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Cyanotype and Zentangle as a "Now" Meditation Therapy

Reality as we know it has transformed, as Bauman said, into a "liquid reality" (1999). New ways to disconnect from daily monotony, the rapidity of technology, and excessive consumerism are born every day. Humans have become aware of this normalized state of anxiety and, as a result, propose combating stress and anxiety through specialized workshops in relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, mindfulness, and even yoga sessions influenced by a spiritual lifestyle. The culture of well-being is another major phenomenon of the 21st century. According to Elisabet Hillerud, a certified Swedish Zentangle teacher, creativity is a valuable and useful tool to fight against negative states or concerns, "bringing joy and artistic satisfaction to those who experience it" (2020). Artists like Elisabet and others believe that the practices of Zentangle and Cyanotype are meditative processes that merge creativity and well-being. But, how exactly do these techniques work, and what are they?


Cyanotype, which emerged in the 19th century, more precisely in 1842, was invented by the British scientist and inventor Sir John Herschel. Herschel sought a way to expedite and improve the process of reproducing drawings and architectural plans. Through experimentation, he developed a photosensitive process using two chemicals: ammonium iron citrate and potassium ferricyanide. By exposing cardboard coated with both chemicals to light, he discovered that it changed color, becoming imbued with a blue tone, a cyan blue. This sensitivity to light became part of monochromatic photographic processes that use iron salts to create images in blue tones. In the past, it was mainly used for cost-effective copies of engineering plans or even maps. While paper was the most common support, it could also be used on fabric, ceramic, or wood. Nowadays, it is well-known for its application in the world of artistic photography.

Figure 1: Plant Exemplary of the book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impression (Atkins, 1843).

Herschel's chemical explanation states that if ammonium iron citrate and potassium ferricyanide are mixed in certain proportions, a photosensitive ferric salt is formed. Upon exposure to ultraviolet light, it is reduced to form a ferrous salt, which, when combined with potassium ferricyanide, produces a precipitate of insoluble ferrous ferrocyanide in water. This final product is perceived as Prussian blue, cyan blue, or turquoise. For many scientists of the time, Cyanotype marked a significant moment in botanical history. Anna Atkins (1799-1871), a British botanist and photographer, is considered the first female photographer in history. Atkins applied the Cyanotype technique to botany, and her notable work in 1823 involved classifying over two hundred fifty-six engravings used to illustrate the book Genera of Shells by the naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (2018). They were delicate and at the same time precise graphite and watercolor illustrations that accompanied the scientific texts. A format that would be the precursor of the photographic works that would be carried out years later.


From there, Anna embarked on her journey of using photography for plants. In her monographic book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843), she presented cyanotype photograms of algae, flowering plants, and ferns with a well-treated geometric and harmonious arrangement, resulting in highly aesthetic images. She extracted beauty from science and science from beauty (Martins, 2022). It is worth mentioning that this book is the first illustrated exclusively with photographs. Her legacy is preserved in museums like the MET Museum in New York, the British Library, and the Royal Society in London. In a context marked by Victorian England, Atkins was a pioneer. It is fascinating to recognize the multidimensional work this scientist accomplished, as she merged science and art in the 19th century with a didactic purpose.

Figure 2: Illustrations of Anna Atkins for the translation of Jean Baptiste Lamark’s book "Genres of Shells" (Atkins, 1823).

The Cyanotype process consists of nine steps: the first one would be the preparation of the area, working in a place away from light or with red light to avoid premature exposure of the paper. It is preferable if the room is completely dark. Subsequently, the preparation of the sensitizer solution is carried out: ammonium ferric citrate, an iron salt that acts as the reducing agent in the photographic process and is sensitive to ultraviolet light, and potassium ferricyanide, an iron salt that acts as the necessary oxidizing agent. Ammonium ferric citrate is dissolved in water in one container, and potassium ferricyanide is also dissolved in water in another container; later, both are mixed in equal parts. Once this solution is ready, it is applied to the chosen paper or fabric using a brush or foam roller in a uniform manner. Next, the chosen plants are placed on sensitized paper, offering complete freedom in their arrangement; one can use various plants, flowers, ferns, or roses. The paper is then taken to a well-lit area with ultraviolet light, such as sunlight until the image darkens or turns brown. Subsequently, the plants are removed from the sensitized paper and washed with water. To fix the image, it is recommended to immerse it in water with white vinegar to stop the chemical reaction. Finally, the paper is left to dry, and the result is revealed.


