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why i like colouring books

Whenever you see lots of a certain kind of book at the front of the shop, there will always be grumbles from people who create books that aren't those books. Right now the favourite eye-roller is COLOURING BOOKS. Brainless, juvenile distractions with hippie-dippy titles for people who can't come up with anything creative themselves, right?

Three reasons I think colouring books are fab:

Colouring is good training

When I started learning piano, I used to play awful repetative tunes - Suzuki method (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in five variations!), Hanon exercises - that drove the other people in the house nuts. But I didn't know how to play piano and the exercises were very useful, they got me used to the idea of sitting down and focusing on playing something, and taught my fingers to behave themselves. Now when I hear those tunes woven into music mixes, it's kind of heartwarming: those were some of the building blocks that made my brain how it is now. Not everyone can sit down in front of a blank piece of paper and fill it with images and there's nothing wrong with having some structure. I spent a good deal of time copying comics, not adding anything of my own to them, and it taught me the comics' rhythm and got my hand used to making the marks I wanted to make. People learn to play piano as adults; there's no reason they shouldn't learn to colour, too.

Colouring is hard

Colouring can be therapeutic but it can be teeth-grindingly difficult, too. When I make comics, often the colouring takes me longer than any of the other steps. To colour something well, my brain has to make lots of quick decisions, sometimes intuitive and other times carefully researched. Finding colour palettes we really love and can use in our work is a holy grail for illustrators. Some of them never really find a palette or palettes and skitter about using too many colours, or colours they don't feel are as good as they could be. I've done some complicated studies, trying to teach my brain how to place colours around an image so they're balanced in a way that makes the image communicate something as effectively as possible. There's a lot of science behind how colours work (cool colours vs warm colours, colour tonality, how different colours evoke different emotions, how colour moves the eye around in a picture and make objects pop and recede). I still often get thing wrong.

Being a colourist can be a whole profession in itself, and people who are good at it are beloved of the comics people who hire them; a top professional comics colourist can make all the difference between a comic that makes you want to read it and one that repels you so you don't even bother settling down to look at the text or line art. Don't underestimate the work behind top-quality colouring, it can be at least as complicated as Sudoku! Sometimes much harder.

Colouring is fun

Some of my favourite childhood memories are sitting together colouring with other people. It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, a great way to give hands something to do while people spend time together. It's fun to fill a well-drawn image with colour, and in doing so, people get inside that picture and understand better how the drawing works. You really LOOK at someone's picture when you sit down and mess around with it. For that reason, well-drawn colouring books are more fun (and better training) than badly drawn ones; not all colouring books are equal. There's some great stuff out there right now, better than when I was a kid.

If you don't like colouring books, don't buy them, but I'm glad to see more people putting drawing materials to paper!

AND... if you've read this far, here's a TOP TIP: I hit on a great trick when I used to enter colouring competitions when I was a kid: PATCHWORK. If the other kids filled a space with solid colour and I filled it with a patchwork design (including the little stitches between colour blocks), I always won. I got some good swag! It struck just the right crafty home-y note with middle-aged judges, so there you go. TOP TIP.

Edit: I love this poem, Colouring In by George Kirk.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 3rd, 2016 04:58 pm (UTC)
Fourth reason - it's meditative and calming.

My wife, now my ex, spent some time in hospitals due to mental illness, and every psych ward she was in would offer coloring as an activity. It would help people relax and concentrate on something fun. In the often scary or oppressive atmosphere of the ward, coloring was an oasis of calm. Plus, it was a great icebreaker with strangers, who would often remark on the coloring she would do (she has a skill with color and design, she should have been an artist, but the history that eventually caused her mental illness also kept her from exploring her artistic gifts).
Jan. 3rd, 2016 04:59 pm (UTC)
Also, there are some great Dover coloring books that reproduce fine works of art as pages to color -- Klimt, Dali, Mucha, etc.
Jan. 3rd, 2016 05:48 pm (UTC)
That's a great point! It's about engaging a different part of the brain, and it really does have the power to 'take us out of ourselves' in a non-drug-related way. I think it takes over so completely because while colouring, we're making hundreds of tiny decisions and the other side of the brain has to switch off for awhile to make way for them. That's why hours can pass and feel like minutes.
Jan. 3rd, 2016 05:52 pm (UTC)
I also wonder if, when we're filling a contained 2-D space, we're actually projecting ourselves into that space, inhabiting that space for awhile. It's like putting ourselves in little rooms, and we're able to choose the mood for that room. So we're not in the room where our body is, but in the room our mind has projected and we have control over that space, and the power to change and improve it. The contained space that colouring books give us aren't scary big fields, they're of manageable size and you know when you've filled them, thus a satisfied feeling of completion, in a larger world where it can be very hard to finish projects.

