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Color Me Enlightened

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“Experience the phenomenon that has sold 2 million copies worldwide and launched the coloring craze for adults,” touts a blurb for commercial illustrator Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book.

Supposedly it appeals to all ages and loads of doodlers around the globe. It and Basford’s Enchanted Forest, which came out last February, have sold a combined 13.5 million copies throughout 50 countries. And the self-titled “illustrator and ink evangelist” cranked out Lost Ocean this past October.

Of Amazon’s current bestseller list, nine of the top 20 are coloring books for grown-ups. Considering more than 2,000 of these anti-stress activity books have hit the market since 2013, it's apparent this is no black-and-white issue. Many people love them.

But I’m not one of them.

Slogging through a stressful stretch of life two weeks ago, I sought solace and searched for the perfect coloring book of my own. Instead, I found that I am not a candidate for the “zenspiration” that comes with coloring intricate, swirly patterns like those of an elaborate henna tattoo.

More than 2,000 coloring books for adults have hit the shelves since 2013, and many falsely claim to offer "art therapy." - PHOTO BY JAMI STALL
  • Photo by Jami Stall
  • More than 2,000 coloring books for adults have hit the shelves since 2013, and many falsely claim to offer "art therapy."

The ones specifically themed with geometric designs sent me sailing down a shame spiral, reminding me of my ineptitude with high school math and beyond. Their dizzying patterns kept me reaching for my Dollar Tree readers, reminding me of my advancing age and dwindling finances.

Most of the books included a detailed "how-to-color" introduction, which is wrong on so many levels, especially for someone like me who's never stayed within the lines of life in general. The instructions explained “Patterning Techniques,” “Coloring Techniques & Media,” “Color Theory” -– from primary and tertiary to complementary and analogous colors. Seriously? That did nothing to soothe my stress-addled mind. Unable to muster enough focus to select a coloring book, much less master its meditative purpose, smacked of personal failure.

Ignoring my instincts, I bypassed the counsel of Dr. Rum Chata and enlisted the help of a local expert. I took my concerns to Juliet King, director of Art Therapy and assistant professor at Herron School of Art and Design and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at Indiana University School of Medicine.

As it turns out, King also takes issue with adult coloring books. Although hers are legitimate, grounded in neuroscience and OK ... not at all like mine. Here’s her take on the matter.

Juliet King is the director of the Art Therapy and assistant professor at Herron School of Art and Design and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at Indiana University School of Medicine.
  • Juliet King is the director of the Art Therapy and assistant professor at Herron School of Art and Design and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at Indiana University School of Medicine.

Sky Blue Window: Coloring books for grown-ups are everywhere -– from Silver in the City to the $5 bins just inside Target stores. They all boast New Agey titles, leading us to believe they’ll smell like patchouli and chime as we turn their pages. Yet they do nothing to relieve my anxiety. What gives?

Juliet King: Coloring books allow your mind to let go, and they’re better for your liver than drinking. So they’re healthier than going to a bar. Coloring is relaxing! I’m not anti-coloring books, but I think it’s important to know that they’re not “art therapy,” and you’re not practicing “mindfulness” when using them.

SBW: Is it just me? Or do they fall short on their claims of creating calm and therapeutic benefits?

JK: I sit on the board of the American Art Therapy Association, and we have addressed the topic with Barnes & Noble and Dover Books, because “art therapy” coloring books are all over the place. So you can imagine those in my profession are like, “NOOOooo!”

This just denigrates our practice -- what art therapy is. Coloring books can help you relax, they can take you out of the here and now and make you think about different stuff. But they're not "mindfulness."

A coloring book might make you feel less anxious, but it doesn’t cure an anxiety disorder. That’s art therapy. People go to art therapy to decrease symptoms and cure their illness.

SBW: The American Association of Art Therapy must be pretty annoyed by such book titles to release official statements about this to publishers?

JK: Sure. This whole topic has raised a bunch of issues in my field. Art therapy is a graduate-level medical and health care profession that requires a master's degree in art therapy to practice. At Herron the program is a two-year, full-time 60-credit-hour master's-level degree.

Art is everywhere, so a lot of people use art in therapy and in counseling, and they call themselves art therapists, but you have to have certain training to do that.

SBW: Let’s back up. Can you explain what art therapy is?

JK: It’s been around since the 1940s. It’s a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by art therapists use art media, the creative process and the artwork that results to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, reduce anxiety and develop social skills –- along with many other things. This can happen in hospitals, schools, rehabilitation and psychiatric facilities, senior centers, at the Veteran’s Administration and within the homeless communities and immigrants’ population, among others.

