"Honestly, the first thing I thought when I heard about adult coloring books was dirty coloring books," says Lisa, a publishing professional with glampire red hair who is one of a dozen people at an adult coloring meet-up in Hoboken, N.J.
The participants are predominantly female, though there are a couple of guys present, and coloring skills run the gamut from outline-breacher to art school grad. Lisa is one of several publishing pros in attendance, which may be due to the location of the event at the Hoboken Public Library. Aside from a handful of first-timers, most took up — or returned to — coloring last spring, when the adult coloring boom first hit the public radar and Amazon sold out of Johanna Basford's The Secret Garden — it has since sold millions of copies.
To Lisa's point, there are plenty of coloring books with racy content that rank high on Amazon's selling list, including the Swear Word Coloring Book (for literally cursing a blue streak) and The Sexy Girls Coloring Book (line up your flesh tones for this one), but the top echelon is dominated by G-rated mandala patterns and whimsical gardens. There was much speculation about the Zen of coloring and the regressive pleasure of immersion in a nursery activity when adult coloring books first took off last year, but it's starting to look like a lot of grown-ups simply like unplugging their smartphones and connecting with crayons.
"I wanted to encourage more adults to come to our Monday Makers Night," says Heidi Schwab, who has been hosting the event for the last five months. Faced with the challenge of keeping public libraries relevant in a world where information has been decentralized and increasingly mobilized, Schwab is one of legions of librarians who have turned to creative programming to bring people through the doors. The monthly adult coloring De-Stress & Self-Express nights she hosts in the library's techie Maker Space have been a surprise, low-tech hit.
"You don't have to bring anything to the table (but) half your brain if you're tired," says Schwab. "I think people appreciate that they don't really have to think too much."
"I get here right from work," says Ann Clifford, who commutes between Hoboken and her job at a New York publishing house. "I don't go home or anything, so when I'm walking from the (train) I'm kind of thinking about the day and what I have to do when I get home and my mind is racing. When I leave here I'm nice and calm."
Clifford attributes the popularity of coloring books to the need people feel to slow down. Some books are marketed as stress relievers, while others are mind-focusing treasure hunts embedded with patterns that reveal themselves as color is applied. The emergence of books based on classic cars, hit shows like Game of Thrones and Doctor Who and other manly themes points to a growing engagement among males.
Alex Mancheno, a freelance cartoonist, is testing the gel-pens with which the group colors. Adult coloring books may not have a point, but a sharp point is necessary to color them in. In general, the adult book designs are too detailed for crayons.
"I'm trying to get back to a coloring technique that I learned in school," says Mancheno. "I've seen adult coloring books around but I've never used one of them, so I figured that would be cool to do today."
Since their initial surge in online sales, adult coloring books have become a common sight at brick-and-mortar stores, defeating the theory that buying coloring books on the Internet spared adults the embarrassment of purchasing them at real-world check-outs. Over the holidays, many bookstores reported coloring books to be among their hottest sellers.
"Wintertime is a great time to get these things out because everybody's inside. You're staying home, you're watching TV, nobody has any money anymore," says flame-haired Lisa while pinkening the petals of a jungle flower. "I guarantee in six months, this will have died down and you won't see as many coloring books in the stores."
Perhaps, but for now, graffiti artists, Internet memes and even smart, edgy writers have hopped aboard the adult coloring choo-choo — Abbi Jacobson, half of the brassy duo behind Comedy Central's Broad City, has published two adult-themed coloring books: Color This Book, New York City and Color This Book, San Francisco.
Even if adult coloring books have a limited shelf life, the impulse to get away from social media and actually do something social will probably continue to grow, and coloring among adults may continue to flourish.
"What's wrong with buying a coloring book that's princesses or something if that's what you want to do to relax?" asks Lisa, who says she loves coloring despite the misleading "adult" designation and is hoping to engage more friends in the activity. "What difference does it make if it's a Disney coloring book? If it's a geometric coloring book? If it's Picasso? If that's what you want to do, more power to you."