The Zen of art


Dear Artist,

Recent activities have helped with an understanding of what goes on in the art-making brain. The encouragement of Zen-like lapses can be useful both in the studio and the great outdoors. We start with the understanding that a relaxed brain more easily accesses natural creative tendencies.

In the preparation phase, minimal anxieties, few regrets and a state of well-being preheat the oven. Shuffling of the recipe cards is also valuable. Here are a few ideas:


Robert on the Mareva

Have an attitude of low expectations and nothing to lose.

Try to make deliberate, thoughtful, rhythmic movements.

While not necessarily alone, be solitary.

Allow yourself to dream, flow and indulge your fancies.

Be philosophic about your weaknesses and creative faults.

Let your tools and your media do the talking.

Let your work tell you what it needs.

Let yourself yin and yang between thought and no thought.

Accept imperfection. Try for the spirit of attaining.

Teach yourself to teach yourself as you go.

Be in the now, but look gently ahead.

Be not lazy in your relaxation.

In the mystery we call life, certain work can be certain joy, and it has something to do with surrender to the more primitive, playful and automatic parts of our brain.

It’s like the convention of retirement, only in shorter and more frequent increments. The idea is to calculate and bend a sense of leisure into specific creative times. Like retirement activities such as golf, boating or woodworking, work is required. In the Zen-like mode, work is not so onerous, but it is still work. Persons of any age with a desire for independence, who are disposed to squeeze and produce, can access this mode.

I’m not trying to be funny here, but artists need to develop a feeling of privilege and a sense of good fortune, even if the feeling has to be artificially induced. This self-foolery, a sort of mental levitation, brings on a state of mind that facilitates easy-going exploration. The active seduction of one’s own mind is a significant key to creative progress.

Best regards,


PS: “We must take situations as they are. We must only change our mental attitudes towards them.” (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi)

Esoterica: I’m painting on the forward deck of M.V. Mareva on the west coast of British Columbia. This morning’s bay was full of eagles. Laboured flyers, they fly in a “flap, flap, flap — glide” manner. I interpret the flaps as the purposeful, thinking mode, and the glide as a period of less commitment but continued progress. Later in the morning, the eagles are at great altitude, soaring effortlessly.


Magical moments
by Ray Miller, Oceanside, CA, USA

I was in a laid back mode when I read this piece and accepted it whole, without any dissent. Later today, when the fireworks begin at the pier, there will be, as always, a few spectacular rockets of a different color from unexpected directions and at greater heights. These rockets are like the magical moments of inspiration during the painting process. I accept them and then go back into the rhythm of method.


Over to the Light Side
by Suzanne Northcott, Fort Langley, BC, Canada


“Coral cocoon”
acrylic painting, 36 x 60 inches
by Suzanne Northcott

Right now I am working with complex abstract under-paintings. I have the pleasure of allowing that space for something surprising and beautiful to happen. My involvement with the canvas is conversational and absolutely engaging. These beginnings set up a relationship that I like and, as I proceed to inflict my big ideas onto the support, they keep me mindful of the possibility of flow and continually invite me over to the light side.


Relax and enjoy the process
by Tinker Bachant, Sautee Nacoochee, GA, USA


pastel painting
by Tinker Bachant

I have a quote on the corner of my easel, part of which reads, “Perfectionism can create excellent results, but the cost of getting there can cause stress. So instead of striving for perfection, I aim for excellence in all I do.” It reminds me that I am mortal and to just relax and stop adding one more line or dab of color, etc. and enjoy the process. It makes a big difference in my work!





Like building a sandcastle
by Janet Bowser, The Big Woods, PA, USA


“Welcome home”
acrylic painting
24 x 36 inches
by Janet Bowser

Sometimes I feel guilty because my painting does not pay any bills, it does not do anything to advance us in life, and it sucks funds out of our budget for canvas, paint, brushes, books and framing. It does give me something though. It is so relaxing and enjoyable that, as I am before the canvas, figuring out a perspective problem or mixing colors on a foam plate, I get a feeling similar to one that I had as a child. I feel like I am playing. Not like playing S.W.A.T in the basement of pre-built homes, but like working a puzzle or building a sandcastle on the shore. Maybe these things will never amount to anything of importance to anyone and maybe I should be doing laundry, but painting does something for me and I really need it now.

There is 1 comment for Like building a sandcastle by Janet Bowser

From: Sharon Williams — Jul 12, 2008

Do you feel guilty about needing to eat food to live? When you buy food to eat, you support the farmer who put his hands and heart into growing it. The farmer had costs to pay to give your body life.

