Annotation: Wabi Sabi

Considering that it is virtually impossible to define the Zen philosophy in a succinct fashion, it should be largely unsurprising that an art-form that grew out of Zen required an entire book to even begin to explain. That is not to say that the author evaded the question, far from it: the fault (if it could be called such) lies directly in the subject. I found the topic of wabi sabi fascinating, while at the same time finding my own tastes justified within a larger school of thought on art. It really all comes down to impermanence. In fact, that is the subtitle of the book: the Japanese art of impermanence.

Of course, that title might be a little misleading. While yes, they do discuss the tea ceremony and other transient events as art, there is a great deal more to wabi sabi than that. It is more an acceptance of your surroundings and letting nature have a role in the creation of things. The example used that really encapsulated the feeling for me best was when he was discussing ash-glazed pottery. The author described an old kiln that is still in use, though it only burns once a year. The pots are placed in or near the flue, and as the ash is pulled upwards through the chimney, it glazes the pots. Each pot is in a different spot in the kiln, and so the glaze is different for every pot. That act of abandoning the work and letting nature take its role in creation is wabi sabi in a nutshell, for me at least.

The words wabi and sabi both have extensive histories, during which time they have gained enough meanings to become too ambiguous to have a direct and literal translation. The basic gist when used together, is finding beauty in solitude and natural desolation. The author related a story of Sen No Rikyu, master of the tea ceremony, whom had a marvelous garden with flowers in it that his guests would pass through to reach the tea room. The Emperor, Hideyoshi had heard of the garden, and in particular desired to see the morning glories in it. He was invited to a tea ceremony, and upon his arrival discovered that all of the morning glories had been cut. Upon arriving to the tea room, he discovered a single, beautifully arranged morning glory adorning the tea room. This sort of attention and focus really appeals to me, aesthetically speaking, and grounds my sentiment that simplicity and letting things fall where they may can prove to be provocative and striking on a level that more complex and ordered images might not achieve. (A case in point: one of my favorite pieces that my mother has painted is a single maple leaf, done in ink and water color… she’s done a variety of more complex and detailed images, but my attention is invariably drawn to the leaf.)

Overall, the book manages to avoid being pretentious, which makes it a significantly better read than it could have otherwise been. There are a few points where the subject was treated a bit too much like a golden calf (notably, in the introduction itself), but they are thankfully few and far between. Mostly, the sentiment I gathered out of the book was that the author had a genuine interest in (and knowledge of) the material.

Wabi Sabi is broken into a few parts. It starts out with a reasonably in depth history of the art form, which grew out of Zen philosophy when Buddhism first started making a cultural impact in Japan. This was a fascinating topic for me, and really elucidated a lot about the origins of different forms of Buddhism. One thing that really interested me about it stems from an ongoing conversation I have had with my father about Baha’i Art. He is of the sentiment that there largely isn’t any currently being made, and that what is currently touted as such is really nothing more than ecclesiastic art. Reading about wabi sabi really drove home that idea. Wabi Sabi is essentially Zen Buddhist art. Yet it rarely if ever has anything to do with images of the Buddha or others. What makes it stem from Zen Buddhism is that it is a representation and extension of the philosophy that underlies Zen Buddhism, not that it depicts religious scenes, individuals, or icons.

The next section discusses the interrelationship between wabi sabi and the culture it originated in. I was less impressed with this section, though I can’t put a finger on exactly why. I think what it comes down to is that in trying to make a distinction between Japanese culture and American culture, the author relied too much on his own opinions, and less on objective observation and facts. It was clear that he had lived in Japan for several years, and disagrees strongly with the adoption of aspects of western civilization.

The third section discusses wabi sabi art specifically, and was pretty interesting. This is where the author talked about the ash-glazed pottery that so intrigued me, as well as going a bit more in depth about how the philosophy behind wabi sabi can be applied to various kinds of art. It was a little short, however, and made the next section somewhat jarring, since the fourth section quite literally laid down basic ground rules for using different materials in your designs. The whole notion of setting down firm rules of how materials must be applied seemed to go against the entire notion that he had been describing for the rest of the book. I think that there is a lot more flexibility to the form than what he laid out.

The fifth and final section was a personal diatribe on the state of things in modern western society, and an argument to justify why adopting wabi sabi principles is important. I largely agree with him: we are an increasingly disposable society, with huge amounts of luxuries and technology, all the while lamenting our unhappiness. In the current generation especially (the post-gen-x generation), there is an overwhelming sentiment of feeling spiritually lost, a disconnect with our surroundings and ourselves. I can’t help but feel that encouraging the sort of reconnection with nature that occurs in wabi sabi art would help that sentiment.

