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Colouring in or Colouring out? What’s the value of colouring books?

There are two very different ways of working with colour. For the ‘in’ approach I chose the popular phenomenon of adult colouring books. Meanwhile artists (the colour ‘outers’) declare that you cannot equate colouring-in with the exploratory but exacting process of creating a visual art work. The internet is full of opinions for and against colouring books. Indeed, for every individual who praises their amazing benefits, there are plenty of critics who dismiss the activity as childish, simplistic and all kinds of other indicators of pointlessness.

person's hand colouring in a picture

When I trained as an art teacher colouring books were a big ‘no-no’. The fun of colouring within pre-drawn line images was frowned on because it restricted kids’ imaginations, creativity and their ability to discover themselves in the world. Now adults are madly buying up colouring books, or downloading intricate linear arabesques, geometric patterns, glorious scenery, animals, grotesques and more – someone else’s designs to be filled with colour. Artistic trends and fashions come and go, and I think now is a good time to set aside my training and look again at colouring-in. Is this anally retentive as once art education authorities declared? Or is it mindful, meditative and therapeutic? Can it be considered to be making art? Colouring book publicity states that that the contained and harnessed activity of colouring-in is a form of mindful meditation leading to holistic wellbeing. The process is said to be akin to the sand mandalas carefully created by Buddhist monks to preconceived shapes and patterns. Yet these formalised artistic activities are mindful and meditative because they honour a living tradition and tap into a profound cultural and spiritual resource. Superficially, someone paying attention as they colour-in their downloaded mandala or fancy shapes might appear to be doing something similar. But this only applies if the colourer is searching for deeper meaning. Meditation requires the clarity of mind to tap a greater reality already alive in the individual. Mindfulness can’t be achieved in a vacuum. Changes in heart rate and brain waves have been observed in people involved in colouring. For a society of hyper anxious, hyper switched on, overloaded citizens colouring-in can be calming and destressing, no doubt, as can folding washing into neat piles (if that’s your thing) – repetition is a key factor. It can be self-soothing too, as can be pottering in the garden or stroking the cat. So does this make colouring-in art therapy as many publishers claim, or is that merely loose-lipped marketing spiel? Ancient Greek therapeia concerned service to the gods – a relationship leading to healing and knowledge of the divine. Today its derivative ‘therapy’ still involves relationship. Art therapist Cathy Malchiodi writes, ‘It is the right-hemisphere-to-right-hemisphere, attuned, interpersonal qualities of the art therapy relationship that support art’s reparative powers.’ (in Psychology Today, July 31 2015, Art Therapy: It’s not just an art project). The key for Malchiodi is interaction with a trained person. That is what encourages psychological healing and breakthroughs to clearer knowledge of self, with art as a vehicle to assist the process. I would add another potentially therapeutic relationship – an individual’s personal involvement in artistic creation. This brings us to the question of art. For all colouring-in’s attractiveness, the process doesn’t venture far into the realm of creative expression that is the basis of art – accessing inspiration, tapping the visions of the imagination, diligently exploring ways to express your responses and thoughts in a physical form. Nor does it involve practising the creative hand-eye, heart-mind skills that help develop cognitive abilities and perceptive awareness. Artists are communicators, sometimes despite themselves, because that’s the nature of art. Communication isn’t a core function of colouring books, even when people get together in colouring groups. But it is for art. A visual artist communicates and reaches out through lines, shapes, forms and colours. Artists colour out organically into the world; the only imposed boundary is the picture’s edge.

