You are likely to see SESSHU Tōyō’s name and work whenever you take yourself to an art exhibit featuring Japanese ink painting. It’s because he can pretty much be held accountable for helping Japanese 2D art evolve the way it did all the way up to now.

But that’s not the reason I am writing about him. The life he has led sheds light to ways to break out of the system and design a unique career and a unique style, and accomplish tremendous fame and admiration from people across the country and time, all the while having a stable job. “How the hell do you do that?” a Millennial or Generation Z may be dying to ask.

There’s no doubt SESSHU constantly challenged his own creativity until he died in his 80s, but he never seemed to have been financially challenged – he explored the creative world, and cruised the material world.

So let us learn from SESSHU how to cruise, with style, through life.

1. Who the hell was SESSHU?

SESSHU is best known as one of the most important figures in the world of Japanese ink paintings. While he was certainly not the sole game changer, Japanese art started taking a unique path of evolution after SESSHU. One could say that the influence of the concept of design he introduced into the Japanese art scene could be seen even in Japanese manga of today, such as One Piece.

SESSHU eventually became known as a master painter respected across the country (before dying!). Many of his works that remain have been designated national treasures. A text-book example of profound success, it may seem.

However historical records leads us to unanimously conclude that his career didn’t start to take off until he was around 50 and that he wore several hats throughout his life, as a painter, Buddhist monk, and a public servant. Is this to suggest there is hope to the multi-career life many modern human beings have decided to commit to? Let’s find out.

2. SESSHU’s long and progressive career

2-1. Birth and childhood

SESSHU (1420 – 1506) was born to a family of samurai warriors in now-Okayama prefecture, which was 200km away from the capital then, Kyoto. For some reason he was encouraged to lead a life of an artist from a very young age, and learned to paint at a local Zen Buddhist temple (ink painting was itself a practice of Zen then. That’s way cooler than just meditating).

That’s like being born to a doctor’s family but your super-cool parents told you “Nah don’t be a doctor. Do something creative.” and being sent to a boarding school for art. But then he had to shave his head to become a Buddhist monk, so there are pros and cons. Oh and being a monk meant there was no marriage or sex for life, either. I already sense some readers closing their browsers here, but I’ll carry on.

2-2. His first job

He moved to one of the 5 most important temples in Kyoto (called Shōkoku-ji temple) at the age of 10 to become an artist-monk, and stayed in that central city of art until he was well in his 30s. It is assumed that his ambition was to make it big in Kyoto, but his artistic style was not really “in” in Kyoto then.

SHUBUN, SESSHU’s teacher at Shōkoku-ji temple, one of the big authorities of ink paintings and artist-monks then, drew faint, delicate and feminine lines. SHUBUN’s style was what was appreciated in Kyoto. Meanwhile, SESSHU found himself being drawn to drawing thick, fast and rather masculine lines. Here’s a comparison:

Left: SHUBUN at his best. Right: SESSHU at his best

2-3. Headhunted

When SESSHU reached the age of 35, he got headhunted by the Ōuchi samurai family (a feudal lord in Yamaguchi prefecture) to work, again, as an artist-monk. The reason he got called upon, it seems, was not only for his artistic talent but also for his long experience attending to and developing relations with important political guests.

Artist-monks then played important roles in politics. They focused on reaching further intellectual heights daily, and so were able to carry out meaningful conversations with political leaders. In addition to entertaining such valuable guests, they could whip up ink paintings and poems as proof of the meeting and the sophisticated exchanges made. They stuck the painting and poem together into one piece, which made great souvenirs for the guests. And because these artists were Buddhist monks, they could pose as politically neutral, thereby being able to travel around the country freely even during war. SESSHU’s job was just that.

It was probably right around the time SESSHU was feeling his artistic voice would not take him to the top in Kyoto, so he accepted the offer and moved to Yamaguchi. He must have felt a sense of defeat, moving away and far from the center of art.

2-4. New job

SESSHU went from being a mere painter in Kyoto to being responsible for all the artwork needs that arose in Yamaguchi. It was like transitioning from a designer in a large corporation to an art director of a medium-sized company.

The other important responsibility SESSHU took on was being a scout for the lord. There were no iPhones or cameras in the 15th century and landscape paintings were valuable sources of information of how different parts of the country looked.

SESSHU’s last work as a scout: View of Ama-no-hashidate

During this time, Japan was inching towards political unrest as the central government lost grip of power, and as a matter of fact, the 35 or so feudal lords went into an all-out, country-wide battle royal by the late 1400s. That meant feudal lords needed images of landscapes beyond their borders in order to fashion war strategies. So SESSHU, using his neutral status as a monk to its full advantage, traveled around the country several times during his 30-year service under the lord Ōuchi as a scout, bringing back visual information.

