Shibui is a broad term that can mean irregularity of form, openness to nature, roughness of texture, and the naturalness of daily life. Also known as Shibusa, it refers as well to the Japanese “Seven aspects of being” which are simplicity, implicitness, modesty, silence, naturalness, roughness and normalcy. It’s seen in raku pottery, architecture, folk crafts, haiku, gardens and painting. Shibui is worth thinking about no matter where you are or what your art.
Fact is, perfection is boring. Shibui allows viewer participation in the artist’s art. It’s particularly valuable in an age of highly finished and sophisticated machine-manufactured products. Shibui comes naturally, shows the hand of the maker, and triumphs gesture and the vagaries of process. While there are hundreds of ways to bring shibui into your life, if you think you might include the idea in your painting, here are seven:
Use the whole brush — right down to the ferrule.
Have more than one colour on the brush at one time.
Hold the brush well up on the handle.
Work freshly and let intuition be your guide.
Feel the energy and direction of your subject.
Be not uptight, but relaxed.
Quit when you’ve connected and while the going is good.
In a way, the making of raku pottery is a good metaphor. In the fiery arms of the kiln god, work takes on a form of its own. Think of yourself as a kiln rather than a labouring artisan. Under the smoking straw of passion, work shapes itself and becomes its own statement. Shibui is all about trust — trust in your materials, trust in your instincts, trust in yourself, trust in the kiln. Shibui transforms frantic work into calm joy and subdues the creator with relative contentment. As well, viewers get a strong feeling they are looking at art.
In shibui, sheer ease is a virtue. Hours fly by as the creator becomes lost in process and the gentle curiosity of outcome. You never know what you’re going to pull out of that kiln.
PS: “Austere, subdued and restrained are some of the English words that come closest. Etymologically, shibui means ‘astringent,’ and is used to describe a profound, unassuming and quiet feeling.” (Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book 1940)
Esoterica: I often wonder if the best art happens during some sort of self-hypnosis. In Japan, I once sat with a sumi master in lotus position in a particularly stark room with only three tatami, several sheets of rice paper and some simple tools. He could not, or would not, answer my questions as he worked. He was inscrutable as a Buddhist monk, as if another power was guiding his brush and he was only a rapt observer, smiling with some inner expectancy, impervious to the outside traffic that rattled and drummed his paper walls.
The pull of shibui
by Susan Collacott, Port Credit, ON, Canada
This is a reminder of a vision of art and life that I experienced in Japan in 1984, in the gardens, temples, old houses, and particularly the pottery. I also sat cross legged on a platform with my teacher who mastered a beautiful turquoise, crystalline glaze. After a six hour day of working the wheel from that position I could barely stand.
What I really loved was the pottery of Shigaraki that looked earthy and fire-blazed. I learned that I loved shibui and have tried ever since to achieve something of it in my work. I have created it in my garden and house. I seek the beauty of tranquility. It seems that although I choose art work that has that visual presence, I cannot get to it in my own work. There is something that has been bred in me that wants complexity and colour. I constantly feel conflicted between simplification and recognition of the image and sit on the fence always. It is not a comfortable place to be, however it is never dull.
In search of shibui
by Hyedie Hashimoto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Growing up as a ‘Nisei’ (2nd generation Japanese in Western Cultures) my understanding of Japanese was a vocabulary based on home and family situations. Also thanks to dubbed VHS and more recently YouTube videos of Japanese TV shows, my fluency is based on pop culture. In a less technical, more colloquial way ‘shibui’ or ‘shibusa’ is used to describe something that has a matured coolness. So jazzy, funky musicians are dubbed as being shibui, or art that uses traditional techniques or pays homage to older aesthetics can be shibui. Thank you for sharing the true, technical meaning for shibui.
(RG note) Thanks, Hyedie. Shibui has so many definitions that apparently the Eastern lexicographers have given up trying to define it. It just “is” — commonplace in the language. Someone told me that certain noodle soups are considered shibui. I first heard “shibui” uttered quietly in the sweet smoke of raku, and I immediately understood what I thought it meant.
by Claudio Ghirardo, Mississauga, ON, Canada
Interesting thing about Shibui that I have heard is that many of the modern artists have used this technique without even knowing about it. Picasso used to say, “Painting is stronger than me. It makes me do things I normally wouldn’t do” and Matisse once said, “I have done things I know that I cannot do,” so it seems to me that many artists do use this process as naturally as one breathes. I started using this way of painting and drawing, and the things that come about are quite surprising and exhilarating.
