The Intriguing Circle in Art: Enso

blue copper enso on rice paper, japanese painting, meditation, zen art,

Enso. An Intriguing word.

A strange word, a new word?  I can explain.

Or rather,  I can provide subjective descriptions. And examples.

Allowing you to form your own interpretation of what an Enso means, for you.


Japanese Enso, zen art, meditation, creative brush use, circle of enlightenment, debi riley art
Enso …. in blue,  with silver dust and cobalt teal


The Intriguing Circle: Enso

My thoughts on the Enso.


My very first thought: It nearly defies definition.

I don’t really think there is a concrete, hard and fast  “This, is Enso”  definition.

Intangibles are often difficult to completely pin down.

More like trying to capture Vapor as it rises above  – drifting off, and forever, just out of reach.




But lets give it a go.


From Wikipedia….. 

This spiritual practice of drawing ensō or writing Japanese calligraphy for self-realization is called hitsuzendō (筆禅道“way of the brush”).

Ensō exemplifies the various topics/dimensions of the Japanese wabi-sabi perspective and aesthetic:

Fukinsei (asymmetry, irregularity),

kanso (simplicity),

koko (basic; weathered),

shizen (without pretense; natural),

yugen (subtly profound grace),

datsuzoku (freedom),

and seijaku (tranquility).


In my 7 set series, The 7 Days of Zen,  I explored each one of these Zen  “Wabi Sabi”  topics.

If, you’d like to know more start with The 7 Days of Zen and work your way to The 7th day!




Enso….. It is a circular form drawn and painted, while in the midst of a quiet contemplative state of mind.

It is

A  Moment

when,  the mind

freed –

permits the body and spirit as one,

to Create.




enso, ink drawing,
enso in Ink….




The Enso,  it could be…. drawn in the dirt or sand.

Or done with a brush using water only upon a footpath…… to vanish within mere moments.

Very Wabi Sabi.


The purpose of the Enso is  or could be, about causing the artist to focus on the Inward journey.

To think.  Contemplate and become more aware.


It  isn’t actually about producing  something for show and tell,  for sale, for display, for others.

Enso……  its about the intriguing inner journey we all walk, step by step, each day.



enso in greens, overlapping pattern in spring limes, rice paper and watercolor, enso art,
enso design by karen



I believe Enso symbolises –

The Circle of Togetherness.  United, connected, in harmony.  Oneness.

The Circle of Awareness  ie  “Enlightenment.”


Its about feeling.

Its is about en-lighten-ment…. The light of understanding shining  suddenly upon you.

It is about letting go.

It is about self reflection, contemplation, peace – serenity.


Purpose filled.

Not wasted, not empty.

Its about making each step,  every breath, every brush stroke,  each mark made,   every step taken – mean some thing.



blue copper enso on rice paper, japanese painting, meditation, zen art,
Blue Copper Enso,   A ‘closed’  enso;    student’s work from class


Enso is a single,  thought filled ……. studied brush mark.


A brush mark upon a surface in a circular form.

No need for ‘perfection’  –  full stop.


The need,  is for the aiming towards unity, oneness, balance.


The Enso is the visual culmination of  an enlightened moment, a space, a place in time.




The Enso has phases as the ink on the brush, slowly runs out.

The first 1/4 of the stroke is usually full, dense, dark, thick, even having blobs.

The next phase runs smoother,  finer.

By the 1/4 mark from the end though you’ll see a rapid decrease in ink.

Often giving a wispy tail effect on many enso drawings.

These things are dependent, upon the paper used and the brush used.

As well as  the individual artist.


enso point of beginning and end, zen art, enso in blue,
Libby’s Enso; enso beginning, end



Enso  Steps 

  1. Gather the art supplies. inks, brushes, papers, canvas, paints, etc.
  2. Contemplate,  be meditative about the enso image you desire to make 
  3. FULLY  LOAD   brush with the ink, paint required for the entire, enso
  4. Breathe deep calming relaxing breaths, inhaling exhaling, til…. Relaxed
  5. Draw the enso shape – Using ONE long, fluid, stroke…….. just 1
  6. If, you wish,  add your thoughts, words or verse to the image 
  7. sign it;   as you do, think about balance & harmony of placement


you can use canvas, papers of all sorts… rice paper is fabulous, bamboo, cotton, silk, etc.   

you could deckle ie tear the edges of the paper to make it look more weathered, decorative, wabi sabi 

using metallic powders ie  copper, silver, gold,  sprinkled into the ink or watercolor could add dimension

or you could draw the enso over a Pale, tinted wash of watercolor – just make sure the ink you Enso with is deep dark enough to go over the w/c wash & provide Good Contrast!      



serenity enso, japanese enso on rice paper, serenity enso, zen art,
Serenity – eleanors enso




ENSO Benefits and Learning Outcomes

A primary benefit is it trains us to be more mindful of our brushstrokes.  ie not to fiddle. 

