Biography as an Artist

The work I have pursued for the last four decades is rooted in my early love of the American and European abstractionists of the forties and fifties. The direction and ongoing tenor of my painting was deeply influenced by my upbringing in a sophisticated social environment that exposed me to contemporary art, architecture, music (especially jazz), and design, as well as the art of the past masters. 
My study of abstract calligraphy in Japan further developed this foundation. During a stay in Kyoto in the seventies, I studied an abstract form of sumi (black carbon-based ink) and brush writing called Shoudo. I came back to the studio and began exploring the expressive possibilities of the Asian calligraphy brushes (some very large) with sumi. I worked from the human form, developing a unique process in which I collaborated with a model moving to music, asking him or her to stop in mid-dance, and used brushwork to express the inner and outer lines of the form.


Barooyr by Seyburn Zorthian

Barooyr, 1978, sumi on paper, 36 by 48 inches

Simultaneously, I felt the need to continue drawing with pencil, charcoal, and ink from life: specifically, more work with the human figure, the face, and occasionally other subjects of the natural world. Throughout the seventies and eighties, the sumi brushwork became more of an inner expression of my own perception, while my drawing gave me a deeper understanding of the physical form of the subject itself. I began to combine these two media in the same piece, which allowed me to integrate the outer aspects of my subjects with a representation of the emotions they evoked from me.

Spirit Line Torso by Seyburn Zorthian

Spirit Line / Torso, 1988, sumi, oil, and pencil on linen, 66"x47.5"

Spirit Coming Down by Seyburn Zorthian

Spirit Coming Down
, 1988, sumi, oil, and
pencil on linen, 54.5"x44"

Throughout this time I balanced my brushwork practice with abstract color composition, working primarily in oil. 

Borni by Seyburn Zorthian

, 1990, oil and sumi on linen, 31"x44"

Finally, in the later eighties and into the nineties, I continued to experiment with combining different media, drawing on a method of the Italian Renaissance painters. Traditionally these painters created the highlights and shadows of a composition with a neutral earth tone, before applying color by layering translucent glazes. When water-based sumi is dry, oil-based paint does not disturb it, so I found this technique effective when integrating color with my basic black ink design. I discovered that I could maintain the sumi brushwork bones of the composition, while integrating color in a way that married the two elements to create a dynamic visual relationship.

Dragon Line Through Barriers by Seyburn Zorthian

Dragon Line Through Barriers, 1999, sumi and oil on mahogany, 9.5 by 30 inches

Spirit Line / Nureyev by Seyburn Zorthian

Spirit Line / Nureyev
, 1991, sumi
and oil on linen, 66 by 48 inches

From 2002 to 2008, I explored a totally different approach. I gave my attention to creating abstract color compositions on paper, often on a very small scale, and allowing a longer period of sustained development for each piece.  These pieces were rarely dependent on the foundation of an initial dominant brushstroke, but the calligraphic line sometimes remained present as a playful and rhythmic element instead.  They were more deeply informed by my earlier oil color compositions.


Chaos and Clarity

Chaos and Clarity
, 2004, watercolor
and sumi on paper, 14 by 20 inches

By 2009, the study of complementary primary and secondary colors was at the center of my ongoing development. Because the eye sees the comparative relationship between two colors—rather than experiencing them as unvarying absolutes—I found that I could track the transformation of a single color in a calligraphic line moving from one background to another. Interested in the overall effect of a painting on the eye and the emotions, I created with the aim that the viewer could experience the work as pure sensation in the body.  Relationship (Yellow.Violet) painting by Seyburn Zorthian

Relationship (Yellow.Violet) 3
, 2009,
acrylic on paper 9"x12"

The entire 2002-2008 period of compositional work—and the exercises in color relationships that followed—represented a major exploratory divergence from years of devotion to expressive sumi brushwork, and a crucial step toward my current large-scale work. 

My recent work—the Rhythm and Movement series—brings together what I explored in an earlier period of large-scale color relationship pieces with a conscious return to the ongoing influence of movement and music on my work. My convoluted path here has given me a rich repertoire of techniques (both Eastern and Western, traditional and contemporary) to draw on in manifesting these ideas visually. I am reintegrating the expressive brushstroke technique that I disciplined over decades of earlier work, but in a different medium with different properties and possibilities. Returning to the very large sumi brushes, but now using them with acrylics, I combine the brushstroke foundation of my work—taking on a new energy from the period of rhythmic play in the 2000s—with color variations and other abstract visual elements, occasionally including oil and metal leaf.

