the flow of qi graphic

Summer swan song – or the bitter croaking of ravens

The end of a walk through Nothing.

Last post before summer vacation. Vacation? Not vacation in the traditional sense. My insurance plan allows 3 spa stays of 3 weeks each within 5 years. I was only once on a cure, this year again. The funny thing is, the name of the health resort is REDUCE.
It is quite an acceptable facility, a thermal bath with good medicinal water, and above all very quiet, with the best air quality, as more than 60% of the federal state is forest. The excellent cuisine uses food from local farmers.
So for 3 weeks, I will have my old fur brushed, will appreciate the excellent wines of the area, clean up my stack of books and take care of my calligraphy, which I neglect all too often. And so we are in the middle of the topic.

Two new works

I would like to show only two works today, but I would like to take a closer look at one and try to discuss it again from a traditional Asian point of view. And that is very different from the Western one, as we already know. Before that, I would like to show a work by the surrealist André Masson. Masson dealt with Zen painting in the middle of the last century. At that time, not much was known about Zen in the West, but one sensed the world that opened up behind the few strokes of an e.g. Sesshū Tōyō painting. This ink work by Masson below naturally has its appeal, but it basically is still Western-oriented. From an Asian point of view, there is a lack of depth and soul, and due to the little variety in the use of ink, there is also a lack of esprit. [1]

Andre Masson pine trees and rocks

When I think back to my first years with ink and brush, it was these points that I found most difficult to master.

End of Nothing

The final work in the series, dealing with reduction, has the working title: Another Attempt to Touch the Idea of Zen.
Behind what, on the surface, may seem like a few more or less random strokes, there are considerations that, again from an Asian point of view, are quite self-evident, but for many Westerners are more guessed and felt than actually perceived. I would like to emphasize one aspect that we have already discussed, kai : he (开 合). Open and close. [2] Not just the opening between the two objects, which creates tension and the closing that goes with it. Rather also the opening to space outside the picture that leads us far into the ether.

Above all, however, it is about creating a maximum of content with a minimum of resources.

zen painting
Another Attempt to Touch the Idea of Zen

My article series The Essence of Chinese Painting, deals with some of these principles of Chinese painting in more detail. In the following picture, we find some of those aspects again in compressed form.

Wandering through a painting

Unlike Western painting, which uses a static perspective, Chinese painting, especially landscape painting, uses a dynamic one. I will write a separate post about this. As already stated in a previous post, the structure of typical Chinese images can be broken down into 4 consecutive parts. qǐ – chéng – zhuǎn – jié ( 起 承 转 结). Another, older, division in image structure would be rù – qǐ – zhuǎn – hé (入 起 转 合 ). In any case, one is of particular importance and that is the flow of Qi (气 qì). [3]

For a non-Asian painter, it is a special challenge to make the flow of Qi visible in a picture or to let the Qi flow properly. An image without a good flow of qi is like a room or body of water without fresh air. Qi must be able to flow in and through the painting. But it shouldn’t just rush through either. Rather kind of like a small, babbling brook in the mountains. It sometimes flows slower, then faster again, and has to encounter small obstacles that it elegantly avoids, creating a rhythm that the viewer can “walk along”.
And if the painter succeeds in letting Qi flow properly, the picture (or calligraphy) appears to be floating.

the flow of qi
Hike along the Nothing


In general, the “heavier” an image appears, the more difficult it is to optically create the state of suspension and thus make it flow and float. Above all, however, it is important to create a dialogue between lines and parts in the picture. Ideally, this dialogue appears natural, and informal and at the same time harbors attractive ideas that please the eyes and the mind of the viewer. Like the babbling brook mentioned. Many of these ideas derive from calligraphy, and a so good painting should appear written. (For this reason, we very often find the signature “written by XY” and not painted by XY).

the flow of qi graphic

The sketches in gray should help to recognize these lines of force in the picture discussed. If we pay more attention to the white areas in the original picture discussed, the quite heavy picture becomes lighter. When we see the whole thing embedded in the white of the paper or the space outside the picture, the picture begins to float.

composition comparison

Well, if a picture is written (and not painted), we must read it. Calligraphy is usually read from top right to bottom. For images, the entry point may vary. But, as with calligraphy, we must be able to traverse it.

Let’s take a walk now

When we read a picture, we wander through it with our eyes. Let’s play a game again and see what a walk through the image above would look like based on what we just discussed.

