The gradated life

Dear Artist, 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.

“Shimmering Water” 1992
by Sugiama Yasushi

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.

“Pond” 1968
by Tokuoka Shinsen

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.

“Snowy Peak with Cranes” 1958
by Yokoyama Taikan

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. es 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.

“Recent Nihonga installation in Philadelphia, USA”
by Hiroshi Senju

Best regards, Robert 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

Dry pigment in 16 degrees of granulation


Honouring an ancient tradition


Generating an attitude of contemplation


Smaller brushes used in Nihonga


Mixing utensils for Nihonga


Larger brushes for Nihonga

              Challenges can be stimulating by Anne Hudec, Victoria, BC, Canada  

Images from Japan

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  

“Scattered Deformities in the End”
color pigment on paper, 2007
124 × 96.5 cm
by Matsui Fuyuko

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.           There is 1 comment for Nihonga artist Matsui Fuyuko by Hyedie Hashimoto
From: giorgio bormida — Oct 24, 2010


  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. There are 3 comments for Paint for today by James Bright
From: Jeanne- Manhattan Beach, CA — Jul 09, 2010

Okay, I hear ya. We have to assume and and all our work is derivitive. The only way it couldn’t be is if we were born to and raised by something other than humans. But tell me, what is the next step? What comes after Jackson Pollock, Rothko and bloody Andy Warhol? In this historical context of “art speaking to art”, what is the next chapter? It is said the originality is merely an obscurity of the source. Are we not being obscure enough? As I have been struggling with these questions for years, I’d REALLY like to know.

From: Lynda B. — Jul 09, 2010

That’s what we all do, James, paint for today. The way we see today is different though. You and some see it as avant-garde, other see it as a return to the past. Our hopes for the future are different as well. Why would you feel that other’s hopes are embarrassing? I find attempts to be different to the point of insane is hilarious. We are all different, yet same in some way…the way that we all need to live in peace and respect each other.

From: Noah — Jul 09, 2010

Oh, but classical art is not done yet – not even close to finish…there is still so much to say…give us a few more hundreds of years, then we can move on to something else. Too bad they won’t be able to dig out today’s modern art then – it will all ether fall apart because of poor craftmenship or it won’t be recognized as art objects…but, to each it’s own…whatever makes you happy…

  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) There are 2 comments for A long history by Jun Basho
From: Ellie Siskind — Jul 09, 2010

Right on the money, literally. Many who award themselves the apellation “artist” are far from that, telling me they are “impressionists”, “abstract expressionists” – I usually say “and you’re still alive! Amazing.” These are folks who are afraid to take risks and grow into their own work. Taking risks is the scary part of art-making. Unfortunately casual buyers are most comfortable with safe work.

From: Andrew — Jul 09, 2010

This is very funny. I am a collector. I buy beautiful art. Why would I invest my money into someone’s risk taking? Your risk – your money, isn’t that fair?

  Resistance to new ideas by Petrina Gregson  

graphite on paper
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. There are 2 comments for Resistance to new ideas by Petrina Gregson
From: Win Dinn, Painted Turtle Gallery — Jul 09, 2010

Thanks, Robert for the note about tenebrism – saved me from googling it!. Petrina, thank YOU for that exquisite Iris – blissful black, indeed!
From: Andrew — Jul 09, 2010

This was a very insightful letter except for one detail. You said “resisting any change (or growth).” This is a very culture insensitive comment, although probably not intentional. There are many ways to grow, and some cultures nurture deep learning while other promote wide knowledge. Your Chinese colleague was most likely dedicated to the depth of one style. You can spend the same energy or a lifetime to learn about the world, or about one subject.

  Glue permanence 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. There is 1 comment for Acrylics in a hot, humid country by Susan Gutshall
From: Irene Brady Thomas — Jul 09, 2010

don’t miss the brown paper or some kind of smooth barrier between varnish and bubble wrap. I once made the horrible mistake of wrapping a varnished canvas I thought was dry with bubble wrap, and the bubbles appeared all over the painting, it needed to be completely stripped. What a mess!

  Studying Art History by Maryann Hendriks, Kelowna, BC, Canada  

“Shadbolt Shanghai”
acrylic painting
by Maryann Hendriks

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!     There is 1 comment for Studying Art History by Maryann Hendriks
From: Gayle — Jul 12, 2010

I definitely see the influence of the wonderful Canadian artist, Emily Carr, in your work, Maryann

  Art with a message by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA  

“Out of Darkness”
oil painting
by Rick Rotante

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.   [fbcomments url=””]  Featured Workshop: Scott L.Christensen
070910_robert-genn2 Workshop with Scott L.Christensen   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.

Late Evening on the River

watercolour painting by Grey Darden, Valley Head, WV, USA

  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.”    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The gradated life

From: Ron Unruh — Jul 05, 2010

Thank you for sharing this delightful experience you have enjoyed far away from Crescent Beach.

From: Bess — Jul 05, 2010

I really enjoyed reading about the Japanese art, history, and way of preparing the oils. Even the little piece gave me a beautiful look into a tradition I would have never known.

