Piles of coloring sheets littered a table at the Arden-Dimick Public Library, stacked next to containers of pencils, crayons and fine-tipped markers. Though reminiscent of an elementary school art class, the stage was set for a far more sophisticated craft craze.
Adult coloring books – bound compilations filled with page after page of elaborate black-and-white designs – are spinning off from their school day predecessors, offering “colorists” an easy artistic outlet as well as a form of stress relief. They’ve become wildly popular in recent months as adults seek a nostalgic, low-tech escape from the pressures of their busy routines.
“It’s kind of like being a kid, but different,” said Linda Jayne, 69, while penciling in a scarlet flower at the Arden-Dimick coloring group for seniors. “It’s an exciting feeling, at my age, to be able to learn something new, that you don’t need to have an inherent ability to be good at.”
More than 3,000 coloring books for grown-ups are available on Amazon, several of which topped the site’s best-seller lists earlier this year. The books, marketed as calming and therapeutic, capture a range of topics, from solar systems to classic cars to animals wearing fancy clothing. A growing sector of pop-culture coloring books also features celebrities such as Taylor Swift and Ryan Gosling, and a much-anticipated “Game of Thrones” book will hit the shelves this month.
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Though adult coloring books have existed for decades, they seized the spotlight last spring after the release of several particularly popular books from United Kingdom-based illustrator Johanna Basford. Her books, like many others on the market, feature beautiful renderings of flora and fauna, scenic landscapes, towering castles and – most recently – marine life.
Coloring engages the mind and forces it to focus on the task at hand, giving colorists a temporary relief from their everyday stresses, said Lisa Mitchell, a licensed art therapist who practices in Fair Oaks. It may also allow people to “free associate,” or let their minds wander, as they would on a peaceful walk – an increasingly rare opportunity in these gadget-obsessed times.
“It allows the brain to regulate itself,” she said. “It’s not going to be reacting to other stimuli so that’s a useful tool.”
Still, she said, coloring should not be considered “art therapy.” The “paint by numbers” format lets people shut off from fears and anxieties much as they would by watching Netflix, rather than encouraging them to express their feelings in an original work.
“In the broader picture, it’s really sad,” she said. “If people want to do art because it’s easy – that’s a symptom of the loss of creativity in our wider society.”
Therapy or not, many find coloring to be a relaxing activity after a hard day at work.
At the bookstore Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills, owner Tina Ferguson has been hosting festive “Coloring and Cocktails” events since last spring, with two more sessions planned for this month. At least one customer enters the store each day specifically to visit the adult coloring book display, and the staff is constantly restocking it with books and colored pencils, she said.
“They’re just flying out of the store,” she said. “As much as I love people coming in for coloring, I do want them to know that there’s more in this bookstore than coloring books.”
Unlike knitting, crocheting, or other hand-based crafts that might require a tutorial or special equipment, coloring is something that anyone can jump into, said Barbera Bass, branch supervisor at Arden-Dimick. She brought an instructor into the senior class once to give students tips about shading and color-matching, but other than that it’s a free-form activity.
At University Art in midtown, staff help people choose which coloring book is right for them, and what art supplies they should use. Jaya King, salesperson and art teacher, recommends an artist-grade pencil with a higher pigment load for additional brightness.
“Anything that gets you creatively active is a good thing,” she said. “Anything where you’re putting pen to paper, you’re engaging your brain.”
Colorists with Alt + Lib, the Sacramento Public Library group designed for people in their 20s and 30s, have taken the trend even further. Bryce Lovell,who organizes the group’s monthly coloring sessions, has been experimenting with printing his own coloring sheets using digital image editing programs such as Pixlr and Inkscape and filling them in with crayon.
For Lovell, coloring is less about the product and more about needing a break from constantly checking his emails. That respite from the modern world’s nonstop flow of information may help explain the draw for younger devotees.
“There’s this tech aspect that we were born into and it’s nice to step back from that,” he said. “With coloring, you’re in your own space and you’re just in the moment.”
Where to color
Arden-Dimick Library (for seniors)
3:30 to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays
901 Watt Ave.
Alt + Library coloring sessions (for millennials)
10 a.m. on second Sundays
Locations vary, visit altlibrary.com/ for details
Coloring and Cocktails at Face in a Book
6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 27, and Thursday, Oct. 29
4359 Town Center Blvd., Suite 113, El Dorado Hills
Cost: $27 (includes copy of “Lost Ocean” coloring book)