Creativity · Meditation

Colouring Books: Art Therapy or Mindless Money-spinner?

There’s a new mindfulness craze sweeping the nation: colouring books for adults. It’s supposed to help you relax and be more mindful, but does it work?

Zen Colouring header

The idea is that keeping your hands occupied allows the mind to become still. If you struggle with normal meditation, where you have to sit and do nothing but breathe, then colouring might be for you.

Things like colouring, knitting and even cleaning, are a form of active meditation where you focus your attention on a simple repetitive task. You have to concentrate, but not too much, and this can free you from negative thoughts and create a more peaceful state of mind.

The books are filled with intricate patterns, abstract mandalas, and psychedelic designs. Some have animals, birds, or flowers, while others feature drawings of your favourite celebrities, like Ryan Gosling, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Hiddleston. There’s even a Game of Thrones colouring book coming out later this year. The celebrity ones seem a bit silly, but they may be more creative, as we’ll see.

The colouring books aimed at the anti-stress market have names like Art Therapy, The Can’t Sleep Colouring Book, and Zen Colouring. They’re sold as a way to colour yourself calm and achieve a state of mindful repose. Concentrating on filling in the intricate designs helps to focus your mind in the moment so you can’t worry about the future or brood about the past. It’s also a way to recapture some nostalgia for your childhood, a time when perhaps you were happier and less stressed.

Lucy Fyles reviews colouring books on her blog Colouring in the Midst of Madness. She struggles with anxiety and an overactive mind, and finds colouring helps her to calm down. Talking to Zoe Williams in the Guardian, she said:

I’ll go to a colouring book, I’ll be incredibly stressed, I cannot stop the thoughts swirling around in my head. And half an hour later, I’ll notice that I’m calmer. My mind’s calmed down.

How to Not Be Zen

I used to enjoy creating colourful mandalas when I was a child. I’d spend hours carefully filling in the fractal-like designs. I wasn’t very good at drawing so the mandalas gave me a way to be creative without trying too hard. When I saw the Zen Colouring book in my local supermarket, I snapped it up – keen to relive my childhood and recapture some of that blissful ignorance.

I can’t say it’s been successful. It seems I’m quite capable of colouring and thinking at the same time. I can fill in as many swirls and flower petals and zigzags as I like, but my mind still buzzes away like a demented bee. No matter what I do, I can’t get into the flow state necessary for true relaxation.

I feel focused and in the moment for about half an hour, but after that I just get bored. I look at my design and start to question the colour choices I’ve made, or begin to think about all the other things I need to be doing and how I don’t have time to sit about colouring in unicorns.

The trouble is, calling something Zen-like doesn’t make it so. It’s the intention behind the act that makes it into a Zen practice. You can colour without being present in the moment, as I’ve found.

When you do something (colouring) in order to get something else (calmness), then the desire for the thing you want tends to work against you getting it. You get in your own way. For it to work, you have to do it for the sake of itself.

Kids don’t colour in order to relax and be mindful. They don’t need a reason to colour – they do it for fun!

Adults, as per usual, are doing it wrong.

Mindfulness is about being present in reality with whatever is happening in the moment. Focusing on the breath helps to calm the mind and creates clarity. Then you can deal with your problems more effectively. There’s nothing wrong with colouring in order to be mindful – it should work, if you do it right.

Anything can be done mindfully, then everything becomes Zen-like.

But colouring seems to be an escape from reality, a way to distract yourself from your problems. Mindfulness is the opposite. It challenges you to be present, no matter what you’re feeling. Obviously that isn’t always easy or comfortable, and certainly isn’t guaranteed to make you feel calm. Not in the short-term, at least.

Like anything worth doing, mindfulness takes practice.

Colouring Outside the Lines

Another claim made for colouring books is that they encourage creativity. Susan Striker, creator of The Anti-Colouring Book, says that “colouring books are not just innocuous but they’re actually very bad for you.” Her designs encourage you to add to the drawings because they’re deliberately left unfinished.

A bit like the Navajo tradition of creating textiles with imperfections to ensure the artist can continue to create more work. A ‘spirit line’ is woven into a rug to give the weaver’s spirit a way out so it doesn’t get trapped in the pattern.

Colouring books could be a trap for the mind. Rather than being creative, the art therapy books encourage a kind of anal obsessiveness. They’re about staying between the lines and colouring by numbers. As Kate Mossman points out in the New Statesman, they’re “the artist equivalent of writing a shopping list.” When you fill in these designs you’re not originating anything. You’re just finishing someone else’s work.

