Click the white bird on the blue palette to subscribe to hear about all my workshops, events, and videos before the general public. Some announcements will contain incentives offered only to members on this list. Subscribe yourself and receive a free (pdf) gift from me!

Sep 6, 2010

Wabi-Sabi, Painting, and the Notion of Impermanence . . .

Okay, fair warning for all of you readers . . . I'm going to go a bit 'woo-woo' with this post pertaining to the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi. And by woo-woo I mean me, not the ancient venerated Japanese aesthetic itself.

An oft-misapplied term, Wabi-Sabi can be difficult to explain to the uninitiated. It takes time, effort, and study to fully appreciate. Ask a native Japanese who is conversant in the discipline to explain and they will most likely smile, lower their head, and politely demur. Wabi-sabi's close-knit affiliation with the strictness of Zen and the ritualized nature of the Japanese tea ceremony means we Westerners lack the cultural underpinnings from the git-go. Why? One can only gain an understanding of what wabi-sabi is through personal experience and observation.

But in essence, wabi-sabi has to do with embracing and appreciating the concept of impermanence. As a result, a preference develops for the humble and ordinary over the grand and exalted. Wabi-sabi is the acknowledgement of imperfection and flaws, of aging, of naturally caused wear and tear, or simple hard use. Wabi-sabi is the recognition of beauty in what was first deemed mundane or even ugly. It is also a recognition of utility, though usefulness is probably the least relevant aspect for us painters to consider. (I do hope as I offer this explanation that you realize it is something of a hatchet job. This explanation would make any deep practitioner of the aesthetic wince in silence.) What makes wabi-sabi so difficult to grasp in a meaningful way is that the teaching itself is imbued with the principle of, "those who say, don't know– and those who know, don't say", which can make it a bit off-putting to anyone wishing to learn more. But try anyway. There is much for us artists to gain from reflecting upon the notion of wabi-sabi and perhaps sneaking elements of it into our work.

Here are three helpful tenets or starting points, and how I believe they affect my own work:

1. All things are impermanent. The inclination rewards nothingness is unrelenting and universal. Even things which have the earmarks of substance–things that are hard, inert, solid–present nothing more than the illusion of permanence.

Wabi-Sabi maintains that the most interesting and poetic things occur at the boundaries of becoming and not-becoming. For example, since I am primarily a plein air painter, I'll discuss the idea of painting a thicket of trees at twilight. At dusk, individual trees become difficult to distinguish from each other. When this happens they essentially stop being trees and become something else–they become an intriguing shape or indeterminate mass. The critical part of what I am saying here is the word is 'indeterminate'. As the evening light continues to fade, the boundary between our indeterminate tree mass and the sky behind it becomes further diffused until it becomes difficult for us to determine where it starts and where it stops. Hence, a mystery begins to emerge. When the light has totally failed, our indeterminate tree mass and sky have merged together into a single indistinguishable form, a condition which now allows our eyes to perceive other subtle, and perhaps deeper and more mysterious things we could not see before. Ambiguity and indeterminacy is central to the expression of wabi-sabi. But it must be a purposeful kind of indeterminacy and not a random or careless vagueness expressed by the artist. Where–or to be more exact, how–the artist draws a line between ambiguity and clarity should remain a considered and tempered act. 

In the image above, without the cracks you would not see the glass, only the sky.

2. All things are imperfect. Nothing that exists is without imperfections. 

Today, there is essentially one of two roads a contemporary painter who is descended from the Western-European tradition of Art may take: 

1) The road which runs towards expressing the Ideal and Glorious–usually an aesthetic derived first- or second-hand from the Greco-Roman ideals of our past. I leave such artists alone to dwell in their realm of imaginary super-heros, Hellenistic beauties, nostalgia, and pursuit of perfection and permanence. And with their unrealizable desire to sit upon Plato's chair.


2) The road which leads towards the revelation of the Specific, beauty, flaws, and all. 

