From Kids' Coloring Pages to Adult Coloring Books, a Brief History


In the spring of 2015, adult coloring books hit the American market, climbing quickly to the top of Amazon’s Best Seller list. Coloring pages for adults started appearing on Pinterest, and completed designs were proudly showcased on Facebook. Choices in crayons, gel markers and colored pencils became the topic of artsy discussions, as did highlighting and shading techniques. It seems the adult world had rediscovered the simple joys of colouring.

In truth, coloring books have been around for some time. In the 1880s, McLoughlin Brothers published “The Little Folks’ Painting Book.” Richard Outcault introduced “Buster’s Paint Book” in 1907, one of the first coloring books that would be designed to advertise everything from pianos to tobacco. Milton Bradley created its own line art in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that crayons were invented, and a much less-messy medium increased the popularity of colouring pictures.

Very quickly, educators realized the value of kids’ coloring pages. Not only could they keep restless hands busy during story time, but they also encouraged conceptual understanding, developed cognitive abilities, improved fine motor skills and might even be “spiritually edifying.” As a non-verbal medium, colouring sheets could be a valuable tool in ESL classes. They could also be used to motivate unwilling students to learn material they would otherwise find uninteresting.

By the 1980s, children’s coloring books had graduated to the college level. Sophisticated coloring pages with text included were used to teach anatomy and physiology, biology and other complex systems. Furthermore, during this time and immediately following, colouring sheets reached the pinnacle of cultural appreciation: They were identified as “fine art.” Famed photographer Jno Cook produced a collection of colorable line drawings compiled in “The Robert Frank Coloring Book.” This art work would be shown by the National Gallery of Art in 1994.

In 2012, Hachette Pratique published “Art-thérapie: 100 coloriages Anti-stress,” a coloring book that sold 3 ½ million copies. About the same time, Dover Publishing introduced “Creative Haven,” billing it as “an escape to a world of inspiration and artistic fulfillment.” The public responded enthusiastically, especially through social media.

However, it was Johanna Basford, a UK illustrator and artist, who created the adult coloring books that captured the interest of youths and adults alike in 2015. Her delicate hand-drawn sketches of fairytale forests, enchanted gardens, castles, ferns, flowers and beasts were inspired by childhood visits to her grandparents’ home on the Isle of Arran in southwestern Scotland. “Enchanted Forest” and “Secret Garden” became best sellers on Amazon. A third book, “The Lost Ocean: An Inky Adventure & Coloring Book,” is a new release.

To continue the momentum, Dover Publishing has declared August 2 to be National Coloring Book Day. In October, Bantam Books will be introducing a “Game of Thrones” coloring book for those with decidedly adult interests. Not that this is a new thing. There was the 1962 “John F. Kennedy Coloring Book,” the 1968 “Black Panther Coloring Book,” and the “We Shall Not Forget” coloring book that covered the shooting of Osama Bin Laden. More modern versions include “The Lowrider Coloring Book” (about cars), the “Fat Ladies in Spaaaaace” coloring book, the “Gangsta Coloring Book,” and “The Coloring Book for Lawyers.”

Today, coloring book clubs are springing up everywhere from private homes to public libraries. Whether adults are drawn to colouring as a restful and relaxing pastime, a stress-reliever, an exercise in brain stimulation, a social event, an artistic endeavor, or a nostalgic return to the simpler days of childhood, this new trend shows no sign of abating. To join the ranks of dedicated enthusiasts, all one needs is a coloring book or a down-loaded coloring page and some crayons or colored pencils. This simple pleasure is truly, a simple pleasure.




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