Several months ago I was trolling Instagram when I noticed a post by a good friend who works in publishing (let’s call her B). B’s photo depicted the kind of scene you might associate with elementary school: a box of colored pencils, a bowl of baby carrots, and several coloring books flipped open to reveal completed drawings. But kindergarten this was not. B’s caption read “Adult coloring party,” trailed by a string of hearts and painter’s-palette emoji and the handles of a couple other ladies, including another pal, R.
I clocked the image as odd, briefly wondered if my invite got lost in the mail, then moved onto the scores of selfies, engagement rings, babies, and sunsets that, at 32, now dominate my feed. Then a week ago, B posted a different version of the same image. Adult coloring party round two had even more attendees—again, no invite!—and even more coloring books, (though no carrots and fewer hearts).
It’s been vaguely on my radar that adult coloring is a thing. As someone who writes about books and art, publishers have, unbidden, mailed me copies of their latest attempts to corner a piece of the growing market. I’ve skimmed the many trend stories on the subject: about how adult coloring books are topping Amazon bestseller lists; about stars of the genre, like Johanna Basford, the Scottish illustrator responsible for for mega-popular titles like Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest; about how the books fit into the broader “Peter Pan market” of adult nostalgia for childlike pastimes; about how we’re drawn to the activity as an low-tech antidote to the stress of our frenzied, increasingly digital, lives.
Coloring “is something to do with my hands while I watch Netflix,” Julie Beck wrote last month in the Atlantic, in a piece that convincingly connected the trend to the culture’s rising obsession with meditation and mindfulness. But while meditation approaches serenity by attempting to empty the mind, coloring is more like a convenient way to trick our multitasking-addicted brains into mindless bliss. “Why do I need to do two things at once?” Beck wondered, comparing coloring to other tactile, repetitive activities like nail-painting, knitting, and eating. “In part because I feel a little less lazy if I’m making something while I wile away the hours with Friday Night Lights. But also, I’m watching TV in the first place to relax, to quiet my mind, and often my mind is loud enough to shout over Coach Taylor. . . . If the front of my mind is occupied by the show, and the back of my mind is focused on picking colors and staying in the lines, there’s not room for much else.”
I too suffer from a careening, Tasmanian devil of a brain that’s almost impossible to silence, and I found Beck’s perspective alluring. But, in spite of the fact that I do on occasion sketch and paint with watercolors, I’ve never once felt moved to pick up a coloring book and go to town. Nor did I imagine that people in my social sphere were doing so. Were those Instagram-famous coloring parties a total anomaly? Or were my other friends also secretly brandishing markers in their spare time?
I posted the query to Facebook and the response—entirely from women—was surprisingly immediate and enthusiastic. “My aunt-in-law brought coloring books and fancy markers to Thanksgiving and I was all ‘pshhhh, really??’ ” wrote Dean, a designer in Chicago whose funky style I’ve long admired on social media. “Next thing I know, I’m suuuuper chill with a glass of wine, coloring a picture of a flower shop. It’s surprisingly kind of awesome.”
Other ladies seemed to agree. “I do this,” an old colleague who works in video production admitted with a trace of sheepishness. A writer acquaintance raved about Chat Thérapie, a French, feline-themed coloring book she uses after dinner as a means to avoid screen-induced insomnia. A fashion-school grad explained that coloring-book patterns help her dream up jewelry designs. A mom of two avowed that the hobby keeps her sane. A friend in Austin described how coloring books have begun to appear at packed house parties, psychedelic concerts, and on camping trips. Another friend, a therapist, agreed with Beck that they’re best enjoyed while bingeing on TV.
The recently released premiere of the second season of Transparent has been calling my name, so I decided to put Beck’s theory to the test. Luckily two adult coloring books had recently come across my desk: The Little Book of Calm Coloring, a stocking-stuffer-size edition of an international bestseller by David Sinden and Victoria Kay that, per its press release, features “beautiful anti-stress designs on quality paper”; and Color Me Cluttered by Durell Godfrey, a collection that dares to ask (again, quoting from a press release): “Is there beauty to be found in the clutter making up the majority of our living spaces? Is tidiness inherently, even morally, superior, to mess?”
With these heavy questions in mind and Transparent streaming on my laptop, I pulled out my colored pencils and got to work. I first flipped through Color Me Cluttered, but couldn’t imagine that time spent in one of its seemingly hoarder-inhabited tableaus—filled with dirty dishes, strewn-about clothing, and groceries mysteriously toppled from the kitchen counter—could possibly set me at ease.
Moving onto Calm Coloring, I chose a spread with a trippy flower design on the right-hand page, and a quote from Marcus Aurelius on the left: “He who lives in harmony with himself lives in harmony with the universe.”
Easier said than done: About 15 minutes in, just as Sarah was beginning to realize that marrying Tammy was not the best idea (spoiler alert!), I began to realize that my color scheme of apple green and pepto bismol pink was also not such a good idea. I forged ahead despite the fact that my colored pencil tips were too blunt to neatly fill between the narrow lines of the mini coloring book I’d chosen. After thirty minutes the credits rolled, and I’d covered roughly one square inch of space—messily at that. I also couldn’t really tell you what went down on Transparent. Coloring, it turns out, is hard!
It is hard, confirmed B and R when I called them to ask about their parties—and especially hard, they added, when stoned. That’s the not so secret agenda of their adult coloring gatherings. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that adult coloring has become a thing at the very same moment that pot smoking has gone mainstream. (One popular coloring book, lest you’ve forgotten, was created by none other than Abbi Jacobson, one half of the ganja-loving duo behind Broad City.) It makes perfect sense when you think about it: What is a coloring book but a sort of analog Headspace app for stoners?
“That was kind of the idea,” R, a serious meditator and a regular pot smoker, told me. “Not just, let’s get together and get stoned and talk, but, we’re going to do this artistic, meditative activity that’s going to connect to the weed experience.” The first time they did it they realized the limitations getting high impose on the coloring experience. “We didn’t really consider the design,” R explained. “Some of us had chosen quite intricate things, not realizing that it’s really tedious.”
“We were all just silently coloring around the table, eating cheese” chimed in B. “And then all of a sudden one of us was like, guys, this is boring. So we put down our pencils and started watching Scandal.”
When they convened for a second go-round, they made sure to vet the books more closely, choosing ones, said R, that “looked actually doable.”
“It was very successful by comparison,” B remembered. ”We all almost finished our pictures. They looked sleek and pretty. I was proud of mine. I brought it home.”
“I thought about putting mine on my fridge,” R added later, giggling.