I recently bought myself a new sketchbook. I normally go for something very plain from Cass Art or Muji but this time, wanting a notebook with an elastic, I purchased an A6 one with creamy pages and a suede cover which, despite its low price, looks like a relative of the famous Moleskin.
As I took it out of the cellophane, I felt daunted by the crispiness of the blank pages. I was instantly taken back to my school years when, in the beginning of a new semester, I would feel trepidation when starting a new notebook. I was always terrified of writing in an ugly way, smudging the ink, staining the page or making a mistake I would need to cross out. Sometimes, if I wasn’t happy with my handwriting, I would tear out the page and rewrite all the text back at home in the evening. This was probably good for memorizing notes but not at all good for my emotional development. I didn’t see the notebook as a place for making notes and learning from, but as some sort of testimony to how good a person I was. Having a notebook with crossed out lines and shaky handwriting made me feel bad about myself. I craved perfection.
Perfectionism is something I admit to having a massive problem with. Of course, there are many times when being detailed, thorough and ruthlessly attentive brings great results and high quality. But a lot of the time I feel strangled by my obsession and paralysed by the fear of imperfection. The struggle to embrace my own imperfection sometimes puzzles me, for I have no problem with appreciating the beauty of the imperfect reality around me. In fact, I have recently discovered that I had unknowingly adopted the Japanese philosophy which is gaining more and more popularity in the Western Europe (unfortunately more for its novelty than the actual idea): the art of wabi-sabi.
Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, a Japanese translator and author of books on Buddhism, Zen and Shin, was one of the first scholars to interpret Japanese culture for Westerners including the world-view of wabi-sabi. He described it as freeing oneself from the concerns of material wealth: “Wabi is to be satisfied with a little hut, a room of two or three tatami mats, like the log cabin of Thoreau, and with a dish of vegetables picked in the neighboring fields, and perhaps to be listening to the pattering of a gentle spring rainfall.” The modern interpretation of the philosophy comes from the famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando who said that “the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death.” Wabi, which originally meant sad, desolate, and lonely, is now used to refer to simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature, while Sabi, translated as “the bloom of time,” encompasses the natural processes of ageing: tarnishing, rusting, hoariness. The catchy juxtaposition of these two words represents the idea of accepting transience and imperfection.
In an essay on a website dedicated to the history of tea, we can read that:
In home decor, wabi-sabi inspires a minimalism that celebrates the human rather than the machine. Possessions are pared down, and pared down again, until only those that are necessary for their utility or beauty (and ideally both) are left. What makes the cut? Items that you both admire and love to use, like those hand-crank eggbeaters that still work just fine. Things that resonate with the spirit of their makers’ hands and hearts: the chair your grandfather made, your six-year-old’s lumpy pottery, an afghan you knitted yourself (out of handspun sheep’s wool, perhaps). Pieces of your own history: sepia-toned ancestral photos, baby shoes, the Nancy Drew mysteries you read over and over again as a kid.
The flat where I am currently living is an ideal representation of the wabi-sabi aesthetic (though it is important to emphasise that it is not merely a “style” of design or architecture but a mind-set.) I love the battered wooden table I got from my friend Juliette when she was moving out of her house; a set of four chairs, a chest of drawers and a wooden cabinet that came from my boyfriend’s father’s flat in Cambridge; two shabby old suitcases I got from Freecycle and used in one of my theatre projects; a bedside table made by my boyfriend’s sister when she was at school. I grew up surrounded by old furniture, porcelain, dry flowers, and I have never ceased to adore the charm of wooden cracks and faded manufacturers’ stamps underneath the fragile saucers. I shop primarily at second-hand shops, for I love buying objects with a history, be it a piece of pottery or clothing.
I am somewhat daunted by modern trends in interior design with their expensive straight-out-of-manufacturers materials, shiny, flawless surfaces; kitchens, where all objects are hidden behind panels of white opaque glass. Ironically, while black marks on an antique mirror are entirely acceptable, a scratch on a Philippe Starck tabletop doesn’t look as good. The sign of imperfection on an object that’s trying to make us forget about the frailty of things and the natural process of decaying, is almost like a mockery of its glorious design. Maybe that is why I prefer to surround myself with objects which have been gracefully taking the beating of time but at the same time are built well enough that they’re able to withstand more years to come.