Read more about the current paintings in the Artist’s Statement below.

Download the digital portfolio here


Melodic Minor by Seyburn Zorthian

Melodic Minor
, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 58”x95”

Improvisation painting by Seyburn Zorthian
Improvisation, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 58"x95”
Artist's Statement 2015

In my early training with the Shoudo master in Kyoto, I was exposed to the work of Japanese calligraphers whose art centered on interpreting those characters of the writing system for which they had accumulated a deep personal affinity. The meanings of these characters resonated with their own lives, imbuing the shapes with special significance.  Because of my different cultural and linguistic background, I lacked the personal connection to the writing system. Instead, my task as a student of Shoudo was to master the brushwork as a means to focus the ephemeral emotions and experiences of the instant of painting into a bold visual expression of the energy of the moment.  On returning to my studio in California, I continued to practice this highly disciplined approach to brushwork, developing some new parameters in place of traditional ones.  I began to merge Shoudo techniques with figurative gesture drawing, abstracting the figure as Shoudo abstracts a calligraphic character.  This work involved painting many focused single-stroke pieces, from which I selected those that had the greatest integrity of line and coherence as compositions.

Seyburn Zorthian Portrait
Photo by Annie Yakutis

During these years of working with the single stroke of brush and ink, I had the feeling there was something left out.  I was missing an integral and meaningful part of my own American/European culture. It emerged that while I valued the access to the ephemeral moment facilitated by the calligraphic brushwork, the process dramatically limited each piece’s further development. The termination of the stroke simultaneously marked the end of the process and the end of the brief moment it recorded. Eventually this limitation grew stifling and gave rise to my new challenge: to integrate the single skeletal stroke, the expression of the moment, with color and other elements to create a composition that cohered as a whole, all without diminishing the original energy and focus. Those efforts have been realized in these recent large-scale paintings, which express the immediacy of the moment, further developed with a greater sense of emotional and aesthetic depth.

The first brushstroke—rooted in my earlier expressive brushwork practice—usually becomes the soul of the painting, and directs the course and character of the composition. Thereafter the color and movement of each brushstroke is a response to a previous stroke, improvising like dance partners. (In choreographing a dance, each step gives rise to the subsequent step.) Thus all other elements of the painting—lines, colors, shapes—spring from that initial “soulstroke.”  The initiating soulstroke remains a record of the particular ephemeral moment and its emotions, an expression that is responsive to music and the movement impulse of the body.

The current paintings are a visual expression of movement inspired by the music I listen to while working. My musical collection is wide-ranging but when painting I am particularly drawn to R&B, Motown, jazz, and African music. The energy that makes you want to dance and move your feet, the rhythms, melodies, and emotions transmitted by music, all move through the body, evoking a response from arms and brush, to translate the implied movement of the music into expressive brushstrokes on canvas. During the continuing development process, the music plays an important part in determining the painting's direction and feel. The resulting energetic dance of the brush and paint leaves a visual record that defines the personality of the finished work.

At a certain point, the painting acquires agency or identity apart from the music, and from that moment on, it seems to direct its own completion, for as much as the work is tied to music, there is nothing literal or representative about that connection, which is aesthetic and abstract in the extreme. Rather, the music stimulates the flow of authentic movement, encouraging me to relinquish the need to control the outcome, and the loaded brush becomes the translator of the Unconscious. Like all visual artists, my task is to communicate using a non-verbal inner language, to create an expression of the soul conveyed through the body visually, a lasting record of something ephemeral. In the same way that our dreams communicate the voice of the Unconscious to the conscious mind, art of all media can illuminate the intangible unknown, thus giving a deeper awareness of our own nature and the nature of the universe.

A note about my relationship to Buttonwood Farm:

Over the decades the Buttonwood property has provided an abundance of interesting shapes and subjects from which to glean images with the brush and sumi. I am very grateful to have been able to contribute to this wonderful adventure of growing grapes, making fine wine and offering it to people who appreciate it!

From the very beginning, I have been able to integrate my paintings in the design of the labels. The original brushwork, which was our logo for 25 years, was chosen from a series of sumi sketches, recognizable and abstract, from looking at grape clusters, vines and leaves. Currently we use different paintings for the labels of each different variety.

