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A Shrike on a Barren Branch

Taking a closer look at an ink painting by Japan famous warrior Miyamoto Musashi

Shrike on a barren tree (枯木鳴鵙図, Koboku meigeki-zu)
Shrike on a barren tree

This ink painting of a small bird holding onto a long barren branch, looks like a most serene traditional nature theme, but is it? Lets observe a little deeper.

This simplified artwork was painted with few minimal brush strokes and yet attention is given to each single one. Every stroke carries a flow as well as clear discipline of its place within the whole. Nothing missing, nothing added. The balance is just exact.

The stem is painted with a single determined movement crossing the space from top to bottom. With only few mid-tone ink marks, foliage is hinted of at the lower section of the painting.

Light-wash of horizontal brush lines at the painting lower part, suggest a nearness to a source of water, perhaps a stream or a lake, giving a feeling of depth to the composition. Placing the shrike at the top of the stem creates a sense of hight and long distance view. And suddenly, the flat scroll become alive with depth and hight, creating a three dimensional effect.

Only few details, like the eye of the bird and the moss on the main branch, are dotted in dark black ink with a precise manner, giving focus and power to the whole artwork.

More so, let us not be fooled, this is not a mere decorative kind of painting. What gives power to this composition is the inside story. There is a life drama going on! The shrike is on full alert, focused, and quietly waiting.

Can you detect what it is waiting for? Yes, the answer is in the middle of the stem. A  small black worm is climbing up, marked by a fine black line for its body and a single dot for the head. And now, our perception changes, to become a story, that of a hunter and its prey. We are witnessing the moment before the bird attack, seconds of preparation and alert. The suspense is in the air, who is going to make it? the hunter or the hunted.

The shrike is a small hunting bird that is known by its dark, masked-like eyes area. It uses its beak to nail its prey onto branches and by doing so able to dissect it in small pieces. In its practice the shrike fly high up to observe its prey from treetops, and then fly right back down to capture it.

This moment, before attack, must have been of interest to the artist of this painting. And the theme does offer a clue as to who this artist is. Definitely no mere painter. Considered the greatest Japanese samurai of all, a fierce warrior who has claimed to have never lost a battle in his life, this is an ink painting by Miyamoto Musashi.

Miyamoto Musashi (1584- 1645)

Born in Miyamoto village into the ilit warrior ('samurai') class of Japan 16th century, Musashi's father, who was a master swordsman, died when he was only seven. The boy was adopted by his uncle and began practicing the warrior martial arts. From a young age he challenged himself to become the best swordsman in the land. He claimed to have won his first battle at the age of thirteen, and by the time he was twenty-six won over sixty contests.

Miyamoto Musashi / woodblock print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

In his adult life, Musashi became a 'ronin', a masterless warrior,  specializing in the two swords technique. He offered his service to different masters, living mostly like a hermit. Never having a bath or cutting his hair, he would wonder the land in all weathers on his perilous adventures. His life story is rich with tales of heroic battles, of which, off course, he always won. He has become a legendary warrior.

Musashi devoted his time to the perfection of the 'Way of the sword' known as kendo. Pursuing the ideal of the warrior through the path of kendo was not only practicing the sword but abiding with the code of the warrior life. Its moral code stem deep from both Confucian philosophy and Zen practice. These practices also included calligraphy and ink painting of which Musashi mastered.

Two years before his death, Musashi retired to a life of seclusion in a cave, where he practice calligraphy, painted and culminated his life philosophy into a single book. The 'Book of five rings' (go rin no sho) as it was named, is a summary of his warrior skills, life experience and wisdom. He described it as 'a book for men who want to learn strategy' . Divided into five segments, titled - Ground, Water, Fire, wind and Void, each part presents a different aspect of the 'Way of strategy' as he called it.

The book of five rings has become one of the most well known martial arts instructions manual through the generations, and still today. Although being a thin book, somehow, the more one reads it, the more truth and wisdom unfold from it. It is a book for the spirited warrior.

