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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Blank Canvas

Washing Away Summer on Maui
Woke up groggy today, probably a side effect of the sense that summer is over, at least the series of events that started last March or April--a moved office, a new job, Beijing, Washington, Portland, and this weekend, Maui.

My reading from 365 Tao today seemed precise and profound:
An ocean of ink in a single drop
Trembling at the tip of my brush
Poised above stark white paper
A universe waits for existence.
"...A painter poises above blank paper. But it is not the painting to come that is as important as that single moment when all things still lie in a state of potential," Deng Ming-dao writes. "Will something ugly or beautiful be created? The stately determination to make something worthy of the materials and the moment is reverence."

There was a lot of potential in my summer, all that travel and new possibilities. With my recent visit to the next island over, I concluded something and now feel on the verge of the next roller coaster that will build up speed until the New Year.

"Only when we tire of our excesses can there be esteem," Deng continues.  That describes how I felt on awakening this morning.

So much potential in a drop of ink. My new painting class is good, but challenging, because the style and techniques seem not as traditional as my previous teacher's. (Well, not strictly true. I was immediately moved to an advanced level; most of the rest of the students are painting grass orchids, and have been for three weeks. Fortunately I have escaped that boring exercise.) It's all rooted in the "oriental" method, but with different (Japanese) paper, different (Japanese) brushes, different (Japanese) colors. The ink is the same, but I cheat: I surreptitiously grind my ink stick in bottled ink, a quick trick I learned from my Chinese teacher. I feel my old teacher's admonitions and instructions. I think she would say what I am doing is ugly. But, she's not there, and I actually kinda liked the image I made last night (regrettably I had to "turn it in" for class, and I failed to photograph the landscape of somewhat garishly colored trees, mountains, and rocks.) The beholder I suppose determines if it is ugly or beautiful; the painter simply creates a universe. Maybe a Japanese universe. Or Korean--my new teacher is a Korean nun. She is quite kind and patient; I don't expect her to smack my fingers with a brush handle.

I realize other students are not necessarily in the class for the same reason I am; they are undergraduates fulfilling some requirement. I am there to paint, and increase my skill and knowledge. I did not expect challenges to my already acquired method. But I find some wisdom in The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, a classic Chinese text from the 17th century:
"To be without method is deplorable, but to depend entirely on method is worse. ... If you aim to dispense with method, learn method. If you aim at facility, work hard. If you aim for simplicity, master complexity."

And if you didn't think there is Tao in Chinese painting, there it is. 

One of the things that all this painting exercise has done for me, perhaps the real point, is to cause me to look at real things a little differently.  I notice the structure of trees more, the beauty of a flower, the mist on a mountain, a carp in the koi pond.  And at the same time, I look at classic paintings and enter them. They are the original virtual reality. Photos become inspirations for paintings.  Like this fish, a denizen of a koi pond on Maui.
Happy Fish
But I won't paint that fish.  Or even a fish.  The aim is simply to paint fish.
NOTE:  Not sure if this post is going to publish correctly; I have been having a little struggle session with Windows 7, which seems to exxhibit some quirks regarding my habitual blogging method.  Taoists are supposed to cope with change, but not sure that patience with operating systems is what is intended.  Those are methods you do come to depend on; why not, when they work?  One time when I hate change!


sybil law said...

What fun would it be if it was the same old class, anyway?
Take a photo next time! I love seeing the art!!

Cym said...

Just curious: What's the green stuff in the ocean (top picture)? Seaweed, rocks, or something else?

I should do that too, drawing or painting, as an act of meditation, an exercise in patience and understanding; painting as an extension of self, as you say, to paint the fish, not merely to see the fish, but to become the fish. Not exactly what you said, but my interpretation.

I have a good book on the subject, you've probably already read it, but here it is anyway: The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation by Frederick Franck.

baroness radon said...

@Sybil--I still miss my teacher...but doing my best to adjust to a new style and venue.

@Cym-The "green stuff" is exposed lava rock with some seaweed and algae on it. Sort of like an island. Chinese painting is about the qi of fish,or whatever, even rocks. It's not directly representational, but supposed to convey the idea and the energy of fish or rock or mountain, bird or flower. It is indeed an act of meditation or qigong. But it's not easy. I don't know the book you mention but I will look for it. Most of my books are classic Chinese texts or somewhat academic books on technique and history.

Still hot in AZ?