Chicagocentric adult coloring book just may help you de-stress

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Illustrator Chris Arnold is publishing a coloring book featuring Chicago landmarks. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

They are Chicago landmarks, icons of the Windy City’s cultural scene. The Adler Planetarium, “The Bean,” Marina City, Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex, Buckingham Fountain, the lions of the Art Institute.

The Chicago-style hot dog.

For local illustrator/educator Chris Arnold, they (and many more) are testament to Chicago’s architecture (“even the hot dog is a study in structure”), and thanks to his latest work, they are also a way for people to connect with the city on a whole new level. “The Chicago Coloring Book — Landmarks and Hidden Gems” (Agate Midway), affords fans of adult coloring books 50 of Arnold’s hand-drawn illustrations on which they can put their personal stamp, and in the process find respite from the everyday hustle and bustle.

“I wanted to include places and things that people had a personal connection to — or maybe something they didn’t know they were connected to at all,” Arnold said. “Bringing these places and other items to the realm of a coloring book — maybe people will like the way the lines are moving and it relaxes them. … It’s the basis of good design. You don’t want to overcomplicate what the person sees. … I wanted them to have a space in which they could work at a relaxed pace.”

To be clear, coloring can be therapeutic but it is not full-on art therapy, according to the American Art Therapy Association, which declares art therapy to be “a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.”

Chris Arnold’s coloring book illustration of the legendary Tip Top Tap neon sign atop the Allerton Hotel in Chicago. | Reprinted with permission from “The Chicago Coloring Book,” Agate Midway, 2016, Copyright Chris Arnold.

Chris Arnold’s coloring book illustration of the legendary Tip Top Tap neon sign atop the Allerton Hotel in Chicago. | Reprinted with permission from “The Chicago Coloring Book,” Agate Midway, 2016, Copyright Chris Arnold.

But many adult coloring book aficionados would argue that just picking up crayons, colored pencils or even watercolors and diving into a page or two of coloring can greatly decrease stress levels and anxiety. Some even see it as a form of meditation.

In an interview with CNN.com earlier this year, Marygrace Berberian, a certified art therapist and the clinical assistant professor and program coordinator for the Graduate Art Therapy Program at NYU, said: “Coloring definitely has therapeutic potential to reduce anxiety, create focus or bring [about] more mindfulness.”

St. Louis resident Jessica Williams, 35, has been coloring for about a year. “It absolutely calms you down. You’re focused on the coloring and not on the email you forgot to send or that phone call you’re waiting for,” she said. “When you’re coloring, you’re in the zone. It puts me ‘in the moment,’ almost like meditation. I don’t know the science behind it, but it completely envelops all of me.

“I have three daughters,” she added with a chuckle, “and I was sick of coloring Minnie Mouse and Hello Kitty. It was just a way to spend time with the kids.”

But when a friend gave her her first adult coloring book as a gift, Williams was instantly hooked, and the calming benefits of coloring the myriad “grown-up” patterns quickly became apparent.

“I was absolutely looking to de-stress,” Williams said, “to free my mind after a long day at work. Coloring helped me achieve that. And coloring allows me to be present with my family, rather than getting away from them, as say a yoga class, which I also tried. ”

Williams added that one of the best parts about coloring is that it’s something she can do almost anywhere.

“I went on a long business trip recently and I took my books and colored pencils with me,” she said. “I colored in my hotel room every night. It was the perfect way to unwind.”

College students dealing with exams, presentations, dissertations and general schoolwork overload have embraced coloring books as both an art form and a de-stresser.

“Just because adult coloring alone may not constitute art therapy, that doesn’t mean the activity isn’t helpful,” said Theresa Citerella, an art therapy student at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., in a recent article in Medical Daily. She revealed that she has seen more people using the coloring books, both in class and in therapy, to help them focus.

An article on the benefits of coloring books for college students published in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter revealed that “when we focus on a particular activity, we are unable to focus on other thoughts, such as our worries. Coloring provides us with an enjoyable and productive activity to focus on, in place of our anxieties.”

Chris Arnold displays some of the sketches he created for his new Chicagocentric coloring book, which features Chicago landmarks, food and other cultural touchstones. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Chris Arnold displays some of the sketches he created for his new Chicagocentric coloring book, which features Chicago landmarks, food and other cultural touchstones. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Arnold has been teaching illustration at Columbia College for the past three years (prior to that he was an instructor at the School of the Art Institute). Growing up, his idols were Jim Davis (the cartoonist behind “Garfield”), Gary Larson (of “The Far Side”), and artists such as Picasso and Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose expressive themes fascinated him.

“For me I love the fact that art does more than decorate,” Arnold said. “I like that it tells a story and there’s a narrative. The initial driving force of the coloring book was the architectural aspect, because Chicago has an incredible architectural history. But it grew to be so much more than that.”

As for the genre of adult coloring books, Arnold has a whole new appreciation for their relevance in the art world — and their therapeutic benefits.

“I didn’t really know much about adult coloring books, but you don’t walk into a bookstore today and not see one,” he said. “I was surprised as I talked to friends about this project at how many of them were doing it. And nearly all of them cited the relaxation that coloring provides as the reason why.”

Illustrator Chris Arnold holds a copy of his new adult coloring book, “The Chicago Coloring Book: Iconic Landmarks and Hidden Gems.” | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Illustrator Chris Arnold holds a copy of his new adult coloring book, “The Chicago Coloring Book: Iconic Landmarks and Hidden Gems.” | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

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