Five Reasons Why Coloring Is Therapeutic, or How I Discovered That All the Hype About Adult Coloring Was Indeed True

by Michelle M. Johnson

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When the "adult coloring craze" started a few years ago, I have to be honest, I was a little skeptical of all of the reporting going on in the media:


I made that last one up, but you see what I mean, right? Pretty hyperbolic, is what I thought, and I've been a life-long colorist (FYI, that is the official term for a person who engages in the coloring of coloring book pages, colorist. Not surprisingly, Adult Coloring is developing a language of its own not necessarily to legitimize itself [Hello, coloring is legitimate - the world IS coloring, and there is LOADS of proof.], but to be able to eloquently engage in discussion about the act of coloring without the use of ridiculous and juvenile sounding words like "colorer.")! I should have been the first one to jump on this Adult-Coloring-Is-Awesome train, but I was rather reluctant due in large part because most of the articles circling about weren't providing any real support for these claims or showing any real strategies about how to go about achieving these health benefits. Mostly, these articles displayed pretty pictures and links to various coloring books and supplies alongside a few quotes from folks (usually publishers) about why they thought coloring was growing in popularity.

Oddly enough, during this eruption of Adult Coloring, I myself was actually in the process of creating a coloring book (To check out my coloring book, Doodled Blooms, on Amazon, click here. Hey, I had to put that in there to show my coloring cred; do with it as you will.). It was the publication of my coloring book which then led me to leading monthly Adult Coloring clubs at libraries, which led me to researching answers to all of the participants' many questions on coloring ("How do I choose a page?" "How can I stop using blue? I always choose blue!" "How do I choose which color to use?" "How can I finish this all in one sitting?" "I don't have any yellows! How can I color this sunflower without yellow?" These questions of the library clubs' participants have been the guiding force in my work helping folks with their creativity. When someone asks "How do I...?" you don't just say, "You just do it." Questions about creativity demand steps from which to bounce off of, I think, otherwise my answers to their questions will only frustrate, killing all chance at creative enjoyment.), which led me to leading workshops on coloring and creativity, which led me to believe that maybe there really is some truth to those claims that coloring has therapeutic benefits. I have been teaching/leading groups of adults in coloring for almost a year now, and in that time I have observed these five very specific ways coloring is more than just a childhood pastime having a renewed moment in the spotlight. 

1. Coloring forces you to slow down.
We live in a world where people believe that multi-tasking is a real thing (it isn't) and something to be lauded ("Why read a book, have a conversation, finish a project, cook a meal, answer an email, tend to your pet one thing at a time, when you could do them all at once?! It's totally possible, if you're amazing enough and don't need to breathe in order to stay alive! Try it, you'll love it!"). And, it is this emphasis on GET MORE DONE RIGHT NOW that leads our brains to feel constantly busy, buzzing with the more we could be getting done, obsessively focusing on the places we are going next rather than observing and being present in the place we currently are.

Training your eyes on a specific and
sometimes small space has the benefit
of drowning out all other distractions,
even to the point that when I
lead coloring workshops, I frequently
have to remind participants to breathe. 
Coloring demands your focus, demands the lion's share of your attention. You cannot multi-task while coloring (Unless you count having a meaningful conversation with the folks you might be coloring with, in which case I have four reasons why coloring is therapeutic, not five.), and while your brain may be thinking about your to-do list while you color (I have been guilty of this many times), it still is allowing you to focus on this to-do list in a much more centered way as your hands and eyes focus on filling in the white space between black lines; thoughts tend to be completed instead of interrupted when coloring, which I have found to be very therapeutic to buzzing, over-busy minds. Since beginning my work leading groups of folks in coloring and creativity, I have heard time and time again how coloring is helping participants slow down, think through problems and challenges, and "re-set" or "clear" their minds, and I think the reason for this is a colorist's inability to simultaneously color AND do anything else.

2. Coloring forces us to make decisions and live with them even when we don't like the outcome.
I am using the word "force" quite a lot in this blog post, but when it comes to something being therapeutic, sometimes we need to be forced into doing what is best for us in order to feel better. We live in a world full choices (Just take a trip down the pain reliever or breakfast cereal isle at your local grocery store for proof of this fact.), so many in fact that sometimes it feels like we've created an environment where living with one's choice, good or bad, just isn't something we have to do anymore; there is always a way out, always another option, another choice. Not so in coloring - once you've chosen a color and laid it down on the page, there it is. Don't like how it turned out? Tough.
I thought that I had completely
ruined this coloring by starting out
the background in yellow:( But,
I persevered and accepted my
decision, eventually coming to an
emotional space where I was very
well pleased with the end result. I
made a mistake, and the world didn't
come to an end. Shocker.
Crayons, markers and colored pencils don't come with do-overs, so when you make a decision you don't like you can either A. live with it and see where your coloring page ends up (what I always suggest first) or B. acknowledge you made a choice you don't like and turn the page. The reason why I always recommend going with option A. is that in coloring (as well as in life) sometimes what we initially perceive is a mistake is actually a detour in our vision that leads us to a really pleasant outcome. We can never learn anything about coloring or ourselves without making choices, and we will never learn from our choices if we never allow ourselves to make and live with a mistake. But, the word "mistake" is so full of shame in our culture that I have come to rely on a saying in my coloring workshops: "In coloring, there is no such thing as a mistake; there is only the direction you go with a choice you didn't exactly feel awesome about." Some of the greatest colorings (FYI, "coloring" is the name for a finished coloring book page, no matter what spellcheck says.) are the results of a choice the colorist chose to live with. Adult coloring encourages us to make decisions; creativity helps us to figure out how to live with the choices we make.

