My thoughts on the coloring-book craze


A rack of adult coloring books at a local arts and crafts store. Just the front side!

Over the past couple of years, you’ve probably noticed the huge influx of “adult coloring books” in bookstores, art supply stores, and even supermarket magazine racks.  The books’  linear designs range from simple garden flowers to incredibly intricate mandala patterns.  This type of “coloring” has been noted for a calming, soothing, therapeutic effect, somewhat like meditation or knitting.  It has caught on in rehab facilities and senior centers.

Adult coloring books are still growing in popularity, so sales of markers and colored pencils have skyrocketed, and some artists have successfully self-published their own coloring books.  There is even a new brand of colored pencils made in China and marketed to the coloring-book crowd as much cheaper than the better-known brands, albeit lower in quality.  Since I have published free swatch charts for many popular brands on my website, someone asked if I’m planning to publish one for this new brand, too.  (No, and I’m not going to name the brand here.)

As an artist whose primary medium is colored pencil, I have mixed feelings about this fad.  On the one hand, it’s great to see so many people (re)discovering colored pencils, and hopefully they’ll be inspired to take the next step to learn how to create their own original drawings and master the medium.  On the other hand, it’s also leading to an impression that colored pencils aren’t a fine art medium, they’re for very casual hobbyists.  And that’s an impression that the Colored Pencil Society of America has worked hard since 1990 to dispel, so it feels like a giant step backward.

Recently, Time magazine published an article “How coloring inside the lines came into fashion” which examined these impressions.  Today, I was glad to read the CPSA’s response to it.

I personally have been told “Oh, you should make a coloring book!” and I take that as a compliment about how interesting my subjects are and how easily they might translate into linear outlines.

But on a Facebook group for colored pencil artists I have read accounts of fellow artists being asked about their original work “What coloring book is this from?” and the questioner not being able to grasp that it was not from a coloring book.  I think if this was asked of me I’d have a hard time responding without curse words!  I can see how this confusion might arise, since some people who color in pages from a coloring book post them to social media with the idea that it’s now “art”.  It’s not.  There’s an important distinction: all art is artwork, but not all artwork is art.

The latest ridiculousness resulting from this fad is a report of a community college offering a five-day “Coloring Book Technique” workshop, for which people pay $130 and bring their own coloring books and colored pencils.  Really?  Since when do we have to be taught how to color in coloring books?  Every seven-year-old knows how to do this.

So on balance, although I recognize the value of adult coloring books as therapy and for relaxation, so far I’m not happy about what it’s doing for serious artists who work with colored pencil.  For any such artist, I recommend that if someone asks what kind of art you do, don’t say “I do colored pencil drawings” or they’ll likely assume you mean you color in coloring books.  Instead, try simply saying “I work mainly in colored pencil”.  The subtle difference in wording may trigger a better mental image.


The back side of the same rack.

11 thoughts on “My thoughts on the coloring-book craze

  1. Great article and I like your reply about mainly working in colored pencil!! I most often say I work with “Prismacolor” and when someone asks what that is I say it is professional artist-grade colored pencil.

  2. Well said, Denise – great, informative read. I have people who come to my open studios ask me if I do these coloring books. I say no, I consider myself a professional artist and those are for hobby and relaxation. The art is someone else’s concept, not my own. I perfectly understand their purpose, but I’m afraid since the most common medium used seems to be the cp, it is sending us back to the dark ages in terms of it being a legitimate fine art medium. 25 years of CPSA’s hard work is in danger!

  3. I agree with you and well put. People who see my art work look in awe and don’t ask which coloring book it came from. But coloring books do have their place and learning to blend and shade and create mixed media from amateurs is a good first step to fine art interests and hopefully to real professional pieces. Thanks for your wonderful comments and your very fine art.

    • Thank you for your comment . I admire Denise’s work, but when she said: ” Since when do we have to be taught how to color in coloring books? Every seven-year-old knows how to do this.” My admiration went down a tick. I understand that she is frustrated, But was surprised when she needs to put other people down to make herself seem so superior. elitist, snobbish, or just foot in month – who knows but I don’t think she needed to put down coloring book colorists to make her point that it isn’t art … to her.

  4. Dear Denise,

    There are many Facebook groups for coloring pages. Chances are the people were confused about what type of group they were in when they asked the artist what coloring book their art was from, or maybe they are new to art and just uneducated. I am in several adult coloring groups (one group I belong to has over 24,000 people and growing quickly) and colored pencil groups, and I have never seen this happen once.

    In the colored pencil groups I see very talented artists who are sharing and inspiring each other. In the coloring groups, I see mainly beginners who are so excited about being immersed in a whole new world , of not just colored pencils but markers, watercolors, gel pens, and variety of other mediums. Occasionally, a professional artist’s website will be posted in a coloring group, and everyone is just is in awe! Kinda like weekend golfers or children who play soccer look up to the professionals, those who color look up to the professional artists! We all wish we could do what you do. We admire you so much!

    I don’t think the general public had their attention on colored pencils for a long time and now there are millions who have their attention on colored pencils because of their new found coloring hobby. This is your oppurtunity to welcome us, educate us, and turn us into your fans.

    As someone who enjoys coloring, I am now obessed with colored pencil art and artists. I want to take colored pencil classes, I want to see colored pencil art, I want to support colored pencil artists, and I want to buy colored pencil art. I didn’t even know this whole world existed until I was gifted a set of Prismas and a coloring book last Christmas. It hurts my feelings when I read articles like yours (there are a few out there) and comments by other colored pencil artists about how they feel about coloring and people who color. It’s alienating to me.

