I’m laptopping you from beneath a red-painted tori on the edge of Lake Ashi in Hakone National Park, Japan. Nearby, an elderly man is mixing bright powders from plastic bottles in a small bowl and stirring with a long-handled spoon. A small panel lies in front of him on a pillow of moss–his subject is the gradated reflection of Mt. Fuji as seen between the tori pillars. His big, badger-hair flat, well loaded, sweeps back and forth.
Imagine a painting system with its roots in the past that takes its palette from naturally-found minerals, shells, corals, rare earths and semi-precious stones. These materials are ground in 16 consistencies from very fine and powdery to downright sandy and rough. Bind these, a batch at a time, in a ritual bowl using water-softened animal-hide glue and apply the mixtures using a range of traditional brushes.
It’s called “Nihonga” and it means “Japanese-style painting.” Developed in the Meiji Imperial Era, these days it’s pretty hard to go to a museum in Japan without running into Nihonga. Its current masters, many of them young, attend their solo and group shows and sign favor reproductions and cards.
The surfaces of Nihonga range from flat and print-like, to a build-up of sugary or gravelly textures. Many works show the conventions of soft edges and gradations. Gradations soften hairlines, the feathering of birds, and make the water lay down on the lake. A round, flat-ended goat-hair, like a stencil brush, often serves this purpose. Surfaces are sometimes pounced and stippled.
No show passes without a view of Mt. Fuji. An icon of Japanese art, Fuji has built-in symbolism, symmetry and opportunity for gradation.
With the exception of counter-lit and moonlit subjects, Nihonga tends to avoid the business of light, shade and cast shadow. The experience is often like looking out on an overcast day, yet defying the colours of reality. Greens can be particularly surreal. Even renderings of Mt. Fuji may show a harmony of tones unrelated to life. Typical is a blue-gradated Fuji under a gray-gradated sky hung with an orange-gradated moon.
The combination of the soft, blended edge and the use of gradations characterize a lot of Japanese art. Gradations were one of the features that first attracted and stimulated the Impressionists. The wood block print, a hard-edge art if there ever was one, was the first Japanese art to find collectors in Paris. The attractive blends were achieved by rubbing on and feathering off.
My man moves slowly, ritually, like an elderly server in a tea ceremony. His back is straight, his eyes attend to his business, his long fingers are full of wisdom.
PS: “Some people call it formalism, but it is really the search for the pure essence of painting.” (Nihonga master Sugiyama Yasushi, 1909-1993)
Esoterica: The convention of gradation also has domestic applications — clothing, product design, signage, packaging. From electrifying razzle-dazzlers to sophisticated grays, blends are everywhere. Blends add sweetness, tranquility and grace to the wabi (simple and quiet contemplation) of Japanese life.
The gradated life
Challenges can be stimulating
by Anne Hudec, Victoria, BC, Canada
Reading your description of Hakone National Park and the view to Mt. Fuji makes me miss the diversity and beauty of the country even though my husband and I just returned from a trip there within the past month. While my husband delves into the editing of 7500 plus digital photographs of “quintessential Japan,” I have strayed away from my usual motif in watercolour to tackle a beautiful Maiko (apprentice Geisha) of Kyoto. The country, its sites, people, food and aesthetics could surely motivate any painter with its impression overload. Yet, like all countries, Japan is evolving and much easier to get around than 21 years ago when we first visited. Through exploration and the diversity of “finding one’s way” in a foreign country we can then bringing those stimulating memories home to assimilate them.
Nihonga artist Matsui Fuyuko
by Hyedie Hashimoto, Toronto, ON, Canada
There’s an artist in Japan that is shaking up the ‘Nihonga’ school. Her name is Matsui Fuyuko (or Fuyuko Matsui in English). She paints in the Nihonga style and her subjects are usually related to traditional Japanese themes but she brings an alarming twist to them.
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Paint for today
by James Bright, Ottawa, ON, Canada
Older methods are charming for an older time not today. The past is the past. Unless there is a definitive link of passing down the tradition it should be shelved in a museum and appreciated. The current trend to “re-create” the method and style of the masters past is a feeble attempt at best and rarely ever creates anything worth noting. Mostly lots of really, really bad art. The context is wrong and lack of skilled hand is wrong.
Have you ever visited one of these galleries that are showing the new masters? I find they are attractive images but often lacking any emotion beyond pretty, campy, and rather embarrassing in their overall silliness. Paint and painting is to paint for today not for yesterday. Besides we all suffer from a huge ADD complex with our ever increasing distracted world.