Reminding us,  every single brushstroke and mark we make,  needs to Count.

Needs to mean something.  We become more aware of this, the more often we practice Enso.    

Bottom line is: we get paintings with far less Mud, far less overworked paintings, more decisive bolder,  stronger artwork when we partner up, with enso practice.     

Creativity and Imagination are developed, strengthened. Made into super highways in us rather than the meager little goat tracks they once were.   


The enso shape,  the simple circle, permits the mind to wander.

To wonder. To Imagine. Unlike the box like rectangle, that tends to restrain us, confine us. Keep us in our place.

The circle, the enso invites creativity.   

And by inviting creativity we actually … perform better.




The practice of this form of art, helps the artist in these ways: 

  • Developing a sense of calm, using a new, clarified approach creating art.
  • Finding, seeking out the connections…. (within the subject, within the larger picture, within the self) 
  • Stillness. Contemplation before creation results in a stronger image ie Result.
  • No fiddling. Means No Mud.    This, transfers over into all your painting efforts. 
  • Relaxation.  It is in the peaceful non-stressed state,  we are freed to be Creative.
  • Concise, Meaning-Full.  The practice of enso trains us to make every mark,  count. 
  • Begin to think on the content, the deeper message of your art.
  • one stroke.  This, teaches us restraint. A wise &  Masterful use of tools, materials, resources.
  • In The Creative Zone.  Fully present in that moment. no where else. Where you are  connected to the art, to the tools – materials, the subject, the self, the mood/feeling.  Enabling you to convey those things onto the paper. 
  • Enso … to me,  is a frame of mind where we are Calm. Measured. Purposeful.    An ideal space to be, when we want to really truly permit our creativity, imaginations free.


Ideas for Your Enso…..

Watercolor Enso colors –    indigo   indanthrone   jade      perylene green      mayan blue     amethyst   purpurite   prussian    lunar black      amazonite        

Pairings……  LunarBlack+phalo      Indanthrone+Ultramarine     Indigo+CTB       Perylene green + Zoisite (or Mayan Blue)   




Artists, References, Sources



Kazuaki Tanahashi

Full of information, techniques, guidance his calm, kind and thoughtful approach to art transfers easily to his students and audience.  Definitely a Master.  Kazuaki’s enso paintings are unique, creative and so soothing.   He has workshops, worldwide California to Italy. Plus, offers online courses.

I love his work.  And simply have to say you’ll love it too!

Check in with Kaz at


“As soon as you accept the accidental effects,

they are no longer accidents.

They are necessity the part of yourself that you could not expect or design beforehand.

Thus, the realm of your creativity grows wider.”

Kazuaki Tanahashi



Nakajima Hiroyuki

A contemporary artist, uses gigantic brushes effortlessly.  The smallest of brushes, and fingers, hands, cardboard, pastels, inks, acrylics…… seemlingly,  any tool, any media is handled with ease. Ahhh…. once again, A  Master well worth going to have a further study with!

 Hiroyuki, blends  Japanese calligraphy “Shodo” with nature, with Zen, with Tai Chi movements.  It is really,  a performance art. Something to Watch, not merely look at.



Shodo:  the Quiet Art of Japanese Zen Calligraphy  by Shozo Sato   ISBN13   9784805312049   is a beautiful,  hardcover book with large expressive illustrations and instructions.  Available at Abe books online.




illuminated enso, detail of design, yellow and purple pairing,
illumination, the enso path by angela   (enso in detail)



Enso, is a pathway that can lead us towards awareness, towards illumination.



I once explained Enso as a way to enjoy art more, to engage in the process more.  That we could think of it, in a way, Like eating a meal.


We can either quickly bolt down our Thanksgiving banquet.

Or we can fully engage in the savoring of each dish we select to partake of.


