World of Flowers: A Coloring Book and Floral Adventure
This book invites you to travel the world and beyond into fantastical realms, discovering exotic blooms and extraordinary plants along the way.
Buy A self-described “ink evangelist,” Basford is a contagiously enthusiastic spirit. Each minute in her company increases the impression of a quick, observant intelligence, a strong sense of humor seasoned with irony, and a background of wide reading in botany. As it turns out, her grandfather was head gardener at Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran off the southwest coast of Scotland. “I spent summer and Christmas holidays wandering in the wild woods and the castle grounds,” she recalls. “I have vivid memories of the formal walled garden with its precision-planted flower beds, honeysuckle-clad pergolas and, at the center, a gorgeous sundial. Outside the walls lay a half-hidden summer house lined with pine cones, ponds with lily pads wide enough to stand on, hidden nests of bumblebees, and acres and acres of trees peppered with blossoming pink azaleas and purple rhododendrons. I'd play amongst their roots and gnarled stems.” Those beguiling moments in the Ayrshire countryside found their way into imagery of flora, fauna and treehouses in Secret Garden and its follow-up, Enchanted Forest. And likewise her grandfather's horticultural encyclopedias, which she'd inherited when he died in 1997. “Those reference books detail many weird and wonderful species,” she says. “In my work, I'll often take a leaf from one plant, a petal from another and possibly a seedpod from a third and combine them to create a fanciful botanical hybrid.” Her knowledge of creatures of the deep the subject of her third book, Lost Ocean comes from her parents, marine biologists (he from England, she from British Guiana) who ran a salmon and trout farm outside Aberdeen. “I have a sister named Katrina,” says Basford. “If we wanted to see Mum and Dad, we had to go outside and help with the farm.” The girls would feed the fish, rake the ponds and puddle about in the burn searching for tadpoles. As teenagers, they passed the time on research vessels and aboard fishing boats that dragged for herring and mackerel. “Katrina and I used to scruff it about with big jars of pickled what-have-you,” she says. “We just thought that was normal.” When Johanna met her husband, he was a deckhand on a North Sea trawler.
Drawing was all Basford ever really wanted to do. She drew on pretty much anything, including, at age 4, the walls of her home with the tar paint her dad used to seal the undercarriage of the family Subaru, the one held together with duct tape. “I think I was 4,” she says. “That didn't go down especially well.” Drawing on her kid sister wasn't allowed either. “I don't remember ever really getting into trouble, which puts me in a funny position now because when I see Evie, my 3-year-old, going for the wall with a crayon, my first instinct is, ‘Hey, don't do that!' On the other hand, I don't want to curb her creative passion. Which is why I tell her, ‘Well, let's see if we can paint some paper.'” Basford's coloring books represent a triumph of unpretentious rural aesthetics within a cultural milieu that often favors the urban and urbane. Her free-range childhood lacked a computer and, more or less, a TV. She built caves, battled monsters, used her imagination. Even today, in a world of Daedalean graphics tablets, Basford prefers pens and pencils to pixels. “Digital work is amazing and I've got so much respect for those artists, but to me it's a little bit cold and clinical and there's no heart to the lines,” says Basford, who only uses her Mac to erase tea splotches and mistakes made when the dog sneezed under her desk and her pen went crazy. “I love the slightly imperfect circle, the little flaws in a flower petal that makes it unlike the next. I've always loved the disparities of the natural world. I'd never do a coloring book based on architecture or portraiture or purely abstract forms. For me, they lack a sense of enchantment.” Much the same sense of magic and wonder informs one of the earliest-known prototypes for the coloring book. Published in two parts in 1612 and 1622, British engraver William Hole created a series of maps to illustrate Michael Drayton's 15,000-line poem Poly-Olbion. Drayton was a drinking buddy of Shakespeare, and his vast poem toured England and Wales, county by county, evoking the topography and legends along the way. Hole's surreal uncolored maps crowded with monsters and myth transmogrify elements of the natural world, woodlands morphing into huntresses, rivers changing into water sprites. Because the paints used in 17th-century manuscripts were too heavy for paper, watercolors were used.
