Circles of Enlightenment

One morning recently, I came into the studio and set to work on another “circle” creation. Circles, you may recall, are the subject of a new sketchbook I’m doing. As silly as it might sound, yes, I’m filling up an entire 60-page sketchbook with nothing but circles, circles, and more circles.

Some of my circle art is neatly drawn with a stencil. At other times, I’ve played with free-hand drawing or painting. On this particular morning I grabbed my gansai and set about painting circles with a round watercolor brush — no stencil. I made a circle or two, and then I got into a bit of rhythm with it.

One stroke, two strokes. Each stroke formed half a circle. One stroke, two strokes. One stroke, two strokes. It was soothing and comforting. I made a few circles, stopped to take a break, and when I came back the gansai was dry, so I picked up a Micron pen and doodled a design here and there.

And then I made more circles. One stroke. Two strokes. Now and then a circle didn’t quite close completely, and I thought about circles, about closures, about things left open. I made more circles and more thoughts came to mind.

Here is “Thoughtful Circles”.

Thoughtful Circles – Gansai

I added a very loose blue background, choosing that color because it felt restful. I’d enjoyed grabbing different colors, filling in some circles, adding circles within circles, and all the while thinking about what circles can symbolize in life.

A circle can mean many things. Circles represent completion, wholeness, perfection, the infinite, eternity, timelessness, the seasons and cycles of life itself. Indeed, circles can be quite thought-provoking, and painting these circles — one stroke, two strokes — made me feel calm and quiet. I could have gone on making circles like this all day long.

But life called. I had things to do. Feeling content with my morning art, I smiled and shut off the studio lights.

Later that morning, I sat down to read blog comments. I’d just published Going in Circlesthe post that talked about my new art theme and my plan to fill up a sketchbook with circles. I came across a very interesting comment from fellow blogger Crafty Rat. whose name, by the way, is actually Sarah. She wrote:

I love the idea of a sketchbook dedicated to circles… have you come across the enso circle?

An enso circle? No, I’d never heard of an enso circle before. Of course I quickly clicked on the link and found myself mouth agape as I stared at an enso circle. One stroke. Two strokes.

Oh, my goodness! I had just spent the morning making enso circles without even knowing it. I read then about enso circles being open or closed, how enso circles express a moment in time when the mind is free to let the body create, how enso circles represent the creative spirit and an uninhibited freedom of expression.

This is exactly what I’ve been finding in my art over the last few months. Every mark I’ve made, every brushstroke I’m placed on paper or canvas has been leading me toward finding my own creative spirit and my own artistic freedom.

And here it was, all encompassed in an enso circle, also known as a “circle of enlightenment.”

According to Wikipedia, “Drawing ensō is a disciplined-creative practice of Japanese ink painting, sumi-e. The tools and mechanics of drawing the ensō are the same as those used in traditional Japanese calligraphy: One uses an ink brush to apply ink to washi (a thin Japanese paper).

Now, my enso circles were drawn not in ink but with gansai, a Japanese watercolor. And they were done not on Japanese paper, but on inexpensive watercolor paper. So, maybe my enso circles aren’t really enso circles, but I’m not going to quibble about it.

I decided, though, to make more enso circles, and move a bit closer to the traditional sumi-e method. You probably remember that I have a beautiful set of sumi-e inks and brushes. I bought the set over two years ago. It’s still sitting on a shelf — unused. I’ve almost come to the conclusion that it will be forever sitting on that shelf — unused. It’s just too beautiful. I can’t bring myself to open it and try using the inks. So, no, I didn’t grab my sumi-e tools.

But, I also have a set of shadow colorsThat’s what they’re called. They’re classed as “watercolor” but they’re made with sumi inks and pigments. I bought a set because I was intrigued by them, but if you go back to read the post I wrote, you’ll see that I wasn’t at all sure how to use them, and my first attempts were not too successful. I played around a bit more with them, but concluded that maybe shadow color inks weren’t quite right for me.

Oh, but wouldn’t they be ideal for drawing enso circles? Yep, yep, yep. I went digging through my watercolor bin this morning and pulled out that little set of five shadow colors. Then with a #8 round watercolor brush, I made this drawing in my sketchbook:


What does it mean? I’m not sure, but, again, it was a thoughtful, meditative experience. When I’m doing circles,  especially these freely-drawn enso circles, I become mostly an observer, stepping back to watch myself paint, noticing not so much what I am doing as what the brush and paint are doing. I notice how the paint flows off the brush, how wet or dry it is, how the line changes as the brush sweeps around. I look at places where one color flows a bit into another. I study the various shapes, and I consider the design that is appearing. I let the brush and paint go on, putting circles here and there, until I feel balanced and at peace.

My “circles” project has become part of my daily routine. It’s a bit of a “warm-up” exercise, a little practice to kick my brain into “art mode”, a time to simply enjoy the experience of art without concern or real direction. I just make circles. One stroke. Two strokes.

It’s definitely an enlightening process. Thank you, Sarah, the “Crafty Rat”, for introducing me to enso circles. To learn more, you might want to visit “The Lion’s Roar” — What is an Enso?

The most common inscription on enso paintings is simply, “What is this?” leaving the interpretation up to the viewer. After asking this question on his painting of an enso, one Zen master added, “I don’t know either!” — From The Lion’s Roar: What is an Enso?

So, no I guess I don’t really know what my enso circles are all about. I know that I loved painting them, and they are whatever they are.


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