Last summer, we learned my mother had stage four liver cancer. Despite treatments, her condition saw little improvement. While I was flying back and forth between Florida and California for visits, I was developing my first book, Zentangle® Dingbatz: Patterns & Projects for Dynamic Tangled Ornaments & Decorations. Although I had been a Certified Zentangle Teacher since 2016, I now have a very personal experience of how a regular practice of drawing using this method helps reduce anxiety and stress, quiets the mind, calms obsessive thoughts and provides quiet moments of peace along the way.
Zentangle, founded by Rick Roberts and Maria Thomas, is a meditative art method that uses simple patterns, often with repeated lines or motifs, that allows someone — even those with no previous drawing experience — to create something beautiful and unique in an hour or two. Just as meditation can focus on the breath, in Zentangle we create by focusing our attention on one pen stroke at a time.
The supplies to use this method in its traditional form are simple. Designs are created on 3.5-inch square tiles made of fine cotton paper by Fabriano in Italy, are drawn with a Pigma Micron 01 pen, and given depth and shadow with a graphite pencil and a tortillon (an artist shading stump). The simplicity of the supply requirements also adds to the mindfulness of the method. How many times have you taken an art class and the supplies themselves are complicated, excessive and expensive? This is of no concern with Zentangle. This simplicity also makes it a very mobile practice, easy to throw into a bag or backpack and take it with you wherever you go.
In the spring of 2017, Rick and Maria released a video in their “Kitchen Table Tangles” series that outlined a concept called Dingbatz. Drawing inspiration from printers’ ornaments and decorations called dingbats, they created these charming designs using Zentangle patterns. Dingbats in classic literature and printed broadsides were small designs that were used to frame a title, separate sections of text, indicate the beginning of a new chapter in a book, and simply added some decoration to what would otherwise be bodies of standard printed text. Dingbatz with tangled patterns could be used to decorate journal pages, scrapbooks, note cards and envelopes, gift tags and much more. My curiosity was piqued.
There is an element of ceremony to the Zentangle method that calls us to settle in, become present, express gratitude for our fine materials, establish the spaces in which we will place our tangle patterns, draw, shade with graphite and tortillon, and lastly, take a moment to appreciate our designs. When we gather in groups and in classes, we conclude with the practice of creating a mosaic by placing everyone’s tiles together. We gather around the table and admire the ways in which each individual brought their unique perspective and skill to creating the designs taught. It is a mindful practice and an intentional one.
There are terms that are sometimes used to describe Zentangle but, in essence, they are inaccurate. The most commonly used is “doodling.” When we sit down to doodle, we let our pen mindlessly wander on the page. We do not know what we are going to end up with, and we have no real plan on where we are going with our drawing. The Zentangle Method is an intentional, mindful practice in which we thoughtfully plan out how we will use the space we have to fill with patterns, and as we draw, we breathe, we take our time, and we focus simply on the pen stroke. The difference is mindful and intentional (Zentangle) versus mindless and unplanned (doodling).
As summer turned to fall, my deadline for the draft manuscript of the book approached. Despite my academic experience in literary writing, this was a different type of project because it required not only words, but many drawings and photographs of completed projects that illustrated application of the concepts I was putting forth. Frankly, it was a godsend to have a binding reason to sit and draw on a regular basis. I don’t know that I had realized just how many drawings were required for a book of this magnitude, but all I knew then was I needed to keep going to have something to provide to my editors by mid-October.
At about the same time, my mother’s condition worsened, and I was off on another trip to California to spend time with her and my father, and to help with making decisions and getting things planned and organized for her care. A couple weeks later, when I thought the large portion of the book was completed, an email from my editors both applauded what I had submitted and noted that, when storyboarded out, everything came to 112 pages and they needed 160. I was given the month of November to make this happen — and again, while a situation like this would have elevated anxiety for many, I dove in and made it work. The amount of drawings I did in the month of November amounted to equal, if not more, than what I worked on all summer. As life got significantly more complex, the demand to create art and stay centered increased in equal measure.
I submitted all the new drawings and photographs to my editors just before Thanksgiving, and only a few days later my mother passed away. I share this not to bring you down, but rather to illustrate that in those moments when life seemed so beyond my control, when demands were high but purpose and passion were higher, a mindful, meditative art practice like Zentangle really worked.
The great news is it doesn’t require a book deal or a contract to establish a regular practice of drawing, of sitting with pen and paper to bring beautiful non-representational designs to life. The simple act of slowing down and being present while drawing a small tile for a few minutes can have wonderful results. Zentangle is an active and intentional process that quiets the mind, brings us to the present moment, and yields beautiful and interesting designs that both delight and inspire.