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I tried a bunch of coloring apps, and they all miss the point

Color me bad

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Recolor
Recolor

The first time I saw evidence of the fad firsthand, I had to stifle a giggle -— the sight of two grown women in a coffee shop, clutching colored pencils and shading in mandala patterns, struck me as pretty silly. Would they hang up their work proudly on the fridge? A few days later, I was telling a friend about the incident, and she sheepishly showed me the coloring book her boyfriend had bought for her. "I know it seems weird, but it’s so relaxing," she insisted. "You’ve got to try it!"

Coloring books for adults (not to be confused with "adult coloring books") are all the rage these days, currently occupying four of the top 10 spots on Amazon’s bestseller list. The Atlantic’s Julie Beck links the coloring book trend not to childhood nostalgia, but our need for meditation and mindfulness to combat the onslaught of digital distractions. According to Beck, "the repetitive motion and limited space in which to work" triggers a kind of mental nirvana. The Colorama Coloring Book, which has its own infomercial featuring women kicking back with a glass of wine as they color, promises to help you "unwind from the stress of your day" after "spending too much time in front of electronic devices."

It promises to help you "unwind from the stress of your day" after "spending too much time in front of electronic devices."

Which is why apps like Colorfy, Recolor, and Color Therapy (which hit the market in July, August, and September, respectively), are somewhat conceptually absurd. The whole point is to unplug, not invest more time staring at a small screen. Still, I had trouble picturing myself acquiring and schlepping around art supplies, so the apps had a certain appeal, offering a discreet, less cumbersome to way to dip my toes into the trend. And I was curious — was it possible to technologically translate the tactile pleasure of putting pencil / crayon / paintbrush to paper?

Recolor was the first app I experimented with, and the one with the most functionality without making in-app purchases or paying for a weekly subscription. For my first drawing, I chose a floral pattern with a non-anxiety-inducing amount of intricacy. As I attempted to color the teeny tiny petals by touching the screen, I quickly discovered that my fingers were not precise (read: thin) enough, so I kept accidentally coloring in other parts of the flower and swearing. It was not a soothing experience, though once I figured out how to pinch and zoom into the design, things got a little easier.

The apps are somewhat conceptually absurd

While the abundance of palette options initially seemed like a boon, it quickly became an annoyance. As someone who frets over minor decisions, selecting a shade of blue out of 17 variations was agonizing. I had to pick the right shade of blue OR ELSE EVERYTHING WOULD BE RUINED. I couldn’t take the pressure; I ended up just randomly tapping colors and haphazardly applying them to my hideous creation. My OCD demanded I not stop until every inch of white was gone, so I powered through what is meant to be a relaxing, leisurely activity. Finally, when I thought I was done, I still had to select a filter in order to "finalize and share" my monstrosity. My favorite option: "Smear," which smudges the colors outside the lines. That’s right — pretending you have the motor skills of a five-year-old is a design choice you can opt into. Actual human error has been eliminated by the technology, but you can still simulate it.

Next, I downloaded Colorfy, currently occupying the number 48 spot in the App Store chart. It has a classy-looking icon, but some pretty questionable design categories (like "Oriental," which comprises mainly fans and dragons — seriously) I was amused to see that "Cats" were given their own distinct category, separate from "Animals," but when I tried to select a feline pattern, I was prompted to provide my iTunes password to begin my seven-day free trial, after which I would be charged $7.99 a month. Eventually, I figured out a way to color without giving my password, but the app continued to harass me. The mechanism of coloring was identical to Recolor’s (tap, curse, undo, tap again) except more stressful because of the barrage of pop-ups encouraging me to subscribe.

I ended up just randomly tapping colors and haphazardly applying them to my hideous creation

Color Therapy has more than 20,000 reviews and an astonishing number of five-star ratings. When I opened the app, I quickly figured out why — they reward you with more design options after you give them a five-star review. Even more bells and whistles unlock if you follow them on Instagram. (I see you, Color Therapy.) They do, however, offer a range of celebrity designs, so if you would like to doodle on Donald Trump’s face, this app’s for you.

Ultimately, none of these apps really helped to clear my head; the physical action of tapping my screen yielded no more serenity than composing a text message or playing a Words With Friends move. Each attempt to make something pretty reinforced my artistic limitations, reminding me of the frustration I felt in grade school art when yet another one of my pots disintegrated in the kiln. It’s possible I would feel less inadequate with an actual, physical coloring book — but maybe I’ll just take up knitting instead.