From: Sell Owen — Jul 06, 2010

Traditional sources for material can also be a great source of interest & as a result :Influence. I just returned from the Montreal Botanical Gardens: and the Japenese Garden provided great insight on Laquer , from the Laquer tree ; and then the mixings.

From: Edna Hildebrandt — Jul 06, 2010

Thank you for sharing your story about Japan and their painting.It must be very fascinating to watch the old man create his art in this ancient way and how they prepare their colors from natural sources .The Japanese are known to be spiritual and have ceremonial rituals in many things they do.It is very good that many young Japanese are following this old way of painting.

From: Carol Ann Cain — Jul 06, 2010

Your post today is influential, especially for me. Having loved Eastern art for a while, I am attempting to paint my boggies with this influence. I like to think my work has a Japanese flare.

From: Rick Rotante — Jul 06, 2010

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 it’s truth and honesty. Mt Fujii isn’t the Sierra’s where I feel connected. Mt Shasta now, there is a peak. I see most Jananese art as, well, mainly wallpaper. I can appreciate the esthetic qualities, but prefer to have more “meat” in my painting.

From: Liane Wakabayashi — Jul 06, 2010

I’m excited to hear that you are in Japan! I have many students who would be interested in meeting you. I’ve been enjoying your column for a number of years, learning and reflecting on your experiences. I’d be happy to meet you if you’re in Tokyo area and show you some surprisingly scenic city nature off the beaten track. And some great art supply shops.

From: G. Tennant — Jul 06, 2010

Gradation is one of the basic principles of design. Smooth is better than jumpy or wishy washy. Implied, or partly hidden gradations are particularly valuable. Gradations carry with them the essence of appeal in a painting.

London, UK
From: Min Kim Ma — Jul 06, 2010

The use of light and shade in paintings is a peculiar Western convention. Perhaps the more worldly West was obsessed with a sense of reality, and needed to express it, and the more ascetic and philosophic East felt it did not need.

From: Mary Pennell — Jul 06, 2010

The information in these letters is worth gold. Thank you Robert for encouraging so many of the worldly wise to write in this forum. It is the best.

From: D. L. Martin — Jul 06, 2010

I am going to be fuzzier in the future.

From: Jane Seavers — Jul 08, 2010

I just recently had my first show at age 65 and felt so encouraged and inspired by the folks who attended. I find myself pushing pushing pushing as I experience my mortality and the urge to express myself through this new found medium of oil painting after having been a midwife for 30 years. Here is the prayer that my son just offered to me: In the midst of the whirling day, in the hectic rush to be doing,

In the frantic pace of life, pause here for a moment. Catch your breath, relax your body. Loosen your grip on life. Consider that our lives are always unfinished business. Imagine that the picture of our being is never complete. Allow your life to be a work in progress. Do not hurry to mold the masterpiece; Do not rush to finish the picture; Do not be impatient to complete the drawing. From beckoning birth to dawning death, we are in process, And always there is more to be done. Do not let the incompleteness weigh on your spirit. Do not despair that imperfection marks your every day. Do not fear that we are still in the making. Let us instead be grateful that the world is still to be created. Let us give thanks that we can be more than we are. Let us celebrate the power of the incomplete, For life is always unfinished business. Richard Gilbert From the Skinner House meditation manual “In the Holy Quiet of this Hour”
From: Monty Corkrin, SC — Jul 08, 2010

Beautiful message. Congratulations on your exhibit. I have allowed my art to be blocked for years and years, and am trying to unlock it.

From: Sissi Bennett — Jul 08, 2010

I love it..and what a great name for this art! I am a big Japan fan, having traveled there twice…I learned of an art form there, called etegami? Are you familiar with this?? I love your inspirational messages…always inspire me!

From: Sheila Minifie — Jul 09, 2010

In observing the artwork produced by this method, I agreed with someone who said that it would be better to leave the traditional largely where it belongs, but then I followed up the link to Hiroshi Sengu’s work and it is wonderful and amazing, so I take it back! Thank you for a totally inspiring discovery. It could be, that because he considers himself more international than national, that he has been able to escape the limitations of a traditional style and brought it into the 21st century. I loved his comment about who his contemporary inspirations were: ‘Since I am an artist I am most interested in myself.’ Right on Hiroshi Sensei!

From: Janet Francoeur — Jul 09, 2010

Thank you for the recent post. I am preparing for a show and this reminded me of a painting I saw in NYC by Susanne Hellers. It was called “On the Heel Toe Express”. I was so taken with it that I decided I should do my own. Amy working on it now. Susanne walks from Brooklyn into the city every day and this painting is impressions of the walk, the painting is about 25 feet long, a collection of canvases hooked together. I have it posted on my blog, just scroll down in this post.

From: mars — Jul 09, 2010

RE- Hiroshi—————sorry but what is it? Looks 2 me like somebody painted a wall & forgot a few places!!! Perhaps it looks different in –real– but I don’t see the point of painting things that the public can’t understand– or admire. Anyhow— carry on– if it’s worth money–it’s worth doing!!! But I prefer subjects with meaning.

From: Carol Mordecai Myers — Jul 09, 2010

I have for several years been trying to create the idea of walking meditations. My latest paintings have been long “scrolls”.


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