Johanna Basford on her new book Enchanted Forest

Illustrator Johanna Basford. Picture: Contributed
Illustrator Johanna Basford. Picture: Contributed
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JOHANNA Basford is an “ink evangelist” who only thinks in black and white. Now the illustrator has created a stress-busting colouring book for adults

There are some childhood pursuits, like skipping, Play-Doh moulding and kiss chase, that we’d feel slightly self-conscious about taking up again. However, not so the art of colouring-in.

Picture: Johanna Basford

Picture: Johanna Basford

It’s suddenly become fashionable for those over six years old, as a meditative activity for adults whose minds are frazzled by their smartphones, busy jobs and the constant need to be switched on and plugged in at all times.

Someone who’s at the forefront of the trend is 31-year-old Johanna Basford, a 2005 graduate in Printed Textiles from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee.

You may already be familiar with her work as she’s designed for Nike, Sony, Absolut Vodka and Starbucks, created the cover of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme, and collaborated with other big names.

However, this illustrator’s last colouring-in book, Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt, published in 2013, has probably been her greatest success to date. It’s sold over one million copies, and she’s just released the follow up, Enchanted Forest, which is inspired by the author’s childhood visits to the Isle of Arran.

A fox drawn by Johanna. Picture: Johanna Basford

A fox drawn by Johanna. Picture: Johanna Basford

“My grandfather was the head gardener at Brodick Castle gardens and lived on the estate, so we spent our summers and our Christmases there,” says Basford, who also describes herself as an “ink evangelist”. “While Secret Garden took its inspiration from the castle gardens, the Enchanted Forest is based on the forests around the island.”

However Basford advises us not to take that too literally and expect to recognise landmarks, as this is her whimsical and magical interpretation of the Ayrshire countryside.

Amongst its 60 illustrations, the book features castles that are more fairytale than Brodick Castle, as well as labyrinths, toadstools, a stag with birds perching on his antlers, a pageful of feathers, and treasure to discover along the way, such as keys, chests, lanterns and jewels.

However, it’s the flora and fauna that’s the main focus, with fantastical flowers and plants on every page.

“I inherited all my grandfather’s botanical books when he passed away,” says Basford. “They’re a really good resource, but 50 per cent of what I draw is based on those and the other half is imagined, so I’ll take a petal from one flower and a leaf from another to make these weird hybrids.”

She creates the images for the books by hand, using a Hello Kitty rotary pencil, black ink and sheets of bleached paper (the final images for the book are usually shrunken down) in her studio and home in Ellon, Aberdeenshire.

No computer required, though there is a little distraction, called Evie, in the mix these days.

“I had a baby seven months ago so everything has gone to pot,” says Basford, whose partner is James Watt, owner of the successful Scottish brewing business BrewDog. “For a few days a week I’m in the studio and we’ve got childcare. I just try to cram all the admin into the first couple of hours in the morning and the rest of my day is spent drawing.”

Although Basford is settled in her job now, her transition from college to career wasn’t any easier than anyone else’s.

“I was just very confused when I left art school,” she says. “You get booted out at the end of four years, so I went to London and worked in a few textile studios and absolutely hated it. Then I got some commissions off the back of my degree show. I’d never intended to be self-employed, but when I started to do that, it seemed a good idea to follow it through and try to launch my own studio.”

Before the books came along, there was a period of designing for various companies.

“I started off doing commercial illustration, which tends to involve short deadlines and quite intense bursts of work,” Basford says, “whereas I can take six months to do a book and there’s a bit more of a gentler pace.”

As far as Basford is concerned, it seems that the timely trend for colouring-in is almost fated. After all, her signature work is perfect for those who are thinking about looking out the felt tips (although, devotees go for slightly more professional varieties of pen).

“Four or five years ago, my publishers approached me about doing a children’s colouring-in book, and I said I’d like to do one for grown ups,” she says. “At that time there wasn’t a big adult colouring-in scene. Since graduation, my work has been black and white and people have been saying to me that they’d like to colour it in. We initially worked at making it half for adults, half for children, but slowly the drawings got so intricate that children weren’t going to be able to colour them in. Luckily, people picked up on the idea and it’s so popular now.”

In fact, Secret Garden has been translated into 14 different languages. In France, colouring-in has been a big trend for a while, with Secret Garden outselling the best-selling cookery book there last year. According to a World Health Organisation report, published in 2011, France has one of the highest rates of depression in the world, with 21 per cent suffering from an extended episode of this illness in their lifetime. Perhaps that’s the reason for people taking up colouring-in as a stress-busting activity, as well as the fact that it complements the current trends for mindfulness and meditation. However, there are also some more surprising markets for the book.

“Korea is huge,” Basford says. “I think they sold 70,000 copies of Secret Garden in the first couple of months, it really took off there. I get a lot of Korean e-mails now and I need to put some into Google Translate. Some people also send me pictures of their finished pages which is wonderful, because I don’t really think in colour.”

On Basford’s Facebook page, she’s posted photographs of her readers’ colouring-in efforts. They all look surprisingly different. Some go for naturalistic hues, others for neon or shading. Nobody colours outside the lines though (that would be missing the point).

From the online comments, it seems that this activity, as well as being relaxing, makes creativity accessible for those who might otherwise find it intimidating. After all, you don’t need to have the pencil skills of Picasso in order to colour-in.

“I get so much enjoyment from drawing the pictures and I guess this is a way that people can pick up a pen and not have to look at a blank sheet of paper. It’s half started for them and they can make their own mark,” says Basford. “That idea of losing yourself, that’s how I feel when I’m drawing. You don’t rely on technology and you can get sucked into a world for a couple of hours and not emerge until you hear a baby crying or a dog wanting a walk.”

Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest and Colouring Book is published by Laurence King, priced £9.95