- as in raku
May 20, 2008
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
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
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 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.