Do you feel guilty when others enjoy your art? When you use your gift of creativity and others’ souls are fed, you are paying back your costs and enriching the hearts and minds of others.

Is there any good reason why you should not enjoy creating your art?

I don’t seek out customers for my own art – the right owner for the art is the person who falls in love with it as food for his/her soul. The cost of materials, time, effort and the physical production of the art fall far short of the joy of knowing you have touched someone’s heart.

Just a note on names/signing paintings: Having always been bothered by artists whose name I see first before being able to take in the image, I make my own disappear into the painting as much as possible. This can be a real challenge when I produce an abstract that can be hung from all sides. I’ve been known to bury the name in several places at different orientations so that the person who buys it doesn’t feel awkward about hanging it in the direction they prefer.


Free from creative blocks
by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA


“Poppies, poppies”
water colour painting, 14 x 22 inches
by Nina Allen Freeman

I used to have problems with creative blocks until I remembered that my ability to do art began with a gift from God. That joy of doing art I had as a child — I wanted to recapture it. I wanted to free myself from the chains of other people’s opinions, sales and getting into exhibitions. I began to regularly meditate and pray for these things and soon found that my painting improved. It is important for me to let my work flow out of me. I do my best work when I just let it happen and not let my thinking brain interfere too much.


Walking the middle path
by Janice Tanton, Canmore, AB, Canada


“Big fox”
oil painting, 16 x 16 inches
by Janice Tanton

Process often seems a mystery to many artists, and those that work the most purely are best to keep that mystery. I envision this mystery and process as a three-dimensional painting that goes on forever. To the left of the painting is a stripe of black that sinks low and moves about as a ribbon, undulating up and down. To the right, and above, is another unending stripe of white doing the same but with a different cadence. In the centre is a straight pathway of grey, more narrow, yet stable and for the most part straight upon which I walk. If I move to the black or the white in my walk, each of them becomes stimulating in their own way, but I cannot see all of this painting clearly, nor the pathway properly. If I stay on the gray path, I can see it all and I walk the middle way in peace with the process and gently riding the mystery. This visual piece is not just a metaphor for the artistic process, but one for decision-making in real-time life.


by Gail Griffiths, Ocean, NJ, USA


oil painting, 24 x 24 inches
by Gail Griffiths

There are two kinds of artists. There are the people who work to make art, to be an artist. They of course have knowledge, desire, and talent. Then there is the artist whose art pours from their pores. Their minds create constantly, seeing things stimulate them, the smell of mediums churns their creative juices, and literally a blade of grass could set them off creating.

I have been both. I am an oil painter, a photographer, a portrait artist, an acrylic artist, which is fun and new for me. Each of these I have gained income from but I do mostly because I was born to do it. It’s what I have done since I knew there was more than lined paper. The last two years I suffered to be an artist. I even enlisted an online Zen master and an art assistant, it got so bad. I tried my New Years Eve resolution to sit in front of my canvas every day. Meditation, the right music, prayer as usual, Nothing. I am better now and my art is back! Seeing your tools today reminds me how you gave me hope that I maybe could somehow, deep in the core of my being, release the sheath that cast a cover over the art that was my soul.


Biofeedback colours
by Norah Bolton, Toronto, ON, Canada


pastel painting
by Norah Bolton

Ned Herrmann, the author of The Creative Brain, and an accomplished painter and musician, told us in a study group some years ago that this Zen-like state can actually be measured by biofeedback. He encouraged us to wear small bio-dots which would change colour in relation to the temperature of our hand, indicating our reflective state, and then led us through a meditation using guided imagery. The colours changed remarkably. Ned was particularly keen on the theta waves that occurred just after waking. So your previous suggestion of getting straight to the easel would find agreement from Ned. In later life Ned himself took advantage in a slightly different way, as you can see.


Meditation before working
by Linda Walker, Bemidji, MN, USA


“Silent vigil”
oil painting, 11 x 14 inches
by Linda Walker

I had the undisputable pleasure of studying with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the late ’60s. He was a wonderful, caring, humorous, far-reaching teacher who gently taught the practice of Transcendental Meditation. One is given a teacher who finds a personal mantra to use as a powerful tool that for me its usefulness brings energetic relaxation and an opening to the feeling of being guided by my own inner spirit. While this is impossible to explain, I spend a few minutes meditating before working and the mantra stays with me while I paint. Tensions and extemporaneous thoughts recede back while those energies that have to do with my work are more focused and clear. It helps to recover from outside disturbances and return quickly into the rhythm. I don’t know that it makes my work any better but it brings so much more enjoyment to the process.


