Wabi-sabi – Beauty in Imperfection … introduction to my theme and initial sketches and ideas



WABI-SABI – Beauty in Imperfection  …. my chosen theme for this course is a development of an original idea ‘beauty in decay’ which is basically the same thing but allows me to enjoy the imperfections of flowers as they are dying and at a stage when we would ‘dead head’ in the garden or throw away if in a vase.

I have always loved the way flowers seem to become more beautiful in their shapes and colours as they ‘go over’ and develop a new life in form and texture.  A flower for me has 3 cycles of beauty – the first as they are in bud and you are waiting in anticipation for the bloom, the second the full beauty of the bloom that attracts bees and butterflies in the height of summer and the third, and for me most beautiful, that stage before decay when the petals are changing their shapes and colours just before they fall and become part of the earth again.  I love the leaves of flowers for the same reason – they take on a new beauty as they begin to twist and turn and you see colours that were not there before.


But why the title?  I posted some of the sketches seen below in an OCA Facebook page and another student said it was ‘very wabi-sabi’ … at this point it was a very quick internet search to understand the meaning!  Wabi-sabi in its barest form is the Japanese art of finding beauty in perfection and the natural cycle of life, decay and death in nature and is a contrast to the materialism of modern life and man-made objects and textiles.  Wabi-sabi is natural materials and involves the appreciation of the inevitable marching of time and use and weather – when you can appreciate the fraying of fabric or the cracks and crevices of stone or wood or even the wrinkles of getting old.


The philosophy of wabi-sabi first emerged in 15th century Japan as a direct reaction to the rich fabrics, rich ornamentation and lascivious that abounded and although no direct translation is available it is a deeply engrained Japanese concept.

Wabi-Sabi means accepting what you are drawn to rather than understanding  – it gives you permission to feel with your hands and enjoy the imperfections of a faded or fraying fabric, the cracks and dents in a well used piece of wooden furniture or simply, for me, enjoying the delights of a flower as it goes past is best and begins the process of decay.

My original idea and drawings were done during the summer of 2015 and since then I have changed my idea for my theme at least twice but a bunch of tulips made me realise those first thoughts about colour and shape and texture of a decaying flower were what I really love and enjoy.  The tulips were purchased at the end of a highly stressful period during which I had barely felt like drawing or painting and course work ground to a halt whilst I was unsure whether I would have to put my studies on hold or even quit completely but to watch them change and fade and become ever more beautiful was just irresistible and enabled me to re-gain my focus as I picked up the pieces and started afresh.


So the photos shown as I have written this introduction are taken as I picked up my pencils and paints and took time to observe something so simple and yet so complex as the life within slowly started the path to decay – each photo was taken after the drawing was complete or during if I was concerned about the petals dropping and for a future record and further inspiration.

During Part Two – Building a Visual Vocabulary I have become very much aware that I have been lacking confidence in drawing from a direct source and in choosing this theme it enables me to effectively ‘force’ myself to do this as the only flowers I will use will be ones either grown myself or purchased.  I have many photographs from the summer of 2015 that I was able to observe but these will be used purely in the sketchbook for ideas for colours and shapes and as a reference source for ideas.


One advantage to my camera I have discovered is the fact that the lens can sometimes show textures (lumps and ridges) in petals that my eye cannot and in these instances the photos will be useful for additional textural drawings but I am being strict on myself in that I will be only using these photos if I have been doing sketches of the flowers directly – in effect the photographs become an aid for textural purposes.

Some of the textures are really beautiful and a surprise too – the beauty of decay.  What the camera did not always show, however was the small differences in colour that sometimes became apparent – a touch of purple or violet on a petal or the indigo near the top of a dying leaf.


My first series of sketches were very much general sketches to try and capture tones and textures.

I made a concious decision to practice the exercises in Stage 2 of Project 4 where I effectively separated texture, colour and shapes.  This enabled me to concentrate on one area of the flower at a time and proved incredibly beneficial. I am particularly aware I am lacking confidence in textural marks and really wanted to be able to focus on this in separate drawings and hence that particular stage of the project has given me a method of drawing I can work on and take forward.


I realise I am still very much concentrating on working within the outlined shape of an object but this at the moment is what I am comfortable with – if I can achieve textures and colours and emphasize textures then in time will come the confidence not to worry about the outline of the object.

