A mindful of colour

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Thought colouring books were only for kids? Well, flow between Johanna Basford complex lines and rediscover the silence of an inkstream.

Johanna Basford has sold 16 million copies of her books so far. In the last couple of years, they have cemented their place in multiple bestseller lists (including The New York Times list), and they have been translated into over 40 languages. Basford though, is not a writer. She is an illustrator who makes colouring books for adults. Her first colouring book, The Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Colouring Book has sold ten million copies thus far, and is furiously being reprinted as I type. If you haven’t spotted Basford’s book in your local book store yet, I urge you to go take a look, for it is a work of art.

Page after page of beautiful, sophisticated vines of flowers, birds and leaves come together to create breathtakingly complex illustrations on print — illustrations which make it evident that it is no run-of-the-mill colouring book with cars and ducks. Basford holds the reigns to the newest and fiercest beast in the publishing industry — the colouring book for adults.

Although I consider myself someone of a (slightly) creative bent, I initially found the idea of sitting down with a colouring book to be somewhat ridiculous. Why not wear fountain ponytails and pin a handkerchief to your shirt as well? However, the more I resisted to the idea, the more I saw of it in social media. Pinterest diligently fed me links to websites that would let you print colouring pages for free. Paisleys, dark forests, unicorns, fairies, flowers and leaves which come together to form foxes, complex squiggles that created owls, and even one which would let you colour in elaborately written swear words, were some of the few themes that popped up. There was just no escaping it, or at least, that is my excuse for finally caving in.


And so, one Tuesday afternoon about a month ago, during the lull which follows a lunch break, I printed a page on the office’s laser printer. I folded it, took it back home and filled in a butterfly and was about to feel very good about myself when my dog lunged for the paper and in what was obviously an act of unconditional love, tore it into shreds.

Interestingly, this incident made me more dogged in my pursuit of understanding the world of colouring books for grown-ups. I began reading about how they were being used as tools to improve mental health, and that the act of colouring had the “therapeutic potential to reduce anxiety, create focus or bring about more mindfulness”. I was now convinced that I had to get my hands on a book and try this new form of meditation.

The first colouring book I purchased belonged to a very talented illustrator friend who had just come out with an independently published colouring book that was based entirely on the Indian Madhubani style of art. I brought it home feeling very pleased about myself — I was going to improve myself! Be better! Less stressed! I immediately sat down with all the colour pencils and pens I owned. The experience was educational, but not in the way I had expected to be.

My first lesson came by way of my wrist, which was last exposed to the kind of pressure I was exerting on it now during my CA exams, five years ago. Roughly fifteen minutes in, and barely five percent of the page had been coloured in when I started experiencing some sharp pain in the wrist area, forcing me to take a break. After taking a break and wringing my wrists out for good measure, I got back to colouring. The white gaps in which you actually colour in an adult colouring book are minuscule, and you have to be really careful to ensure the colour doesn't overflow the lines. As someone who hasn’t held a pen for longer than two minutes in the last half decade, this was extraordinarily frustrating because you realise you have very little control over the pen, or at least that it isn’t what it used to be.

At one point I felt like the reason why people found themselves relieved of frustration when they used colouring books was because no frustration could compare to that of filling in multiple, microscopic squigglies with a sketch pen that you didn’t have control of. I must admit though, that the process of filling in the blanks takes so much concentration, that it barely leaves time for you to brood about much else.


Colouring imparted another very important lesson to me — that of patience. The drawing that I had picked to colour was that of elaborately designed fish swimming in an even more elaborately designed sea. I decided that I would colour all the fish first before colouring in the sea. I wasn’t able to. I would colour in half a fin before I went to colour in a part of the sea, and then a bit more of another part of another fish after which I’d fill in more of the sea.

There was no structure, which sounds rich for someone who is talking about a colouring book, but it really did feel like it was a reflection of my own style of working. I rushed from one unconnected task to another, and although I did get everything done in the end, the process made me exhausted and constantly stressed. As it turned out, creating and following an order took a little more time, but it also ensured that there were no unexpected blanks left to fill in later.

I have been colouring for one week now. Has it changed my life? No. But I can see why colouring books are the resounding success that they are today, for they gave me an outlet where I can do something without having to think about anything and everything going on around me. It gave me silence. And given the world we live in today, I think we could all benefit from a little more colour, and a lot more quiet.

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