All weather sketching
by Valerie Norberry, Kalamazoo, MI, USA


“Hancock street house”
pencil drawing, 8.5 x 11 inches
by Valerie Norberry

I obtained a set of permanent markers in thirty-six colors for about fourteen dollars. They are absolutely impervious to water. Two nights ago during a thunderstorm I sat in my doorway and drew the tiger lilies outside my door. While not able to blend; one can get a really dynamic and colorful sketch. My friend knew just what it was I had sketched! That is satisfaction. The markers come in their own case. For that kind of money, you can have a lot of fun, no mixing and no cleaning up, just putting away – don’t worry about the weather. What fun!




A different perspective
by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany


“On the prowl”
pastel painting
by Faith Puleston

Another list of self-improving tips and tricks? And I thought I’d seen them all. I’m not really a friend of patent problem-solvers, maybe because I am guilty of so many failings that I don’t think I’m up to becoming the perfect anything through them, even if I wanted to. Let me just list the reactions I had to this list. I was reading into them what might not have been the intention, of course.

“Have an attitude of low expectations and nothing to lose.” I would stop doing anything if I stopped expecting something of myself. I don’t believe we have nothing to lose. In my view and from (often negative) experience I know we have everything to lose if we don’t bother to set aims and targets.

“Try to make deliberate, thoughtful, rhythmic movements.” Sometimes spontaneity is more effective. Thoughtful movements are frequently contra-productive. Shutting out the subconscious and constructing or contriving are not creative processes. And isn’t that the door you are trying to get people to open?

“Be not lazy in your relaxation.” The biblical tone of this final command has left me (almost) speechless. Relaxing without actually letting go is not relaxing, in my view. Some relax by sleeping in the sun; others climb a mountain. The choice must be left to me.


The reward of painting
by Becky McMahon, Surrey, BC, Canada


“Wistful Bamboo”
oriental brush painting, 12 x 18 inches
by Becky McMahon

I work best if I keep a relaxed but focused attitude and let myself play with my paint, ink and brush. Overall my best works are those I do while in this mode. I’ve even painted while in a telephone conversation with my Mother and ended up with a fresh new piece. A doodle, perhaps, but a very purposeful doodle. I find the flow of ideas comes to me as I work quickly and I end up trying out a lot of them. Some work and others don’t but I learn as I do them. I try to live for the moment when I paint and not think whether it is a good painting or not. Later when I look back at them, some I felt were less successful stand out, and others I felt were good don’t live up to my first impression. And so I learn. Lately I’ve been spending a greater amount of time doing the ‘business’ end of art so I treasure my times when I paint. But I don’t put expectations on what happens. Painting is the reward.

There is 1 comment for The reward of painting by Becky McMahon

From: Dana Whitney — Jul 07, 2008

This afternoon I went to the painting studio. I was crabby at first, then yielded to the pains. When I monitored my blood pressure afterward (Dr.’s orders) it was lower than it has been in months. There’s the zen.



Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The Zen of art



From: Rick Rotante — Jul 03, 2008

Insightful words to live by artist or otherwise. I made ten copies to pass out tonight. Your words come at a weak moment in my life. Thanks

“when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — Jul 04, 2008
From: Gene Martin — Jul 04, 2008

There are many good things in todays letter Robert. I personally must have peace to create. I find nothing good comes from chaos.

From: Nancy — Jul 04, 2008
From: Dianne Mize — Jul 04, 2008

What grabbed me about today’s letter is “Laboured flyers, they fly in a “flap, flap, flap — glide” manner. I interpret the flaps as the purposeful, thinking mode, and the glide as a period of less commitment but continued progress. Later in the morning, the eagles are at great altitude, soaring effortlessly.” What a perfect metaphor for us, the artists.

From: Roy — Jul 04, 2008

I get a kick out of how practices like this that I do intuitively are labeled ‘Zen’ — as if they originated in the East. The other day I was stretching after a run and my girlfriend said ‘that’s yoga’. I guess if it helps you, you can label it that way. But why do we need these buzzwords from other cultures? Does it add legitimacy to categories of thought the Western mind doesn’t know how to talk about? Goodness and creation is available in you and your response to nature. You can discover it anytime if you’ll just see and hear. We label things we don’t have words for.

