Yohaku no bi: The Beauty of Empty Space

White spaces can be profoundly beautiful; full of mystery and promise, a reminder of the infinite potential that dwells within nature--and each of us.  

Pine Trees, 16th century, by Hasegawa Tōhaku, Tokyo National Museum.

Among my favorite paintings are a set of screens depicting Pine Trees, painted by Hasegawa Tōhaku about 1680. The trees, delicately painted in shades of black ink, are surrounded by large swaths of unpainted white silk. Breezes from the Pacific gently moved the moist foggy mists, wrapping them around trees, creating ever shifting scenes that nudged me into contemplation.

Whether gazing at ink paintings or walking in the fog, I experienced the white spaces and mists as a profound beauty full of mystery and promise—appropriate for someone whose life as an adult was just beginning to flower. The emptiness of the space held a real beauty for me. It was the potential of my life.

The beauty of the extra white, the space left empty, is called yohaku no bi in Japanese. This is a concept borrowed from Chinese landscape ink wash paintings, where clouds, mist, sky, and water could be left unpainted.  Their presence was suggested only by the carefully rendered edges of the surrounding landscape. This artistic strategy resonated with Taoism’s idea of qi (chi) – the formless energy from which the universe emanates.

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