The Paradox of Zen Drawing

I want to continue a couple of threads I left hanging in my last post,  Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing. (Anything in blockquotes is from that post.) 

Franck anticipated that “Fundamentalist Zenists may… question [Zen Drawing’s] validity as Zen practice.” (p. 25) I glossed over this because Franck doesn’t address this question directly. He only continues to describe what Zen Drawing is to himself, so that readers could do the same for themselves.

From what I can understand, the aim of practicing Zen is to become one with everything. When practicing Zen drawing, your goal is the same but you focus on what you are drawing, which is particular. The focus being so narrow may be why some critics say Zen Drawing is not a valid way of practicing Zen. Zen is supposed to be unknowable, because seeing it is paradoxical. When everything is as one, you can not distinguish any one part from everything else.

You could say I liked his artistic style, but Franck… focuses not on the final product, that which one can see as a particular “style,” but on the work itself… In short, Zen is about seeing and not producing. It is not a means to another end but an end in itself, and this suggests that an art student, who wants to be more skilled in one’s ability to put down on paper the idea of something one sees, is missing the point of practicing Zen drawing.

I can see how this describes Zen Drawing as meditative. You are practicing the art of seeing something that is outside of yourself, and maybe this can be a gateway to practicing true Zen; however, it also keeps you focusing on something particular, so the act itself keeps you from practicing true Zen.

On the flip side:

What if I am thinking like an art student and not as somebody who practices Zen? I would say “Zen drawing” is indeed recognizable and because of its approach.

Dress scan resize 10

There are a few drawings in my sketchbook which look a lot like “Zen drawings,” even though I had no clear notion of what Zen is when drawing them and had no intention of achieving Zen via drawing. I simply had the idea to follow the lines of an object, much like contour drawing.

I deliberately chose objects that had a lot of lines.

Bag scan resize 10 Cherry Pits scan resize 10


I was very fascinated with lines, much like the Italian Renaissance painters were fascinated with drapery.

There was something very calming about letting the lines of a reflective surface or the folds of a paper bag lead/guide me, because I was immersed in an idea that was very beautiful to me, but it was the product — the work of the lines — and not the work of being one with the object that was my primary focus.

I may have been thinking of a particular style I’d seen in various comics and/or graphic novels, but I was conscious of similarities only in hindsight. What is interesting is that my “Zen drawings” can be distinguished from those of Franck’s.

Franck, Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing

Franck’s 1993 book is above, and another drawing of my own is below.



Cup 1 crop resize 25Cup 2 crop resize 25

Even if we put aside the intent or lack of intent to practice Zen, the difference in the “look” of the drawings can be tied directly to the artist’s approach and way of seeing. I was focused on the flow of lines, while Franck allowed his pen/pencil to leave the page more readily, which gave way to shorter lines and less “flow.”

Maybe I saw the essence of a thing in the flow of its lines, but I still wasn’t focused on the thing as a whole. On the other hand, it was how the flow of lines could manifest into the depiction of a recognizable object — as well as its “airiness,” my term for the style of these drawings — which made the lines more meaningful, or in artistic terms, more “beautiful.”

This draws up one final question. Is the beauty of a drawing the same as its essence?

Edit: I added the below text December 22, 2017 

Some may say “yes,” but I have to say “no,” simply because not every drawing has an essence which is “beautiful.” Some may argue that everything is or can be beautiful, but that would dilute its meaning until, possibly, it doesn’t mean anything at all.

[Drum roll, please… ]

But doesn’t this sound a lot like Zen? If everything is one and any part of Everything (yes, with a capital “E”) is beautiful, then Everything is beautiful… Or is it? Some can call it an ugly mess, but maybe the focus should be bigger than the ugliness or the beauty. Maybe there should be no focus at all, only being one with Everything.

Or is it the other way around? Some may say that if you see Beauty (yes, with a capital “B”) in the particular, then you see Beauty in the abstract, as an ideal; like how you know what the perfect circle would look like by seeing an imperfect circle.

Either way, if you can see Beauty as an abstract idea/ideal, you can see Everything, as long as you can see everything as beautiful.

