Mar 13, 2013

Posted by | 26 Comments

So, What’s Up with Zentangle, Anyway?

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Are you a Zentangle master or does the thought of getting all ‘Tangled up” in doodle mode make you shudder? It seems art teachers are either so passionate about Zentangle they go out and become “Certificated Zentagle Instructors” or they ignore the trend and write it off as ‘Fancy Doodling” and carry on with teaching Van Gogh.


I know, I know, Zentangle has been around for awhile. I know, I know, it’s all the rage. Quite frankly I don’t have anything in particular against Zentangle. I just haven’t gotten into it or become ‘sold’ on it yet, either. It all goes back to a particular event in my high school art career that made me shy away from any type repetitive drawing and designing. We were asked to create a cover for our art portfolios using one line. You know, the type of activity where one continuous line winds around and around the HUGE portfolio cover and you waste away your time by writing your name and drawing happy little shapes with your line. It was torture. It was busy work. And to be honest, said portfolio cover kind of looked Zen-tangle-ish. Hence my aversion. It’s not your fault, Zentangle. It’s not you. It’s me. Really.

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The founders of Zentangle were at NAEA last week, but I didn’t have a chance to meet them or see any of their events (running a booth and presenting kept me pretty busy.) I want to learn more, really I do. The creations coming out of Zentangle are amazing, don’t you agree? I want to embrace this ‘craze’ that so many art teachers and students can’t get enough of. I’m hoping the fabulous AOE readership can enlighten me.

What size of the Zentangle fence are you? 

How have you used it with your students? What age level do you feel benefits from Zentangle?

What educational benefit or art standard are you linking Zentangle to? 

Does Zentangle really make you (or your students) Zen – As the name says? 


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  • emily

    I barely have enough time with students to teach basic concepts as it is, so the idea of zentangle seems like it wouldn’t work for a class, but it might be a good project students can do independently as they finish before their peers.

  • Lisa

    I am not a true zentangle fan, but I do use it in projects. I have students draw a project and the have to fill it in with the designs and patterns with markers then we watercolor paint or something like that. I love the look but as others have said I don’t have time to do a whole project. I like to tie it in with the design: line and pattern. And no it doesn’t make me Zen, with some students it makes me crazy. If they are not neat or have good hand eye coordination, it doesn’t look very zen either.

  • Cathy

    I don’t use it as a whole class lesson but use it as enrichment for students that seem interested in it. It has worked great for students who can’t keep still in class also. I have also just used parts of it incorporated into a lesson also. For myself as an artist I am not a big fan of it but I do want to learn more about it, learn to do it, etc. so as to be a resource for those students that do have an interest in it.

    • Jessica Balsley

      I agree- If it can help kids feel more “Zen” then maybe we should try using it in places where kids go to “Cool Down’ or in the principals office? Art therapy?

  • Vicky Siegel

    I had my students create zentangles on their first “Square1Art” project of the year! First graders created a simple, large flower with zentangle designs and colored in the rainbow order. Second graders made zentangle birds. Third created zentangle fish. Finally, fourth graders drew a zentangle animal of their choice. I leave the zentangle packets I created by the “early finisher’s area,” and those that love “zentangling” work on designs in their sketchbooks.

    • Jessica Balsley

      It seems like you’ve found a great balance to incorporate Zentangle into your existing curriculum. Thanks for the insight. This helps.

  • Lisa Hartz

    I only teach three grade levels, 3,4 & 5. I teach 3rd graders the idea of line and patterns and use some Zentangle patterns, etc… but I don’t use that word, Zentangle.Then, my 4th and 5th graders already know about it so if they have free time, they can choose to use this technique on making a bookmark or in their sketchbook.
    It’s really fun on scratch paper too.

  • Kathleen

    I admire the talented creators in packaging this idea (especially the “certified” angle to it all…more to spread the word) but hate the fact that for many it replaces learning traditional picture-making elements, language and or methods. They tend to stay in their “tangled” world with fellow tanglers. It really makes me cringe when I hear a young person say, “Oh, I use to do that all the time and didn’t know there was a name for it..” Yikes. It’s always scary when real language is replaced with trade marks. Just like saying claymation instead of stop-motion, claymation is a trade mark, not the same thing. It’s sketching NOT laying down a “string” in your zentangle square thing. I’ve been with someone who was into it while visiting a museum and all I heard was “Oh, I did a tangle like that…that looks like a tangle I saw…” What the huh? She was looking at Paul Klee. It reduced his drawings into a hobby that could be done in one sitting. You can go back a hundred or so years and find drawing instruction books showing shortcut methods for the masses: grids, shape transformation, pattern design, line variation and so on, but never monetized like they are doing, that was for the drawing toys that started appearing in the 50′s and 60′s. Still, it seems to open the eyes for a lot of folks, they tend to really look at traditional drawing different after spending time “tangling”. The trance like lose yourself state is familiar for anyone that has drawn for a long time, as is what it does for learning and the brain. That’s worth study and drawing should be studied as a whole. Still, it’s here so we must acknowledge it, same for the drink up and paint like everyone shops. I hope they are springboards into serious exploration but like youtube video creators, the ones that have always been serious visual creators stay, get better and continue while most just quickly move on to the next thing.

