JOHANNA Basford is reflecting on a remarkable decade. One in which she has experienced success and heartache, moments of great joy and painful endings that have, ultimately, led to unexpected new beginnings.

Yet, like many epic adventures, it all began with a simple idea. In 2012, the Aberdeenshire-based illustrator and self-dubbed “ink evangelist” decided to create a colouring book for adults. She saw it as something fun to do in her spare time while working for big commercial clients to pay the bills.

Her debut, Secret Garden, was released a year later and quickly became a bestseller, igniting a global craze that saw Basford hailed as the “colouring book queen”.

She has since gone on to publish 11 more titles, including Enchanted Forest, Magical Jungle and Lost Ocean. To date, her books have amassed more than 25 million sales worldwide.

Looking back, says Basford, she had no clue how things would take off. “It was never part of a grand plan. In fact, I almost didn’t even do the first book,” she admits. “I was so busy being a freelance illustrator.

“I thought I would do this one little book as a passion project, a wee side thing. It was never the intention for that to become the main thing, nor for it to keep going on and on and on. But, yeah, it has been a wild ride.”

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When we speak on a weekday lunchtime, the 40-year-old artist is at home near Ellon, Aberdeenshire. She pops up on Zoom fresh from the gym, set to talk about life, milestones and her latest project. Small Victories was published earlier this month.

A pocket-sized gem billed as being packed with “little wins” and “miniature masterpieces”, it measures a neat 8in x 6in (20cm x 15cm).

Basford holds up a copy. “It is this big,” she says. “When you see them side-by-side [with her previous books] you do notice the difference. I love it because it is small enough that you can pop it in a handbag, a carry-on bag, a nappy bag or your work bag.”

Her goal was to create something that felt like the antithesis to mindlessly scrolling on a mobile phone yet would stoke happiness and bring almost-instant gratification thanks to its dainty motifs and vignette-style illustrations.

She has filled the pages with a cornucopia of magical and spellbinding objects, such as tiny toadstools, cupcakes, hot air balloons, ice cream sundaes, dinosaurs, foxes, rabbits, butterflies, fantasy islands, treehouses and spaceships.

The Herald: Johanna BasfordJohanna Basford (Image: Hayley Fraser)

Basford would be the first to admit, though, that real life isn’t always as dreamy as the worlds she conjures. In recent years, she has faced losing her father to cancer and splitting from her husband, BrewDog CEO James Watt (the couple are now divorced).

Dealing with two such major and painful events in close succession wasn’t easy (more of that in a moment) but drawing – quite literally – from these experiences has inspired many of Basford’s on-page creations. 

“The book [Small Victories] came about because I was massively overwhelmed with all the stuff going on,” she explains. “I have two young kids. I’m a busy, single, working mum. You tend to focus on the big wins. You are thinking, ‘I just need to get to here …’

“The problem with a big win is you can take three weeks getting there, but you don’t get three weeks’ worth of joy at the end of it. I thought, ‘Right, I need to re-address how I’m looking at things, aim for smaller wins and reduce the number of things on my to-do list.’

“I used to have a to-do list that was pages and pages long. I felt so disheartened when I wasn’t getting through it. And I think that is how people feel about the more intense, double-page spreads [in the colouring books] too.

“Some people love them, take six weeks to complete one and it is beautiful, but other people just feel overwhelmed. I get that. Truth be told, I have only ever completed one double-page spread in all the colouring books I have made. And I’m the person making them, so that’s terrible.”

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This epiphany, says Basford, helped provide the light bulb moment for her newest colouring book. “You can complete an entire picture in 10 minutes and those feel-good vibes of ‘ta-dah, I’m finished’ makes it feel like you’ve accomplished something.

“So, I thought, why not just make a book full of these small victories? Little things that you can get done while the baby naps or the oven is preheating or in between Skype calls. Give people that little snack of joy and creativity that they need throughout their day to keep them going.”

