Fantastic Cities: The Fine Art of Colouring Books for Adults

Drawing prolifically and with no limitations, McDonald delved deeply into his fascination with big-perspective, architectural subjects.

November 25, 2015 | | Back Issues

Artist Steve McDonald is riding high with his best-selling colouring book Fantastic Cities. Photo by Jason Van Bruggen.

Artist Steve McDonald is riding high with his best-selling colouring book Fantastic Cities. Photo by Jason Van Bruggen.

Colouring books? Pshaw! Urge your child to explore outside the lines. It’s common child-rearing advice these days, which makes the burgeoning phenomenon of colouring books for adults that much more puzzling – though not to Creemore-area fine artist Steve McDonald. With a quarter million copies of his new Fantastic Cities: A Coloring Book of Amazing Places Real and Imagined sold worldwide since August, and a print run now extended to 400,000 (50,000 would have been considered a massive publishing success), 45-year-old McDonald is riding high on this viral international trend and relishing every paradoxical minute of it.

But the seeming contradictions here all spiral down to one word. “Delineation” in huge type jumps off McDonald’s home page. And then the definition: “The action of describing or portraying something precisely. The action of indicating the exact position of a border or boundary.”

“I just love lines. I’ve always loved lines,” says McDonald. Yet for years he painted traditional landscapes. He said his studies at the Ontario College of Art and Design left him feeling that oil on canvas was the way to go if he wanted to make a living as an artist, because it’s what people want on their living room walls. Indeed, he cofounded a traditionalist painting collective and stayed with it for about two decades. “It had all worked out beautifully, but I wasn’t happy,” he explained. “I just wanted to draw, but was scared my clients would disappear.” They didn’t.

Click the drop-down menu under “Artwork” on McDonald’s website and you’ll see the evolution. Even his early landscape work reveals his budding linear inclinations. McDonald’s post-collective work delves immediately into moody forms of manmade structures such as highways, buildings and container ships. His kaleidoscope series suggests a fantasy version of Spirograph images, a drawing toy most familiar to ’70s-era children. It all leads clearly to the spare texture, yet intricate content of the urban landscape drawings he’s producing today.

“I always told my daughters [ages 11 and 13] that if I had lived 300 years ago, I might have been a cartographer. I love travel and I love looking at things from above – the aerial view,” says McDonald, feet up on the drawing board of his riverside studio just outside the hamlet of Dunedin, where massive whitewashed birch panels of various bird’s-eye view drawings are in progress on the walls. “Getting up in the air, you see different stories. You see different patterns emerge, a whole new architectural language.”

Steve McDonald in his studio on the banks of the Noisy River near Dunedin. “When this is all over, I’ll have 300 drawings all over the world – people colouring, having fun, finding joy. That’s more gratifying than I ever imagined.” Photo by Jason Van Bruggen.

Steve McDonald in his studio on the banks of the Noisy River near Dunedin. “When this is all over, I’ll have 300 drawings all over the world – people colouring, having fun, finding joy. That’s more gratifying than I ever imagined.” Photo by Jason Van Bruggen.

It was the Creemore BIA that got McDonald engaged in his first commercial aerial drawing project – a locator map of the town. It’s still a fixture on the main drag. From there, the vision grew.

During some family travels, McDonald began indulging his passion for linear drawing, which led to a series of aerial views of Ontario towns in 2012, all very well received. “There was no colour, no attempt to check those traditional boxes,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘I love doing this. I could do hundreds of these and not get bored.’” He could, and a two-year family adventure in Bali would send him full bore down this new and fruitful linear path.

A world traveller from childhood, it was no huge leap for McDonald to uproot family life and follow his wife’s opportunity to head an environmental program for an eco school in Bali. “Bali’s low cost of living took the pressure off me to produce,” he says. “Once there, my wife Jackie actually turned to me and said, ‘Chill. We’re here for two years, so do what you want to do.’”

He did. Drawing prolifically and with no limitations, McDonald delved deeply into his fascination with big-perspective, architectural subjects. He relished too the luxury of allowing a body of work to emerge without needing to constantly test its marketability. He remembers bird’s-eye images of Jodhpur, India, Bremen, Germany, and San Francisco as breakthroughs, although he would often work on ten or more drawings at a time. Toward the end of their time in this lush paradise, McDonald began pondering new ways to package and market this collection of so many unseen drawings.