Problems with this argument:

1 You have to see everything as beautiful.

2 When you “see” anything, you see it as something apart from everything else. So it is not seeing but being [one with Everything] which allows you to achieve Zen.

a Doesn’t that happen naturally, without any “work” at all? Physically, yes, but psychologically, no. There is an unstated premise that you can keep yourself apart from all else, on a level you might describe as psychological… I think. I actually haven’t studied Zen, but I’ve been around the idea of Zen or I’ve been around one or more people who have been interested in it; much like how I’ve been around Christian ideas and Buddhist ideas in general.

3 If Beauty is Everything, then Beauty does not exist at all. Beauty exists only as a particular quality of an object distinguishable from other particular qualities, those which are not beautiful.

a So Zen believes there is no Beauty?

Hmm… If you can simply say there is no Beauty, you can say there is nothing that is ugly. If you say, “It’s a choice of saying there is Beauty, but there really isn’t any Beauty,” then you can also say, “If you can see Beauty, then there is Beauty ” — If you can make the definition, there exists the defined, as an idea.

Jury is definitely out… so stepping away from the proverbial tree, let me consider a bigger question…

Ideas are human constructs, but where do we get our ideas, from within oneself or from beyond oneself; and if from within oneself, is it arbitrary?

Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing (1993)

Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing, by Frederick Franck 

Let me first say that the concept — Zen — is thought of by the experts as indefinable. I got this from my mother when she was reading a book devoted to the subject. (Isn’t that funny?) Only after she’d gone through a couple of chapters, could she say that it meant being “still,” and thus, the practice of Zen is the practice of being “still.”

Franck offers another interpretation: “the awakening to the intimate contact with the sanity of our core…” (p. 23)… which sounds very intense, but it’s not. It’s supposed to help you achieve harmony with everything else.

I bought this book when I was very young, with my allowance, at a B Dalton’s bookstore… I think. I simply liked the pictures. You could say I liked his artistic style, but Franck, I imagine, would interrupt and emphasize, as he does in his book, that he focuses not on the final product, that which one can see as a particular “style,” but on the work itself.

He explains how seeing/drawing is his way of practicing Zen:

“From D.T. Suzuki, I learned that every art has its mystery, its spiritual rhythm, its myo in Japanese. The myo is intimately related to all the arts. The true artist, the artist-within is the one who is really moved by the myo, the as-is-ness of things… When I draw a tuft of grass, a face, a crowd, I am confronting this as-is-ness of things… The appearance of things is the manifestation of the myo, of their Meaning…” (p. 25)

In short, Zen is about seeing and not producing. It is not a means to another end but an end in itself, and this suggests that an art student, who wants to be more skilled in one’s ability to put down on paper the idea of something one sees, is missing the point of practicing Zen.

Now, brought up on Western ideas, I immediately have an alternative interpretation to what may actually be at the heart of Zen Drawing. When finding a thing’s “myo” through drawing, I want to say that any essence of spirit one records is not intrinsic of the thing but a product of something within oneself, and feeling united with the thing is the feeling of catharsis from seeing what was within oneself. While within oneself, it can feel boundless, but outside of oneself, one can appreciate it more consciously. If it caused you anxiety, it becomes manageable. If it only had the potential to bring you joy as an idea, it becomes a tangible thing that inspires joy without you calling up the idea yourself.

Franck quotes a handful of poets and says the mentality of a poet writing poetry is similar to the mentality of a person seeing/drawing. In my experience, writing poetry was always a way of getting the most out of an idea which may or may not have had anything to do with my immediate surroundings.

When I would get inspired by some material object in front of me, I would often project my feelings for something else onto my view of the object. Moreover, I believe that words are ideas and whatever they represent they do so symbolically.

Drawing gets a little closer to an object but it too can only do so symbolically.

In terms of Western thought, we are in the subject of perception, and I think Franck agrees with as much when he says, “Art is what opens up the clogged pores of perception…” (p. 154)

Overall, the author’s goal seems to be the expression of truth and thus proposes that Zen Seeing offers something true about the object one is seeing. I believe this is misleading and what one can achieve is not truth but at best honesty.

