Dundee Contemporary Arts

Wonderlands by Johanna Basford – A Review

Ever since I found Johanna’s first colouring book, Secret Garden, I’ve been on a mission to have copies of all of the books and formats that get published of her work. A quick google search alerted me to an elusive book called Wonderlands which was the first book published in her name but this was either out of stock, unavailable or selling for crazy amounts of money for a used copy on Amazon or Ebay because it’s now out of print, with no plans to re-publish. I had pretty much given up hope of ever getting a copy unless I won the lottery. That was until a week ago when I saw that a few people in the colouring community had suddenly managed to find copies and that they weren’t having to re-mortgage their homes in order to get them. I contacted two of them straight away and both got back to me and were really helpful in showing me how to find the book on the publisher’s website (it’s very well hidden, even googling numerous times and trying different search terms didn’t come up with the ability to buy it) and I got ordering. I ordered it last week and just 7 days later I had a copy in my hands and wowee was it worth the 2 year wait and countless hours trying to hunt a copy down in that time.

Wonderlands is not a colouring book and was never designed to be one. The paper is white and thick though subsequent designs can be seen through it and it has a visible horizontal grain, a small section of pages (16 sides) are black paper with a vertical grain with white line drawings printed on them. I have not tested the paper with any colouring mediums as this book is now my pride and joy and I won’t be going near it with pencils or pens so if you wish to colour it you will need to test your mediums on an inconspicuous area but do bear in mind that paper with grain can bleed badly with any type of liquid and it may therefore only be suitable for pencils rather than pens. The content of the book is mostly from Johanna’s Wonderlands art exhibition which was displayed at Dundee Contemporary Arts from the 4th of May to 7th of July 2013. As such, the illustrations are some of the most detailed I’ve ever seen and have not been designed with colouring in mind and are therefore very black-heavy with much less white space left than we’re used to in Johanna’s work. Many of these illustrations have been shrunk down from much larger depictions in order to fit the book’s pages and therefore the intricacy and detail levels are second-to-none. I can only imagine how wonderful it would have been to see the original exhibition but luckily we are able to take our own mini tour within the pages of this book.

Looking through the book feels almost like you’re looking into Johanna’s mind, you can see her creative process working and there are hints and precursors to all of her colouring books and projects. I studied Creative Textiles for GCSE and therefore love seeing the process from initial ideas and mood boards all the way through to the finished display pieces and this book really feels like you’re able to go on that journey and you can see the first glimpses of certain pages from the colouring books we know and love from the owl tree and lily pond in Secret Garden to the monkeys of Magical Jungle. The content of this book is much more wide-ranging and less specific and is also more jumbled up within each page with one page containing objects ranging from an octopus to a cactus, a dustbin to a whale, a playing card to a ladder and even a lightbulb. This book is honestly spectacular and while it’s not for colouring, anyone who’s a fan of Johanna’s work will find that this book is an absolute must-have. Not every page has a design on it but the ordering of these blank pages is quite random throughout, there are a few single-sided pages but the majority are double-sided. The image styles range from ribbons across the page with vast blank spaces around them to repeating patterns like we saw in Lost Ocean, centralised images of trees and other objects to centralised mirror image designs and some lovely two-page spreads where the original image is shown in its entirety on one side and a section zoomed into on the other so you can see some of the wonderful detail more closely. The illustrations cover such an expanse of content from alphabets drawn in flowers and leaves and another in robots and machinery, to people ranging from Sumo wrestlers to Beefeaters, Royal Guards and little ballerinas, there’s a whole page dedicated to junk food including gingerbread men and burgers and others just consisting of butterflies, moths, or pyramids of animals. As with all of Johanna’s work, each illustration is stunning and one of the best features of this book is the section of photographs at the back which shows the exhibition itself and shows the scale of some of the pieces she created, we’ve seen sneaky peeks of some of these in newspaper articles and in her studio videos where we’ve seen her beautifully doodled dog statue and framed cuckoo clock designs and it’s wonderful seeing them in situ in the book, my personal favourite being the beautiful sailboat with seaweed imagery which clearly inspired Lost Ocean. The black pages are different again with the images all printed in a slightly greyish white and looking a little less crisp than the black-lined illustrations do, they look a tad more smudgy and as if they were created with paint or screen-printing rather than a pen but nevertheless they’re beautiful and the content here is very natural and nature-based from Oriental-style motifs to a beautiful double-page spread of peacocks, a floral heart very similar to the one in Secret Garden, to a beautiful pond and rainforest ribbon. The book feels quite sectioned off with it starting with black on white illustrations, then moving to white on black, then back to black on white and finally ending with 16 pages of photographs from the exhibit, despite this sectioning, the book feels really cohesive and does feel like a journey through the exhibition itself and Johanna’s mind and creative process. At the very back of the book all of the works of art are titled and information about the commissions and exhibit is given which gives great context for where the pieces are from and why they were created.

In terms of mental health, this book has certainly been fantastic for my own and has already given me hours of enjoyment and calm. Looking through the pages has really opened up a new world for  me and I’ve loved looking at all of the different aspects and details and each time I look through I see something new because it’s just so jam-packed with content. The paper has a lovely feel to it and it’s just a really tactile book with plenty to keep you occupied for hours. The spine is glue-bound so you’ll need to be a little careful not to break it by opening the pages too far. I’ve really loved adding this book to my Johanna Basford collection and it’s possibly my favourite book because it’s just so beautiful and wide-ranging. The cover has a black and white illustrated removable dust jacket with full French flaps and this could be completely coloured if you wish though I shall be leaving mine as is, the black and white is just so striking and the paper it’s printed on has a lovely soft feel.

Overall, I can’t recommend this book highly enough, if you’re looking for a colouring book then this isn’t for you as many of the details and designs are impossibly small and wouldn’t be colourable but for fans of Johanna’s work who want to see more of her art and discover where the books we colour have come from this book is ideal. The production of the book is wonderful and while it may seem a little pricey at £20 + £5 postage (more for International deliveries) it’s truly a beautiful book that I think is worth every penny, it’s becoming harder and harder to find and I have no idea how much stock the publisher has left (it currently states Low Stock on the site) so I certainly wouldn’t put off ordering it if you’re desperate for a copy, you won’t be disappointed and it really is a very special creation.

If you’d like to purchase a copy of the book it’s available here: Dundee Contemporary Arts

For a silent full video flick-through of the book, please click here.