Ink and Wood: Inner Landscapes

At a critical moment of my young adulthood while I was travelling abroad for the first time in my life, I found myself in Hong Kong studying Chinese art history, and losing myself in the magical wandering landscapes of black and white ink scroll paintings.

I was immediately captivated by images created using only simple brushstrokes, deep black inks and cloudy washes. Within these simple parameters were created fantastical mountain scenes, steep rolling cliffs, bristling trees and silently tumbling waterfalls, all shrouded in swirling mists. A combination of the details and the impressionism drew me in and invited me to spend my time wandering in those images.

The history of scroll paintings is ancient, and like all art forms it has developed and evolved constantly along the way. Landscapes are just one area of focus for within the history of scroll paintings, but have become incredibly important as an area of focus because they have developed strong ties to underlying philosophical and religious ideas about man’s relation to the larger world.

For a deeper introduction to the subject I encourage you to follow this link to a collection of Essays posted through Department of Asian Art within The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/clpg/hd_clpg.htm

Something about the flowing line work really grabbed me from my first exposure to this art form. Each portion of the painting is generally made up of similar repeated brush strokes, building on each other to show texture and form. This is because the brush strokes themselves were based upon the same forms used in calligraphy, which requires specific methods for writing. There is fascinating connection between the fact that the forms used to create landscapes are built out of the forms to create language. It might be seen as a meta-version of “a picture is worth a thousand words”, compounding upon itself. There is also the idea that each person has a unique for to their calligraphy, and the way in which one person writes shows something about who they are as a person. This was equally true for this style of painting.

These men extolled the virtues of self-cultivation—often in response to political setbacks or career disappointments—and asserted their identity as literati through poetry, calligraphy, and a new style of painting that employed calligraphic brushwork for self-expressive ends. The monochrome images of old trees, bamboo, rocks, and retirement retreats created by these scholar-artists became emblems of their character and spirit.

Essay: Landscape Painting in Chinese Art, The Met

I have repeated returned to this art form as an inspiration through many different explorations of media over the years. Repetition, line work and density of layering in order to create texture and depth have all been qualities I find interesting. This I think resonates in some of my philosophical views and the idea that we, and the world around us, are a beautiful collision of chaotic elements coming together in just such a way as this. There is beauty in the chaos, and it is only possible to see the beauty of each element in relation to the rest of the picture.

My journey through visual art has been strongly tied to self expression. I use the work I create to have a conversation with myself about what I find meaningful and inspiring. This meditative and immersive aspect of scroll paintings immediately made sense to me and resonated at a deep level. Learning that this was indeed part of the genesis of the original art was both eye opening for me (and validating) but also seemed as if it could not be any other way.

Going beyond representation, scholar-artists imbued their paintings with personal feelings. By evoking select antique styles, they could also identify themselves with the values associated with the old masters. Painting was no longer about the description of the visible world; it became a means of conveying the inner landscape of the artist’s heart and mind.

Essay: Landscape Painting in Chinese Art, The Met

One of the most fascinating things I remember learning about landscape scroll paintings, was that they were meant to be semi-interactive. Many scrolls are very long, much longer than could be fully opened for viewing on any desk, or even in most rooms. Though the height of the image was often quite comfortable to sit on a desk, both trailing ends much necessarily be rolled up, like a roll of sketch paper used for children’s drawing tables. The artist would roll one end and unroll the other to move the paper along an work in sections, allowing portions to dry before moving on. This also affected the way in which they must be viewed. In order to experience a painting the viewer must also begin at one end and move the image in sections by rolling and unrolling through the image. In this way the viewer was encouraged to follow the imaginary journey through the rolling countryside in a temporal way, almost like a visual novel or film strip.

So the images weren’t intended only as a means for the artist to express themselves, but also used as a means of inviting self-reflection and escapism in others.

Up until now I have been struggling to create images from within myself that will inspire me and help pull me outside of myself. Looking backwards, that seems a bit like trying to turn around far enough that you can have a conversation with yourself. Though the idea is noble, the physics just don’t work. Photography has shown me that the images I am looking for are already out there waiting to be found. Nature will always be able to create a more perfect colletion of elements than I ever could. Rather than generating the image my perspective now is to try and be receptive to it, to capture it and allow it to speak to me.