You may think that the painting above is just a regular drawing of Ama-no-hashidate, which is an area that actually exists in Kyoto, but notice it seems to have been drawn from a mountain of a very high altitude. There is no mountain that would have allowed SESSHU to see the landscape from this point of view. He put an imaginary set of eyes in the air and drew this incredibly accurate drawing of Ama-no-hashidate, at a time when there were no helicopters or drones.

This drawing was supposedly used by the Ōuchi family to craft their campaign to march into Kyoto. The creative mind of the artist was highly valued by the Ōuchi family, so much that giant projects were planned around SESSHU’s works.

2-5. Business assignment in China

SESSHU’s life takes a turn at the age of 48, when he was ordered to join a diplomatic sea voyage to China which was ruled by the Ming dynasty then. The diplomats were on a mission to secure better trade deals with the Ming, and SESSHU’s job was “photographer.”

Ming-ruled China was the most advanced civilization in Asia back then, and Japan strived to absorb as much of their culture as possible by having diplomats bringing back whatever information was accessible. SESSHU’s job was to bring back drawings of the cityscapes he saw.

China was also the center of ink paintings. The practice of Zen Buddhism, along with ink paintings, have their origins in China in the first place. SESSU must have been elated to have the chance to go. The probability a Japanese person back in those days to be able to visit a foreign civilization was as low as winning a lottery.

But it’s assumed that he didn’t have much time he could dedicate to learning art during his 2-year stay, as he was traveling with a group of diplomats. Still, he must have spent every minute he had to himself on studying “real” ink painting there in China.

2-6. Return to Japan

Art historians are confident that SESSHU realized in China that his painting style – the style that artists and people of Kyoto didn’t appreciate – was closer to the artistic styles the legendary painters of China practiced, and thereby gained confidence. His paintings after returning to Japan featured the dynamism of his lines, shapes and balance more prominently. It was as if he stopped trying to appease his audience in Japan and instead started to follow his heart.

Japanese people in the late 15th century were fond of Chinese ink painters who thrived some 200 years back. Whenever they commissioned an artist to paint, they would request paintings to be imitative of pre-existing Chinese artwork. SESSHU complied with such demand, but added his own taste and style as flavor instead of merely copying. Below is an example of such projects.

The writings on this ink painting of SESSHU states that it was based on a work of 13th century ink painter Liang Kai.

SESSHU had become one of the very few living Japanese artists who had been to China, the land of real ink paintings, and we could easily imagine that his clients appreciated anything he did with his paintings. If SESSHU painted in a certain manner, people would think “Well he knows China so this must be what’s hip.”

2-7. Gave birth to a new era of art

Now take a look at one of his best known pieces, Shūtou Sansui Zu. It’s a picture of an imaginary landscape consisting of mountains, trees, gigantic rocks, houses, a pathway and a traveler.

Shūtou Sansui Zu

The thick lines and spots are not the only aspects that make this painting distinctly SESSHU’s, but it’s also his imagination represented in the fictitious vertically gigantic rock and a village located below it that could not possibly exist in reality. The rock’s presence is so powerful that viewers will feel there must be an epic story behind it. But again, the rock is fictitious, despite being drawn in a simplified manner which is far from the approach of realism of classic Western art.

Unlike Western art in which pictures are drawn in perspective of the artist, which involves use of techniques to express proximity by means of, for example, drawing objects that are closer big and objects that are far small, Japanese artworks tend to favor two-dimensional expressions. SESSHU helped to develop Japanese art further in this direction.

You can see that each object in Shūtou Sansui Zu is a simplified depiction of its motif, but still we cannot resist imagining each may exist at least somewhere in another world. Does this remind you of manga? That’s a big leap through time and evolution of art, but if you line up works of Japanese artists after SESSHU chronologically and place the manga One Piece or Naruto at the end, you won’t be able to deny the master painter’s influence on popular Japanese culture even today.

2-8. Expresses gratitude to his employer

SESSHU was 67 when he completed his most epic ink painting Sansui Choukan, a 16 meter-long (52 feet) scroll in which a series of landscapes stretch from right to left, seamlessly changing seasons from spring to summer, summer to autumn and autumn to winter.

From it’s sheer length, art historians agree that Shiki Sansui-zu AKA Sansui Choukan must not have been something SESSHU was commissioned to create – something of this scale was almost unforeseen. It was instead a self-motivated project in which he put together all the skills he had acquired thanks to the long-term employment, job opportunity, shelter and trip to China arranged by his employer, lord Ōuchi, and created a masterpiece to offer to Ōuchi as an expression of his deep gratitude.

Shiki Sansui-zu AKA Sansui Choukan starts from top right and ends bottom left.

Shiki Sansuiu-zu was kept with great care throughout and beyond the Ōuchi family’s reign over Yamaguchi, and is now stored in Mōri Museum there as a National Treasure. SESSHU seems to have been valued by the Ōuchi samurai family not only for his artistic skills but also for his great personality.

