Skip to content




Generally speaking there were two kinds of Zen painters in traditional Japan: painters who became monks and monks who, for whatever reason, took up painting. The former would have undergone an extensive training over many years under the strict guidance of a master, their work characterised by a dexterity with the brush and gradated black ink together with an exquisite compositional finesse. The latter would have little or no formal training whatsoever but would take up painting from impulse, out of a sense of inner necessity. We would probably regard them as amateurs. Their work, though at times achieving remarkable levels of skill, was more often characterised by a certain charming ineptness, cack-handedness might be a better term. Their paintings may usefully be compared to a tea ceremony bowl in all its’ wonkiness, cracked raku glazing and accidental imperfections that were, and indeed still are, held in high regard. Nevertheless, both types of practitioners shared certain values; the qualities of directness, spontaneity and unselfconsciousness; above all, their works displayed a use of materials that came to be known as ‘the way of the brush’, or, as one western commentator aptly described it, the uninhibited brush. The use of the term ‘way’ hints at the absorption of Taoist influences in all matters Zen. In this value system the painter is submissive to the calligraphic possibilities of the brush and ink (no distinction was made between writing and painting as both were done with the brush).

But one could just as readily call it ‘the way of the ink’ and it is indeed this understanding that can be identified in western, particularly American, Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1940’s and 50’s, and in Europe in the works of the so-called ‘Action’ painters. In these works the brush is merely one of many means by which pigment is conveyed to a surface: it may be dripped, dribbled and flicked in dance-like rhythms and actions such as by Jackson Pollock or the human body itself may be used as a means of mono-printing the canvas surface with paint as in the work of Yves Klein in France. This is not as crazy or as unprecedented as it sounds: the great Japanese artist, Hokusai, in a public display of his painting skill, took a rooster, dipped its’ feet in red paint and had it walk across a swath of blue pigment producing, to the delight of his audience, Maple-Leaves on the Tatsuta River. In all cases the expressive possibilities of the medium are explored unconditionally and without prejudice, the outcome validates the ‘way’.

Many of the works in this exhibition, to my mind, belong in this tradition in that they convey a sense of spontaneity, directness, unselfconsciousness and above all, ‘being in the moment’, the ’now’. I hope I’m forgiven by all Zen practitioners for my drastic over-simplifications but it seems to me that the works on show share something of the spirit which I have tried to describe. What we have here is ‘the way of the paint’ or the ‘way of the felt-marker’, ‘the way of the paint-pen’ or whatever the chosen medium. These image-makers, for I hesitate to call them artists because I’m not sure whether they are or not, demonstrate a natural and instinctive use of their chosen medium and are at one with their materials. Just as water will always find its’ way, so these makers find theirs. As for whether it’s art, I would suspect the question would be as meaningless to them as ornithology is to birds and that, for me, is what makes the images refreshingly powerful as traces of a moment or moments, when time and space and the self collapse, when an image is brought forth which enables us to actively retrace, to recreate and vicariously participate in something of that creative moment. Some paintings may convey a sense of contemplative quiet whilst others fizzle with energetic excitement, either way the makers have been encouraged, by means of empathetic and experienced guidance, to discover ‘their way’ through the uninhibited and unhindered exploration of their preferred medium. This is the way of Project Art Works.

Tony Colley, Artist mentor, Wednesday studios

Image: Untitled (Jungle), Darryl Spencer, 2008.

This article was first published in the exhibition guide for ‘In the Realm of Others’ at the De Warr Pavilion. The guide is available to download here

Read more Feature Articles