There’s nothing like a long, dull seminar, or a Powerpoint presentation, or even a long phone call to a chatty relative to bring out the creative doodler in you. Interlocking spirals. Obsessive cross-hatching. Branches and leaves and many-petalled flowers… it’s amazing what the hand will do when the brain is in neutral.
In these days of productivity overdrive, idling synapses are hard to come by. But all the latest conjecture suggests that these moments of mental downtime, are crucial to our well-being. And in an increasingly electronic world, we need to reconnect to the physicality of — for example — putting pen to paper.
It is impossible to doodle productively: doodling suggests purposelessness, a wistful, unselfconscious, daydreamy saunter through the forgotten neural byways. The end-product might be marvellously intricate, visually pleasing, aesthetically thrilling. But it absolutely doesn’t matter if it’s not. Who cares? It’s just a doodle.
You can read too much into bestseller lists (if you’ll pardon the pun), but when two of Amazon’s hottest sellers of the recent past have been from an entirely new genre, then you tend to sit up a bit and wonder what that says about society.
When Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford’s colouring book Secret Garden was published in 2013, neither she nor her publisher, Michael O’Mara Books, had any inkling (sorry) that it would tap into the zeitgeist with such spectacular success. It has sold over 1.5 million copies to date, launching an entirely new genre — the adult colouring book. She followed up with Enchanted Forest, another wordless colouring-in book. It has sold 225,000 copies since it was published three months back.
Basford’s artworks are intricately patterned leaves and flowers, intertwined tendrils and tattoo-like designs. They are somewhat Art Deco-ish, and unabashedly whimsical — Aubrey Beardsley minus the sexuality and darkness. “I like sugar mice, Alice in Wonderland, peonies and 0.05 Staedtler pigment liners,” Basford announces on her website. “I love natural form and all its weird curiosities; bumblebees, seed pods, dung beetles, blossoms, thorns, gnarly apple trees, foxgloves, spiders webs…” She describes herself as an “ink evangelist who prefers pens and pencils to pixels. For me, computer generated graphics can feel cold and soulless whereas hand drawings captures a sense of energy and character which no pixel can ever replicate… I like the romantic charm of an illustrator sitting down to a blank piece of paper, getting their hands dirty and crafting a beautiful image from graphite and ink.”
The surge in popularity of adult colouring books is linked both to this move against technology and with a certain nostalgia for pre-computer childhood experience. Vicki Berwick of Phoenix Yard publishers (which launched five — count ’em — adult colouring books this month) explains: “It seems that colouring for adults is a natural response to the modern world. It is hard to avoid digital products, and we need to have time out away from a screen. Putting pen to paper is like getting back to basics for many, and a link to their childhood too. It’s something many adults haven’t done for themselves for many years.”
Canadian independent bookstore manager Mike Hamm agrees: “It’s something tactile, it’s something that has a nostalgic aspect to it.”
I don’t know what the term for it is, but there should be one: the fear that digital tech is overtaking real life. Marketing communications company JWT Worldwide called it “raging against the machine,” and last year pronounced it one of the 10 trends that would shape the world in 2014. One of the other things on the JWT list was ‘mindful living’ — cue Boxtree’s The Mindfulness Colouring Book launched in January and doing very nicely, thank you.
I have one of Phoenix Yard’s books and am currently experiencing a very pleasurable Benjamin-Button-like regression to the age of about six. Given the fact that even a cursory trawl on the internet throws up Christmas-themed colouring books, mandala colouring books, ‘de-stressing’ colouring books, 1940s colouring books, cannabis fantasy, steampunk, and Japanese-themed colouring books, and even one featuring ‘Fat Ladies in Spaaaaaace’ [sic], the One and Only Colouring Book for Adults is a bit of a misnomer. In fact, not content with mis-noming one book, Phoenix Yard brought The Second One and Only Colouring Book for Adults as well as three other One and Only colouring books all on the same day!
Compared to the Beardsleyesque elegance of Basford’s work, most of the others are but crude examples of the genre. None cruder, it must be said, than Colour My Boobs, a colouring book with the emphasis on adult. This collection of (and I quote) ‘iconic jugs’ also connects you to your younger self — but only if your younger self is a sniggering horny 13-year-old boy.
It takes all sorts, I guess.
Perhaps it is the calming effects of spending the last three days studiously avoiding writing this column, and instead inking carefully between the black lines. I must confess, I love colouring in. It has all the pleasure of drawing with none of the artistic angst. More ‘craft’ than ‘art’, it’s the opposite of original — all of us inklings, huedonists, colouristas (all terms suggested by Basford’s numerous Facebook followers) happily producing marginally different versions of the same patterns over and over again.
First published in BLInk, 15 May 2015