Doodling, Zentangle, NeoPopRealism

"Zentangle! -- That's like Zentangle!" remarked somebody upon seeing me doodle.


"It is Zentangle. You're doing it. Google it when you get home."

I've been doodling for all of my life, so I was quite curious to find out that for well over three decades I'd been approximating somebody else's style.

So I googled Zentangle, and what I found was an intriguing tale of (alleged) artistic plagiarism and the commodification of something many of us would otherwise know as doodling.

So, what is Zentangle?

In a nutshell, Zentangle is:

... an abstract drawing created using repetitive patterns according to the trademarked Zentangle Method. True Zentangles are always created on 3.5 inch square tiles, and they are always done in black ink on white paper. The invention of the Zentangle was intended to make the act of drawing pleasurable, meditative and accessible to all.

Zentangle, or The Zentangle MethodTM, was created by Rick Roberts and Maria Thomas, in what appears to be a moment of Zen-like realization:

One day, Maria told Rick what she experienced as she drew background patterns on a manuscript she was creating. She described her feelings of timelessness, freedom and well-being and complete focus on what she was doing with no thought or worry about anything else.

"You're describing meditation," Rick said.

Rick and Maria wondered if they could create a simple system so others might enjoy a similar experience. And so began the journey towards discovering this simple and elegant system called the Zentangle Method.

Zentangle is reportedly an "easy-to-learn, relaxing, and fun way to create beautiful images by drawing structured patterns"; "unencumbered by dogma and cost which can weigh on other approaches", yet "sufficiently structured and organized so you can enjoy and benefit from an activity that otherwise might be considered whimsical." In this electronic age, Zentangle "returns us to that fundamentally human behavior of manipulating symbols and putting marks on paper. Nothing is pre-programmed. Your creativity is your only limit."

The founders of Zentangle encourage you "not have a preconceived idea of your final result" so as to not "restrict your creation by your expectations." Yet, you should "draw each stroke consciously and deliberately."

As your eye follows your pen strokes your attention shifts to a state that allows fresh thoughts, new perspectives, and creative insights to flow unhindered by anxiety or effort.
There is no such thing as an eraser in Zentangle theory. Life doesn't have an eraser and neither should your Zentangling. Rather, "apparent mistakes can be foundations for new patterns and take you in unexpected and exciting new directions".

As one might expect, Zentangle is taught via workshops and Zentangle Seminars run by a growing group of Certified Zentangle TeachersTM (or CZTTM for short), who having been taught are considered "authorized resellers of Zentangle's products". You will also need a Zentangle KitTM ($49), maybe with some extra Zentangle Tiles ($29) or a 11 Piece Zentangle Pen Set ($21.99), and perhaps The Book of Zentangle ($39). Or, if you want to get a head-start, follow this WikiHow to Make Your Own Zentangle.

Now, there's no denying that Zentangle patterns -- or perhaps I should say the artwork attained by "The Zentangle Method" -- are very pretty. I also think it's great, having discovered the joys of "creating art by repetitive patterns," to teach it to others who might not perceive of themselves as artists or might find art intimidating.

What gets me, however, is the commercialization of Zentangle as a product. "Trademark law is not our favorite topic", claim the founders of Zentangle, but for your benefit they've established an entire page dedicated to the presentation of their work, and there's a patent pending on their Zentangle teaching method.

Zentangle appears to be a relatively new method of doodling -- according to the authors,"Our first public presentation of Zentangle was at a lettering arts conference (IAMPETH) in Providence, RI in July of 2004. I think the idea for Zentangle came to us sometime in the fall of 2003." Via, we can see that the domain was first established sometime in 2006. But there's at least one individual who disputes the nature of their discovery.


Neo-PopRealism is the brainchild of Russian-born artist Nadia Russ, "created by Nadia Russ in 1989, and manifested online in 2003." According to one description of its origin, before the founders of Zentangle discovered that focused drawing repetitive patterns induced a kind of meditative state, Nadia Russ

... began to draw ink pen / pattern images. This time, they were different than the ordinary realistic images. A line created sections, the sections she filled with different repetitive patterns. ... Nadia Russ never uses eraser. If a mistake made, it disappears when she draws the new patterns. Her drawings are a pure improvisation with the ink pen.
Though having reportedly discovered this method of pattern drawing in 1989, Russ didn't actually coin the term "Neo-Pop Realism"TM until some time later: January 4, 2003, to be precise.

