Adult Coloring Books 1: An initial review

October 19, 2015 | 83 Comments

This current craze of Adult Colouring Books is getting so big that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I had to work out what it is all about, so over the last few weeks I have gotten hold of a few  popular titles and want to share a few thoughts with you… and more importantly, I would love to hear your opinions and ideas.

I haven’t actually started colouring in yet, but I have four books that I am going to review before starting. Those of you who regularly follow me will know that my work is very loose. I rarely draw neat oultines and find it impossible to stay within the lines when I am sketching, but with my architectural background I am able to do precise and neat work. So in reviewing these books I feel as if I have more of my architect’s hat on than my sketchers one!

Note: despite the American spelling of coloring in the title of this post, I am going to stick to the English version of colouring – with the ‘u’.

Ok – lets get going… this is a long post!

Walk into any bookstore in Sydney and you will easily be able to find a huge range of Adult Colouring Books. Dymocks has gone to full promotion mode… you can’t walk into the store without passing the display. Perfect for Christmas presents – hey?

Four out of the top 7 best sellers are colouring-in books – wow! I find that incredible!

In the city store, upstairs there is are two row with many many titles. I have decided to look at four titles and not bother with any of mandala – ‘mindfulness’ type books, instead focusing on the more illustrative ones – I am an Urban Sketcher after all!


I don’t have Johanna Basford’s first book “Secret Garden” (the No. 1 book). Because I was ordering online I didn’t want to risk getting a copy of the earlier edition with the thinner paper, so I have gone with her second book instead, Enchanted Forest.

One can easily see why her books are so popular – they are full of beautifully designed and carefully drawn illustrations.

 There are no literal scenes in the Enchanted Forest – instead they are stylized fantastical illustrations.Gorgeous!

The book doesn’t open flat though, so colouring the double page spread would be difficult.

The second book I looked at, Millie Marotta’s Animal Kingdom, is in a similar style.

It is full of illustrations of animals, sometimes in a stylised environment, some with realistical outlines and others made up of floral motifs.

The line work is very precise in this book – in fact I feel a little too precise. The areas to colour in many places are very small (too small!) and the author states “you may find some parts of certain drawings are too detailed to colour in every tiny little section, and so you may choose to simply colour over the top of these areas”.

 This might be ok for some of the textured areas but I am not sure what you do with these areas in the floral animals. I feel like the drawings were drawn large and scaled down too much for this size book. Also the line thickness is inconsistent across various pages, some are very fine and some are significantly thicker – something that doesn’t happen in Johanna Basford’s books.

Also in some places the ink details made the areas a little too black for my liking. I think in a colouring-in book there some be very clean and crisp shapes to add colour to and I don’t like shapes that are too heavy with inklines.

The third book, Secret Paris by Zoe de Las Cases is quite different in that it includes collection of objects and actual street scenes from Paris.

I rather like this mix of subject matter, however I am not overly excited by a lot of the linework in this book. Some reviews on Amazon say that they like the ‘hand drawn’ quality of this book… I am tempted to say that is ‘sloppily drawn’! Now I know that as a sketcher I have very loose lines, but if I am to get into colouring in books I want clearly defined shapes (this might be a personal preference… and I could possible change my mind after I tackle a few pages in this book). It is not so much the character of the linework that is a problem for me in this book as it is the inconsistency.

The object pages are fine – although there are some strange linewieght variations which I find a little bit odd.

The Paris scene pages however are rather disappointing, and these pages are the reason why I bought the book. There are so many shapes that are not defined – in a way that feels very hesitant – and there are many inconsistencies in the way objects are drawn. For example look at the windows in this scene – why aren’t they all drawn the same way?

Maybe I might change my opinion after I have done some colouring in (maybe???)  but right now, the book doesn’t inspire me to start.

The fourth book, Fantastic Cities by Steve McDonald is fantastic! Wow! this book has really gotten me excited and itching to start colouring in.  Of course the fact that I am an architect might have something to do with it as well!

Incredibly precise drawn city scenes and building drawings and a number of insanely head spinning city mandalas! The quality of these drawings is outstanding and I just love the fact that these are real scenes.