The Spirited Warrior

'In strategy your spiritual bearing must not be any different from normal. Both in fighting and in everyday life you should be determined though calm. Meet the situation without tenseness yet not recklessly, your spirit settled yet unbiased. Even when your spirit is calm do not let your body relax, and when your body is relaxed do not let your spirit slacken.' (-'Water book')

Musashi's teaches that one needs to 'become acquainted with every art' and 'know the Ways of all professions'. He himself was talented with many skills. Amongst them, he was a metalsmith, a painter, a poet, a philosopher and an author.

The following instructions about timing in strategy, could well be applied not only in martial art training, but as a set of life skills in general, and within the artistic creative process in particular. Here is Musashi :

'Do not think dishonestly

The Way is the training

Become acquainted with every art

Know the Ways of all professions

Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters

Develop intuitive judgment and understanding for everything

Perceive those things which cannot be seen

Pay attention even to trifles

Do nothing which is of no use' (-'Ground book')

The Way of Brush and Sword

'The worrior's is the twofold Way of brush and sword, and he should have a taste for both Ways'.     (-'Ground book')

Musashi considered the way of the warrior in similar to the way of the artist. He was a master of ink painting and calligraphy, and although only few of his artwork survived today, the precision and mastership of his brush can be clearly seen and felt. Each ink mark demonstrate his warrior spirit at play.

Hotei watching a roosters fight ink
Hotei watching a roosters fight

In this ink painting on the right, Hotei, the famous god of good luck and fortune, is carrying his bag of abundant gifts on his back, while observing intensely at a pair of roosters fight.

This kind of observation, which Musashi called 'the gaze', is a vital part of his teaching. He gives firm training instructions as to how to develop superb observation skills, and use one's vision to increase perception of the world, inside and out.*

We can see his 'gazing strategy' reflected in his ink paintings.

Just like in 'Shrike on barren stem' painting, where the watchful eye of the bird creates the tension of the storyline, so is in this ink painting, we have Hotei intense watch of the fight. His head rests on both his hands, which are nested on his rod. Attention is given to his quiet watchfulness, empowering the scene.

And then there are the two roosters watching each other in a moment of pause. Perhaps not such a quiet one, but the tension is there.

The contrasted shouts of the birds verses the intense stillness of Hotei is a wonder. What goes on in his mind? How can Hotei keep still? Obviously he cannot offer his gifts to the roosters as they are not paying attention. Yet, he is not taking sides in this fight either. He is patiently waiting a resolve.

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here. A lesson that suggests that even when in struggle, one can allow luck to play a part. Not just any luck, but the kind of good fortune represented by Hotei, that of natural flow of the connective universe, with its abundance of gifts, that can guide anyone out of conflict, if only one pays attention.

And perhaps like the god of good fortune in this painting, finding in oneself a neutral position in times of struggle is the best action. A place that rely solely on the magic rod of balance. The warrior heart, our soul, no matter what we claim to carry in our bag.

*For more about the gaze strategy and Musashi practical teaching see full article on ArtBrush library

Ink Composition

'The way of strategy is the way of nature. When you appreciate the power of nature, knowing the rhythm of any situation, you will be able to hit the enemy naturally and strike naturally'. (-'Ground book')

Back to 'Shrike on a barren branch'. This artwork is a wonderful example of Japanese ink painting at its best. It carries essentials core elements of what makes an excellent ink painting. Lets look at them -

Usage of space - What is not painted here is as important as what is painted. The usage of space is essential in conveying this. There are minimal brush strokes that divide the empty space to create a landscape in a most brilliant way. Less then a third of the scroll is actually painted, while more than two thirds are empty. But this space is not 'empty' as such. It is a conductive space, an essential part of the composition. It is the dream world of storytelling. Connecting the gaze of the shrike, the movement of the worm, the foliage and the water together to tell us, the viewers, the tale of the shrike on a barren tree.

