Finding My Line

Bear with me as I use this blog to talk through some problems, namely with being more abstract on a fundamental level. (It’s a technical post that asks a handful of questions and provides no answers… although it may help to know that these are problems you may encounter when transitioning from a Western approach to an Eastern approach.)

Gaa Wai 062119 Tree 1

I went to a local park last weekend and discovered a very interesting looking tree. I thought I could open up the idea of this tree by taking parts of it and deconstructing it, so that I would have a new way (or my own way) of showcasing some of its nuances. I couldn’t. In hindsight, I realize I had some obstacles to overcome.

1) I was using a new vehicle (a brush) for a familiar medium (ink).

2) My moves were bigger by virtue of my using a brush.

3) I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. a) “Deconstructing” was my way of zen drawing but I didn’t put two and two together — that I had to have that approach (the one for zen drawings) to produce the same kinds of results for previous zen drawings.* b) I was outdoors and I had never tried to draw outdoors before, while in that head space.

How did I respond?

1) I went home and instead of making the video I intended to make (about the tree), I made a video on materials. (Not very exciting and, honestly, very basic. But if you’re interested, you can find it here.)

2) I pulled out two books in Chinese (Wei Xin Yi  and Li Xue Ming) from my personal library, each of which focus on the art and style of a given Chinese artist, looking for ideas. 

3) I went to the park again, but instead of going to the tree, I sat down on a bench and reconsidered my approach.

Obviously, using a different tool will have an influence on one’s approach. The moves you make with a brush will of course be bigger than those with a pencil. But there it is. Because they are bigger moves, they will be more abstract and thus I will have to be more conscious of the process for making choices. This seems to take me out of the “zen” frame of mind I would go to while drawing with a pencil.

… And yet, the sketches of Hiroshige, for which Hiroshige used a brush, look very zen… as do the works in the two books I mentioned earlier.

Hmm… I think about what I’ve seen so far in this genre. Yes — there are a lot of big moves. One of the most basic elements is the depiction of a leaf or segment of a branch with one stroke of a brush. The body of the figure below, from Li Xue Ming, is composed of a few continuous, thick lines that remind me of Chinese calligraphy, as though, for this artist, the skills for calligraphy are the same for depicting how a figure is enrobed in fabric.

Very different than the painstaking line-work of Italian Renaissance drawings. And much more abstract.

Li Xue Ming from book Li Xue Ming

Eh… getting back to me. I am very inclined to make small moves and build (ever so slowly and organically) from basic elements.

This had presented its own problems: IE, small moves can lead me to follow a subject too closely so that I simply “copy” what I see. To address this “problem,” I would simply see this approach through to the end and be more extreme. What could this approach yield for me? I knew I wasn’t capable of “copying” it that well, like a camera, and when my eyes got lazy, I knew my brain would have to interpret for my hands what it saw but on an abstract level. This is when — if I am consciously thinking of style — I can choose what kind of interpretation I will make.

This approach has worked very well for me while using a pencil or ball point pen. The [new] problem now is that I’d taken for granted how the line of a pencil or pen is consistently fine and predictable. I’d even incorporated these features into how I think, visually, and conceive of a given subject on an abstract level.

In short, a line produced with a brush varies in width and texture and is not as predictable, and I have to learn to do more with fewer moves because each move is bigger and uses up more surface area. Sketches with fewer moves also look more elegant and efficient.

To be continued… 

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* I use the term, zen drawing, loosely. I could just as well say contour drawing.

 

 

What’s the big idea?

The following is a continuation of two previous posts: Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing (1993) and The Paradox of Zen Drawing.  

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? 

It’s easy to make distinctions between occurrences which involve the material world, such as a vase falling or anything that can be objectively measured, and the many words/ideas used to acknowledge and speak of such occurrences; however, it becomes less clear when thinking of abstract ideas, such as Beauty.

Is Beauty a quality of an object which inspires us to give it a name? Or is it an idea which is arbitrarily distinguishable from other ideas? It seems to reside in objects that are apart from us, and yet we know of it only when we’ve seen it; IE, as apart of a response which inclines us to call attention to Beauty as an idea. Where lies this idea, in the object or in oneself? Or does it require both an object which is beautiful and somebody who can see it as beautiful?

Tentative answer: This space, a person’s response to what is beyond oneself does exist, but only as a thought and one that is fleeting, like the present-tense or anything temporal.

Problem: Is Beauty a thing in itself or only a product of one’s psychology? How true is “true?” If it is only a product of one’s psychology, is the beauty one perceives any less true than if Beauty is a thing in itself?

What is the essence of an object? Is it something that is beyond oneself or is the idea conjured from one’s own mind? Is the essence of a circle beyond all actual circles, or is it an idea we extrapolate from seeing a circle? Can we say a perfect circle exists simply because a person can imagine it in one’s own mind?

Well, yes, to the last question. If we define a perfect circle as being perfect, we can not be wrong in saying it is perfect if it is in one’s own mind. But does its existence require at least one mind to imagine it, or can it exist without anyone imagining it?

Is it only an idea, or does is it exist beyond one’s own mind? What about numbers and mathematical equations, even laws of physics. Hmm.. Certain natural laws only apply to what we can observe on Earth…

Eh, this topic is running away from me again.

Tentative answer: If by “essence,” you are referring to an abstract idea, one which you define yourself, then the “essence” of a thing exists. If you imagine a circle to have an essence (IE, that of a perfect circle), then it does.

Problem: How arbitrary are our definitions for what we have words for? Hmm… I think we’re moving away from Beauty again and into philosophy of the mind… (and the circle keeps getting bigger and bigger… and soon I will be a little speck in the horizon… all metaphor, of course.)

In any case, that is where I’m at, philosophically.

figures

You may think these ideas are unimportant when it comes to actually producing works of art, but I think having an idea of what one believes is beautiful is at the heart of one’s approach to one’s own work. I know, this view is very out-dated. The art world has a scope that deals with… well, everything, and artwork is not required to be beautiful. Visual art, as is the case with all creative mediums, works on its own terms.

I remember a scene in a biopic about Basquiat, in which somebody comments on some part of a painting of his and says “Oh, that’s pretty,” and Basquiat immediately paints over it or modifies it somehow.

In any case, I think it’s harder not to think about Beauty than to think about Beauty when working in the field of Art, and therefore, if you are to challenge the above notion (that Art revolves around the idea of Beauty), you have to think about the questions in my last three posts more and not less.

Big Questions

1: If one’s art does not revolve around some idea of Beauty, what does it revolve around?

2: If you are using your artwork to challenge an idea and/or issue, how do you tow the line between art and politics? How political can you be with your art before it can be called propaganda? What is the difference between one artist (who has the power of social media) making political statements out of one’s own opinions and another artist (with some form of government support, whether it is financial, social or even political) whose work expresses ideas one believes in and which supports the status quo?

I think the answers to these questions may not be as obvious as one imagines. I think we’ve been given clear distinctions between right and wrong, and our being given clear distinctions between “right” and “wrong” was/is itself political.

Sigh… but the topic is getting away from me again.

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.

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* 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.

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Last edited November 4, 2018