Zen and the Art of Seeing

The painter renders information from the visual world encoded in colorful blobs of paint. This information is subjective and only partially based on facts. It’s a personal interpretation of reality. When you are conscious of this, you say that you are interpreting reality, but when we’re not conscious of it, we claim to see reality objectively.

The brain behind the eye translates objective reality into a subjective, personal experience based on a projection of the past.

The viewer decodes your paint stains and uses them to build his own subjective reality.

Now that we know that the painter’s interpretation of reality doesn’t make a seamless connection to the viewer’s, we can turn it into a game by making our paintings as empty, vague, and indistinct as possible. This way the viewer can give his own interpretation to it by filling this – meaningful – emptiness with his own imagination. You should, however, give him a handle, a minimum of recognizability to jumpstart the imagination.

This minimal rendition of the facts, this stenographic symbol, should always incorporate the most characteristic part of your subject. If you handle this competently, the result will be more expressive, more interesting than reality. A joy to creator and viewer alike.

This has been a brief introduction to this topic. I will clarify it later with additional text and illustrations.

Kees van Aalst

Zen en de kunst van het Zien

(English version will follow soon)

De informatie die de zichtbare wereld uitzendt wordt door de kunstschilder gecodeerd weergegeven in kleurige verfvlekken. Die informatie is subjectief en maar voor een klein deel gebaseerd op feiten. Het is een persoonlijke invulling van de werkelijkheid. Wanneer je je hiervan bewust bent zeg je dat je de realiteit interpreteert, als we het ons niet bewust zijn beweren we dat we echt, objectief, zien.

Het brein achter het oog vertaalt de objectieve werkelijkheid namelijk in een subjectieve, persoonlijke ervaring, die gebaseerd is op een projectie van ons verleden. Dus iedereen ervaart de realiteit anders.

De beschouwer decodeert jouw verfvlekken en bouwt daar weer z’n eigen subjectieve werkelijkheid mee op.

Nu we weten dat de interpretaties van de realiteit van schilder en beschouwer niet naadloos op elkaar aansluiten, kunnen we er een spel van maken en ons schilderij zo leeg, vaag en onduidelijk mogelijk maken. De beschouwer kan hierdoor die –zinvolle- leegte met z’n eigen fantasie invullen en er een eigen interpretatie aan geven. Geef hem of haar echter wel een handvat, een minimum aan herkenbaarheid om de fantasie een beetje op gang te helpen.

Deze minimale weergave van de feiten, dit stenografisch symbool, moet dan wel het meest karakteristieke deel van het onderwerp bevatten.

Als je dit op een kundige wijze aanpakt, is het resultaat expressiever en interessanter dan de werkelijkheid. Een genot voor maker en beschouwer.

Dit was een korte inleiding van het thema. Later zal ik een en ander met meer tekst en illustraties verduidelijken.

Kees van Aalst

Wabi Sabi, the beauty of imperfection

There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in

(Leonard Cohen)

Perfection – aiming for the best, the most beautiful and extraordinary – is highly valued in our culture. Perfectionism is widely praised, but it’s also a trait that can hamper your freedom and lead to feelings of stress and suffocation.

To take pleasure in the small and the ordinary, to accept whatever comes your way, affords greater freedom and peace of mind. Awareness of the transience and unpredictability of life teaches you to be content with what is, to eliminate unnecessary luxuries, and to live simply and mindfully.


This concept is gradually catching on in the visual arts as well. Small mistakes or imperfections add charm to your work. Don’t let your brain interfere with every brush stroke. Leave a little more to chance, respond to what happens, and cherish the “accidents”. Consider painting more like a game, and don’t take it too seriously.

You’ll see that everything gets easier when you sideline the ratio and the ego more often. Weak parts can even strengthen the rest. To finish a painting, you often have to spoil it a little. A goldsmith has no use for pure gold, but an alloy with lesser grade material increases the quality of his work.

Perfection is lifeless and boring. Imperfections, on the other hand, render your work fresh and lively.

The effects of the weather cause rust and discoloration. Through your choice of subject matter and technique, you can incorporate a feeling of transience and the passing of time into a work of art as well. Grayed colors, spatters and drips are examples for achieving this kind of integration.


In short, allow for more chance and unpredictability in your next effort. It’s fine to leave part of the work unfinished – not out of laziness, but to add to the viewing pleasure. The viewer likes to use his/her imagination to fill in the blanks. Add to this a little nonchalance by using less accurate forms and colors.

Still, it can be a challenge to incorporate imperfections in your art in a convincing manner.

Irish playwright and poet Samuel Beckett expressed this aptly:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Kees van Aalst


The true master of art makes art look easy.sprezzatura-1

Sprezzatura, a seeming effortlessness in the development of a creation, is something many people aspire to, but it turns out to be more difficult than it looks.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard students sigh: “I’d like to learn how to work more loosely”. But looseness is not something you can learn. It’s the result of an organic process based on the thorough knowledge of figurative skills.

A mere gesture of studied virtuosity, lacking in depth, remains superficial and empty. This kind of casual nonchalance is often no more than a sloppy display of inability, an attempt to impress with a lot of bravado. In vain. The connoisseur sees through it right away: it’s nothing but hot air. Only a very experienced artist, who has complete mastery of his craft and technique, can afford to work loosely and casually with conviction.

I can hear you think: “Well, Kees, if learning to work more loosely isn’t possible, what are you telling me here?” Don’t be discouraged, I’ll try to help you on your way.

Have you ever noticed that in step-by-step demonstrations in books about painting techniques you often prefer the penultimate stage to the final one? A work of art is often stronger when it’s hardly more than a preliminary sketch, rather than a completely resolved rendering. Such a sketch frequently breathes a spontaneous life force, which can also be found in certain examples of handwriting and signature. You can find the same charisma in the vital expressions of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. The Romans called it “divinus afflatus” – the divine breath. The X-factor has now been added to technical skill. It’s a talent you’re born with, but which can also be approached by the less gifted through hard work and practice.

Remember, when you start a thing, you have to want to excel at it. It’s the only way to rise above the material. Only then does effortlessness become easy – once you know how to do it.

Both maker and viewer then learn to enjoy the suggestive stains and lines which constitute the basis of “sprezzatura”, the art of nonchalance and seeming effortlessness.

Still, it’s never easy to give shape to simplicity with style.


If you’d like to learn more about the practical application of this casual way of working, I suggest you read Edo Hannema’s instructive blogs. Highly recommended.

Next time: Wabi Sabi, the beauty of imperfection.

© Kees van Aalst