It would be another three centuries before Basford's beloved Crayolas were introduced. During the early 1900s, Binney & Smith an Easton, Penn- sylvania, outfit that made inks, dyes and slate pencils was looking to diversify. Domestic crayons were terrible and the pricier versions imported from Europe didn't put down good tones. After tinkering with pigments and petroleum-based wax, Edwin Binney developed a carbon black crayon to mark crates and barrels. In 1903, Binney & Smith rolled out its first crayons for children in boxes of eight for a nickel. Edwin's wife, Alice, a teacher, coined the name Crayola by fusing the French word craie for chalk with ola, from the Latin-derived oleaginous, oily. She might have changed breakfast history if she had swapped craie with gran, the Spanish word for great.
Basford's scrupulously apolitical work contrasts sharply with the subversive coloring books published in the U.S. during the early 1960s. The Executive Coloring Book (1961) gently skewered the soulless corporate culture of the “Mad Men” era. From its faux-leather cover to its final page of buzzwords and marketing speak, a colorless businessman slogs through a typical workday over bleak instructions like: “THIS IS MY SUIT. Color it gray or I will lose my job,” and “THIS IS ME. I am an executive. Executives are important. They go to important offices and do important things. Color my underwear important.” Most devastating of all: “THIS IS MY PILL. It is round. It is pink. It makes me not care. Watch me take my round, pink pill…and not care.” The Organization Man was just the first of many coloring subjects that ranged from President Kennedy (in 1962, The JFK Coloring Book in words attributed to his 4-year-old daughter, Caroline topped the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list for 14 weeks) to Communism ( Khrushchev's Top Secret Coloring Book: Your First Red Reader mocked Soviet leaders, their supporters and life under Red rule). The pointiest elbow was aimed at the fringe conspiracy theorists of the John Birch Society, whose parody contained a blank page captioned: “How many Communists can you find in this picture? I can find 11. It takes practice.” By 1962, adult coloring books were so topical that 20-year-old Barbra Streisand opened her first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” with “My Coloring Book,” an over-the-top torcher in the he-dumped-me, so-to-hell-with-him vein. The New Republic called the version on Babs' second album (1963) one of the strangest four minutes of pop music ever written. The song begins: “For those who fancy coloring books / As certain people do…” before gathering the melancholy hues of a love affair that fades to black. It was perhaps no coincidence that, in 1966, Streisand titled her seventh album Color Me Barbra.
Barry Lubetkin, clinical director of the Institute for Behavior Therapy in New York City, says adult coloring books have allowed some of his most overwrought patients to relax and cope with panic. One 35-year-old woman told him, “I lose myself in the color-choosing and trying to stay within the lines. Everything else dissolves into background.” Lubetkin says this state of active, open attention on the present is precisely what he hopes patients achieve during the intense meditation he recommends. The chance to practice mindfulness an awareness of what you are sensing and feeling at every moment, without interpretation or judgment may partly account for the popularity of Basford's coloring books in France, where roughly one in every three adults reportedly use antidepressants or some other form of psychotropic drug.
Basford herself says a therapeutic benefit of her books is to spur apprehensive colorists to be creative without the tyranny of the blank page hanging over them. “An empty sheet of paper can be very daunting,” she allows, “but a coloring book offers a gentle buffer to anyone with blank-canvas anxiety. You don't need to fret over composition or layout just coloring in.” As the frost catches her breath on this crisp Aberdeen afternoon, Basford ruminates on why so many people over 12 choose to self-soothe with such a simple analog activity. “If you spend all day tapping at a keyboard and dealing with spreadsheets, to come home to coloring is a monumental mind-shift. I think that shift must ignite something in you that's whimsical and nostalgic and cozy.” The notion gives her pause.
“Well,” she says at last, “it does me anyway.”