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Tue, Aug 13, 2019

A beginner’s guide to Japanese art: Painting on silk (kenpon chakushoku)

Peonies (by Tamayo Samejima)
By Tamayo Samejima

“Japanese art can’t be easy to understand.”

“I don’t know how to appreciate Japanese paintings.”

“Japanese museums are unapproachable.”

If you’re telling yourself these things, then this column is for you.

At any art exhibition, you would often see a description panel posted next to the artwork. However, in Japanese museums, you are often puzzled by all the jargon peculiar to Japanese art. Well, at least, most Japanese viewers are. By reading this weekly column, you will come to understand what the jargon is trying to tell you and how you can appreciate Japanese art more. In short, you will be able to enjoy your visit to a Japanese museum much, much more.

Silk canvas, popular in the Heian / Kamakura periods

At exhibitions of Buddhist art or otherwise, the description panel next to a painting will often say “painting on silk (kenpon chakushoku).” Even the Japanese viewers often have difficulty reading or understanding the kanji characters meaning just that.

Other description panels might say “painting on paper (shihon chakushoku)” or “ink painting on silk (kenpon bokuga)” or “ink painting on paper (shihon bokuga).” As you may have guessed already, kenpon means “on silk” and shihon means “on paper,” while chakushoku means “to paint in colors” and bokuga means “ink painting.”

I am sure you have drawn something on paper before. But I suppose there are not so many who have drawn something on silk. In Japanese art, a silk canvas is called eginu.

Both silk and paper were developed in ancient China, long before the time of Christ. Surprisingly, silk has a longer history than paper.

In Japan, drawings were rendered on hemp cloth during the Nara period (710-784), but from the Heian period (794-ca 1185) to the Kamakura period (ca 1185-1333), eginu became the popular canvas. During the Muromachi period (1336-1573) and later, washi or Japanese paper was often used. In modern times, hemp paper came to be widely used.

Eginu, typically, is silk fabric plainly woven and thin, and feels coarse. Thread taken from silkworm cocoons is used unrefined to weave the fabric. The resulting eginu is white and somewhat sparkly, and has supple texture. That is why paintings on silk end up moist and glossy.

Most Japanese people have used Japanese paper in their school days to practice calligraphy. It is made from plant fibers such as that of the paper mulberry and oriental paperbush.

A hanging scroll in a tokonoma alcove (by Tamayo Samejima)

This is how Japanese paper is made by hand: The plant fiber is first boiled and then bleached by soaking in water. Next, the fiber is mixed with a sticky liquid called neri, which is made from the root of a plant called tororoaoi or aibika (abelmoschus manihot). Only then can you make paper, desiccate it and finish it. It takes a lot of work and craftsmanship.

If you go to an art supply store in Japan, you will find a whole variety of Japanese paper – of different thickness and texture, and made of different material. The gasenshi or drawing paper used in calligraphy or ink wash painting alone comes in various types, most of which has a moist and smooth surface. The brush will slide very smoothly on a gasenshi when you are writing or painting, and the ink wash or coloring will turn out fine.

Eginu and Japanese paper both absorb water, so when you apply paint or ink, they usually bleed. In order to suppress the bleeding, the silk canvas or paper is sometimes processed beforehand by applying dosa – liquid made by adding alum to nikawa eki (glue solution made from collagen, animal protein, etc.) – with a brush. This will allow calligraphers and painters to work on details.

By the way, painting and writing are not the only things you can do with Japanese paper. It is also used for urauchi or backing. That is, Japanese paper is glued onto the backside of painted Japanese paper or eginu. This will make the work thicker, literally, as well as more durable. Scrolls or hanging scrolls are made afterward.

Finally, let me introduce you to an actual work of art “painted on silk.”

Go see the Suigetsu Kannon zo

Posted here is the image of the Suigetsu Kannon zo (image of Water-Moon Avalokitesvara), which can be viewed at the Commemorating 30 Years of Conservation Projects by the Sumitomo Foundation; New Life for Timeless Art exhibition set to start on Sept. 6, 2019, at the Sen-oku Hakukokan Museum in Kyoto.

At the lower left corner of the painting, you see a very small Zenzai-doji (Sudhana-sresthi-daraka), which you will find in Buddhist stories. Zenzai-doji went on a journey to learn the teachings of Buddha and visited 53 sages. At Fudarakusen, a soaring mountain in the sea, Zenzai-doji saw the Suigetsu Kannon. The beautiful Kannon or the Avalokitesvara sits on a rock as it gently watches over Zenzai-doji. The body is painted gold, and at the tip of its slender right hand are crystal prayer beads on red string. The thin veil draped over the shoulder is magnificent.

The 14th-century painting is a work of So Gubang, a painter of the Goryeo Dynasty, which reigned over much of the Korean Peninsula. The painting was later brought to Japan, and is now a designated important cultural property.

*The Commemorating 30 Years of Conservation Projects by the Sumitomo Foundation; New Life for Timeless Art exhibit displays the fruit of Sumitomo Foundation’s long-running Grant for Projects for the Protection, Preservation & Restoration of Cultural Properties in Japan. The Suigetsu Kannon zo regained its original grace with the help of this grant. You should see for yourself the harmony of the colors used on silk and the delicate brushwork.

Suigetsu Kannon zo can be viewed in the following museums:
Suigetsu Kannon zo by So Gubang; Important cultural property

See related article: New Life for Timeless Art



Art writer, translator, ink wash painter


After graduating from Gakushuin University (aesthetics and art history major), Samejima furthered her studies at the Camberwell College of Arts in London. She has been involved in writing scripts for audio guides used in art exhibitions, as well as writing articles and columns for newspapers and other publications on artwork and art exhibits. She also translates exhibition catalogs and art books. She has put on solo ink wash painting exhibitions and performances in Japan and abroad, and has presided over ink painting classes in Tokyo.



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