By Anna Pursglove
When illustrator Johanna Basford first pitched her idea of colouring books for grown-ups four years ago, she never dreamed they’d sell by the multimillion worldwide – and gain her royal fans
Johanna Basford is contemplating the wheat field that’s perfectly framed by the picture window at the end of her studio. ‘That was a potato field last year,’ she grins. ‘Mostly mud…which didn’t exactly stir my soul!’
While mud and potatoes may not inspire her art, the rolling hills and forests around her Aberdeenshire home certainly do. The walls and sloping ceiling of her studio are papered in intricate black and white illustrations of flowers, birds, trees and woodland creatures. This, however, is only the start of the process, because Johanna’s drawings are destined to be finished off by other artists. By several million of them, in fact.
When Johanna, 34, published her first colouring book for adults back in 2013, she could hardly have known she was about to ignite a global craze so addictive that it would cause pencil shortages. Her books would go soaring up the Amazon bestseller lists, earn her an OBE and gain her celebrity fans including (and she got this from Prince William himself at the investiture) the Duchess of Cambridge.
‘He said, “My wife’s really excited that I’m meeting you today,” and told me she liked to colour my Secret Garden book,’ recalls Johanna. ‘And when you think about it, Kate’s just another mum with young kids. I get so many emails from mums who colour when they’re having a bit of downtime. I don’t think it matters whether you live in a castle or a caravan.’
Johanna herself lives in a converted farmhouse with husband James Watt (the co-founder of Scottish craft beer company BrewDog) and their two young children, Evie, three, and six-month-old Mia. It’s only about eight miles from where she grew up on her parents’ fish farm in the tiny village of Auchnagatt.
Johanna herself was around Evie’s age when her parents (both marine biologists) realised that she was obsessed with drawing. ‘My dad had this tin of black, tar-like paint for sealing the underneath of the car. He left it in the hall and I used it to do a big wall mural of scribbles in our hallway.’ And rather than be angry about her childhood vandalism, her parents left the mural in pride of place until they moved out of the house. After that, she says, it was open season for graffiti. She would draw on her clothes, her shoes and even on her little sister Katrina.
By the time she reached her teenage years, Johanna knew that she wanted to be an artist, and took up a place at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, opting for textiles over illustration because the former was taught on the top floor overlooking the River Tay. ‘I thought, I’ll spend three years up here. I can pretty much learn the same skills and I don’t have to be in a basement.’
As a hard-up student, Johanna couldn’t afford coloured inks for screen printing, so stuck to cheaper black and white. ‘I decided that if I was going to have no colour in my final collection, I’d better compensate for it by having loads of detail.’ And so her intricate black and white style was born. After graduating from art school (and receiving a rejection from the Royal College of Art to study for a postgraduate degree: ‘I didn’t even get an interview’) she had some success making bespoke, handprinted wallpaper for wealthy clients, but it was a niche market that was badly hit by the recession.
Working from home as a freelance illustrator (for clients including Nike, Thorntons, Absolut Vodka and Starbucks) had lower overheads and Johanna set to work on becoming ‘the girl for monochromatic, hand-drawn artwork’. Money was still frequently tight and Johanna was forced to work as a waitress to supplement her income. ‘I remember eating a lot of baked potatoes and porridge back then. Every few months I’d hop on the overnight bus to London and trawl my portfolio around. There was a lot of brushing my teeth in bus-station bathrooms!’
However, it was the casual comments of her illustration clients that spawned the idea for a grown-up colouring book. ‘They’d look at my work and say, “I’d love to colour in your pictures.” That’s how the seed was planted in my mind.’
It wasn’t until 2011, when a publisher invited her to create a colouring book for children, that she felt brave enough to pitch her idea. ‘I said, yes, I’d like to do a colouring book – but not for children. My idea was a beautiful, ornate colouring book for adults.’
Nobody was more surprised than Johanna when the publisher agreed to test her idea, printing 13,000 copies of Secret Garden in 2013, which had to sell in order for her to keep the advance. ‘I remember phoning my mum and saying, “Look, you are going to have to buy these for all our relatives for birthdays and Christmas, otherwise I have to give the money back!”’
Taking some time out after the birth of Evie in June 2014, Johanna got back in touch with the publisher a few months later to see how sales were going, explaining that she wanted to organise a little celebration if they could get to a million copies. ‘The line went quiet and I panicked,’ she remembers. ‘Then the publisher said, “We’re way, way over that.” I think it was then that I knew that my book might be a success.’