    • Jessica Balsley

      Yes, there was a Zentangle social at the wine bar the same night as ours. They seemed to be having a great time. Birds of a feather!

  • Artprojectgirl

    Zen tangles… Reminds me of what you do while your teacher is talking to tune him/her out. Never got into doodling unless I was stuck somewhere and had a notebook in front of me.

  • Mallory

    I’m actually using Zentangle this week as an activity during this awful week — OGT Week. Because of the test we are forced to have 1/2 hour classes all day long, all week long. So Zentangle is actually a really nice, relaxing activity during this strange time. For my Art 1 kids, they are collecting six line drawing portraits of their classmates, tracing them all onto one paper, overlapping and repeating, and then filling in the spaces with various Zentangle patterns. They turn out really nice and the kids really seem to enjoy it.

    Plus a bunch of the kids told me that as soon as they finished their testing and they are just forced to sit there for another hour, they’ve been tangling to pass the time.


    • Charmaine Boggs

      I really like the idea of using the overlapping line drawings to create spaces for the Zentangles. It seems that would take the doodling to a higher level since it’s not just a random “thread” to get the drawing started.

  • Charmaine Boggs

    I have introduced Zentangles to my middle school students, usually the last grading period of sixth grade when schedules get crazy and spring fever sets in or at the beginning of seventh grade when we are just settling in to a new school year. It seems to calm the class because I play soft instrumental music and turn down the lights while they are working. Most of them are really engaged and some of them continue to Zentangle well into seventh and eighth grade. During those years, I will reference Zentagles when we are doing projects as a way to add texture and interest to their work.

  • Molly

    Great post Jessica.
    I agree. I was at the conference too and was very surprised to see it popping up in so many places. I have been practicing Zentangle for almost 10 years and continue to discover something new on a daily basis. I spent years questioning it … but through my journey of creating these patterns … so many answers became apparent. Of course I have a somewhat of bias view point as I eat breath and live Zentangle. It is good to see an objective viewpoint. Keep up the passion. You work is wonderful.

  • Cassidy Reinken

    I introduced Zentangles into my classroom this year. When students finish an assignment they have the option to create a Zentangle. In addition, I had my 7th graders incorporate realistic drawings of fruits and vegetables with zentangles in the background. (It was a lesson plan from an art education magazine) My students liked the balance of realistic and abstract drawing.

  • Denise Romano Tanaka

    I too have used “Zentangles” as an early finisher project. The first time we did these with my 8th graders you could hear a pin drop! I somewhat agree that labeling these drawings/exercises with a new name isn’t necessary-I’ve done things like this in the past with students and didn’t call them Zentangles. But I do like the fact that it slows them down, we play Zen type meditation music-just what middle school kids need every once in awhile. And their teacher!

  • suz

    well a good chunk of the tangle-esque designs are really patterns and pattern is an element of art so yes I suppose we do get all “tangled up” now and then when doing pattern based lessons so there is a way to look at it as a part of a solid art program…not sure why you would ever need to take a training on the program though…just buy a tangle pattern book or find a tangle website….I have looked at both to help my student’s expand their patterns for pattern projects beyond just stripes and repeating shapes

  • Donnalyn Shuster

    I used it as an review of art elements, lines, geometric/organic shapes,positive and negative space with my 4th graders this past September. I was newly assigned to elementary school ( after 22 years in MS/HS) and I wanted a format that would allow students to demonstrate what they knew, and extrapolate inspiration from naturally occuring patterns. Started with a Smart Board presentation on elements, showed some samples and had lots of images from nature with intense patterns.
    My kids loved it. It was an excercise that allowed each student to expierence success, and in the reflective statements written, students were able to use some of the vocabulary ( they never had much formal vocabulary work before, sadly). One student said doing them helped him ‘de stress’. Many asked for more blanks to take. I also played classical music and lowered the lights somewhat….so these kids had a truely ‘right brain’ experience…and the period was over before they knew it!
    I see value as a review/de stressing activity….and several teachers are interested in to too…so I may do a little after school workshop for them.