Edited at 2016-01-03 05:55 pm (UTC)
Jan. 3rd, 2016 05:22 pm (UTC)
Some of the colouring books available now are real marvels of line art. I remember disliking colouring books as a child, because I never liked the pictures which often seemed to be dull or badly drawn, as if the image didn't really matter, when of course if you are going to take all that time colouring, you want the lines to be beautiful.
Jan. 3rd, 2016 05:44 pm (UTC)
I agree! I remember my mother talking about the difficulty of finding a good colouring book, and realising as a kid how much difference line quality could make to a picture.
Jan. 3rd, 2016 06:24 pm (UTC)
A teacher's perspective
Fascinating comment from a teacher, who's asked to remain anonymous:

I like [colouring books]... for another reason entirely, they are helping me prove a point.

In recent years 'colouring in' has become increasingly frowned upon in education. It is seen as a pointless time filling activity where the children could be subjected to further active learning. I am no longer allowed to let my class of 5 and 6 year olds finish an activity by drawing a picture to go with it, or colouring in an image on a worksheet (though they are bursting to) because they are not learning anything.

I don't agree. Firstly it is an activity they enjoy and so acts as a reward for the hard work. Secondly they are learning a lot about colour, form, pencil control etc but most importantly it allows them to put their brain into a 'flow' state. Studies show that when we are involved in an activity that we can do with minimal concentration our brain goes into a more relaxed state. But it is not simply resting, during this time it can actually process much of the other information it has taken in recently so actually spending time on repetitive, none demanding activities can reinforce learning, or as an adult help you solve problems.

Personally I think the current 'fad' for adult colouring is symptomatic of an over worked, over stressed adult work force. They are wanting to spend more time in activities that help them to switch of from the constant demands of life as well as rediscover some of those joyful feelings they had while carrying ut the same activity as a child.

I just hope that if it becomes recognised that this activity can have a positive effect on the mental health of adults attitudes to it will once again change in education and then I can find time for the kids n my class to colour without fear of being found out!
Jan. 10th, 2016 09:29 am (UTC)
Re: A teacher's perspective
I am a teacher too and I perfectly agree with everything you wrote. It seems like education is systematically trying to erase creativity and artistic talent. We are all born artists but most of that creativity goes dormant during our education, and we keep being told that art cannot pay for a living. It becomes a laughed at and frowned upon activity. This is why we nowadays have increasingly numb, indifferent and passive generations.
Jan. 4th, 2016 08:50 am (UTC)
A couple responses to comments on other social media:

1. In response to the thought that colouring in someone else's lines isn't creative; that it's only creative if you draw the lines:

Colouring IS creative, and choosing cool colours vs warm colours and thinking about colour tonality is a skill that takes ages to learn and do well. I once coloured a whole book and then when a version was printed in grayscale, I realised I hadn't been thinking about tones at all; all the colours were pretty much the same shade of gray. (Converting a picture to grayscale is a great way of checking if your colour work has tonal variation.) Colouring involves a myriad of choices: artists decide if they want to use flat colours, gradated colours, patterns, texture, etc. There's plenty of room for creativity. There must be a thousand different ways to colour a square 'red'.

A small colour palette (2 or 3 crayons) doesn't make the picture less artitsic; top artists work hard to get their palettes down to a minimum of colours. And the placement of colours, even in the lines, can make one picture very different from another and set a totally different mood. Even colouring with a single crayon (or coloured pencil) would be a great way of studying how tone can make a big difference to a picture. Or a black pen, if the person doing it was experimenting with cross-hatching or pointilism.