Basford has a distinctive style when it comes to her work. While past offerings have been largely themed (oceans, jungles, forests, Christmas and so forth), Small Victories, she says, is centred around “lots of little things that made me happy”.

It is her hope that this happiness will transfer to whoever is colouring in the pages. “I know that people love those sweary colouring books and I absolutely see that they have their place, but I want something that is charming, magical and a bit nostalgic.

“Things like little hot air balloons, mushroom castles and enchanted worlds within a glass jar. For me, that is lovely and a bit softer. We need that little escape. It feels playful.”

Let’s rewind the clock to 2020. With the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns, it was a universally tough year. But for Basford, in particular, it became an annus horribilis due to her marriage ending and the heartbreaking news that her late father’s bladder cancer had spread.

“My dad had been ill for quite a long time. He had cancer and when the pandemic came along it was a big shift in how we dealt with that and how his care was taking place. The awkward thing for us was the separation. The kids couldn’t go visit my mum and dad. We were having to do window visits.

The Herald: Johanna BasfordJohanna Basford (Image: Hayley Fraser)

“One lovely memory I have of that time, bizarrely, is that I had bought two packets of window crayons. My mum and dad would be inside the house and my kids would be outside with me in the garden. We would play noughts and crosses on the windows.

“It was such a nice interaction but so utterly bizarre. It was like: ‘How is this happening?’ But I think when life gets really gritty like that, that’s when you have to focus on self-care.”

Basford swiftly hatched a plan. “I knew that doing a bit of creative work, keeping a routine and having small, achievable things would help me through it.

“I started doing more of the smaller illustrations about that time. Also, finding little things to be grateful for. No matter how bad things are, I play a game with the kids at bedtime where I say to them, ‘What are three things you are grateful for?’”

She smiles fondly while explaining the rules of this daily ritual. “You are not allowed to veto and bypass,” says Basford. “No matter how rubbish the day has been, you have to think of three things that you are grateful for. Even if it is, ‘I’m really grateful we got pudding today.’

“Sometimes it is ‘I’m really grateful we got to go to the funfair with all our friends’ and sometimes it is ‘I’m really grateful we had custard creams because they are my favourite.’

“That practice of being grateful for something, even when times are gritty and tough and quite grim, builds a different kind of mindset. You find yourself, throughout the day, noticing good things because you think, ‘I’m going to bank that and mention it later’. I found it very helpful.”

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Basford has spoken in the past about how the concrete jungle of big cities dulls her creative spark. Being at home in the north-east of Scotland, where she was born and grew up, has the opposite effect and the ideas begin to flow.

When processing her father’s terminal diagnosis and the grief that followed his death in 2021, she found spending time outdoors hugely important. 

“At that time, we were in lockdown,” says Basford. “We were having our one walk a day. I noticed that I felt reset and calm after a walk with no AirPods in. No podcasts or music, just listening to nature and letting my mind decompress.

“I could physically feel myself relaxing as I was walking in a field or through a forest listening to the birdsong or the crunch of the leaves underfoot. I find it so soothing.”

Basford is not averse to technology but is wary of tumbling down a rabbit hole. “I did look into the whole Japanese thing of forest bathing and why that is so good for you. That disconnection from technology, the wild stuff and all the scary news that was going on at the time.

“It is a small pause in your day which, again, is why colouring is great because you’re not on a device. I think, for me, technology is something it was quite easy to get sucked into. I doomscrolled. So, anything I can do to avoid that is always good.”

It was a dark and challenging time, yet Basford recounts feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude while spending time among nature.

“There are woods I walk in nearby with badgers and deer,” she says. “Lots of wildflower meadows and an area where the starlings congregate in the evenings to make the murmuration. It is beautiful and made me appreciate how lucky we are to live in this little corner of the world.

“My editor and the publishing team were all in New York City at the time. When I would go on calls, it seemed so fraught. I really felt for them. Trapped in these tiny apartments and crammed into New York City with so many people.

