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Slowly does it: Johanna Basford

In the third in our series of interviews on the benefits of slowing down we speak to Johanna Basford, an illustrator who has sold more than 21 million adult colouring books since the publication of her debut ten years ago. She talks to us about the benefits of sticking to an analogue process and putting the devices away…

For the first part in this series, an interview with Delayed Gratification editorial director Rob Orchard, click here.
For the second part, a chat with the BBC’s Nihal Arthanayake, click here.

On your website you say that you prefer pens and pencils to pixels. Have you always been a fan of paper and print?
Yes, one hundred percent. At art school, like most art students, I was pretty broke and I couldn’t afford a computer so I was forced to be analogue. Sometimes you’re forced down a path and it’s the best path to take. Also, I’m just terrible at computers, seriously awful. I can’t even get Netflix to work half the time, my five-year-old has to show me how to do it. With technology I get massively frustrated… but with pens, pencils and paper there’s nothing blocking me, nothing tricky to get my head around, it’s just calm and I can get on with it.

You published your first adult colouring book ten years ago. Did you have mindfulness or wellness in mind then?
Absolutely not, it was a purely selfish pursuit. I was working commercially as an illustrator, doing a lot of hand-drawn black and white artworks for things like perfume bottles, wine labels and book covers. My clients would often tell me that I could make a great colouring book. So when I eventually got an email from a publisher looking to commission a children’s colouring book, I said I want to do one that’s elegant, refined and intricate so that adults can colour it too. They went a bit quiet and said they didn’t know if it would sell. We tentatively printed 13,000 [copies of Secret Garden] at first.

And it sold more than a million copies…
That was a shock! I remember when the editor told me they were going to print 13,000 copies and I honestly panicked because I’d already spent my advance and didn’t know what would happen if I didn’t sell them. I phoned my mum and told her that you’re going to have to buy a lot of these colouring books because I might have made a big mistake… But I seemed to strike at the right time.

Have you found that art and creativity have had a positive impact on your own sense of well-being?
I definitely find that during stressful periods I instinctively put away my devices or turn off the TV because drawing creates such a sense of calm for me.

We’ve produced Delayed Gratification in print since the first issue and we love offering readers a tactile experience. Do you also love print and paper?
I absolutely love it. I stroke and sniff paper, I’m really into binding and all those good things. I know a lot of people love digital colouring, but it’s just not for me – I love that tactile feel of sharpening your pencil, smelling the cedar from the wood and arranging your pencils in rainbow order… and I just don’t believe that a tap-to-fill app on an iPad creates the same emotion and sense of connection.

With a print copy of Delayed Gratification or one of your books, there are no pop-up ads or links to distract you. You can really live in the moment.
That’s part of the reason I didn’t want to make a [colouring-in] app. Imagine you’re doing a little bit of colouring and suddenly you got a ping or an alert or you’re a little bit tempted to maybe go and check what colour a kingfisher is, and before you know it you’ve watched 20 minutes of YouTube videos of kittens on skateboards. Because that’s what happens! Something analogue lets you put the screens away, be in your digital detox bubble, and that’s a very rare thing. A very rare brain spa moment.

Small Victories: A Colouring Book of Little Wins and Miniature Masterpieces by Johanna Basford is published 9th November 2023 in paperback by Ebury, priced £14.99. It can be preordered here.



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