2. In response to the argument that colouring in isn't your own work, that it's not valuable because you're working on someone else's artwork:

Why does artwork always have to be the work of one person? Some of my favourite projects have been collaborations. I'm as proud of Jampires as any of my other picture books, and on that, I was 'colouring in' David O'Connell's line work. (He drew the lines, I took them to colour; the artwork was completely collaborative.)

Yes, you probably can't legally go off and sell a picture you've coloured as your own original art. Dave and I have a business contract, and I wouldn't try to sell Jampires as my solo art, pretending I hadn't made it with Dave.

Artwork can have value for having been enjoyable to make, not just for its sale value.

Edited at 2016-01-04 09:38 am (UTC)
Jan. 4th, 2016 10:18 am (UTC)
My interest in adult coloring books has spawned recently for two primary reasons: 1) My bosses (I work at a paint n' sip studio) got me a modern art coloring book as a gift, and 2) One of my co-workers is working on making one. I've also been told that I should make one, since I love drawing, especially in ink.

I've been thinking lately about my relationship with coloring while growing up; it wasn't great. I mostly only liked those ones where you could just paint over the page with water and have it color itself. I remember coloring with my sister and having our mom instruct us to outline the edges first and then fill in with little circles. My sister was happy to follow instructions. I saw that this method looked nice, but I was very impatient and had more fun experimenting with style and going outside the lines. My mom saw that as me not understanding the proper way to do it, while I saw it as a transcendental experience (although I was 16 years away from understanding that word). The same thing happened when I drew trees out of basic shapes with crayons. My mom would tell me she knew that I know how to draw more realistic trees. I didn't know how to explain that I was experimenting, trying to feel the way other kids drew.

TL;DR the above paragraph: coloring properly was boring to me; I preferred drawing and experimenting with style.

EVEN SO, I still liked coloring books. I would flip through them over and over and examine the story. I would try to edit the picture with my pen and give the characters different attitudes or outfits.

God, I didn't mean to write this much without even getting to the point, which is that my relationship with color hasn't changed much over the years. In college, I'd often leave my color theory class to go take a nap in the garden, or I'd get my professor to mix my colors for me. Only in my most recent job at that studio have I gained a better understanding of how to use colors. Even so, it's not really my great love, and THIS IS ALL TO SAY:

I have the GREATEST appreciation for colorists! If I could afford it, I'd have someone color all of my drawings! I'd love to see the life they could bring to my black and white line art! HOW DO PEOPLE NOT APPRECIATE THIS SKILL! Not only is it a skill, but it's something you have to have the desire and patience to hone. Coloring is an exercise in patience and decision-making, and it is also calm and repetitive. I think I was/am just afflicted with a ridiculously short attention span, so it's just not a strength I possess, but for those who can focus on something that long, they should be allowed to do so without ridicule! Why is it okay to have a stress ball on your desk, but not a coloring book??

THIS POST IS ALL OVER THE PLACE!! I'm sorry for rambling. I am pretty sleepy.
Jan. 4th, 2016 03:22 pm (UTC)
I love what you wrote under "Colouring is Hard" about sometimes making quick decisions. That is so fun when that happens.... You are coloring along and suddenly aha! an insight into a pattern or a quick way you can tweak the design.
Katherine Lynas
Jan. 11th, 2016 09:14 pm (UTC)
The Joy of Colouring In
I remember the joy of winning a colouring competition. I won a 'Keep Derby Tidy' t-shirt. I wore it once with pride, then my Grandma melted it with the iron. Still, I forgave her (she makes good cakes).

Still I agree, colouring can be quite tricky. I'm often hesitant about colouring my line work in-case it all goes wrong. In comics it's common practice to have someone do the inking, and someone else the colour, why not try it with picture books?

I think colouring books can make art more accessible, but you can also do mad creative things with them if you want. Alter them, cut stuff out, stick stuff on, make bits move. Hours of fun :)
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )


Sarah McIntyre

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