zen moment in landscape painting

now and zen and later

zen moments in a nutshell

A few decades ago, the term Zen moment was quite unknown in the West. Today it has become a “consumer item” and similar to the pair of terms feng shui 風水, most people do not understand what it is actually about. In fact, it’s rather annoying how twisted the Western approach to the subject can often be. (Actually, the term “zen moment” does not exist in either the Japanese or the Chinese language).

I don’t want to destroy illusions, nor do I want to imply that my view is absolutely correct – although I also think that my understanding can be helpful – at least for those who want to understand my pictures better. My understanding of the matter has nothing to do with incense sticks, YouTube Reiki music, and herbal tea.
Before I go into more detail, I would like to explain why I am even broaching the subject. Well, mainly because for decades, interrupted by sometimes longer breaks, I have tried again and again to depict Zen ideas visually or to make progress in the effort to approach Zen.

老蔡奥地利画家 paintiings
folder from my solo exhibition in Brussels in 1990

Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of a Chinese word, ch’an (or better chan zong 禅宗), which comes from a Sanskrit root meaning “thought,” “absorption,” or “meditation.” (Sanskrit ध्यान dhyāna)

In Zen philosophy, only the moment is real. What has passed can no longer be influenced and what the future will bring cannot be said. Only the moment, “the very now” is real and contains everything. With the help of meditation, we learn not to let our thoughts wander, to let the horde of frolicking monkeys rest in our heads, and to understand ourselves in the “here and now”. It’s very difficult sometimes, and it doesn’t always work out, but when we get to the point we’re filled with something hard to put into words, the “Zen moment”. So I try to express it with painting.

portrait of Bodidharma
The next attempt was to portray Bodhidharma or some other monk in a Zen moment. It was also about capturing the moment of introspection.

A little help to visualize what zen moments can be (we had loads of them when we were little kids).

1) Imagine you are still a little baby at 9 months and standing in your cot. You heard noises and right, suddenly your father is standing in front of your cot, beaming at you and you know what is coming: he grabs your armpits and with a swing he pulls you out of the bed into the air, twirling you in circles before he hugs you to his chest: that’s a Zen moment.

2) You are c. 8-9 years. Your best friend wants to go swimming with you today and you might even catch a fish. You step into the garden early in the morning, and the dew is still glistening in a spider’s web. You realize that you are now on vacation and the whole day is yours. As if to reinforce it, your neighbor’s rooster belts out his “Cock-a-doodle-doo” in the early morning: that’s a Zen moment. In these moments you are completely yourself.

3) Once again a brief reference to our childhood days. You sit on a swing, you swing, and the swing reaches its highest point – before it swings back in the opposite direction: that small, short point where the swing stops in the air: that’s a Zen moment.

I know everyone now is asking themselves the question: Can a donkey have a zen moment too?
Yes, all he has to do is stand on his hind legs, gain momentum, jump in the air – and before he goes down again, he has his Zen moment. I tried to capture this reflection (in the Zen Buddhist tradition) on a sketch sheet, the donkey, and its Zen moment, so to speak. It’s as simple as that – at least in theory.

rough sketch from 1992

I probably succeeded best in capturing this moment in landscape painting. One of the early attempts was this:

meditative landscape ink on glossy paper

Now, 30 years later, the topic is omnipresent again. I try to open up further levels I would like to add a few examples. First, two crops from a larger image that reflect zen moments – as I understand it – quite well.

zen moment in landscape painting

zen moment in landscape

Another part of the same painting: Lines of force already play an important role in the structure of the picture. They help to relate dynamics, movement, power, noise, etc. to their opposites (remember the swing example). [1]

analyzing dynamic in a landscape

Lastly, I want to show the picture as a whole. With what has been said so far, it should no longer be perceived as richly chaotic and the function of the first two excerpts should be more clearly recognizable. The line that forms the second row of brown dots reflects the shape of the mountain range, thus creating an additional sense of space. At the same time, these points cause the viewer to have a higher perspective. We look down on the points a bit. Still, confusing? [2]

over the landscape

As I have mentioned before, Chinese calligraphy plays a particularly important role for me. I couldn’t capture “Zen moments” without practicing calligraphy. Below are 3 characters for a better understanding of the idea behind it.

shop: FriedrichZettl.com | TV Portrait (in German) | On Dao and Zen | ART THEORY


[1] I wrote about the importance of dots before. Someone (At Sunnyside – Where Truth and Beauty Meet) was kind enough to reblog it: https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/80177655/posts/3828644374

[2] Try this: break away from the first impression and imagine that you are floating a few hundred meters above the earth, a little higher than the pinkish-brown spots. The moment you detach yourself from the frontal view of the picture and stand above it, you enter an abstract world that communicates with the realistic, with the landscape.

