Art Therapy Group: coloring books are great, but …
Ernie Smith
May 17, 2016

The association whose academic journal helped create a phenomenon out of coloring books targeted at adults says that such books are a great tool but don’t replace a licensed art therapist.

The coloring book, that icon of young childhood, has taken on a lucrative role—and a therapeutic one.

And it’s a role that one association has researched and encouraged. A study that first appeared [PDF] in The American Art Therapy Association’s (AATA) academic journal in 2005, which argued that coloring mandalas could reduce anxiety, helped give rise to a surging market of coloring books targeted at adults.

According to Nielsen research cited by Quartz, 12 million coloring books were sold in 2015, compared to just 1 million in 2014. That surge is enough to have a meaningful impact on the bottom line for many bookstores.

A big reason for the books’ success is that people who color find clear benefits.

“People with a lot of anxiety respond really well to coloring books,” art therapist Nadia Jenefsky told the website. “There are some choices involved—in terms of choosing what colors you’re going to use and how you’re blending your colors—but there’s also a lot of structure.”

While AATA supports using such books, the association’s president, Donna Betts, warns that the books only go so far as a form of art therapy.

“The American Art Therapy Association supports the use of coloring books for pleasure and self-care; however, these uses should not be confused with the delivery of professional art therapy services, during which a client engages with a credentialed art therapist,” Betts wrote in an position paper with certified art therapist Richard Carolan.

Nonetheless, the industry group believes that there’s a lot of value in using coloring books to deal with various issues, and it’s something therapists might recommend. But such therapists aim to help clients better understand their emotions and how art may affect them, which coloring alone may not provide.

According to CNN, while coloring therapy is a relatively new phenomenon in professional research, dating back to the mid-1990s, art therapy research goes back much further.

Partly as a result of its relative newness, coloring is somewhat controversial in the art therapy world. In comments to Ted.com, art therapist Marygrace Berberian noted that, while she supports the idea of coloring, it’s not the same as therapy.

“I lean toward the fact that there are therapeutic effects, but it is not art therapy,” she told the website. “Although art therapy relies on the practice of creating art, it also involves the relationship and witnessing of a trained practitioner.”

That’s where Betts and Carolan land in their position paper for the association.

“Under the guidance of an art therapist, individuals may realize that certain images can tap into the internal experience of the artist in ways that evoke emotions or understanding,” the duo wrote. “The trained art therapist might then guide individuals in focusing on those areas as a therapeutic intervention.”