There are a few pages where I think the scale is a little two small and a few where I felt the line weight was too heavy but these might not be be issues for expert colouring-iners!

What I really like about this book is that you could render these to indicate light hitting these city scenes – they are real scenes not stylised illustrations.  In fact the examples on the inside cover  show this and at least one of the pages actually outlines shadow shapes.

It is nice to see two Australian buildings that I love (and have sketched) in the book. Flinders St Station and Newtown Post Office! Overall I was very impressed with this book!

I have a few more photos of books that I flicked through in Dymocks the other week. I wasn’t overally impressed by the linework in these books. Some of them look like bad trace of photos and very patchy line weights and scrappy cross hatching.

And finally, before I share a few general comments about colouring-in in general, I am wanting very much to get a copy of Colouring the Lion City by William Sim – one of my Singapore Urban Sketchers friends. This book looks great and here is a great review by Parka!


So what do I think of this latest colouring-in book craze?
– I think it is great that people are putting down their smart phones/tablets and doing something more tactile with pencil, pen and paper. And that they are creating beautiful coloured images
– I am interested in the whole meditative – art therapy angle that has been used to promote this. Is that a way to justify having a little bit of fun doing what is perceived as a childish activity? Is it a clever marketing push? I have read a few interesting articles that are critical of promoting colouring-in as ‘art therapy’. It might be relaxing, but something a little less precise (such as zentagles or loosening up exercises) might be more appropriate?
– I do worry a little bit about ‘perfection pressure’ which might be generated by these precise images. Why do adult colouring-in books have to be so ‘difficult’?
– I also worry about the obsessive, repetitive, time consuming nature of completing one of these books. If any of us has exisiting  problems with ‘ipad neck’ and wrist RSI issues, then this type of activity isn’t the best form of relaxation!
– Is the colouring-in community competitive? I have no idea about this, so would love to hear about what this community is like.

The bottom line for me is that I’m so glad I discovered the sketching community 9 years ago and am drawing (and colouring) my life using my own lines as the base, rather than getting obsessive about colouring in someone else’s lines. Yes, personality is expressed in the way you colour-in someone else images, but when you put down your own marks on the page there is really something special and unique about that!  I love that I am creating a narrative of my real life as it is, rather than escaping into a fantasy world. This ‘real life’ aspect of keeping a sketch journal of my life has helped me to be more content and to find beauty in my own hum-drum life. (Note: because of urban sketching, my old hum-drum life has changed into a much more exciting life. Sometimes I miss the quietness of the old days …sometimes!)

I hope that this colouring-in craze will lead to more people wanting to learn to draw for themselves….  

But is colouring-in a good lead in to this?  
 I worry that the precision and perfection that these books encourage will become a huge barrier for people wanting to start sketching.  The expectation of perfection is the first thing you have to let go of and learning to think visually has to do serious battle against stylised images of objects. (BTW these are important things that I look at in my Foundations course!)

Well, this has turned into a long post and I haven’t even mentioned HOW am I going to colour in!

What media am I going to use?
– I could use my water colour pencils, but am thinking that getting a set of my standard 10 colours in the Faber Castel Polychromos might be a good way to start.
– Or should I try pen? The Staedtler Triplus seem to be a popular choice… or gel pen (can’t see myself colouring doing that!)

I’m open to suggestions …so please let me know what you think I should test/use.

And yes, I will start sharpening my pencils! I somehow think that my pencils will need to have a new shape to tackle these books! My favourite WCP (Cobalt Green) agreed to pose from these photos to  give you a sense of scale.

Anyway, in closing… would love to hear your opinions and experiences with this new craze!

More posts in this series
Adult Coloring Books 2: Someone’s else lines, old insecurities and my style


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  • Liz Steel says:

    wow! thanks everyone for the great comments! Great reading!
    I will try and respond to each of you soon…..