At the same time, we shouldn’t fool ourselves we’re actually understanding an Eastern world view. We’re still very much Americans. So I find it amusing that we have to say things like ‘Zen’ and ‘Yoga’ to give legitimacy to something that is imminent and has always been present and available to us. Are these suggestions really Zen? I’d find it easier to affirm if we just say ‘getting in the zone’ or something. That’s something I have no reservations with agreeing. I feel like using the Eastern label implies mystery — there’s more to discover. Perhaps I should sign up with the guru or yogi to real more of things that in fact can be discovered with the artistic mind. We are the priests, we transcribe the visual hermeneutic of nature in paint! We channel revelation! We here and now are ministers to souls locked in the analytic serial mind set. Go paint!

From: Toni C. — Jul 04, 2008


From: Chris Everest — Jul 05, 2008

Whilst I buy into the concept of Zen with that idea of providing the perfect and still environment both internally and externally to create Art I find it always eludes me. I hear that nagging little voice in my head, that annoying control freak who is so very very bossy. I can still myself to the outside but inside there is no peace whatsoever. How do I kill this critic ? Is one allowed to kill it ? Alcohol kind of works but the paintings are rubbish – Cidercolour painting as performance art might be convincing but probably not marketable.

From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — Jul 05, 2008
From: Catherine McLay — Jul 07, 2008

Re Roy’s remark: “we label things we don’t have words for”. Maybe we create — or adopt- words for things we don’t have words for. Like “Zen”!.

From: Jackie Ivey-Weaver — Jul 07, 2008
From: Wendy — Jul 07, 2008

I had a fascinating kind of zen creative day last year. Several of us students sat, barefoot around a nude male model, with about 120 pieces of sugar paper in front of us and am array of different strength inks, pens, pencils, feather quills, pastels and conte crayon.

We were silent all day and obeying our teachers instructions drew the model who changed pose from two minutes to five seconds. Every so often we were stopped and had to take up the same pose as the model, close our eyes, hold it for one minute then continue.

Some of my pieces of paper nearly caught fire with speed. I tore many pieces, but by the end of the day, as the teacher had promised I had done a few of the most wonderful drawings ever. We had followed very complex instructions and had used both hands, our toes and our mouths as well. A truly self forgetting zen experience. I really loved 4 of the works I produced out of the 120.

From: Helena Tiainen — Jul 07, 2008

Everything in life is like ebb and flow. All one needs to do is listen to their own breath. It flows like the ocean. All life is rhytmic and cyclical on this planet. I have noticed that many times after a seemingly non-productive session of painting the following time there is a breakthrough. We need to allow ourselves to step into the unknown in order to expand as humans and as artists. Living life fully takes a good deal of courage, risk taking and radical trust.

From: Jenny Hunter Groat (Mitsuka) — Jul 07, 2008

Well, I AM a Zen Buddhist, and I will have to say that I agree with Roy, who wrote on July 4, when he says he would rather see some kind of other term used, rather than “Zen”, when we are “in the zone,” or something like it. Most of the time when people talk of Zen, especially in reference to art or other activities, the thoughts get pretty garbled. There is a lot to what Robert is saying here, but it ought not be confused with Zen, nor have Zen practice further confused by the mixed bag of what is in this essay. For one instance alone, in Zen we do not “try for the spirit of attaining.” Quite the opposite, we try for emptiness, and a non-attaining attitude. Sometimes a Zen aphorism might do, in which we can say, “Try without trying.” With anything else, EGO enters in, and this is destructive to a creative and free attitude. There is also a large mixture of concept in the essay, from all kinds of ideologies, mostly oriental. Zen practice simply leads to a freedom from all these, especially through its basis in meditation. Nevertheless, if anyone finds these suggestions that Robert makes here helpful, in part or in whole, then they should be tried. Only one would hope that they will not be thought of as defining Zen practice, simply one way of art practice that is highly beneficial.

From: Sean Milliken — Jul 07, 2008

He said Zen-like. He didn’t define Zen.

From: Faith Puleston — Jul 08, 2008

Reaction to the reactions! Some of my own original reactions to that letter are above (However, only part of the reply. I commented on all the “instructions”). Now I have to comment on the comments.

Chin up Rick. We all have ups and downs and you can dig yourself out by becoming the teacher yourself! Finding someone who needs your help is a wonderful way of escaping from one’s own gloom – and there’s always someone out there.

As for me, well, not being religious I can’t wait for a superior power to grant me talent, inspiration, dig me out of my current hole, etc. I just have to go it alone. That’s hard, sometimes, but I don’t believe that the mystique of creativity starts anywhere but within ourselves and that is the reason I don’t think that indolence and other artificial mechanisms are productive.