I had purchased during Project 3 and Project 4 the recommended book on Creating Sketchbooks for Embroiderers and Textile Artists as I mentioned in an earlier post.  This has shown me and given me tips on note making with my sketches and hence in the pencil sketches there are extensive colour or shape notes on tones or specific details I want to remember.







My drawings to this point concentrate purely on texture or shape but with the aforesaid notes on colour or maybe where a petal looks slightly gathered near the stem.  I have taken note of what others have said about the direct observation where you can notice a tiny detail that appeals to you or the subtle (and not so subtle) changes of colour.


The next set of photographs are of sketches where I start to concentrate much more on colour and tone … these were just fabulous to do!

Please note that in some sketches I did a trip-tych so that I could see the texture, colour and shape on a singular page.

Like this first colour depiction I used Inktense pencils extensively as I found these are really working for me at the moment for sketches such as this – on some areas I can use them without water  or add further details after water has been applied.  I started to use them in swatches too next to the drawings so that I have a colour record of the petal or flower.


On this particular sketch on A3 Not watercolour paper I did use water colour paints and concentrated purely on the colour of the blooms … the colours on these were just exquisite and the blends of the tones fascinating to really observe deeply.  I am not entirely sure if I captured all I wanted to but there is a general gist I can work from in the future.



This was a first try at a composition involve all the elements of texture, colour and shape – a disaster in my view.  The composition is all wrong and badly thought out as there is no contrast and it looks like the flowers have just been dumped higgledy-piggledy but with no shadows or tones to show this.

However as I have noted on the piece I am happy with the majority of the details on the blooms themselves – except for the one bottom left which just seems to have gone totally wrong.  One of the problems with this composition is I was working purely from the sketches and previous drawings rather from the source and as I had observed individual blooms I had not made notes of how the shadows fell or the tones changes when near other flowers.




Going back to detailed observation the above two photographs show the reasons I love the concept of wabi-sabi – the bloom on the right is just ‘going over’ and developing lovely deep rich tones and shapes (and texture on close observation) whilst the bloom on the left is about to drop its last petals but both have a beauty about them.  The left hand photograph I appreciate is much paler due to the fact that is mainly light pencil sketches.  I started in the left-hand sketch to break down the blooms into individual sketches of parts too – I liked some of the texture on this bloom and the shape of the petals and wanted to make notes and sketches on these for reference and design later.

How often when we buy a bunch of flowers do we let them start to decay to see them with their petals as wide open as this?  for me this flower was almost having a last ‘look at me moment’ and literally minutes after I did this drawing all the petals dropped.  I tried to draw the pistil but in truth it is an infuriating shape to get right despite its simplicity (no doubt practice will make perfect). The colours of the petals were rich and vibrant and yet muted too and faded beautifully towards the centre into a slightly creamy white and so different from their original tones.



Two of my favourite sets of sketches – as I had got used to drawing from the source subject it had got easier and my confidence is starting to grow.  The left hand sketch my main focus was on the colours initially but as I looked closer it became the shapes of the individual petals. The right hand sketch was one I did as a trip-tych and this for me really works as it seemed to break down components and I can see real potential for design.

I have also started to try combining watercolour pencils with the Inktense ones and this is giving me a variation in shades and tones that are really appealing and I can see useful when working in the garden or out-and-about as I need minimal water with me.  On the right hand photograph I again used the pencils in little swatches to give a future reference point and it was interesting to see how many were used for one relatively simple looking flower!



For the final two drawings in this first set on the tulips I concentrate on the leaves and also one flower that was a creamy bloom at first glance.  The left hand sketch is of the aforesaid bloom and again was done as a trip-tych but with additional small sketches of the shapes.  The flower itself was a much creamier yellowish white than I could portray so I darkened the tones so they were clearer – the colours are literally darkened versions of what I actually saw and it was a real lesson in observation to see how many grey shapes and yellow tones there were in what I thought was just a beautiful creamy coloured bloom!  The right hand sketches were done to record the leaves (one seen in a sketch above) and when I first looked I just saw greens, yellows and greys but deeper observation revealed tans, sepia tones and a lovely deep indigo.  The texture I thought was soft and velvety although thicker but then I closed my eyes and felt the roughness and dryness of the tips of the leaves …. a contrast to the silky softness of the petals even with their small ridges.


