My bookkeeper, Evi, caught the coloring book fever not all that long ago and she tells me life hasn’t been the same since. She’s shown me the progression of her work from the beginning, lovely pages depicting mostly springtime palettes and, more recently, intricate gradations and shadings. To see Evi’s exuberance and the sheer force of her presence as she talks about coloring is to know that art-making brings something vital to her life.
But can coloring be considered art? If you ask Evi’s adrenal glands, they’d tell you they couldn’t care less. Researchers at Drexel University studied the effects of art-making on cortisol levels in the body. Elevated levels of cortisol, a stress hormone released by the adrenals and referred to by Psychology Today as “public health enemy number one,” have been implicated in anxiety, depression and a number of other physical and mental health conditions. The study found a statistically significant decrease in levels of the stress hormone following 45 minutes of art-making. Interestingly, the findings further revealed that cortisol levels dropped regardless of the subject’s prior art-making experience or levels of sophistication of the materials used, meaning that both seasoned artists and novices enjoyed a similar decrease in cortisol, whether they used sculptural clay or student-grade markers.
Participants in the study reported feeling relaxed after art-making, saying that the experience reminded them of creating as a child. Some reported feeling free from constraints. Others described an experience of “flow,” of losing themselves in the work. As Evi describes it:
Coloring takes my focus off the daily routines and stresses. It redirects my mind into creating something from nothing. It gives me the satisfaction that I’ve brought a piece of work to life. It’s calming and soothing, and sometimes it’s a positive mental challenge in that some pieces make me dig a little deeper. Coloring is like an open window—it lets in fresh air for the mind.
Evi introduced her California friend, Wendy, to coloring. Wendy says:
Coloring gives me a way to completely clear my mind of everyday stresses and worries. When I’m working on a picture, I get so involved that I don’t think of anything else and time flies. Because I’m a stay-at-home caregiver to two aging pets with health issues, working on art affords me a peaceful way to keep myself occupied while still being attentive to their needs. Best of all, I thoroughly enjoy the challenge of making the pictures come to life and hope to continue for years to come.
Color has forever had this effect on me, and maybe you, too. I swear that just looking at freshly-squeezed dollops of paint on my palette decreases my cortisol level. I could spit in a petri dish, stare at my colored pencils for 15 minutes and then spit again and I bet my cortisol would be lower. Or maybe it just feels that way…
While the debate continues as to what constitutes “art,” I see merit in asking different questions. Like, What constitutes health and how does my making support it?
(HT to Liz for news of the Drexel study)