There’s a lot of discussion here at RT about self and no-self, reality and non-being, socialism and capitalism, I think sometimes a lot of yammering, but none of it compares with my relationship with my wolf brush.
I have sometimes talked about the necessity of practice, the actual doing of something, just you and the something, to understand Tao: qigong, meditation, study of classics. But my newest teacher has a bamboo handle and is so flexible and responsive to the moment, I have come to see painting as a kind of energy practice and a teaching of how to regard the world. Of course, this is nothing new: the Chinese painting masters have always been driven by Tao in their compositions and subjects. Painting as an activity is a two-way street. I actually look at things differently, and the attempt to “capture” the energy is a humbling lesson. This may be why Matteo Ricci, the great Jesuit who loved China and was beloved by the Chinese, never quite “got it.” As a painter he was still trapped in a Western vision of the world, unlike Castiglione, another Jesuit who is considered to be a great Chinese painter.
I have been blessed to study with a wonderful woman, my age, trained in classical techniques in Fujian and Taiwan, and who has “transmitted” some sort of energy to her students. She’s a Christian, is learning English through Bible study (as I learn Chinese through Tao Te Ching study), wears a delicate golden cross at her throat, but says her mother was “a Buddha.” (At my throat is an ancient faience Egyptian wadjet eye, which has nothing really to do with Tao…or does it?) She is a taijiquan practitioner and freely refers to and demonstrates the qi required in painting.
Two years ago, when I was obsessed with landscapes but not her bird and flower emphasis, she said, “Maybe in two years you paint a flower.” While landscapes are still my preferred subject, lately I have been enjoying the Four Gentlemen and doing roses, peonies, and fuschia. With the coming of autumn I’ve been painting a lot of chrysanthemums. She is so prescient. Once I presented three versions of something for her review. “Ah, this one is best,” she said. “You did it first?” She was right. Spontaneity is a key element in Chinese painting of the xieyi type.
I was just doing an inventory of my paint and brushes. I have acquired lots of tubes of Western, Japanese, and Chinese watercolor, including the strange pricey pans of bright kawaii Japanese color (from my Korean teacher). I told the Wizard, “If you see me drooling over some paint box, please to remind me that I need no more paint.” In fact all you really need is a good indigo, a good yellow, some sort of red, black ink and white gouache; everything derives from those, a sort of yin-yang melding of CMYK and RGB. Although that sounds so PhotoShop, which is completely antithetical to what goes on with the brush, the ink and water, and the paper; there is nothing spontaneous about bit-fiddling. And generally, you can't modify anything after the brush meets the paper.
And I have a lot of wonderful brushes, but there are really only several I use consistently. A couple of wolf brushes, a couple of fine-line brushes, and a nice stiff shan ma (mountain horse) brush. This all suggests that the real key to painting, and probably any other thing you want to do, is about skill in using simple tools with well-taught and well-practiced technique.