Friend or Foe?

At the excellent suggestion of Danu, I am reading a chapter in Alan Watts’ classic “The Way of Zen” entitled “Zen in the Arts”. Watts talks about how in the West artists can have an almost adversarial relationship with their materials. He quotes Malraux who said we strive to “conquer” our medium, much as we’d conquer a mountain. I suspect we have all felt this at some point, particularly when a painting isn’t going as we want. We may feel that if we could just get rid of all these brushes and paints and let our vision shine through, we’d make better art. It can feel as if our materials are our foes in the struggle to make art.

Watts says that in the East this view is not understood at all. He says:

“For when you climb it is the mountain as much as your own legs which lifts
you upwards, and when you paint it is the brush, ink and paper which
determines the result as much as your own hand.”

I love this metaphorical explanation of how the very thing we may view as our adversary plays a crucial role in our endeavors. In fact, without that with which we struggle, we would achieve nothing.

I will remember that the next time my brush, paint or paper seems to have a life of it’s own. They are taking me where I am going…

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6 responses to “Friend or Foe?

  1. I like this–actually made me think of fossils and rock art, initially. As for the Alan Watts–I’m a fan of him–that’s interesting. Of course we also try to conquer time with art in the west (something Shakespeare made quite overt in his sonnets, and which is evident in any museum). It’s incredible to see Buddhist monks spending weeks creating a huge, incredibly complex sand mandala, knowing all along that, once it’s done, it will all be scooped into bags to be dumped into the nearest river…..

  2. Nice color scheme in this piece, did you use only secondary colors on purpose? I like the contrast between the orange and green, and the orange print in the middle top. In Chinese calligraphy it’s all about the brush and breathing and energy right? I am way too manic for that….lol… no; I like to paint with brushes but also lots of other materials as well.

  3. Bob, I’ve almost always (in my youth I was more respectfull of “authority”…) thought Malraux”s opinion in the arts is greatly overrated… He could be an excellent writer, but, just like Zola, he doesn’t really GET IT when it comes to painting…

    Did I see some ganja leaves impression in you work? (kidding)

  4. You Bob, and you, Danu, you read and know so much! It’s great to have you as friends, you make the job of reading all these clever books and to present us an essence here and to open a discussion about the most interesting themes! really grat!

    But today i guess I am not the right person, i guess, to say something of general interest about this theme. My relationship with the materials is something like disdain, certainly not hate or fear or war. When i am in a paints shop I love to look and touch at all the painting stuff, I am quite addicted to all these things and i would buy everything, but when i come to painting, I never lose one second in thinking about the material i will use, in 95% of the cases I simply use what is the closest to my hand. This is the reason why i feel always lost when somebody asks me which paper I have used, which brush, which colours… i generally have NO IDEA!

    I guess the reason is that i am then too impatient to begin and can’t waste time in thinking about the material. I know that there are many painters who are the contrary of me, I worked with one, and it generally drove me crazy to see him starting a painting… he spent always about at least one hour to chose the material, and then of course he was exhausted and needed a pause…. before he had ever begun!
    But well, this is how he loved it, and as such I understand it.

    So, how is it now, do painters really struggle to conquer their medium? I don’t know, but I kind of think it cannot be the aim of painting… or can it?

  5. If anything I believe my materials conquer me, rather than the other way around. They lure me, as Miki said. When I go to an art store the paints and papers and brushes and pens seduce me into thinking – if only I use this or that, perhaps then my artistic dream will be realized! They definitely have their way with me, and in the end, abandon me before my goal is reached. But I’m always ready to believe in their power again the next day!

  6. Thanks for all the great comments, all!

    It is amazing to consider the monks who destroy their work once it’s finished – of course, I’ve often felt like doing that when I’m done, too, but I never start off with that intention! I guess that’s the difference.

    I did intentionally use secondary colors in this painting – I must admit I often use a color wheel when working on a piece, which is probably a little too uptight for some of the free-wheeling painters who visit my blog!

    Danu, when I posted this I did notice that the leaves look a little “suspicious”! Don’t know what they are but they aren’t the kind you light up…

    Miki, you always make me think of you as the art dervish, an incessant whirlwind of artistic activity! Whew!

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