In 2013, all everyone wanted for Christmas was an inky treasure hunt and colouring book. Among them were a growing category of insiders and born again kindy kids who were itching to grab Johanna Basford's first book. Back then, the Scottish freelance illustrator had unknowingly created a trend and converted it into a cash cow and fad that's looking to stay.
A lot has changed since the release of Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book, an adult colouring book which sold over 15 million copies worldwide. The 33-year-old is now the author of three books — Enchanted Forest (2015), Lost Ocean (2015) and Magical Jungle (2016) — and another due later this year (we hear it's Christmas-themed). She's also been awarded the Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) this year for her services to art and entrepreneurship. Other than that, she's a new mum running after her toddler Evie, who's starting to express herself by drawing on walls.
Cashing in on her ethos of mindfulness is Westin Hotels & Resorts Asia Pacific, who approached her to illustrate three colouring sheets to be placed in their hotel rooms. Trust Westin to offer alternative wellness solutions for their guests — so if you spot Basford's work on your next business trip, take a breather and colour your life.
Where do most of your inspirations come from?
In general, all my artwork is inspired by nature. I love ferns, foliage, birds, butterflies...I think there is nothing more beautiful than something that has been formed by nature. Because I draw by hand, it lends itself well to drawing nature because it's an organic process.
What features or details in your colouring cards are unique to Westin?
They [Westin] have the most beautiful floral arrangements in all the hotels. Some things that are unique are dishes they have on their menus, sports facilities that you can use, and images that relate to travel.
You first pitched the idea of an adult colouring book to your editor five years ago, before the trend even started. What gave you such confidence?
It's something that I've been thinking about doing for a long time, maybe 10 years. My clients for my illustration work will always tell me, "oh your artwork will look great coloured in" because it's black and white and would lend itself well to that application. When they asked me to do a children's colouring book, I said, "Lets not do one like everyone else makes. Lets do one that's elegant and beautiful and encourage a whole different target market".
I knew a lot of people who, once their children go to bed, are a bit embarrassed that they're colouring a little bunny rabbit with a bow in its hair. They needed something that had a certain level of sophistication to it. They were tentative at first and thought it might be a very crazy idea. But I drew up the first five drawings and sent them over. It would be really beautiful and elegant, like the artworks you would see on champagne packaging or really beautiful cosmetics.
You see colouring books in all sorts of genres now. Is there a danger that the trend will get saturated?
No, I think the exact opposite. There are so many variations of magazines and novels. I think the more diversity we have here will encourage people to find something that they really enjoy. I see books on cats. If you really like cars from the '30s, you can just colour cars from the '30s. It really promotes the individual artist aspect of colouring. I think the more platforms they have out there, the more people can really find their joy and find things that they love.
Why do you think adults like your books?
The busier our lives are, the more we're focused on screens for work — looking at our smartphones, email and social media. I think we all crave a digital detox. It's that opportunity to unplug, to not be interrupted and to really focus on one single creative task. I think as humans we really need that opportunity to just pause and reset.
But there are different ways to unplug and unwind. Why colouring in particular?
When I was drawing I would feel very calm, relaxed and happy, and I wondered if there's a way to replicate that and to allow other people to share in that feeling of happiness and the idea of mindfulness. I think everyone would draw or colour when they were children, so there's a big nostalgia aspect to it. The chances are, the last time you coloured you didn't have a deadline, or bills to pay. It's a lovely way to regress to a simpler time when you perhaps felt life was easier. There's something very therapeutic about that. It allows you to reconnect with your younger self and to enjoy a very simple activity where you don't feel any pressure and you can be creative, which is always good for the soul.
How does travelling play a role in your life and how does it feed into your work?
When I travel, I love to see the flowers that grow there, the plants, the kind of butterflies, the different caterpillars in the places I visit. For me those things are so inspiring. Travel just gives you more to call upon when you're being creative.
Do you colour your own books, and how does this help you in becoming a better illustrator?
Yeah I do. It's so helpful to complete that experience. It allows me to fully understand how it feels to colour an artwork and it influences the way we draw it. We know that people need good combinations of smaller details — things like how thick the line should be — to create a fulfilling colouring experience. Colouring is a bit of a fact-finding mission but also very relaxing. It's a lovely way to pass time on holiday if you don't want to read a book.
What are your favourite tools to colour with?
Colouring pencils. I think they're the most versatile mediums for colouring. You can blend those colours together, you can vary the tones from dark to light. If you have a red pen, you could only colour in red. But if you have a red colouring pencil, you can do so many variations of red within your artwork. There's something mindful and relaxing about the task of sharpening your pencils.
Have you ever thought of expanding your colouring books to combine actual narratives?
There's always a storyline in my head. The big drawback to working the way I do is that I have to draw every picture by hand, which can take anything from one day to a week. When you have 8,000 pictures in a book you have start to see the size of these projects and I'm sure it'll be faster if we do it digitally or if I allowed other people to draw the pictures. But for me, I have to draw them all by hand in my studio and I feel like that gives the artwork a certain quality — but it does mean that ideas like that tend to go in a fleeting to-do list and we pick them up as soon as we can.
Lastly, we hear that you get migraines — just like the worst of us! Besides colouring, what else helps?
I get migraines when I look at the computer screens for too long. I love to get outside and go for a walk. Being surrounded in the nature and out in the fresh air is so healthy. All those things inspire my work and it helps feed back into the things that I draw when I get back into the studio.
Click here to learn more about Johanna Basford. Visit Westin to book your next stay.