We see an object in the context of time and place and time involves how one feels and thinks at a given moment. How do you know that what you’ve recorded is not the spirit of the object but one’s own spirit or how one feels at the time about the object or the feelings for something else which one was projecting onto the object?

The burgeoning Zenist in myself may rebut this by simply saying the above is a pitfall of continuing to distinguish one’s ego and oneself from all else. (Zenists believe that one is all and all is one… which sounds a lot like the motto of The Three Muskateers… but I digress.) Let’s get back to the subject of art, because that is how Franck accesses the idea of Zen, for himself and for us. He says drawing “has been described as the art of leaving out. The critical point is, of course, what to leave out and why… This apple tree is my koan.” (p. 121)

This idea of recording the essence of a thing has been influential in Western abstract art. I’m thinking of the Japanese prints decorating the walls of Monet’s home in Giverny or the ones Vincent and Theo Van Gogh collected in the hundreds. I’m also thinking of Picasso’s delineation of a cow… or was that Bauhaus’ Klee or Kandinsky who drew the essence of a cow?

Franck says that “True drawing demands craftsmanship of the hand as it does visual intelligence of the eye.” (p. 118)

But intelligence to see what exactly? How can one ever know for sure one is seeing myo?

Franck says that what he draws “confronts [him] with the mystery of Being.” (p. 151) He concedes that he cannot verbalize what he sees and goes so far as to say that “This Presence remains perceptible only as long as it is not verbalized.” (p. 133) He quotes Hui Neng as saying, ‘The Meaning of Life is to see,” and says that “life itself is its Meaning” and we all have to find that out for ourselves. (p. 130)

So let me try to answer my own question.

You may never get to see the myo of a thing in its entirety at any given time, nor know for sure what it is you see is in fact myo, but you can practice seeing as much as you can each time you try.

I think I can compare this to how I process literature. In order to be honest, one must strive for Truth, even if absolute Truth is not attainable. When I read or process information given to me in the form of some kind of text, I know I have to read between the lines and consider out of what context the author may be writing/thinking (akin to seeing/drawing, no?)

If the author isn’t writing out of an honest intention to consider an idea as fully as “reasonable,” then I am that much further removed from the essence of the idea the author had wanted to convey. I would like to say that all great works of literature are like koans and even minor works of literature for that matter, as one attempts to extract the essence of the mind of the author while he or she was writing, which varies from one moment of writing to another as — I am tempted to say — no one human being has a true and consistent essence.

To this, I can hear Franck re-appropriating a quote by the poet, Ryokan, who had said, “You say that my poems are poetry… Well, they are not and until you understand why they are not, you won’t see their poetry.” (p. 116)

I believe Franck was referring to how “poetry” has become symbolic of something “splendid,” which can then get in the way of how receptive one is to what is actually being expressed; and in trying to understand Zen Drawing, you may be confronted with a similar problem.*

If you want to have drawn something beautifully, and if desperate enough, you can fool yourself into thinking it was drawn beautifully. The idea and one’s opinion of it is malleable. But if you are intent on drawing something that resides outside of yourself, the source of what you’re perceiving is much less malleable. Of course, what is important in Zen practice is not creating or even recording something beautiful. What is important is not beauty but accuracy in perception.

And here we come full circle.†

I can only assume that Franck has faith alone that every thing has a myo, and yet he describes the act of seeing myo very beautifully, “Seeing first hand… I know the sacred… I draw myo in the tangled weeds behind our house…” (p. 134)

Somebody who believes in the sacred presence of myo may simply say that one needs to be “still,” while somebody who has learned about art and literature in the West might say one needs to be “receptive” and to be “open-minded.” But as a skeptic, I find myself returning with the same rhetorical question, How can one ever know for sure that one is seeing myo? The scientist may even ask for objective proof, as though without a community of scientists, all of what one perceives could potentially be dismissed as a figment of one’s imagination.