  • Deborah says:

    Like you, Liz, I thought what you showed us of Fantastic Cities by Steve Mcdonald looks fantastic. But apart from that, 3 thoughts: 1) Urban Sketching and colouring-in must be polar opposites (just look up the USk manifesto!). 2) Purely as a mindfulness exercise, colouring can be great; it has enormous value, is very relaxing, and is something quite distinct from the decision making and creative thought that make drawing so tiring. (I don't mean physically tiring! I share your concerns about RSI!) I think it's important not to confuse the two. And 3) some colouring books I've seen invite you to do some 'doodling' on parts of the page. Doodling is probably more likely to be a precursor to drawing than colouring is, so books like this might be more likely to encourage people to begin to draw – if they want to.

  • bosveldr says:

    I'm afraid I never did enjoy colouring in – even as a child! Drawing is much more meaningful for me. But, each to his own.

  • cassie says:

    I have not tried any colouring books. I just want to say that I always admire your loose lines and drawing style. Your drawings stimulated me to pick up a pen to draw (a grown up without much drawing experience nor sketching skills). I wish I would keep sketching my life and making fun with watercolours just like you.

    thanks a lot for all your sharing in this website!

  • DK says:

    I got fantastic cities, because I loved the artwork and I couldn't see myself entertained by mandelas and furry rabbits. I used watercolour to do them, no pencil or pen, The paper buckles a little, but not as much as with A standard moleskine. Relaxing? Perhaps I chose the wrong book for that, some of the pages in mine has hundreds of windows to colour in which I find taxing, not Relaxing. After the novelty of the first two wore off I can remember asking myself several times, "why am I doing this? , it's so much more satisfying to draw your own picture and colour/paint that in, rather than just using someone else's" feels like I'm only doing half the work and therefore getting half the satisfaction. BUT, the best part (and perhaps more selfishly) is that it might inspire others to pick up pencils, paint and pens and draw their own pictures, rather than just lay around on their phones and computers. That's the most inspiring part to it 🙂 other than that, just harmless fun, and great exposure for the artists making them, hope it's a fad that continues on

  • I just bought a coloring book at my recent visit to the Chicago Botanic Gardens. Flowers and butterflies. I started coloring the first page with color pencils. It takes long time to see the final result! Since I'm so used to the use of watercolor painting in my sketches I felt frustrated vs the calm therapy it offers. Also I felt no connection whatsoever to the illustration and on top of that I don't feel comfortable making it public since the design is not mine! I feel this material for sale everywhere is ok for people who think cannot draw, but it is discouraging them from trying. What a shame.

  • Vicki says:

    I think that colouring books might be good for mindfulness and for "doing" something as opposed to sitting on devices. I don't think they are for people who already participate in arty activities. I think the people who use them probably have not considered drawing their own pictures and maybe they never will. I bought one for my Mum, hoping that it will distract her from some of her health issues. I agree that some of the pictures are too complicated and may be off-putting.

  • My mom gave me an article about adult coloring books, so I ordered one for each of us. I tried to color with my Faber Castell Polychromes but I found it to be extremely tedious. I have "The Secret Garden" and don't think I will go back to it with only 1/4 of a page colored. My mom told me that she found it tedious as well. I thought maybe it was because I draw, knit, quilt, and embroider, which are much more creative than coloring, but when my mom reported the same experience I thought the space to color is too small. I actually got cramps in my hand.

    I just signed up for your Foundations course and am having a good time with it!

  • The Secret Paris one looks fantastic. I just got one called Tattoos, you can go crazy with the colour 🙂

  • Hi Liz …have just received one as a present from my granddaughter so will have to use it! Have had a little go….wondering if I was using up time when I shld be drawing or sketching which I have just started to do this year….as a compromise I make an effort to vary colour depth and also blend colours etc rather than just one colour one shape as I did when young…with a good audio book its quite pleasant and I am still keeping up my own drawing cos nothing beats that!

  • Susie says:

    Very cool to see what you think of this fad, craze, thingy.
    I bought 1 coloring book before I realized that Dover has free download sample pages you can print onto whatever paper you want, to color. I printed several, chose an easier, simpler page and got started. It drove me nuts… would have taken HOURS to finish, time I could spend on MY art.
    Every time I missed a line, got a color 'wrong', my inner critic had a field day, which I don't need.
    So, these might be OK for lots of people, but not for lots of others.
    And I wonder, how much of the sales of these books are driven by the whole idea of it, the "craze" factor, "I'm missing out if I don't get some and do them." ?
    Looking forward to your update!

