In the news this week, we’ve had a couple of articles that go beyond the “Hey look! Coloring is a big trend!”
Anthropologist Adrienne Zilhman tells us a story of how, as a Ph.D. candidate, she took a course where the professor used a biological coloring book to help students visualize and understand the differences between various species and fossils. At the time she thought coloring the book was silly, as it was a “children’s activity.” But now she’s an avid colorist.
For me, after a day of writing and reading nonfiction for work, then reading a novel for pleasure, coloring brings a different kind of sensual engagement, one that perhaps echoes the embodied pleasures found in creative cooking, gardening and carpentry.
— Adrienne Zilhman
Most of us can empathize with this, and with the sense of calm and relief from stress that she feels from coloring.
On the other side of the debate, we have this article by artist and therapist, Lisa Mitchell, MFT, ATR. She claims that coloring books are “an escape” and that “they don’t teach us the hands-on creative process,” and that coloring can do “more harm than good.” She states:
Adult coloring books no more teach us about creativity than baseball video games teach us to play baseball, or Netflix dramas teach us how to have healthy relationships. Adult coloring books, video games, and Netflix are no substitute for the real thing. Instead, they alienate us from the rich hands-on experience of our own unique creative process.
While I understand her point of view that coloring doesn’t teach us about drawing and creating our own work of art, I disagree that it doesn’t teach us anything about the creative process.
Coloring, for many of us, lets us forget our daily worries for a while, and gives our mind a chance to relax by focusing on something with specific boundaries. Is that an escape? Perhaps. But I don’t think it’s the same kind of escape as video games or Netflix. With those, all the choices are pre-determined for us.
Sure, in a video game you make choices. But the results of those choices has already been decided by the programmer. With coloring, even the lines drawn by the artist don’t necessarily constrict our choices. As we often say in my coloring group – we’re adults! We don’t have to “follow the rules!” We can color outside the lines, add our own doodles to drawings we feel are incomplete, use colors that don’t correspond to anything found in nature. We can express our own creativity, using the artist’s drawing as our canvas.
Later on in the same article, Lisa says:
trace the outline of a salad plate onto the pages of a sketch book. Each day make it a mindfulness practice to fill in your very own colors and lines for 15 minutes at a time. Ask, “What color looks good right now?” “What does the color want to do on the page?” Experiment with layers, blending, different kinds of lines for the purpose of holding your interest rather than to make something “pretty”
Other that the first part about tracing a circle so you aren’t starting with a blank page, the rest of that quote, to me, is what most of us do when we’re coloring. Choosing what color to use next is part of the creative process. I’ve seen two people color the same picture with such wildly different color choices that it can actually be difficult to tell it’s the same design!
In Adrienne’s article, she quotes clinical psychologist Kimberly Wulfert, PhD, who speaks about the meditative effects of coloring, along with other clinical psychologists who advocate coloring as a way to relieve stress.
In coloring, you’ve got this physical sensation of the tool you’re using touching on the paper. You also have the feeling in your hands and fingers holding this tool, and moving in different rhythms as you fill in the space … you’re being mindful, and when you move in a rhythmic fashion for an extended period of time, that becomes a meditation.
— Dr. Kimberly Wulfert
Coloring teaches us about color values. It helps us understand how some colors look better with others.
Coloring gives us the ability to experiment with blending and layers, without worrying about drawing a picture first.
Coloring takes us “offline,” letting us focus on ourselves and our own inner thoughts.
Coloring teaches us to slow down, to take pleasure in the process of coloring, to enjoy each stroke of the pencil or marker as we fill in a design.
Many of the comments on Lisa’s post appear to be written by other art therapists, and they all agree with her. Perhaps, in the situation where you are a therapist treating patients for specific conditions, you should encourage them to create their own drawings, as that is part of the therapeutic process. I’m not an art therapist, so I can’t speak to that aspect of the situation.
But as an artist and a colorist, there are days when picking up my pencil and trying to create something new just doesn’t work. On those days, flipping through my coloring books and then coloring in someone else’s design is just the right level of creativity. Often, it takes my brain in a direction that then leads me to pick up my pencil and start drawing again.