Being creative provokes anxiety. You may get into the flow while you create, but the process isn’t effortless. Colouring books are easy, and could end up discouraging imagination because they switch off your mind. Susan Striker explains:

“A colouring book can help you empty out your mind. Yet to be ‘mindful’ is not to escape from your problems, but to face them head on. The new mindful colouring books are mindless. You should be drawing your own pictures!”

The Colour Me Good celebrity books may be ridiculous, but at least they give you the opportunity to exercise your creative muscles. Here’s a lovely drawing of a horse (not by me 😉 ):

Colour me good tom hiddleston

I’ll keep my colouring books and keep practicing mindfulness, but perhaps I’ll loosen up a bit. Maybe I’ll add to the designs and dare to colour outside the lines. But for a calm mind, I’ll stick to good old meditation.

Of course, for the ultimate in mindful creativity you need look no further than Tibetan mandalas. These are created using coloured sand, rather than felt tip pens, and take many days to build, starting at the centre and working outwards. A mandala is created as a blessing, and once complete, is ritually dissolved in water to symbolise impermanence. This video is a great time-lapse film of the creation of one such mandala. Enjoy!

You can find out more about the different Tibetan mandalas here, and see another cool time-lapse video here.

Images: Tom & Horse

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9 thoughts on “Colouring Books: Art Therapy or Mindless Money-spinner?

  1. Maybe the effectiveness of the coloring books depends upon how you learn/see things. Some people respond better to being “fed” while others prefer to “hunt”. In other words, some like being given instruction while others prefer to figure things out themselves with less direction. So, the former might need books like this to tell them, “This is for calming your mind.” While the latter would prefer to just pick up something like this without a label on it and make him or her self comfortable for a while.

    I can’t stand repetition or abstract pattern-making. I can’t seem to go without sketching characters or caricatures.

    Working with my tiny nephews, I’ve found renewed “zen” in using crayons.

    The celebrity coloring books do seem a bit silly if they are classified as the same as the zen/mandala books. But, if that’s what helps some relax, have at it. I would imagine a Ryan Gossling or Brad Pitt coloring book would just have some women daydreaming about other things…and maybe that’s relaxing…or is it stimulating?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting thoughts, thanks writingbolt. I suppose it’s the difference between ‘painting by numbers’ and creativity. If all you have to do is colour stuff in, there’s not much risk of failure – although some of my efforts definitely come under that category 😉

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      1. That, too. Although, I used to enjoy painting by numbers though I think I am the latter type who prefer to think up their own solutions/projects with just a tiny bit of instruction or guidance when asked for it.

        I fail on my own, already. And, sometimes, I feel like having a Sesame Street Beethoven meltdown. Instead, I sulk and walk away for a while.

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  2. I recently started using colouring books, to keep my hands busy when I’m watching the telly, but did I get any fancy books? Did I heck! I went to my local $2 shop, and bought a selection of kiddie’s books, full of fairies. Not only does it; keep my hands off the chocolate jar, it also ensures my creative brain cells are occupied, whilst watching mind-numbing programs, Lol 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I used to equate mindfulness with flow states too, but now I’m pretty sure I was wrong.

    IMHO flow states (i.e. being in ‘the zone’) are a form of absorption akin to focus or concentration. They’re pleasant to the point of being addictive (for me at least) but they ain’t the same as mindfulness. In fact they generally block out extraneous stimuli to the point of being potentially harmful (e.g. video gamers who ‘forget’ to move, eat, sleep or go to the toilet).

    While starting with focus (e.g. upon the breath) can facilitate mindfulness it’s the relaxed awareness that comes afterwards (e.g. awareness of arising and passing of mental formations in the case of vipassana) that’s really mindfulness. If you’re mindful of, say, doing the washing up you simply ease into attentiveness towards the movements, sensations and mental formations that come with doing it. If you’re in the flow you’re utterly focused on the activity itself (you’d probably have to find washing up at least mildly challenging to do so). Both subsume the concept of ‘self’ but they seem very different to me.

    I guess it came home to me in October 2012 when I discovered I couldn’t carry out day to day functions while in a ‘non-dual state’. I realised to my surprise that I’m crap at mindfulness, which is kinda embarrassing considering how many people I’ve trained in it over the years. I think I passed on my own confusion between focus and mindfulness in the process too.

    Maybe there’s a reason ‘right concentration’ and ‘right mindfulness’ are different factors of the Noble Eightfold Path. I guess in terms of Theravada practice it’s the difference between rupadhyana and vipassana.

    P.S. Did you neglect to include a link to the time-lapse video of the mandala or has one of my security tools blocked it?

    P.P.S. I think Tom is a bit shocked at being given a horse to love. He may have been expecting a two-legged sweetheart.

    Liked by 1 person

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