According to Russ' account, in 2002 she passed to David T. Shwaery (President of Pawtucket Arts Council, RI) eleven of her "NeoPopRealist" drawings and several canvases to exhibit them there. The two had some kind of falling out, said drawings and canvases never made it to exhibition, and -- coincidentally? -- Rick Roberts and Maria Thomas, also of Rhode Island, came to discover, announce, and market the joys of pattern drawing via "Zentangle" in 2003.

Like Zentangle, NeoPopRealism comes with its own philosophy -- here are Russ' "10 Canons for a Happier Life":

  1. Be beautiful.
  2. Be creative & productive, never stop studying & learning.
  3. Be peace loving, positive minded.
  4. Do not accept communistic philosophy.
  5. Be free-minded,do the best you can to move the world to peace and harmony.
  6. Be family oriented, self-disciplined.
  7. Be free spirited. Follow your dreams, if they are not destructive, but constructive.
  8. Believe in god, god is one.
  9. Be supportive to those who need you, be generous.
  10. Create your life as a great adventurous story.

Compared to Zentangle, the "Neo-Pop Realist" method is infinitely more difficult, and not everybody is capable of acquiring its knowledge:

... you have to learn NOT TO COPY and NOT TO CONTROL YOUR HAND with your brain. But it is not easy to open your mind to Space and to connect to the Space Mind. So you might never will be able to do it, and as a consequences to create a good NEOPOPREALIST work of art will be impossible. ...

It is not easy job to put yourself in subconscious state of mind - then you will end up with simple dividing space with lines into sections and then, filling these sections with different repetitive patterns. This is kind of even silly thing to do because you won't be able to create any significant peace of art. And after while, like those realists artists you will feel like you stuck in a box without air and without abiliy [sic] to move on. You will draw simple doodling because your conscious abilities are very limited - you normally use only up to 16 percent of your brain's gray matter potential and everyone will see it through your work! Yes, everyone will see that you are a doodler, not artist though your work! And you'll have to be honest with yourself.

Indeed, it would seem that Nadia has a bone to pick with the Zentanglers:
... these days, internet is booming with bad quality art and especially with those doodling of adults who try to immitate [sic] NEOPOPREALISM by dividing spaces into sections and filling those sections with patterns.

Nadia Russ would like to say to art critics and to the average viewers that those "art creators" have another teachers - doodlers who immitate NEOPOPREALISM without any artistic abilities. However, the NEOPOPREALIST SCHOOL has different teaching method that can be found only in Nadia Russ' NEOPOPREALIST instructional books. Other resources will teach you how NOT TO DRAW NEOPOPREALISM.

In How To Draw the NeoPopREalism, Nadia takes opportunity to educate her readers on the evils of plagiarism:

... these people, who are not artists, created a word "zentangle" right after Nadia Russ announced the style worldwide. First presentation of "zentangle" was ... Rhode Island.

[...] People used her idea, renamed her art style, simplified it (they are not artists!), and were teaching the drawing concept [to] grannies and even children through elementary and secondary education. ... they were selling kits. A lot of kits. And at the same time, they didn't want Nadia Russ and NeoPopRealism succeeded [sic] because they were their main competition.

Leading to this remarkable insight into human nature:
Nadia Russ still does not understand why people do bad things. Probably because they are bad people. Good people would never do bad things.
Those interested in the ongoing feud can visit Nadia's own blog titled ZentangleStolenConcept. Rick and Maria, for the record, profess to have no knowledge of Nadia Russ until they were informed of her allegations in 2011 by their CZT's.


I find the history of the NeoPopRealism-vs.-Zentangle feud is fascinating, not only for its allegations of artistic plagiarism (honestly, I think the two styles are very distinctive and unique) -- but also given the attempts to "own" and commercialize a type of art which the rest of us have been doing for thousands of years, or at least from the dawn of elementary school. I find it rather humorous that Rick and Maria are marketing (and trademarking) Zentangle as a particular method to producing these kinds of doodles . . . even as they vehemently disavow the word "doodles" or "doodling", despite the fact that what they refer to as Zentangles look very much to this novice eye like, well, doodles. But perhaps this disagreement and wish to disassociate Zentangle from doodling hinges on how one actually defines the latter.