French woman, who call themselves “colorists,” proudly posted their shaded-in handiwork on Pinterest and other social media outlets, and the supposed stress-releasing art form spread around the world. -  - PHOTO BY JAMI STALL
  • Photo by Jami Stall
  • French woman, who call themselves “colorists,” proudly posted their shaded-in handiwork on Pinterest and other social media outlets, and the supposed stress-releasing art form spread around the world.

SBW: Art therapy helps everything from ...?

JK: It’s used to treat medical and psychiatric illnesses, from schizophrenia and disorders of aging —- dementia and Alzheimer’s —- to helping cancer patients cope with the challenges of their disease and treatment.

On one end of the continuum, you might have a well-intentioned harp player that plays music on a cancer unit, and people feel better hearing it. Or maybe it’s an artist in residency who paints murals on hospital walls, and people who go in for treatments and procedures see these and feel better. Our bodies and brains have a response to things that are beautiful and colorful.

At the other end of the continuum you have the profession of art therapy -– we are trained in verbal psychotherapy and we also use the creative process as a way to help people understand themselves.

Art therapists very much believe that the art-making process is healing and life-enhancing within the context of a relationship with a therapist.

Research proves that therapeutic benefits are gained through artistic self-expression and reflection for individuals who experience illness, trauma and mental health problems and for those striving for personal growth. But no matter what kind of therapy you practice, it’s the relationship that is the healing component –- the client/therapist relationship.

SBW: Coloring books aren’t exactly “creating art” anyway. It’s more like embellishing someone else’s art. Right?

JK: We very much believe the art-creation process is very important in healing. Not to say these books aren’t useful, if they make you feel better and provide a little mental escape, but there’s a big distinction. I think we’re doing a really big disservice to people if we don’t make a clear-cut gradation of what that distinction is.

As humans, much of our communication is nonverbal. Especially when we experience trauma, such as in military combat or sexual abuse, it is remembered in our unconscious bodies –- in the non-verbal areas of our brain. The verbal areas of our mind actually shut down.

So verbal therapists use the creative process involved in art therapy as a way to help people explain themselves and understand themselves (through the art they create themselves).

SBW: I doubt Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline worry that coloring books will affect their profit margins, but I completely see your point. So what bugs you most about the "art therapy"-titled ones?

A spiritual symbol in some religions, the mandala represents a microcosm of the universe and one's place within it. -  - PHOTO BY JAMI STALL
  • Photo by Jami Stall
  • A spiritual symbol in some religions, the mandala represents a microcosm of the universe and one's place within it.

JK: There are always new fads like Zentangles and different armchair self-help psychology products that are supposed to cure your problems. This is just the latest one. It just so happens that this time they’re calling themselves the name of a profession.

SBW: Have you tried your hand at any of the adult coloring books out there?

JK: Sure, coloring is coloring. It’s been around forever. It’s fun. It’s an activity that takes you away from everyday life, which is relaxing and makes you feel better. It helps you tune out, which is nice. But you have to be careful because they’re not mindful.

They’re not free creative expression. Free creative expression is using your hands to make something with your imagination. Coloring books don’t do that.

SBW: Some of them are so intense. If I’m going to color, give me a snowman with three big circles, a hat and scarf, and I’m good. But what advice can you give for choosing the right kind –- even though you don't fully endorse them?

JK: If you’re already a high-strung person, some of them can be too overwhelming and can push people more to the realm of obsession –- obsessive thinking. So if that’s the case, find something easier that lets you just get in the zone.

But when you’re looking to buy one, don’t think about it too much. Get some nice materials to work with, nice pointy colored pencils or markers, if that’s your thing. And just do it. And if you want to go outside the lines, go outside the lines. It’s your book.

Unplug and tune out everything. Let yourself get outside of things for a bit, because life can be really hectic.

And if you find yourself responding in a certain way [such as negatively] don’t do it.

SBW: “Meditative mandalas” seem super trendy. Are these circular (or square) psychological symbols meditative in any way? And do you need the pricey mandala-themed coloring books?

JW: No, it doesn’t matter. You can make your own. And if you’re interested in mandalas, read some Carl Jung (pronounced Yoong). Read what they’re really about. Because the mandala is a really amazing symbol that for many, many years has been used to help people find their cultural and spiritual center.

Coloring books don’t do that. If you have any interest at all in the more in-depth part of your psyche, pick up some Jung and read about it. Make your own mandala, and that will take you to a different place.

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