Bamboo in Black and Red

I read a story recently where a zen master was painting bamboo with red ink. One of his students told him that was stupid because bamboo isn’t red. To which the master replied, “Oh, right- because bamboo is black?”

This made me laugh because of a similar realization I had as a child. I remember riding in the car, thinking about drawings I had seen- illustrations in books, animations, etc. These drawings all had black lines bordering the shapes and defining key elements. Part of my curiosity was that I couldn’t figure out how black lines shifted as positions changed- as in, the lines that look like such a physical reality in drawings would have to be in near constant motion if they were really bordering all solid things or defining facial expressions, wrinkles, dimples and other surface details. So I was looking around for black lines bordering things.

I remember clearly holding my hand up against the window looking at the edge between my hand and the sky. I was trying to make out the black line, and I think I sincerely thought I would find one if I looked hard enough. I remember looking at the creases of my knuckles, because those often get black lines too in illustrations of hands. The interior of the car was black, and so there were places deep in the shadowed creases where elements joined that were basically black lines, but that didn’t seem to quite count since the base color was black- and even then the light shining on it meant it wasn’t all the same black… I went back to examining my hand against the sky in the background.

I finally had to admit that I could see my hand and the sky behind it was simply where my hand, well, wasn’t. I couldn’t make out a black line. It just was my hand. And what made it my hand was all the hand-characteristics of color, shape, texture, etc. What made the sky behind it sky was the sky-characteristics of color, texture, shape, etc.

Interestingly, this was a hard reality for my little brain to accept and I concentrated on the edge- the very edge of my hand against the blue. I remember feeling a little duped by drawings. If the black lines weren’t real, what were they? It seemed more likely they didn’t exist outside of drawings, this made sense. However, I reasoned that to really draw a hand, one must draw all the “inside parts” of the hand- the fine lines of the skin and the subtle shifts of value. I was probably five years old and this was a daunting discovery.

I wish I had some of my very young drawings to see if I can spot evidence of this thinking in them. I don’t believe I’m the only kid who’s made this discovery, or at least a version of it. Children’s drawings are strange and idiosyncratic because they lack motor skills and a set of symbols, so there’s a rawness to the translation of the visual1. For example, one of my brothers would draw human eyes as though they were gigantic bicycle wheels with elaborate spokes out from the hub of the pupil. What he was looking at was the iris of the eye- the radial colors, peaks and valleys. My untestable hypothesis is that, along my same lines of thinking, he had questioned the “eyes are black dots or white circles with black dots inside” that he was seeing in illustrations and cartoons. He was looking carefully, deeply, deliberately at eyes. I remember him looking very carefully at mine. The drawings are, of course, very strange, but I can’t say that they don’t look like “real” eyes. Why wouldn’t they? Because eyes are just black dots, the zen master would wryly say?

Years later I was taught to draw by bringing values up to the edges of things, letting the contrast of value and mark suggest lines. There are a number of exercises dealing with this- using large flat pieces of charcoal, lifting graphite or charcoal off paper with an eraser, filling in negative space with flat values. It’s a strangely unsteady way to draw, especially if one works without the help of lightly sketched lines that define the borders of things. Lines are fine, but I’ve begun to think of them as a sort of language in drawing. In the same way thoughts can be expressed with many human languages, there are many methods of mark-making that translate the visual, and lines are one of these. They are not what we see, they describe what we see. They are visual words that point to the meaning.

In the case of drawing something, one is interacting with the subject primarily with one sense- sight. As with many things, we can be very unaware that our experience of reality is shaped by filters we have in our minds, like the black lines of a drawing one doesn’t find when looking at one’s own hand.

So, how does one draw without mark making? Or maybe stretch this question- does one, should one, could one draw without mark making?2 I don’t know and, although it’s fun to think about, it’s not currently relevant. The thing is, we live here in this body and with these senses translating information into our minds and our constructed meanings back out. The meanings we build in the act of drawing describe our experience of reality. Or maybe they translate in marks the translation of information filtered through our senses. Don’t be fooled that this somehow inherently negates the meaning. Take a closer look at what meaning is. Being in the space with the subject, seeing it as accurately as possible with as few extra layers as possible, this is what builds connection and deep listening. Which, at least to me, feels meaningful. Use lines, values, shapes and marks to point at your experience, but understand that the bamboo is neither black nor red.