Maybe – to reconcile the skeptic with the one who wants to be more forgiving and trusting of human perception – it’s enough to speak broadly of Zen and think of it in layman’s terms as the sheer existence of what one is privileged to witness and capable of appreciating.

Franck describes seeing/drawing as “a meditation-in-action on That Which Matters.” (p. xii) However, thinking of Zen in terms of what “matters” may not get you very far, logically. ‡

For now, I’m afraid I’ll have to settle for an analogy to something we allow ourselves to accept in math: the area under a curve. We calculate only a close estimate, as accuracy is infinitely removed… or something along those lines… I really only remember the phrase, “as we approach infinity.” It’s been awhile, and I never studied math on a philosophical level… so in general, if we can allow for close estimates in math and settle for the idea that we at least are approaching the answer we seek, then we can think likewise in our search for myo.

It’s obviously not a perfect analogy, as the area under a curve has clearly defined parameters, and the parameters are numbers and not emotions, but what is similar in both quests for either answer is that while we strive to approach the answer, we are infinitely removed. Some phenomena, even those that are logic-based, defy being defined.

So, again, our parameters may differ drastically, but every quest must begin somewhere, as does one’s logic.


* Frank re-appropriates the quote and says, “You say this drawing is splendid. Well, it is not, and until you understand why it is not, you won’t see how good it is.” (p. 116)

† Edit: 12/15/17 — And here we’ve come full circle used to be “And here lies a paradox.” It’s not an actual paradox. There’s a problem (IE, there’s no way of knowing what you are perceiving is being perceived accurately), but this isn’t a paradox. You can in fact be perceiving something accurately even if you don’t know if you are perceiving it accurately.

‡ I think, to reconcile Western thought with Eastern thought, we must go beyond the notion that anything “matters,” because in terms of Western thought, what “matters” could be defined as what is valuable, and it can only matter to somebody who has the capacity to see that it matters; IE, building a system of values is internal, thus you go inward, as opposed to focusing on something that is beyond yourself. For the Zenist, having something matter is inconsequential. If all are of one phenomenon and appreciated for one’s sheer existence, then all are of equal value. If all are of equal value, then value as a concept is nullified, as value is relative and can only be appreciated in relative terms.

Franck, Frederick. Zen See, Zen Drawing. Bantam Books, 1993.


Last edited November 4, 2018 


Never Say Never

We have over 7 billion people in this world, and I have honestly never seen a true doppelganger. You know how people compare photos of two or more celebrities and call them “twinsies?” Maybe I’m guilty of confusing one for another in a movie in which only one appears, but looking at photos side by side, you can tell who is who. And let me underscore the fact that it’s a photo comparison and not videos in which you can compare body language, etc.

All this to say… When it’s not the girl, it’s not the girl. In this case, it is not Da Vinci’s Study for the Head of a Girl, c 1483.

I thought it was a simple drawing, so I wanted to aim for the true size, which was maybe fifteen percent bigger than how it is in the book. I want to say that the subtle change in size, as opposed to making it an even 100% bigger, threw me off, but I think it was in how complicated the drawing really is. It’s simple in that there are fewer lines, but it’s complicated in that each line does more work: a small change in a small line, especially those depicting the eyes, can make a big difference and their being “off” that much more noticeable.

Attempt #1

Step 1. I began with a grid.


I divided a photo copy of the original into ten, horizontally, and then because it wasn’t easy to divide it vertically into ten, I cropped some from the top and bottom before dividing the middle into ten. I then made a similar grid on a slightly larger piece of paper.

I remembered to crop a proportionate amount off the top and bottom before dividing the middle into ten. Each division was now 1.69 cm, which was difficult to draw lines for… but I had to let this go because if I tried to crop more from the top and bottom, to make each division an even 1.5 cm, for example, I would have to adjust the divisions again in the original.

… and grids can only help you so much anyway.

I then did my best in pencil… but looking at it now, I can see the right eye (what the figure would call her left eye) is a bit off.

Step 2. Apply ink.