"Doodling", according to Merriam-Webster, is to "to draw something without thinking about what you are doing"; a "doodle" in that respect is "an aimless or casual scribble, design, or sketch; also : a minor work." As one Zentangle devotee puts it:

"Doodling is random and has no rhyme or reason. As soon as thought goes into doodling, it becomes something else. Doodling is done while you're on hold waiting for your phone company or bored in class. … Zentangle is the use of repetitive, DELIBERATE stroke making to create something that is simple, yet beautiful."
Or consider this comparison between the two (Zentangle vs Doodling):
Doodling (from dictionary definitions):

1. Mindless
2. Aimless
3. Unfocused
4. Used as a distraction
5. Done while doing something else
6. Getting lost in a daydream
7. Unstructured/chaotic
8. Foolish activity


1. Mindful
2. Done with intent
3. Focused
4. Purposeful
5. Sole activity
6. Attention in the moment
7. Structured process
8. Helpful activity

Sorry Zentanglers, but I beg to differ.

Consider that CBS News once did a piece on doodling as an intellectually-stimulating activity, and according to Sunni Brown, author of The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently describes doodling as a means of "harnessing visual, mental and physical energy."

“Whenever you look at a notebook or a journal from any intellectual or hard-core creative, you see doodles,” Brown says. “There’s a reason for that.”

Our highly visual brains see words as images, she says. Doodling, which unites different neural pathways in the brain, opens us up to greater insights, better information retention and higher levels of concentration, getting us closer to those coveted “a-ha” moments, she argues.

Rather than being a sign of disengagement or distraction, doodling keeps our mind occupied and focused, she argues.

In fact, Ms. Brown has advanced a new definition of doodling, which I can totally get behind:
doodle: to make spontaneous marks in order to support thinking; to use simple visual language to engage three learning modalities; to use simple visual language to activate the mind’s eye and support creativity, problem-solving and innovation.
Check out The Doodle Revolutionary's Manifesto. And while she offers a number of useful books, "bootcamps" and "webinars" teaching the merits of doodling ("visual language" to corporations and those ordinarily opposed to "doodling in the workplace", I very much doubt that unlike other so-called "artists", she'll require purchasing of her books as a necessary prerequisite for picking up a pen.

Related Posts

  • Zen And The Art Of Patent Protecting Zen Art from the how-very-unzen dept. TechDirt
  • Zentangles…. or Doodles? Blogging on the Ragged Edge - on Zentangle's stated desire "that, although they would quite like us to share and link to their business, they don’t want us to use any ‘vocabulary’ other than theirs or mention the ‘D’ word in connection with the ‘Z’ word."
  • Zentangles? Nope, just doodles, by Phyl. There's a Dragon in My Art Room
  • "I Draw Pictures All Day" ("So, you do nothing all day"), by Alma Hoffman. Smashing Magazine. August 3, 2012.
  • Doodling by Any Other Name, by Frederik Sisa. Review of Joy of Zentangle: Drawing Your Way to Increased Creativity, Focus, and Well-Being:
    I have no objection to all the books and related products, like card decks; these all serve as marvelous sources of inspiration. But we might as well copyright a method for teaching people how to ride a bicycle or how to breathe. It’s the familiar problem of simultaneously having and eating a cake: Either the method is simple, with no right or wrong, or it is actually a tangible system that justifies the cadre of “Certified Zentangle Teachers” waiting to offer further guidance. Either it’s an informal way of drawing, which is as good a definition of doodling as any, or it’s the first step in a program of teaching people how to draw. Actually, Zentangle is the first step in what could be a drawing program, judging from the number of books and teachers out there. It still strikes me as a crisis of identity, like applying the Apple business model to a Linux operating system.

    Zentangle’s coarse commercial ambition is such that, in recognition of how there is no method to the method, the book’s authors strive to dictate how Zentanglers should speak about it. Readers are advised that “It’s understandable that you might wish to share the Zentangle method with family or friends…However, please make sure family and friends you are teaching understand they are learning the Zentangle method. Use Zentangle language such as tile, string and tangle, when teaching.” Yet there is nothing about using these terms that provides any superior philosophical perspective in drawing. Call a tile a square piece of paper. Call a tangle a pattern. And the string? It’s just a line drawn across the tile – I mean, square piece of paper – that serves as a baseline for the patterns. It amounts to the same, in practical terms.