    • Donnalyn Shuster

      Loved your workshop too…was a pleasure to be in the audience!!

  • Terri Oliver Young

    Zen Tangle inspired art is something you can use to calm a class down. They will be so focused on their drawing and when they are finished they will have a sense of well being coming from the fact that they just created a nice piece of art work.

    I have also used this for patients recovering from major illnesses and hand therapy patients. It really works to take your mind off problems, pains, illness and is relaxing since there is no wrong or right way to tangle.

  • Theresa McGee

    I really love Zentanges because they force kids to come up with creative solutions to their mistakes! I had my 4th graders create zentangle trees and my 1st graders made beautiful zentangle fall leaves. I emphasized the use of repetition in art and showed them lots of examples of repetition in artwork and in nature.

  • frances rice

    In the 70′s when my college girlfriends and I would hang out with our sketchbooks drawing, we often spent time drawing free form repetitive patterns. A couple of years ago when I heard about Zentangle I thought, oh…I’ve been doing that for years, but never thought to market the process! It sort of reminds me of seed producers like Monsanto patenting seeds. In any event….I agree that it is a way to engross students in drawing and connect them to the use of pattern in art. The best lesson I’ve tried with a zentangle-like bent came from the blog Artful Explorations in Nature. Taran’s May 2012 Art Challenge was shared over several posts taking you from gathering plant materials, to observational drawing, to creating Zentangle style drawings. Here’s a link to the first post:

    • Jessica Balsley

      Thanks for sharing this website, Frances. Some great stuff there! I agree, putting a name to something can often validate it in the eyes of others.

  • Daniele

    I tried creating Zentangles by copying samples on the internet, and then I actually took a class. I realized I was doing it all wrong! The point of a Zentangle is not to approach a drawing holistically, which can seem like an overwhelming drawing task if the pattern looks intricate, but to break down the steps into simple tasks that anyone can do. So you might proceed through a drawing like this: Fill your space with vertical lines… Now draw horizontal lines… Now draw a circle in each square of the grid… Now color in every other circle… Now color in the background (negative space) around every other circle… The simple steps allow your mind to be “zen” because there is no intimidation or stress- and it is a great review of art element vocab!

    I also love that there are no mistakes- I’ll hear one of the kids say,”whoops!” and the class will say, “That’s okay- just create a variation on the design!” and they flock to the other student to lend their support and offer suggestions.

    I teach Zentangle in an after school program for a small group of middle school students on Friday afternoons. I like that the students are receptive to the calming music: ambient, classical, soft jazz, Celtic, Asian, and nature sounds. They accept it and appreciate it in the context of the Zentangle class. These are the same students that would want to listen to “their” music in any other setting.
    And although we talk, and joke, and laugh- we are not silent- we have established such a strong sense of trust and community. One girl recently said, “This is a great way to spend a Friday afternoon. This is so relaxing after a hard week at school!” Now when a middle school student says she wants to spend her Friday afternoon with you, THAT’s a real compliment!!!
    I missed last week’s class to attend a workshop, so while I was away I had the students use the computer lab to research their own Zentangle designs. They had to figure out the steps needed to create the pattern, and bring the design to the next class. This week we divided our Zentangle square so there was one space per student, and each teen demonstrated a pattern for the group. When we were done everyone (including me- who got to draw instead of teach ;D ) had a beautiful Zentangle square that was the result of the cooperation of the whole group. The students demonstrated that they truly understood the process of analysis and synthesis, and it was the most fun we have had so far! When done correctly, Zentangle can be a very rewarding experience!

  • Kim

    I began using Zentangles last year with my 6th graders as a fill in project while others were finishing up a project. The kids were so into their designs that you could have heard a pin drop! Then EVERYONE wanted to try their hand at one! I put out 2 requirements: They had to use at least 3 different types of lines and there had to be at least 3 value changes in their pieces. They turned out absolutely amazing.
    Then my younger students wanted to try them! Even Kindergarten and 1st graders came up with some very clever artwork. This is definitely a project I will use again and again!

  • Charlotte

    I used Zentangles with my 6th grade class. After asking them how they felt at the beginning of class (I got responses such as stressed, tired and worried) I introduced Zentangles and let them go away and work on them. At the end of the lesson I asked them how they felt again. There was a much different response: calm, happy, content… It lead to some great discussions :)