I know. It’s bad. She either looks “haunted” or she’d just been in a brawl… and you might not notice but there’s a hole in the right eye.

I realized after applying ink how off it was and tried desperately to fix it. “Fortunately,” I could erase the ink, but only at a cost to the quality of the surface of such delicate paper. Well, it’s not that delicate, but I learned the hard way that I had to be careful with how many times I went over it with ink or pencil.

Attempt #2

Step 1. Make a carbon copy of my first attempt.


Step 2. Go by eye to clear up the lines.


I didn’t go further than this, because it didn’t look like her and that blasted right eye… I was already boring a hole into the paper. So I put it away for the day… which then turned into more than a week.

Attempt #3

Step 1. Make a grid.

Step 2. Line up the carbon copy of the first attempt onto the grid. The carbon copy helped me save time on the hair and body, while the grid helped me redraw all the lines for the face.

Step 3. Apply ink.


It’s better than my first two attempts. However, she doesn’t look quite as “sharp”… and I really can’t explain why. I further divided each square, around the eyes, into eight, vertically and horizontally, and I still couldn’t get it right. I finally relented and erased the grid lines, and then had to go by eye and redraw what the eraser had erased, which made no difference — I’d memorized how to draw her eyes a particular way, including whatever I was doing wrong.

Well. Like the title says, Never say never! I mean, I’ll try again… but not any time soon.


Lead pencil
Ballpoint pen, black
Laid paper, slightly grey-blue, 90 gsm (I purchased this online but I forget from where.)

Copy of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Study for the Head of a Girl, c 1483, from Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings and Drawings.

Study of a Mourning Woman (Part 2)


This is continued from Study of a Mourning Woman (Part 1). In that post, I made comparisons between my experiences with drawing Durer’s L’Annonciation and this drawing, by Michelangelo. I also made notes on why I think it’s a good picture, which in a word is its presence and which is achieved by creating the illusion of the flow of volume. I liked Durer’s L’Annonciation for how beautifully the lines flowed; likewise, I like this drawing for how beautifully the volume seems to flow. There is a lot going on in Durer’s picture (EG, the angel is in mid-flight), while this drawing is of a woman standing still; and yet, her sheer presence seems to be greater than the whole scene of Durer’s. I can’t add much more, except to continue with the process of finally finishing the drawing.

Step 3 (cont): Continue drawing in the lines, piece by piece.

Note on using “guidelines”

When I say “guidelines,” I am referring to where the illusion of the flow of volume can be seen, which I made a carbon copy of in Step 1. Sometimes there’re hard lines accompanying these illusory lines. Often, however, the illusion of the “lines” you see are created by many minor lines stopping just where the illusory line would intersect. Sometimes the ends of these lines stay straight, so the abrupt end of the black of these lines depict the edge between light and shadow; EG, the lighted areas of the figure’s left sleeve. Often, the ends seem to curve around some bend in the fabric, so that many lines ending or changing one’s flow in such a way depict a space or surface of the fabric which is curving away from view or changing course in some way. EG, the fabric underneath the arm.

There was no use in trying to make a carbon copy of all the fine lines, because I often couldn’t see all of them through the tracing paper. It was also confusing to go by, because I could see many lines but some were darker than others and seemed to connect to lines which they didn’t connect to, etc. It feels like cheating anyway, and so, I relented and had to eyeball the minor lines. Near the end of a day’s work, I would feel lazy and do some guesswork or very close to making things up. This is when I knew I should call it a day. Fortunately, the mistakes I made in these moments of laziness (or exhaustion) could be edited later on.


I used two different erasers. The first, I believe, was a white, hi-polymer eraser, and it could lighten the darker areas of ink. When this ran out, I began using a pink, paper-mate, which could erase the ink entirely, if I really went at it and the ink hadn’t been absorbed too deeply.

I wouldn’t recommend the pink, paper-mate, because it can tear apart the surface of the paper more easily than the white, hi-polymer. OTOH, I was desperate. I had clocked in so many hours already, and I wanted to like the end result.