A fine art book, a show, a series of prints? These were the approaches he’d known for getting work out into the world over the past 15 years. Still, how often do you have such a vast fresh body of work to play with?

“And then I thought of this colouring book idea.” McDonald expounds on the serendipity of it all. “I’d like to say I was smart enough to know there was this trend going on, but I didn’t. It was luck that I tapped into an idea which had already become a thing in the publishing world.” He worked on a proposal for what would become Fantastic Cities for about a year, completing about half the work required for the final book.

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Examples of Steve McDonald’s other work: Flying Vehicles series

Fantastic Cities

Fantastic Cities: The book has sold more than a quarter million copies worldwide since August.

Fantastic Cities: The book has sold more than a quarter million copies worldwide since August.

Long story short, Fantastic Cities was a fantastic idea resulting in a three-book deal that McDonald signed with San Francisco-based Chronicle Books. It’s one of the bigger independents with an international presence, a great track record for funky design, a passion for art and other visual books, and what McDonald describes as a good sense of adventure. A deal with the publisher for two more books is currently in the works.

“It’s fantastic!” McDonald stops himself, “I have to stop using that adjective.” While there are now scores of copycat colouring books filling bookstore shelves, McDonald is revered among a handful of top colouring book artists, a small group that includes Johanna Basford (Secret Garden) whose quality work first sent this curious publishing category viral and opened the door for others. And the truth is, it is fantastic – on many different and paradoxical fronts.

As a classically trained career fine artist, McDonald is conditioned to measure success by the number of times he dons his peacock suit (in his words) and looks out on a rarified group perusing his expensively framed work in stylish galleries. Indeed, any of his colouring book drawings could have been presented to the world this way. However, he claims the most fulfilling part of Fantastic Cities is its accessibility and the huge connection it gives him with thousands of people around the world – all from the cozy comfort of his studio in the hills. (By the way, you’ll find Creemore represented in the sixth image of the book’s first printing.)

“I’ve heard personally from seven- to 70-year-olds, a low-income Ukrainian, an upper-class Brazilian and a villager in Japan.” The only thing they have in common? They all paid a modest $20 Canadian, then felt compelled to share how much they enjoyed the book. McDonald’s Instagram feed (#fantasticcities) showcases how thousands have chosen to bring colour to his work.

Images from Fantastic Cities: Great Lakes Shipyard.

Images from Fantastic Cities: Great Lakes Shipyard. Click for larger image.

“Whether via social media, direct messages or book signings, it is a reward I did not anticipate – the connection and feedback,” he beams. Then he pulls out a battered envelope with international postage. “I even got this letter with 60 bucks U.S. inside.” He pulls out the wad of cash. “It’s from a grandfather in Israel asking to sign and ship two copies because they can’t get the book there. Amazing!”

McDonald’s loyal fan base aside, it’s hard to ignore parallels between adult colouring books and the traditional paint-by-numbers kits long scorned by arts purists. But such do-it-yourself painting kits now have their own adult product categories too. So what precisely is propelling McDonald’s and other adult colouring books to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list? And how does he reconcile his own untetherable artistic instincts with the contradiction of helping others colour between the lines?

“I think we’re all really creative and we’re all born that way,” McDonald answers, staring into the middle distance as he seems to do when wrestling down an idea. “I think most of us lose that, or rather, we get inhibited. We stop drawing, picking up guitars, painting – things you do as a kid just because you want to. When we’re older we tell ourselves, ‘I’m no good at it.’ I think these books are a stepping-stone to reclaiming creativity, de-stressing, enjoying colour, being present. Even though it’s this contradictory thing, it’s like a gateway drug to creativity.”

Many describe the books as therapeutic. It’s an old-school tactile activity that pulls people off their devices and into the here and now. Some studies even claim that brain patterns when colouring are akin to meditating or listening to music.

“The whole project has become sort of an exercise in contradiction,” says McDonald. “I hate living in cities. I love drawing them. I come to the country and sit by this river, and I draw urban landscapes. I want people to look at these drawings and find joy working on them to get away from their digital world, yet I’m creating it all with these sophisticated digital tools.” And while the greatest reward of his project has been human connections, McDonald acknowledges its global popularity is entirely a function of today’s online trend-driven world.

The subject matter is also a big draw. It has the strong appeal of a rich visual travelogue and, indeed, once you’ve coloured in the famed façades of London’s Piccadilly Circus for a couple of hours, you kind of feel like you know the place. McDonald says he’s visited or flown over almost every spot he’s drawn, or nearby enough to understand its essence.