We enter the picture at the bottom right and a strong line of force pulls us to the left. (Bottom right corner on the sketch below). At the beginning of the hike, we are full of energy. Again and again we come across opposing forces that slow down the momentum and thus underline the flow of power in the picture – like in this part. Our hike is abruptly stopped at the left before a strong force () leads upwards. What follows is an arduous ascent. Our effort is rewarded, a little breather, a bewitching view of a rock massif that rises up from the haze and fog. The force points (weaker) to the top left and (stronger) to the top right, which brings with it strong tension again. (). The line of force pulls us to the right, and again our path is blocked by obstacles (vertical lines of force). At the very end of our hike, we approach the starting point again – not without great drama. (he), close, is the magic word again.

four phases in Chinese painting

Pan Tianshou described the part cheng(or qi (起) like this: Imagine an ox cart stuck in the mud. The ox pulls and pulls and all of a sudden the exertion is relieved because the cart has freed itself from the dirt.

If we have understood this principle in the painting, we have taken a big step in our understanding of Asian ink painting. And ideally, we have also come a step further in our thinking and understanding generally.


[1] André Masson: Eine Kunst des Wesentlichen. Limes. Wiesbaden 1961

[2] kai : he principle. [kāi] open, open up. [hé] close, whole

[3] In traditional Chinese painting, the term “Qi” refers to the living energy of what is being painted. The artist’s responsibility is to communicate this energy through their painting. Xie He (谢赫 Hsieh Ho, 6th century) wrote that a painting should have: Breath – Harmony Life – Movement (Qi-Yun Sheng-Dong – 气韵生动). Qi, the first character, primarily means is “life-force.” For Xie He this qi is in all humans, animals, and plants. It is what grants being to everything in nature, everything in the universe. (source: bing)


46 responses to “Summer swan song – or the bitter croaking of ravens”

  1. Sue Grey-Smith avatar

    Beautiful work! Enjoy your vacation!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you so much Sue! Have a nice rest of summer too!

  2. swabby429 avatar

    I definitely see the float and flow within your paintings. I hope your vacation enhances your qi.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much! Enjoy a cool summer!

  3. Ashley avatar

    Friedrich, your latest post really stretches my “little grey cells”. It is full of tension and yet there is joy! (Perhaps, that is the ox cart being freed from the mud!) Have a wonderful vacation and I look forward to meeting you again, soon. 🧘‍♂️🙏

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thanks a lot, Ashley 🙏 Thanks also for your wishes – I sure will feel like that ox cart when I taste my first glass of wine over there 😀 All the best!

  4. babsje avatar

    You have once again served us a fine master class through your commentary and images today! Marvelous. I especially appreciate this observation “An image without a good flow of qi is like a room or body of water without fresh air” and your subsequent babbling brook metaphors. Thank you for sharing these insights, and have a restorative and relaxing time during your spa stay.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you so much 🙏 I am very happy to hear! Warm greetings to you and your herons 🩵

  5. luisa zambrotta avatar

    So beautiful and interesting!!!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much, Luisa! As the old saying goes – painters always paint themselves 🤣 I wish you a great vacation ㊗️🐞☀️🩵

      1. luisa zambrotta avatar

        Thanks a lot, my dear friend 💙

      2. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

        I have to thank you! And I should apologize to you that I rarely leave comments on your wonderful posts. I was very shy even as a child 🙂

      3. luisa zambrotta avatar

        Don’t worry!
        I know you read and appreciate, and that’s enough for me
        Have a lovely weekend 🌷🌷🌷

  6. Martha Kennedy avatar

    Have a wonderful vacation, Friedrich! You may have noticed I seldom comment on your posts, but I read them and think about both the words and the images.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much, Martha! I also don’t comment often. I don’t know if my comments make sense, yes, often I don’t know if it makes any sense to post something myself. It’s probably about time I took a break for a few weeks. I hope everything is fine with you and you can cope with the temperatures. Best regards 🙂

  7. The Sicilian Storyteller avatar

    The interconnected forces of yin yang are a delight in contrasts, swans dancing with ravens, if you will. This is a vision of loveliness, Fred; I’ve always been drawn to B&Ws.
    Enjoy your well-deserved vacation; it sounds as close to perfection as one can get. 🖤 🤍

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Many many thanks! Sorry for the confusion: there are no swans or crows in the picture. My title referred to the fact that “Swan song” is to be understood as a farewell song. But maybe it’s just the cawing of a raven. I wish you a relaxing rest of the summer!

      1. The Sicilian Storyteller avatar

        😂 No confusion here, Fred. I am familiar with the term “Swan Song”. I was simply making a parallel between B&W art/photos and swans v ravens … nothing deeper than that! Enjoy your vacation!

      2. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

        Wonderful! Thanks again for all 🌹🐞🌼

  8. Rosaliene Bacchus avatar

    Friedrich, as a person who has grown up in the West, I find it very challenging to view your work with a Chinese/Asian perspective. How different are the world views of the East and West! Enjoy your vacation. Stay cool 🙂

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Many thanks, Rosaliene! If different continents see even a simple picture differently, how much more differently can other aspects of our society be perceived. I wish you a nice rest of the summer with pleasant temperatures!

