The Zen Drawings of H.D.Thoreau

"The Zen Drawings of H.D.Thoreau" is the title of a presentation made by Dr. Linda Holt in 2010 at the Thoreau Society's Annual Gathering in Concord, MA. A paper based on this presentation, "The Chan Drawings of H.D.Thoreau," was published in the Qi Journal Vol. 25 No. 2 in Summer 2015. (Chan is Chinese for Zen.)

Dr. Holt in 2016 is working on a paper to expand upon her 2010 presentation. She is also developing a database of Thoreau's drawings.

The following is the text of "The Chan Drawings" from 2015:

The Chan Drawings of Henry David Thoreau

by Linda Brown Holt, D.Litt

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1861) is best known as the author of Walden, the chronicle of his two years living in the woods in a cabin of his own making. As described in an article in Qi Journal (Winter 2007-2008), Thoreau was greatly influenced by the classical Chinese texts that were just being translated into Latin and French and imported into the libraries and bookstores of nearby Boston.

Less well known is the body of art Thoreau left behind, in the form of pencil and pen-and-ink drawings and sketches completed largely over a 10-year period from 1850 to 1860. While it is unlikely that Thoreau was directly influenced by Asian artists in the Chan (Zen) tradition, the directness, originality, and inner energy of these small, terse drawings reflect an inner vision that is uniquely Chinese in spirit. Chan Buddhism, imported into Japan where it became Zen, is a blend of classical Buddhism with the indigenous Chinese Daoist tradition. Chan spirit—a focus on the eternal now—is clearly expressed in Thoreau’s words from the second chapter of Walden: “God himself culminates in the present moment.”[i]

In the art of Chan (or later Japanese Zen), there is no concept of drawing as it is known in the West. Professional artists of this early Buddhist tradition typically completed paintings to be viewed on scrolls or hung in a meditation or tea room. The scholar J.R. Hillier suggests that there is a way to select and present Asian paintings in a manner that Westerners could recognize as drawings.  These works—what I call Chan or Zen drawings—“are usually impromptu or at least unelaborated, drawn freely from nature or in other ways plainly not intended by the artist for mounting.”[ii]

Take for example, the drawing, “The Willow,” by Chan monk, Xianyan Yifan (1750-1837), who is better known by his Japanese name, Sengai. Bordered by calligraphy on the right and left, this sketch captures the light, breezy character of willow that could come only to an artist who lived in intimate communion with nature in the present moment. (Art 1) Keibun, an artist of the same era, painted the very essence of branches with a similarly light and airy touch as though his experience of the branches and the execution of the painting occurred simultaneously.  (Art 2) Keibun’s branches present a representational nature portrait; however, in the swagger of his brush, the abrupt staggering of lines, the artist also expresses the inner life of these seemingly inanimate sticks. Look more deeply, he seems to say; everything we need to know about life is happening in this instant.

Thoreau captures this same spirit in his sketches of objects from nature. Many of these sketches were made directly “in the field,” as he rambled through the woods and meadows outside of Concord, Massachusetts, nearly daily throughout his life. Others were copied from field notes into the notebooks that would become his Journal, which many readers consider his greatest work. Another repository for his art was the Indian Notebooks, which detailed his research into Native American culture.  The Indian Notebooks number 11 volumes and some 3,000 pages, written between 1847 and 1861. [iii]

We have seen how two great Chan/Zen artists have depicted tree limbs. Let’s see what Thoreau does with a branch. The delicacy of the fibrous growth of a willow from one of his notebooks (Art 3) is quite advanced for its time. The elongation of the blade, with its softly undulating lines, bespeaks a deep communion with nature, a kinship with the nature mysticism of Sengai and Keibun.  Note how Thoreau’s distinctive writing nests under the smooth line, like calligraphy caressing its subject in a Chan scroll. This is not a drawing that the artist has labored over or over-thought. Trace the movement of the line with your eyes, and you have a sense of Thoreau’s mystical communion with all aspects of the natural world, no matter how slight.

The great Asian artists of the past, especially those who practiced Chan meditation, also had a special affinity for the representation of animals.  In the depiction of animals, once again Thoreau shows himself a master in terms of observation and insight as well as in his ability to handle a brush, pencil, or pen. This sketch of a lobster was clearly done quickly and spontaneously in Chan spirit, although Thoreau probably was not familiar with the Buddhist sect. (Art 4)

The late 17th century Chinese art instruction book, The Mustard Seed Manual (Jieziyuan Huazhuan 芥子園畫傳) contains many illustrations of birds and insects executed with just a few brush strokes. [iv]This technique is more than simple outlining. For this approach to be effective, the artist must become one with the subject and then express the essence of the subject in a few strokes of the brush, executed with precision and immediacy.

