Nihonga is a form of painting that I learned while living in Japan. (Nihon means ‘Japanese’ and ga means ‘painting.’) Technically, nihonga can mean any Japanese painting style, but among artists it is generally understood to mean this form. Although nihonga is similar to tempera painting, in that both use dry pigments and a binding agent, nihonga has pigments that range from very fine powders to coarse granules. One color may have as many as fifteen granulated textures with hues that can vary from vibrant saturated ones to softer, whitish toned ones. The effects can range from opaque to translucent to transparent. Washes of vibrant, coarse pigments over subdued powdered ones create glowing final colors.
An incorrect ratio of glue to water to paint a mix of coarse and fine pigments on to the surface could result in flaking, dropping off, or cracking of the dried colors. This takes time to learn since the ratio of glue to water differs according to the coarseness of the grains. Finer, softer hued pigments over coarser ones create interesting textures and fine and coarse grains are often mixed together to create a stronger picture surface. The glue has to be strong enough to fix both to the surface and also to be light enough not to obscure the life of the color.
To begin a painting, wet, fiber paper is glued to panels made of various materials, often wood. When dry, the paper is sized with alum crystals dissolved in organic glue and water. Traditionally the glue is made from animal skins and bones, but today synthetic glue is also available, and there is some experimentation with powdered egg whites. After dissolving pigments in the glue and adding water, they are painted on the mounted, prepared paper with brushes.
The handling and care of the glue is important to the longevity of the colors, as even slightly sour glue can result in discoloration and disagreeable smells, as well as loose or falling pigments. When fresh glue is used, the dried surface, like the dried egg surface of tempera, hardens enough that layer upon layer can be applied until a desired effect is realized. Since glue darkens with age, denser glue is used in the beginning and more dilute glue is used as the final surface is approached. A light touch with glue on the top layers ensures stable, long lasting colors.
Although minerals such as malachite or lapis lazuli are still ground for pigments, the prohibitive costs leads artists to paint with the popular pigments made today from dyed pottery. Their colors are also beautiful and have a strong retention of hues. On top of the basic white color one or more under colors are painted, sometimes before gold leaf is used and sometimes after it is laid down.
Highlighting areas with gold leaf emphasizes other areas of importance. Traditionally gold leaf has often been used to create backgrounds. Whether the subject was a scene such as a landscape or a few flowers, the leaf surrounded most of, or all of the subject, making it both separate from, and yet a part of, the ordinary reality of the picture. The use of gold leaf also flattened the area, in which subjects were frequently modeled in detail. This effect heightened the feeling of another dimension or of a wondrous perspective. With or without leaf, ordinary/extraordinary space was an important perspective in traditional nihonga, and although the techniques are evolving, the same abstracted perspective of space still remains, whether a work is representational or otherwise. The word to describe this perspective of space is ku in Japanese. It has many meanings, among them, emptiness, or space that is pregnant with possibilities.
In nihonga, expression of the “moment” has always been reason enough for painting. In both traditional and modern nihonga, delicately or dramatically painted subjects, whether birds, flowers, people, insects or landscapes, appear cherished equally as remarkable and ordinary. These find expression in nihonga in common subjects that are portrayed with a sense of wonder, tranquility and beauty.