Eastern Art, Western Mind

by | Oct 3, 2014 | 6 comments


Article titles Eastern Art, Western Mind includes image of purple and pink flower branch painted in Sumi-e style.
I remember when I was a student learning Sumi-e. Having former education in Fine Arts; Western approach, aesthetics and of course the mentality, I was eager to understand, to figure out things and had many questions.
My Japanese teacher’s (Tomoko Kodama) English was not very good, so I wouldn’t understand everything she would say. Besides, there would be very little verbal explanation anyway. Actually there was just the right amount and what was needed…. I understood this later. Needless to say I was frustrated, and was thinking of quitting. But something kept me there and I would go back again and again, even if there was nothing to show for it at the end of most of the classes.
What kept me there was that feeling of total surrender to the moment, the process of the total involvement (with Body Breath and Brush), without even knowing what exactly I was trying to achieve. This kind of learning made me understand something important. It is that not everything needs to be understood (mentally). It is by practice and patience that you understand, through your body, experientially. 
Now,  I teach Sumi-e. My students are of Western/modern background. They want to understand and they want to know it fast (like I did), and my English is good 🙂 So my approach is to start the class with a meditation, where I guide them to let go of the thoughts and tensions they brought with them, find their center and let the body and the brush do the painting.
I try to keep the class as quiet as possible, to allow the individual student to remain in their space, to connect, become intimate with the subject matter, allow it to reveal itself. When questions arise, I try to direct them to find the answer by themselves, through their inner inquiry. The best answers to everything (in life) come from there anyway.
Sumi-e is a process where one learns and practices the art of connecting and seeing the spirit -the underlying essence of what you paint. It is not result-oriented but if one does practice painting from that space the result can be breathtaking.


  1. MT McClanahan

    What do you mean by the "essence" of subject matter? What is that exactly? What is "connecting" with that mean? Are you saying it is the same "stuff" that is in everything and the goal is to connect ours with whatever we are painting? If so, what benefit is derived from doing that? What is the benefit of sumi-e different from western painting?

  2. Lilith Ohan

    Thanks MT for your inquisitive comment. Before I even attempt to answer to your questions, I would like to ask a question myself. What do you mean by "benefit"? What is the benefit of the Western painting?

  3. MT McClanahan

    Sorry for delay–didn't get an auto email that you had responded.

    I like the way you dig to the meat of the matter–look for the true meaning of things. I guess I am thinking that, whatever you are doing (I'll say Eastern for sake of brevity) is painting the goal, or is some spiritual revelation the goal *through* painting?

    So if the goal is not first and foremost creating something, i.e., "results oriented", then what is the goal/benefit of connecting with the subject matter, which does seem to be what you are saying is the main goal?

    You said once, elsewhere, that Sumi-e was not for meditation. Then for what benefit?

    You have really peeked my interest in the differences between these thought processes–West and East I mean.

  4. Lilith Ohan

    Maybe if you "Follow"ed you would get a notification…not sure.
    So, process vs goal (East vs West) mind frame….I will try to address this or part of it in my next blog. As a matter of fact all my blogs, including the Interpretations of Tao Te Ching for Artists are pretty much on this topic. It is harder to understand logically…only by experience.

  5. MT McClanahan

    Logic is all I have at the moment on this! I do follow the feed–I'll try the other, thanks.

  6. Lilith Ohan

    I am sure you have more than that, or you wouldn't be able to create your beautiful art with just logic 🙂


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