Thoreau’s facility at drawing animals, plants, and scenes did not magically appear “out of the blue” in his middle years. Before he began sketching, there were years of training and preparation in which he learned to use the artist’s tools, studied drawing in school, and worked as a map-maker and surveyor. Thoreau’s father, John, owned a pencil factory, and the young writer himself produced pencils for many years to earn his bread. Students in New England at this time routinely studied drawing in the public schools, providing Thoreau with a solid foundation in the techniques of draftsmanship.

Most New England children in the first half of the 19th century  learned drawing in the home, and children were taught map-making in the public schools of the Northeast through the 19th century. ( In fact, maps by school children are highly collectible artifacts today. Making a map combined several important skills: the ability to draw a reasonable likeness; the ability to do sums, to spell and to write. And something else: the ability to focus, to concentrate. The ability to see. The practical aspects of drawing were emphasized in the education of many boys who would need this skill in navigation, building and construction, farm management, industry, business, and for other communication purposes. With a natural gift for art, Thoreau absorbed these lessons and developed further as a meditator during long stretches in the forests around his home town and in the field working as a surveyor.

Think of a martial artist who may stand in a static position for some time only to suddenly cleave a brick or release an arrow into a bullseye. Art also can be created this way. The artist contemplates the object to be drawn for some time before quickly capturing the image on paper or canvas. Van Gogh and Cassatt, who often took this approach, were influenced by Asian art exhibited in the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867. But on his own, far from Paris and much earlier than the Impressionists, Thoreau could capture the soul of a humble insect or bird with a few masterful strokes. (Art 5 insects, Art 6 birds).  When in an awkward physical position (such as crouching below a fallen tree trunk on a cold New England afternoon), Thoreau devised a pointillist (dotted) technique for expressing the alert forms of winter animals (Art 7 mink and skunk slide). Physical discomfort or limitations did not prevent him from expressing the union of human soul and natural object.

One of the characteristics of Chan art is its ability to replicate movement. The way bamboo bends to one side in a breeze was expressed beautifully by Wu Zhen (Chinese, 1280–1354)[v]. (Art 8) No less animated is Thoreau’s depiction of Tupelo (black gum) trees bending in a much stronger wind. (Art 9) In both works, perhaps it is our spirit which sways to some cosmic force, guided by the hands of these two art masters.

Similarly, a flight of wild geese captured in a sketch by Hiroshige (1797-1858, making him a contemporary of Thoreau for several decades) (Art 10) mirrors a clear, heart-felt drawing of geese in a “V” formation in Thoreau’s Journal on Nov. 23, 1853. (Art 11) Of course, these two artists did not know each other’s work, but the viewer can imagine that had they met, they would have had much in common.

Like a Chinese calligrapher or brush artist, Thoreau was very much interested in the materials he used as he worked in and ultimately took over the family pencil-making business. In fact, in the 1850s, when he was in his late 30s, Thoreau invented a process for grinding plumbago (graphite) into fine powder for lead. He also created an improved method to assemble the lead and the casing, and developed a blend of clay and lead which resulted in a smooth, flowing line, so important in his own writing and sketching. Imagine you were an artist and had the power to change and adapt the tools you use so you better achieve your artistic goals! Thoreau’s pencils at this time were considered the only pencils in existence equal to the celebrated Faber pencils of Germany.[vi] 

In addition to making pencils for a living, Thoreau also worked regularly as a surveyor, a practice which allowed him to become immersed in the surrounding rural landscape, to stand, observe, and contemplate for long periods of time. The discipline of map-making taught him control and careful observation. But as anyone who has ever made a simple map can attest, there is a point when the map-maker must let go and follow an instinctive path of execution. During the surveying process itself, time sometimes stands still as the surveyor is rapt in concentration, as surely as a Chan monk focusing on a candle flame.

When not employed in earning a living or exploring nature, Thoreau could be found reading the Chinese classics in addition to the works of ancient Greek and Hindu sages.  Thoreau had received a world-class education at Harvard in the 1830s. He no doubt read the Four Books including the Analects of Confucius and the Mencius. While the Five Classics were available in Boston in Thoreau’s time, there is no evidence that he read the I Ching. A copy of the “Y Ching” which I perused at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library several years ago, was not acquired until late in Thoreau’s career after most of his drawings were completed. It is tempting to speculate whether Thoreau discovered a Chinese attitude toward nature in these works, and then incorporated it in his own worldview and writing; or whether he found in these texts a statement of what he already knew through “free and easy wandering,” as Zhuangzi expressed it, among the forests and streams of his community. Perhaps it was the reinforcement of his own discoveries in nature that drew him so irresistibly to Chinese thought.

