Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Tao of Painting

Still going on is the self teaching of Chinese calligraphy, needing to be patient with myself.  Grinding the ink is a meditative process, very calming, and I just have to accept my total beginner status at using the brushes and forming shapes.  Mine all come out a bit like bread rolls.  But I'm getting the hang of holding the brush and it's starting to feel more natural.  All I'm doing at the moment is very simple copying of shapes, surprisingly challenging.

But today I thought I'd spend half an hour in this wonderful book. The Tao of Painting.  Based on an ancient manuscript, it explains the fundamentals of Chinese painting, the structure of it, and history.  Since the shapes I'm learning have meaning way behond their physical appearance, I needed to simply know more.

And to my surprise, the writer emphasizes that the painter does have to find a way to be creative, not just using rote strokes.  Evidently the masters both observed the tradition and departed from it, all at once.  This is very Chinese!  Tao more or less means way, or path, but has a lot of metaphorical overtones, too.  But it does not mean rigid copying, which I was happy to find out.

If you can get your hands on this, do.  It's a wonderful adventure into Chinese painting, with a kind guide to lead you through it.  
The chopmarks (seals) you see on Chinese painting not only indicate the original painter, but all the collectors through whose hands the painting has passed.  It's a kind of provenance that travels with the work.  Some of the pieces in this book are simply the best there ever were, now in museums.

One of the reasons I spent a lot more than half an hour on this is that I got engrossed in the paintings.  A lot of them are extremely long horizontally, like this one, 88 inches by 13, and are scrolls. That long calm shape is amazing for your peace of mind.  There are poems on a lot of them, some by the painter, some by collectors paying tribute.  This book translates the poetry for the non Chinese reader.

 I rested this double opened page onto a bench in the sun, where the shadows of a twenty first century cherry tree can mingle with the painting of a 12th century plum blossom branch.  

And where the fallen leaves are a partnership with the acceptance in art that everything, including the painter, has a season, and dies to make way for more life.

As you scan back and forth, getting into the work, you enter into another place.  These paintings date back many centuries, and are as lively now as they were when painted.  In fact chi, the life force, is supposed to be apparent in good painting, movement and the sort of energy that never dissipates over the centuries.  Paintings of bamboo in the wind are full of movement and suggested sound, never static.

Here's an autumn scene, with leaping frogs, butterflies, all kinds of lively insects, and this one has color. 


Color is considered a separate issue in Chinese painting, a lot of which is in gray scale, from black to grays.  And the color has to carry meaning in the painting, beyond just a graphic sort of value.

So when I finally, after about two hours, got to my own practice, I felt the way I did when I learned to spin, as if I was carrying on a humble part of a great tradition of art.  I may never get to be a great calligrapher, well, there's no may about it, but the process of entering into the practice is what it's about.  Flow starts to happen in just a few minutes, that great feeling of being at one with the materials.  The output is not important at this stage, but learning to be with the process is.


  1. Fascinating take on this, Liz. Do you remember when we learned cursive writing? How hard it was to make the wobbles into letters! And we kept at it sometimes until the teachers despaired of our ever getting it right. So did I.

    But as we matured into it we began to gain control of the pen, the pencil, and pretty soon our own style emerged out of that. It is still the same alphabet, but it now is ours, as well. I think Calligraphy becomes like that, too. You learn the rules, and then learn where to bend them a bit to suit your own style.

    Love that colored scroll. So delicate.

  2. Interesting take on cursive. Not taught in any schools I knew of. I think it's more a North American tradition. We printed and one day about third grade were told to just join the letters, only babies printed! So I'm at the stage of not even knowing cursive writing.

    Grinding the ink is my favorite bit.


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