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Remember what you created with crayons in your childhood? Those waxy sticks in hand, you’d fill in thick-lined drawings of your favorite cartoon characters.

Welcome back, coloring books—this time, for adults. Tens of millions of them have been sold in the United States and around the world since the 2013 release of Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book, her first of three. “It’s the single book that created the adult coloring phenomenon, tapping into a market no one knew existed before,” says Laurence King, her publisher at Laurence King Publishing (LKP) in London. Initially promoted to older children, Secret Garden attracted mainly adults, from all walks of life, who quickly found coloring to be meditative, stress relieving and fun. And it’s an enormous market for illustrators to tap into.

From nature scenes and cityscapes to mandalas and mathemati­cal designs and even hairstyles, coloring-book subjects run the gamut, with spinoffs in calendars, notecards, postcards and journals. Along with the grown-up themes, the details make them appealing to adults.

Focusing, yet calming, coloring provides a playful escape from a demanding, digitalized life, back to the carefree days of childhood. It’s also creative (without the blank-paper panic), given the variety of pencils, pens and markers, colors, and techniques, including shading and layering.

Basford thinks of her books as collaboration; she draws the lines and other people add the color. Fans upload their renditions online in a vibrant, ever-growing gallery. On Basford’s Facebook page, colorists offer their gratitude: “Definitely relieves my stress as a stay-at-home mom”; “I find it very relaxing, and I escape into my own world with coloring pencils.” After Basford announced new book releases on her Facebook page, one enthusiast wrote: “I’m screaming with excitement like I’m at a Michael Jackson concert!!!!”

Artist Andrea Pippins embraces hair in all its diversity in her coloring book I Love My Hair: A Coloring Book of Braids, Coils and Doodle Dos (left). Fascinated by the natural world, illustrator Millie Marotta says she creates intricate patterns and textures to keep colorists entertained, such as this page from her book Tropical World: A Coloring Book Adventure (right).

Basford’s client work led directly to her lucrative business. For years, she had been doing intricate black-and-white pencil and pen illustrations, which she then scanned and further embellished, for commercial clients. To promote her work, she offered free desktop wallpapers, and they caught the eye of LKP.

Secret Garden, which includes mazes and patterns to com­plete and spaces to fill, was inspired by the botanical books Basford inherited from her grandfather, head gardener at Scotland’s Brodick Castle, Garden and Country Park, which she visited as a child. Its surrounding woods made their way into her second book, Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest & Coloring Book (LKP, 2015). She thanks her marine-biologist parents for the visual ideas in Lost Ocean: An Inky Adventure & Coloring Book (Penguin Books, 2015). The three books add up to more than fifteen million copies sold to date, plus her journals and postcards.

Colorists can find more nature images in Millie Marotta’s books, published in the United States by Lark Crafts—Animal Kingdom: Color Me, Draw Me (2014), Tropical World: A Coloring Book Adventure (2015) and Wild Savannah: A Coloring Book Adventure (2016). A fourth nature-based book is due out later this year.

“I’ve been fascinated by the natural world since as far back as I can remember, and this is what’s at the core of my work,” says Marotta, a freelance illustrator in West Wales with commercial clients in food packaging, book illustration, wallpaper, textiles and branding. She was unaware of the budding trend in adult coloring books before the British publisher Batsford approached her, in 2013, to design one, though her detailed illustration style had always been well suited for the genre.

“I like to offer lots of different shapes, textures and patterns, an interesting composition, and subjects I hope colorists will enjoy. And I try to make sure the pages vary, some with lots of negative space and others filled to the edges,” says Marotta. She starts with an ordinary pencil and finalizes with a Rotring Rapidograph pen. “I have come to learn that people put a huge amount of time and effort into their coloring, and that’s at the forefront of my mind when I’m drawing.”

Illustrator Steve McDonald, of Creemore, Ontario, Canada, envisions cities around the world in his work. He’s visited or lived in most of the places in his Fantastic Cities: A Coloring Book of Amazing Places Real and Imagined (Chronicle Books, 2015)—from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he grew up, to New York City and Paris, from Florence, Italy, to Mussoorie, India, and beyond.

Steve McDonald translated his love for travel and cities into a coloring book (left) that spans from Italy to India. Johanna Basford also taps into her personal interests for publishing fodder; she was inspired to create Lost Ocean (middle) by her marine biologist parents. On the other hand, Lydia Hess focuses on creating a meditative experience for her readers in books like Sacred Symbols (right) and Sacred Nature.

In 2013, when McDonald and his family moved to Bali for two years, he left his commercial clients behind to focus on the work he’d shown in galleries: wall-sized architectural renderings based on aerial shots taken by established photographers. But now, each one had less and less color until only highly detailed lines remained.

Thinking “coloring book,” but unaware of the trend, he pitched his illustrations to about 30 publishers. “There are other city-related adult coloring books out there, but the drawings aren’t realistic, unlike Steve’s. That felt special,” says Steve Mockus, executive editor with Chronicle Books.

