Karl Mårtens was born in San Francisco 1956, and grew up in the vicinity of Drottningholm, outside of Stockholm. At the age of 16 he moved to Switzerland and from there to Canada, and eventually back to San Francisco. After 24 years away from Sweden he returned to Sweden at the age of 40.
Nature studies, with a special love for birds, has been Karl’s main interest since childhood. He has been drawing and painting birds as long as he can remember. As the years have gone by his style has changed from extremely detailed paintings to the present, freer style.
The background for Karl’s style has its roots in his deep interest for the forms of meditation found I Zen Buddhism. Getting to know one self through attention to thoughts and emotions, and to accept the fact that we will never be fully in control of our lives are some of the thoughts he has found important. This way of thinking is not only reflected in Karl’s paintings, but has resulted in his holding workshops in Zen calligraphy, where participants get to practice identifying their emotions, resist planning and then express the emotions on paper with Chinese ink on calligraphy paper.
“When we paint from our true feelings, we all paint something beautiful.
Karl paint his birds from memory, using watercolor and charcoal on hand-made paper.”
“I look at a bird and a specific expression or posture, which particularly expresses the personality of the bird, sticks in my mind. Then I paint…”
Please, take a look at the video at the end of the post.
In his words:
Shih-t’ao (Chinese, 1642-1707) maintained that the artist needs to trust his or her own ability. Being receptive to impressions is more important than knowledge. In other words, the artist needs to be in touch with intuition.
In painting and calligraphy, the first stroke is the most important. It comes from nothing and manifests something. This is what Shih-t’ao calls the Holistic Brushstroke. It creates something where nothing was. Optimally, it contains no planned thought. It emanates from “emptiness”.
My struggle is to apply this to my painting, just as struggle to apply it when practicing Sho do (character calligraphy) or Zen Calligraphy (non-figurative, emotional calligraphic painting). The best results are achieved when no thought is given to it – when the mind rests and intuition takes over – Mu shin. Another aspect is to try accept what is, and not try to adjust it.
The true Holistic Brushstroke also describes a “method without method”. A way of achieving without intention. Doing through non-doing which, in Zen Calligraphy, is the most important aspect. This can also be said to be true in Kyudo (The way of the bow – Japanese archery). In Kyudo we try not to think of hitting the target. This is extremely difficult, but also the only way to hit it properly. Practicing Kyudo therefore is a complement to my painting and calligraphy. It helps me to train awareness of body, mind and bow and/or brush. It also helps me to disregard the goal and stay aware of the brush strokes, trusting my intuition to lead my brushstrokes. The few times I truly achieve this, the result always ends up surprising me.
Just as the union of calligraphy ink and paper always provides unexpected results, so does the watercolor on this rough hand made paper. Especially when calligraphy brushes are used. Each paper reacts differently to the medium. Sometimes it absorbs immediately, and other times it doesn’t absorb at all. A simple brush provides less control than fine one, and sometimes the opposite is true. This uncertainty is what inspires me. What will happen this time? In order to give life to some areas I sometimes use salt on the paper, which creates unexpected patterns as the paint dries. All in order to confront the enexpected.
Video: Karl Martens talks to Cathy Sayers about his work