NORTH ADAMS, MASS. >> Julia Reidy is a computer programmer by trade, but her latest avocation can be packed into a pencil pouch, no cords attached.
The Northern Berkshire resident is one of the countless grown-ups who have rediscovered the art of coloring and drawing designs. The trend has been made popular and accessible by numerous publishers printing intricate novelty books and retailers stocking their shelves with coloring books alongside art supplies.
"There are whole sections now at the bookstores," Reidy said.
According to Amazon.com's "Best Sellers of 2015," a quarter of the top 20 were adult coloring books, with illustrator Johanna Basford's 2013, 96-page "Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book," coming in fourth, having sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. Three of her books are in the current top 10 New York Times "Games and Activities" best-seller list.
Regional retailers have also jumped on the trend. You can pick up Scholastic Inc.'s "Harry Potter Coloring Book" or Creative Haven's "Creative Cats Coloring Book" at The Bennington Bookshop in Vermont, while Water Street Books in Williamstown stocks titles like, "The Little Prince Coloring Book" based on the designs from the Antoine de Saint-Exupery classic, or "The Official A Game of Thrones Coloring Book" based on George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" fantasy fiction series.
This past summer, Jayne Church, manager of the Gift Shop at The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, created a section of the store to accommodate designer coloring books and high-quality colored pencils and crayons.
"I thought it was almost against my better judgment to do the display because I thought it was going to be an in-and-out fad, but then, oh my God, they were flying out of here like crazy. I've never seen anything like it," she said. "It's a very hot, hot trend."
Reidy, who piloted an informal "Color Your Cares Away" coloring group on Jan. 14 at the North Adams Public Library, sees the trend being driven by people's natural yearning to relax, de-stress and release their creativity.
"It's just a fun way of being a kid again, but you're approaching it as an adult tool with adult sensibility," she said.
Book content comes in all sorts of themes, from trademarked popular characters, black-and-white versions of classic paintings and illustrations, and, depending on your taste and sense of humor, truly adult coloring books with mature themes. There are coloring book magazines and ones that involve more activity, like connect-the-dot mystery images, mosaics, mandalas and puzzles.
These pages then become open canvasses to try different techniques, whether it's just trying to stay in the lines, or experimenting with shading, patterns and different mediums, from pencil to ink to watercolor.
Reidy has taken a liking to a type of drawing called Zentangle, a certain method of design creation developed and trademarked by Massachusetts artist Maria Thomas and partner Rick Roberts.
Official Zentangle tiles are 3.5-inch unlined paper squares. Everything is freehand, no erasers allowed. The method basically involves creating a light square border within the tile. The method then instructs the creator to make a "string" or line or squiggle within a border to guide the "tangle." The tangle is a pattern drawn within the contour of the string, as simple as a series of lines, dots, circles or something more advanced, like a series of flowers, feathers or other shapes. Then repeat until the spaces are filled, revealing an intricate-looking design.
North Adams head librarian Mindy Hackner offered to host Reidy's workshop when she noticed patrons were frequently and freely using cups of crayons and coloring pages left out in meeting areas of the library, sometimes taking them home.
"I think libraries are using it as a de-stresser and to help people get away from over-stimulation from visual electronic stuff. We're also seeing how coloring can be that social element, drawing people together," Hackner said. She noted that the next "Color Your Cares Away" will be held at 6 p.m. on Feb. 18 in the library's Heritage Room.
"It can be meditative for people who can't sit still," said Reidy.
Reidy's inaugural coloring group of North Adams residents — five women of varying ages and one man — gathered at the table to draw and color for various reasons, from simply wanting to get out of the house and be social, to looking for a creative outlet.
"I think people are more stressed out these days," said Morgan Kierstead, who has been using coloring books as an adult for the past several years as a way to overcome boredom and "calm her mind."
"And people are becoming more aware of healthy living," said Robyn Moore.
While some certified art therapy experts say adult coloring books are no replacement for working with a trained in-the-flesh art therapist, the American Art Therapy Association said exposure to the arts can offer potential enriching and therapeutic qualities.
At-home coloring and professional art therapy "... are indeed separate topics with one commonality, that art making in and of itself is personally rewarding and potentially therapeutic," wrote board-certified registered art therapists Richard Carolan and Donna Betts in a Aug. 20, 2015, article on the matter. "The American Art Therapy Association supports the use of coloring books for pleasure and self-care, however these uses should not be confused with the delivery of professional art therapy services, during which a client engages with a credentialed art therapist."
What remains is that the act of coloring or drawing is accessible, can be social, and is fairly inexpensive.
"Anybody can do this," said coloring group participant Cheryl Tarczynski, while using crayons to color an intricate design featuring an owl perched in a lush forest.
Places like libraries and community centers offer coloring programs for free, materials included.
While various online sites offer printable coloring pages for free, books themselves can range from $1 to $15 or more, depending on the designs, quality of paper and number of pages. The same goes for the cost of art supplies and whether you want to use a garden variety box of eight crayons or a set of professional markers or pens.
Still, it's cheaper than attending a "paint and sip"-style event, which can range from $20 to $40, and you're not stuck with a bulky canvas. Zentangle drawings are typically made on 3.5-inch squares that could fit in your pocket, while coloring book pages tend to be in an 8-by-10-inch format, and can be recycled, re-purposed or just kept tucked away in a desk or on a shelf.
Do-it-yourselfers have used coloring pages as wrapping paper and for origami, crafted postcards and ornaments with them. Others have made a business out of them, offering self-published books on Etsy.com and other publishing websites.
Kierstead, over the years, has grown a collection of more than 40 coloring books. She likes to share her favorite images on Facebook, and is enjoying her new coloring calendar.
"I was shocked when [the coloring trend] actually became so big," said Kierstead.
Noting that she colors "almost every day," she said, "I hope it stays."