With the new eraser, I was able to clean up the face and the knee and random places of her clothing. When you focus on the lines too closely, you can lose a sense for the quality of the depiction of the flow of volume. I did a lot of work in pencil before applying ink, but near the end, I skipping the use of a pencil. Sometimes, this was a mistake, because when you make a mistake in the flow of volume, you make a mistake which involved many minor lines. Fortunately, these mistakes were usually not where the ends of these lines end abruptly, but instead curve and continue on in another direction, so that what the eraser could not erase could be hidden by newer lines. It’s a bit of a blur where the fabric falls underneath the arm.

Visual Rhythm

I had said, in my last post, that I couldn’t enjoy this drawing piece-meal. I’ve changed my mind, and it’s because I can appreciate his use of visual rhythm. EG, where the knee protrudes from underneath the clothing, the lines seem to follow suit, and bend just where the knee bends. We see how the lines follow the shape underneath while maintaining some rhythm as lines.

There’s something hypnotic about repetitive motions/sounds/visual elements. Just listen to the rhythm of music or poetry or look at random fencing that lines a yard or public garden. You feel like there’s something there that can take care of itself so you stop listening or looking so carefully and allow yourself to get carried away.

When you see it in this drawing, it’s the repetition of one nice flowing line after another, so even when you look at it closely, at one line, you can enjoy how nicely that whole space seems to flow.

Step 5: Add “sepia”

I wanted to make the whole drawing the same color as the original. I didn’t have a writing tool which could make the fine lines in that color, so I used a black ball point pen. I then thought I could go over the ball point pen with a gel pen in “sepia” where the lines were thicker. It looked weird.


It looked a little psychedelic, as though the shadows (which were supposed to recede from view) now popped into view. I didn’t panic, though, because maybe if I gave it a wash of tea, the lighter lines would change to the color of the tea.

Step 6: Give it a wash.

Well, they didn’t. The tea didn’t do much at all, so after daubing the drawing dry, I immediately applied a wash of coffee. The color was really nice, but it didn’t make the black ink brown; instead, it enhanced the black and the psychedelic look of the drawing.

Study of a Woman in Mourning 2 (14)

The next morning, I could only hope I could edit of of what I’d done, and to my delight,  the pink, paper-mate eraser could erase the black lines underneath the brown. The brown lines didn’t budge, but at least they didn’t look so heavy, so the line-work became more subtle again. I did some more editing and trimmed the edges (because I’d applied two coats of coffee wash after the initial coat of tea wash in the span of 15-20 minutes and it was ruining the paper; IE, the wash had seeped underneath the surface and made parts of it blotchy).

I scanned the last picture and, noticing that part of the clothing underneath the arm didn’t flow very well, did some more editing.

The final version is the scan above.

For fun, I also saved a copy of a version that I tweaked using a photo editor.

Study of a Woman in Mourning 2 (14) sepia

Hard to find ink that is a true sepia color and not merely brown and harder still to find writing tools in color as fine as the ball point pen I was using. If I did have such a writing tool, my drawing could’ve looked like the image above.

Note on time

It’s been two weeks and two days since my last post, and I can say that I took a small break (life), but even so, I spent three to five hours at a time between photos, and there are 12 photos between the first photo and the one taken after I finished applying the ink. So this itty, bitty drawing (about the size of a sheet of paper) took me 36-60 hours, not including the time I took to give it a wash and do more editing, as well as the time between photo 7 and photo 8 when I lost the use of the camera for two to three days of work.

There was a lot of thinking and staring at the original, and trying to figure out just what I was looking at and how the lines work to create the illusion of the flow of volume. I want to say here, that while editing, I focused on how the flow of volume supports the illusion of some presence of a figure, but I only focused on the flow of volume. I think having the right proportions lends itself to the presence of the figure, for which I used a carbon copy.

Finally, you could say the last bit of work occurs when the picture is actually viewed, when the viewer sees the illusion.


Lead pencil
Ball point pen, black
Gel pen, sepia
Tea (wash)
Coffee (wash)

Copy of Michelangelo’s Study of a Mourning Woman from Michelangelo — The Drawings of a Genius