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┬áhere 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!

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