As an artist, Frederick Franck is concerned with more than drawing solely for the sake of pleasure. He views it is as powerful tool in learning to truly see. Seeing, he believes, correlates to being deeply present in everyday life experiences. He writes about awakening through the practice of drawing directly what the eyes perceive, and no more. As a by-product, he finds inexplicable aliveness in all things, and the capacity to communicate that aliveness to others.
In the opening paragraph of his book, Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing, Frederick Frank poignantly writes:
I have lived through two world wars, survived miraculously the horrors of this cruel century, and yet…my eye always has been in love with the splendors of the world that surrounds us. My response to what I see has been to draw, and the more I have drawn the greater has become my delight in seeing and my wonder at the great gift of being able to see. I only have to stop drawing for a week to feel my eye go dim, to feel starved and impoverished. And so I draw everything – leaves, plants, clouds, swarms of birds, humans in the street. One day I realized suddenly that the seeing and the drawing had fused into one single undivided act. I called it seeing/drawing. It was a revelation, and it changed my life.
Seeing/drawing is also about life, about life in its fullness, about learning to see again and thereby be totally alive and fully aware…
This is what seeing/drawing really does: You become what you draw, unless you become it, you cannot draw it.
Franck spent much of his life trying to convey the distinction between truly seeing and merely looking-at the world around us – a key component when learning to draw. But, he states he has no “teaching method” or “techniques” for seeing/drawing, as that would be paradoxical to its very nature. Rather, in an atmosphere of meditative silence and attention, it is transmitted more on an intuitive level. Slowly, the eye is deprogrammed from the habit of looking-at, to seeing:
The moment first-hand seeing is retrieved – and I have seen this confirmed hundreds of times – the hand starts to move in obedience to the eye and finds its own “technique,” which only constant practice will refine, enrich, and enhance.
He argues that seeing/drawing can become a single act, where the body, soul, and hand are no longer split.
To see like a child again
The artist, who Franck believes resides within every person, must reawaken in order to see things as they are – as children do. If not, we’ll continue to look-at the world on a surface level and lose life-force, compassion, and joy – the sense of being fully alive. To put it plainly, existence will feel dull and meaningless.
It’s unsustainable to walk through the world objectifying everything as a means to an end. The artist must come to realize the futility of skimming over life – using, consuming, and worse – competing, ad nauseam to lay claim on precarious mounds of cheaply created things. Life at this level is a half-lived race to win awards, adulation or a great name. And this was the path that confronted Franck until his own inner awakening occurred. Then life for him took on a whole new meaning – one of color, beauty, and limitless goodness.
With childlike joy, he exclaimed at one point:
I fell in love with seeing!
He describes an “aha” moment of his, a mystical moment of sorts when intrigued by a crippled old man hobbling towards him in the city. Franck felt he “became” him, experiencing his very tiredness and sore feet. Moved deeply, he stopped to draw the old man. In that very moment he realized the pen strokes were the outcome of what his eyes perceived directly, altogether bypassing his thinking mind.
He says, however, seeing/drawing did not come to fruition overnight:
On the contrary, it was the result of endless practice in coordinating eye and hand, of jotting down whatever I saw. There is no trick to it, no shortcuts. There are no manuals for sale on how to draw old fellows limping toward you. You just go on drawing. For every drawing is your latest exercise in the fine-tuned coordination of eye and hand, ever more sensitively, ever more truthfully…each [exercise] is a keen experiencing, an intensification of your awareness, each one enriches your life, adds to its fullness, deepens your perception of the commonplace as Mystery.
And as a result of his new way of seeing, he claims,
Art is the most profound, most irrepressible response to life itself…”
The heart/mind connection
He goes on to describe another crucial point – the physiological passageway of seeing/drawing. It’s route progresses from the eye down through the pen via the “heart/mind” (or soul). This is when the drawing comes to life since what is drawn has become precious to him (ie.the old crippled man). The spirit of the piece can then be transmitted to the viewer heart to heart.
Art, then, becomes the function of the soul providing the potential for artists to communicate powerfully in the world. Tears beget tears and deep stirrings evoke what is breathtaking and ineffable.
What is bypassed is the mechanical, critical mind when the artist is engaged in seeing/drawing vs. looking-at/processing. True seeing grasps the heart, whereas merely looking-at leaves the conditioned mind grasping. It is this Mystery we’re being pointed to which makes the drawing profoundly compelling and qualitatively different than that which is egocentric.
Franck says it’s about:
Trusting one’s gut feeling for what is beamed from heart to heart and not from one narcissistic ego, that of the maker, to the other, that of the dealer, consumer, critic.
He goes on:
If one’s art does not rise up from the deepest recesses of one’s being, it risks being not art but kitsch. Kitsch – it is all too easily overlooked.
Correlating compassion with seeing
Franck makes a direct correlation between the ability to perceive things as they are, via the heart, and the capacity for compassion. We can learn to stop seeing people mechanically as objects, and see them, maybe for the first time, as ourselves. More than simply seeing, we’ll discover a deep sense of being. Being-ness that transforms every aspect of life, making what seems skin-deep and cold, warm and alive. This is the essence of good art, the antithesis of that which is tainted with narcissism. It always goes back to the eyes of perception.
In his workshops, Franck witnessed countless epiphanies among students, he writes:
Suddenly all the confused, impotent scrawling stops, and the hand, synchronized with the eye, begins to draw. But something even more astonishing seems to be correlated with this suddenly retrieved capacity to draw: It is an awakening, a new openness for the insight into the livingness of living things, a reborn capacity for empathy, wonder, and reverence, for awe for the simplest things of nature, for a leaf, a scallion, It may be momentary, but it could also be a lasting awakening from the coma of aesthetic alienation, a liberation….
[In the awakening of the eye…the reawakening of the Specifically Human…] Is it not this Specific Humanness awakened that is irreconcilable with letting children starve to death and torturing people in basements?
Drawing to see
Drawing is a powerful tool to awaken the artist within to see, feel and sense more deeply. With practice, drawing can be mastered and unitive perception restored, bringing aliveness and deepening connection with others.