it is and how relaxing it is.”

At Fox Run, a senior living community in Novi, interest in the hobby is proving strong enough that Peggy Mather, its community resources manager, says she’s organizing a regular coloring meet-up for residents. Among the community’s devotees is resident Alice Lyons, who got started after picking up a book at a craft store.

“I’m a little crafty, and I used to color with my grandchildren,” Lyons says. “It’s a nice vehicle — you can visit while you color.”

Now, Lyons says, she uses her coloring books for her own enjoyment, too, and the activity provides a creative outlet. She colored a flower and put it into miniature glass frames that she now uses for coasters, and she’s framed some pieces to put on tabletops.

Andy L.*, who completed Brighton’s 30-day residential treatment program in February, says he began coloring in the program as a way to practice mindfulness. Brighton makes mandalas and other imagery available to residents who want to dig into coloring on their own time. He says he was surprised how much he took to it, because he has “the attention span of a goldfish.”

“It almost had a hypnotic feel to it,” he says of the activity. “Everything from the selection of colors to staying in the lines to creating a cool color scheme, I had to focus. I would be in the moment 100 percent — my mind wasn’t wandering at all. We all tend to think about the past and worry about the future. When you’re in recovery, that phenomenon is really amplified — there are things in your past you’re not too proud of, as well as concerns about the future. It would feel like 15 minutes went by and I would look at the clock and it was more like an hour.”

As the trend grows, so too do the coloring options available. Case points to the growing numbers of Zentangle coloring books as an example. Zentangles, essentially elaborate doodles, start with a single image or shape and spread outward into repeating patterns.

“People can learn how to create their own Zentangles from these books, or color pre-existing ones,” Case says. “They are more time-consuming than most adult coloring books and can provide deep relaxation if you stay with them. There is a little book called Yoga For Your Brain: A Zentangle Workout — that pretty much says it all.”

*Editor’s note: Andy’s full last name has been withheld at the Brighton Center’s request to ensure his confidentiality isn’t violated.


Ready to make your own masterpiece?
Here are some of the top — and more colorful — options.

Color My World, Volumes 1 and 2 by Karen Larson: These handmade books by the Lathrup Village artist features unique mandala illustrations.

Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt & Coloring Book by Johanna Basford: With several million copies sold worldwide, this book helped spark the current coloring craze.

Gangsta Rap Coloring Book: “Seeing this young man’s face light up as he colored in Ice T’s uzi was a picture worth 1,000 words.” – Elemental. You too can color in your favorite rapper, whether it’s the Notorious B.I.G. or Tupac.

The Sweary Coloring Book: Swear too much and stressed out? This one’s for you. The artist Sarah Bigwood planned to release it only digitally, but the book garnered so much attention for words we cannot print here that she made a hard copy.


Tip: Karen Larson recommends that those who want to get coloring invest in quality pencils and gel markers