Basho’s Crow @ 2000

I have been excited the last week or two because I knew I would be starting a new painting cycle. These total immersions into the visual usually last 4 to 6 weeks after which time I have to take a break and return to the auditory/verbal world.

My interest in oriental brushwork reaches back in time to my twenties and my interest in Zen Buddhism and the eastern aesthetic but I did not actually take up the brush, so to speak, until 1999 at age 54. As soon as I picked up the brush and made my first tentative strokes on rice paper I was in love. Here was a tool that had the response-ability and inner energy that I was seeking for expression.

I picked up a couple beginner books in sumi-e painting and for the first few months did nothing but make circles and lines. It was like the lessons in the movie, Karate Kid, when he is polishing the car. Wax on, wax off – over and over again. My initial efforts were very rudimentary, usually consisting of a few lines that suggested a mountain or tree or bird.

Over the next few years my library expanded and I began copying the Old Masters and trying to reproduce their composition, brush strokes and use of ink. Usually I was not successful but I did create some work that was very graphic and satisfying. Paintings had a few, decisive lines, quick brush and drama.

Island Harbor @ 2003

The next stage focused on landscapes and florals. These paintings required more time, layers of ink and less impulse and more serenity. Again I did my practice work based on Master paintings and slowly edged out my own definitions and descriptions. But most of the work I was doing was mostly figurative, or representational; very little was abstract or non-objective.

And then I came across a book of paintings by the contemporary Chinese artist Goa Xingjian. Not only is he an extraordinary painter but is also a Nobel Prize winning writer. When I saw his work, I had a profound Eureka! moment. The scales fell from my eyes so to speak for he was speaking a language I intuitively understood but did not know was possible in the ink medium. The multiple shades of grays, the brush work, the evocative mood of the paintings – I was enchanted. The direction of my own work changed from that time for he had shown me possibilities and potential.

I worked on understanding his style and techniques but when I became ill in 2007 my painting virtually stopped except for the mandalas which I was able to work on in bed. In this last year my desire and interest in returning to ink has continued to grow. I was restless to start a new cycle of creativity but my forays were not that productive – more imitative of earlier efforts rather than breaking any new ground.

But … in the last few weeks the cauldron has been boiling and last weekend I knew that there was something new ready to be born. I spent the weekend straightening up my work area, organizing files and sharpening my pencil, metaphorically speaking. At night my dreams were of brush strokes and flowing ink; I was practicing in my dream world what I would be doing in this dimension.

By Gao Xingjian
by Gao Xingjian

On Monday I began and like all first days, it was disappointing because one has to adjust one’s consciousness to a different rhythm and perspective. Most of the paintings I created were too full, too busy, too cluttered with ink and brush strokes. The second day was a little better because I realized what I was doing – trying to put everything I wanted to portray into one piece. I slowed down, I simplified. I looked at Xingjian’s pictures and again admired his brush work and composition. Many times there were but three elements in his paintings. The brushwork could be simple and smooth or rich and complex.

Today I was finally able to set aside my own desire/ego/direction and allow the brush and paper to take charge. One of the most difficult lessons in ink work – because there is no painting over or erasing – is knowing when to stop. I have ruined many fine works but adding just one more layer or just one more dot – too much! Today I stopped.

Paper hanging like butterflies

As each sheet is painted, I hang it up with some tape to let it dry. The walls in the art area are covered with hanging papers. They remind me of pictures I have seen of the great butterfly migration when all the butterflies hang in the trees to rest, their beautiful wings draped in layers.

Of this first round, maybe 85% of the paintings are acceptable for round two. The rest will be thrown away. Later today or tomorrow I will take these works and look at them again to see if they need another layer of ink or not. Of the second round maybe 60 to 75% will be acceptable. And so it goes. Of the 25+ paintings I start with, perhaps 7 or 8 will be kept – of these 1 or 2 may make it to the framing stage.

So today I feel very happy for the brush is speaking a new dialect, one which I have not heard before and I am enjoying our conversation. When this cycle is over I will post some examples.


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