2-9. Takes revenge on the art community of Kyoto

SESSHU, although being a totally nice guy and loyal staffer of the Ōuchi family, had a few things to say to the art scene of Kyoto, the art community that once failed to recognize his talent. By 1495, SESSHU had turned 76 and was famous nationwide, and it seems like he decided it was pay-back time.

In the world of Zen artist-monks at the time, it was common for apprentices to ask their teacher for a painting and a poem compiled in a single scroll, as evidence of the mater-disciple relationship, when they had learned all there was to learn from the master and it was time to go out on their own. It was like a graduation certificate and recommendation letter a college graduate gets nowadays.

It was also common for artist-monks in such circumstances to stop by temples to meet famous monks during their journeys, and ask for an autograph and poem on the scroll they carried around, in remembrance of the meet up. It was like asking to become Facebook friends before saying goodbye.

So when it was one of SESSHU’s students, JOSUI Souen’s time to graduate from SESSHU’s school of art, the two struck a deal. SESSHU would write up a poem highlighting the splendidness of the bond between teacher and student as proof that JOSUI was once an apprentice of SESSHU, and in the poem, SESSHU would also talk about how he formed his own art style in Kyoto and also traveled to China.

JOSUI would visit Kyoto with this scroll and go around important temples to meet important monks. JOSUI would ask those great monks to add a poem on top of the one SESSHU wrote, which meant the monks would read SESSHU’s poem and remember what he said about himself. As these monks had great influence in Kyoto, they would naturally spread the word about SESSHU in the way SESSHU wanted.

Haboku Sansui-zu, drawn by SESSHU in 1495.
Left: A poem by SESSHU at the bottom, and an array of poems by various other artists of Kyoto written above it afterwords; Right: close-up of ink-painting

It was SESSHU’s fail-free strategy to PR his name in Kyoto, the city that neglected the artistic value of his painting style back in time.

The reason Haboku Sansui-zu is drawn in a very light watery touch, which is very different from SESSHU’s usual painting style, is most likely to conform with the taste preferred by people in Kyoto. The resulting message was probably similar to: a world-famous Chinese chef making beef and broccoli seasoned in a way Americans believe beef and broccoli tastes like, because the taste of REAL Chinese beef and broccoli is too sophisticated for Americans to appreciate. I’m not trying to insult Americans; it’s just a solid fact that American-tailored Chinese food tend to taste greatly different from what it does in China.

2-10. Deified after death

The Kanō school of painting, which sprang during the latter bit of SESSHU’s life, was the most prestigious group of artists that was commissioned artwork creation by the ruling samurais of the time, from the late 15th century all the way until samurais ruled no more in 1868. Basically, they were the go-to artists of the government whenever there was need for art.

At one point in their artistic reign, the Kanō school claimed that their artistic style was learned from SESSHU’s paintings. His paintings especially appealed to the samurai rulers then, most likely because SESSHU drew gigantic rocks with bold and swift brush strokes, and resonated well with the values of warriors.

So when a school of art which exercised influence over the whole country said SESSHU was their teacher, SESSHU was deified as a legendary master painter. Numerous rulers tried to get hold of his paintings and many fake ones were created in order to profit from the high demand.

Today, many of his works are kept in museums across the country as Important National Treasures.

3. What can we learn from SESSHU?

One take away comes from the fact that his career finally took off in his late 40s after his trip to China, and he had experienced a setback once in his 30s when he realized his artistic taste did not conform with the trend and retreated from Kyoto.

It can be assumed that although SESSHU had been feeling a certain level of confidence in his painting style during the years spent in Kyoto, he couldn’t assert that his “new” style was something to be appreciated. Of course there weren’t many people around him who would back him up or help to promote the direction he was taking his art towards.

But by going on a business assignment abroad, not only did he gain skills and confidence, but also credibility as an ink painter. He became one of the very few Japanese artist monks who had seen real Chinese ink paintings, and therefore whatever he drew were automatically accredited with prestige, even from the eyes of ordinary people who could not judge the value of artistic diversions by themselves.

So labels help. A lot. If your goal in life is to be a renowned owner-chef, win three stars in the Michelin Guide. If you want people to believe in your aggressive theories, get a Phd first. Granting yourself credibility will allow you to experiment with your own unique voice and still receive support from the market.

At a young age, most of us have not made a big enough accomplishment that will make it easy for the general public to take us seriously. But the life SESSHU led tells us to take our time, and meanwhile to not be afraid to take risks when they present themselves as opportunities.

Many of SESSHU’s ink paintings can be seen at national museums such as the Tokyo National Museum and Kyoto National Museum. His greatest work Shiki Sansui-zu is kept at Mohri Museum in Yamaguchi prefecture.