zen and minimalism

Gaining by letting go

And a few Japanese reflections on aesthetics

Gaining by letting go is again a formulation that could come from the field of esotericism. I have previously indicated that this is not an area in which I am proficient and, for various reasons, keep it out of my mind. Too much of what I’ve read about it reminds me of the messages in fortune cookies in Chinese restaurants. But sure, one or the other makes sense. I just want my thoughts and actions to be embedded in a spiritual environment that I can fully agree with.

First a finger exercise

Usually, I already know after a few strokes whether what I have started can ever become an acceptable picture. It was immediately clear that this was not going to happen in this case. So it became a somewhat boring finger exercise. The reason for my dissatisfaction was the choice of paper and I would like to take this opportunity to quote a Japanese writer whose slim booklet on aesthetics left a deep impression on me, even though I read it 45 years ago.

I always use good materials and, among other things, handmade paper, as in this case. But it’s still too smooth and shiny for my experiments.

abstract landscape painting

For the next few examples, I used paper made from elephant dung, which suits my needs well in this series. It is similar to unglued Japanese and Chinese papers but is stronger.

About Asian paper

So, on the subject of the paper, I would like to quote Tanjizaki Jun’ichiro [1]: “Paper is said to have been invented by the Chinese. When we have Western paper in front of us, we feel nothing except that it is a simple commodity. However, when we look at the pattern of China or Japanese paper, we feel a kind of warmth in it that soothes our hearts. Although all varieties are white, the whiteness of Western paper is different from that of thick Japanese hōsho paper or white China paper. The surface of the western paper seems to reflect the rays of light, while the hōsho and China paper soak up the rays of light like a surface of soft, freshly fallen snow. It is supple to the touch and makes no noise when folded or collapsed. It feels soft and moist, like touching a leaf. In general, when we see bright and shiny things, we become uneasy.” [2]

zen and minimalism

Although this elephant dung paper is not Japanese, it conforms to the specifics cited by Tanjizaki Jun’ichiro. Another passage is also quoted: “The Chinese love jade, too, and I wonder if anyone other than us East Asians can see anything attractive in these strangely dull lumps of stone, enclosing a sluggish, dull light at their core, as if it were the old air of centuries become a mass. ….. And then there are so-called “grass crystals”, which have opaque particles trapped inside and which give us even more pleasure than the others.” [3]

chinese seal and paper
ancient Chinese seal and grain of paper

White – the Void

landscape painting minimalistic

As has often been stated, white, the “nothing” for the Asian viewer of a picture is often more important than what is painted. “Respect the black, but adore the white,” it says in ancient Chinese writings. Forming empty spaces as nothingness or giving them plasticity is part of my exercise. The following sketch should give an indication.

minimalistic painting composition

Of course, the first thing that catches the viewer’s eye is the deliberately bold painted areas. However, if one concentrates on the white and lets it take shape or come into contact with the other white areas in the picture, it tends to come to the fore and the nothingness becomes visible as a formative force.

PS: In less than 1 week I came across 6 articles in print media on our topic, e.g.:

5 Ways Minimalism Can Benefit Your Mental Well-Being or Minimalism: A Guide To Personal Growth and …2,000-year-old Chinese mindset…. The trend towards minimalism in our lifestyles is obviously growing in popularity. However, it seems to me that the increasing popularity of the topic also has a lot to do with the fact that more and more people have to be modest due to the economic situation and therefore have to let some things go.


[1] Tanjizaki Jun’ichiro: Lob des Schattens. Entwurf eine japanischen Ästehetik. Manesse Bücherei, Zürich 1987, pp 19

[2] Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (谷崎 潤一郎, Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, 24 July 1886 – 30 July 1965) was a Japanese author. He is considered to be one of the most prominent figures in modern Japanese literature.

[3] Jun’ichiro: Lob, pp. 21



25 responses to “Gaining by letting go”

  1. Traum(A)Kinder avatar

    Sehr inspirierende Gedanken lieber Friedrich. Leider wird in der heutigen Zeit Vieles zur Mode. So wie vegan leben, sein Leben minimieren usw.
    Nur wer sich ernsthaft(wie Du) mit den Themen auseinandersetzt und es fühlt, wird geistigen Gewinn daraus ziehen. Die Erfahrung damit, mit wenigen, aber hochwertigen Dingen zu arbeiten, habe ich ebenso gemacht.
    Liebe Grüße!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Vielen herzlichen Dank! Ich denke, es kann auch eine Form der Gedankenhygiene sein. Wenn ich weglasse, wird mir erst mein Ueberfluss bewusst, den wir all zu leicht als gegeben verstehen. Das Feine dabei ist, dass wir ueberhaupt nichts vermissen, so lange wir nicht in ein “Mangel-Denken” fallen. Natuerlich stellt sich die Sache fuer jemand anderen anders da, wenn sie/er tatsaechlich Mangel hat. Ich wuensche Dir ein wunderschoenes WE! Geniesse die Zeit mit Deinem Sohn! LG f 🙂