Along with a Fantastic Cities calendar, 2016 releases from the San Francisco publisher include McDonald’s Fantastic Structures: A Coloring Book of Amazing Buildings Real and Imagined and Fantastic Collections: A Coloring Book of Amazing Things Real and Imagined. “I’m reaching a whole different, and much larger, audience,” says McDonald, who is looking forward to creating two more coloring books, on landscapes and machines, by 2017. “It’s a real thrill.”

For adult colorists, it’s also thrilling to fill in the miniscule spaces between lines, but for some, “too much detail can be overwhelming,” says Lydia Hess, graphic designer and illustrator in Portland, Oregon.

The bolder, organic lines and ample negative space of her signature pen-and-ink, scraped-clayboard illustrations make them easy to color while still being mindfully immersed, as in her Sacred Nature: Coloring Experiences for the Mystical and Magical and Sacred Symbols: Coloring Experiences for the Mystical and Magical (both HarperElixir, 2015). “There are still challenging areas of detail, but also places where your eye can take a rest,” says Hess of her illustrations. Her coloring-book designs also show up as greeting cards, colorable wooden art boxes, throw pillows and a 2017 calendar.

In the style of M.C. Escher, this bird pattern from Patterns of the Universe, by Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss, helps teach math to students. The tiling pattern repeats pieces (or tiles) that fit together perfectly. This drawing also has four points of rotational symmetry—if you flip one bird around one of its wings, its torso or the crest of its head, the pattern will still fit.

“Each image in the books is accompanied by a Wisdom Word, useful as a spiritual focusing tool or just for calm, creative exploration. HarperElixir wanted to appeal to the ‘seeker,’” says Hess. She has been working with such themes for more than fifteen years, many with HarperOne and as art director at Amber Lotus Publishing.

Coloring doesn’t have to be a solo activity, either. Hess regularly holds community “color-ins” at public libraries and independent bookstores in the Pacific Northwest, offering a fun hangout space for like-minded adults.

Classrooms provide the right coloring atmosphere for Edmund Harriss, PhD, whose math-minded designs are available as free, printable images for university professors and public-school teachers. The illustrations appear in Patterns of the Universe: A Coloring Adventure in Math and Beauty (The Experiment, 2015), with text by Alex Bellos, a journalist and math writer based in London.

Harriss, a mathematician at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, had done his dissertation on the mathematics of tiling and patterns. Bellos suggested an adult coloring book of images showing the power and beauty of mathematics, and Harriss liked the idea. “We thought it would be a great way to take math down from the ivory tower,” says Harriss. “Mathematics in school often has the effect of putting people off the subject.” His and Bellos’s coloring book “gets math out to people, giving them another chance to find it. I hope they’ll think about the images, exploring the mathematics there, as they color them in.”

Under a tight, one-month publisher deadline, the two thought up the designs together, and Harriss churned out the loops, waves, spirals, knots, snowflakes, shells and other patterns. He says, “We wanted illustrations that were obviously attractive, yet covered as much mathematics as possible. We could’ve made a whole book of fractals, but we wanted it to appeal to a wide variety
of people.”

Hair is as engaging to Andrea Pippins—a Baltimore artist, designer and educator—as math is to Harriss. Afros, Mohawks, beehives and cornrows join straight locks and sweeping updos in her book, I Love My Hair: A Coloring Book of Braids, Coils and Doodle Dos (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2015). Eschewing the computer, which she normally uses to illustrate, she returned to a medium from her past for these pen-and-ink illustrations that praise the diversity of women and their confidence, strength and beauty.

The idea for the book started in 2008 when Pippins was a graduate student in graphic design. She created a social campaign called I Love My Hair to encourage African American women to celebrate and let loose their natural hair.

“What I want the book to communicate to people, while they’re coloring, is the idea of love, self-love,” she says. “It’s so important to say or think something we love about ourselves, every day, especially for women of color. We’re not represented enough in the media, and society’s standards of beauty don’t cater to us. My book is an opportunity to empower all women to embrace their natural beauty.”

Pippins’s unusual and attractive subject matter, combined with her expertise in illustration, nabbed her a book contract with the Random House imprint.

For any designer determined to get into adult coloring books, Mockus at Chronicle Books advises, “Look at what else is already out there, then think about what your contribution to the category would be. Really focus on the distinctiveness of your vision—how it stands out.”

King, of Laurence King Publishing, points out, “Publishers are busily experimenting with different types of coloring books, but it’s too early to say which will be the most successful.”

Meanwhile, the coloring-book craze isn’t letting up anytime soon. “On the other hand,” King continues, “so many coloring books are now being published that it is likely the market is already oversaturated. Once it settles down in a year or two, it’ll become more like any other genre of books—competitive, with only the most remarkable books winning.”

Those are the ones adults will always want to color. “As children, most of us enjoyed coloring as a way to be creative,” says Marotta. “Why should we stop simply because we’ve grown a little older?” ca

Claire Sykes (sykeswrites.com) is a free­lance writer in Portland, Oregon. She is a member of the exhibition committee for Blue Sky Gallery, an internationally esteemed photography gallery, and is a Roving Reviewer for the biennial portfolio-review event Photolucida, which takes place in Portland.

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