Coloring, and mandala coloring, has become quite popular in mainstream culture. No longer relegated to art stores, we can find adult coloring books everywhere from the drugstore to the boutique. As an art therapist, I am delighted to see awareness of the power of art spreading! But I have a few reservations about the proposal that “coloring equals art therapy”. Without an art therapist present, coloring is just therapeutic. It may be stress reduction; it may be pleasurable. It may lower blood pressure and it may add beauty to an empty wall. But it is not art therapy.
The art therapist brings a lot of knowledge to the process… if something can help it can also harm. For example, there are certain populations, designs, and limitations that coloring won’t really benefit. Those with arthritis; those with OCD and extreme perfectionists have trouble with coloring “for fun” or “healing” – they squeeze the marker until it hurts, they become agitated/stressed or even full of self-dissatisfaction. How is that helpful?
There are also certain designs that are beneficial for people and some that aren’t so great. The psyche LOVES symmetry and responds well to the kaleidoscopic mandalas that have all around symmetry. Even just bilateral symmetry has a calming effect and promotes a sense of well-being in colorers. Patterns that run off the page or are bordered instead of resolved might be ok for warming up a brain for problem-solving but will lead to restlessness and agitation instead of peace and serenity. Angular designs will conjure different states of mind than fluid lines and words will likely stimulate the left, logical brain more than the right, creative brain. You could get a headache!
Intention is another important thing to consider when choosing what to color. The mandala above was designed and colored with a theme – motivation – in mind. This artist feathered her colors both inward and outward to create and contain a lot of color and energy. Not only is this mandala inspiring to look at, it has the effect of both containing and generating the zest that is at the heart of “Motivation.”
An art therapist also understands that the media is important and can impact the coloring experience. My mentally ill clients prefer to color with gel pens for the smoothness and the glide. Teens seem to love sharpies and the way they bleed into the space (and look from the back!) Crayons build finger strength; colored pencils can create tone and value through pressure while paint is satisfying (though messy) for larger formats.
Coloring for mental health can be a neat self-care skill and one that is cheap, easy and convenient. Just please be discerning when you color because WHAT YOU COLOR MATTERS!