An engineers journey to relearn how to draw

Step 1: Zentangle

Growing up, I used to consider myself pretty artistic. I could sketch, I could paint, I was creative, and I was usually “that kid” whose work was chosen for local art shows. I’d draw for fun. I’d doodle in my notebooks. Then I went to college. At first my artistic abilities flourished, I was in a product development program and, in my first semester, I had a studio with a sketching element to it. We were given structured assignments and sketches to complete every week. I loved and hated it at the same time. It was by far my most enjoyable homework when compared to my engineering classes. It relaxed me. I could de-stress and just sketch and shade for hours. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for me to realize that these small assignments, that barely accounted for any of my grade, were not worth the time and effort when compared to my more technical work. Balancing a tough course load as well as a vigorous field hockey season meant needing a very logical priority system and first up on the chopping block – my sketching time.

After barely sketching or drawing since that first studio class, let’s just say I’m a prime example of “use it or lose it”.

Fast forward another 8 years and here I am, an engineer at DesignThink, surrounded by industrial designers and other crazy creative people. After barely sketching or drawing since that first studio class, let’s just say I’m a prime example of “use it or lose it”. My medium is now Solidworks, not pencil and paper. So, when I enter a brainstorm or an ideation session I tend to walk in feeling like my hands are tied. Ideas and sketches are flying all over the place and I’m left feeling like I can’t accurately depict my ideas in any kind of demonstrable manner. In a brainstorm, sketches are the name of the game; they’re the language everyone understands and, just like trying to remember my high school French, I am far from fluent.

Which leads me to my quest. Now, I know I’m never going to be as quick and accurate as the designers, but I want to see if I can at least be understood. I want to try to get some of my drawing ability back.  I want to put ideas onto paper and have them make sense. At first, beginning this journey seemed really daunting; I had no idea where to start. I knew I couldn’t jump into a high-level art class at the local community art center, and I’ve never been very disciplined at teaching myself extraneous things. I needed some structure, but I didn’t want to be embarrassed by a 10-year-old who can kick my artistic butt. To my surprise I think I stumbled upon the perfect first step along my quest: a class in Zentangle.

The idea behind Zentangle is that by following a pattern you can reach a sort of Zen-like state while you’re drawing.

Now if you’re anything like me, you probably have no idea what Zentangle is. Here’s the official definition given on Zentangle.com: “The Zentangle Method is an easy to learn, fun and relaxing way to create beautiful images by drawing structured patterns.” To be real, its doodling with structure. Side note, if you go to a class, don’t call it doodling. I did and got the worst stink eye of my life. Essentially Zentangle is a compilation of published patterns or “tangles” that you as the artist can use to make cool looking pieces of art. The idea is that by following a pattern you can reach a sort of Zen-like state while you’re drawing. You can turn your brain off and just draw. The patterns all have names and the one rule, to be able to call your piece a Zentangle, is that you must call out at least one published pattern that you used.

It sounds a little complicated but it’s pretty simple when you break it down into the steps. First you partition a piece of paper into sections. We started out with a Z drawn through a square box. Then you choose a different tangle for each section and then you just get drawing those patterns. Once each of the partitioned sections has a complete pattern you can step back and see a cool looking piece of art. Here are the two squares I did during my class.

Two side-by-side zentangle drawings by Julia

What I quickly realized was that even though I was following an overall pattern, I was still making small creative choices during the process that led to my final creation. I was deciding which patterns went where, how big my elements were going to be.  I decided if I wanted to make this line curved and if I wanted to shade. It took the very complicated daunting process of creating something completely new and broke it down into just a few creative choices. It’s kind of like walking into Chipotle. The ingredients (tangle patterns) are all there waiting for you, and you get to choose what and how much of each goes into your creation. You’re still creating your own masterpiece with your own style. And since everything is complimentary, it doesn’t matter what combination of ingredients you throw in; It still turns out looking darn cool.

Even though I was following an overall pattern, I was still making small creative choices during the process that led to my final creation.

It was also interesting to see how different everyone’s creations turned out. Below you’ll see the very first tangle all four of us in the class did. We did it together, step by step using the exact same patterns. As you can see they turned out quite different.

Four side-by-side zentangle drawings

I walked out of that class with a confidence I hadn’t had since my high school days. I drew something. Better yet, I drew something I actually liked! It was fun, easy, and even relatively quick to do. Not only was I tangling, but I was also practicing drawing lines, curves, and was doing some basic shading. It was increasing my fine motor skills and just got me drawing again. I can already see how it will result in better sketches here at DesignThink. I’ve always struggled with starting a sketch with poor lines and curves that I then spend way too much time erasing and redrawing to get to the real meat of the design. Not only will I be starting sketches on a better foundation but I’m also learning how to hide mistakes and emphasize the lines I really want to emphasize. Little tweaks in those abilities should go a long way to my goal of sketching fluency.

What I loved most about the Zentangle methodology was that it gave me a structure and direction while also letting me take some liberties. But, as much fun as I had, I don’t think I’ll be jumping head first into the Zentangle subculture quite yet. It seems like a pretty vast world that’s filled with specific terminology, rules, published tangles, and certified teachers. I will absolutely keep tangling on my own though. I will be honing my skills and continuing to find some Zen in the art I’m making. The class has given me a starting point and the added confidence I’ll need on my journey to learn how to draw again.

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