Coloring books gaining as stress relievers
The idea came to Rick Antolic when he was an art student at Carnegie Mellon University in the early 1990s: What if he drew a coloring book depicting landmarks from the campus?
The notion failed to gain ground when Antolic was unable to find funding for the project, although Crayola offered to donate as many crayons as he could use. But last year the Lawrenceville-based artist resurrected the idea, this time with images of Pittsburgh.
“Pittsburgh: A Coloring Book” includes scenes of the former Kaufmann's clock in Downtown Pittsburgh, an Isaly's shop, and the archetypical “Old ladies in babushkas making pierogis.”
“It is part of a larger trend happening among adults where they are going back to their youth to rediscover things that they've lost,” says Antolic, who recently published a second edition of the coloring book.
Coloring — that anachronistic pastime that recalls rainy summer days at the kitchen table with waxy sticks of raw umber, mulberry and olive green — might now be more popular among adults than with children. Nielsen Bookscan estimated that 12 million adult coloring books were sold in 2015, 11 million more than in 2014.
The range and complexity of coloring book subject matter is broad. Some have pastoral elements, such as Johanna Basford's “Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book.” Others are definitely for adults only. “Release Your Anger: An Adult Coloring Book with 40 Swear Words to Color and Relax” is a veritable primer of profanity and the color palette. Even Chuck Palahniuk, the author of “Fight Club” and “Choke,” has a coloring book, “Bait: Off-Color Stories for You to Color” features new short stories with illustrations to color.
Meg Leder, an executive editor with Penguin Books in New York, calls the coloring book trend “a very affordable and democratic hobby.”
“Sometimes it's nice to have an analog activity that's very calming,” Leder says, adding that there's a nostalgia attached to the trend since it hearkens back to childhood. “Some of the coloring books definitely have amazing skill levels, but you don't have to be an artist to do it and feel very satisfied.”
About 30 years ago, Mark Zingarelli, an illustrator and artist from North Huntingdon, experimented with a clear-line drawing style that's perfect for coloring books. Zingarelli eschewed the coloring book renaissance until recently when his wife, a coloring book enthusiast, encouraged him to explore the form.
Noting the elaborate designs of many comic books — from paisleys to flowers to mandala — Zingarelli opts for a more representational approach. While he's known for his colorful work — his art can be viewed at his Facebook page, the House of Zing — the black-and-white designs of coloring books also are challenging and very hands on.
“I don't do it digitally,” Zingarelli says. “I still use a brush that I dip into a bottle of ink and sort of paint the lines on. For me that's a tactile thing, and I imagine that appeals to someone who is coloring with pencils or crayons, the actual tactile aspect of the crayon or the pencil.”
While coloring books can range from the profound to the profane, there's nothing quite like “Coloring the Biblia Pauperum: Medieval Woodcuts to Illuminate and Inspire” (Duquesne University Press).
The book is the result of a project started by two former professors at Duquesne, Albert Labriola and John W. Smetz, who are now deceased. For years, the duo worked on a classroom edition of the Biblia Pauperum, a medieval blockbook from book covers used by clergy to teach peasants and others who couldn't read the word of God.
According to Susan Wadsworth-Booth, director of the press, the commentary Labriola and Smetz originally wrote has been redone to fit the coloring book.
“It's not nearly as academic in nature,” Wadsworth-Booth says, “but it still has a lot of great and instructive information.”
The illustrations, reprinted from plates of the medieval manuscript with the permission of the British Library, have been subtly altered to make them crisper and more suitable for coloring. And while that may seem at odds with the original intent, coloring actually follows a historical precedent.
“The reason we used the word ‘illuminate' is because it was the illuminated manuscript of the time,” Wadsworth-Booth says. “They would have these manuscripts printed that often times the artist or preparer colored things in to make them more interesting and more attractive.
“The other thing I think is interesting … is because the illustrations are so complicated and detailed, as you color you notice things that you might not have noticed if you just look at it. You notice there's this woman back behind the crowd in some of the scenes. I wouldn't have noticed that a jar of oil is there. You're really paying attention to the details while you're coloring.”
But what does it mean, that so many adults are now reverting to an activity that once was deemed solely for children? Perhaps it's more than just a mindless form of entertainment and a form of art therapy.
On its website, the American Art Therapy Association (arttherapy.org) states that art therapy is “an effective treatment for people experiencing developmental, medical, educational, and social or psychological impairment. Individuals who benefit from art therapy include those who have survived trauma resulting from combat, abuse, and natural disaster; persons with adverse physical health conditions such as cancer, traumatic brain injury, and other health disability; and persons with autism, dementia, depression, and other disorders.”
Antolic has heard from coloring book enthusiasts who say the activity relieves stress and declutters the minds.
“When you're coloring, it's a relatively slow process,” Antolic says. “Your body and your mind are just focusing on one thing. Unfortunately, and maybe by necessity, the kinds of things you have to focus on are stressful. Our days have become way too busy, so when you sit down to color and just focus on one thing, it's a relief.”
Zingarelli agrees that coloring may provide a form of stress relief. As an artist, the tactile feel of drawing and illustrating has always been valuable to him.
“When I'm doing it, I'm kind of in that therapeutic mode,” Zingarelli says “For me, it's a form of mindfulness. I used to meditate all the time, but now I find I get the same sort of benefits when I'm actually doing a piece of art or a series of pieces I'm into.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.