A global pencil shortage was reported earlier this year. The reason? The adult colouring book phenomenon. Over the past few years, colouring-in has become the new going out. It’s been linked with mindfulness and art therapy and, whilst art therapists may snipe about the pursuit’s relatively low levels of creative demand, evidence of changes in heart rate and brain waves seem to back up its devotees’ reports of alleviated anxiety, depression and pain.
In fact, in one research trial, colouring beat traditional mindfulness training when it came to lowering physical signs of stress – and, six months later, when most of the research participants trained in mindfulness had allowed their practice to lapse, most of the colouring group were still colouring. Open-minded academics and businesses are even encouraging students, workers and clients to colour during lectures and meetings, citing improved focus.
It’s thought that the combination of intense focus, repetitive motion and predictable results may help to blot out unhelpful thoughts. “It should occupy the same parts of the brain that stops any anxiety-related mental imagery happening,” says Dr. Joel Pearson, a neuroscientist at the University of New South Wales. Throw in a shot of childhood nostalgia, an eye-popping feast of pretty colours and a dash of artistic satisfaction and you’ve got the recipe for something special.
We speak to illustrator Millie Marotta, whose debut adult colouring book, Animal Kingdom – last year’s best selling non-fiction book – spent a record 22 weeks at the top of the paperback charts, to discuss following dreams, de-stressing and her brand new book and homeware collection. If you’re yet to dig out your pencil case, she’s got a few tips for you…
You gave up your job as an art teacher to become an illustrator – was that a difficult decision to make?
It wasn’t difficult to make in terms of questioning whether it was what I really wanted to do, but it was a scary decision and it did take me quite a long time to pluck up the courage to go into the office that day and hand my notice in – that was the point of no return for me.
Were you surprised by the runaway success of your first book?
Yes, hugely. It took me completely by surprise. I never really imaged the size of the audience and the sheer number, the scale of everything really caught me off guard.
You do seem to have gained some very dedicated followers!
It really is overwhelming. They’re an incredible support – it’s so rewarding and so motivating. It’s so lovely to see so many people enjoying these books and coming together as a community – they’re not just interacting with me but interacting with one another and sharing their work over social media and giving one another hints and tips and running competitions and setting up clubs and it’s just endless! It’s just really amazing.
Why do you think adult colouring has become so popular?
I think the colouring books happened at a time when people had reached saturation point and needed something to make them stop and just have a bit of quiet time. Colouring in is something that most of us as kids would gravitate towards, so I think it’s been really lovely for many people to sort of have their own grown up version, a way of stepping back to tapping into their creative side.
There are many people who would like to be creative but don’t feel that they have the confidence or the skills to start something from scratch, and I think for those people the books have been great because it gives them a starting point. Otherwise, with a blank page, I mean, gosh, I sit and stare at a blank page when I’m trying to think of what to do! It can be quite daunting.
I also think part of the charm for a lot of people is the natural world – particularly for people living in cities. For some people I think it’s almost a little bit of escapism – disappearing into a different world for a little while that isn’t part of their everyday lives.
What do you think about the links that have been drawn between the adult colouring movement and mindfulness?
I’ve received so many emails, letters and messages from people who are finding certain aspects of their lives a struggle or who are suffering from mental health issues, who genuinely feel that colouring and using my books has helped them in some way to manage particular symptoms or to calm their minds or serve as a distraction from negative thoughts, so I think wholeheartedly there is something in that and this is definitely something that people are tapping into when they are using these colouring books.
Were you a big fan of colouring books as a child?
Yeah, I was a big fan of anything creative really. If I wasn’t running around outside, playing with our pets, I would be in my room quite happily spending time in my own company colouring or painting or drawing or making things or cutting up millions of little bits of paper and driving my mum mad, treading them all over the house!
Do you have any other hobbies now?
Before I left my teaching job to become a full time illustrator I would always paint and draw as my hobby, so my hobby has become my work, which is fabulous for me because I’m doing something I love all day long, but when I do need to step out of my studio and do something else I just tend to enjoy getting outside and going for a walk. I’m very lucky where I live [in Pembrokeshire, West Wales] – I’ve got three or four beaches within five minutes of my front door, so there’s always somewhere really lovely to go.
Do your surroundings inspire your work?
I think so. I’m not a city person. I don’t think I could do what I do if I lived in the city because nature is around me all the time – it feeds into my life and my work – I think without me even realising sometimes.
What would you say to someone who still feels a bit dubious or even silly about joining the adult colouring movement?
In a practical sense: choose a book that is filled with images you love and that has a theme you love and start with an image that speaks to you. You don’t have to start at the front, with the first image. Don’t be intimidated by thinking that you have to finish all in one go or that it matters if you go out of the lines or leave scribbly marks or make mistakes. There are no hard and fast rules, there’s no wrong or right. It’s just about sitting down and spending a little bit of time relaxing and engaging with your book.
I don’t think anybody should feel silly or stifled. I’ve certainly spoken to people who have said to me they used to colour in secret, in their children’s colouring books, after their children had gone to bed and now they’ve been given permission, if you like, to indulge their creative side and I think that’s a wonderful thing.
Your new book focuses on some of the world’s most remarkable animals. How did you go about choosing which ones to include?
The one thing I always struggle with is settling on which creatures to include, because there’s such a wealth of animals and wildlife and plants out there. I decided that I would do a whole load of research and bring together a collection of creatures that I personally found particularly remarkable or quirky or strange or bizarre for their very own reasons. So I chose some for their odd behaviours, others for their unusual physical appearance, others for their incredible survival skills. They’re not the usual suspects – but beautiful nonetheless.
Is there one you could describe as a personal favourite?
I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for the duck-billed platypus, which actually is probably one of the more obvious ‘strange creatures’ – but I just find them so adorable.
What inspired you to produce a homeware range?
I received such a positive response from people who were using the images in their books after they’d coloured them in – giving them as gifts, framing them, putting them on the wall, using them for other home crafting projects – so it seemed like a natural step to think about sharing my work in other ways.
Book 5! That’s going to keep me very busy for the next few months. When I was working on commercial projects the turnaround was often so quick – I’d be given a brief and then I’d have two or three days to execute the artwork – so having five months is just bliss to me. It’s such a nice way to work.
Millie Marotta’s Curious Creatures: A Colouring Book Adventure is released on Thursday 8th September.
Her tableware range, including plates, bowls, jugs, mugs, tea light holders and textiles, will be available from Waterstones from September.
Millie’s cushion and tea towel collection, created in collaboration with Living Union, will go on sale later this year.