There are numerous reasons why people should engage in these therapeutic sessions: what makes this practice even more interesting, apart from the final result, is that it allows them to be fully present at the moment. The careful following of each step and the level of attention it requires can be classified as analog, and it is precisely this aspect that many artists and spiritual practitioners find useful and necessary for dispelling negative thoughts. Cyanotype requires careful attention at each stage of the process, from preparing the chemicals to placing the plants and exposing them to light. It is a type of mindfulness that allows them to focus on the present moment and free themselves from worries and distractions, creating a relaxing and meditative effect. Creative experimentation is another good reason to practice this art: cyanotype offers ample creative freedom in placing the plants and designing the composition, the ability of manual activity helps eliminate the rush of daily life; having to wait step by step through each phase enhances patience and nourishes the spirit. Another reason is the strong legacy that is generated through nature. By using natural elements (plants or flowers), it helps to directly connect with the environment, giving a path to closeness' feelings and also helps to appreciate better the beauty of the green areas, when a person starts an activity like this and observes better the plants or flowers, the probability of developing a more intimate and respectful relationship with the "Pacha Mama" increases. This word refers to a revered goddess of the indigenous people of the Andes. According to Inca legend, Pachamama is an ever-present and independent deity who controls fertility, presides over planting and harvesting, and causes earthquakes.


Figure 3: Self, new cyanotype on arches platine, Havana Cuba (Anderson, 2018).

This beautiful art form not only is able to bring someone into nature to explore translucency and shapes in foliage and play with sunlight, but it also allows one to experiment with different natural elements and designs which help to unleash creativity and express oneself artistically. For example, the fact of having just one color involved generates the person to focus only on the selection of plants, so the design to create will be a full choice of the artist. On the other hand, the color blue has an emotional impact. Blue is the most popular color and "probably most linked with tranquility tinged with a bit of melancholy" (Anderson, 2019, p. 11). While the cyanotype process follows certain rules, the final results can be unpredictable and unique: this teaches the artists to embrace imperfection and find beauty in the unexpected, which can be a valuable life lesson. Sometimes, the innate tendency towards order and perfection imposed by a lifestyle or individual can prevent a person from thoroughly enjoying the opportunities life offers. However, experiencing an unexpected outcome can teach us to appreciate the effort applied in a particular situation.


On the other hand, the second technique known as Zentangle is considered a therapeutic method designed to promote mindfulness: the idea is to feel present here and now. Zentangle is an American drawing method, which not only fosters concentration and creativity but also enhances personal well-being. Born in the early 2000s, by a monk named Rick Roberts and an artist named Maria Thomas who combined meditation and art into this practice, the beauty of Zentangle lies in its principle based on simplicity, observation, applying patience to each stroke, and, above all, concentration.


Each step is a new lesson, which could be combined with the Taoists' perspective on life. In his article "Taoism and Chinese Religion," Henri Maspero mentions that the main goal of individuals was to achieve immortality, understood as longevity in fullness, where those who lived in harmony with nature were considered immortal (1981). Zentangle serves as an introduction to nature, allowing one to reconnect with those lost aspects of oneself due to the strong daily bond with modern society, making it a call to regain that spiritual harmony. The word Zentagle means that there is nothing determined, there are no specific templates as a result. When one draws with this technique there is a high probability of creating new patterns; for the creation of something new a high level of concentration is required since innately the mind will want to complete the following of a line or a pattern. At a therapeutic level, it is extremely positive since following and realizing patterns helps patients with anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, stress, hyperactivity, etc. The drawing process is simplified by using 9x9cm tiles, reducing complexity. With various patterns such as strokes or waves, one can observe their progress in a short time. These patterns are shaped by constant repetition, which basically consists of five basic strokes: dot, circle, curve, line, or shape lines. The process is extremely easy, the challenge is to put one line after another, without correcting. Taking a wrong step is a symbol of acceptance and personal work, raising the question: how can I correct mistakes?