But this supra level also communicates within itself and thus becomes a level of perception that exists by itself. How does this communication take place? A look at a detail should illustrate this. If your eye follows the line of force, you will notice how long it is. The moment you give the viewer a long line of wandering. You zoom in on the scene, and the image looks powerful, almost as if the picture area were too small.

As a counterpoint to this dynamic scene, we find a static spot on the top left. It would only take a few strokes and a very lifelike bird would emerge. That’s what some viewers would expect. But that would have lost its appeal as a counterpoint.


37 responses to “now and zen and later”

  1. aparna12 avatar

    Wow! It’s awesome😊😊

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you! You are very kind!

  2. linienspiel avatar

    Diesen Zen Moment gibt es auch beim Blick auf deine Bilder, das ist jener Moment wo noch kein Gedanke da ist, nur die reine, nackte, kurze Betrachtung, bevor der analytische Geist ins Spiel kommt…
    Vielen Dank für deine Beispiele (und insbesondere für den mich erheiternden Einwurf des Zen-Moments des Esels)!

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Danke schoen fuer Deinen netten Kommentar! Man sieht, dass Du den Blick einer guten Kuenstlerin hast! In der Tat, bei meinen ersten Arbeiten dazu (Portraits), stellte ich mir vor, die zu portraitierende Person saesse in einem völlig dunklen Raum. Dann, ganz ploetzlich, wird kurz das Licht eingeschaltet. Das, was man als Maler dabei wahrnimmt, ist das zu Portraitierende. Kurz wie ein „Zen Moment“. Der Esel ist natuerlich eine witzige Spielerei. Aber Zen kommt immer mit einem zwinkernden Augen daher. Einer der Gruende, warum viele koans als verwirrend empfinden.

  3. linda levante avatar

    Schöne Bilder, guter Text. Niveauvoll. Gefällt mir.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Danke, Linda Levante, es freut mich sehr, wenn meine “geistigen Spinnereien” (verbal und zu Papier gebracht) auf Nachhall treffen 🙂

  4. Mike U. avatar

    This is fascinating and enlightening. I appreciate your explanations of “zen moments.” There were a few “Aha!” instances for me along the way. As always, your paintings are sublime. I’m not well versed in the discipline of painting so I struggle to articulate just how I feel when I view them, but they speak to me in a singular manner. Such strange, surreal beauty and depth of meaning. Wonderful art. I really enjoyed this post. Thanks, Friedrich. 🙂

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you Mike! It doesn’t surprise me that you’re not entirely unfamiliar with my paintings! In your case, from my point of view, it is certainly related to the fact that on the one hand you write the greatest haiku (which is part of the Zen tradition) and on the other hand you are an outstanding photographer who also wants to capture “the very moment”.

      It’s a delightful idea to imagine that your work and mine would be exhibited together 🙂

      1. Mike U. avatar

        Thanks for the kind words, Friedrich. It means a lot to me. 🙂 Here’s wishing you a good weekend! 🙂

      2. Zettl Friedrich avatar

        The same to you 🙂 Next week one of your works will be introduced in my blog post. It will be about construction/compostion Western and Asian.

      3. Mike U. avatar

        This sounds exciting! Looking very much forward to it, good sir! 🙂

  5. Steven McCabe avatar

    This is like a mountain of thoughts and knowledge Friedrich. Thanks very much for discussing these concepts and providing visual examples from your work. I’ll read the ‘dot’ posting as well. Fascinating and insightful.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      I thank you for taking time and reading. We all have our concepts and thoughts and feel happy when we find out we are not on our own with that 🙂 And words from an admirable artist count twice

  6. swabby429 avatar

    It’s difficult to define “Zen Moment” in popular culture without the danger of becoming pretentious. Alan Watts was good at alluding to it.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Yes, Alan Watts sure was one of the great minds who paved the way for Zen in the West.

  7. chris ludke avatar

    Hi, Friedrich, As always, I love your paintings even if I don’t understand them exactly.
    I remember back in the 60s when the Beatles got into the Eastern philosophies and we heard of swamis teaching their ways of thinking in the US. I read about it but never got really in depth on the subject. Was that the same or were the guys from India something all together different from what the Chinese believe? Did the India philosophies originate in China? I might be confusing more than one thing.
    Forgive me if this is a stupid question but can zen be experienced if you are just standing there watching kids on the swings and you’re doing nothing because no action is required? They’re having fun, no kid is in danger, you can enjoy the moment, or do you need to have that antigravity feeling of being on the swing at the high point?