  • JOAN says:

    I think coloring in has nothing whatsoever to do with drawing. Separate things. Drawing one's life experience is creative, coloring in is not. You're coloring in someone elses line work. Perhaps choosing the colors or media used might suggest creativity? Drawing is much more complex and in the end more satisfying because it comes from yourself, your inner being and how it views the world. Just my opinion. I do like the idea of using designs for embroidery or needle work projects.

  • larry says:

    This is the modern version of paint-by-number. Great for 'gosh, I wanna be creative on Saturday.' But like paint-by-number, it will always suffer from the lack of cachet in the art community and probably with the public at large. Once people realize that (I've already seen a couple pleas for respect for the art form) you can't get that when you rely upon someone else to do the drawing, this fad will die just like paint-by-number died.

    I agree with everything you've said, Liz and I think this has nothing to do with a road to learning to draw, though it might motivate some people to try I suppose. — Larry

  • Lesley Jolly says:

    Some stitching friends of mine use these books as patterns for embroidery. They do imaginative things with different stitches/threads colours and I think its the best use of them I've seen. Still don't get it though.

  • Pilgrim says:

    I had seen the books in a local education store last year, and started reading about it online months ago. Now a few relatives have started to express interest. I want to say, No! You'll miss the fun of drawing! It is so had to get people over that barrier of needing to be a Real Artist, to draw.
    I suggested Prismacolors to my cousin–just this weekend, for her entry into coloring books. It is a puzzle. I think it is a waste of perfectly good Faber Castell!

  • I'll be interested to see how you go colouring in Liz – I think it's going to drive you crazy!

  • Unknown says:

    Thanks for this write-up. I've been intrigued and perplexed by this new trend, too, and appreciate your analysis of the actual art in these books, as well. Coloring books are definitely not for me, but I wonder if I should take advantage of it and make my own book of line drawings for OTHERS to color! 🙂 Ideally, I like to think it encourages non-artistic types to dabble in the visual/aesthetic realm and maybe gives them a shallow introduction to "making art" that they might not otherwise get, but at the same time, is it making a farce of true artistic creativity (a la pint-by-numbers or the painting party trend)? I guess this is tainted by my impression, too, that these books are often consumed by 30-something women (my peers, to be honest) who get together on a Tuesday evening after work with their girlfriends to sip wine, gossip, and color. I've always been adverse to those kinds of un-genuine fads though, so maybe it's just me. I feel like I want to distance myself from the coloring trend, but at the same time, I'm intrigued by the actual art in the books and the artists who are effectively distributing their work by turning it into templates for others to color. That, in itself, seems clever and unique.

  • Liz Steel says:

    Yes – I think I would find it tedious too – but that would not be a surprise for anyone since I get bored with a sketch about 30 minutes!
    Glad you are enjoying Foundations!

  • Liz Steel says:

    I am in two minds about the Secret Paris book- but it was the one I chose to start colouring in!
    more in Part 2.

  • Liz Steel says:

    go for it – make your own! I have been thinking about what would happen if I tried to make one- could anyone color in my loose lines.
    Interesting about the major demographic of these books… and the fad element. How to make this into something more for those people that love it and want to go to the next level.

  • Liz Steel says:

    After having a little dabble on one page, I have been surprised at how fun it is… stay tuned for part 2!

  • Liz Steel says:

    Will have to check out those Dover downloads (Dover is the best!)
    Interesting about inner critic comments … I am finding that my inner critic has a few new lines to throw at me… more in Part 2

  • Liz Steel says:

    yes drawing is more creative but also challenging… and in the end as a result of the challenges more rewarding! I hope this craze is a stepping stone for many people to produce their own art!

  • Liz Steel says:

    Hi Larry – Even though it is a completely different kettle-o-fish to drawing, my hope is that it will motivate people to try drawing their own images!!!!!

  • Liz Steel says:

    love this idea!!!

  • Liz Steel says:

    Great that you found a way to colouring… but nothing beats drawing for yourself!