Images from Fantastic Cities: San Francisco

Images from Fantastic Cities: San Francisco. Click for larger image.

Working mostly from photographs, some by noted photographers, a portion of his drawings are pencil drawn by hand, then inked. However, most of his current works are created on an oversized Wacom tablet with a stylus – he insists no one can tell the difference. Although he loves traditional materials, McDonald revels in the liberating capabilities of digital tools which allow him, for example, to flatten or elongate structures, or to use a fish-eye effect, all to better bring a location to life.

With the book’s focus on structure and line to evoke a deep sense of place, it’s no surprise it was big media platforms such as Architectural Digest, whose huge social media following “liked” what they saw in reviews, that got the project’s viral ball rolling.

Riffing on the architectural popularity of book one, McDonald’s next will be Fantastic Structures. It comes out in March. After that, real-life and e-bookstore shelves worldwide will also display Fantastic Collections, with Fantastic Machines and Fantastic Landscapes likely to follow. Yes, that last one, he admits, will be one whopping full-circle paradox, taking his new delineated style back to his original subject matter.

“When this is all over, I’ll have 300 drawings all over the world – people colouring, having fun, finding joy. That’s more gratifying than I ever imagined.”

Following the Fantastic marathon, McDonald plans to team up with his writer brother Duff on a series of illustrated children’s books for Chronicle. His more recent dreamlike flying vehicle series will figure in their first undertaking.

On the face of it, McDonald is the poster child for the adage that if you follow your passion, the money will come. But real life doesn’t always work that way, especially for people in the arts. So what’s McDonald’s secret?

Colouring Contest, scenes from Erin Village — Win Your Own Copy Of Fantastic Cities!

Colouring Contest, scenes from Erin Village — Win Your Own Copy Of Fantastic Cities!

In short, he emphasizes letting go of traditional notions about what it means to be an artist. “It sounds cliché, but you need to think outside the box.” In other words, colour outside the lines? “Well, life is full of paradox,” he says with a smile. “Don’t just live with it, embrace it!”

To see more of his work go to artbysteve.squarespace.com and get social on facebook.com/artbysteve.

Fantastic Cities Colouring Contest

Colour scenes from Erin Village, created by Steve McDonald exclusively for In The Hills, then scan or photograph your work and submit it online. We’ll choose three of the best and each winner will receive a free copy of Fantastic Cities. Entries must be submitted by January 31, 2016.

More Info

Find something you love to do, that no one else is doing. Photo by Jason Van Bruggen.

Find something you love to do, that no one else is doing. Photo by Jason Van Bruggen.

Beyond luck, accomplished fine artist and now best-selling colouring book author/illustrator Steve McDonald offers this advice to emerging talent on how to find creative satisfaction while collecting a decent paycheque.

Find something you love to do, that no one else is doing.
There’re 10,000 people who paint landscapes with oil really, really well in Canada. It’s easier to stand out in a smaller crowd.

Embrace tradition, learn from it – and then throw it out the window.
McDonald shed the label of artist or painter years ago. He prefers image creator. On social media, on TV, in movies, magazines and video games, in comic books, on sneakers, across your cellphone cover, and more – there are a million different ways of making money by creating amazing images. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece hanging over someone’s sofa.

Learn how to pitch.
Also a commercial illustrator, McDonald says business savvy is key to recognizing and creating opportunities. No one asked him to put together an adult colouring book. He envisioned it and after pitching the concept to 30 different publishers, he sold it. Which leads to his final tip…

Persevere.
McDonald says about a third of those he studied with at OCAD are making their living as artists. “Not the 10 best,” he says, “just the ones who wanted it most and persevered.”

About the Author More by Liz Beatty

Liz Beatty is an award-winning feature writer and regular contributor to National Geographic Travel magazine, books and blogs, among others. She writes frequently about sustainable travel themes. Previously Liz headed up communications for some of travel’s most enviable brands. More recently, she’s hosted and produced Native Traveler, a national travel and culture show on SiriusXM Canada Talks. Her show moves to the Entertainment One (eOne) podcast network this spring. Native Traveler recently won gold, bronze and first finalist honours in the radio broadcast category of the North American Travel Journalists Association Awards. Liz lives with her family in Brimstone, Caledon.

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