Wabi-Sabi: The Art Of Impermanence

We tend to think of entropy as something “bad,” the inevitable tendency for matter to dissipate, for all living things to die. As embodied creatures we naturally would prefer to avoid this downward spiral—for ourselves, others, our pets, creations, cherished objects and the systems we use in order to function. And because death is so mysterious and ultimate, it’s not surprising that it has been and continues to be primary subject matter for storytellers across all cultures and communication media.

Japanese artists have another way of looking at entropy. Wabi-sabi is both a world view and an aesthetic perspective, based on the acceptance and appreciation of impermanence and imperfection. What I like about it is the shift in consciousness it facilitates: when entropy is viewed as impermanence, phenomenon such as the aging process and colliding celestial bodies can be beautiful. It’s all about perception—how we see.

In Wabi-Sabi For Artists, Designers, Poets And Philosophers, American artist Leonard Koren says the Japanese hesitate to explain wabi-sabi, but most will claim to understand how it feels. According to Wikipedia, “wabi connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance.” It refers to the creation of beauty through the inclusion of imperfection, focusing on subject matter that is asymmetrical, austere, simple, quiet and modest. Also, it appreciates the randomness of nature and natural processes.

“Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.” It recognizes the signs of dissipation or decay as beautiful—peeling paint, a wilting flower, rusting metal. According to Mr. Koren, wabi-sabi is “the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty.” Andrew Juniper, owner of the Wabi Sabi Design Company in the UK, observed that “If an object of expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi. It’s for this reason that the bowls used in Japanese tea ceremonies are rustic, simple, sometimes pitted and not quite symmetrical.”

It’s also why fine art and contemplative photographer’s are drawn to areas where entropy is well underway, including junk yards, abandoned structures, neglected neighborhoods and back alleys. When composed and lit well, textures born of age and weathering can be pleasing and interesting, at times dramatic.

Always they present an opportunity to practice composition and explore one’s aesthetic. Also, images made in such places quite easily evoke the sensibilities of imperfection or impermanence, encouraging contemplation for those who attend more closely to the results.

By putting on a wabi-sabi “hat,” so to speak, the artist can adopt this perception and become more attuned to its characteristic energies—asymmetry, simplicity, quietness and imperfection, how the elements in a composition feel rather than look.

Wabi-sabi is neither smooth nor complex. It’s the bark of a tree and broken branches, cracks in a vase or brick wall, creases in a tablecloth or the random spill of oil on a blacktop surface. It’s not the smooth skin or perky expression of the young. Rather, it’s the character lines and calm demeanor of age.

Aspiring photographers tend to think they have to travel in order to find appealing subject matter. If the intent is to produce “calendar art” that may be so. But for those more interested in exploring—by exercising—their unique personal aesthetic, I recommend the practice of wabi-sabi—organizing simple energies of light and subject matter within a frame.

I also recommend working close to home so more work can be done toward developing the inner eye, seeing with understanding eyes, seeing essences beyond appearances and seeing what most others miss.

As perception expands and deepens, we better appreciate that entropy is a natural and universal process tied to cosmic and human evolution. Images of impermanence present the artist with a world of opportunities to explore his or her perceptual capabilities and connect to the awesome—and beautiful—force we call entropy. While Star Wars and other movies depict the forces of darkness and light locked in eternal conflict, in the real world they are symbiotic aspects of the One reality.

Our souls are all made of the same paper; our uniqueness, though, comes from the creases in that paper from the folding and unfolding of our experiences.

J. Krishnamurti



Rendering subjects in black and white is particularly conducive to wabi-sabi because the emotional appeal of color doesn’t overpower its principle characteristics: form, texture and simplicity in the context of the aging process. Personally, I found it interesting that the images I selected here are among the oldest in my collection. I was doing wabi-sabi unconsciously, hadn’t even heard of it until recently.

As my work progressed, I became less fascinated with imperfection, preferring instead to focus on the energies of symmetry, order and construction while retaining an affinity for simplicity. As consciousness and perception swings between the opposite poles of duality, I think it brings us to a place where we’re more comfortable with paradox. Rather than tension, it’s the experience of satisfaction with the way things are. For the artist, it’s also the challenge to see all things as beautiful.



3 thoughts on “Wabi-Sabi: The Art Of Impermanence

  1. Loved your wabi-sabi! Especially the old oak and the vine on wood. Maybe when we’re young we are more drawn to chaos and wabi-sabi, but as we age “we” become the wabi-sabi in our lives.


  2. Interesting article – I learned something new. Really appreciated the photographs that accompanied it. A good way to start a Sunday ! L



Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: