Zen Brush

happy zen by jeaneen gauthierThis is a style of painting that I really like to do, using Chinese calligraphy brushes and inks on paper.

I call it “Zen Brush.”

This style makes use of traditional brush stroke shapes used in Chinese calligraphy and painting, although you wouldn’t necessary need to know what those are to paint like this. You could just observe and reproduce what you see. They key point to keep in mind is that everything is done by strokes and gestures. Every blob of paint is laid down in one swift move. You don’t go slowly. You don’t “draw,” or “plot,” or do anything that is small and hesitant. The brush strokes are simply allowed to happen all in one fell swoop, for better or worse.

I got into doing Chinese calligraphy and painting in high school. The story goes like this:

I had a crush on a boy who was two grades ahead of me and who was taking Chinese class. So automatically I wanted to sign up for Chinese too. I was fascinated by the way Chinese characters looked, and I was a huge fan of the TV show Kung Fu.

Also, it was a way to be in the same class as my crush (who was also a musician and building his own bass guitar).

On Fridays we practiced calligraphy with Chinese bamboo-handle brushes, ink that you ground on a stone, and rice paper. The main points of Chinese calligraphy are: 1) you hold the brush perpendicular to the paper, not at angle; 2) there is a set direction in which you paint each stroke that never varies; 3) every character is composed of a group of strokes that are always done in the same order every time; and 4) the more relaxed and Zen you are about it, the better your calligraphy comes out. Obviously, since it’s ink on paper, there are no do-overs. So it’s important to be loose and calm and not try too hard.

There was a girl my age in Chinese class named Mali Cha. She had come from Laos to the US several years earlier. We also had Art class together, and I sat with her and watched while she used the same brushes and inks and paper we had in Chinese class to make Chinese-style (or Laos-style) paintings. She told me that in a painting, if you use red, it Really Means Something, but she could never quite explain to me Exactly What It Meant. She could paint the most magical-looking flowers and trees and grasses. I tried to copy her, but I couldn’t even get close. Mali Cha told me that she didn’t really need to take Chinese because she had been fluent in it since she was little (her grandmother spoke Chinese), but she took the class anyway because she was homesick.

I like doing quick line sketches in this style. Sometimes in just one continuous line, pushing down hard sometimes, other times painting lightly and quickly. Quick little strokes and flourishes. Whenever I see a piece of Chinese porcelain painting in a beautiful floral style, I think of Mali Cha. She was that good.

zen izzy and vase 700 lr

I came to understand that my love for my my boy-crush could never be, due to the fact that he was a friend of my older brother’s, and also because the difference between a high-school senior boy and a sophomore girl is, to use a term of Shakespeare’s, “a Vasty Plain.”

Still, the fact that he was my brother’s friend and that we had Chinese class together meant that we were afforded certain privileges. I could track him down after school where he was hanging out by his car and demand that he let me talk into his CB radio. He could lend me a copy of his favorite book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a compilation of Zen and pre-Zen writings: http://www.amazon.com/Zen-Flesh-Bones-Collection-Writings/dp/0804831866, and later we could have deep and totally unselfconscious discussions about it. This was the first book that inspired me to learn how to meditate — not forgetting of course, that Kung Fu had primed the pump in a big way.

zen guitar and psyche

In college, studying Chinese, Classical Chinese, Chinese Philosophy, and Chinese Literature, I learned that calligraphy, painting, poetry and philosophy all went together, and that the ideal Chinese Scholar was someone who had been trained in these things and more — martial arts, music, military strategy, and the game of Go (which is also pretty much the same thing as Chinese Checkers). Around that same time I discovered that the Minneapolis Institute of Arts had on display, in its East Asian Wing, an authentic Ming dynasty Scholar’s room, shipped from in pieces from China and then painstakingly reassembled and furnished according to the period with furniture, scrolls, writing instruments, and the like. You couldn’t go in, but you could peep. Which is what I made a habit of doing, and still do (I live only a few blocks away).

Whenever I look at it, I always think the same thing: “One Day… This Will… All… Be Mine!”

Grasshopper, the next move is yours.

zen chrysanthemum 2

Notes On How To Do It:

The comic artist Lynda Barry published a very great introduction to using Chinese brushes and inks in her book, 100 Demons: http://www.amazon.com/One-Hundred-Demons-Lynda-Barry/dp/1570614598. I am including a picture here from the copy of my book, with hopes that I won’t get nailed for copyright infringement.

zen holding the brush lr

I do encourage everyone to buy this book, not just for the painting techniques explained at the end, but for the funny, beautiful, heartbreaking stories. This woman is a personal hero of mine. You should also read her novel, Cruddy while you’re at it: http://www.amazon.com/Cruddy-Illustrated-Novel-Lynda-Barry/dp/068483846X.

You can find Chinese calligraphy brushes and inks at any good art supply store. You can also buy brush markers in a wide range of colors, some of which can be filled with paint or ink.

Rice paper (washi), hot-press watercolor paper or bristol are great for working with water-based inks and brushes.

Good luck!


If Aliens Did Not Exist, Artists Would Have to Invent Them

alien on blue lr

A few days ago, an old college friend of mine reported on her Facebook page that she saw a flying saucer. The details: on July 28, 2014, she spotted a shiny, saucer-like object flying over downtown Los Angeles in the early evening. She also mentioned that she heard no sound at all as it flew overhead.

After a few comments like “Wow!” and “Awesome!” a debunker entered the thread. “Archie D. Bunker,” let’s call him.

His comments were snarky and kind of condescending. I’ve never really understood why some people put effort into trying to get other people to believe the way they do. I mean, like, dude! Don’t you get that you’re totally crashing the party and alienating people here?

The thing that really gets me thinking is that this now makes two close friends of mine who have seen UFOs. They both went to the same college as I did, at the same time, and both majored in Art. We all knew each other and were good friends. I’ve never known either one of them to be flighty, or gullible, or New Age-y in any way. So now I’m thinking about coincidences, and what they might mean.

I’ve lived in two houses that were absolutely, definitely haunted. Maybe I will share the details about that in the future — only a few of my really closest friends and family ever believed me when I told them about the strange happenings that went on. Only the ones who knew me well enough to know that I wasn’t a liar or a total basket case. Most people took the role of debunker, asking, “Were you smoking pot?” or things like that.

I guess some people are just cut out to be debunkers, and others to be believers.

I am in the believer category. I think believing in things, or wanting to believe in things — being curious about what they look like, or sound like, or feel like — is one of the qualities that defines an artist. It sets you up be fascinated by what you’ve seen or experienced, and excited to tell the story.

In my mind, it doesn’t matter at all if anything can be proven or not. I don’t think stories need to have proof. They just need to be amazing.

I want to believe

(Just for fun, I made this list of “Things That Some People Believe In, And That Other People Will Swear On Their Grave Aren’t Real.”)

ADD / ADHD is a made-up diagnosis, as admitted by its “discoverer” on his deathbed
Afterlife, The
Akashic Records, The
Amityville Horror, The
Animals Can Sense Earthquakes and Tsunamis Before They Happen
Animals Who Can Smell Cancer
Apocrypha, The
Artificial Intelligence
Astral Projection
Autism is linked to vaccines and chemical sensitivities
Automatic Writing

Baghavad-Gita, The
Barguest / Bargest, The
Bermuda Triangle, The
Bible, The
Big Bang Theory, The
Black Dog Who Follows You
Black Magic
Bog People
Buddha, The

Cats Who Steal Babies’ Breath
Cell Phones Cause Cancer
Chubacabro, El
CIA Heart Attack Gun
Collective Unconscious, The
Cumaean Sybil, The

Dark Matter
Daylight Savings Time
Dead Sea Scrolls, The
Death Cats (Cats Who Jump On The Beds Of Those About To Die)
Devil, The
Djinn (Jinn, Genies)

Easter Bunny, The
Elliott Smith Didn’t Commit Suicide, He Was Murdered by Either Drug Dealers or His Girlfriend
Evil Eye, The
Extrasensory Perception

Faith Healing
Fibonacci Sequence, The
Fluoride Is Poison

GMOs Are Bad For You
Gnostic Gospels, The
Gods and Goddesses (all pantheons)
Golden Mean, The
Great Spirit / Great Mystery, The
Gregorian Calendar , The
Guardian Angels
Gut Has More Synapses Than The Brain, The

Haunted Houses
Heart Emits the Largest Electromagnetic Field of All Human Organs, The
Herbal Medicine
Hollow Earth Theory
Holy Grail, The
Hungry Ghosts
Hydrogen Powered Cars Already Exist

Intelligent Design
Intercession of Saints, The

JFK predicted His Death
Jubilee, The

King Arthur
Kirlian Photography
Knights Templar
Koran, The
Kurt Cobain Didn’t Die, He’s Just Living on a Polynesian Island Because He Just Wanted to Get Away from Courtney Love

Lao Tzu
Lee Harvey Oswald Was Not The Person Who Assassinated JFK
Leif Eriksson Visited the “New World” Before Columbus
Lemuria, The Lost Continent of
Little House on the Prairie books were ghostwritten by Rose Wilder Lane, who was forced into doing so by her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, The
Loch Ness Monster (“Tessie”), The

Mary Magdalene Was Jesus’ Wife, or At Least His Closest Companion
Matrix, The
Mayan Calendar, The
Meat Is Murder
Middle Ages Didn’t Happen, The
Mole People, The
Moon Landing, The
Multiverse, The
Mystery of The Ship Marie Celeste, The

Nazca Lines Were Landing Strips for Ancient Alien Craft, The
Near Death Experiences
North Koreans are The Cleanest Race And Need To Be Protected From The Rest of The World (viz. North Korean Government Propaganda)

Observer Effect, The
Oracle at Delphi, The
Origin of Life on Earth, The

Parallel Universes
Perpetual Motion
Phoenicians Traveled to South America on Papyrus Rafts Thousands of Years Before Columbus or Leif Eriksson, The
Philadelphia Project, The
Psychic Attack
Psychic Powers

Qi Gong

Remote Viewing
Resurrection, The
Rosetta Stone, The
Rosicrucians, The
Roswell Alien Spaceship Crash

Santa Claus
Schliemann Discovered Where to Dig For Ancient Troy From Instructions He Received In A Dream
Shadow People
Solomon’s Temple
Soul, The
Spontaneous Human Combustion
String Theory

Tai Chi
Tao Te Ching, The
Tarot Cards
Tooth Fairy, The
Torah, The
Transmigration of Souls

Underworld, The
Universal Mind, The
Univited Guest, The

Vegetarianism / Veganism
Voodoo / Voudoun

Water As A Recording Medium
White House Is Haunted by Abraham Lincoln’s Ghost, The
White Magic
Wow Signal, The
Wu Wei



Note: please leave your replies with Other Things That People Do and Do Not Believe, and I will add them to my spreadsheet list. One day I might submit it to the Guinness Book of World Records.

ufo chat final

In Praise of the Basement Painter

space alien lr

I found this painting in the basement laundry room of my apartment building.

There is a table there where people put out things for people to take — clothes, old computer monitors, grubby toys, plastic dishes, and stuff like that.

I found it under the table, propped against the wall behind a table leg. I only noticed it because I was bending down to pick up some clothes I dropped.

Upon seeing it, my first thought was, “No WAY!”

I mean, how often does a person come across a nicely painted sexless humanoid figure floating in space? Under the free table in the laundry room, no less?

I brought it back to my apartment, and showed it to my best friend, who happened to be in town visiting from L.A.

“Whoa!” was her response. “This is amazing! Who do you think painted it?”

I had been wondering that myself. If it was painted by someone who lived in my building, who might it be? The downstairs neighbor who spends every morning between 8:00 and 10:00 am programming weird d.j. beats that never quite come together? The forlorn-looking older lady I have seen a few times doing her laundry, which always consists of nothing but old towels torn up into squares? The homeless transvestite guy I once discovered camping out in the basement electrical room?

“I don’t know,” I answered. “It feels to me like it was painted by a guy. Maybe a gay guy? And he isn’t happy with this painting, which explains why he would leave it under a table in the laundry room. And he’s sad about something. He feels alone, like an alien drifting in space.”

That saying, “A picture paints a thousand words.” It’s totally true, in my experience. (Also, I’m kind of psychic.)

unfinished nude and basilica

Over the next few weeks, I found two more paintings in the laundry room. I knew right away by the style that they were the work of the same mystery artist. “He” was really good at figurative painting. Way better than I am, that’s for sure. If I could do paintings like that, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t leave them up for grabs in the laundry room, with the risk that they would be hauled out to the trash by the building caretaker if nobody took them.

I never did find out who painted those paintings, or even identified any neighbors who qualified as likely suspects. I did find a perfect space to hang them though, all together, in my living room. As the years have passed, I have embroidered a story in my mind that explains them perfectly. It goes like this:

Justin lived alone in an apartment not far from the art school where he had studied painting for three years before dropping out. In spite of everything his professors said — they encouraged him to paint larger canvases and not to be so quick to give up — he just couldn’t see the beauty or value in anything he did, and so he finally said, “Fuck it,” and quit.

He met Jason shortly afterwards, one balmy summer night at a club. Jason was popular, outgoing, confident, handsome, and super buff — everything Justin wasn’t. He was drawn to Jason like a moth to a flame, even though he knew deep down it would never work out. Still, he had this feeling that if someone so desirable as Jason could like him, it might just prove that he was wasn’t that bad, after all.

One morning, after their third or fourth night together, Jason was standing naked, about to put on his clothes, when Justin said:

“You look so handsome right now, I’d like to paint you. Would you mind posing for me? It won’t take long.”

Jason grunted his assent and Justin grabbed his paints, brushes, and canvas, and got to work as fast as he could.

After only twenty minutes Jason was bored and fed up, checking his phone. Justin was only half-done with his painting.

“Fuck it,” said Jason, after thirty minutes. “I’m outta here.” And he left.

Justin never saw him again.

His phone calls and texts went unanswered.

His painting of Jason remained unfinished.

After those first few weeks of not hearing back from Jason, Justin painted a self-portrait of a sexless alien floating in space. Afterwards, he found he couldn’t bear to look at it. He put it under the table in the laundry room, where it was later carried off by a neighbor woman he never met.

Several more weeks passed, and Justin realized it was time to stop gazing mournfully at his half-painted painting of Jason. He had to get rid of it and move on. And so it too was left under the basement laundry table, where someone might — or might not — notice it. This painting was found by the same neighbor who had found the first one. She also happened to be an artist, although Justin would never know that.

Many weeks later, he found himself questioning his sexuality, wondering if he might be better off living a celibate life and attending church. He had been raised Catholic, so his first instinct was to head towards the nearest Catholic church, which in his neighborhood happened to be the Basilica of St. Mary.

He had his paints and brushes and a canvas with him. As he walked into Loring Park he observed the tower of the Basilica looming large in the gentle springtime sky, and he decided that the best thing to do right there and then was to paint it.

And that is what he did. Later, after judging the painting to be a total loss and abandoning it in the laundry room, Justin decided that church was not the thing for him. A week or two later, he moved out of his apartment, found a job at an advertising agency as a storyboard artist, and met the love of his life — a theater costumer named Lyle who was sweet, gentle, and a prince among men.

His former neighbor, the artist whom he had never met, found his painting of the Basilica tower in the laundry room, and  she added it to the little gallery of his work that she had set up in her apartment. She had attended the church shown in the painting from time to time — Christmas Eve, All Saints Day, and the Feast of Saint Francis, every third year or so, if she was in the mood. (She was one of those “Catholic church — but only the hits” kind of person.) 

Years later, she would write about the mystery artist’s paintings in her blog, and wonder if by some one-in-a-million chance she might one day learn the real story of the basement painter.

In the meantime, she would sign off on her blog saying:

Never say “Fuck it.”

basement painter gallery

Why I Paint Mandalas

untitled-growth mandala painting by jeaneen gauthier

This painting dates from two years ago, and is one of my favorites. It is the first in a series of paintings that has taken me in a refreshing new direction with my artwork.

When I look at it, I am instantly reminded of a summer day in 2012. At the start of that year, I had just embarked on a relationship that seemed promising. By the time spring rolled around, I found myself dumped and disappointed. Summer started with me feeling very lonely and sorry for myself, with moping being my only plan (if you can call moping a plan).

I decided that if I was going to mope, it was going to be in the most creative and artistic way possible. I drew comics every day that depicted my life and feelings. I wrote stories; I re-read Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series from beginning to end. My digital television reception mysteriously went from excellent to non-existent, and so I spent most of my free time reading, writing, and drawing.

One day in August, I bought a square canvas and covered it with orange paint. Beginning in the center, with no plan whatsoever, I simply started painting. Almost immediately I noticed a calm, hypnotic energy leading me forward. As I finished each ring of the circle, I suddenly knew exactly what needed to come next, and that is what I painted.

What a pleasant surprise this was. Up until that point, I usually painted with a very clear plan in mind. Now here I was building a complex geometric design with no plan at all for what to do next, and it felt great.

To be specific, it felt great to for once be free of my critical artist’s mind that is always asking: “Is this working?” “Is this any good?” “Should I even bother to keep working on this?”

For once in my life, I didn’t have to ask. This painting was working.

I seriously got to feeling that this painting was actually painting itself. And also unlike most of my other work, this painting went and got itself painted in just a few sessions.

I’ll be sharing more thoughts on this — and examples — in the future. In the mean time, I encourage you to give mandala painting a try and see if it does anything for you.


Notes On How To Do It:

1. Start small and simple. I started with a 10 x 10 inch pre-stretched canvas, and covered it with a loose mix of cadmium orange and cadmium yellow light acrylic paint. It was dry in less than an hour.

2. Create some minimal guidelines, if you want to. Using a ruler to measure diagonally from each corner, I marked center point of the canvas. Then I used a compass to lightly trace a 6 inch circle to use as a basic guide.

3. Keep the design large and the colors simple. I used a #2 round brush the whole time and avoided getting into any tiny details. I also kept my color palette to a minimum, using just 3 different shades of metallic gold paint. (I found it really interesting how green some of the golds looked on the orange background — a topic for another post!).

4. Try working symmetrically at first. The thing I liked so much about working on this painting was repeating the motifs around each ring of the circle. I found the repetition very soothing.

5. Abandon symmetry when it feels right. For me this happened when I got near the outer edges of the painting. Then it felt okay to let my marks go off in all directions.

Good luck!