Quotes from "The Zen of Seeing"

Drawing by Frederick Franck from "The Zen of Seeing". Photo by Lisa Marder

The Zen of Seeing: SEEING/DRAWING as meditation, first published in 1973, is Frederick Franck's  classic book about drawing and seeing as a meditative practice. In this book he reminds us that seeing like an artist is about slowing down and taking the time to truly see your subject. Franck tells us that it is not as important for a drawing to be accurate as it is for it to capture the emotion and expression of the subject.

 The Zen of Seeing is really a book about life as much as it is a book about drawing, and it is as relevant, if not more so, today as it was the day it was written.

The book itself is illustrated with Franck's own delicate pen and ink wash drawings and is handwritten rather than typeset, so as to almost give it the feel of being someone's intimate journal rather than a how-to book on drawing. The handwritten passages befit this quiet lovely book that espouses seeing deeply and drawing slowly to connect more deeply to oneself and to the mystery of life. For an overview of The Zen of Seeing see the article, Seeing/Drawing as Meditation.


A love letter

"The book is handwritten because in its way, it is a love letter, and love letters should not be typeset by compositors or computers. It may be a little slower to read, but there is no hurry, for what I want to share with you took a long time to experience.

I write in the first-person singular, but when I speak of 'I' I really mean 'You.'" (p. vii)

We are all artists at our core

"In that first lecture I asked the rhetorical question who is man, the artist? and answered it by saying: he is the unspoiled core of everyman, before he is choked by schooling, training, conditioning, until the artist-within shrivels up and is forgotten.

Even in the artist who is professionally trained to be consciously "creative" this unspoiled core shrivels up in the rush toward a "personal style," in the heat of competition to be "in." And yet, I added, that core is never killed completely. At times it responds to Nature, to beauty, to Life, suddenly aware again of being in the presence of a Mystery that baffles understanding and which only has to be glimpsed to renew our spirit and to make us feel that life is a supreme gift. Many years of preoccupation with Zen have kept me awake to the experience of this opening up of life." (pp. x-xi)

Seeing/Drawing as oasis from distractions of our environment

"A 'non-creative environment' is one that constantly bombards us...overloads our switchboard with noise, with agitation and visual stimuli. Once we can detach ourselves from all these distractions, find a way of 'inscape,' of 'centering,' the same environment becomes 'creative' again. SEEING/DRAWING is such a way of inscape from the overloaded switchboard. It establishes an island of silence, an oasis of undivided attention, an environment to recover in…" (p. xii)

We are constantly looking but we see less and less

"We do a lot of looking: we look through lenses, telescopes, television tubes … Our looking is perfected every day - but we see less and less." (p.


"Never has it been more urgent to speak of seeing. Ever more gadgets, from cameras to computers, from art books to videotapes, conspire to take over our thinking, our feeling, our experiencing, our seeing. Onlookers we are, spectators…'Subjects' we are, that look at 'objects." Quickly we stick labels on all that is, labels that stick once and for all. By these labels we recognize everything but no longer see anything. We know the labels on all the bottles, but never taste the wine." (pp. 3-4)

Seeing/drawing as connection, presence, discovery, and insight

"Drawing is the discipline by which I constantly rediscover the world." (p. 6)

"Seeing and drawing can become one, can become SEEING/DRAWING. When that happens there is no more room for the labelings, the choices of the ME. Every insignificant thing appears as if seen in its three dimensions, in its own space and in its own time.

Each leaf of grass is seen to grow from its own roots, each creature is realized to be unique, existing now/here on its voyage from birth to death. No longer do I 'look' at a leaf, but enter into direct contact with its life-process, with Life itself, with what I, too, really am." (p. 7)

"On the contrary, the Zen experience is the overcoming of that hallucination that the Me is the valid center of observation of the universe. It is a momentary, radical turnabout, a direct perception of and  insight into the presence, into the transiency, the finitude, that I share with all beings. It is a fleetingness that makes this very moment infinitely precious. The Zen experience is at the same time a direct seeing into what I am in reality…This insight into my real condition is the Wisdom that is inseparable from Compassion." (p. 14)

The style of drawing that Franck espouses in his book is commonly known as blind contour drawing. It is a practice of drawing that involves drawing your subject slowly without looking at your drawing surface. It  forces you to concentrate and be totally present to your subject, capturing its particularities without worrying about the actual finished drawing. Amazingly, the finished blind contour drawing is usually very expressive and beautiful. Read more about the process in Sam Anderson's article in the New York Times Magazine (May 15,2015),  Letter of Recommendation: Blind Contour Drawing.

Also see the article Ways to Practice SEEING/DRAWING for more examples of meditative drawing exercises.