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      It was Bodhi Dharma who brought Zen to China 1500 years ago. And it is very different from what George Harrison experienced in India. The Japanese Zen is slightly different again but basically the same.

      No, it has nothing to do with believing it is knowledge which cannot be taught or learned in some weekend retreats but must be experienced.

      How can it be experienced? By meditating by trying to get the empty head by not thinking of ANYTHING. My example with the swing is one of many. Try meditating and you will see that your head is full of meaningless thoughts that move up and down like a swing. The pause between thoughts is the point where you can be yourself and experience zen – eventually. Since it is not possible to describe it, Zen practitioners use koans to make progress. Please google for it.

      1. chris ludke avatar

        oh, ok. Thanks. I wondered about all those Americans that went to the ashrams after George Harrison got into it. So, you’re saying that won’t get you there. Meditation will. Not following a guru. Do you chant a mantra when you meditate?
        I’m not a research kind of person if I can just ask someone who knows.
        Zen or meditation might not be something I’ll ever get but I am curious about your paintings.

      2. Zettl Friedrich avatar

        No mantras, no guru. But counting your breath helps to keep thoughts away. So how is that all related to painting? Meditation goes hand in hand with mindfulness. And that is a good tool for a painter 🙂

      3. chris ludke avatar

        I heard of mindfulness before. Is that the same as getting into the “zone” when you’re painting? Like different brainwaves or something? I know it’s a different thing when you paint and stop thinking thoughts for a while. That’s why art has been good therapy for me. It makes your thoughts turn off for a little while. Other than painting, I just let my mind run on and on instead of trying to stop thoughts. But when you’re doing different things you’re not thinking, like any job that needs concentration. That’s not the same as what you’re talking about is it?

      4. Zettl Friedrich avatar

        I think it’s pretty similar. You touched on what painting can do for you. And yet your thoughts are still there in one form or another. Now think about this state a bit further, so far that you don’t think about anything anymore.

        For example, the next time you listen to Bach’s piano music, try listening to the time between 2 notes. By doing this, you train mindfulness and experience the great importance of stillness. The longer you can hold this stillness, the more you penetrate into nothingness and understand it as ultimate wisdom. Then you became a Zen Buddhist without even realizing it 🙂

      5. chris ludke avatar

        OMG! That’s an amazing explanation! Thanks for your patience!

      6. Zettl Friedrich avatar

        You are always welcome. (BTW My remark on “google” was for the term koan)

      1. chris ludke avatar

        Thanks! Sounds good! I’ll look at it!

  8. Martha Kennedy avatar

    I love the donkey. I think he says everything about everything. <3

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Again: you have great eyes! 👍 And yes, everything – about me ,😄

      1. Martha Kennedy avatar

        ha ha ha ha! 😀

  9. annieasksyou avatar

    It is such a gift to follow an artist’s descriptions of the influences and thought processes behind his work. You are most generous. I enjoyed this entire guided tour.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you so much for your kind words! I am happy you enjoyed the tour 😊. I am not always sure if writing about painting is a great idea. So your words mean much to me.

      1. annieasksyou avatar

        I also enjoyed your witty title.

  10. Carolyn Kaiser Harmon avatar

    “I know everyone now is asking themselves the question: Can a donkey have a zen moment too?”
    So, you are also hilarious…thank you for taking the time to explain> I am learning to appreciate and recognize my Zen moments, such as right now – the bird outside is letting me know my cat is around, while I smell the cedarwood oil on my temples. Not very deep – I know – but there is one. Thank you, as always ❤️.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      I am happy I made you smile 😊 So you are on a Zen way too it seems. Just joking but yes, it starts with awareness. ❤️

  11. Krishna avatar

    Beautiful 😊❤️

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you very much! I am glad you like it!

  12. Auden James avatar

    This reminds me somewhat of the philosophy of Henri Bergson, e.g., the role of memory in perception as espoused in his book “Matière et mémoire” (Matter and Memory). Quite interesting to realize all these cross-cultural conncections in—more or less—abstract thought, isn’t it?

  13. kavithabinu avatar

    Live the moment = living a zen life ✨️. Thank you for your thoughtfulness. Your arts are amazing 👏.

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