Bring soul into your art using Wabi Sabi

Photo : Aava Anttinen

Wabi sabi is appreciating the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.

This is a Japanese way of life and aesthetic philosophy coming from the principles of Taoism and Zen Buddhism. It is very present in the context of tea ceremonies but also appreciated in daily life in Japan through mindfulness and acceptance of subtle beauty despite signs of aging, life mishappens, and natural chaos.

I discovered wabi sabi in 2013 while reading an article in the  early version of Kinfolk magazine dedicated to Japan. At the time I was a recent graduate from Shillington College in London and working in my first Graphic Design job. I was full of insecurities and already knew Graphic Design wouldn’t be my last creative venture. I was mainly working digitally but my favourite part was sketching, as I was using my hands. However, I cringed at the sight of my drawings as I felt they were not good enough. This constant aim to be perfect was also the cause of my drawing block.

Just like minimalism, coming across the concept of wabi sabi and embracing it fully as a creative after reading the excellent book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren has been very helpful to find my creative voice no matter how imperfect, incomplete and impermanent it is.

Guided by 3 wabi sabi principles, I am inviting you to bring more soul and authenticity into your art:

1. Embrace imperfection

 The reason why I like drawing by hand so much is that it feels deeply raw and organic. I often compare drawing  with writing with a pen. Our handwriting says so much about ourselves. It’s the result of the way we hold our pen and the particular gesture of our arm, hand and fingers. It is unique to us and by repeating the movement so regularly on the daily, it becomes second nature. It’s our signature and as such, it’s very hard for other people to replicate it. However weird the letters we write look, it doesn’t matter since the aim is to communicate formal informations or express ourselves (like for journaling for example).

By embracing our imperfect mark making into our art, we allow our unique personality and human essence to shine through. It becomes instantly authentic and set us apart from other people in our industry. For example, when I think about it, although I am using black ink and fine line pen to draw I will never feel threatened by other artists using the same methods. Although our art have some similarities, you’ll still be able to clearly distinct our styles thanks to the unique way our fine line pens dance on paper. To be honest, I wouldn’t myself be able to draw the same thing the exact same way twice.

Inviting improvisation into your work is also an excellent way to embrace imperfection. Although you can be very clear about what you are aiming to create, mistakes can happen. But as long as you keep an open mind and are willing to play with them beautiful things can happen which can make the final result even more powerful. I personally welcome this habit wholeheartedly into my work and it helped me saved tons of paper and moments of frustration. For example, when I draw people and mess up the eyes I sometimes add eyeglasses, when haircuts don’t look good I add a hat or headscarf or when the patterns on a dress isn’t pretty as I wanted it to be I add another piece of clothing on top. If you own it and pretend like it was supposed to look this way no one will ever notice…

2. Impermanence reminder

You probably already know it but just to remind you : our time on this planet is limited, there’s only one of you, so basically if you do not create whatever you are craving to create now, however self conscious you are, it will never exist and will be lost, forever.

Martha Graham says it better than I do, but I guess you got the message.

If you feel called to do something, whether you are inspired or not, talented or not and no one is watching, keep doing the work. It will make your life more vibrant and meaningful.

3. Explore incompleteness

We are never finished. Like climate seasons and the universe itself, no matter where we are in life, we are in a constant state of evolution and self discovery.  Our perspective keeps changing as our life experience shifts. You might think that you know exactly who you are now but try moving to a different country with a different culture and see how it still applies. As a serial immigrant/expat, my identity is so complex that I don’t always understand it myself and it’s okay because as long as I will keep living, it will never stop changing. I find it extremely exciting and freeing and helps me rarely take things too personal and don’t get attached to labels especially if they don’t serve me.

I think every creative could benefit a lot from this theory. If you are aiming to create when you’ll be perfect at a discipline or ready, please do not. Be grateful for what you already know and start creating now. Instead of aiming for perfection, make a commitment to always stay curious and ready to upgrade. It’s a great motivation to keep learning, taking classes, workshops, travelling to discover new perspectives, try new things, and be open to switch to a different discipline, job, career and become a beginner again.

Did you know about wabi sabi?

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