The ink paintings has returned to me in the form of dead wood. Looking closely at fallen logs, split and aged with time, scarred by the elements and bare to the light, show striking resemblance to the forms and flows of Chinese scholars sitting in seclusion trying to find themselves.

Like the image above I have recently been focused on finding these deep patterns of texture on fallen logs that translate into surreal landscapes all on their own. I have been collecting them in a new portfolio project on the site and will continue to add as I find more.

Gallery: Ink Paintings In Wood

For now, here are a few of the ones that speak more clearly to me and allow me to go on escapist journeys of self-discovery like the original masters.

Cheers, thanks for reading as always. Here again are the links to the two resources cited in this post:

The Met, department of Asian Art:, essay on Chinese landscape painting: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/clpg/hd_clpg.htm

China Online Museum, Chinese Landscape Painting: https://www.comuseum.com/painting/landscape-painting/

The Joy of Practice

When I was in middle school I wanted to be a writer of science fiction or fantasy novels. Our school had a well published children’s book author come in to talk to us for a while and I was very excited because she had just written a book for children who wanted to become writers, and that was going to be a focus of her talk. Everything she talked about that day was drowned out by one quote that has either haunted me or helped give me perspective since. I can’t claim to quote directly, but the idea is something like this:

“Ask yourself: do I want to write a book, or do I want to have written a book?”

This points to the dream of the end reward as opposed to the reality of the hard work that one needs to put in before that goal can even begin to materialize. Strangely enough I wrote quite a bit, and continued to do so for a few years, until a growing sense of unease about the quality of my work started to have a negative feedback loop. The more critical of my own writing I became, the less I felt like trying to write in the first place.

Putting work into any craft is the only way to realize results. I would be surprised to meet anyone who hasn’t heard a version of the phrase: “practice makes perfect”. The disconnect, however, between the hard work required at the beginning and the eventual payoff is often extremely difficult to overcome. For me, framing it in the sound logical perspective of rationality wasn’t enough to get me going on a path I thought I wanted.

Visual art was the next interest that began drawing me in. I think one of the appeals, and ultimate distractions, of “art” class in American education is the variety of media. Boiling down the education of creative visual problem solving into a handful of survey classes is a huge disservice and also gross misrepresentation of what students could be learning from these classes. I fell into the same trap that most other do, namely mistaking a variety of projects, mostly different kinds of media, for building skills.

What was most difficult and damaging about creating visual art in this way, was that no one taught the student how to learn from failure. In fact, there is such an emphasis in the curriculum currently on relativism, that it is difficult to even talk about a work as being “unsuccessful”, because who are we to judge the creative work of another person? After learning the vital skill of critique later on it came clear to me that quality could be assessed. Achieving better results, however, wasn’t quite so clear. Assignments were given and students were pushed to create more, forcing them to practice, but never was it framed in those terms. Each project was an end in itself, and we were supposed to come away with a successful project. The emphasis was still that each piece created could be good.

Again I took a break, and again I came crawling back to art on my own accord, feeling a connection that I couldn’t shake. Following the advice of practicing artists I decided I needed to just start creating things, as much as and often as I could. It was still a retrospective process, however, related what I had learned about writing a book. I was interested in the final product. Working quickly I could get there in one sitting and have something to show for it, but much more often than not I would be disappointed by the results.

I wanted to paint an image, but wasn’t exactly interested in the process of painting itself.

As I started to transition into more illustrative works, my technique shifted towards more detailed, and therefore more time-consuming work. I began reading about capital “P” practice that professional illustrators embrace: building up shoulder muscle strength through the repetition of drawing freehand straight lines. Building muscle memory and perceptual awareness by learning how to freehand three-dimensional boxes rotating in space as seen from any angle, and copying proportions of anatomy over and over again.

Drawing and painting, like any skill, can be taught step by step. The carpenter learns essentials about how to form, treat and fit wood together in an organized fashion so that they can go on to flex their creativity.

