Japanology, Prints and Paintings


Although this post will be published in Mid March, I am actually writing it during the half term holidays in the middle of February.  This half term I have been recovering from an illness which took me to hospital last week and looking after my son who has had an operation a few days ago.  So, rather than being out and about, I have spent a lot of time relaxing indoors and looking after my lad who is doing very well.  While surfing the web I stumbled across a series of Japanese woodblock prints.  I have always loved The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Japanese ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai.

Here is a link from Wikipedia:

Great Wave of Kangawa by Hokusai

But I have never made a serious study of the art-form – until now!  I have been blown away by the simplicity and beauty of this kind of art.

Woodblock printing originally came to Japan from China in the 8th century CE and for a long time was only used for printing the written word – mainly Buddhist texts.  Then in 1765, right in the middle of the Edo period, a new style of polychromatic woodblock printing was invented called Nishiki-e.  At first they printed beautiful calendars with this method but the technique was soon taken up by ‘Floating World’ artists and so Ukiyo-e was born.  Ukiyo-e is printed art which centres on the fleeting and ephemeral nature of ordinary life.  It began featuring the goings on in the urban pleasure districts during the Edo period – beautiful women, geishas and teahouse mistresses, kabuki theatre, warriors and sumo wrestlers.  Later the subject matter broadened out to include landscapes, travel scenes, scenes involving people doing ordinary jobs, natural scenes of animals and plants and much more.  I have only really touched upon the surface of the subject so far but here are my favourites at this stage:




  • Kawase, a more modern artist, who specialised in landscapes of tranquil and obscure places.  Here is a selection of his work from the Ronin Gallery


  • Koitsu, another more modern artist who also does a lot of landscapes.  Here is some of his work.


The last two of these artists are from the Shin Hanga movement which began in about 1910.  It was really a revival of the original woodblock printing with some modern influences.  (Shin Hanga means “New Prints”.)

Of course, having been blown away by this artwork I wanted to have a go myself.  My aim was not to make my own woodblock prints but to create watercolour and gouache paintings which have a similar look and feel.  I suspect this is something that I will have to learn as I work on it.

The first painting I had a try at was a natural scene of a bird with some cherry blossom by a late 19th century / early 20th century artist called Ohara Koson…

Orange Bird and Cherry Blossom by Ohara Koson


I made this painting as a present for a family member’s birthday…


I made a graded wash going from the centre outwards with more cadmium yellow deep as I got towards the edge.  Then I painted the bird and the flowers on with watercolours.  I wasn’t sure from the original what bird species it was so my interpretation is a little fanciful  (sort of a red version of a blue tit).


While I was at the hospital waiting for my son to be discharged I made a sketch in pencil of the next subject I wanted to have a go at.  Here’s the original art by Kawase…

Moon at Matsushima by Hasui Kawase


Here’s my interpretation as a sketch…


And here is my watercolour impression of Kawase’s work…

I used a basic graded wash over my pencil outline and then painted the features on with gouache.  I am pleased with how both of these paintings turned out as initial studies, but I would like to work some more on this to see how far I can take it and what that ends up looking like.



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