Purely as a bit of fun one evening I decided to take one of my favourite sketches and try drawing it on a larger A4 scale in soft pastels.  I wanted to capture the brighter tones of the tulips just as the tips of the petals were beginning to curve over and before they really started to drop. The bloom in the foreground had in fact lost one petal and I later added in the pistil and stamens which shows this more clearly.  I tried to ensure I used greys and a touch of a deep indigo to convey the shadows and ‘dulling down’ of some of the vibrancy as the blooms started to ‘go over’.  I also wanted to capture the subtle texture of the ridges on the petals whilst giving the appearance of the silky softness too.  This may not be a ‘design piece’ in itself but will be used for reference purposes and future design as I have already had a look at it through a viewing frame and can see potential areas for development further.




I am very much aware that these drawings do not encompass design work at this stage but are forming the basis for further work.  I wanted to get a series of initial sketches done from which I can go forward and build my theme upon.  I had collected some muted coloured threads that fitted the Beauty in Decay and put them on strips of card that I have attached in my sketchbook on ribbon – this way I can match the threads against drawings or designs.  I have also started to look for some fabrics that appeal including tweed, cotton, velvet and hessian – an initial 4 that give ideas of textures and colours.  The day after the sketches were done I also found the threads in the last picture – some slightly brighter that may go in another colour bag but all seen against the lovely muted soft tones of the felt going in this theme. I have also found some wool that also fits in with the colours although it does not show up clearly on the photograph – the colours are almost those of heathers on moorlands (I am a Plymouth girl and the first home I remember looked out onto Dartmoor maybe the colours of heathers is exactly why I loved it!).



Further in my sketchbook are two pages of drawings done in the summer of 2015 of lily petals in the garden as they started to decay – the spots and textures were fascinating to look at in detail.  I am particularly happy I got these as it is unlikely I will have lilies again as they are poisonous to cats (and I have 4) and I am also hellishly allergic to them so this is one flower I will have to rely on any photographs taken at the time too!


As has happened with some of the petals from the tulips I have got into the habit of drying flowers where possible – some naturally and some pressed.  Not all are successful and most will have to be in my sketchbook under sticky-backed plastic due to any mould spores but the colours and shapes and textures can be seen so drawings and sketches can be done further.



During very late summer of 2015 I also took some photographs of thistle heads at the National Aboretum in Staffordshire – I waited until they were drying and decaying to photograph them and this sketch was done subsequently.  My photographs I ensured were sufficiently detailed and close to be able to see the incredible number of subtle tones and this was the first sketch done using my, then brand-new, Inktense pencils and was a wonderful learning curve in how they worked.  I love the shapes of the petals that are reminiscent of scales and the variation in tones and colours gives ‘life’ to the thistle even though it was decaying.  I tried to capture the roughness of the thistle too through my use of marks but this is an area I know I need to work on.

In the space of little more than a week I have filled 3/4 of a sketchbook with these initial sketches and ideas and I can definitely see where I can go with this theme.  I loved my other ideas of sunsets/sunrises or corals but somehow this theme is more real to me … I can buy a bunch of flowers weekly (oh dear what a great excuse!) and sketch happily as I loose myself in the beauty of what I see.  I am increasingly interested in Japanese  textiles and philosophies and the idea of wabi-sabi is something that is appealing in my textile journey – there is a huge trend towards natural materials and dyes and re-using or re-ordering of fabrics and the concept ties in perfectly.

My next flowers are in my kitchen waiting to be drawn – it is January and the beauty of daffodils beckons with a very different colour palette awaiting me (and one I am notoriously nervous of i.e. yellows).  I also have a bunch of dried roses – dried naturally last summer and from which some work was done in Part 2.  The colours and shapes of the bunch now seem to be drawing me in to look further and discover the delights of their textures – the concept of wabi-sabi is giving me permission to observe and embrace the imperfections.

Maybe wabi-sabi is more than an idea for this theme for me but a  concept to embrace throughout my textile journey now – from this theme who knows where it will lead but the path is inviting me to explore it further.



Griggs Lawrence, Robyn. 2001.  Wabi-sabi – The Art of Imperfection. Utne Reader. [online]. [Accessed 30 January 2016].  Available at: http://www.utne.com/mind-and-body/wabi-sabi.aspx

Tadao Ando.  What is wabi-sabi. [online]. [Accessed 30 January 2016].  Available at:  http://nobleharbor.com/tea/chado/WhatIsWabi-Sabi.htm






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