Inside and outside the lines

By now, you’ve seen the commercials on Cozi TV: The kids are shrieking in the background. But mom lets the stresses of the day melt away as she takes to her bed with one of the coloring books the nostalgic comfort network hawks. 

And there are many titles from which to choose. There are coloring books with simple butterfly and seashell patterns and those with intricate mandalas. There are books for fans of “Game of Thrones” and “Outlander” and those for would-be Monets who want to try their hands at reproducing Impressionist paintings. There are even titles that put the “adult” in adult coloring.

And, of course, what would these be without the assorted colored pencils, fine-line markers and watercolor sets needed to help you create your masterworks?

All of which has translated into a multimillion-dollar business that took off three years ago with Scottish artist-illustrator Johanna Basford’s “Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book,” which has sold some 2 million copies worldwide; and her best-selling follow-up, “Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest & Coloring Book.” (Last year, sales of adult coloring books in the United States went from one million to 12 million units.)

“This is a trend that has swept the country and almost caught the industry by surprise with how well it’s done,” says Tony C. Wilkinson, fine arts manager at A.I. Friedman in Port Chester. “We can’t keep up with it.”

But A. I. Friedman is certainly the place to try. Billed as “the department store for creative people,” the 30,000-square-foot space has, Wilkinson says, hundreds of titles ranging from straightforward coloring books for children to abstract, op art and nature books better suited to their parents to expanding lines of bags, placemats and postcards you can color. The store, which recently conducted a coloring workshop, even has a table where you can perhaps embellish an image of Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy as they square off ever-so-elegantly. No doubt, A. I. Friedman will be the place to be Aug. 2, National Coloring Book Day (“A Day to Relax and Color”), which Dover Publications inaugurated last year.

Dover has long been a player in the adult coloring book market, from the 1970 release of “Antique Automobiles,” the first coloring book for adults, through its hot new “Creative Haven” line.

Yet not everyone is happy in the secret garden and enchanted forest of purple polka-dotted butterflies and cerulean seashells. Naysaysers see the coloring book phenomenon — once the province of children and the mentally challenged — as a kind of regression, a catering to what The New Yorker dubbed “the Peter Pan market.”

“As a museum educator, I would never recommend coloring books for children, no less for adults,” Wendy Woon, the Edward John Noble Foundation deputy director for education at The Museum of Modern Art, wrote recently in a piece for the New York Daily News. “They limit the inherent ability to make marks of one’s own, to imagine and express individual possibilities and unique points of view.”

But Wilkinson — an artist who works in watercolor, gouache and graphite, focusing on portrait drawings — begs to differ.

You don’t have to stay in the lines, he says, or use the finer, more delicate media of pencils and watercolors. You can use crayons and Cray-Pas oil pastels. “It can get wild,” Wilkinson says.

And that’s OK, he adds, because adult coloring is designed to put you in touch with both your past and your transcendent nature.

“We’ve all done this since we were kids,” he says. “When you’re drawing and painting, it brings you into the zone.”

It’s not just harried moms who de-stress with coloring. Among Wilkinson’s adult coloring customers is a burly male banker who has his whole office doing it.

What they’re doing is making synaptic connections among the brain, eye and hand that are different from those made by typing and texting, Wilkinson adds. In a digital age that is just beginning to deal with the consequences of the decline of cursive writing in schools, the adult coloring book returns us to a tactile world.

“It takes time. You have to turn the page,” Wilkinson says. “And you won’t accidentally hit ‘delete.’”

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