Wabi Sabi – A Zen Aesthetic

In my pursuit of simplicity and subversion of the self in my art, I have been reading about the Japanese aesthetic sensibility of wabi sabi. This idea arises out of the teachings of Zen Buddhism in which the practitioner seeks to loose their ties to the material world through minute observation of the exquisite but ephemeral details of the natural world. At the heart of this idea is mutability and the acceptance of mortality.

Transmitted into an artistic aesthetic, these ideas are expressed in wabi sabi, a characteristic of an artefact or process (such as the tea ceremony) which brings together simplicity, impermanence, asymmetry and imperfection. Defining wabi sabi is difficult in words; I suspect it is one of those things that you know it when you see it. It is the characteristic which makes you want to draw a piece of driftwood in preference to a plastic bottle.


The beauty of observed details – weathered stone and mortar, The Cobb, Lyme Regis


The designer, Andrew Juniper, in his book ‘Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Imperfection’, (Juniper, 2003) considers how the principles of wabi sabi can be applied to the various parameters of design:


  • no shiny, uniform surfaces
  • materials that clearly show the passage of time
  • materials whose devolution is expressive and attractive

freedom of form

  • asymmetry or irregularity
  • the form comes from the physical properties of the materials used
  • artlessness, not artistry
  • the piece evolves in a natural and unforced way
  • no symbolism


  • rough and uneven
  • variegated and random
  • textures formed by natural sporadic processes

ugliness and beauty

  • disregard for conventional views of beauty
  • an aesthetic pleasure that lies beyond conventional beauty
  • beauty that lies in the smallest most imperceptible details


  • no harsh or strong colours
  • subdued lighting
  • colours and dyes from natural sources
  • diffuse and murky colours
  • matte colours that lack uniformity


  • no embellishment or ostentation
  • unrefined and raw
  • use of freely available materials


  • nothing surplus to requirement
  • significant areas of ‘nothing’
  • ample space around all adjacent pieces
  • accent pieces at at absolute minimum


  • careful and constant observation of the physical balances found in nature
  • no prescribed formulae
  • no regular or uniform shapes
  • design elements balances in a way that looks completely natural and unforced


  • reality of impermanence used to add a sense of perspective and finality
  • all design work approached with humility and sincerity
  • clarity of personal motives
  • all aspects of design kept to a functional minimum
  • pieces that are intimate and personal”

Now, that is a lot to aspire to, and I am not sure that I would choose to embrace all those characteristics rigorously. However, the vast majority of these criteria are exactly what I have been seeking in my recent art. They make me realise why I find the plastic finish of acrylic paint distasteful and why I turn to clay, rust and charcoal as media with such pleasure, though I am not sure that I want to spend my artistic life in pursuit of ‘murky’ colours. The colour of lapis lazuli seems to me as valid in this context as the colour of iron oxide, neither of them murky.

Although he talks about no symbolism, the whole concept of wabi sabi is inherently symbolic of a zen resignation to mortality. Much of zen art is also based around calligraphy which also seems to me to be unavoidably symbolic.

Some of these parameters are key to my creative ambition:

  • asymmetry, irregularity
  • celebration of the physical properties of the materials used
  • artlessness, not artistry (unrefined, raw, direct) (transparency of process)
  • the piece evolves in a natural and unforced way (response to materials and process)
  • use of freely available materials (local, natural, intrinsic to my environment)
  • significant areas of ‘nothing’
  • beauty that lies in the smallest most imperceptible details

The influence of wabi sabi in Japanese art can be seen in the haiku, tea ceremony, ceramics, painting, gardens, bonsai, ikebana and calligraphy. I hope that the philosophy of wabi sabi can offer me tools to find a path to further simplification in my art.  ‘The influence of wabi sabi on creativity begins with a simple premise: Do only what is necessary to convey what is essential…prune and trim what is non-essential in order to shorten the distance between the observer and the observed. Art trimmed in this way is slender and precise like a blade of grass.’ (Powell, 2004)


Juniper, A. (2003) Wabi sabi: The Japanese art of impermanence. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing.

Powell, R.R. (2004) Wabi sabi simple: Create beauty, value imperfection, live deeply. New York, NY, United States: Adams Media.

W.S.D. Ltd (2013) Home. Available at: http://www.wabisabidesign.co.uk/index.html (Accessed: 14 February 2017).

Bibliography/Artists’s websites










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