brightly coloured semi-abstract painting of flowers and plants

Here’s an example. This big luxuriant mixed media work, Frangipani and Weeping Wisteria is by Melbourne artist Zoe Ellenberg. She writes, ‘Nature is my perspective inspiration and muse.’ And, ‘My paintings grow as the forest does.’ The picture hangs on my wall and sings to me daily through Zoe’s free-ranging lines and exuberant colours. Genuine artists open up relationship, with the material, the chosen media, with other people, the environment, and also with their inner life and life’s invisible dimensions. Their art reveals who they are on a deeply personal level. They are kin to other courageous souls who perform, sing and speak out from the heart, or those whose work is based on sharing their adventures of the soul. Colouring within defined boundaries is different. It is contained, a return perhaps to less demanding times, safer experiences. So to answer my own questions: colouring-in is not of itself meditation or therapy and it can barely be classed as art. Yet the activity of colouring contains a gift. For many creatures, survival depends on recognising colours. Human interactions with colour involve much more than this, and I see the value of colouring-in right within that process, and through a specific relationship. On colour and its significance Isaac Newton, key figure in the scientific revolution, is well known for the colour theories he published in 1704 in his book Opticks. He speaks of pure white light split into its component colours. When he directed light through a prism, he found seven colours, which for him was significant, connecting as it did with the sacred number symbolism he espoused. Not everyone could, or can, recognise all seven, but the names he gave them stuck – Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet make up the spectrum, the wavelengths of colours visible to the human eye. Other wave lengths are invisible to humans, but no light equals no colour. Then in the nineteenth century Johann von Goethe, who was a scientist as well as poet and philosopher, approached colour in another way, by gathering in information rather than theorising from a specific experiment. Using different prisms, he observed that radiant colours gather round a surface with more light while dark colours gather on the underside or dark side. He found a gradation of colour between light and dark polarities, that is, light bleeding into darkness with colour in between, from the lightest pale yellow to the deepest violet-black. This led him to view darkness as an active component rather than a passive absence of light. Goethe’s artistic consciousness enabled him to experience colours as potently alive. He wrote, ‘Colours are light's suffering and joy.’ These ideas inspired innovative painter Joseph Turner who in turn stimulated the Impressionists to depict depth and the changeable moods of light through colour transitions. Goethe’s focus on the soul’s experience of colours led him to explore their psychological impact. Nearly two centuries later, scientific research has corroborated that colour does indeed have an impact on us, affecting us in varying ways through our emotions and feelings – and influencing the thoughts that follow. Colour has meaning for us. If colour wasn’t deeply significant I wonder whether anyone would have gone to the trouble of digging up, grinding and mixing pigments from rocks and precious metals. For thousands of years in religious life people found meaning in colour, decorating themselves and sacred objects and exploring means of making more and richer colours. Perhaps the epitome is to be found in the spectacular light-filled coloured windows of Gothic cathedrals which strive to dissolve the bonds of dense matter – long before modern technology made this easy.

church interior with stained glass windows

Walls of coloured light – stained glass windows in the thirteenth century Sainte-Chapelle in Paris The eighteenth century enlightenment brought about an increasing focus on discovering and measuring the secrets of matter at the expense of the immaterial (and unmeasurable) metaphysical realm. Colours were reduced to a material set of facts and there was little attempt to explain the why of colour. But inner experience of colour was not lost on artists. In the early twentieth century Wassily Kandinsky wrote in his influential treatise, Concerning the Spiritual in Modern art: ‘Colour is a power which directly influences the soul.’ In all visual media, from paint to movies, creative people have increasingly turned to pure colour relationships to utilise colour’s psychological power – and its symbolism. The interpretation of what colours mean has become mainstream, and often clichéd. If we probe deeper into this symbolism the reason is found on a spiritual level. There is an old but potent and still relevant teaching that everything physical has a spiritual counterpart. Spiritual colours exist on what is known as the archetypal or astral level of consciousness. The inherent nature of each of these spiritual colours gives the life to their manifestations in the colours of the earth, sea, sky and in human creations. We receive what comes to us from a colour via the eye which is the mediator between the colour and our inner experience of its qualities – its dynamic intensity, the sense of expansion, contraction or stillness, of warmth or coolness, strength or softness. The spirit-imbued attributes of these physical colours gives them the power to create a distinct soul mood within us. Our eyes are indeed like windows, enabling us to receive the vibrating colour tones that play like music upon the soul. Our responses then connect us with the spiritual archetypes of colour, for these archetypes are to be discovered in all of us. The symbolic meanings of colours emerged because of this soul-spirit relationship. The spirit gives the meaning; the soul responds accordingly. Sure there are personal likes and dislikes, some cultural inclinations. Yet beyond these there is widespread consensus concerning what colours mean, even if only on a superficial level. It is a big subject and in Prodigal Daughters I explore the profound richness of each colour, its meaning aesthetically, psychologically and spiritually. Right now, though, if you spend some time experiencing and absorbing different colours you’ll recognise the universality behind and within your own responses. Through colour transitions an artwork gives life to inanimate forms, and so art reveals the interweaving of spirit in matter. Genuine artists draw on the beautiful colour world of the astral realms when they undertake an open-minded, open-hearted, imaginative yet concentrated act of creation. Although colouring-in is limited in terms of creative expression, imagination is involved when there’s the same kind of openness to experiencing the spiritual source of colour. With conscious attention, the willingness to contemplate, integrate and build on the wonderful experience of colour, engagement on a deep level of the psyche is possible. Colouring books provide one such opportunity to embrace this level of engagement. Almost anyone can take up colouring. It’s completely democratic, with any potential being in the hands, mind and heart of the colourer. That’s why I would not join the voices that dismiss colouring-in as self-indulgent, retrogressive and without any value. The value of colouring-in lives within colour.

close up of colouring pencils with points facing  forwardwing

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