Monday, November 10, 2008

Wabi Sabi-"Nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect."

'Earth, Wind and Fire' - A painting I did a few years back, maybe 6 or 7 years back, that I thought would be a good illustration for this blog post of mine. It's a 30x40 oil on linen.

"Wabi-sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things." (Juniper, Andrew. Wabi-sabi: the Japanese Art of Impermanence. Boston: Tuttle, 2003)

I might be getting off track here in terms of a blog about posting paintings. But is it? I need to get out more because I've only discovered this philosophy now. I've read the The Tao Te Ching (also called "The Tao", by Lao Tzu, have read a little about Buddhism but must not have read enough to know about 'wabi sabi'. But I recognize the universality of it's presence in the other writings and way of life.

To be honest, I was reading an article in the magazine, 'Wooden Boats' ( I'm building a little one and 'nothing is finished' applies here! ) about an artist who paints pretty contemporary looking paintings of old traditional wooden boat structures.

The writer said that the paintings and subject matter acknowledged 'wabi sabi' and went on to say that it referred to the Japanese aesthetic that "nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect".

That really peaked my interest because my interests are most often in things and activities that are made by hand, that are old and have some sort of aesthetic that transends the 'glitzy' part of our society. I am an archer and shoot a wooden flat bow, make my own arrows, am building a wooden boat, tie my own flies for fishing, and in general appreciate those things in our world that look to most people (other than artists in many cases) like they should be torn down and rebuilt. I am typing this on an iMac, not sending smoke signals, so there is compromise of course.

When I'm out painting, I don't stop at the metal pole barns to paint, or the asphalt parking lots and new construction, by choice. I am not a fan of painting industrial things either. They do not make me feel comfortable. I'm a painter who is trying to pass along my deep seeded love and joy in the subjects that I choose to paint to others, and most of those subjects seem to be either a little out of the way corner that usually is overgrown and "unnoticed" by many! It's just my choice. I am not slamming anyone who would rather paint glass and steel skyscapers, or the grand subjects such as mountain peaks and majestic waterfalls. I've done that too, a little bit, but not with the same conviction and interest that I've found along the shore of the local swampy little pond. It's just that I'd rather find a 90 year old shed that is about to fall over in the next 5 mph wind to paint. I've always been like this. Reading about 'wabi sabi' is causing me to reflect on what it is I paint and why in a very positive way.

I'm constantly amazed by the discovery of ideas that have been here for so long that every one, but me, knows about it. I googled 'wabi sabi' and quickly realized that there are wabi sabi blogs, books (here's one that I'm going to get and read-Koren, Leonard. Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 1994), art, photographs and on and on. I never did investigate 'feng shue' but probably should have.

"We must teach ourselves to see the beauty of the ugly, to see the beauty of the commonplace. It is so much better to make much out of little than to make little out of much-better to make a big thing out of a little subject than to make a little thing out of a big one. " (Hawthorne, J.C. Hawthorne On Painting. Dover Publications, 1960)

Charles Hawthorne was a painter and teacher who understood this philosophy either consciously or by instinct. Many of us respect what he had to tell us through this book published by his daughter. It's full of the same sort of consciousness for painters and is also worth reading.

As artists we are constantly aware that we are a little different than a lot of the other people around us if simply by the nature of what and how we do what we do. Now it's comforting to know that we have a connection to humanity that the ancient cultures have recognized and practiced for eons.

Am I the only one who didn't get the memo on this? ;-)

"Wabi-sabi, as a tool for contemplation and a philosophy of life, may now have an unforeseen relevance as an antidote to the rampant unraveling of the very social fabric which has held [us] together for so long. Its tenets of modesty and simplicity encourage a disciplined unity while discouraging overindulgence in the physical world. It gently promotes a life of quiet contemplation and a gentle aesthetic principle that underscores a meditative approach. Wabi-sabi demotes the role of the intellect and promotes an intuitive feel for life where relationships between people and their environments should be harmonious. By embodying the spirit to remind itself of its own mortality, it can elevate the quality of human life in a world that is fast losing its spirituality." (Juniper, Andrew. Wabi-sabi: the Japanese Art of Impermanence. Boston: Tuttle, 2003)


Anonymous said...

Wow, what a beautiful, atmospheric painting!

Marc R. Hanson said...

Thank you Alexandre. The photo was taken with the first digital camera that I owned and the quality isn't great.
There was a LOT of paint on this one.

Anonymous said...