Going back to my original statement, I keep wondering what it is that makes me so reluctant to accept a bad line or an oily stain in a sketchbook, if I can be so fond of cracks and marks on furniture. When does the noble idea of improvement and doing one’s best turn against the creator? And, more importantly, can imperfection be of any use in the creative process? We say that a threadbare leather jacket has more “character,” so I wonder whether the same idea can be applied to artwork.
Last year, Phil Hansen, an American multimedia artist, gave a very interesting TED talk on the idea of embracing the limitation, which in his case was a permanent nerve damage in his hand resulting from a “single-minded pursuit of pointillism,” to use his own words. As an art student, he used to force himself to hold the pen as tight as possible to be able to make perfect round dots. Unfortunately, not only did the dots become more and more shapeless, but he quickly became unable to hold anything as his hand was shaking so badly. And so he left art school and abandoned art. A doctor he visited a few years later asked him a question which revolutionised his thinking: “Why don’t you just embrace the shake?” Phil went home, took a pencil and started drawing scribble pictures. “And even though it wasn’t the kind of art that I was ultimately passionate about, it felt great. And more importantly, once I embraced the shake, I realised I could still make art. I just had to find a different approach to making the art that I wanted,” he said. He decided to take the idea of pointillist fragmentation and began experimenting with other ways to fragment an image where the shake wouldn’t affect the work like dipping feet in paint and walking over canvas, working in bigger scale etc.
He discovered that embracing limitation can drive creativity.
But he soon faced another obstacle. Having bought himself all the supplies at the art store, he sat down at his desk, determined to create something completely outside of the box. But he sat there for hours, devoid of ideas, and gradually losing enthusiasm and courage. “As I searched around in the darkness,” he says, “I realised I was actually paralysed by all of the choices that I never had before. And it was then that I thought back to my jittery hands. Embrace the shake.” He understood that the way to regain his creativity was to stop forcing himself to think outside of the box and “get back into it.”
Ever since this experience, he has been devoted to one mission – creating art within limitations. Be it setting oneself financial or media restrictions (i.e. making a project for 80 cents), relying on other people to provide contents for the piece, or creating artwork to be destroyed rather than displayed (none of the 23 pieces from his Goodbye Art had anything left physically to display); the goal was to embrace the limitation, which soon turned into ultimate liberation: “As I destroyed each project, I was learning to let go, let go of outcomes, let go of failures, and let go of imperfections.”
Chapter 20 from a great book which I frequently refer to on this blog – Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod, talks about the same idea that Phil Hansen advocates. MacLeod says: “The really good artists, the really successful entrepreneurs, figure out how to circumvent their limitations (…) The fact that Turner couldn’t draw human beings very well left him no choice but to improve his landscape paintings, which had no equal. Had Bob Dylan been more of a technical virtuoso, he might not have felt the need to give his song lyrics such power and resonance.”
An interesting take on playing with the idea of imperfection is Roy Lichtenstein’s Perfect/Imperfect series of paintings created between 1978–95. The Perfect paintings were made by drawing a line, following it along the canvas and returning to its starting point. The spaces in between were then filled with areas of dots, diagonal lines, and flat colour. In the Imperfect paintings the line was taken beyond the edge of the painting, and the artist would then add triangular bits to that particular edge, which disturbed the perfect rectangle of the frame. The Imperfects therefore subverted the boundaries in a humorous way. This was by no means a philosophical statement, for Lichtenstein considered them a parody of making abstractions, yet I cannot help thinking that in a way, they demonstrate the potential of breaking with the “perfect” – in this case the perfect composition.
Sitting on one of my old wooden chairs which are desperately crying to be re-varnished, at a table with numerous stains and scratches, I am thinking of ways to face the intimidating immaculateness of the notebook I bought. Overcoming perfectionism is not an easy task, especially these days, when we’re used to obsessively improving images on in Adobe Photoshop. I often ask myself where to draw the line between cleaning an accidental smudge mark on a drawing I’ve scanned and making corrections that are taking away the character of the piece. Perhaps forcing myself to make mistakes in a notebook is a good way to break from the habit of soulless over-improving.
I might christen the sketchbook with a big blot of ink then.