As an observationally-based painter who is more interested in the world around me than in what exists inside my head, I feel that to express the specific with my work presents a deeper view of life, and by offering up such specifics, my work more accurately reflects the complexity of the world we all live in. Complexity has become my God-point. So, when I look at a painting at length–mine or anyone else's–I look to see how particular and personal the painter has been because I know it is not possible to devote hours upon hours, or days upon days, intimately examining a subject without gaining a deeper insight into what it is, or how it fits into the rest of the world. Which means revealing the warts with the beauty. 

Tell me, did you experience the organic beauty in the image above, or just see a dumped shopping cart? A duck?

3. All things are incomplete. All things, including the universe itself, are in a constant, never-ending state of becoming or dissolving. Often, we arbitrarily designate moments, points along the way, as "finished" or "complete".

This go directly to the issue of, when is a painting finished? In my view, it could be anytime I am painting it, or it could be never. Most painters who work from life come to the conclusion that what we do is akin to slicing what we see into ever smaller pieces, and that we can continue to break those pieces down into smaller and smaller bits until the limits of a one-haired brush have been reached. Yet there are points along the way that tell us it is time to stop, to put the brush down and move on to another canvas. In general, the more mature an artist becomes, the less that artist needs to paint into a painting, and, the more that artist begins to rely upon a calculated incompleteness. Of course, there are exceptions to this point, for there are any number of novice painters who start off by rendering out an intense level of detail and learn to pile even more on as they age. And some of them become phenomenal painters in their own right. But most often, maturity and understatement go hand-in-hand.

Regarding the images above, what are grains of sand, except mountains in a different form?

Excerpts in green are from the book:

"Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers" 
By Leonard Koren
Published by Stone Bridge Press, Berkley California
ISBN 1-880656-12-4

Link to book:


Notice of Upcoming Painting Workshops:

I am presently planning my 2011 workshops and I have at least four in mind. If any of the offerings are of interest to you then please let me know by email and I will put you on a notification list. Costs and dates have yet to be determined.

1. Essential Alla Prima Techniques | January/February, 2011
Three days, in Portland, Oregon: lodging to be arranged by individual participants
A studio-based how-to class that will focus upon working oils wet-into-wet, with the idea of completing a painting within a single session. We will work from the still-life and the figure, indoors, under controlled lighting.

2. Painting Snowscapes | Mid-Spring, 2011
Two nights/Three days; w/lodging arranged at the historic Timberline Lodge
To be held up on Mt. Hood, Oregon. We'll reserve rooms at the lodge and step outside to paint.

3. Painting Big Rock | June/July, 2011
Two nights/Three Days; w/lodging to be announced
Plein air painting focusing on the architectural canyons found in the Oregon Smith Rock area. This will be held in early summer.

4. Essential Plein Air Techniques | August, 2011
Five Days
A five-day workshop centered in and around Portland, Oregon, and focusing upon what every plein air painter should know. To be held in mid-August.

If you've not taken a workshop from me then I encourage you to visit this page with reviews from last August:


And if any of you have suggestions for a workshop you'd like to take, let me know!


4 reader comments:

Mary said...

Hi Thomas - I'd like more info on the Alla Prima Techniques workshop.
Mary S

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Great. Thanks, Mary.

I just put you on the Alla Prima list and will send you information about the class once I put it together.


Cathleen Rehfeld said...

Hi Thomas,
I like your exploration of wabi sabi. It's a lot to ponder upon, the relationship of wabi sabi to our lives and painting.

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...


Wabi-sabi has always been an interest of mine, as is Buddhism in general, and while a bit forced, I do think the Japanese aesthetic can be applied to the kind of painting you and I pursue. Alla prima plein air.

However, where any comparison between the two breaks down is in our desire to create an object (the painting) with the properties of permanence. The underlaying core of wabi-sabi is learning to appreciate the natural erosion of the object, and not the actual object itself. (I know, it's kind of an abstract point.)

If I thought could get away with imbuing my work with a quality of self-destruction, I would. But we have to look to contemporary sculptors and installation artists for that artistic expression.

I enjoyed the Hood River paint out very much. Thank you for the work you put into it.