My old voice teacher was a terrible teacher, but now and again she said something useful. When I get embroiled with my own incapacity, I repeat to my self the words “Thoughts are things!” In singing that is particularly effective. The human voice only exists at the moment of production. It is ephemeral and must be totally under control if it is to function as an artistic expression. But if I can’t “visualize” the tones I cannot make them. The imagination joins in with the inherent talent (of course, you have to have the prerequisites for making a pleasant noise otherwise nothing helps!) to produce something magical. Playing an instrument is not the same. In singing, you are the instrument. That is why I disagreed about letting the tools do it for you. Whatever our art form, we express ourselves through our tools. And we can only relax if we have the skills at our commend. That, in archery or whatever, comes with intensive practice. All summed up in the proverb “Practice makes perfect”. The equivalent German saying is in translation :”No master ever fell from heaven.”

From: Laura Reilly — Jul 08, 2008
From: Rick Rotante — Jul 08, 2008

When we use an analogy such as Zen-like, we use it not so much to add importance or mystery or infuse out feeling and thoughts with more insight. It becomes a way universally to express what we are attempting to say and not try and attach our thoughts to any culture or philosophy. It’s called “analogy”. We do this every day. i.e. painting is so spiritual; soar like a bird; strong as a bull; healthy as a horse; paint like the wind. Nothing more. In a global multi-national world we are losing the ability to speak a cohesive language. Meaning is being confused and believers in one practice or another are being offended. This creates a complex barrier between people. In western culture waving a hand palm out is a sign of friendship. In another culture the same gesture is threatening. Bearing ones teeth in one culture is a smile, while in another is menacing.

The Internet has given us access to other worlds other peoples and we are still finding our way. If there is any Zen practice that applies it is to empty your mind of initial reactions to statements and fill yourself with compassion and understanding of what is being offered. If it’s off the mark consider that aspect and realize it was offered in good faith not to harm or misrepresent.

From: SCTucker — Jul 08, 2008

“If there is any Zen practice that applies it is to empty your mind of initial reactions to statements and fill yourself with compassion and understanding of what is being offered. If it’s off the mark consider that aspect and realize it was offered in good faith not to harm or misrepresent.”

Ah so, Rick, thanks.

From: Walter Hawn — Jul 08, 2008
From: Janet Badger — Jul 10, 2008

I know the creative process is a journey well worth making. The initial struggle, the striving, then the giving and the taking. The floating, soaring feeling when you finally ‘hit the wave’ and the peace and satisfaction of creation that we crave…

From: Dottie Dracos — Jul 11, 2008

Rick Rotante, I just looooove the way you write! If you’re not a pro writer, you ought to be. Thanks so much for your comments here.

From: Sharon — Jul 12, 2008

There’s a place in my mind from where the best paintings evolve. I suppose some people might call it a Zen-like state. Getting there means making every effort to tune out the everyday world.

The road map includes first finding the music to help me get going in choosing materials and general set-up, but with no particular subject in mind. That music might be the same as I want to have playing as I paint, but I reserve the right to let the materials change my mind.

Sometimes, as I’m selecting the day’s limited palette or materials for multimedia, they will ‘ask’ for a different kind of music and I oblige.

One other thing is necessary to get to actually painting. While I don’t mind and sometimes welcome painting in the same space as other painters, I get as far away from telephones as possible, often letting others think I am simply away from the phone for the day.

I have to turn off the intellectual side of my brain to do really good work. Thinking too much about the ‘rules’ of good art can really stunt creativity.

I do not throw away what I consider to be “failed” paintings. They have often taken a path that appears to have no value on their own. It is only later, when another painting is evolving that they find their proper place. One piece of art is five layers thick of “failed” paintings and scraps of materials. Each of them show their best and the whole piece of art needs every one of these previous “failures/misfits”.

When you are stumped, go to a park with only paper/other ground, support, colours of one or more media, a blanket or other seat if you can’t find a bench or picnic table. Do not bring brushes or any other tools. Use what you find in nature to apply your colours. You’ll surprise yourself with what you can do with twigs, flowerheads, grasses and other materials.

Expect nothing; receive everything.

From: Rick — Jul 14, 2008

Dottie- you are very kind.






Blue Moon

oil painting, 24 x 30 inches
by Terry Zarate, Flippin, AR, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Esmie G. McLaren of Vancouver, BC, Canada who wrote, “The Esoterica today was sheer poetry.”

And also Linda Muttitt who wrote, “So, I just this evening have emerged from an intensive Buddhist meditation retreat, and what to my wondering eyes did appear in my mailbox, but ‘The Zen of Art’. All I could do was smile, you know, that lovely quiet Buddha-like smile of something bigger than myself busy at work.”




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