“Then I would step out my back door, go for these big, epic wanders and think, ‘We are so incredibly lucky.’ I did feel a bit of responsibility to capture some of that tranquillity and quiet in the work, so it could then be passed on to other people.

“I like the idea that somebody in New York could open the book – or log on to a Facebook Live I was doing – and I would bring the crunch of the leaves and the quiet of the forest to them, via the colouring and the art.”

Basford’s marriage breakdown brought further seismic change. When any relationship ends, we invariably go through a chapter of rediscovery. She is sanguine when asked about this time in her life.

“It was a big period of transition and you’re right; you do rediscover yourself and some of the things you liked before you met the person you were with. For me, it also meant that the days the kids started going to visit their dad, I was suddenly on my own.

“[Before] it was predominantly just me and the kids, because their dad travelled a lot and was very busy with his work. Then, all of a sudden, I would have a day or a night where I was on my own and initially that was terrifying. I didn’t know what to do with myself. There was nobody asking me for snacks or to wipe their nose or to check if there are monsters.”

While some people might have plonked themselves on the sofa to wallow while binge-watching Netflix, Basford instead chose to focus on the positives.

“I made the decision that I could either fall into a victim space and feel very ‘poor me’ about the situation – or try to flip it around and see it as an opportunity to go and do things I can’t do when I have two small children in tow,” she recalls.

“I started to go wild swimming with some friends in the sea. I did paddleboarding. I began climbing Munros. I had a friend who had also lost her dad a few years prior to mine, and she said, ‘Let’s go climb a Munro’.

“That was brilliant. It was a big, long walk out in nature and the type of thing that you just couldn’t do with the kids around.

“It turned what was a negative into a positive, which I think is always a good mindset to have. It is something I try to aim for whenever things are tricky. It is not always easy, but you can do it.”

What Munro did she climb first? “Mount Keen. Everyone does Mount Keen first round here. It is not even the nicest one, but it is just the first one to do.” Has Basford done any more since? “Yeah, I’m on 49 now,” she says. “There are 282 and I have done 49 since 2021.”

Her daughters Evie and Mia are nine and six respectively. What pearls of wisdom is Basford keen to pass on to them? “We speak a lot about finding work that sets your soul on fire. Being kind. Enjoying life and being happy. But mainly being kind. I think that is the thing I tell them a lot.”

And what, in turn, have they taught her? “Resilience. We call ourselves ‘the girl gang’ and we are aware that we are very lucky, but tricky things do come along,” she says. “I try not to shelter them too much from that. I think they do have to experience a certain amount of disappointment and understand that life isn’t all rosy.

“As much as I want to protect them and shield them from everything that comes along, I do think that there is merit in them – in a safe space while they are growing up – learning that life isn’t always like that. They are lucky and they have to choose to be happy sometimes.”

Continuing on the theme of small victories, I ask Basford about her own definition of success. Her response is typically forthright. “Success for me is living a happy life. Just being content. Different things make different people content, but I don’t think for me it is financial or profile-related.

“Obviously, it is financial to a certain extent. I’m not stupid enough to say, ‘Oh, money doesn’t matter …’ I didn’t grow up privileged at all. We are very lucky now that I feel we are secure, but I didn’t grow up that way.

The Herald: Small VictoriesSmall Victories (Image: Ebury)

“I don’t think life is a race to die with the most amount of money. I value the experiences we are having along the way. Making memories with my kids and my friends. That is important.”

Every bad decision, she believes, has come from listening to her head over her heart. “I don’t want to lie on my deathbed and think, ‘Well, at least we got the ceramics deal …’ If I can drop my kids off to school most days, that is the kind of stuff that makes me happy.”

Similarly, Basford has found a way to make peace with saying no. “There is this big myth that there is a work-life balance where, at some point, you are going to strike it and can have it all. And you just can’t. You can have the things you want the most and have to be comfortable with letting the other stuff slip by.”

Small Victories: A Colouring Book of Little Wins & Miniature Masterpieces by Johanna Basford (Ebury, £12.99), is out now