Zen monochrome painting   水墨画

Date of publication :
Four sleepers of Mokuan.

Four sleepers of Mokuan.

Water and mountain scenery, Gakuô.

Water and mountain scenery, Gakuô.

Portrait of monk Kensuo, Kao.

Portrait of monk Kensuo, Kao.

From ink and water are born gesture and shade

A monk sits, meditating in front of a painting. One of his fellow monks wrote the calligraphy, and another painted the image. He meditates using the image and text as support, as do many other monks, to apply the meditative principles of Zen Buddhism.

The foundation of the ink wash painting are water and ink. The art of mixing them, of diluting one in the other, dampening the paper or soaking the brush, created iconic monochrome works of the Muromachi period (1336-1573). The subjects vary, as do the techniques. But all have the common objective of spiritual escape through contemplation.

An art from elsewhere

Steeped in Chinese influence, ink wash paintings produced in Japan result from the importation of Zen concepts from the continent. Several characters from Chinese tradition have thus become classic motifs, such as Mokuan's Four sleepers, depicting Fenggan, Hanshan and Shide. The mountainous landscapes (sansuiga) with aggressive brush strokes are sometimes reproduced in the purest tradition of the Middle Kingdom, at times adapted to a Japanese aesthetic taste, combining gently rolling hills and patches of mist. Often called "mental landscapes", the gaze can wander for hours, discovering a house in a rock crevice or a person sketched with just a few lines. Chinese roots that grow in Japanese soil give birth to this unparalleled artistic tree.

The power of the line

The balance of these paintings is based on contrasts and harmony. Firstly in the colors: from deep black to bright white, infinite shades of gray are used to give life to forms.

And to give them a soul is the gesture: quick and sharp or soft and light, the brush strokes, from the thickest to the thinnest show almost superhuman control. There is no margin for error in the composition of ink wash paintings: no corrections can be made once the brush has started its dance on the paper. It makes for even greater admiration for the masters.  Sesshû's landscapes, which are brusque to the limit of abstraction are the perfect embodiment of this mastery of movement and spontaneity, to support aesthetic zen specific to meditation. Simple and effective, the dynamic lines left by the brush draw on the profound essence of things. Finally there is contrast in the composition itself: very often, the paintings are accompanied by calligraphed poems in the upper part of the work, or a dedication from the master. The text and the image combine to form a very strange couple.

A striking alloy that gives life to black and white.


Images: Four sleepers by Mokuan.
Water and mountain landscape, by Gakuô.
Portrait of the monk Kensuo, by Kao.

Comments Read comments from our travellers