Art and Kung Fu … Tiger Style! (Rawr!)

Tiger Claw
Charcoal and conte crayon on Strathmore drawing paper. 14 x 17 inches

“The Year of the Hobbyist” – a personal auto-characterization of my last approximately twelve months. My sister has made plenty of snarky comments about the several pass-times I have picked up and tried to juggle, not without mocking for the ones I have let fall into the dirt. She’s right, though … I recently bought a guitar and I was good about breaking into it, practicing for the first few weeks, only now for the last several months it has been leaning against my living room wall like another still tableau instead of an instrument. I purchased a French-made tagine with (feebly sated) ambitions for Moroccan cooking, a fishing pole hungry for more fish, running shoes that could at this point have seen a little more pavement, and a small fish tank with five tiny tropical fish (to whom I will say I am hopelessly devoted). However, one new thing in my life that has persisted is kung fu. Today, after nearly one and a quarter years training at the local dojang, I am fairly obsessed with it.

I’m not particularly talented in martial arts, but I’m not especially bad either. I see myself falling comfortably in the middle of skill levels. I’m happy with doing my best, learning from outcomes, and working arduously towards improving techniques to better the overall practice. As I write, I find this sounds familiar. In fact, this sounds a lot like my understanding of the artist’s practice. Kung fu, after all, is an art in its own right, meant to be honed, cultivated, and adapted to its practitioner.

Any new initiate to Chinese martial arts quickly encounters different stances and styles, often given flavorful names like bear, crane, mantis, cobra … and my favorite: tiger. Tiger style Shoalin kung fu invokes the swift swiping movements of a big, furious cat: the fingers curl in to mimic rigid claws, defensive movements rely on deft blocks, pulling, and evasion. The offensive tiger pushes with speed, tears at the foe’s clothes, skin, face, eyes, and overwhelms by crowding, bearing down until the opponent falters. To illustrate, an overdone and needlessly cheesy National Geographic clip pits the kung fu practitioner against the deadly tiger itself here:

Art as Mirror / The Final Success / A Lifelong Pursuit

The several styles within martial arts mirror the endless stylistic possibilities of visual art making. The root of my attraction to tiger style is in the familiarity of its motions. The tiger swats and claws its way through space in a way analogous to how I chop and tear at the surface of the canvas to create form and friction. The cross-hatching motion echoes the tearing, slashing of hooked fingers through the air. Both the imaginary opponent and the painting taking shape are left with vivid gashes to build upon. There are several differences to note as well − for instance, it does no use to think of a painting as an opponent, and in Chinese martial arts, the “opponent” is only one, largely external aspect of the art’s spectrum of application. The opponent and/or the tableau could alternatively be thought of as a mirror, a concept I increasingly rely on.

As with any hobby, it can often be difficult to keep up with regular training in the face of daily demands on time and competing priorities. In the past six months, cycling between jobs, moving, and part time school have at times robbed me of the ability to show up during the kung fu classes I learn from. These are the same obstructions that prevent me from getting as much studio time as I would like. Frustrating as it is, I’ve found it’s important to remember that we are not in any race and there is no solid deadline. The fact that I am motivated and often impatient compels me to expect more progress from myself, but I’m learning to live “in the present” (as so many of my paintings do!) as opposed to targeting some fictional endpoint. In art and in kung fu, how does one measure success? Is Success – with a capital “S” – rapid progress? The breaking of a board, the completion of a bold painting? Nothing really ends in either, and “success” itself may be a word unfit for anyone serious about the continuation of practice. It is possible that the only final success is simply to continue in a reality where failure is far more common than its opposite. I often think of turning the old meme “the ends justify the means” around just a bit. What if the means/meanings give further definition, and richness, to the ends, wherever that is? A teaching from the dojang outlines the importance of art as a lifelong pursuit.

Gesture Tiger, Crosshatch Claw

This drawing is part of my recent practical migration back towards sketching or maybe for me simply non-painting. I’m nearing my self-imposed ten new drawings goal and I thought I would take a swipe (rawr!) at the classic, exhaustive, hyperreal hand drawing, though with a kung fu twist. My intention is to eventually extend this into a series covering several of the more common “fists of kung fu,” including the aforementioned mantis, as well as eagle and ox jaw to name a few.

Ground work
Conte crayon ground

As I often do, I started out laying a ground of red conte crayon to liven up the drawing space. This ground also allows the surface a wider range of lights and darks as well as versatility. With the ground, you can use an eraser to *remove* material to create a different light instead of having to add more white material on top of an already toothless black.

Gestural outline
Gestural outline

The next step is the outline. Working from a photograph, which I know is problematic, I tried to make the outline as gestural as possible. This approach allows the lines to remain bouncy, lively and full of air. If the outline remains flexible in the beginning, it makes a big difference once the heavier shades start to fill up the space and give definition. As this happens, the form is taking on a more definitely three-dimensional quality. When the “darkest darks and the lightest lights,” a recurring phrase I have to attribute to my sixth grade art teacher, have been filled in, one may be tempted to stop and be proud of the piece. However, with some charcoals, it’s unavoidable to end up with a cloudy quality that seems blurred around the edges. To a myopic like myself, holding the piece away gives the impression of a brooding thunderhead rather than a recognizable form.

Light and Dark
Light and Dark

To correct the brooding thunderhead syndrome, I have been working on a crosshatch technique which adds final definition to all the lines and can also interestingly be used to correct tonal disparities. “Tonal disparities” is hard to explain, but I can try by saying that sometimes the lights and darks just don’t balance in the composition. Perhaps the foreground appears too dark and has a quality of “non-belonging” or lacks continuity with the space around it. The detailed crosshatching, slashing marks can adjust the tone profile of the entire composition to the artist’s liking and balance the piece from top to bottom.

Finally, since charcoal, graphite, and conte crayon are highly mutable and degrade the composition with the slightest friction, I applied an acrylic gloss (remember your GOOD ventilation techniques unless you have the surplus neurons to spare) to fix the material on the paper. If you don’t have a proper studio, as I do not, you can use the space between a storm door and the mesh screen door as a makeshift drying rack.

Drunken Crab Style Kung Fu

Several months ago during my kung fu class, the instructor was conditioning us acolytes – that is, commanding us through rigorous physical drills until everyone is drenched in sweat and panting like a tiger in the Sundarban. The opening twenty to thirty minutes of any class goes this way, to make our bodies strong and our endurance unbending. We’d made it through maybe ten drills when – “Cartwheels,” instructor says loudly. “Go.”

Panic. Dread packs into my head and good sense flees as I turn over how the hell I am going to execute a cartwheel, such a seemingly simple childhood gymnastic game that I had pathetically never been able to do. Everyone could see on my face that I had never successfully done one before, but here I am now awkwardly posturing with my paws out in front of me working out, as if it is an algebra of sorts, how I am going to get my head beneath my legs.

In the next few minutes, I failed. I failed again, and again, and again. If a style could be associated with my cartwheel performance, it may be something like Drunken Crab style. Luckily, no one could see the red shame on my face due to the red exhaustion already there. Despite the embarrassment, however, I vowed after this class in the Spring that I would learn to cartwheel on my own. A stronger resolve had never once before wrestled into the forefront of my mind, and the next day, after the now familiar residual pain subsided, I began work on the cartwheel.

A few months later, I was a lot better at it. But now, after months of winter and nowhere to practice outside, I’ve let my cartwheel atrophy and I fear it again. When the grass is green and the ground is warm in a hopeful month or so, I’ll be able to pick it back up again and practice, treating it like an art that requires refinement. In the face of failure, I’ll try to remember, there is no success other than simply to continue.

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