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Ink evangelist Johanna Basford is at at the helm of an enthusiastic movement that has brought coloring books into the domain of grownups

Adults only

Meet the woman behind a surprising new way to unwind

By Brigit Katz on November 5, 2015

If you have popped into a bookstore lately, you have likely encountered a display table heaped with copies of Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest by Johanna Basford. These “adult coloring books” boast black-and-white illustrations of lush foliage and frolicking fauna, whimsical tree houses and hidden garden creatures. Basford’s drawings are intricate and beautiful. They are also at the helm of an ever-growing and unyieldingly enthusiastic movement that has brought coloring books into the domain of grownups.

Since Secret Garden was published in 2012, Basford’s books have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. For a time this past summer, Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest held the number one and number two spots on Amazon’s best-seller list. She has produced a number of spin-off products, including post-cards, notebooks, a calendar, and a special artist’s edition of Secret Garden. On October 27th, Basford released the third installment of her coloring book series: Lost Ocean, which features 80-odd pages of mermaids, ships, sharks, and sea stars that beg to be filled in with splashes of color.

Lost Ocean

What has turned into an international phenomenon began with some generic student poverty, and a little bit of impatience. When Basford was in her final year of art school at a college in Dundee, Scotland, she was tasked with printing her portfolio so it could be submitted for examination. The department boasted a single digital printer, and the line to access it was usually quite long. Too impatient to wait her turn, Basford decided to use an old-fashioned silk-screen printer that was considerably less in demand. Silk-screening is expensive, however, and the cost of printing rises with each additional color. Basford was, in her own words, “completely broke,” and so she decided to create a body of work that would shine in black and white.

“I thought, ‘If I’m going to work in black and white with no color, to compensate for that lack of color spectrum, I will create the most beautiful, hand-drawn, intricate designs that I can, and just flood them with intricacies and details, and things to find,’” Basford told Women in the World. “’And that’s how I’ll distract the examiners from the fact that I don’t have any color in my portfolio.’”

After graduating, Basford created silk-screen designs for fashion labels and then went on to launch her own studio. The business folded during the financial crisis, and Basford started producing illustrations for commercial companies. Throughout, she rendered exquisitely detailed designs in monochrome.

In 2011, Basford was approached by editors at the UK publishing house Laurence King, who had seen her work online. They asked her to produce a children’s coloring book, but Basford told them that she was more interested in creating a product for adults. “For years, [my] commerical clients had said to me, ‘Oh we’d really like to color in your pictures, they would make a great coloring book,’” Basford said. “I guess it was just a flippant comment, but something about it, I really took that to heart.”

At the time, the market for adult coloring books was small, and very niche. Laurence King published just 16,000 copies of Secret Garden in its initial run, but was soon overwhelmed with demands for more. Enthusiastic adult colorers began sharing images of their work on social media, and Basford’s book got a star-power boost too. Zooey Deschanel posted a link to Secret Garden on her Facebook page. YouTube sensation Zoella mentioned it in one of her videos. The South Korean pop star Kim Ki-Bum shared one of his coloring efforts with his 1.9 million Instagram followers.

Since Basford published Secret Garden, there has been an explosion of adult coloring books, which dominate bestseller lists and often have their own dedicated section within bookstores. “I really kind of see [Basford] as the fore-runner in [the trend],” said Meg Leder, an executive editor at Penguin Books, which published Lost Ocean. “I think she was the one who kind of really got out there first and got out there in a really big way with her own particular vision.”

Now, the world of adult coloring is a very crowded market. British illustrator Millie Marotta has sold more than 500,000 copies of her adult coloring book, Animal Kingdom. Little, Brown and Company published a successful series called Splendid Cities, which offers up whimsical, black-and-white sketches of famous locations around the world. Literary enthusiasts can find Anna Karenina, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones-themed coloring books. An entire subset of the genre appeals to the purportedly soothing effects of coloring, including The Calm Coloring Book, Mandala Coloring Book: Stress Relieving Patterns, and The Mindfulness Colouring Book: Anti-stress Art Therapy for Busy People. There is even a body-positive coloring book that celebrates different types of hair.

Just why adult coloring books have emerged as a full-blown cultural bonanza remains a subject of debate. Social media has undoubtedly played a part, with an ample supply of coloring-related Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram posts fuelling interest in the genre. Leder noted that coloring books are also “very affordable to pick up … You don’t need to learn how to knit, you don’t need an expensive bike to go biking. It’s a very democratic, accessible hobby.” Coloring books appeal to a wide range of abilities, too; though a skilled artist could go to town with shading and other techniques, adult coloring books allow the artistically challenged to produce beautiful drawings by simply coloring within the lines.


Writing for the New Yorker, Adrienne Raphel attributed the trend to the so-called “Peter Pan market,” which consists of adults with an appetite for childhood pastimes like summer camp and preschool. An article in the Washington Post posited — less generously — that adult coloring books may owe their popularity to the fact that “the endless Internet parade of silly cat photos, infantile comments and adolescent memes has dumbed us down.”

These are not assessments that Basford is likely to appreciate. Her coloring books, with all their coiled floral patterns and intricately-rendered animals, are deliberately not infantile. “I didn’t want to [produce] a book that had really simple images in it,” she said. “I wanted to do something really elegant and sophisticated … so that people really felt they were being creative and challenged, as opposed to following maybe a more childish pursuit.”

Basford believes that the key to her books’ success instead lies in their ability to act as an antidote to pervasive digital fatigue. “We’re living in an increasingly digital world,” she explained. “People are plugged in 24/7. … I think we just crave that ability to switch off and to focus on something real.”

It is fitting, then, that Basford only sparingly deploys digital technology when it comes to her work. She calls herself an “ink evangelist” and draws all her illustrations by hand — first in pencil, then in pen. Basford only uses a computer to touch up the finished product, and to send scans of her illustrations to editors. It’s an appropriately organic approach for a body of work that is firmly-rooted in gardens, forests, and seas. Basford’s first two books were inspired by childhood vacations spent on Scotland’s luxuriant Arrun Island, where her grandfather was the head gardener at Brodick Castle gardens. Lost Ocean was drawn from equally personal inspirations. “My parents are both marine biologists,” Basford said. “I spent a lot of time as a child on research vessels and at scientific aquariums. We could barely get seafood dinner without somebody dissecting something. So I’ve always grown up with quite fishy beginnings.”

Johanna Basford. (Sam Brill)
Johanna Basford is inspired by the ocean – “the last big, unexplored territory on earth.” (Sam Brill)

Also helpful in that regard was Basford’s husband, who worked on a North Atlantic fishing trawler when the couple first met. “He would tell me stories about when they were out fishing, and about all these crazy fish that they caught, and things that they dredged up from the bottom of the ocean,” Basford explained. “I just felt after Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest, the ocean was the next place to go. It’s the last big, unexplored territory on earth. So I think there’s something just really magical about that. It’s so full of potential for creating a wonderful drawing.”

The book offers vast potential for wonderful coloring, too. Lost Ocean hit the market less than two weeks ago, but it has inspired more than 9,000 Instagram tags, thanks to the army of colorers who have posted vivid interpretations of Basford’s illustrations. Though she touts the analog nature of coloring, Basford has fully embraced the role that social media plays in creating a community of ardent colorers. Her website boasts a section where fans can upload images of their work, and Basford often shares followers’ designs on her Facebook page.

“You get the opportunity to basically collaborate with millions of people all over the world, many of them — most of them — far more talented than I am,” Basford said. “It’s just so crazy to see that I have the opportunity to work with them, and see what we can create together.”

Lost Ocean (Penguin, 2015) is available now.