Saturday, 7 March 2020

Zen and the art of Watercolour

Here  is a piece that I wrote some years ago that I thought you might like.

After a gap of about 20 years I have just finished re-reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig. It has struck me most forcibly that this book has more than a passing relevance to art in general and watercolour in particular.
It is rather gratifying to find that I now understand more of the philosophy that I did on first reading. He maintains that the great dichotomy between the classical and romantic ways of experiencing culture are successfully bound together by the notion of Quality. Later in the book he links this with the idea that the interpretation of the goal of the Sophists by Socrates was wrongfully translated as virtue whereas it should have been translated as excellence.
He then comes to the conclusion that Good and God are interchangeable as concepts and in substituting Quality for this quotes many examples from his teaching to illustrate that this concept is not normally the criterion adopted in institutional education.
Artists are extremely fortunate in that they are trained to regard all artistic endeavour as being at a point on a very large spectrum, the two ends of which are repre­sented by the extremes of the classical and the romantic, this way both right and left sides of the brain may play their proper part in artisitic endeavour.
As 1 understand it, Zen, as taught in Japan does not exist in isolation but is always related to a skill such as flower arranging,calligraphy or painting. It principally relies on the notion that intensive and long experience in an apprenticeship under a master will develop the physical and spiritual abilities of the pupil. In painting, if this has been a success, at the start of a brush-stroke, if enough concentration and spiritual power is brought to bear, the muscles of the body will take over of themselves and in a minor explosive of creative energy complete the stroke in a relaxed yet masterful manner. The unrelenting years of apprenticeship before the Japanese are considered masters in the arts of calligraphy or painting may look to our eyes as excessively severe, but contrast sharply with the current uncritical acceptance of untrained artists today.
The Zen method seems particularly well suited to creating a watercolour. In this branch of painting, the very nature of the materials and the unforgiving quality of the media demands a great deal of prior planning, which should be a thorough and exhaustive so that the watercolourist has solved the problems of placement, composition and balance well before undertaking the actual execution of the painting. He is then free to give his whole attention to the act of painting, on keeping his brushstrokes free and well-formed and that the placement is correct
This ensures that a strong statement is achieved. The best watercolours are those that combine the essential graphic elements but are also the most spontaneous and freshest in execution.
I have always believed in the underlying spiritual quality of artistic creation and greater experi­ence continually reinforces this view.

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