  2. Ashley avatar

    Haha! You’re looking at the spaces between things! Fascinating.
    Yes, we’re all having to let certain things go, even some foods.
    Hope you are not getting overheated this weekend. Things seem bad around the Med. Stay cool 😎

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much 👍😊 Yes, it’s going to be a pretty hot weekend. Maybe I should try to concentrate on the spaces between the degrees 🤣 Stay cool 😎

      1. Ashley avatar

        🤣 that made me laugh, out loud; my wife worried that there was something wrong!😉

  3. swabby429 avatar

    I’m happy to see the contemporary trend towards minimalism. It is important that the minimalist whittles down excess. There is a parallel trend of consumer minimalist merchandise. The decorator purchases a few costly, elegant status symbol pieces within stark, ultra-modern apartments. I admire the first trend; and have mixed feelings about the second trend.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Many thanks! I also think that a trend towards minimalism is necessary after decades of thoughtless consumption and exploit. Now let’s make money with a minimalist lifestyle 😎☀️

  4. The Sicilian Storyteller avatar

    Always a pleasure to read your posts, Fred. They are beautiful and educational which is good because I know very little about art but fully appreciate it. Lovely work!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much for your kind and encouraging words 🙏 And I am very happy you like my work. Have a great, cool weekend 😎☀️🌹

      1. The Sicilian Storyteller avatar

        Thanks, Fred. As long as the AC is working, it will be great because it is definitely not going to be cool! 😎 🥵

  5. mich avatar

    Ah, yes, the rare quality of good paper! That’s the real loss in this glass-screened computer age, people lose touch with paper in almost every modern undertaking, from reading books to writing letters. Such a shame! I thank the time machine for growing up in a world where paper and pen were crucial tools.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you Mich! Yes, paper is one representative of the loss of quality of our time. When I occasionally come across paper from an old studio at a flea market, I feel like I’ve found a bottle of wine from a century vintage. The most tactile paper these days is toilet paper – and that says a lot about us 🙂

      1. mich avatar

        Hahaha, indeed, sir, yes.

  6. Rosaliene Bacchus avatar

    As I’m not familiar with Asian paper, I found the excerpts from Tanjizaki Jun’ichiro of special interest. I have not been trained to see the white or void in a painting, unless it is a prominent feature, as you make clear in your sketches.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Many thanks again! Recognizing the white as an important part of the image takes time. It poses a challenge even for untrained Asians. This is another reason why practicing calligraphy is so heavily emphasized. I wish you a cool summer, Rosaliene!

  7. Dominik Alexander avatar

    This is something I try to play with in my layouts: leaving enough white space for the actual content to breathe and interact with. Your elephant dung paper reminded me of an old working place where this kind of paper was sold. When it was introduced, people always asked it it was smelling like actual dung. But it seems to work fine with colours! Great work again, Friedrich. Love the new minimalistic art.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much, Dominik! Yes, room for breath is an important part in any kind of composition. Next week I will pick up this topic again. Cool days! ☀️🎶

  8. Cindy Georgakas avatar

    I always love your thoughts Fredrick as I stare into the elephant dung and white spaces in-between the the lines. Streamlining for internal peace and ease of care is what I’m doing now and leaving spaces bare which feels so boring to me, yet clean and crisp. I like my stamp of creativity and pictures but I’m even holding out on those.. Oh the job of purging is cleansing to the soul and time consuming. 💕

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you Cindy! I think we would all like to see your pictures. Yes, cleaning is an important thing. It’s like defragmenting our computer. We’re finally deleting the 10 year old mails and useless stuff, the desktop is clean and everything is running so much smoother. Until it fills up again 🙂 💕

      1. Cindy Georgakas avatar

        You’re so welcome. Wait. defragment our computer? How much would you charge to do mine/😂

      2. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

        Yes, Cindy, that sounds like an interesting job, right up my alley! Wait, I have to read my book “The Dao of Defragmenting” first.

      3. Cindy Georgakas avatar

        😂😝💕too funny

  9. Enviroart avatar

    What an interesting article and yes paper! Wow I had no idea you could make paper from elephant dunk!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Many many thanks! Yes, paper made from elephant dung sounds strange, but it’s a very old method. Painting on it is a bit difficult at first, but has its appeal.

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