Buttonwood Winery Chardonnay labelButtonwood Label with artwork by Seyburn Zorthian

Buttonwood Labels, design by Lucy Brown, artwork by Seyburn Zorthian

2018 “Art of the Drawing”, Indigo, Santa Barbara, CA.
2018 “Past, Present & Future, Elverhoj Museum 30-year anniversary exhibition”, Elverhoj Museum of History & Art, Solvang, CA.
2018 “Thomas Fire Artistsí Recovery Exhibition”, Porch Gallery, Ojai, CA.
2017 “Pulp Fiction: Paper Stories Reconstructed”, Indigo, Santa Barbara, CA.
2017 “Beyond the Windmills: The Barry Berkus and Family Art Collection”, Elverhoj Museum of History & Art, Solvang, CA, Curator, Rita Ferri.
2017 “How Modernism Came to Santa Barbara: 1945-1990”, Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA.
2017 “Beauty”, Santa Barbara Tennis Club, Curator, Susan Tibbles.
2017 “Spring”, Palm Loft Gallery, Carpinteria, CA, Curator, Arturo Tello.
2016 “Black & White”, Indigo, Santa Barbara, CA.
2015 “Below Zero 2”, Modern Art Museum of Yerevan, Armenia.
2015 “EYE”, Montecito Aesthetic Institute, Santa Barbara, CA. Curator, Nancy Gifford.
2015 “Out of the Great Wide Open”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Santa Barbara, CA.
1998-2014 Represented by Indigo, Santa Barbara, CA
2014 “Westridge School Festival of the Arts”.  Westridge School, Pasadena, CA. Independent Curator, Jay Belloli
2014 “Art + Love Group Exhibition featuring Santa Barbara County Artists from Mark Robert Halper’s book Between Seer and Seen”  Santa Barbara Tennis Club, Santa Barbara, CA. Curator, Susan Tibbles.
2012 "Figure Fragments: The Part as the Whole". Channing Peake Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA. Juror, Priscilla Bender-Shore.
2011 “Energy”, an international exhibition juried by Howard Fox, Curator Emeritus of Contemporary Art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, Santa Ana, CA.
2011 “The Abstract”, a juried exhibition of California artists. Juror, Phil Linhares, Chief Curator of Art, Oakland Museum of California. Sandra Lee Gallery, San Francisco, CA.
2010 "Bugs", Indigo, Santa Barbara, CA. Juried group show of Santa Barbara County artists.
2010 “Small Images”, Atkinson Gallery, Santa Barbara City College. Juror, Thomas Lawson, Dean of the School of Art, California Institute of the Arts. Merit Award 2D for "Cicada Speciosa, 6".
2010 "Art of Ink in America - 2010, Florida", The Gallery at Eissey Campus, Palm Beach Community College, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
2010 "Art of Ink in America - 2010, Florida", University Art Gallery, California State University, Dominguiz Hills, Carson, CA
2009 "Vino de Sueños", Participating Artist (Painting for wine label design representing Buttonwood Winery). Benefit for Santa Ynez Valley Vineyard and Farm Workers. Buellton, CA.
2008 "EDGE: Santa Barbara County Artists Respond", Ro Snell, Curator, Channing Peake Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA
2008 "Santa Barbara Abstractions", five artists from Santa Barbara County at the Collector's Gallery, Bakersfield Museum of Art, Bakersfield, CA.
2008 Traveling Show: "Art of Ink in America - 2008. The 9th Exhibition of International Contemporary Calligraphy", Art of Ink in America Society, Irvine Fine Arts Center, Irvine, CA
2007 “A Body of Work: Life Drawing of Participants in the Seyburn Zorthian Studio,” Elverhøj Museum of History and Art, Solvang, California.
2007 Traveling Exhibition: "Art of Ink in America - 2007. The 9th Exhibition of International Contemporary Calligraphy", Art if Ink in America Society, Association Culturelle Franco-Japonaise de Tenri, Paris, France.. Exhibition traveling to Hyundai Art Center, Ulsan, Korea and Irvine Art Center, California. Catalog available
2006 "Small Images", Atkinson Gallery, Santa Barbara City College; juror, James Elaine.
2005 "Art of Ink: An Exhibition of International Contemporary Calligraphy", W. Keith and Janet Kellog University Art Gallery, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, CA
2005 "Art of Ink in America-2005 International Contemporary Calligraphy", New York Hall of Science, Queens, NY.
2005 "Portraying Women", Jewish Federation, Santa Barbara
2005 "Mobilé: Local Treasures", an exhibition of artists and furniture designers, Livingreen Gallery, Santa Barbara
2004 “In the Abstract”, Fielding Graduate Institute, Santa Barbara, California
