‘Zen and the art of Carelessness’

There’s nothing worse than a ‘Needy’ painting.

When you’re just trying too hard and nothing seems to work. Everything is self-conscious, careful and precious. You get bogged down in detail, you get desperate and cling to the bits that you think are ‘good’. I have to recognise this early and scrape it off, or start afresh, before the rot sets in.

I try not to be precious about my paintings. If they’re not right, I repaint them. Sometimes I walk away and leave them a day or two. Maybe I won’t look at them for weeks. Then, when I come back I see them with a fresh perspective, as if for the first time. If I’m still not happy I’ll scrape them back and start again. I can’t alter anything without painting everything, it has to work as a whole.

It’s said that the 19th and early 20th century painter, John Singer Sargentsportraits and landscapes are basically a series of super imposed sketches, of which only the final one is visible. I totally get that. He said, “Always paint a thing in one sitting.” You paint the whole thing in one, the next day you continue to paint the whole thing again, in another sitting. “To alter the nose, you repaint the face”.

A successful painting, to my mind has to look Unworried and effortless, with a natural careless ease. Sargent took great trouble to get this unworried, fresh look. His landscapes done in the Alps in 1910 have brush strokes that breathe onto his canvas with the freshness of clean Alpine air. The same too for his portraits, take a look at his portrait of “Lady Agnew”. It appears to have been painted in about half an effortless hour, every mark made with ‘careless providence’.

Henry James said, “Painting,” to Sargent, “was a pure tact of vision, a simple manner of feeling.” He would rather wipe the paint off than correct it. It is said that “he painted and scraped, painted and scraped ad nauseam. But he got there”.

                                   Mushin ‘Flow’

Sometimes you can have a painting almost paint itself!

Mushin is a word in Zen Buddhism that translates as ‘without mind’ or without thoughts, in a state existing purely within the moment, free from worry, anger, ego, fear or any other emotions. It is a thing that is known as ‘flow’ amongst performers and athletes, that, being in the zone! Rock Climbers for example, can become so absorbed, so involved in the moment, so totally focused on the tiny blemishes and minute fissures in the rock face that the rest of the world fades away. Even time seems non-existent, they seem to be in another dimension, acutely aware and yet unconscious of the world in their periphery. The task at hand becomes effortless, almost happening by itself. This is ‘Mushin’. They reach the top with no recollection of time passing or indeed how they did it! It’s the same for anyone completely absorbed in a task. Rowers, are another example.

My wife Helen and I do a lot of competitive sea rowing together. When the boat is running and the crew are totally focused and in complete unison you can experience this flow, or ‘swing’ as it’s referred to in rowing. You find your boat is cutting smoothly, effortlessly through the water, and it’s easy. Each stroke of the oars feeling like a warm scoop into soft ice cream. There are other times when you feel like you’re pushing yourself to the limit, rowing your hardest and yet the boat feels slow and sticky, like rowing in glue. I know that to achieve this effortless flow, takes effort, it takes practice, it takes repetition.

You learn to move without tension, without stiffness or self-consciousness.

When I’m out painting on the Pembrokeshire coast, I can sometimes become absorbed in this way, my brush applies the paint instinctively, sweeping and mark making with careless ease. Time is lost in the moment, as clouds speed across the sky and tides rush in and out and my canvas billows and creaks in an onshore breeze. Before I know it the canvas is covered and on it rests an impression of my experience.


To achieve flow you have to be open to it. Shoshin is another state in Zen Buddhism, that translates as “beginners mind”. It is an attitude of openness and eagerness when studying a subject. The idea is, that you let go of preconceptions, looking and feeling with optimism and enthusiasm as if you are a beginner, when everything is fresh and new, even when studying at an advanced level.

Monet once said that he wanted to paint, as if he had been blind and had his sight suddenly return to him so he could see a thing as he had never seen it before.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few” Shunryu Suzuki

Like a child, when in a state of Shoshin you are not concerned with what the end result will be, you are concentrated on experiencing the moment, accepting, what will be.

Painting without preconceptions or bias allows you to treat the painting as a whole, with a careless, unworried attitude. Letting go of any precious feelings about it allows you to approach the painting with the same freshness and eagerness of the beginner, allowing the painting to flow, allowing it to become more than the sum of its parts. Even if it means scraping it back the next day if it gets too needy.