Painting a Life

When westerners view Chinese art, they ask, “Why are the paintings unfinished?”

At a glance, this is true. Chinese brush paintings are mostly empty space. A single flower in the lower left corner. Eight horses charge out of thin air. Crooked mountaintops emerge from clouds, untethered, no ground to be seen.

The sparse brushstrokes of a Chinese painting stand in stark contrast to the mainstay of western art, the oil painting. Whether painstakingly applied in countless thin glazes or vigorously spread in smears and globs, one thing oil paintings have in common is that they are covered corner to corner in paint.

Paintings that leave parts of their canvas blank are, understandably, unfinished.

Modern life, with its mantra of “Work hard, play harder” is like an oil painting, demanding to be filled to the brim. We cover our canvas with meetings and appointments, layered one over the other like Boschian figures. Even in leisure, we need to maximize. How many cities can I cram into this vacation? Is this activity going to produce a sufficient amount of fun? What’s the cost-benefit analysis?

The defining characteristic of modern life is being busy. The more successful you are, the more busy you are. Don’t have multiple competing plans for the weekend, and expensive trips planned for your next vacation? You’re boring. Empty spaces in calendars need to be filled; empty spaces are incomplete.

But a life that demands more and more of us is unsustainable. With our canvases laden under all that paint, there is no more space to improvise, to change course. We become set, waiting for the paint to dry.

Chinese paintings have always bewildered me. How can something so seemingly simple, executed in a few brush strokes in one afternoon, compare to the masterpieces of the western canon, which require a team of apprentices to complete, and up to a year just for the paint to dry?

I realized, instead of viewing the empty space as the last part that has yet to be filled, I can interpret the emptiness as coming first. All paintings start empty. Viewed in this light, emptiness is essential to a painting. Emptiness is what allows the subject to exist.

Like all Chinese children, I had to learn and memorize an extensive vocabulary of 成语, pithy adages of four or eight characters that embody stories meant to impart wisdom. I’ve forgotten nearly all of them by now, but one has stuck: 画蛇添足, to draw a snake and then add legs. The story goes, a man entered a painting competition to see who could draw the best snake. The man drew a snake faster than anyone else, and feeling quite smug at finishing first, decided to add legs and little feet to his snake. Predictably, the other artists laughed at him upon seeing the result. The lesson is: Do not ruin something by adding superfluous extras.

By preserving the empty space, Chinese brush paintings place the focus on what is essential. Empty spaces give the viewer room to interpret for themselves what might go there, like spacing in a poem.

In life, there are many corresponding practices of leaving space empty. For the mind, there is meditation. For our homes, there is decluttering. For our calendars, there is blocking out time in which to make no plans.

By intentionally leaving empty space, in our mind, in our homes, in our calendars, in our lives, we can make room for clarity, for spontaneity, for discovering what is truly essential.

My 6-year-old self knew what was up

I’m going back to brush painting.

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