Shibui - as in raku

May 20, 2008 
 
Robert Genn
 
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.
 
Best regards,
 
Robert
 
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 as 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.