2004 "Art of Ink in America-2004 International Contemporary Calligraphy Exhibition ", the 10th International Contemporary Calligraphy Exhibition Mobile Museum of Art, Mobile, Alabama; Museum purchase of 2 works for the collection.
2003 "Art of Ink in America-2003", the 9th International Contemporary Calligraphy Exhibition, Shanxi Historical Art Museum, Xi'an, China
2002 "Saks Fifth Avenue Invitational", Santa Barbara, CA
2002 "Women Beyond Borders: The Art of Building Community; A Ten-Year Retrospective" Guest Curator Annette Kubitza, Ph.D., University Art Museum, University of California Santa Barbara
2002 "Art of Ink In America-2002", the 7th International Contemporary Calligraphy Exhibition, Contemporary Crafts Gallery, Portland, Oregon
2002 "Art of Ink - 2002 LA, International Contemporary Calligraphy Exhibition", Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA
2002 "Art that Works", a three-part exhibition to benefit the Environmental Defense Center, Santa Barbara, CA, featuring 2 screens, collaborations with furniture designer, Bud Tullis.
2001 "Women Beyond Borders Ten-year Retrospective", Fowler Museum, UCLA, Los Angeles and University Art Museum, UCSB, Santa Barbara, CA
2001 "Working from Life: The Figure in Drawing", Westmont College, Reynolds Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA
2001 "Mythic Images", 3 artists; black and white, Santa Barbara Arts Fund Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA
2001 "Chouinard, a Living Legacy", Oceanside Museum of Art, Oceanside, CA, Catalog printed.
2000 Traveling exhibition; “Art of Ink in America-2000”, International Contemporary Calligraphy, Newark Museum, New Jersey, and National Taiwan Arts Education Institute, Taiwan, Taipei. Catalog printed.
1997 “LA Slide”, Living Room Gallery, Los Angeles, CA and Gallery 25, Fresno, CA
1996 "West Coast Works on/of Paper ‘96”, The Ink People, Eureka, CA, Juror, Peter Frank
1995 “Scissors, Paper, Stone: 9 Women Working”, Museum Art Center, Santa Maria, CA
1994 “Alchemy of Fire,” Channing Peake Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA
1994 Group Show, Karpeles Manuscript Library & Museum, Santa Barbara, CA
1990 “34 5” x 120 15’ Santa Barbara Artists,” The Woman’s Building, Los Angeles, CA
1990 “10 + 10, 10 Artists Invite 10 Artists,” Santa Barbara Arts Festival, De La Guerra Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA
1989 Santa Barbara Arts Council, Arts Festival, Santa Barbara, CA, Juror, Joan Hugo
1987 “Garden of Earthly Delights”, Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, Santa Barbara, CA
1986 “Portraits” Santa Barbara Arts Council Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA
1984 Sumie Society of America, International Juried Exhibition, New York, NY
1984 Santa Barbara Arts Council, Arts Festival, Santa Barbara, CA Juror, Melinda Wortz
1982 Carolyn Watson Gallery, Group Show, Santa Barbara, CA
1982 Santa Barbara Arts Council, Arts Festival, Santa Barbara, CA, Juror, Peter Selz, purchase award
1980 “Santa Barbara Select ‘80”, Atkinson Art Gallery, Santa Barbara City College, Santa Barbara, CA
1974 Kyoto Municipal Museum, National Shodou Exhibition

Teaching and Demonstration Experience

2005  Japanese Abstract Brush Painting Class, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, for graduating seniors from the Visual
         Art and Design Academy (with Ronald Robertson)


Seyburn Zorthian in 805 Living

Abstract Expressions

805 Living Magazine
September 2018
Seyburn Zorthian in ArtsScene

Portfolio: 10 Painters in Paradise

Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine
Fall 2016
Seyburn Zorthian in ArtsScene

Defining Gestures

by L.D. Porter
Santa Barbara Magazine ArtsScene
Spring 2015

Creative Community: Seyburn Zorthian from TV Santa Barbara on Vimeo.

Seyburn Zorthian Working From a Dancing Model, Video: Macduff Everton
Seyburn Zorthian featured on KCET Artbound CASA07.07.06 article Wine and Country
The Dancing Brush: The Calligraphic Abstractions
of Seyburn Zorthian

by Meher McArthur
KCET Artbound
November 2, 2012

Brush Work
by Jefferson Hawkins
Casa Santa Barbara Magazine
July 7, 2006 issue

Color-Charged Energy
by Kyle Roderick
Wine Country Living Magazine
Related Websites

Col. Jirayr H Zorthian


Vino de Suenos