Nihon-ga (日本画)

Nihon-ga (Japanese style painting) is a genre of painting unique to Japan. While oil painting, which was introduced to Japan in the Meiji period, is called Yo-ga (foreign style painting), Nihon-ga refers to paintings which utilize traditional Japanese techniques and styles and rather than being reliant on oil paint. Nihon-ga is narrowly defined as those paintings created after the Meiji period but it sometimes also refers those before that period. In that case, the term 'Nihon-ga' is used loosely and it is unclear whether it refers to those drawings having origins in China or the Korean peninsula but with themes and styles that have Japanese characteristics, or those drawings in general which originated in Japan before the arrival of the oil painting technique.

The Birth of Nihon-ga
From the Nara period through to the Heian period, drawings using the technique and style derived from China or the Korean peninsula, or those imitating them and painted in Japan were called 'Kara-e' (Chinese Paintings).
By comparison, drawings with Japanese themes were called 'Yamato-e.'

Subsequently, the terms used, such as 'Kanga' (Chinese painting) compared with 'Waga' (Japanese painting), or 'Kara-e' compared with 'Waga,' varied according to the era, however the trend to consider those paintings and techniques from the past as traditional Japanese in comparison with the new styles imported from overseas has continued.

The term 'Nihon-ga' came into use in the beginning of the Meiji period to distinguish drawing styles which had already existed from Western style oil painting (or Yo-ga) imported from Europe at that time.

In 1876, at the beginning of the Meiji period, in order to promote the study of Western Art, the Meiji government established an art school and invited Antonio Fontanesi from Italy. Tadashi ASAI and other students were members of the inaugural class.

Fontanesi went back to Italy two years later, in 1878. Meanwhile, Ernest Fenollosa came to Japan and taught philosophy and other subjects at Tokyo University.

It is well-known that Fenollosa showed a strong interest in Japanese art and evaluated it highly.

The word 'Nihon-ga' was adopted from the translation of the term 'Japanese painting' for the first time when Fenollosa gave his lecture on "The New Theory of Art" at the Dragon Pond Society (Ryuchikai) in 1882.

In the lecture Fenollosa pointed out the following as characteristics of Nihon-ga and evaluated its excellence.

It does not seek realism as in a photograph.

It does not have shadows.

It does have an outline.

The color tone is not rich.

The expression is simple.

Kakusan (later called Tenshin) OKAKURA, who worked as a interpreter and assistant for Fenollosa, was much encouraged by this experience and established The Tokyo Art School (later Tokyo Art University) in 1889 which did not teach western painting but had only a Nihon-ga faculty with teachers including Gaho HASHIMOTO. Taikan YOKOYAMA was one of the inaugural class members.

By this time, the art school (Kobu Bijutsu Gakko), which taught western painting, had been closed in 1883.

Okakura was inaugurated as the Head of Tokyo Art School in 1890 but was forced out of the school in 1898, then established The Japan Art Academy with Yokoyama.

The Nihon-ga which Okakura intended to foster was not just preserving traditional Japanese technique and style, but also brought in some necessary western techniques aiming to create Japanese drawings which could hold their own against western paintings.

Gaho HASHIMOTO, while being from the Kano School with Hogai KANO as his senior pupil, was a painter who sought to develop his own style; similarly, Yokoyama also developed new techniques.

It is thought that the term 'Nihon-ga' used by Fenollosa for the first time did not simply refer to all drawings existing in Japan prior to the arrival of western oil painting, but more specifically to the style which had roots in China and the Korean Peninsula but was developed independently and matured in Japan. However, the Nihon-ga established then and fostered by Okakura and others up until the present has continued to develop as a rival force to Yo-ga. In that sense, Nihon-ga is defined as those created after the Meiji period, which means that Taikan YOKOYAMA of Meiji was classified as a painter of Nihon-ga but the Edo period painter Eitoku KANO was not.

Nihon-ga may have been a product of a nationalistic feeling of crisis due to the rapid influx of western culture under the Meiji government's westernization policy combined with an affinity felt in the encounter with Fenollosa who sought to create a foothold in America to counter the dominance of European culture. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts was established in 1876, at a time when United States had gained independence from England and was becoming more stable after the Civil War. In 1890, Fenollosa, after returning to United States from Japan, was installed as the first head of the Japanese Art Division of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and in 1910 Okakura succeeded him as head of the Oriental Division.

Since then Yo-ga and Nihon-ga have continued to their symbiotic relationship, coexisting and developing as rival forces in Japan. However these days it is difficult to delineate the boundary in themes and styles between them, and it is said that the only difference is in painting tools.