Alone with shibui
by Gwen Purdy, Seattle, WA, USA
Thanks for discussing this word, subject, and method. It’s exactly the way I work in my cubbyhole studio. I never know what I am going to do when I enter, and during the process of making a collage, or painting, time stops, and the results are not always perfect but they are always very mysterious. “What does that mean?” and, “Where did that come from?” are some of the questions at the end of the session. Wow, what a way to keep sane on this chaotic globe. I’m 82, and I have a book on decorating homes the shibui way. It’s my goal to someday live alone in a space that produces the peace and interest of this point of view.
by Peter Marsh, Toronto, ON, Canada
That was a new word for me even though I have done plenty of ‘raku’ pottery. Shibui often occurs in watercolour as well — if you know when to stop — having approached the work with a quick and tension-free hand. I am off to do some plein air painting today where ‘shibui’ will be called for at every moment because of the shortness of time and the changing light and weather conditions. Thanks for the new word!
by Candy Barr, Warren, VT, USA
Your shibui description rang true for me. My Victoria Falls (18″ x 18″) paintings from this last weekend done in a friend’s backyard fit all the seven. Loud moving water around and over stationary rocks can force one’s concentration into a hypnotic rapture. The only conscious action I really made was taking pictures of the process periodically, and that is second nature to me as well.
The art of letting go
by Carole Ann Borges, Knoxville, TN, USA
Learning to achieve a certain openness of mind can bring many wonderful surprises. Often I have thought that the best artists have somehow learned to be “medium-istic.” In other words, they are channeling inspiration from cosmic forces. The reason I came to this conclusion was the simple fact that at times my best work (poetry and prose writing) has been far superior to anything I ever could have thought up using my mind (intellect) alone. The best things I have produced were born from a letting-go, and the feeling is recognizably similar to going into a trance. This does not mean an artist simply sits there and magic happens. Technique has to be learned first. It has to have become such a part of you that it is incorporated and available to the inspirational moment. Ideas and perceptions must also be gathered. These are important tools.
The other thing that should be considered is the reality that what comes to the artist in this state is not always great art. I think of it as fishing. You sit by the bank and throw your hook and bait into the murky water. Then you wait in silence, so you don’t scare off any fish. Sometimes you get a nibble, sometimes your bait is stolen with no result. Other times you hook a big one, and you’re off! If you don’t throw your hook in the water and wait, you won’t catch any fish. Using technique and intellect alone is like fishing in a barrel. You do get something; the fish is perfect, but you have also lost something. Art is I think meant to be natural and wild.
Spiritual place for artists
by Ron Forinas, Dipolog City, Zamboanga Peninsula, Philippines
I enjoyed reading your letter and broadened some words used, art ideas from our artists activities. Thank you for it. We hope you’re all well. I have a great vision in our city to build an Artist Heaven. Trust and integrity and our legal identity in the name of the organization “The Dipolog Artist Consortium Inc.” The artist building is to be honored to whom can help or donate a piece of it for the construction project. The building is to be used to all the generations specially the art enthusiasts as to fuel the young talented for the Filipino children and adult giving them education an art school, a gallery for exposure and a little theater for the sake of art.
Discovering the artistic voice
by Dena Crain, Kenya
I use the methods about which you wrote and I rely on shibui as I produce my Spirit Works series of quilt art. Like automatic writing, these images unfold while I am in a meditative state of mind. Quilted in black thread on white fabric, one stitch at a time by hand or on the sewing machine, the lines that define shapes unfold without prior sketch or intent. When the full design magically has appeared, I paint the shapes with thickened dye or paint, and adorn each piece with appropriate beading, reverse applique, and more. Each piece reveals something of my inner state of mind. Generally something that is important to me but lurking below the level of consciousness surfaces during the process. Once I see the design, I know exactly what it is about, and can title each piece accordingly. I love working in this manner, combining stitchery and painting into mixed media pieces that are clearly works of art. Through shibui, I have discovered my “artistic voice.”
Felt in the heart
by Edie Young, Griffith, Australia
I recently gave a talk on the Japanese aesthetic Wabi sabi, which is close to shibui in many respects. It was at the exhibition Black Robe White Mist — The Art of the Buddhist Nun, Otagaki Rengetsu, held at the National Gallery of Australia. The two words wabi and sabi combine to form one word and wabi-sabi. It’s not to be confused with the eye-watering green paste that comes with your sushi! Wabi sabi is now understood in a contemporary sense as the aesthetic of rustic simplicity, and the hidden beauty found in imperfection, and objects showing signs of wear. Many Japanese would argue that wabi sabi is an indefinable term and that in trying to break it down into some form of rational explanation, its meaning would be lost. Surrounding wabi sabi is a ‘myth of inscrutability.’ There is a mystery… a mystique about this concept. The idea of wabi is not just applied to physical objects, but also includes elements of morality and spiritual sensitivity. Although we can cite examples of wabi, such as physical objects, a scene, a way of life… it is said that the beauty of such things depends entirely on the spiritual state of the person viewing them. In other words, it cannot be understood with the head, given a rational explanation, but is felt in the heart.
