How Zen and The Samarai Bushido Code Influence My Art

Painting in bedroom

One of the influential books on my art career were two books by Frederick Frank called "Art as a Way" and "The Zen of Seeing." They were published in the 1970s and 1980s by the late Dutch painter. They described how the artist integrated and lived out his Zen Buddhist philosophies in his art.

While I'm not a card-carrying Zen Buddhist, its eastern philosophy underlies everything I do thanks to my father. I spent many, many afternoons with him as a child as we silently watched the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa nearly every weekend.

My father earned an eighth-degree black belt in Shotokan Karate and a six-degree black belt in Judo in Vietnam and Korea before I was born. He lived the principles of Bushido every day and instilled this in me as his firstborn. I never saw him fight, however, as if he (or I) ever got into a fight, we already lost as the training was not to be used against anyone or anything other than the negative thoughts in your mind.

While I read Frederick Frank's books in the '70s and '80s, following them was not an active thought when I started to learn watercolor painting as an adult in the 2000's. When I first started painting in watercolor, I was trying to learn the basics and drove my watercolor teacher crazy with 6 months of paintings using only burnt sienna and french ultramarine blue paint.

Once I grew more confident in my watercolor painting skills, I began to relax, loosen my grip on the need to control everything, and started experimenting with more colors beyond the two. As I did, I found myself falling quickly into a flow state.

My understanding of a flow state is when you cease to have awareness of the past or future. You exist only in the here and now concentrating fully on the task at hand. Your mind is not wandering because you think about nothing. You have not a care in the world as all other concerns outside of the task at hand have melted away. It's just you doing your thing and moving on pure instinct.

This is what it's like for me when I'm drawing and painting watercolor. I've tried oils, pastels, and acrylics, but none of them have put me into this flow state like watercolor. When I'm painting in watercolor, I'm only thinking about working with the water to capture the spirit or essence of my subject.

The more watercolor paintings I created, the more I found that the elegance of simplicity was winning out over bold color. A stroke began to convey more than painting complex textures and patterns. The power of stillness and gentleness became a more appealing approach than being loud and aggressive.

Art for me has truly become a way. A way into seeing myself clearly, a way through dark periods, and a way out and into the world. It has taught me just how much I am my father's daughter and the importance of zen meditation in my life.

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