When I was in middle school in the early ’80s, I was really into unicorns. Like, scary obsessed. My bedroom walls were covered in posters and calendar pages. It was one of the many things that separated me from my male peers. I was recently reminded of this because I had occasion to pull from a dusty and neglected section of my bookshelves a unicorn coloring book that I owned back then.
This wasn’t your typical coloring book, with cheap yellowing paper and heavy black lines meant to be filled in with crayon. It was a high-quality publication by Bellerophon Books, featuring images taken from works by artists like Bosch and Tenniel and medieval tapestries and illuminations. I took it down not to give it to my 8-year-old daughter, but for myself, to try out some new colored pencils and art markers I had bought.
Adult coloring seems to be having a kind of cultural moment right now. You can hardly move through a Barnes & Noble or Michael’s without seeing adult coloring books, and there’s a glut of adult coloring pages available online. There are adult coloring magazines. Museums and archives around the world are releasing black and white images of works with the hashtag #ColorOurCollections. It’s huge, but as my unicorn book demonstrates, it’s an idea that’s been around for awhile. So why is it that it’s suddenly so big? I think its popularity comes from two directions.
For the adults who are coloring, it’s tied into recent movements we’ve seen around “making” and DIY, as well as ideas of meditation and mindfulness and the mental benefits of creativity. I like to color symmetrical images like mandalas. Their repeated patterns are soothing and help relax me. Some friends of mine in coloring groups on facebook seem to obsess about tools and techniques, trying to figure out how to get uniform coverage with a particular type of pencil, or using things like baby oil and petroleum jelly to blend colors together. Others just like to show off the new set of pens or markers they got at a bargain price.
But there’s another side to this, and that’s the publishing industry’s angle. Usually, when there’s a crafty trend, publishers who aren’t already in that segment lag behind. If knitting is popular, for instance, you have to put together talented designers, test knitters, models, and photographers to make a decent book. But coloring books are cheap. They are printed in black and white with standard inks on plain paper. They use images that are either simple to produce or are in the public domain. An adult coloring book that costs $15 probably cost less than $1 per book to create, and that means huge margins for the publishers.
This leads to a bandwagon effect. Colorers demand more and better books, publishers produce them, and then people who aren’t into coloring see them on the shelves and decide to get in on the hobby. Eventually this bubble will burst, but it hasn’t yet, and now I’m kicking myself for coloring in that unicorn book 30 years ago, because blank copies are selling for $20 online.