      1. Rosaliene Bacchus avatar

        Thanks! No weekend gardening for me until after 5:00 p.m.

  9. elizabethleslie333 avatar

    Really fascinating, the art and information. ✨

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much for your kind words! 🙂☀️

  10. ronald juliet avatar
    ronald juliet

    All your articles are very interesting, and this one describes very well a crucial point for all artists.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much for your kind words 🙏 I hope my articles touch one or the other aspect worth reflecting. All the best 🙂☀️🎶

  11. Mike and Kellye Hefner avatar

    Such an interesting post, Fred! I hope you have a fabulous vacation getting your fur brushed 😉 and drinking a lot of fine wine.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you so much! I’m working far too much again and there I can switch off and come back renewed and with a shiny fur 🙂 Best wishes and pleasant temperatures! 🙂

  12. Edith avatar

    Hurra, anklicken lässt es sich zumindest wieder, nun hoffe ich, dass mein DANKE für diese Werke auch abgeht zu dir.
    Friedrich, ich fange nie zuerst in einer Ecke an und arbeite mich dann durch dein Bild. Mir ist erst einmal der Gesamteindruck sehr wichtig. Da spüre ich dann, wohin meine Gedanken gehen, um dein Werk zu erfassen. Aber nun habe ich eine Richtlinie von dir und ich werde dies beherzigen. Jedenfalls sind deine Bilder keine toten Bilder für mich. In jedem ist Leben, ist Bewegung, jedes schaut mich direkt an. Ich kann dem Blick der Bilder nicht ausweichen. Dies erfahre ich selten, dass dies so tiefgründig geschieht.
    Nun wünsche ich dir eine erfolgreiche Kur. Lass dich körperlich und geistig stärken, komm gesund wieder zurück mit vielen Inspirationen auch.
    Herzliche Gedanken schwingen von mir zu dir
    mit lieben Grüßen

    1. Edith avatar

      Ich werde natürlich nicht sterben, ich werde es beherzigen.

    2. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Vielen herzlichen Dank,🌹🐞 Das freut mich sehr – dass Du wieder rein kannst und natürlich, dass Dir die Arbeiten gefallen Jeder sieht Bilder auf seine Art und Weise und das ist ja auch Sinn der Sache. Ich wollte einfach wieder einmal die klassische Sicht darlegen, vor allem um die Komposition und Gedanken näherbringen, die man im Westen oft nicht so gut kennt. Geniesse den Rest des Sommers entspannt und cool 😎🎶☀️

  13. balladeer avatar

    I always enjoy learning about art techniques!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much 🙏 I hope that one or the other aspect is useful ☀️

  14. Cindy Georgakas avatar

    So much more than I ever imagined go into lines empty spaces and yin and yang. A perfect read before my tai chi today Friedrick💞

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you Cindy, I’m so happy!

      Since you practice Taiji, a little suggestion: If you look at the picture “Hike Along the Nothing” again, imagine the (painted) upper and lower parts as your hands when you practice. The space in between, the white, is the force field between your two hands.

      I know people who feel this empty space like an invisible ball. It makes a difference in Taiji practice just by paying attention. But maybe you do anyway. Have fun and good progress!

      1. Cindy Georgakas avatar

        You’re most welcome always.
        Love the exercise. wow, love the cool practice session. I’m not a purist and open to everything🥰

  15. mitchteemley avatar

    I love the way you take us on journeys into and through your paintings, Friedrich.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you so much, Mitch! I am glad you like it. I’m often not sure if my topics aren’t too specific and of general interest. I am all the more pleased when people like you, who always write very substantial articles, can do something with it.

  16. Lin Barrie avatar

    A wonderful posting – full of openings and closings – which resonates with me

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much 🙏 I am very happy you see it the way it was much intended 🌹

  17. Colltales avatar

    These are powerful pieces, Zettl. I like your guide tours, they offer anyone road maps to track, but the rhythm and speed of the compositon are what it brings it together into something organic, raw. It’s a delight to follow how you came to the resolution, and the choices you made along the way, what sort of questions the initial drawing suggested and what you’ve picked as your synthesis. Cheers

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you so much, Coltales, for your encouraging words! I am very happy to hear this as I am aware that some of my posts can be hard to follow. Enjoy a great, cool weekend!

  18. Dominik Alexander avatar

    “Quite an acceptable facility” sounds so very underrated. At least, what you described sounds like heaven on Earth! I hope, you already have a relaxed and peaceful stay. Be and stay healthy 🙂

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thanks very much! Since the restaurant has won awards for offering vegan food, I’ll probably dive into vegan territory. All the best!

  19. danalc77 avatar

    Powerful Work!

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