Life

Stressed out by the fast-paced digital world? Perhaps it’s time to break out the colouring books. By Nathan Smith.

The meditative benefits of staying between the lines

I haven’t used colouring pencils since high school. I remember popping open my tin of Faber-Castell in art class, trying to fill in a poorly photocopied sheet of an Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe print. 

My year 9 art assignment was based on the idea that by recolouring these iconic prints I would somehow prove that whatever way Marilyn Monroe’s face was coloured, it would remain as “pop arty” as Warhol’s original.

I remember how I slowly coloured Monroe’s lips a vivid turquoise, finely outlining the brows a garish red. I recall enjoying the rebellion I felt filling in the iconic face a different colouring to the “conventional” scheme of Warhol’s screen-prints. 

It’s been more than a decade since I enjoyed the pleasures of pencils and colouring books. But recently my attempts at staying within the lines have returned. 

These attempts have taken the form of “mindfulness colouring books”, a new wave of anti-stress meditative therapy book that has adults tackling empty psychedelic desert scenes with worn high-school colouring pencils. 

The popularity of mindfulness colouring books has been building for various reasons. They have been bestsellers in France and the United States, and are gaining traction in Australia. A number of local bookstores have capitalised on the growing popularity of these books with large window displays and signs reading “anti-stress”, alongside discount book and colouring pencils packs. Online, a number of mindfulness social media groups have cropped up, where users can share their experiences of the books. 

Mindfulness is a meditation practice that asks people to focus on their emotions and sensations in the present. It involves using cognitive strategies to channel thoughts directly to the present moment, encouraging people to take an attitude of acceptance and curiosity to their experiences and actions. Although mindfulness has been used since the 1970s in clinical psychology, it has only recently gained more visibility thanks in many ways to these inexpensive and popular colouring books. 

What makes colouring books such a popular avenue for stress relief and mindfulness meditation is the sheer simplicity and physicality of the colouring. Given life is so often mediated by digital screens, returning to a simple and tangible book gives us a closer sense of the here and now and our physical surroundings. Since the screens that follow us can often disconnect us from our sense of the present, colouring books attempt to bridge this divide between our increasingly digital culture and older ways of deriving pleasure in physical form. 

Rose Williams, an English teacher at an inner-city Melbourne high school, has been using mindfulness colouring books for a number of months. She first heard about the books after an overworked colleague in her faculty recommended she try one. 

Rose often buries one of her many colouring books between her annotated copies of Macbeth and To Kill a Mockingbird during school hours. Her most recent book is one with a meditating “zen” cat on the cover. This particular title introduces budding illustrators to a series of unremarkable nature scenes, slowly building up the colouring complexity of each new scene. From a forest with one tree on a grassy mound to an explosion of flowers and plants in a crowded greenhouse, the challenge is set easy early on for the very stressed-out. 

What makes Williams’s experience of mindfulness an especially ironic one is that as an English teacher she teaches the importance of language and writing. Often, after an exhausting day navigating “smart” whiteboards where grammar rules and Shakespeare quotes are saved to PDF files for students, Williams returns to her desk to indulge in a page of colouring-in between marking year 10 essays on Jane Austen. 

“So much of today’s lifestyle is digital and sometimes it’s hard to just ‘switch off’,” Williams says.

“In the past I’ve tried yoga and meditation, but I found them tiring, slow-burning and actually quite difficult. The relaxation for them really did not come as quickly as it does with colouring books.

“I think it boils down to the fact that with colouring books it’s personal, you don’t feel any pressure and you can do them for as long or as little as you want.” 

Williams says she felt she had exhausted other popular meditation avenues to unwind and “switch off” from the stresses and fatigue of her teaching job. 

“The physical element of the books was just so appealing. I remember that at the end of my first book, I felt like I’d created something,” she says.

Although some may let out of a guffaw at the thought of spending their Sunday nights colouring in cats or landscapes, many have become addicted to this calming and relaxing activity, favouring them over other relaxation pastimes such as word puzzles in the newspaper.

“I remember I once took up jigsaw puzzles for the same reasons of relaxation,” Williams says. “In the end it all just became just too difficult. There was no real pleasure to it. Who really wants to sit there for two hours looking for an obscure red piece of the Golden Gate Bridge?”

What many users of mindfulness colouring books comment on is how quickly these books really put them in the present and help dull external distractions. 

“Because colouring is really not a difficult thing to do, what first surprised me was the fact that they really intensify your focus,” Williams says. “When I would first start colouring in, I thought about other things, like about dinner that night or work, and then I found myself focusing on staying specifically within the lines.

“Because I wanted my colouring to look ‘nice’, I would focus on what I was doing. What it meant was … not only did I create an attractive book of drawings with minimal effort but also I didn’t think of anything else. I cleared my mind while I was doing it.”

Colouring books are really a democratic and undiscriminating activity, requiring no previous skill. Like colouring by numbers, these books only require us to concentrate on a series of simple processes, all undoubtedly familiar from our past. 

“Because the people we see colouring are often the very young, or at the other end, the very old, who are often losing their minds, many will be quick to dismiss colouring books,” Williams says. 

But as our lives move more and more into the digital age – the novel we read on our Kindle, the text to our partner that we’ll be running late to dinner, the film trailer we watch on our phones on the tram ride home – colouring books reinstate an important sense of nowness, so often lost because of our exhausting schedules. 

“Colouring is something that everyone has done in their life and it really requires no skill,” Williams says. “It really works so quickly in drawing your attention right to the here and now, the present.”

But there are many ironies that trail mindfulness books. Often colouring books are given to unruly or unmanageable children as a way of distracting them; now parents are taking to these books to escape either the sensory overload of their jobs or a tiring day of parental duties, to add a sense of calmness to an otherwise stressful week. 

One popular mindfulness title is by local Australian illustrator Thomas Pavitte, called Querkles: A Puzzling Colour-by-Numbers Book. What makes Pavitte’s book such a productive and pleasurable one is that he takes iconic works of Western art and re-creates them through a colouring-by-numbers model. If you are interested in seeing the Mona Lisa reimagined in green spots or a Rembrandt coloured in by your blue and purple anxiety, Pavitte’s book may be an undiscovered route for your own meditative bliss. 

With Querkles, I was able to reacquaint myself with Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe prints. In the colouring book, Pavitte includes one print of the immortal icon of cinema. As I coloured in the red lips and pencilled in the platinum hair again, the intimacy and intense focus I felt proved to be a cathartic and strangely nostalgic one. As the glistening green eyes and black mole of the star stared back at me, I cackled at the irony of the fact that it was stress and anxiety that had reintroduced me to my teenage Monroe.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2015 as "Pencil pushers". Subscribe here.

Nathan Smith
is an arts and cultural writer based in Melbourne.

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