Exploring wabi-sabi and boro – Part 1/2


Summer is a time for breaking out of habits and trying something new.  My inspiration came from Donna Watson‘s article, “The Zen of Discovery” in the August 2015 issue of Watercolour Artist. The article featured her work inspired by two Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi and boro and I knew I had to go exploring.

First some Background

The concept of wabi-sabi has been on my mind for a number of years. Donna describes it as “the Zen appreciation of things incomplete, imperfect and impermanent” and “an appreciation of things humble, modest, simple and minimal”. For me it has been about embracing imperfections – in my art and my life.

Boro was a new concept for me. Donna describes it as “patched and mended rags” created out of necessity by north-eastern Japanese farmers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Small scraps of cloth, generally died with Indigo became very precious as the necessities of mending created quilt-like clothing and blankets.

Washi is another Japanese term; ‘wa’ is Japanese, ‘shi’ is paper. Ginwashi paper is a very thin, strong paper with long fibres and I regularly use it for my watercolours. I also had some scraps of other Japanese papers, which I used to bring different textures into the finished piece.


My favourite way of working involves layers of wax and watercolour. The watercolour layers are applied from light to dark with wax applied between layers to preserve the colour and value at that particular point. Once the wax is ironed off the finished piece has a textile quality that seems to be asking to be quilted or stitched. This was something I had only thought about doing and now was the perfect opportunity to do some experimentation.

Creating the Boro ‘Scraps’

PaigeMortensen_WaterJug_Torn copy.jpgMy first step was to recreate the concept of scraps. Recognizing that the peasants were only allowed to wear blue brown, black and gray limited my palette.

I had recently completed a not so successful piece with a beaten up water jug in it so I tore the jug out of it and there was the focus piece for mypaper ‘quilt’. Yes, the jug has some purple in it. Could that have been the result of aging? Or maybe I just took some artistic license here.

Out came the Indigo tube of Qor watercolour paint and I got to work creating textures. The first step was simply to paint all of the pieces with diluted Indigo watercolour paint. Once these dried it was time to add some wax with various sponges and stamps to preserve this shade and value of Indigo and create texture.

02_PaigeMortensen_IndigoWatercolourCropped_QOR  03_PaigeMortensen_FirstLayerCropped 04_PaigeMortensen_WaxingMaterials

These are the tools I used and the pieces with the wax applied. In order to create a worn and stained look I added Qor Burnt Sienna, Quinacridon Gold and Paynes Gray to my palette. Once I was satisfied with the scraps I coated the pieces completely with wax to give them an even translucency and seal the pigment into the paper. The last step was to iron these between layers of newsprint to remove the wax.

06_PaigeMortensen_MoreColourCloseUp 08_PaigeMortensen_Ironing

Next week I will tell you about how these ‘scraps’ came together to express my interactions with the terms wabi-wabi and boro.

In the meantime I invite you to consider how you too can explore wabi-sabi and boro in your lives.




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