Today is the Lunar New Year, which in Vietnam is called Tết Nguyên Đán (or just Tết). The monastics, along with many of my sangha brothers and sisters, are celebrating at Blue Cliff Monastery this weekend.
I read that it is traditional in Vietnam to exchange gifts during Tết (more specifically, to give gifts to family and friends who visit your home on the holiday) and I decided I wanted to give the monastics a painting. It is also traditional to give a piece of artwork created in the village of Dong Ho, in their particular style, a woodblock print with black line and bright colors. I don't know how to make block prints, but I could create a painting with black outline. The new year is the Year of the Tiger, so a tiger it would be.
And here it is:
[click on image for an enlarged view]
Seeing it all complete like this, the process is hidden. Here is the process revealed.
I generally need a lot of art reference when I paint or draw. I used to feel guilty and embarrassed about this. But my self-judgment has loosened up a bit since I started studying Chinese brush painting. Traditionally, brush painting students have always copied. That is how they are expected to learn. One should look at mountains, but also look at great paintings of mountains. And copy them. That is the way to enter the spirit in which the artist partook, perhaps centuries ago. It is a way of borrowing the great artist's more enlightened eyes, and more expressive stroke.
So, for this tiger painting, I spent time finding just the right reference. First, some examples of Dong Ho paintings.
While searching for Dong Ho tigers, I found tiger images in another style by a Vietnamese artist, Duy Thai. I liked this one in particular:
I also needed an actual mountain to look at -- a tiger in all his actual stripes:
As well, I looked up the place of tigers in Buddhist lore, in case something interesting came up. What I found was the Zen story about the the sweet-tasting strawberry. (Retold here by Paul Reps, in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.)
The Buddha told a parable in a sutra:
One day while walking across a field a man encountered a vicious tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him.
Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he picked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted.
Fortunately, I don't need reference for a strawberry vine, since one grew in my garden last summer.
Now I was ready to try to paint a tiger. I painted three; one of them became the Tiger for Tết.
Finally, I looked up how to write "tiger" in Chinese calligraphy, and practiced writing it over two evenings. And I practiced writing "meditation," or "zen," since my teacher had told me that "zen" was almost always an appropriate character to add to a Chinese brush painting. The complete inscription reads, "tiger meditation."
This was the process of painting the painting.
Then there was the process of mounting it on backing paper, with improvised potato starch glue; trimming the backed painting and mounting it with linen-tape "hinges" to the background sheet, a piece of corrugated paper that I'd held onto for more than a year which did not want to lie flat; finding strips of wood lathing to glue onto the back to make the thing rigid, since when it rolled up, the painting would pop off; and packing it up for mailing, flat. A lot of process for this Tiger for Tết.
But how could one expect otherwise? And where else would the joy reside?
Happy New Year!
Chúc mừng năm mới!