  • Doodlers Unite! a TEDTalk by Sunni Brown. "Studies show that sketching and doodling improve our comprehension — and our creative thinking. So why do we still feel embarrassed when we're caught doodling in a meeting? Sunni makes the case for unlocking your brain via pad and pen."


  1. The Zentangle vs. NeoPopRealism feud reminds me of the feuds between various sects of Christianity or Buddhism (or probably any other school of thought). "Ours is real and their is fake" is pretty much what it boils down to.

    1. If you add the term doodling to that, you get the full measure of the rivalry. Some zentangle groupies consider the term doodling to be offensive! It's all about asking whether the chicken or the egg came first. When I found the zentangle style of doodling I got claustrophobia because the demand was for tiny squares. It was not until I branched out, freed myself of the silly zentangle rules (e.g. no eraser) and started drawing DIN A3 and larger that I started to have fun. The fun stops when I try to get in step with the fanactics and pedants! :-)

  2. Thank you! You just articulated and explained very well what I was confusingly thinking. Now I'll just take inspiration from anywhere I'll find it and continue enjoying my pen and paper.

  3. Well, I left the formal Zentangle rules behind in the very beginning! I use whatever size I want. I draw in pencil first; then I use pens. That way I enjoy the patterns TWICE. I erase if I feel like it. I make it look like a tree or a flower if I feel like it. I agree with Faith--get rid of the fanatics and pedants.

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  5. I think that stuff is overrated, if you look at art history everyone has used zentagles patterns or geometric patterns in their art work. So these people taking ownership of it is not true.. Lol! It has been in mexican/aztec art work for centuries.. Lol!

    Also, there is other cultures that have based their stuff on these types of patterns and what they call now zetangles.., #jusysaying

    1. I don't think it's all necessarily overrated, but it does irritate me when zentangle is called an artform rather than first and foremost a skill. When I came across zentangle, the "powers that be" were still sneering at colour. All that has changed and I'm quite sure that a lot of mistakes have been made by those powers before the finished article has been relvealed - ruler, guide-marks, eraser etc all being part of the development of many patterns. There is anyother way there. e.g. Maria Thomas, one of the founders of the zentangle trade movement, learnt calligraphy first. Tere is no doubt that practising calligraphy is a great help on the road to drawing patterns systematically and accurately.
      The zentangle movement involving the fanatics reminds me of the chorus in Handel's Messiah that goes "All we like sheep..." And yes, for many it is a meditative if not religious act to zentangle a little square with something. It must be - since there have been studies saying so, except that "normal" doodling can also serve the same purpose.
      Look at the mosaics in any e.g. Mosque or RC Church to learn that repeated patterns and repetitive designs weres not invented in 2005. I was recently in Venice and had time to study the wonderful floor mosaics in various churches.
      There is a lot of plagiarism in zentangle (I think they call it being inspired), starting with anything that could go under the name of mandala, a form that has existed since time immemorial in many cultures.
      I came back to this site tonight just looking around and was delighted to see that I had already commented on the above article. Thanks for the feedback!

  6. I've been doodling since a kid, and found out two days ago that a lot of my doodles can be classified as zentangles. Just a name... but I don't understand why they need to set special rules to call it zentangle, or even issue special certificates..

  7. If you knew Rick & Maria, you would know that they are two of the kindest, most compassionate people you could ever meet. They began sharing Zentangle with the basic idea of helping others. If you really want a good understanding of this and how Zentangle differs from doodling, take a class with them or a CZT.

  8. I think trying to trademark drawing is a dangerous thing. Next more sketching "systems" will be put forth until an artist will not be able to draw things and make prints of the drawings without being called an infringer. As for tiles, people have been designing tiles for thousands of years - like the Greeks and Romans. Are those square designs also zentangles? How about Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop with the ability to create square patterns that repeat. Are those digital patterns just digital zentangles then? Shouldn't Adobe own the patent then because their software pre-dates this silly zentangle fad. The ability to trademark a drawing process should not even be possible. Also, the style is highly reminiscent of 1970's psychedelic posters that people used to be able to buy and color.

  9. Doodling facts that you shared above is really amazing and this is how if we talk about Cryptocurrency automatic trading nowadays this is becoming more viral and now we can easily do Cryptocurrency trade