    I am just not understanding how this could hurt colored pencils as a fine art? Is there concrete proof? Or is this just fear based speculation? I see it as a huge oppurtunity to get exposure. It’s 2016; with social media, etsy, patreon, deviant art . . . artists can create their own following. People fall in love with art and with the artist too. It’s an amazing time and the internet is an amazing tool to change perception.

    I have never heard a professional golfer criticize the casual or pee wee golfer, or say things like, amateur golfers are making the price of golf clubs go up, or, their won’t be enough balls for the professionals, or say that amateur golfers are childish, stupid, or talentless . . .I have heard all those things and more from artists about people who like to color, just substitute golf balls and clubs with colored pencils or art supplies.

    I don’t know how long this fad will go on for. But for now, we are a large group of people worldwide. My advice is: don’t complain about us in a public forum, but instead turn us into colored pencil art experts, and fans. Turn us into your ally.

    Articles like this, I don’t feel help your cause. Colorists may not comment, but trust me, we see the negative articles people write about adult coloring because someone will post them in a coloring group. Inside the group their may be hundreds of responses, but no one will comment on the actual person’s blog. Except for me of course.

    Agree or disagree with my thoughts, it never makes anyone look good to put someone or something else down, especially in a public forum.

    • Hi Cecelia, thank you for your very thoughtful comments. I want you to know that my comments are in no way intended as a put-down of those who enjoy coloring. In fact, your own story is an example of our highest hope for what will happen as a result of the craze: more people wanting to learn more about colored pencil and make their own art! It would be wonderful if every one of the 24,000+ people on the adult coloring book group you mentioned did this, and joined the Colored Pencil Society of America; colored pencil would be a force to be reckoned with, and there are bound to be some stars emerge.

      By the way, my artist acquaintance who was asked which coloring book her work was from, was asked this at an exhibition or festival, not on a Facebook coloring group.

      Let’s see if I can explain the concern another way. Golf isn’t a good analogy, because golf is a very well-established activity, created by gentry, with several centuries of history and tradition. Colored pencil has only been around since approximately the 1830s, and only generally available since the 1920s. It has remained marginal in popularity. Formal instruction in it is hard to find. When the general public thinks of colored pencil, they remember the awful, hard ones they used to color maps in 5th grade, not the professional-grade ones available today. Serious artists who have chosen colored pencil as their preferred medium have struggled to have their work taken seriously by galleries, simply because of the medium. I personally know artists whose work was received well by a gallerist, right up to the moment when they mentioned that colored pencil was the medium. Then they were quickly shut down and shown out.

      This was part of the motivation for the formation of the Colored Pencil Society of America in 1990: to promote the medium and dispel the attitude among gallerists that it isn’t fit to be a true fine art medium because it’s only for kids and sketching, not made to last, produces ineffective marks and unremarkable colors. Thanks to the CPSA’s efforts, there is now a lightfastness standard for colored pencils and published lightfastness ratings for every color of every brand of colored pencil. This was necessary because a true fine art medium’s pigment shouldn’t fade out to nothing within a matter of a few years. Every major manufacturer of colored pencils is also aware of the CPSA and supports it. The effect has been to start opening some gallery doors.

      Note that this has nothing to do with folks who are using colored pencils purely for enjoyment; they are free and welcome to enjoy and benefit from the outcomes of the CPSA’s efforts, but the efforts were made to benefit artists who are trying to be taken seriously. This takes nothing away from recreational artists, it only helps serious artists.

      Now comes along adult coloring books. Just when we’ve started to dispel the gallerists’ old attitudes about colored pencil being just for kids, kids’ coloring books have been reimagined for adults to use with…colored pencil. It still takes nothing away from recreational artists, but it sure doesn’t help serious artists convince more gallerists that colored pencil can be a serious fine art medium.

      I hope I’m totally wrong and the surge in popularity for colored pencil due to coloring books will make galleries more receptive, not less. That would be terrific!

      • I agree with Cecilia that the coloring book craze will not harm the professional fine art CP community. Those who truly understand what can be done with CPs will seek further education and perhaps enter the true world of fine art. Furthermore it is a mindless and easy way to relax and have some quiet time away from the work necessary to produce the finer arts no matter what the medium. I color watching TV. It certainly doesn’t take away from my creative art time.

    • Great comment April. As artists I feel like we should be embracing anything that gets people more involved in doing something creative, and that coloring books can be a great “gateway” for people to get into doing visual art (or just a great, clinically proven way to relax.) I am extra disappointed with this post, because I facilitate art groups in a community setting. I had sent one of my participants who just recently started attending to this website because they had just begun coloring. I wanted to show them what can be accomplished with colored pencils in hopes of eventually encouraging them to get into drawing freehand with pencil rather than coloring. Instead of being greeted by one of Denise’s beautiful colored pencil works, the first thing they saw was this little screed about coloring not being “real art”. I ended up with one slightly disappointed future artist on my hands. Unfortunately I will not be able to recommend this blog to anyone from my groups again.

      • Jessica, thank you for your response. As I already said in my post, I fully support the idea of coloring books for therapy, for relaxation, and as hopefully a gateway to learning more visual arts, and I salute anyone who facilitates this.

        The result of coloring in a coloring book is artwork, to delight in showing and sharing to one’s content. It’s similar to a paint-by-numbers effort, where the subject, composition, and every detail is preset; the only creative choice to be made is the colors and their location. If you feel that’s sufficient to deem the result not just artwork but fine art, then we’ll have to agree to disagree. There’s no need to take offense and stop recommending anyone’s website based on that. There are several fantastic artists whose work I greatly admire but whose political opinions upset me; I still share their art websites like crazy because their art is so inspiring, completely independent of any differences of opinion we have.

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