Nihon-ga Education

Nihon-ga is rarely taught in the ordinary art classes up to high school level, apart from in specialized art schools. This is because the painting tools are expensive and it is difficult to employ specialized teachers. The oil painting is not taught as part of the compulsory education either.

Instead, it is common to teach water painting as it is relatively simpler. Furthermore, the entrance examinations for Nihon-ga departments in the art universities include coloring with water paints, and also very rarely pencil drawing.

The motif is usually a character (female) portrait or still object.

Method of Creation

Nihon-ga are created mainly with a variety of mineral colors and a small amount of organic colors. Pigments such as shell lime as well as glue, ink slabs, ink sticks, silk, Japanese paper, paint brushes, tsuketate-fude (paint brushes), coloring brushes and ceramic brush washers and other items are needed. One characteristic of Nihon-ga is that the many layers of paint can be applied due to the property of the paint which does not dissolve compared with water painting. In recent years, with the influence of oil painting, we have seen the development of abstract drawings or artworks using thickly daubed paint and other such methods of expression which are not bound by traditional techniques.

Traditional Method

Paint is dissolved in glue solution. Among mineral colors, malachite No.1 to 3, or those having same coarseness and called sandcolor such as dark blue and pulverized lapis lasuli should be dissolved in a bowl with just the glue solution, using an amount greater than the mineral color; and using a soft brush skim the paint onto the brush and paint. If the color is very coarse, put the grains on the drawing one by one. Wait till it dry, then repeat painting again and again until the target tint is obtained. With mineral colors the color is often repelled on the second coat and does not settle on the paper, however in this case adding a drop of mint oil or sesame oil to the dissolved color may be helpful, but this requires great skill. Mix the powdery mineral color such as pulverized azurite, byakugun (a light blue pigment) or malchite (white No.1 to byakuroku (a pale green pigment)) on a pallet with a small amount of glue solution and mash it well with the middle finger until it reaches the required viscosity. Regardless of the color, the paint should be well diluted and painted a few times rather than applying a thick color because this will mottle or smudge the drawing. How to dissolve and use earth pigments and other colors. In the case of shell lime, if it is not dissolved correctly, it may peel off and a rich luster will not be obtained. If the shell lime has adequate fineness in water spray, there will be no problems if using the best grade or No.1 shell lime and kneading it carefully. If using a substantial amount, knead the shell lime well in a mortar then add small amount of glue solution and knead it again, and after repeating this process three to four times the shell lime and glue solution will be well mixed and the viscosity such that the pestle is no longer easy to move. Then, add water little by little until the required hue is achieved. Take a little of this and put on a different plate, then add some water to dissolve further and dilute before painting. Also, the shell lime can be preserved in a dumpling shape and dissolved before using. The glue solution should be made by boiling four grams of hide glue in 30 cc of water until well dissolved and filtering it through cloth. Water paint should be dissolved by kneading it in a plate, without adding any glue solution, and adding water a drop at a time while kneading with a finger. Indigo should be used by putting a few drops of glue solution into a plate, kneading it, drying it by heating and dissolving it by adding a few drops of water and kneading with a finger. Carmine should be used by kneading it with a small amount of glue solution in a plate and adding some water. Red ocher should be used by placing some glue solution in a plate, kneading it, drying it by heat, and dissolving it by adding a few drops of water and kneading with a finger. Gamboge should be used by placing some water into a plate and kneading it until it turns a vivid yellow, and it is good to add some glue solution when using; while dark red pigment has usually already been soaked into a cotton cloth so cut the necessary amount of cloth when needed and put it on a plate, then add a small amount of boiling water and squeeze it hard with Japanese cedar chop sticks which do not contain oil, to release the dark red pigment. Filter it through paper or cloth for removing residue, and double boil to dry it before using. It is said if you add a drop of sake (Japanese liquor) when double boiling, the color will not dry out and it will keep the moisture in. To use the colors on the bowl used in double boiling, put water on the brush and dissolve the minimum amount necessary in the bowl; and sometimes a little glue is added in this case. Dark red color has strong permeability, and is difficult to paint with, requiring experience and skill. If a small amount of shell lime (preferably one properly dissolved with glue solution) is added to the dark red color it will retain its luster.


Mokkotsu (painting without an outline) Technique

Dosabiki (Sizing)
Guzumi (dark grey pigment)
Tessen (iron wire) Line drawing

Artists' Society
The Japan Art Academy
The Japan Fine Arts Exhibition (Nitten)

[Original Japanese]