Illustrator Johanna Basford sparked global craze for adult colouring books

Illustrator Johanna Basford working at her home studio in Aberdeen, Scotland (left). Her latest book features her signature intricate drawings (below centre) of amazing detail that need fine-tipped pencils to colour them in.
Illustrator Johanna Basford working at her home studio in Aberdeen, Scotland (above). Her latest book features her signature intricate drawings of amazing detail that need fine-tipped pencils to colour them in.PHOTO: VIRGIN BOOKS

Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford's intricate black-and-white drawings started a global craze for colouring books - for adults

A few years ago, Johanna Basford was a designer of boutique wallpaper, broke and struggling to make ends meet.

Today, her colouring books for adults have sold 15 million copies worldwide, setting off a publishing trend and sending grown-ups around the globe to stationery stores for fine-tipped pens and pencils to fill in her intricate, nature-inspired drawings.

Yet, despite the proven success of Secret Garden (2013) and Enchanted Forest (2014), the Scottish illustrator was "terrified" before the Oct 22 release of her third collection, the marine- themed Lost Ocean.

"I was scared that people wouldn't buy my books," Basford, 32, says on the telephone from her home-cum-studio in Aberdeen, Scotland. "I'm always so scared and anxious before publication because when I create these books, they're a work of love and you're sharing your hopes and dreams with the world. It's a bit like asking people to judge your child."

On hearing that Lost Ocean has been an instant bestseller in Singapore, she squeals her thanks. It has sold more than 27,000 copies to date, according to distributors Pansing Books and Penguin Books Singapore, which bring in the UK and US editions of the book respectively. Booksellers here consider a title that sells 2,000 copies a year as a bestseller.


Illustrator Johanna Basford working at her home studio in Aberdeen, Scotland. Her latest book features her signature intricate drawings (above) of amazing detail that need fine-tipped pencils to colour them in. PHOTO: VIRGIN BOOKS

Lost Ocean is the first of her titles to be published by global giant Penguin Random House. London- based creative arts publisher Laurence King brought out her first two to stunning success.

Like Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest, Lost Ocean features painstakingly crafted black-and-white illustrations of amazing detail.

The 70 pen-and-ink drawings are fantastic representations of the underwater world, featuring swirling fish, cheeky mermaids, mirrored seahorses and seaweed fronds intertwined in organic garlands. The more one looks at the page, the more one finds. Larger figures resolve into tessellations and tinier patterns, small sea animals hide in the seaweed.

Going even further into the picture, Basford has scattered "treasures" throughout the illustrations which can be found only by a dogged deployer of colour. Many say this tactic is responsible for the success of her work.

It has certainly revolutionised the design of colouring books for adults. Previously, these were occasional novelty items in the pattern of such books for children, with lots of white space and cartoon-style drawings.

"I like the idea that the more you look, the more you see and it's an invitation to people to pause and wonder," says Basford. "When I was designing textiles, I would hide a butterfly or bumblebee in the floral print."

  • Lost Ocean: An Inky Adventure & Colouring Book by Johanna Basford (Virgin Books, 2015) retails at $24.61 at bookstores.

All her designs are inspired by nature, rather than architecture or purely abstract forms. "I would never do a colouring book about portraiture or architecture. I love the natural world. I think that it's so full of beautiful images. For me, abstract work just doesn't have the sense of enchantment."

She comes from outdoorsy stock and married into it too. When she met her husband, he was catching herring and mackerel on a trawler. He runs the craft brew company he co-founded, BrewDog. Basford designs some of its labels and helps take care of their 18-month-old daughter.

Her grandfather was head gardener at Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran - childhood holidays in those environs inspired her first two books - while her parents were marine biologists who started a fish farm. Their children were expected to be outdoors with their Wellington boots on, feeding the fish, cleaning the ponds and doing other mucky, backbreaking chores.

But Basford loved to draw.

"I drew on everything... walls, the furniture, my sister," she says, breaking into peals of laughter. "Now when I catch our daughter drawing on walls and tables, I'll try not to tell her off."

She studied textile design at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, graduating in 2005. An initial flurry of orders for the hand-printed wallpaper she had displayed in her graduation show made her set up her own studio, rather than join a commercial firm.

"I was doing okay, but I had to work two part-time jobs just to pay my bills," she says.

Designing the wallpaper took days, returns were small and when the recession hit the United Kingdom, she found it made more sense to close her business and look for freelance work.

"I love to draw," she says. "In some ways, when I was making fabric wallpaper, it was repetitive. It wasn't where my heart was. It was a good thing, going broke, because it forced me to make some hard decisions."

She had some success as a commercial illustrator. She worked for clients such as Nike and Starbucks, and designed the fantastically patterned programme and promotional art for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2010. It incorporated suggestions from Twitter users following her work and won a Scottish design award.

To promote her work, she put some illustrations on her site for download as desktop wallpapers. An editor at Laurence King saw them and asked her to create a children's colouring book.

Basford gambled instead that there were adults out there who would love to return to the days of finger-paints and carefree playing with colour. After all, paying clients had told her for years that they wished they could colour within her lines.

The gamble paid off outstandingly and she is hard at work on yet another nature-inspired collection for next year.

It takes her up to six months to create her books and she always starts with pencil on paper in her studio, before moving on to ink and then Photoshop.

Drawing is both her passion and relaxation. "I feel very relaxed when I'm drawing. It feels like you're in your own little bubble and the world melts away."

Millions, including her husband, find colouring her illustrations therapeutic. She encourages users to upload their colourings to her website. "I don't think of these books as solely my creation," she says. "I just do half the process.

"I adore seeing the colouring using my outline. It's not until I see these drawings and pictures that I think the illustration is complete. I also love that I never see the same picture twice."


From novelty items to stress-relievers

Until Johanna Basford's detailed drawings entered the market in 2013, colouring books for adults were occasional novelty items.

Titles brought into Singapore included Coloring For Grown-Ups: The Adult Activity Book by popular YouTubers Ryan Hunter and Taige Jensen (Plume, 2012). This book was an ironic take on similar activity books for children. It had lots of white space and cartoonish drawings to accompany jokes such as: "Colour The Potential Terrorists!"

"They just didn't take off in the same way Johanna's books did," says a spokesman for Penguin Books, which brings in the US edition of Basford's latest book, Lost Ocean. At press time, the UK and US edition of Lost Ocean had sold more than 27,000 copies here since it was released on Oct 22.

Basford favours intricate, organic patterns with so much inner detail that fine-tipped colouring pens and pencils are needed to fill in the drawings.

After her first book, Secret Garden, sold hundreds of thousands of copies for publisher Laurence King when it was released in 2013, other publishers began looking for similar styles to represent.

UK publisher Batsford signed Welsh artist Millie Marotta, whose book Animal Kingdom sold half a million copies from its release in August last year to this April, according to the Daily Mail. Little, Brown this year released a handful of books banking on the stress-relieving, therapeutic value of colouring books for adults in its Color Your Way To Calm series.

In May, home-grown publisher Marshall Cavendish International (Asia) approached visual artist William Sim to come up with colouring books for adults. His Colouring The Lion City made it to The Straits Times bestseller list for three weeks in September. He has released another book, Colouring The World.

Distributor Pansing Books, which represents Marotta and other colouring books, says more than 50,000 copies in this genre have sold here since June. Pansing Books and Penguin Books Singapore both say that Basford's works outsell all others.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2015, with the headline 'Flying colours'. Print Edition | Subscribe