Today’s post from Ian Ropke is a continuation of yesterday’s post on Nihonga…
The classic Japanese artist’s best friend
For well over one hundred years, Saiun-do has been supplying artists with quality Nihonga pigments and brushes. The business has an illustrious history. The famous painter Tomioka Tessai (1836-1924), just one of Saiundo’s illustrious clients, recommended the auspicious name Saiun-do [Spectrum Cloud Hall] in 1890. The kanban [shop sign] that hangs in the office was painted by Tessai himself.
At first glance, Saiun-do appears to be a traditional Chinese medicine [kampo] shop, with shelves lined with jars and vials and cases of exotic-looking colored powders. These prized ingredients and how they are mixed can transform white or wooden boards into prized art treasures, and for that reason the color recipes are often closely-guarded secret formulas.
Since the beginning, Saiundo has been a favorite destination for many of Japan’s major Nihonga and Sumie (ink paintings) artists. The owners know pretty much everything there is know and they have every single ingredient and accessory that traditional Japanese art requires. Not surprisingly, many artists from abroad also stop in to pick up brushes and pigments. However, if you don’t speak Japanese, you should bring an interpreter to help you out. This is not a shop that you can easily stroll around in and browse: most things are hidden in intricate drawers. Fortunately, most serious artists know exactly what they are looking for.
Nihonga (literally “Japan picture”) is the name given to a style of painting in which combinations of materials, mainly mineral and vegetable matter, are ground into colors and applied to a surface. Contemporary Nihonga, which can be seen in Kyoto’s many art galleries, tends to focus on animals, landscapes, and botanical subjects, but in past eras noblemen and women, and Buddhas were popular subjects. The oldest Japanese paintings of any sophistication — frescoes on the walls of the 7th century Takamatsu-zuka tomb in Nara — fall within the scope of Nihonga, as do centuries of scrolls, painted fans, sliding and standing screens, and works on paper, plaster, and bare wood. However, this most quintessential of Japanese arts is generally under-appreciated by foreigners. Art students swarm to Florence in their thousands to learn how to recreate and appreciate medieval Italian paintings and frescoes; it is odd that more attention isn’t given to this Japanese version of the fresco, for that is what Nihonga should properly be compared to.
Trade with China during the Edo period brought precious stones from the mainland — stones the Chinese had been using since time immemorial for paints, but which were unknown in Japan. And with the opening to the West in the Meiji period came the science of chemistry, which opened up great horizons for art. The great painter and printmaker, Hokusai, was at the forefront of the wave of painters using chemical paints. Before his time, indigo was about the richest color available, so you can imagine the impact of his vivid splashes of red and gold and green. The Western influence also brought new names, such as ultramarine and eroka, which was the way the Japanese heard “yellow-ochre”.
Some paints are made from stone or soil, and others are made from vegetables and plants, as well as animal matter, such as ground insects. Some are even made from pearls. White, which used to always be made from fine Chinese soil, is more often made from ground marble now. The best whites are made from sea shells.
Traditionally, the most luxurious of the colors included gold and the green rokusho, made of malachite, and blue “peacock color” [azurite] imported from Brazil. These colors are further enhanced by exposure to sun and rain — they take on a patina from nature and ‘grow’ into each other, and into the picture.
Although Nihonga has a long tradition, many artists are very open to change and new ideas, and that goes for art suppliers as well. Suppliers like Saiun-do have great respect for the techniques and superlative materials of the past, but also look for new materials.
Just as important as the pigments are the brushes artists use, and Saiun-do stocks nothing but the very best.
An old Japanese saying states “Kobo fude o erabazu“, meaning that Kobo Daishi, the eighth century priest known for the excellence of his calligraphy, wasn’t particular about what brush he used. This must undoubtedly have saved the great calligrapher a lot of time and trouble, as the baffling variety of brushes, or fude, available here makes selection rather difficult.
Today, less than twenty craftspeople living and working in or around Kyoto make brushes full-time. Hair from such exotic animals as Japanese and Chinese raccoons, Japanese and Chinese weasels, Chinese sheep, horses, and Vietnamese deer are used. Among the more exotic materials used for brushes are hairs from cats, monkeys, ermine, and lions. The tips of rice plants are sometimes also used to make disposable calligraphy brushes.
To see more and learn more have a look in the window at Saiun-do. You will find the owners to be very friendly and very helpful with all your needs (especially if you are an artist). Located on the south side of Ane-koji, east of Fuyacho, one and half blocks west of Teramachi… Here is a map.
Full text by Ian Ropke. Pictures by Michael Lambe. Ian Ropke is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Osaka and Kyoto, editor of Kyoto Visitors Guide, and director of Your Japan Private Tours. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here.