I was amazed, and frankly a bit embarrassed, when I realized some of the incredible accomplishments made when we were encouraged to self-isolate during the pandemic. Entrepreneurs continued to build successful businesses, while volunteers stepped up to help those in need. Entire books have been written, television series and films have been made; musicals prepared for production.
And what did I do? I spent hours and hours coloring.
I consider my hobby a complete waste of time because that’s exactly why I do it. It’s simply something to do in my free time, which over the past two years has gradually turned into my “almost all the time”.
I have always loved art but am constantly frustrated with the way my brain communicates with my hands. The paint is messy and impossible to erase when you make a mistake. (I know you’re supposed to paint on it, but all I get is a brown mess.) I like pencil and paper, but apparently the most when it’s messed up in a furious ball in the trash. I’m a failed perfectionist because you’d think that with all this angst I’d be able to create something worth keeping, but I can’t even do it right.
So when adult coloring books started a few years ago, I was all in. I could slowly flood the pages with color, rarely make a mistake, and at times was almost satisfied with the results. By adding layers of color and shading, I thought I was a “true artist”, or as close as I could get.
This made me wonder what real artists thought of this craze. Was it a springboard for people to jump into creating original works? Did it have all its merit? Should I take up knitting?
I spoke to local artists, starting with Naperville’s Marianne Lisson Kuhn, who did some of the city’s downtown murals. She thinks it all depends on how you classify “real art”.
“To me, it’s something that paints an informative picture or makes you feel some kind of emotion,” she said. “So if you color an image and it makes you feel something, that’s real art. Whether you throw paint on your canvas or apply it meticulously, the end result evokes some kind of emotion. .
“I imagine for most people who color these books, it’s relaxing and satisfying to work on. They may even like it enough to hang it on their walls. Perhaps some people who try these books think they have some kind of hidden artistic ability and yes, it may even encourage them to pursue some type of art class where they can color outside the lines!
Luc Leonard, from Naperville, works in computers but has been creating art all his life. He taught figure drawing at the Naperville Art League and thinks it’s sad that as kids we all tend to think of ourselves as artists, but often lose that free spirit when we become adults.
“All artistic activity is about creation. And creation is an artist’s relationship with nothing,” he said. “The blank canvas, the rough stone, the silence without sound. The more one relies on what is generated by other artists, the less the original voice of the artist is heard.
“You can give multiple artists a coloring book or paint by numbers and there will be variations unique to who is working on it. But the variations are much less (and much less interesting) than the variations seen in the work of artists who have no common framework.
“All that said, there is also a huge barrier that many people build in their minds during their formative years that prevents any artistic expression. It is the idea that all children are artists and that we grow up, we begin to believe that we are not for some reason.
Despite this, Leonard sees some value in using coloring books. He says they can be useful for people who have lost their artistic motivation.
“If it brings someone closer to a purely creative relationship with nothingness, then I applaud it,” he said.
Patricia Davoust says she hates children’s coloring books more than adult ones. Davoust, a member of the Naperville Art League and an artist role model at North Central College, says she doesn’t think children should be given rules and guidelines for creative expression.
“Being told what to draw and fill in prepared spaces is a creativity killer,” she said.
However, she believes that for adults, coloring can be highly therapeutic. As a survivor of domestic violence and PTSD, she has found them helpful during times of stress. She did not color them but considered some of the patterns as reference for other artworks.
“For adults, whose brains are fully developed and who have the power to choose, it can be meditation,” she said. “It’s just an exercise in semi-absence of mind and control. For some adults, it’s a powerful way to connect with a deeper part of yourself that has been denied.
“Adult coloring books have a purpose in certain circumstances. They are useful in mental health settings. People who are ‘stuck’ or traumatized and who feel helpless can benefit from the limited choices and sense of control.”
Davoust says the fact that coloring books are so popular is an indicator of the mental health crisis.
“I see them as a deeply positive reflection of the basic need we have to try to heal ourselves. I’m glad this simple yet effective tool is readily available to those who need it.
“Is it art? No. This is not the case. Is it therapeutic? Yes!”
Although I have no intention of throwing an exhibition of my works on my garage door, I am proud to know that I have something to show for all the time I have spent. It may not be art, but I like it.
Hilary Decent is a freelance journalist who moved from England to Naperville in 2007.