Wide Angle

The Dark, Forgotten History of Coloring Books

A medium celebrated for its stress relief in quarantine has a more sinister side.

Old black-and-white photo of a little girl coloring in a coloring book
H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

In these days of social distancing, I find myself drawn to the comfort of coloring books. I brighten the smile of bunnies having a picnic and blush the lips of two kissers. I animate the empty streets of San Jose and burnish the beams of the Eiffel Tower. Coloring books give life to my hopes for socialization and travel and can make my broken world seem whole, even if it’s just on the page, just for one moment.

I’m not alone. A recent New York Times article celebrated coloring’s ability to reduce anxieties (“repetitive strokes provide temporary relief from life stressors,” I tell myself over and over). Handsome Instagram people told me that it’s OK for grown-ups to color when stuck at home. Free coloring books “are taking over the internet” in this quarantine that comes and goes and seems to never end.

My moment came when a bright ad for a coloring app stalked me online for days. I installed it and flipped through the gallery of black-and-white drawings, ready to turn my finger into a brush, an eraser, a spray bottle. I could do it anytime, which means I did it all the time. I pinched my fingers out to zoom in and stayed within the boundaries, obsessively removing the pixels that splashed over, like the crumbs on a kitchen counter after dinner, wondering whether such activity had real benefits or was just something that brought me a minute closer to when I no longer would have to color books.

As I buried myself in these projects, my thoughts eventually darkened, for reasons that may be familiar to anyone with some art-history training. What if the recent popularity of coloring books comes not from the creativity they purportedly inspire, but from the submission they induce? This, after all, has been their mission from the start. It may be lost to the fans of coloring books that their success peaked in the 19th century, when such publications taught children how to behave. And obedience seems to be what many of us crave in these pandemic days.

The Little Folks Painting Book—often described as the first coloring book—invited one to paint the illustrations of songs and tales about the harms of waking up late, being selfish, or playing a trick on your well-mannered cousin. The last story of the book is particularly revealing. It is about a brother and sister who wish to fly away from their boring, secluded life and are magically held captive on flying carpets that take them on a journey that never ends, a Dantesque hell of punishment that comes with the warning: “Never be discontented, never wish for anything you cannot have.” Doesn’t this sum up what coloring books are about: Stay within the lines?

Historically, coloring has often been considered inferior to drawing. In Renaissance Florence, when artists dissected their differences as a way to show that they were not artisans but intellectuals mastering their craft, drawing was singled out as the artistic equivalent of thinking. Artists were expected to spend hours working out compositions because it is through them—where to place figures? how to draw them?—that they won praise.

Coloring did matter. Reddening the cheeks of figures brought the miracle of life to a work of art. Yet colors were applied at a second stage, a lesser stage, as shown by a Leonardo da Vinci sketch of a hanged renegade, next to which he listed the dyes of his fur-trimmed outfit.

Such bifurcation was not lost on Henry Peacham, author of The Compleat Gentleman of 1622, perhaps the first book to advertise the benefits of coloring. Peacham believed that a well-educated gentleman had to master drawing. Still, he also recommended spending time coloring, “for the practice of the hand doth speedily instruct the mind, and strongly confirm the memory beyond anything else.” Which is to say: Painting is a way not to invent but to learn and internalize. In particular, Peacham recommended painting maps as a way to learn capital cities and geopolitical boundaries (this at a time when borders were more violently contested than today). He promoted coloring as a way to accept a world assembled by rulers, and not just accept it but to yearn for it and delight in its preservation. Coloring was for him, as it was becoming to me, a means to maintain the political status quo.

To color is to inhabit a world designed by others, to dwell in an environment where you are left with no options but to memorize what is already there. But I am in no need to be reminded of what a small, limited life feels like: I live it and am tired of it. I am even more tired of the tamed fantasies that coloring books want me to make my own. They are mostly consolatory, rather than empowering. In the early 1980s, we colored automobiles, the dreams of careerists. A few years ago, we colored Ryan Gosling, asking you out on a date. Today we color unicorns, campfires, and storefronts full of stuff.

After days of coloring these diminutive dreams, I came to see the energy I spent on it as dimming my capacity to imagine how a future can be conceived and built. So I deleted my app. And if in these days of stillness and isolation you are offered a coloring book, my suggestion is: Rip it up and reassemble its fragments as a collage. That is the true artistic outlet for those who do not want to accept the world as it is but want to make it wildly anew without depleting its resources.

What if Dear Abby was an investigative reporter? Check out How To! on Apple Podcasts or listen below to hear Charles Duhigg take on listeners’ toughest problems and, with the help of experts, find the answers they need.