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A long history
by Jun Basho, Tokyo, Japan
This type of art has been around for longer than you mention. It was imported from Korea in the 14th Century and refined for Japanese purposes. These days, there are an awful lot of artists using it here and it is now combined with other media — pastel, acrylic, graphite drawing, etc. There are many modern masters and we even now have a dealer specializing in Nihonga in New York City. (The Dillon Gallery)
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Resistance to new ideas
by Petrina Gregson
In my art course last year we were studying tenebrism and chiaroscuro. I had been working diligently on a graphite composition of an iris in my mother’s garden; each time I thought I was finished, my instructor would say, “I don’t see any black there” and back I’d go to working it over and over again. I was pleased that she made me persevere, and when we did our peer critique I was at first dismayed and then amused when a Chinese student (who did beautiful paintings) broke from the pattern of softly spoken platitudes which seemed to be the routine, and said “That would NEVER sell in China! No one would want a piece like that! The edges are too sharp and harsh,” etc. Even though the goal of the project had been made quite clear, he couldn’t accept that style of art (his was a wonderful drawing, but did not exhibit any tenebrism). He had exceptional talent in rendering realistic paintings, too, but he never could follow the instructor’s assignments, merely painted and drew his wonderful work in his own style, resisting any change (or growth); I must admit, when I took a subsequent art course, I resisted abstract art just as thoroughly!
(RG note) Thanks, Petrina. Tenebrism is derived from an Italian word which means violently contrasted lights and darks. Caravaggio was a big believer in tenebrism.
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by Lisa Kirkman, FL, USA
My husband uses animal hide glue on his Native American Stone Knives. Here in Florida, the giant palmetto roaches want to eat his work. How do the Japanese preserve work painted with animal hide glue?
(RG note) Thanks, Lisa. I don’t know the answer to that one. They claim a thousand year life for the animal hide glue. Some Nihonga painters use glue made from fish bones. FYI, the glue comes in little brown units a bit smaller than sugar cubes and dissolves in the water fairly quickly. Fact is, insects like a lot of glues and sizings. It’s a hazard.
Acrylics in a hot, humid country
by Susan Gutshall, Mount Sidney, VA, USA
I have 4 acrylic painting panels that I will be shipping to the hot/humid country of the Dominican Republic. They will be hung in a clinic in a barrio, where the surface will need to be protected by some type of varnish. What varnish would you recommend for acrylic painting? The painting surface is gessoed Leuon, with many thin layers of acrylic.
For my shipment of panels what should I place on top of each painting to protect when shipping where it will be very hot? Which is best; brown paper, plastic wrap, sheeting?
(RG note) Thanks, Susan. Varnish your acrylics for the tropics with Golden Final Varnish with UVLS (gloss or matt) Give it a few days before shipping then wrap in brown paper and protect with bubble wrap. Brown paper can be washed off if it happens to stick.
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Studying Art History
by Maryann Hendriks, Kelowna, BC, Canada
I enjoy studying Art History, especially Modern Art, and I do scream it from the roof tops. Being a proud Canadian I study our own; although be it short; rich Canadian Art History diligently. Derivation is an action that I visit on occasion. It’s cool that Music, Fashion and Architecture can be retro, so why not Art? The indulgence of influence is really the sincerest form of flattery. If used honestly, influence can be like drinking a Red Bull — it gives you wings!
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Art with a message
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
Japanese art is and always has been enigmatic to me. Maybe when I’ve several centuries of discovery under my belt I might get a better grip on what they are painting. Frankly, it’s pretty and illustrative in a flowery way and, to me, has reached a level where, unless I were Japanese, I have difficulty really appreciating it. This of course is a personal choice. I much more prefer the Russian school at the turn of the 19th century. Repin, Levitan, Surikov, Kramskoy, Perov et al. Personally I like work that tells a story or has a message. Occasionally I enjoy a benign landscape for diversion. I want to see the hand of the artist in the work. See its truth and honesty. Mt Fuji isn’t the Sierra’s where I feel connected. Mt Shasta now, there is a peak. I see most Japanese art as, well, mainly wallpaper. I can appreciate the esthetic qualities, but prefer to have more “meat” in my painting.
Video on colour
by Mary Pyche, Merrimac, MA, USA
Your recent recommendation regarding Richard Robinson’s excellent video on the understanding and handling of colour was first rate. Thank you for again adding another great and exciting experience to my painting education.
Featured Workshop: Scott L.Christensen
Late Evening on the River
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Caroline Planting who wrote, “Your letter and attached paintings actually reminded me that simplicity is good, and calmness — it goes along with meditation practice.”
And also Sheri Farabaugh of Arizona, USA, who wrote, “I purchased some vials of pigment when I was in China and they look just like the ones you had pictured. I wasn’t sure what I’d do with them, but I think I’ll try my own version of Nihonga.”
And also Sandy Robinson who wrote, “Interesting that you are in Hakone and that you recently were in our town of Jasper, Alberta, Canada, before that. Hakone and Jasper are sister cities having held return visits back and forth for over 30 years. Also student exchanges have been made as well. Every other year a group travels either to Hakone or the Japanese visit Jasper and it is a wonderful experience for both. I believe this year Hakone will be in Jasper.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The gradated life…