An Intro to Ikebana

hands assembling a flower design in a small metal stand next to cutting tools

Ikebana, an ancient living art form from Japan, has stark differences from traditional western aesthetics of flower arranging. Explore this minimalist style guide for ideas and inspiration to get your creative juices flowing.

What’s the Difference between Ikebana and Flower Arranging?

Flower arrangements can vary from elaborate and over the top displays you may see at a wedding, to a simple posey of fragrant sweet peas in a juice glass on the kitchen counter. Ikebana is much more minimalist, incorporating the space in the overall look of the piece. It’s a discipline with a historic association with Buddhism and the aristocracy, and gives you more than just a decoration.

It also promotes self-awareness through its meditative processes. Different schools of ikebana each have different ways of doing things, but they are all rooted to similar themes incorporating heaven, man, and earth in the overall design.

Tools to Get Started

circular stand with small spikes

Unlike other hobbies, ikebana doesn’t require a steep entry fee. A pair of sharp scissors, a kenzan (aka spiky or floral frog) to keep stems in place, and some floral wire for shaping arrangements and keeping them together.

Choose a Style

There are many different styles that dictate the look of the final product. Rikka (standing flowers) uses branches in a tall vase giving a vertical look to represent nature. Moribana (piled up flowers) uses shallow containers, making it more spreading and outward reaching. Depending on the style, the overall look can slanting, upright, or cascading.

Freshness Tips

It goes without saying you’ll want to pick components that are at the peak of freshness, but to keep your arrangement fresher longer, ikebana practitioners use specific methods when cutting and trimming.

Cut flower stems under water, on the diagonal if using a kenzan to support the arrangement. If using a vase, make the cuts on the diagonal to increase surface area for water to enter. Hard, fibrous stems need a little more than a simple cut to keep them fresh, so crush the ends with a hammer to increase surface area.

Design Principles

flower arrangement with lilies and pine

Regardless of the school, the first basic principle of design is nature, which will be reflected in the way an artist perceives nature. Also included are the elements of line, volume, and focal point.

Designing along a vertical, symmetric line gives a feeling of stillness and strength, while a curving, asymmetrical or unbalanced line provides a sense of motion to the arrangement. Volume adds weight and can mean the difference between a display that feels substantial or dainty. The focal point is what you want to highlight—often a flower.

In addition to these elements, keep in mind the relationship between the positive and negative space. This refers to the way the physical parts of the arrangement interact with the empty space around it.

Choose Your Container

flowers in a natural stand

Shape, size, and color matter. Aside from the flat vs. vertical style of your chosen design, you’re also trying to create harmony in the relationships of each element. You don’t want to detract from the appeal or create a color clash. The type of container you use is based on your personal preference and can range from traditional vases to teacups as long as it can be used safely and incorporates the fundamentals of design.

Time to Create!

After going through the design fundamentals, it may still be difficult to envision your creation. Start by looking up examples on the internet, focusing on the styles that appeal to you. Once you’ve amassed a visual library in your head, evaluate the place where you'll set your display. Many beginners start the process by considering their materials first, but remember how important the spatial relationship is in this art form?

The location will influence size of the display, and can also influence whether you want your piece to be static or have more movement. Even the color and lighting of the site play an important role in the decision-making process, so it's critical that you make this the first step of creation.

The materials you use can come from a florist, but you can save some money by stepping outside and incorporating pieces from your garden. Budding branches, sculptural leaves, and subtle flowers can make serious statements in a minimalist design.

Discipline required in ikebana is extensive and much more involved than what we’ve covered here, but by following the basics, you can create something that brings you a little joy in a stressful world.