It is an awareness of what we are doing right then.

It is a way to enjoy things …more.

Extracting every molecule of enjoyment from the moment that we are able.

To Live.  Not merely exist.

Becoming More aware of our steps, of  our marks we make.



The more I train myself to look at things with simplicity, harmony, clarity, balance, acceptance in mind The better my art work will be.

It can’t help but to improve.

Because I am training myself to fully engage, to fully observe, to be fully aware. This is conveyed to the viewer.


This is,  I guess, philosophy of sorts.

But, it is art.

And an  integral piece for me.


And as your art becomes filled with more variations and content, and more depth;  you too, become more.

It is connected.


silver and indigo enso, circle of enlightenment, peace, moonlit silver skies,
silvery moon midst the midnight skies



In a past post, The Haunting magic of Nature   I stated,

“Make it count.”

Enso guides us along this path in one of the best ways that I  know of.


And,  no.   We aren’t all ready for it at the same time.

That is the way of things.

And, its ok.


So maybe I’m ready now, but when I began my art journey years ago I most certainly was not.

I was too tight, too rigid, too locked into the constraints I had been told were the right ways to follow.


Yes,  its difficult to break, the barriers holding us back.


Not impossible.




Japanese Zen art, Enso paintings, meditative art, using silver and blue in cloudscapes,
Enso in silvered blues of the Moon


More Reference Sources for you


Excerpts below, taken from articles by John Stevens and  Audrey Yoshiko Seo and the Modern Zen Enso may help to further clarify, “What Is the Enso?”


John Stevens   What is an Enso

The Zen poet Hanshan wrote -“My heart is like the autumn moon’’-  perhaps to indicate that the enso symbolizes  the moon-mind of enlightenment.

Another inscription,  “Within the ever revolving circle of human passions, things come and go, come and go,”  to represent a wheel.


Zen masters create enso paintings as meditation prompts for their students.

Each Zen master has their own Enso style. That individuality is clearly expressed in their art.


Some enso circles are perfectly symmetrical;

others are completely lopsided.

Most are done in one stroke; others are made from 2  half circles.

Some are massive, thick; others spindly, delicate.  Fragile.

Most begin in the left-hand corner of the paper, but can start at the top or bottom.



Audrey Yoshiko Seo, author of Ensō: Zen Circles of Enlightenment writes,

“Zen circles, ensō, are symbols of teaching, reality, enlightenment, and a myriad of things in between.

Seemingly perfect in their continuity, balance, and sense of completeness, and yet often irregular in execution,

ensō are at once the most fundamentally simple and the most complex shape.

They seem to leave little room for variation, and yet in the hands of Zen masters, the varieties of personal expression are endless.

Enso  evoke power, dynamism, charm, humor, drama, and stillness.”




Modern Zen Enso 

Enso.  The two Kanji symbols that create the word, enso  translate as Mutual Circle or  Circle of Togetherness.


The symbolism of an enso might refer to:  the beginning and end of all things;  the circle of life;  and the connectedness of existence.

It can symbolise being full or empty;  presence or absence.

All things might be contained within, or excluded by its boundaries.

It can symbolise infinity, the “no-thing,”  the perfect meditative state, and enlightenment.

Often it represents the moon;  the moon being a symbol of enlightenment.

The Enso can also represent the moon’s reflection on water,  symbolising the futility of searching for enlightenment outside oneself.




Enso symbolises so much more:

The acceptance of imperfection as perfect,  the universe, single mindedness,  strength, elegance and,  the state of mind of the artist at the moment of creation.


The circle of infinity and the cyclical nature of existence,   simplicity, completeness, endlessness, perfect harmony, the oneness of life and all things contained within it, the absolute fullness in emptiness, the spirit of harmonious cooperation, the visible and the invisible.


The enso is a universally known symbol of wholeness and completion; “form is void and void is form.”

When you take the time, to study the enso  you see that form and void are related….connected.

And, in fact, define each other.



It is a fascinating   expression of individuality  as expressed by variations in ink tones, brushstroke thickness, shape of the circle.

And even the positioning of the single point where the circle begins and ends.


There are so many definitions available, that each of us is left to select or create our own definition of enso.

enso zen art, using color in enso,
enso by joyce



Opening in the Enso

The Enso may be closed or painted with an opening in the circle.


