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Mindless doodling elevated to an art form? Part of New Age religion? Niche book market? Zentangles (a.k.a. Zendoodles) are all of the above.
I recently ran across several books about the art of Zentangle at the bookstore. I’d seen Zentangles before, but this was the first time I had seen books about them, so I grabbed three or four and headed for the closest comfy chair. Now, I’m not the least bit interested in practicing Zen, but I do find mindless doodling to be an effective relaxation technique in general. It was a habit I picked it up from my mother and grandfather, and one that I eventually (and sadly) broke as everyday life became more and more hectic. In fact, many of the patterns looked just like those I used to fill the fronts of the paper textbook covers and the margins of pages in countless spiral-bound notebooks back in school. It was a way to pass the time, like a daydream on paper. Anyway, back to the bookstore…
At first, I was very excited about my new discovery. The patterns were immediately appealing. Some resembled traditional styles, such as Celtic knot work (of which I am a big fan), traditional Asian art, or Delft Blue, while others were reminiscent of the more modern genres of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Retro Modern, and even Psychedelic styles of the 20th Century. The juxtaposition of the different patterns alone contributed to the appeal. It was also interesting to note how the technical aspects of the artwork were repeated with amazing consistency: the pen strokes, the shading, the occasional application of color.
The excitement soon dissipated. As I was skimming the last book, I felt like something important was missing. I started to notice the little things: imperfections in the strokes, the urgency with which many of them were made, the lack of variance in their weight. The lines began to look course and amateurish, the patterns mere novelties. I suddenly realized that more than a few of the patterns had made me stop and ask myself, “Why bother?”
I walked away from the bookstore feeling very cheated, and Zentangles lingered on my mind for hours afterward. Perhaps I had missed the point of them altogether. Hoping to find some empirical evidence that testified to the intrinsic value of the Zentangle, I resorted to doing a broader search online. There I found a multitude of these little sketches, most of which lacked any trace of elegance, with carelessly applied hash marks and fields upon fields of checkerboards and zig-zags (so very cliché).
Then it finally dawned on me, I was looking for art! I was looking for the minds of the artists, their messages communicated through this medium of ink and paper, and I kept coming back with nothing — and for good reason. If you read what the experts have to say, Zentangle is really a form of meditation. (Yes, as in New Age/Eastern Philosophy/The Occult.) It is something you do, not something you create per se. So it seems that the message is that there is no message. After all, Zen is all about recognizing the existence of thoughts and allowing them to pass away.
To this point, the experts also claim that creating tangles is not like “drawing” at all! It requires no forethought or planning, since these things actually hinder creativity. (Really? How many of the masters set about to paint or sculpt without a plan? Even great photography requires some plan on how to manage light, either in the camera or in the darkroom. But, I digress.)
I did eventually find what I was looking for. The techniques used to create Zentangles can be applied quite effectively to drawings to add texture and dimension. Most of the examples I found were pictures of animals. Similar to photos in a photo mosaic, patterns can used to manipulate light and dark, and even color. Also, just as Celtic knots were often used to ornament letters, crosses, and figures in illuminated manuscripts, Zentangle-style patterns can be used to simply decorate spaces that would otherwise be left empty or even to contain smaller images that help tell a story. Of course, all of these suggestions probably defeat the purpose of Zentangles to “achieve enlightenment”, and require far more forethought and planning than the mindless doodler cares to invest.