GO UP THE MOUNTAIN OFTEN TO FINALLY MEET THE TIGER
I paint with black ink and a single (dagger type) brush. My love of stone-ground ink came from necessity. You can easily travel with an ink stick and stone. It's compact, and there's no risk of a leaky bottle exploding in your bag. While I could travel with several brushes, I enjoy the simplicity of using just one. My style is not a collection of aesthetic decisions. It comes from learning to let the brush do most of the work. Using humble tools and methods focuses my art on mastery of rendering what I see.
I'm going up the mountain—not to meet the tiger, but to be the kind of person who does.
I first heard the phrase "going up the mountain" from my 16 year old sword teacher, Tian Yang, while on Wudang Mountain in 2018. "Going up the mountain" in that case specifically meant undertaking the arduous Taoist martial arts training on Wudang Mountain. But it generally refers to any difficult undertaking. While tigers usually represent some ferocious danger in Chinese idioms, dragons and tigers also signify bravery, cunning, and majestic skill (e.g. 龙腾虎跃 "Leaping dragon, jumping tiger" describes a gracefully strong performance. 卧虎藏龙 "Crouching tiger, hidden dragon" describes a seemingly mundane place having hidden skilled masters.).
To meet a tiger on the mountain is to encounter mastery. It's rare, but not lucky. You have to climb the mountain—maybe hundreds of times. You still might not see the tiger. To go up the mountain means to start out on the difficult path. To meet the tiger is for mastery to finally reveal itself one day.
The above is my interpretation of the idiom. While it might seem esoteric to use an ancient Chinese idiom as my guiding principle for art, the philosophy is more common than you'd think. For example, in the 2013 film "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", the main character (Walter) undertakes dangerous trials and finally climbs Mount Everest just as a Snow Leopard (a.k.a the "Ghost Cat") reveals itself to him. Walter realizes he's become the adventurous person he wants to be and no longer daydreams his life away.
Painting in ink is difficult and unforgiving. It takes years of practice, patience, and discipline. A boss once told me we should aim to "do work not to get it done, but to be the kind of person who gets it done." It's a statement about discipline, and has stuck with me. When I see the work of master painters I never think, "I wish I could paint like that." Instead I have an urge to practice my own craft——to go back up the mountain.