I like the philosophy of Wabi Sabi. Without realizing it, I seem to be practicing it. I like to paint old things, like an old local diner that is long closed. I like the idea of capturing scenes before they disappear forever. I also agree that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. But, I think that time marches on, whether we want it to or not, and that striving for perfection is not as important as working toward a certain point of satisfaction - a goal, and then moving on. How we treat each other and our environment is what is important and what will last from this life to the next. Painting seems to bring out the philosophy in us artists. Perhaps it's the time during which we are creating that makes us look inside ourselves and think about the importance of things in our lives. Thanks for the post.

Marc R. Hanson said...

Patty... I agree with you. That's what is most interesting to me about this aesthetic. It's all around us in the 'great' things we see in the world. I guess I should add, for some of us. Not everyone probably feels this way and I'm guessing that artists make up a large portion of those who do. By artists I mean those who live life with the soul of an artist, practice one of the arts, those who are introspective and as you say, looking at what is important to us in life. Why do we travel to the old, ancient little villages in places like Tuscany, Tibet, Scandinavia and in our own country? I think that it's to remind us that life passes, and as it does it's important to realize that perfection is never attained. In these places we can see that civilization didn't stop then, they didn't create perfection, but time has created a patina that grounds us no matter how fast we flew in an aluminum machine to get there. Time does more to 'perfect' us, the earth and what we manufacture and leave on the earth as part of our existence, than we could ever do. To spend one's life reaching for it is divisive and counter productive to reaching one's 'own' personal goal for inward understanding and growth.

Anonymous said...

That is a very cool painting!!!
And, I enjoyed reading your post, too. Wabi Sabi seems like an excellent starting point for a conversation - too bad I don't know you. Anyway, it seems kind of like "pi" - you just can't measure completeness - or "limits" - you can't reach the destination - or "mercury" - as soon as you get near to it, it runs from you.
Hope your show was a great success, and fun!

Marc R. Hanson said...

Thanks anonymous... The show looked great! I'm very proud to be included in a group of painters like they're showing at Coleman. We had a good time and even sold some art!

Anonymous said...

Nice time of year to be down there, too! I bet it was beautiful!
The company of respected colleagues is precoius!
And, paintings sold is a great thing!!! Congratulations!
All smiles!

Anonymous said...


Frank Gardner said...

Great putting together of thoughts on this.
I understand the idea behind it in the Hawthorne type way, just had never heard it called Wabi Sabi either.

Beautiful painting by the way Marc.

Marc R. Hanson said...

anonymous... Charleston is a special place. Thanks.

Marc R. Hanson said...

Hi Frank... Me either! Never have run into the term. Hawthorne and others, Henri for sure, have written about it if not knowingly, as I mentioned, by instinct then. It probably seems so unique an idea to us because we live in the west with all of the 'things' that it brings to us. I would imagine that in a place like Tokyo, wabi sabi is less of an ideal than it might be in the Japanese country side??? That's really what it is, an eastern vs western way of looking at life. I think anyway.
Thanks for looking in.

Anonymous said...

I often check your blog as I love looking at what you have been painting….but was moved by this particular blog, painting and philosophy.
I too understand the need for ancient things, and gravitate to all things old. When we moved back to England earlier this year little did I know that we would end up in a beautiful rural part of Devon, surrounded by ancient land. It really is ‘Old England’…the kind of landscape screaming out to be painted in all of its majestic beauty. ….and we ended up in an old house (400 years old) where there are no straight walls and the floor in my little studio slopes so much you get seasick if you look down too quickly!
Your blog has inspired me to consider more the philosophy of why as artists we gravitate to certain subjects and colours …..and to consider more the role of intuitive decisions when I paint.
Great blog, Marc….this (for me anyhow) is what blogging is all about!

indiaartist said...


Anonymous said...

I really like your blog found as you were tagged by sharonwright.blogspot. I agree with all other comments on this one and you are on my blog list now.

SharonWrightArtist said...

Hi, I love your paintings, your philosophy, your blog, so I have TAGGED you. It is just a bit of fun, a way to connect with fellow bloggers, so if interested please go to my blog to find out more. Happy painting!

Marc R. Hanson said...

Maggie... Your new home sounds like 'artistic' heaven! I can envision what you describe so well as an inspirational place to live a life and to be an artist. Good for you. Thanks for the comments.

Marc R. Hanson said...

indiaartist... Good! :)

Marc R. Hanson said...

carolann and sharon... Okay, I'm heading to Sharon's site now to see what this 'tag'ing thing is all about. I'm a little ignorant about blog protocol and customs so bear with me. I guess I should say 'thanks'? It sounds like a good thing...Off I go!