The open enso might symbolise that it is not in isolation, but is instead,  part of  the greater Whole.  ie  “Circle of Togetherness.”

The open circle reflects that the enso is not contained within itself:  but opens out,  into infinity. “Infinity Circle.”


The Open Enso can also suggest imperfection.  Imperfection as an important, necessary, inherent element to our existence.

The Enso can be the open circle of emptiness in which the self flows in and out while remaining centered; or it can be closed.


Allowing the enso to remain open,  is as if we’re allowing room for the spirit to flow in and out of the circle; allowing it to Breathe.

Breath and emptiness are essential ingredients for meditation, contemplation and the creation of a spiritual life.


Drawing the enso is a contemplative meditative.  An inward process.

Meditating in silence for lengthy time period, before picking up the brush and paper is a common routine for the zen artist.

The Enso is done quickly.  As a manifestation of what existed within the artist’s mind already.




Enso is a Zen symbol of the  imperfection of all things.

The natural occurring imperfections of the enso, drawn by man’s hand not machine, nor helped with precision based tools – make the enso a beauty of natural perfection.

Perfect as it is.

In all its flaws, all its imperfections.

The Enso, teaches the student to cease struggling.

To abandon the compulsion for Perfection.

To permit things to unfold, as they will.


enso, zen circle, circle of enlightenment, drawing zen, zen calligraphy, debi riley art,
circle of completion ….enso on rice paper




By embracing the practice of Enso, even if its only occasionally – it can help us not just in art, but every day living.

In making the most of each moment.


We are making marks. Every day.

Every action, step, word, look, art work we create is a mark.

A brush stroke, if you will.


The practice of enso,  I believe,  teaches us that our lives – are works of art –    Or can be.






Published by debiriley

The act of creation, in any media is a fascinating and magical process. I simply love to create. Expressing in color, line, tone, texture - as if, they were words upon a page. Creating a uniquely me, interpretation. Enjoy More of my "one-of-a-kind" expressive art at and,

24 thoughts on “The Intriguing Circle in Art: Enso

    1. yes! you are so spot on Jodi!! thanks 🙂 I don’t do these all the time, but occasionally, and enjoy myself in ‘chilling out’


    1. thank you! so glad you enjoyed this article on the zen art of Enso 🙂 there is so much more, of course, but …. laughing, there’s books and libraries for that! This, was one super long post for me! Cheers, Debi


  1. I found myself reading portions of this out loud like a poem. This is a keeper to which i will return over and over. thank you, Debi.

    “We are making marks. Every day.

    Every action, step, word, look, art work we create is a mark.

    A brush stroke, if you will”

    i am practicing enso every day both on and off paper.-Holly.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. thank you Holly. thank you for reading the article, and for responding letting me know how – you felt and responded to it.
      you know, I do appreciate your comments!! cheers, Debi
      “Every word… every look…. IS a Mark…. ” and that,
      is something I want to myself, remember too. Today. Thanks!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Debi for your observations and sharing the deeper understanding of enso. So many times when I’m at a crossroads with my art, I just begin drawing or painting circles and my creative becomes unleashed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!! I’m not entirely certain of the deep intent meaning of the circle and sphere upon our minds. our inner art spirits. But, I am convinced, there is something within the shape we ‘feel at ease’ with. And so, it makes sense that you too find your art self unbounded and set free, in the midst of creating the circles. I’m pleased, Sharon you found this article and info of relevance. When I decided to do this post, I knew it would be long. And not suited for everyone’s taste. But if even one person, found it of value; then that was enough. Thank you for sharing your thoughts 🙂 enjoy your day, Cheers, Debi

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have been waiting to read this for several days in order to give it my full attention. This post is one of my favorites of yours and I will have to come back to it to re-read over and over. Thank you for this post Debi! Creativity is far more than subject matter, perfection and “the audience” it is the spiritual, the intangible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. many thanks for this comment Miss M. I’d nearly binned it, it got very large and ‘unwieldly. Its a topic many are unfamiliar with so, that its not going to be as popular as sunflowers or roses….. But, I felt compelled. to do it. Long as it is…. yes, it will be a ‘re-read’ post. I’m excited YOU will enjoy this. I pretty much felt you would. Sometimes, I do posts, even though I know its probably only going to be you and a couple others who might like it!
      thanks again Margaret 🙂 cheers, debi

      Liked by 1 person

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