Breakthrough came upon picking up the camera seriously. For the first time I experienced joy in the practice. Rather than getting myself to sit and do what needed to be done to build my skills, I find myself eager to go out and shoot. I enjoy the results, but I enjoy the process just as much. This, I think, is a kind of balance that we are all seeking.

For this reason, the sage acts but does not possess, completes his work but does not dwell on it.

Tao Te Ching chapter 77, Victor H Mair translation

Water doesn’t need practice in order to flow downhill, it is the nature of water to do that. I think that finding the pieces of ourselves that come naturally and bring with them joy and inspiration are the ways in which we connect most closely to our own nature.

Tao of Glass: Shoot to Learn

Taoism and Buddhism speak well to me because each of them express so deep an interest in actionable self-improvement. This is certainly not to say that all other traditions do not have their own daily practices focused on the same goal, but for me it is much easier to point out as a core foundation for both of these traditions. For both, though this is especially focal for Buddhism, the focus is on building a meditation practice. Taoism is strongly tied to a wide range of physical health practices, broadly known as qigong, which can range from simple sitting and breathing exercises to deeply complex martial arts routines.

For an even more straightforward perspective focused on routine practices for self improvement it may be helpful to look at Stoicism. This Greek Philosophical school emphasizes practices to continually review one’s opinions and perceptions, including maintaining a daily journal to guide self reflection.

Photography has a great deal in common with this broad picture of practice. When returning to photography I was deeply self conscious of the fact that I had a lot to learn. I had passed up opportunities to formally study photography in college and had this image in my mind that I would have a steep learning curve ahead of me. That, of course, is certainly true, but not in the way that I imagined.

Within a couple of weeks I was able to get a firm grasp on the fundamentals. Taking pictures certainly isn’t difficult in and of itself, just the press of a button. Some theory was certainly necessary. Understanding how aperature, ISO and shutter speed relate to each other and for the triangle of exposure is a key concept that underlies what is happening within the image capture and how one can affect the outcome.

Visual concepts surrounding subject, form and composition in an image were things I was able to bring with me from years working in other forms of visual media.

After reading through a few explanation of these concepts, especially trying to get a handle on aperature and focal length, I spent far more of my time looking at cameras, trying to figure out just what I needed in order to get started.

Where the real magic happens with photography is that in order to improve, reading isn’t enough, I am just going to have to go out and take pictures, lots of pictures. Snapping isn’t enough, however, I am going to need to be thoughtful about it, think about how the pictures are turning out and try to figure out what I can adjust to make the more successful the next time.

The same concept applies equally to the philosophies listed above. Both Taoism and Stoicism share some basic concepts that are necessary to get one’s head into the right perspective, and to begin to see how connections can be made. There are common practices and core exercises that many others have found helpful to their own time spent following the path, and it is often helpful to spend time talking with others to share what their experience has been like.

When it comes down to it, however, these are not armchair philosophies. One can only truly appreciate and understand them by going out in the world and practicing. At first the way in which one practices may feel awkward and unnatural. For myself it has been a little more than two years of micro adjustments along with a scattering of qigong and meditation practices, which have not continued in an unbroken line, but have continued to adapt, to re-balance themselves as other aspects of my life ebb and flow.

I am coming to photography second, and in many ways I am more prepared to dive into this art form because of my time spent developing a practice towards the Tao. I am more comfortable with the knowledge that I do not know what I am doing fully, and that I do not need to have my destination firmly in hand when I set out. One step at a time, camera in hand, with regular practice, I will find myself far enough along the path that new possibilities will become available to me.

Epicycles

All things and beings will eventually return to the original source.
This is called “peace.”
“Peace” means returning to one’s original nature.

Excerpt from Chapter 16, Tao Te Ching

One of the aspects of Taoism that I most resonate with is the idea that energy circulates and follows cycles. Since the larger concept is that we are all of the same energy, and connected at our core existence, we also circulate and experience cycles. We are all emanations from the same source, and to that source we will return, but even as we live out our unique lives there will constantly be cycles and seasons, periods at which we find ourselves returning.

This has certainly been true for me, and was one of the initial pieces of self reflection that helped bring me around to learning more about Taoism in the first place. I grew up a seeker, feeling always as if I were missing something, some key piece of the puzzle that other people seemed to have.

Most of my friends and family were following a path that seemed more clear than mine. Many of them had strong ideas of what they wanted to be doing when they were finishing high school and entering college. I made my way through, gravitating towards art classes only at the end of my time in high school, having finally found something that resonated with me.

Going to college was a moment of reset, however, when I decided to put my time into more “practical” pursuits such as Biology and English. Only after being drawn in by Philosophy did I find something I could connect to at a deeper level. At least here were other people who were asking interesting questions, even if they still seemed as if they knew where they wanted to go.

A couple of years into college I rediscovered art classes once more, and returned to that initial connection. I didn’t have time to pursue a degree in art, and was only able to take a handful of foundation courses in the time I had. Enough to get my feet wet but not enough to show me a direction. Incidentally, I recall deciding not to take a photography course at this point because I felt that it might be too technical, and was also so popular that I couldn’t see myself having a strong enough vision that would allow me to stand out in the crowd.

The most influential portions of my college education came out without planning, almost out of the blue. First was my then-girlfriend convincing me to sign up for a semester abroad program. I had never traveled out of the country, and this semester allowed me to challenge myself and broaden my horizons in ways that still ripple through my life. The second, and far more influential, was meeting the woman would become my wife.

We were married right after we had both completed college and we moved to the east coast for her graduate school. I was lucky enough to fall into what would become my long running career, though at the time I certainly didn’t believe that to be the case. Several years were spent encountering new ideas and new people, learning how to be a couple and share a life, and adapting to supporting ourselves. Never did I feel as if I were on a path or moving in any specific direction, though the ride was certainly interesting.

Several conversations with my wife sparked me into another return to art, and a continuing education degree at RISD for print design. Again I fell into the creativity that the projects allowed, and dug deeper into a specific discipline than I had before. There was a chance that this might become a path for me, a way to combine my career and my interest at a deeper level, which might finally give me a connection point and sense of moving forward towards an actual goal.

After she completed graduate school she was lucky enough to be offered a tenure track position in the Midwest. We moved, and I was lucky enough to stay on with my company in a new location. Beyond simple transition, I was able to capitalize on a unique opportunity and advance my career. Taking this step was wonderful financially, and offered me the chance to travel, but meant putting ideas of changing careers on the back-burner. That, and starting a family, have largely kept me busy since then.

A couple of years ago I found myself becoming restless once more. I took up art on my own, doing purely experimental paintings out of my own mind to try and flex the muscle. It was in this time frame that I was also looking back to Philosophy to help me figure out where I could get a foothold. Despite the career and family success, I couldn’t help still feeling as if it was all some kind of mistake. I had been very good at jumping on opportunities as they came up, and not dismissing ideas out of hand without giving them serious thought, but I wasn’t planning, and I wasn’t aiming at anything. It all felt a bit like a ship lost at sea, even if the sea was beautiful on most days.

My art experiments gave me the chance to flex some aching muscles and express myself. It was wonderful, but within that process were endless miniature cycles that played out. I experimented with medium after medium, going from watercolor to charcoal, to pencil to pen and ink, sometimes back and forth. I put effort into a diverse range of projects and outlets. Towards the end of a two year period of intense art practice I found myself taking a lot of picture to use as references, or as inspiration. I came to realize that I have been enjoying that aspect of preparing for the art as much (or more) than I have been enjoying the art itself.

This coincides with my deepening understanding of Taoism and Stoicism, and my appreciation for seeing my position in life as one of discovering my direction as destination, rather than one of charting for a specific goal. I am trying to consciously open myself up to be present and available so that I can enjoy what comes and not miss any of it for my efforts of peering down the forks in the road.

I like to think that if one were to look at my life from the top down as it were, it would be a series of epicycles, aspects of my life spent branching out only to circle back in on themselves a little further down the road. Key themes are beginning to make themselves apparent, but it may be this act of exploration and returning that defines my time here more than anything else. Perhaps, like the astrologers of centuries past, someone may look back and try to chart a straighter line for my life once everything is said and done, but missing out on the rhythm of returning would be to skip so much of what has brought me here today.