3. Coloring helps us to understand a bit more about ourselves.
One of the most intriguing things I have encountered while leading adult coloring workshops is observing that there are more or less three kinds of people in this world: 1. folks who love coloring with markers 2. folks who love coloring with pencils and 3. folks who color with it all. While this may seem like a "duh" factor, hear me out.
While it may seem ridiculous, my experience
leading coloring groups has shown me
that you can learn a lot about yourself by
observing which coloring tools you are
the most comfortable with.
Coloring with markers is, by far, the quickest way to finish a coloring page, BUT you do not have the same flexibility to create depth and texture with markers as you would with other coloring tools. Coloring with pencils can be a painstaking process BUT the colorist has considerably more control over where the color goes, how much color is used at once, and to what effect the color creates light, shade and texture. Coloring with a variety of coloring tools leaves a page open to unexpectedly awesome results, but mixing media can also result in experiments gone awry - paper torn through with too much moisture, pencil marks smeared across the sheen of waxy crayons, etc. In encouraging folks to try all kinds of coloring tools, I have been honored to witness folks making observations about themselves and their personalities: Marker folks have observed that they have a serious need to complete something in one sitting, and unless they have the time to complete something they enjoy, they will not allow themselves to begin a project; Pencil folks have been recognizing their need for control in their creative process, they need to know exactly how something is going to turn out before they begin, otherwise they won't create; Mixed Media folks have been noticing that they aren't really that concerned about the end product of their coloring so much as the process of coloring itself because they don't really think they are "all that creative", they don't really "have a vision." All of which leads me to my next point on why coloring is indeed therapeutic.

4. Coloring can reveal challenging aspect of our personalities.
Many of the people who bring themselves to the coloring workshops I lead come with the hopes of working on some challenging personality traits: perfectionism, completionism (I don't think it's possible that I have coined this word or its cousin, completionist, but both are not recognized by spell-check, which I think is ridiculous because completionism is totally a thing. Every time I talk about completionism in my workshops there are always sighs and grunts of agreement about the struggles of being a completionist. And, interestingly enough, completionism knows no gender lines; men and women, in my teaching experience, are equally completionistic, especially those who actively perceive themselves as "creative."), and a perceived lack of creativity. Perfectionists tend to be more comfortable working with colored pencils as they are the most predictable of coloring tools, never bleeding surprisingly, never smearing unexpectedly, creating a page exactly as they had envisioned. Completionists are drawn to using markers because finishing a page in a single coloring session is totally possible, so the anxiety that comes with leaving something undone is never a concern. Folks who feel they are lacking in creativity tend to choose all sorts of coloring tools, applying crayons in one section, markers in another, pencils mixed here and there, often times voicing to me that they "have no idea what they are doing" and that they are "just not that creative." Why coloring is therapeutic in these instances leads me to my last and final point.

5. Coloring provides a low-cost, risk free arena to step out of our comfort zones.
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at how confessional the coloring workshops that I lead end up being, but consistently folks enter into the creative chaos that is coloring in a group voicing concerns about their perfectionism, their completionistic tendancies, and their perceived lack of creativity. Folks who come to coloring, in my experience, WANT to improve in these areas, but making big leaps to step outside of their comfort zones (trying something they know they aren't good at, starting a huge project they aren't sure they're going to finish, attempting to create something even though they don't "have a vision") is not only scary but can also be very expensive. For less than $20 (Or even for free if you have well supplied Adult Coloring Clubs like we do here at the libraries in Seguin & New Braunfels, Texas), a perfectionist can get practice at starting (and following through) on something they perceive themselves as not good at, a completionist can try a complicated page or use coloring tools that requires more time so that they can get practice leaving something "unfinished," and a self-perceived "uncreative" can allow themselves the opportunity to play and make absolutely creative mistakes that wind up being inspired coloring choices, slowly building up the confidence to see that creativity isn't really a personality trait you have or don't have, but a state of mind that anyone can choose to entertain.
The Seguin Public Library's
Adult Coloring Club where all
supplies are provided & all you
need to do is show up. Call your
area library to see if such a
group exists in your town.
All of these risks take place in adult coloring all of the time, and when folks share about these coloring risks they take either in face to face groups like the ones we have here or in online coloring forums on Facebook or Instagram, typically what I have witnessed is real support, encouragement and camaraderie. It is that acceptance, I think, that helps us make the occasional leap from risking emotionally and psychologically with coloring to taking similar creative risks in our day-to-day lives, creating the overall therapeutic effect of adult coloring.

When I first started sharing with folks about coloring a year ago, talking about and showing the "how to" and the "with what," I really didn't understand or really believe in the "why." I certainly don't know why I had continued coloring long past my elementary school days; it was just something I never stopped doing. But, in learning how to share my enthusiasm for coloring and all of its experimentation, I have stumbled upon the answer - we color because it is enjoyable, and through the experience of that enjoyment our minds remember how to play, and in that play we take risks, and through those risks we re-discover our creative selves, and when the time comes for us to put our books, pencils and markers away, we realize that we feel more at ease, we can find our breath without looking, and we have the energy to start the next day.

Coloring is indeed therapeutic, but don't take my word for it; try it out for yourself by clicking here to subscribe to my newsletter and receive a free, downloadable inspirational coloring page. I hope you will take a few risks with this page should you decide to download it, and that you will share with me the results of your experimentation whether or not the coloring worked out the way you planned. You can always find me on Facebook by searching Have Color Will Travel, on Instagram with @havecolor_willtravel or Twitter with @mj_flowergirl.