The combination of quiet immersion in the landscape, the absorption of the most profound lessons of antiquity through reading and reflection, and his own spiritual practice in nature, vividly described in his books, letters, and notebooks, led Thoreau to a state of consciousness very similar to that of Chinese Chan practitioners. Compare these anonymous sketches from Masaharu Anesaki’s Art, Life, and Nature in Japan, 1973, Charles E. Tuttle Company (Art 12) with Thoreau’s view of Fair Haven hill (below) (Art 13). In each case, the artist’s pen or brush glides effortlessly across the page evoking natural phenomena and experiences with a minimum of effort.

Thoreau was not the only great writer of his time to express himself through art as well as words.  In England, Charlotte Brontë, the author of Jane Eyre, was equally adept at drawing and painting. David Friedman at lists many authors and at least one composer, including: Amiri Baraka, the four Brontë siblings, William S. Burroughs, Jean Cocteau, Hermann Hesse, Victor Hugo, Felix Mendelssohn, Beatrix Potter, and Kurt Vonnegut

Yet none of these had the light touch, the effortless insight, the fleeting sense of the moment that Thoreau’s sketches evoke. (Art 14) Charlotte Brontë’s flower, for example, reveals masterful skill and decorative talent, but expresses neither vision nor vitality. Other writer-artists, like Victor Hugo, express whimsy and chaos, but not the underlying order of things[vii]. Unlike the studied discipline of other author-artists, there is something essentially Chan about Thoreau’s small and deceptively simple sketches.

What is it that entices people whose greatest strength is language (or the mathematical constructs of music composition) to develop a complementary gift in the visual arts? Roger W. Sperry, who received the Nobel Prize in 1981, said it all has to do with the two halves of the brain. People who are good at language or math often are referred to as “left-brained,” while the intuitive visual artist is said to be “right-brained.”  Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards was a popular book that referenced this concept a quarter of a century ago. According to Sperry’s theory, we achieve optimum balance when both sides of the brain are activated and working harmoniously. 

It is not too great a stretch to see in the image of the brain a kind of yin and yang governing hemispheres which appear to be opposite but actually lead to a powerful sense of synthesis and integration. (Art 15: picture of the taiji symbol) Writing (left-brained) and drawing (right-brained) together in the same work is a common Chinese practice. Once again, Chinese psychology and insight predated modern science by many centuries.

During the 10 years Thoreau drew in his Journals, his style evolved from a tentative but distinctly spontaneous style to the steady, clear drawing of the master draftsman. If we look at his first Journal sketch, dated Nov. 26, 1850, (Art 16), we see the inner, pointed part of a hemlock knot. The drawing is a bit ragged around the edges, but one can see the artist’s single-minded focus. The last Journal entry, dated Nov. 17, 1860, (Art 17) reveals a strong, supple abstraction, a nimble skeleton of the Heywood lot between the railroad and Fair Haven in Concord. The energy, variety of the lines, the quickness of the approach make me think of Matisse, another artist brilliant at capturing the moment. (Art 18) Two abstractions by Kazuya Akimoto also capture this geometric, yet organic, feeling. (Copyright Kazuya Akimoto, all rights reserved.[viii]) The first captures the same feeling as the hemlock knot (Art 19), the second the simple abstraction of what could be a landscape fragment (Art 20).

One of my favorite, more complex and highly abstract sketches from nature occurs with the Journal entry from May 14, 1853. “On the Pond,” as the entry is titled (Art 21), reminds me very much of a 20th century artist who was greatly influenced by nature and whose pond-like abstractions may be viewed at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. Cy Twombly’s work was greatly influenced by Chan philosophy, his artistry sometimes compared to Chan (Zen) koans or mental puzzles that cannot be solved by pure logic.[ix] This painting, “Winter,” is in the collection of the Tate Gallery in London.[x] (Art 22)

Thoreau also has an instinctive feel for negative space, one of the hallmarks of Chan brush painting. Instead of filling every square inch with detail, he allows the white space between and supporting the lines to speak eloquently to the viewer. White space informs this remarkable sketch of snow drifts from the Jan. 6, 1856, Journal entry. (Art 23)

Did Thoreau consciously know that he was following in the footsteps of Chinese artists when he drew in his notebooks? Did he even consider himself an artist? The answer to each of these questions must be “No.” But there is no doubt, as we consider these small but riveting works, that Thoreau absorbed profound lessons from nature study, meditation, and enthusiasm for classics of Chinese philosophy. When these lessons merged with his own innate creativity, the result was an imposing collection of graphic images.  These images challenge us even today, as, like the Chan masters of old, we seek to better understand the world outside by coming to grips with the spirit within.