Then things started to snowball, with reports that celebrities from Kirstie Allsopp and Nigella Lawson to singer Justin Bieber and Hollywood actress Zooey Deschanel had taken up colouring. It was also around this time that the copycat artists really got going – although Johanna bears them no malice: ‘If nobody’s copying you then you’re not doing anything good.’ The mimics did undoubtedly help create a whole new book category, even if it is one that needs to be searched for carefully online. ‘Colouring books for adults’ will get you to works by Johanna; ‘adult colouring books’ will send you somewhere altogether less subtle.
As the craze for colouring gathered pace, Johanna’s fans began to contact her about an unexpected side-effect they were experiencing. ‘I’ve had grannies who are recovering from a stroke contact me and tell me that they used to paint and now they colour. I’ve had an emergency call handler who uses it to destress on their lunch break, kids having exam stress – it’s so varied.’
Colouring, it seems, is helping them to become more mindful. ‘I think it’s wonderful but that was never my intention,’ she says. ‘I don’t market my work as mindfulness books or as aids to combating depression, but I do know that when I’m drawing I’m in the zone, in a state of “flow”, as the psychologists call it. You get caught up in that simple, creative task and it is really settling, so I can relate to why colouring-in can be therapeutic.’
As Johanna’s UK sales skyrocketed – she now has six books under her belt – so too did those overseas, particularly in China where she sold three million books in just three months. Then, last year, came the letter from Buckingham Palace, informing her that she had been awarded the OBE. ‘I thought it was one of my friends playing a joke,’ admits Johanna. ‘So I phoned the number on the letter to check and a voice said, “Hello, Buckingham Palace.” I love that that’s the way they answer the phone!’
Johanna recalls her day at the Palace as ‘surreal’. Pregnant with Mia at the time, she chatted to Prince William about her due date. ‘I was very big, and when I told him that the baby wasn’t due for another four months I thought his eyes were going to pop out. I said, “That’s because you had the slimmest pregnant wife ever!”’
The day was made even more surreal, says Johanna, by the fact that her husband James (whom she met at a Prince’s Trust event in 2007, and married in 2013) was receiving an MBE for his craft beer at the same time. ‘Clearly when we found out we had to Google to see whose award was best…I won!’ Although obviously close (‘I ask him for advice about the business side of things all the time’), in many ways the couple are polar opposites – her creating ethereal artwork, him famous for shock tactics such as infusing a beer to mark the 2011 royal wedding with ‘herbal Viagra’ and naming it ‘Royal Virility Performance’.
Johanna laughs at this description of them. ‘He’s not the person anyone expected me to be dating,’ she concedes. ‘I want to make the least amount of noise possible but do the best work whereas James knows he can do the best work so he’ll be clowning about and making everyone laugh.’
Now, having spent a year finishing her latest book, Ivy and the Inky Butterfly, she’s taking a short breather. She says fans should look out for some inspiration taken from her trip to Buckingham Palace. ‘Ivy – the little girl who’s my main character – finds herself in a castle and it’s very opulent, full of treasures. Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to take my phone in so I was just staring at things and burning those details into my memory.’
This particular book took longer than the usual nine months to create because it also has a story – an amalgamation of tales that Johanna invented to tell Evie at bedtime. ‘Every morning we would draw pictures about what Ivy had done in the story for the previous night and I stapled them together into little books for her. When I needed a plot for my own book, there it was in Evie’s books.’
Both her children have been closely involved in her latest book. Johanna worked past her due date and downed tools only 48 hours before Mia’s birth. Then, when Mia was just nine days old, Johanna took her back up to the studio and carried on drawing, which was much easier than trying to draw while heavily pregnant, she recalls: trying to get your bump close enough to a desk to draw is nigh on impossible.
Evie, meanwhile, is a frequent visitor to the studio. ‘She earns her keep by sharpening pencils for me,’ laughs Johanna, adding that unbeknown to her, Evie doodled on one of the illustrations for Ivy. ‘It looked like a person or maybe a spooky tree. I put a picture of it on social media saying, “Look what Evie’s done to my new book!” but people loved it so I decided to keep it in. It means she’s got her own little contribution.’
With her book sales at 22 million worldwide (and counting), what Johanna won’t be doing over the next few weeks is fretting that the colouring craze has passed its peak. ‘I think we’re now seeing a shift from “trend” to “category”,’ she says. ‘It’s amazing that so many people around the world have put down their electronic devices
and picked up pens and pencils. They’re still sending me their pictures and their ideas for new books, so there’s obviously still a healthy market out there.
‘Maybe it’s harder for those illustrators who came after me because their publishing teams are looking at my books and saying, “Look – this is what you have to do.” But because my books came first, I was never chasing that commercial success. There’s a lot of freedom in that.’
– Johanna’s latest book, Ivy and the Inky Butterfly, will be published on 12 October by Virgin, price £12.99. To pre-order a copy for £10.39 until 15 October, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640. p&p is free on orders over £15