While it had very little to do with drawing explicitly, I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in eastern art It was well worth the time to read it.

Juniper, Andrew. Wabi Sabi. Boston, Tuttle Publishing, 2003.

BIG Changes Coming

For those of you who’ve been reading a while, you know that I picked up some domains about a year ago that I haven’t had an opportunity to do anything with mainly through lack of cash to do it right.

No, I didn’t suddenly come into money. However, my web host recently expanded the features included in my webhosting package, meaning that the services came to me, instead of vice versa. Awesome awesome.

So, sometime in the next few weeks, I will be changing my webhosting package into and .net will also work. will also still work, but only after a fashion: it will redirect you to, which is where I’ll be hosting my blog from then on.

I’m pretty happy about this, though I apologize to folks who will need to update their links list. This arrangement allows for a lot more flexibility for professional growth (game design and writing on gaming, et cetera).

Our addresses will still function (or so they say), so this shouldn’t affect email at all, save perhaps during the actual transition.

Anyway, just wanted to share. I’ll post another update when the site is actually about to go under the knife (so to speak).

Zombie Nabil

I apologize for not posting recently. It has been a mixture of avoidance, laziness, and being swamped with other things. I have a pile of email I need to respond to about UberCon that I’ve been putting off for too long (I hate people-wrangling with a passion… for some reason, Kevin doesn’t seem to realize just how crazymaking and draining it is for me), plus personal emails, and all of my various projects are currently in a bit of a holding pattern.

That said, I’ve been working doing the game testing gig for most of the week (Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and then Monday and Tuesday of next week), which is where most of my time has been going. Why is it taking so much more time and energy from me than it used to? Thanks for asking, Reader. Put simply, our new house is technically a 45 minute drive, if you were to, say, put it into MapQuest. In reality, I am competing with the rest of the region’s populace to get to the Redmond area (yes, there really ARE that many Microsofties). This turns the commute into an hour and a half long crawl. Even then, I’m taking the alternate route (I-5 to I-90, instead of I-5 to I-405), as the “shorter” route is even MORE swamped with traffic. My return drive also works out to be anywhere between an hour and a half and two hours, depending on weather conditions and whether there are any events going on… anywhere. So basically, I get up at 5:30 AM each morning so I can be on the road by 6, so I can be in Redmond by 7:30… and then get out of work at 4:30, and can expect to be home sometime between 6 and 7PM.
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Annotation: Keys to Drawing

When I decided to do a studio study on drawing, I mentioned this to my aunt, who is an artist and art instructor both privately and for Lebanon College in Lebanon, New Hampshire. I mentioned that I was planning to read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which she heartily endorsed, but also suggested another book that she uses in her classes, which is Keys to Drawing, by Bert Dodson (whom is apparently currently living in Bradford, Vermont, just up the road from her). It’s not an overwhelmingly large book, but is absolutely packed with useful drawing advice, including an index of concepts and terminology in the back that has already proven useful to me in understanding the vocabulary of drawing.

One of the things that I really appreciate in Keys to Drawing is that the author doesn’t assume anything. He explains everything quickly and clearly, from how to hold the pen or pencil or charcoal or conte crayon (and why and how it varies depending on the medium, as well as your intended style), to shading techniques (pressure shading versus cross hatching, for instance), as well as giving probably the best explanation of perspective and vanishing points I have seen to date. His method involves determining where eye level is, and then using your pencil to act as a level to measure outward to determine the vanishing point. This allows for a more concrete sense of place to draw from, since these two aspects also establish the viewpoint of the image. (This might seem a bit obvious when drawing from life, where the viewpoint is your own, but when drawing from your imagination, it is significantly more useful to have a quick and easy method to figure out the viewpoint you want to draw from.)

There are a variety of styles of drawing that are addressed in this book. I found it interesting to see how they were connected, since Dodson often makes a point of showing pieces at various stages, including separate drafts (something that doesn’t often get discussed). There are several occasions where he goes from an almost abstract gesture drawing to an outline drawing, to a rough sketch, to a final, textured and shaded piece. Seeing this process fascinates me sometimes more than the drawing itself.

Something that I definitely need to improve upon is what he discusses in chapter six, “The Illusion of Texture.” There is a LOT of information there, and I found myself a little bogged down with it, as I have not yet reached a point in my own ability that I’m really making use of texture and shading, save some prototypical charcoal shading. I’m just starting to “get” shading – texture is still somewhat beyond me.