1 Caveat: there is a lot going on in children’s drawings related to much more than simply visually processing. I claim no expertise in child development, just sharing what I’ve observed and how it relates to my thinking on drawing in general.

2 There are artists playing with this idea if you’d like to see someone drawing without mark making. I’m working with a deliberately small definition of drawing to keep this discussion from sprawling too far.

You Just Lost the Game

If you’re a millennial, like my brother, you’re cursing my name right now. For the rest of us who need the game explained, I’d be delighted to help you lose it.

The rules of the game are:

  1. If you are aware of the game, you are playing the game.
  2. Don’t think about the game.
  3. If you do think about the game, you have just lost the game.
  4. If you lose the game, you are required to announce it.

 

That’s it. My brother explained it to me and it sounds like a millennial version of “cooties”. In crowds of his friends, someone would say “I just lost the game” and every one would groan and the cascade of “I just lost the game” would roll around, with the phrase popping up to everyone’s annoyance for the rest of the day. It seemed ridiculously silly to me at first. However, since I’ve been digging into all this mindfulness stuff, I’ve been losing the game like crazy. It’s become really interesting to me, because it’s sort of a mindfulness game.

To play the game, one must be aware of their thoughts and let this one go- the goal is to dismiss it quickly as soon as it surfaces. Are you winning or losing? It does not matter- evaluating how you’re doing in the game will not help you. As soon as you congratulate yourself on your long stretch of game-winning, you’ve lost it and the clock resets.

Why dismiss a thought? Because, in this case, you lose a dumb game. But, applying that to other areas of your life this exercise could be useful.

For me personally, I’m in the middle of a big life-transition (moving, developing this project, looking at my art practice as a whole, not sure what the future will bring) and I’m very aware of my fears moving forward. The thing about thoughts is, they feel so very real. Our minds are very motivated to be right and very good at offering evidence to support these notions.

I’ll give you an example of one I grapple with. I think that real artists have a consistent style and medium in which they work. Real artists can summarize their practice with clarity. Because I fit neither of these, I’m amateur. A half-baked poser, and I can provide plenty of evidence to support this claim.

For some people, maybe this sort of thinking would motivate them to get their act together, but for me it doesn’t work that way. Although I understand the value of clarity and consistency, my efforts to establish legitimacy as an artist against such a measure gives all my work a stiff quality. I can tell which pieces of art I’ve made while this reality looms in my mind. They’re usually one-off’s and they’re usually not very good. When I believe this thought, I feel like either I have to fit the shape-shifting peg of my work into a square as consistent as an instagram pic, or lament it as underdone and unworthy.

Anyways- enough about me and my crippling insecurities when it comes to my creative practice- lets get back to the game. I’ve been trying to “game” this thought- the idea that real artists are consistent. I try to dismiss it as soon as it surfaces.

In the game, you “catch and release” thinking about the game. This is somewhat simple because there’s not much to think about with the game. There is a big difference between the game and other habitual thoughts, but I think it’s good practice. I get a deluge of supporting evidence to raise that tide of insecurity and discouragement with my nagging thoughts about what real artists do or don’t do. If I can “gamify” this thought, I can recognize the thought when it arrives, and the supporting arguments flowing in with it. Sometimes, I can metaphorically cross my fingers (the tried and true guard against cooties) and let it pass over me. Sometimes I just brace for the hit, accept that I’m going to get mentally and emotionally rocked, and try my best to keep my footing.

The thing is, the game and my real artists idea are thoughts and will pass with or without my help. What I have control over is what I decide to do with them. Sometimes I decide to embrace my slug-nature, hide under some rotting bark, apply some empathy and take some rest. Other times I’m better at cheering myself on and digging back into my work.  The clever part is, if I’m making work and moving forward, no one ever need know I’m playing this game. Either way, I can tally it up as a loss, maybe congratulate myself on a long stretch of oblivion, announce the real artists thought for what it is and reset the clock.