Seeing, If Not Really Executing (Yet)

Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing: I can’t say that it’s changed anything about the way I approach draftsmanship. Oh sure, its reminder to see, not just look at, the world around you provides a nice check on impatient souls such as yours truly, frustrated with the inability to jot down even good general outlines of anything before the rest of the class is off to their third study in twenty minutes. But Master Franck, already well trained in technique and with years of experience under his belt, seems to be pushing his poor reader to trust the independent wisdom of one’s own hand and just go for it– let that thing run quickly and wild over the paper, and you can’t go wrong.

Even though there wasn’t a great deal offered here in the way of instruction or exercises, Franck did strew quite a few fine haikus throughout the book; maybe my current favorite is from Issa:

The morning mists rose
Fuji revealed itself
Ah, the day is saved.*

But at least the volume and its citizen-of-the-world optimism haven’t discouraged me. Over the past few days, I’ve refused to give up my determination to do something about my woeful inability to render faces. Bodies in general? I’m not so bad, even though I’ve always been, and probably always will be, a slow drawer. But faces: the fear and trembling they cause! Maybe Franck has diagnosed the problem, and I’m just afraid to really see them. Whether or not that’s the case, it also has something to do with the huge responsibility trying to reproduce a human likeness carries with it.


Still far from finished– or satisfactory.

Maybe I’ve read too much Levinas for my own good; maybe his assertion– that the face of the other is always the primary ethical demand made upon me– has so woven itself into my psyche that I’m just too afraid of failing even a fictional visage to give a go at this sort of mimetic activity. After all, there was good reason Levinas didn’t claim that it was the other’s arm or toe that calls out my responsible self. Sure, an arm can bear a gaping wound, unjustly borne; a toe can be shattered in ways that cry out for empathy. And even though a bent back can convey anything from hopelessness to brokenness to a simple need for a bit of rest, there’s something about the unique combination of eyes, lips, and all the other features held together in a face, in a certain way that might change from moment to moment, that present you with an almost unavoidable challenge of conversation and response. And if the slight curve of a lip or furrow of a brow is off, the message gets garbled, and someone’s been cheated; if the combination is poorly represented, the life trying to peep out from behind that visage can so easily be dismissed.

And so, usually accompanied by Chet Baker, I’ve been scratching away a little each day at one particular face. It’s probably not a wise move to try and copy a painting with pencils, but I decided at least to have a model that both intrigues me and that I had ready to hand– and so I opted for ballsiness and just went for a Van Gogh self-portrait.

In the spirit of Franck– because drawing usually does end up being meditative for me– I’ll try to sum up my efforts with a haiku.

Lost in the effort
Perfectionism bows out
Trying leaves a smile



* Frederick Franck, Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing: Meditation in Action (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 86.


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