Artist and author Lynda Barry on the power of the paintbrush
I PAINT THESE MONKEYS with a brush and hand-ground Chinese ink. What began as a response to the death of a friend has become something I lean on, just as I depend on the alphabet to be there when I want to write.
I found the paintbrush when I was working on my novel Cruddy, getting nowhere because I was trying to write it on a computer. The problem with writing on a computer was that I could delete anything I felt unsure about. This meant that a sentence was gone before I even had a chance to see what it was trying to become.
When I was a kid, I never wrote without first having a book to write in. The simple act of folding sheets of paper and stapling them inside a construction paper cover was the first step in writing a book. The second was the movement of a pencil on paper. For most kids, once the experience of writing or drawing is over, the story itself isn’t so important.
Some studies show that for children, handwriting and stories are intertwined. The very motion of writing by hand encourages creativity. The same is true for drawing. It’s only later in life that action and intent part ways.
I decided to try to write my book with a brush, mostly because I wanted to get as far from the computer as I could. I was surprised by the instant change in my experience of writing. Without a delete button, I could allow the unexpected to grow. I finished my novel.
As it turns out, people have been aware of the power of the paintbrush for over two thousand years. Brush, ink, and Buddhism are all bound together. The history of brush and ink in Asia cannot be studied without encountering the Buddha, who long ago traveled, via brush and ink, across China to Japan. He crossed entire centuries to my studio that day.
I’ve used the brush ever since. These monkey paintings are fossils of experience, the remnants of a hand in motion, of breath and being. The vehicle of ink and brush is available to anyone. The picture you make is not so important. Move your brush not to make a picture, but make a picture in order to move your brush.
Lynda Barry is the creator of the weekly comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek and the author of several books. Her new book is What It Is (May 2008, Drawn & Quarterly).