Inside the world of therapeutic colouring with best-selling illustrator Millie Marotta

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Best-selling illustrator Millie Marotta lives the kind of charmed life that many of us harassed urbanites hanker after.

Five years ago, the 36-year-old gave up a job teaching art and design in a secondary school to pursue her dream of being a freelance illustrator.

Based in the Welsh seaside town of Tenby, she admits the move was "scary" and she was worried her remote location would make it tricky to nurture her career.

But the gamble more than paid off. Soon, she was taking on commercial projects and it wasn't long before her fine eye for the detail of nature and wildlife that surrounded her led to the publication of her debut colouring book Millie Marotta​'s Animal Kingdom (Batsford) .

Filled with exquisite, wildlife-inspired line drawings, the portfolio struck a chord with adults looking to recharge their batteries via an absorbing and nostalgic past-time.

Animal Kingdom hit the top spot on last month, shifting over 500,000 copies in 19 countries. Millie's imaginative drawings - inspired by her serene lifestyle - have somehow transcended a sense of solace and escapism to readers all over the world, from Lithuania to Korea.

She tells about the journey that led to her phenomenal success, and explores the extraordinary therapeutic pull of her work: 

(Scroll down to print out a colouring sheet from the best-selling book Millie Marotta's Animal Kingdom)

"The success of Animal Kingdom took me completely by surprise. I hoped other people would it enjoy it as much as I had creating it, but I didn't anticipate that it would take off in the way that it has.

I was actually approached my publishing house two years ago. They had previously bought one of my screen prints as a leaving gift for a colleague and I think that is how they first came across my work. They had also seen much of my commercial work (which over the years has become predominantly black and white) and felt the style and aesthetic of my illustrations would lend itself well to a colouring book for grown-ups. 

The book was published in 2014 and it's always done well but in the past three or four months, things have gone bananas.

I've received messages from readers all over the world, and the appeal is really cross-generational. I hear from ladies in their eighties who've set up colouring groups and schoolchildren doing art projects, as well as students and professionals.

I think its appeal lies in escapism.

Colouring is a very familiar act; it takes us back to our childhood. As we get older, we're far less inclined to allow ourselves time out from the routine and worries of everyday life. And so many of us spend all day in front of a screen.

My drawings are detailed and intricate, so you need to focus - it's a hands-on activity. People switch off the outside world for a while to get absorbed in it, and if they're having a hard time, they can leave that strain behind. And I think that's why it's so rewarding; it's brilliant for stress and the mind.

I've always held a really strong interest in art therapy and so to know that Animal Kingdom is, in some cases, having a positive impact on people's health and well-being is a wonderful thing for me.

I'm frequently contacted by people suffering from depression or anxiety. They feel the book has really helped by giving them a creative outlet and a much-needed distraction from their illness, as well as a sense of satisfaction in completing an image that they've taken a lot of time and care over.

I also hear from people who are recuperating from surgery, or bed-bound after illness. They want to try something creative, but with minimum fuss. Colouring in helps them to stay occupied and wile away hours of boredom, as well as shutting off from a reality that can be very difficult to deal with. And it doesn't require too much energy or will, just some quiet concentration.

I even know people who've used my colouring in tasks as a form of physical therapy, to build up strength in the arms and hands following muscle damage.

And contrary to what people think, colouring in needn't be a solo activity - it can even be used to bring people closer together.

A grandmother emailed me to say what a wonderful thing it is that when her daughter and granddaughter visit her at the weekends they all sit together, each with their own copy of the book, and chat as they colour in.

It's something she said they'd never really done before, as they'd never found an activity that they all shared an interest in and enjoyed.

When I started work on Animal Kingdom, I didn't want to churn out any old colouring book; I wanted to create illustrations that people could really appreciate.

My work has always been about the natural world and I live in a beautiful part of Britain, so I never have to look far for inspiration in terms of patterns and texture.

I'd say my drawings are about 50-50 realism and imagination. They begin more true-to-life and then take on a whimsical element. I never have to think about what theme I will go with, as there's such a huge variety of stimulation when it comes to wildlife, nature and animals. 

When I quit my teaching job to pursue freelance full-time illustration in 2009, it was a worrying time. People said, 'Are you sure? It's such a risk'. But I just had to try. If I hadn't, I would always have wondered.

No two days are the same in my job; I might work from my studio at home or pop out for a walk along the coast. I have a variety of projects and deadlines, which keeps it fresh. 

Teaching was stressful and came with a heavy workload, but I work far longer hours now. I have to have drive and discipline, as well as passion. But it doesn't feel as stressful because I love it.   

It's what I'd be doing even if I didn't have to work." 

Click below to enlarge and print out a colouring sheet from Millie Marotta's best-selling book Animal Kingdom, below.

Millie’s next book Millie Marotta’s Tropical Wonderland (Batsford) will be published in June 2015.

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