Composition balance - Much like in Japanese flower arrangement, known as ikebana, where a good arrangement would have a neat balance of three main parts, so does division of subjects 'weight' in a good ink painting, is into three. Creating a rhythm of movement, the first most essential weight, the secondary weight and the third.

This can be easily identified by becoming aware of the way your eyes move on the artwork. Do not think about it, just witness the flow as your eyes travel the painting and you will find this rhythm.

And so we have the shrike at the top branch as the first essential part of this painting. Then our eyes flow with the branch to the bottom left corner of the base of the tree and water as a second weight. And thirdly we move to view the central part of the branch, to discover the black mark that is the worm.

Coloured ink - The masterful usage of ink shades in this scroll reflects the talent of its maker and its deep understanding of the flow of ink. The light ink is used boldly and confidently. The darker marks added, are accurate and use the ink in a well preserved manner.

Flow - This kind of flow in an ink painting is to do with its 'chi' - the energy movement of the artwork. First, there is the movement of the artist brushwork itself to consider. The confident versatile range of brush strokes reflect a masterful brush. The brush move on the paper with freedom and flow and yet it has the discipline and experience of usage. There is no hesitation nor unnecessary pauses.

Secondly, we have the theme itself to consider. There is a strange and wonderful range of movement in this painting, created by what is seemingly not moving. The one or two wide brush stroke that suggest still reflection of water, yet we know water are in constant flow. The same goes for the shrike, we know the bird can fly, but it is depicted waiting, quietly. The branch, with its strong solid brush stroke, may be barren in solitude, yet must be moving with the weight of the bird on it, or perhaps with the flowing wind. The one clear movement that we do see is the worm. It is climbing up, seemingly oblivion to the danger above and below.

So here we are, experiencing different time lines, different rhythms and movement in the one scene. And the scene itself is in actual a suspense of what is yet to happen. It is about the moment before action. True to the warrior way of Musashi - being always at the ready.

In Conclusion - On Bravery and Courage

'I take up my brush to explain the true spirit'     (Introduction 'The book of five rings')

Every artist is a warrior. Fear is one of the most common buffers to creativity, perhaps it acts like a filter, which requires the inner warrior to take oneself through this filter to arrive safe on the other side. A person who picks up the brush, like a magic wand, become for that time the artist, the warrior, the pathfinder of their way. It is a unique individual journey and no two are the same.

As Musashi demonstrates in his writing and painting, his brave and courageous attitude is an inspiration not only to the warrior martial artist but also to the creative exploring artist.

The artistic creative process has many dimensional facets to it. Sometimes it is an active and full-on mode. at other times, it is a sparkling solitude of precious silence. The artist, like the warrior, is brave in embracing the journey as it unfolds. Each to their rhythm, pace and timing. Like the painted branch of this scroll, one brush stroke with intention can hold a world of wisdom.


Recommended Read

The book of five rings / Myamoto Musashi/ Translated by Victor Harris

*Victor Harris was a curator of Japanese art at the British Museum and specialised in swords and armors. His introduction and translation of the book are highly recommended.

Images credit copyrights

1. Shrike on a barren tree

125.6x54.3cm / singed Niten /Kuboso memorial museum of arts, Izumi

2. Portrait of Miyamoto Musashi

From a series of woodblock prints titled 'Fidelity in Revenge' by Utagawa Kuniyshi c.1848

3. Hotei watching a roosters fight

size 70.3x31.3cm / signed Niten / Matsunaga memorial museum, Kanagwa

Images are from public domain sources. All efforts were made to respect copyrights owner where possible.


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> For the full essay and more writings on Japanese ink paintings sign up to ArtBrush Library

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> For other individual painting tutorials please check the link HERE



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About the Author

Japanese Ink Painting Instructor & Artist, Talia Lehavi - Standing with a brush in front of Notes on Pine collection in Mallorca Studio

Talia LeHavi is a professional artist and a certified teacher of Japanese ink painting. Exhibiting both in the UK and internationally, she is known for her cross-disciplinary paintings, prints and ceramic tiles.

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