In chapter four, “The Illusion of Light”, Dodson actually hit upon something that I was familiar with from photography, which is tonal relationships and reduction. Creative use of focus can abstract an image into basic tonal relationships that can then be more effectively drawn: it returns to the merit of non-photorealistic art, which I am a proponent of. If drawing a snowy landscape (as in Dodson’s example), it is not necessary to draw every tree and detail of the piece – in fact, more the opposite. You end up bogged down in details that the viewer’s eye would gloss over anyway. By reducing the image to tonalities and shape, you retain the idea of the landscape without miring the eye in unnecessary detail. You can then more easily draw focus to the elements YOU want. This is the purpose (or one of them, anyway) of depth of field in photography, and is just as valid an artistic element in drawing or other visual arts.

Worth noting in Dodson’s particular method of drawing (which he readily admits to, and even discusses at the end of chapter 3) is the use of slight exaggeration of form for artistic or dramatic effect. Unless you are insisting upon photo-realism in the image, a certain amount of exaggeration will creep in, so why not embrace that fact and choose where that exaggeration will go? If the subject of your drawing is tall and thin, a certain amount of angularity to his figure probably makes sense, elements that can generally be seen in the shoulders, the set of the jaw, and the elbows. Neither the author nor I am saying to necessarily make his elbows the size of his head, but a slightly more angular, pronounced joint will probably work well to establish the concept of the individual’s figure more effectively than sweating over whether it is precisely accurate.

I keep returning to the subject of exaggeration, conceptualization, and the need for non-photorealistic style in drawing for a variety of reasons, most of which stem well beyond the scope of Keys to Drawing or this annotation. There is certainly a place of photorealistic art, and I have the utmost respect for the artists that pull it off, especially in an imaginary work (Alex Ross, for instance). That said, in this era of computer generated photorealistic art, there is still a very valid and necessary role for non-photorealistic art. The eye views it differently, and draws different information from it than it would in a photorealistic variation. Additionally, the mind tends to retain more information from non-photorealistic art than it does with its photorealistic counterpart. By engaging the mind to process the more abstracted image, it creates a more concrete impression in the synapses of the brain. I’m digressing, however, and getting further away from my point: despite my background in photography, I am more interested in abstraction and non-photorealism than otherwise.

It is my interest in abstraction that motivates my desire to create imaginary worlds, whether is in comics, games, traditional artwork, or cartoons (or even in writing, though I haven’t done any creative writing in quite some time). I call it an interest in creative media, because it is too broad to be restricted any further than that. With this in mind, I would say that if I was pressed to recommend just one book on drawing, I would probably choose Keys to Drawing over Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. What it comes down to is that Betty’s book teaches you to draw objectively (not exclusively, but that does seem to be the focus), while Bert’s book teaches you to the tools to draw, and lets you make the choice of how objective or subjective you wish to be. Of course, I don’t really have to choose just one, so really, I recommend both.

Dodson, Bert. Keys to Drawing. Cincinnati: North Light Books, 1985.

The Moving Post

Alright, I’ll admit it. I’ve been a slacker about posting, opting to do schoolwork and pack and move instead. But since Mickey decided to point people in my direction, I guess it is finally time to update.

The quick sum-up: the move sucked more than it should have because no one showed up to help, but other than that didn’t really suck all that much. No serious injuries (just some bruises, a pinched finger, and a splinter when all said and done), no broken furniture, and we managed to get the rental truck back on time. It took us two twelve hour days to load and unload the truck, which was a Budget 24′ Truck (the largest they have) filled front to back, wall to wall, five-six feet high. Considering that, I think we made damn good time.

The house is currently a pile of boxes, though we’ve managed to get most of the furniture where we want it. The house has a separate den and living room, so we’ve got the tv and dvds and games and such in the den, which is off the kitchen. The living room is in the front of the house, and has a beautiful vaulted ceiling with a giant window letting light in… so we’ve decided that rather than making our offices tight with bookshelves, we’re going to turn it into a library of sorts… the bookshelves are going to stay down there, along with one of the futons, and Mickey’s giant soul-sucking chair of doom (for those unfamiliar with it: it’s a big purple beanbag that is roughly the size of a couch). I’m really pretty happy with this prospect, as I didn’t really want to hide all my books in a closet again. (My tech books and some of Mickey’s reference books are still going into our offices… we’re talking about our fiction collections, and my art and photography books, and Mickey’s Neil Gaiman collection.)
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