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Giving In to the Coloring Craze

Why am I spending so much time doing something that may be a waste of time?

By Jill Smolowe

“So, be honest,” I say to my husband. “Is this stupid?”

Credit: Thinkstock

I’ve just shown him my latest masterpiece, a mandala [an Indian symbol representing the universe] that swirls with a rich assortment of colors. After oohing and ahhing appropriately, he says, “No, it’s not stupid. I think it’s a pleasant way to pass time.”

“Nothing more?”

“Nothing more.”

This is what I dread. I am wasting time. “No aesthetic value?”

“No, but that’s not why you’re doing it.”

He reminds me that, having acted on my curiosity about the adult coloring book craze sweeping the country, I find the activity relaxing, absorbing and an antidote to stress. He doesn’t understand my problem.

“You play Words With Friends. Why is this any different?”

Because it is, I insist. Fun apart, word games can help build vocabulary (dutifully I look up words I don’t recognize — then promptly forget them), ward against Alzheimer’s (maybe), keep my mind active.

They are, in a word, productive (sort of).

“Why do you have to accomplish something?” he presses. “Does coloring quiet your mind?” Yes.

"Is a half-hour of meditating wasting time?” No, not at all.

Being Here Now

Meditation helps me to focus. To immerse in the now. Which is what this coloring stuff does, too — to my surprise and delight. I haven’t had an outlet for my virtually non-existent art skills since elementary school. Painting, ceramics, needlework, none of it has attracted me. But this I really enjoy. The world recedes. Time flies by.

So why am I having trouble accepting that coloring mandalas with Magic Markers and gel pens is a legitimate way to spend my time? Sitting out on my porch, I become so absorbed in the challenge of finding new combinations of colors that at times I enter the complete immersion state known as flow — an experience that, until now, I’ve been able to achieve only when writing. That, in and of itself, suggests the exercise is worthwhile.

Yet I still can’t quite accept that it’s perfectly OK to spend time coloring. An hour here, two hours there. Never mind that it provides me with an excuse to dip into music I haven’t listened to in ages (Diane Krall, Van Morrison, Bob Marley). Surely there is more value to this than I realize.

Consulting a Color Expert

Seeking explanation, I invite Amy Wax to lunch. The author of Can’t Fail Color Schemes, Amy is a color consultant whose company, Your Color Source Studios, helps people select colors for the interiors and exteriors of their homes. When I tell her, a bit red-faced, about my new coloring habit, she lights up with pleasure.

“Coloring brings out our creative side,” she tells me. “There are no rules. It allows you to push limits.”

Though I like the sound of this, I remain skeptical. I’m just coloring inside of someone else’s lines, I say. I mean, it’s not really mine. Is it any more creative than, say, doing one of those paint-by-numbers pictures we used to do as kids?

“It is,” she says firmly. “Those pictures, they all look the same. These mandalas of yours, you made the choices. You’re creating this. No two are the same. That’s what makes it art.”

Art? Come on.

What Is Art?

“Art is a lofty term, but it’s appropriate,” she says. “You’re taking something two-dimensional and creating an illusion of three-dimensionality with the push and pull of the colors.” Think of it as collaborative, she says. Though someone else did the design, “It’s still yours.”


She points to my small assortment of completed pictures. “People are afraid of too much color. Once they take the baby step, they want to explore,” notes Wax.

Yup. With each successive mandala, I’ve incorporated more and bolder colors. Then, for my 61st birthday, my husband gave me an enormous cache of gel pens that initially made me cringe. Too much, I thought.

Not true, I quickly learned, as I began to experiment with the effects I could get from so many different shades and tones.

“I find it almost mathematical,” I say to Wax. “I feel instinctively that if I’m going to make all these colors work together, there has to be symmetry.”

“The mathematical part is what makes it succeed,” she explains. “You’re creating a world of balance.” Up the road, she suggests, I might want to experiment with asymmetry.

Hmmm. Hadn’t considered that.

“Look, playing with colors is whimsical,” she says. “It’s freedom to express yourself. It’s a tool to enhance visual awareness.”

All good, I allow. But in the end, jeez, I’m just coloring in a coloring book.

Wax laughs. “I feel the term ‘coloring book’ is holding you back. A coloring book is, by definition, juvenile. What you are doing here is not juvenile.”

The Precious Present

I pull out the three (yes, three!) books that I’ve purchased. Only one owns up to being an “adult coloring book.” The other two bill themselves respectively as “color art” and “color pad therapy.” Perhaps anticipating resistant types like myself, one of the two showcases a higher purpose in its subtitle: “anti-stress coloring pages.”

Recently, I read that some psychologists recommend coloring as therapeutic for grief, as well.

“It’s inspiring creative parts of you that have been dormant,” Wax says. “You’re getting something from this, which is why you keep going back to it.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But. I’m still a 61-year-old woman sitting on my porch coloring pictures with a proliferating assortment of markers and gel pens.

My 22-year-old daughter, blessed from birth with artistic ability, rolls her eyes when I share my doubts. “I can’t believe you think that way,” she says. Supportive of my new hobby, she has no patience for my reservations. “You enjoy it. That should be enough. Just keep coloring. Don’t ruin it for yourself.”

She’s right, of course.

But in case I didn’t internalize her wise admonition, a few days later I come across this from spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle in his 2005 bestseller, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. “You are present when what you are doing is not primarily a means to an end (money, prestige, winning) but fulfilling in itself.”

Even I can appreciate that being present in the moment is a beautiful thing.

Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of "Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief." To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit Read More
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