(Art 24)

[i]  I obtained copies of Thoreau’s drawings from the 1906 Walden Edition of Thoreau’s Journals and from microfiche of the originals which I viewed during several visits to the Reading Room of the Morgan Library in New York City. Many public and academic libraries have the 1906 Walden Edition of the Journals, edited by Bradford Torrey. The Walden Edition shows the approximate positions where the drawings originally appeared.

[ii]  Hillier, J.R., Drawings of the Masters: Japanese Drawings from the 17th through the 19th Century, Shorewood Publishers Inc., New York (1965).

[iii]  There is a PDF of selections from Richard Fleck’s slim volume on the Indian Notebooks at .

[iv] The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, a facsimile of the 1888-89 Shanghai edition, Mai-mai Sze editor-translator, 1978, Princeton University Press. As described at, this is a translation of the Chinese handbook, the Jieziyuan Huazhuan (original 1679-1701).

[v]  Wu Zhen, “Bamboo,” from

[vi]  Elizabeth Witherell, with Elizabeth Dubrulle, The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau,

[vii] Dan Piepenbring, “Victor Hugo’s Drawings” in The Paris Review, February 26, 2015.

[viii] Copyright by the artist, Kazuya Akimoto, used with permission.

[ix]  Peter Schjeldahl, “Drawing Lines: Cy Twombly at the Whitney,” The New Yorker, March 7, 2005,

[x]  Cy Twombly’s “Winter” at the Tate Gallery.

Linda Brown Holt, D.Litt., has written for Qi Journal on topics such as the Daoist inner alchemy, Eastern ways of knowing, spirituality in Beijing, and Henry David Thoreau. She is the author of a novel about young Beethoven’s struggles with prejudice and discrimination which will be published during the 2016-17 season. She teaches Humanities courses with Southern New Hampshire University and Thomas Edison State College. Her Web site is and she can be reached via Twitter @ReligiousSchola (no “r” at the end).


Illustrations for “The Chan Drawings of H.D. Thoreau” by Linda Brown Holt

Art illustration number

Title or description

Where it can be found




Art 1

“The Willow,” by Chan monk, Xianyan Yifan (1750-1837), who is better known by his Japanese name, Sengai

Slide # 23

Art 2


Slide # 4

Art 3

Thoreau’s willow branch, Jan. 26, 1856

Slide # 6

Art 4

Lobster, from Thoreau’s Indian Notebooks

Slide # 2

Art 5

Thoreau, insect

Slide # 42

Art 6

Thoreau, bird

Slide # 40

Art 7

Thoreau, mink and skunk

Slide # 45

Art 8

Wu Zhen, Bamboo


Art 9

Thoreau, Tupelo tree

Slide # 7

Art 10

Hiroshige, Wild Geese

Slide # 5

Art 11

Thoreau’s Journal on Nov. 23, 1853, Geese in a “V” formation

Slide # 34

Art 12

Masaharu Anesaki’s Art, Life, and Nature in Japan

Slide # 3

Art 13

Thoreau, View of Fair Haven Hill

Embedded in the paper

Art 14

Charlotte Brontë’s flower picture, “Heartsease” 1832

Slide # 9

Art 15

Taiji symbol

Slide # 14

Art 16

Thoreau, hemlock knot point

Slide # 16

Art 17

Thoreau, Heywood lot between the railroad and Fair Haven

Slide # 16 (both Art 14 and 15 are on the same slide)

Art 18

Matisse wave pattern


Art 19

Kazuya Akimoto 1


Art 20

Kazuya Akimoto 2


Art 21

Thoreau, “On the Pond”

Slide # 21

Art 22

Cy Twombly

Slide # 22

Art 23

Thoreau, “Snow Drifts”

Slide # 25

Art 24

Thoreau, Journal – 2/24/1860, “Fine Strings of Clouds” (top image can be run across the column separating the text from the endnotes.)

Slide # 31





















Posted on Saturday, May 7, 2016 at 06:29PM by Registered CommenterLinda Brown Holt | CommentsPost a Comment