Figure 4: Cyanotype and Zentangle examples during a workshop on Mindfulness (Rodriguez, 2023).

In the picture, you can find a workshop held at the coliving Anceu in Pontecaldealas, Spain. On the official page of Zentangle, people can share opinions on how to develop a calm life through this method. Maria Thomas, a participant, comments:


Put your heart into each simple stroke with deliberate and loving attention. Leave the next stroke's concerns to the next stroke. When it's time for that next stroke, approach it with an open heart. Gently allow your heart (and mind) to open to what unfolds as you tangle and be gentle and relaxed about your expectations (2017).

The certificated teacher of Zentangle and artist Aishwarya Darbha from Rhode Island, comments that when she discovered the Zentangle it was like "love at first sight".The power of "tangles" takes over you and becomes an almost perfect obsession as it instantly activates the Zen state of the soul (2015). Generally, Zentangle is done with a fine-tipped black pen, applying the theory of minimalism to ease the decision-making process regarding the design, rather than its tonality. The artist then focuses solely on the patterns that emerge from the unconscious or conscious mind. The designs born from this method, just like the primary designs in the Altamira cave, are the ultimate representation of the human creative spirit.

Bisons, horses, deer, hands, and mysterious symbols were painted or engraved during the millennia that the Altamira cave was inhabited, approximately between 36,000 and 13,000 years ago from the present. These representations spread throughout the cave, covering over 290 meters, though they are most concentrated in the Polychrome Chamber (National Museum and Research Center of Altamira).

Zentangle returns to rock art, going back to the art of body-to-body interaction, minimalism, geniality, and passion. Undoubtedly, Zentangle is an art that promotes the philosophy of peace and elevates it to a higher category. Both cyanotype and zentangle are ways of returning to manual labor that is gradually being replaced by technology or new emerging practices.


Bibliographical References

Anderson, C. (2019). Cyanotype. The Blueprint in Contemporary Practice. Focal Press.


National Museum and Research Center of Altamira. (2022) El arte de Altamira [The art of Altamira]. Retrieved July 16th, 2023, from https://www.culturaydeporte.gob.es/mnaltamira/cueva-altamira/arte.html


galicianGarden. (March 23rd, 2018). Cianotipia: fotografía y botánica en Anna Atkins [Cyanotype: photography and botanic in Anna Atkins]. Retrieved July 13th, 2023, from https://galiciangarden.com/cianotipia-fotografia-y-botanica-en-anna-atkins/


Hillerud, E. (2020). Escuela de Zentangle [Zentangle school]. Zengoala. Retrieved July 13th, 2023, from https://zengoala.com/quien-soy-yo/


Maspero, H. (1981). "Taoism and Chinese Religion" (Trad. Kierman, F.) in The Journal of Asian Studies, 42(2), pp. 395-397. University of Massachusetts Press. Retrieved July 14th, 2023, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/2055131


Mrhar, P. (2021). Cianotipia: fotografia antigua y alternativa [Cyanotype: Old and alternative photography]. B&T BOOKS.


Martins, P. (March 15th, 2022). Anna Atkins o poner nombre a la primera fotógrafa. (Anna Atkins or giving name to the first photographer). Bamba Edit. Retrieved July 15th, 2023, from

https://bambaeditorial.com/anna-atkins-fotografa-botanica/


Thomas, M. (February 9th, 2023). The art of Zentangle. Zentangle. Retrieved July 16th, 2023 from https://zentangle.com/blogs/blog/the-art-of-zentangle?_pos=8&_sid=9aa0a398f&_ss=r

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Arianna Rodriguez

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