What's the Difference Between a 'Doodle' and a 'Zentangle'?

Young girl draws on the sand on the beach a doodle.
Iryna Linnik / Getty Images

Doodling has been around since cavepeople made patterns in the sand with a stick. People have always made marks, and marks for their own sake are what doodling is at its heart. But doodling actually now has a brand name -- 'Zentangle'. This creative medium has generated quite a bit of discussion on the Internet, so let's look at some of the most talked-about aspects.

'Doodling' and 'Zentangling' -- What's the Difference?

The classic definition of a doodle (certainly the kind that people like to interpret) is a drawing done without full attention, while the person is otherwise occupied. Often the detached and relaxed frame of mind that accompanies doodling is will be sustained for long periods, with doodles many times becoming involved in artworks. Free use of mark-making, with simple, repetitive pattern is common. Artists will shift attention and become focused on their work, creating intricate patterns.

Zentangle 'inventors' emphasize this focused attention and make it a point of difference. Unlike spontaneous doodling, Zentangle doodles are carried out within fixed formats and according to a prescribed method. The formulaic use of composition, method and pattern library results in a quite consistent look -- a descriptive comparison has been made between authentic Italian food and a chain restaurant brand. Meanwhile, artist and blogger Elizabeth Chan, reviewing a Zentangle program, takes a less prosaic view, commenting positively on the relaxation and focus that is part of the technique. She writes:

"I learned later on that Zentangle and doodling were not the same as I attended the Zentangle Program on the weekends....The difference though is that doodling is done out of boredom (most notably on the margins in one’s class notes) and mindlessness (most times, the doodles are not what one plans to do) while Zentangle is focused on creating pattern designs and mindfulness (you are purposely drawing something) so that you do not think of anything else."

It could be considered that the deliberate and formulaic approach used by Zentangle is superior, but while the end results appear more finished -- often with a polished 'op art' look -- they tend to lack the immediacy and signatory qualities of true doodling. An authentic doodle has some qualities in common with Surrealist 'automatic' writing and drawing, which sought to release rational control and liberate the subconscious. 'Mindlessness' is, in effect, the whole point.

Why Are 'Zentangles' Trademarked?

Zentangle's blend of doodling and New-Age Zen has an important third ingredient -- contemporary business wizardry, beginning with a trademarked name. It's difficult to make a living in the arts, so to some extent, it's understandable that they wanted to create a defendable territory around their ideas. At this point, only the brand name and a few slogans are trademarked. The wording on their legal page consists of a list of instructions for using their trademarked terms, their 'language' and promoting the brand.

One concern about the use of a trademark is that people who've been doodling all along find that rather simply expressing themselves artistically, they are now participating in a trendy branding exercise. One blogger writes:

"For a while now, like a few years, I had this habit of doodling and filling strings of lines with patterns and just “go with the flow”. A few months back I realized that what I was doing was actually a form of art! It is called Zentangle."

In actuality, this type of abstract designing is just abstract art or doodling, respectable art genres in their own right. You'll also find plenty of examples of this type of pattern creation in textile arts and architecture.

Do I Need Instructor Certification?

That you can be a 'certified' Zentangle instructor has led to some interesting discussion. The short answer is 'No', but if you want to work within the 'Zentangle' community, you will need to play along. Take a look at this Ask Metafilter discussion -- "Do you really need a certified instructor?"

Is Zentangle Art Therapy?

There is no question that drawing of any kind, and particularly doodling, can be a meditative activity that can be very therapeutic. This is highlighted by Zentangle in their literature. However, it's important to understand that Zentangle certification is not a certificate in art therapy. Certification as an art therapist usually requires a psychology or counseling degree and experience, experience in the arts, and a masters degree in art therapy. So it's particularly concerning to find Zentangle (TM) classes being advertised as 'Zentangle - Art Therapy'.

Of particular interest is the comparison between the 'apparent simplicity' of Zentangle and yoga. Becoming proficient in yoga takes years of practice, and certification, again depending on location and governing body, can take hundreds of hours of supervised practice.

While formally qualified therapists may indeed employ the Zentangle method within their practice, a three-day workshop to become a 'Certified Zentangle Teacher (TM)' or 'CZT' does not make a person a qualified therapist of any sort. 

So Why Do People Do Zentangle?

Despite some questions about the Zentangle concept, the convenient 'pre-packaged' ideas and materials suit some people well. They help to reduce anxiety around making art, from choosing materials to getting started with simple templates and a ready-made library of patterns to copy. For some people, this can be a marvelous stepping-stone to creativity, especially given how daunting so much of our traditional art teaching methods can be. It is quite similar to craft activities like photo scrapbooking, with 'Creative Memories (TM)' doing the groundwork of design, or quilting with a readymade kit. What this process risks losing, however, is the artist's own, intuitive sense of design and expressive mark making. Zentangles have a certain homogeneity for a reason. There's no doubt that the Zentangle process, with education on mindfulness combined with relaxing mark-making, is calming and beneficial, and for those who enjoy organized systems and being part of a group, the 'Avon Lady model' provides a comfortable structure.

Do I Need Zentangle Products to Doodle?

No. You can doodle -- or even do 'Zentangles' -- on any paper and with any pen. For best results, choose a heavy, bleed-proof paper and fiber-tip pens, such as Sakura Micron or Artline Fine Liner. One benefit of choosing Zentangle products though is that they are convenient, with pre-prepared 'tiles' of paper, and a selection of pens that are consistent with those used by demonstrators, so you will get predictable results.​

Why So Critical?

Criticism of Zentangle boils down to the ethical issues with branding and patenting. While they are not patent trolls (a patent troll is all about using the patent as a legal weapon to extort money), attempting to brand and patent doodling is highly questionable. Zentangle doesn't have a product -- it's trying to turn something people already do into a product. It's like taking the art of knitting, saying "meditate with every stitch. Use this selection of patterns, and this selection of stitches, and one of these yarns," and saying that this is a unique idea that belongs to them, and they'll take you to court should you happen to create something using that combination and without paying their license fee.

"But Zentangle Helped My Creativity!"

A lot of people love Zentangle. A common theme is 'I discovered my creativity' coupled with 'I don't care about that patent stuff', which is fair enough. If you, as an individual, don't care about patents, that's fine. Just be aware that there are some 'cons' along with the 'pros' before you support them by spending money on the materials, books, and programs. When other artists using doodling as an abstract art form start finding themselves slapped with a lawsuit for patent infringement, that lack of care could be contributing to injustice. Bottom line: It's lovely that the Zentangle method has helped people be creative, but it could soon be hindering the creativity of others. Not only is it morally questionable, but legally too: one cannot copyright ideas, methods or systems, and there is clearly not sufficient difference between Zentangles and any other doodling and abstract art to warrant a patent. Interestingly, the Patents board appears to agree -- it's already been rejected 8 times.