New worlds through artmaking
by Cindy Frostad, West Vancouver, BC, Canada
You have just encapsulated an ‘Ah Hah’ moment for me with your explanation of shibui. I have not been formally trained, so have not had the benefit of education or ‘short-cuts’ in art techniques. I do, however, respond sympathetically to works which have rough qualities and elusive images. By accident, I stumbled upon an effect like you describe in works of my own which I had to scrub or wipe off in an effort to save the canvas. Part way through, I had to stop- there was a ‘Shibui’ moment. (With some further work, one of these pieces ended up in a set background of the television series Supernatural.) Now my job is to put what I stumbled upon into other works on purpose.
On the same subject, we have a daughter who creates works that draw me to make a comparison to what you described as the elements of Shibui. The simplicity, rawness and purity of her lines, colour choices and knowing when to stop shock me to my core. She is eighteen and has significant special needs. Nobody has taught her about colour or line or ‘enough’. I wanted to see how and if she would respond to making art outside of the over-stimulating and controlling atmosphere of a busy classroom and making paper mache. As a trial, I bought a pack of big chalk pastels, stuck each into a hollowed out styrofoam egg, taped up some good quality paper and let her go. The only help I gave was to place the egg with her selection of colour into the palm of her hand. Very quickly, she caught onto a new-found freedom and power. From the get-go, she has been decisive about colours, listens to the sound of the pastel ‘scrrritching’ across the tooth of the paper and seems fascinated by the lines she can create. I have watched her develop more fluidity in her line, try different strokes and become more confident in working with this medium. Her intuition seems to have an outlet through this activity. Beyond some rudimentary gesture, sign language and pointing, we really don’t know how much she comprehends. She and I are continuing with these sessions- a new world is opening up to her.
oil painting by
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Marti O’Brien who wrote, “This makes me feel much more comfortable about letting go and going with the flow.”
And also Karen Cole of Santa Fe, NM, USA who wrote, “How does one maintain this state of Shibui, when family members flow in and out of your studio?”
(RG note) Thanks, Karen. Good question. I used to be really distracted by practically anyone. Somewhere along the line I just became so focused that I now make art in some pretty busy places. Even in my studio there can be three assistants running around at one time. It’s best when they don’t ask questions and just go about their business. Kids are another matter. You have to stop for the little darlings.
And also Carmen Marti of Chicago, IL, USA who wrote, “The hypnosis you describe has been documented by former University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He called it ‘Flow,’ or an energetic state of complete absorption in something; full focus with an extreme reward.”
(RG note) Thanks, Carmen. I site Csikszntmihalyi’s research on “Flow” in the first chapter of The Painter’s Keys book. I think he would be quoted and studied a lot more if his name was easier to spell. He’s great, but his name needs to be shibuied.
And also Edward Berkeley of Portland, OR, USA who wrote, “This letter brought to mind the old medical adage of Masterly Inactivity. Often in acute surgical emergencies it is best to pause, assess and stop fussing about, or doing things for the sake of doing in the hope that such activity will improve the situation.”
And also Terrie Christian of Plymouth, MN, USA who wrote, “I have a cat, Haiku, the Zen of less is more. He came to us from our vet after a terrible car accident which broke his jaw and took 1/2 his tongue. Believe me, less is more!”
And also Diane Torgersen of Wilmington, NC, USA who wrote, “I was taught the meaning by a Middle Eastern woman who explained shibui as a “hidden beauty.” She said it’s like a woman who is dressed simply for work, but underneath her clothing is an exquisite slip. Shibui. As an artist, this has always been an intriguing and elusive thought.”
And also Jan Bush of Comox, BC, Canada who wrote, “Shibui is close to Zen or as a result of Zen… the process of withdrawing one’s self to let art come through.”
And also Susan Harris of Los Angeles, CA, USA who wrote, “Now that you’re onto this subject you might also write about Wabi Sabi. One of my all time favorite books and inspirations for art is Wabi Sabi for Artists, Poet’s and Philosophers by Leonard Koren.”
And also Omar Shaheed of Columbus, OH, USA who wrote, “Speaking of a kiln, I have one just sitting around in my studio. Should you come in contact with anyone who wants one, I’m willing to let it go for a small fee.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Shibui…