Paint books and coloring books emerged in the United States as part of the "democratization of art" process, inspired by a series of lectures by British artist Joshua Reynolds, and the works of Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and his student Friedrich Fröbel. Many educators concluded that all, regardless of background, students stood to benefit from art education as a means of enhancing their conceptual understanding of the tangible, developing their cognitive abilities, and improving skills that would be useful in finding a profession, as well as for the children's spiritual edification. The McLoughlin Brothers are credited as the inventors of the coloring book, when, in the 1880s, they produced The Little Folks' Painting Book, in collaboration with Kate Greenaway. They continued to publish coloring books until the 1920s, when the McLoughlin Brothers became part of the Milton Bradley Company.
Another pioneer in the genre was Richard F. Outcault. He authored Buster's Paint Book in 1907, featuring the character of Buster Brown, which he had invented in 1902. It was published by the Stokes Company. This launched a trend to use coloring books to advertise a wide variety of products, including coffee and pianos. Until the 1930s, books were designed with the intent for them to be painted instead of colored. Even when crayons came into wide use in the '30s, books were still designed so that they could be painted or colored.
Coloring books are widely used in schooling for young children for various reasons. For example, children are often more interested in coloring books rather than using other learning methods; pictures may also be more memorable than simply words.
As a predominately non-verbal medium, coloring books have also seen wide applications in education where a target group does not speak and understand the primary language of instruction or communication. Examples of this include the use of coloring books in Guatemala to teach children about "hieroglyphs and Mayan artist patterns", and the production of coloring books to educate the children of farm workers about "the pathway by which agricultural pesticides are transferred from work to home." Coloring books are also said to help to motivate students' understanding of concepts that they would otherwise be uninterested in.
They have been used as teaching aids for developing creativity and knowledge of geometry, such as in Roger Burrows' Altair Designs.
Since the 1980s, several publishers have produced educational coloring books intended for studying graduate-level topics such as anatomy and physiology, where color-coding of many detailed diagrams are used as a learning aid. Examples includeThe Anatomy Coloring Book and subsequent book series, by Wynn Kapit and Lawrence Elson, published by HarperCollins (1990s) and Benjamin Cummings (2000s).
Some publishers have specialized in coloring books with an explicit educational purpose, both for children and for adults. The books will often have extensive text accompanying each image. Examples of publishers include Dover Books, Really Big Coloring Books Running Press, Troubador Press, ColoringSquared.com and Bellerophon Books.
Traditional coloring books and coloring pages are printed on paper or card. Some coloring books have perforated edges so their pages can be removed from the books and used as individual sheets. Others may include a story line and so are intended to be left intact. Today many children's coloring books feature popular cartoon characters. They are often used as promotional materials for animated motion pictures. Coloring books may also incorporate other activities such as connect the dots, mazes and other puzzles. Some coloring books also incorporate the use of stickers.