A Brief Overview of Traditional Japanese Painting
The Japanese fine art of centuries past remains treasured in artistic circles across the globe. This is partially due to the art itself, which is as technically dazzling as it is simply stunning. It may also be partially due to the unique history of traditional Japanese art, especially traditional Japanese painting.
The Japanese painting movement “Nihonga,” from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is a great example. The processes and materials behind this movement’s paintings come from roughly a millennia of traditional approaches. This rich background stems from the fact that, at several points in time, Japanese painters were solely in conversation with their own country’s history. At other times, Japanese artists began interacting with Chinese and Western culture, resulting in noticeable, and often remarkable, shifts in their paintings.
Within the realm of traditional Japanese painting, works with little outside influence and paintings with the clear mark of other cultures remain equally beloved. We’ve prepared a guide to traditional Japanese painting so you can get a sense of why Japanese creations hold such an esteemed place in art history.
What is traditional Japanese painting?
Traditional Japanese painting comprises several artistic movements, including but not limited to the “Yamato-e,” “Kanō,” and “Nihonga” painting styles. Natural themes are common in traditional Japanese-style painting, as are landscapes and human activity in homes and palaces. The use of historically prominent materials and philosophies are also common.
Ancient Japanese philosophy also heavily influenced all three traditional styles. For example, “wabi-sabi,” a combination of beauty and natural aging, guided much of traditional Japanese painting. So too did “yūgen,” the ideal of subtlety and grace.
Many paintings from the traditional Japanese canon remain among the most well-regarded Japanese paintings to this day. As we guide you through the Yamato-e, Kanō, and Nihonga styles, you’ll get a flavour of the beauty of traditional Japanese painting for yourself.
This traditional Japanese painting style emerged during Japan’s Heian period, which started in the year 794 and ended in 1185.
A brief history of Yamato-e
The yamato-e movement resulted from Japan ending its trade relations with China. Japanese artists thus turned to their own culture for something natural: inspiration. From there, the yamato-e style remained prominent through the Kamakura period of 1185 to 1333. When Japan reopened trade relations with China during the Muromachi period of 1392 through 1573, “yamato-e” painting began to decline in prominence.
- Key themes inYamato-e
Since this style is marked by a turn toward Japanese influences, prominent themes include those associated with Japan’s four seasons. Allusions to Japanese history and literature are also common. Many paintings in this style portray soft, rolling hills within Japanese locales. During the Kamakura period, yamato-e painting expanded to include scenes of Buddhist leadership. For example, the ‘Illustrated Life of Shinran’ series depicts moments in the life of the Japanese monk Shinran.
Common techniques in Yamato-e
Often, the facial features of people depicted in yamato-e art are abbreviated, with a focus on a stylistic, not realistic, appearance. On top of that, all the figures in the painting are stylized to a large degree. Thick, bright pigments are common, as are groups of clouds that introduce darkness and spatial division. Additionally, in the yamato-e compositional technique “fukinuki yatai,” painters would exclude roofs from their paintings of buildings. The result is a clear top-down view of the building’s interior.
Commonly used materials in Yamato-e
Often, yamato-e paintings were used to illustrate handscrolls. Artists often combined these handscrolls into series that you could open and read in sequence like a book.
This style of traditional Japanese painting emerged in the 15th century and is named after the painter Kano Masanobu.
A brief history of Kanō
In his work, Masanobu used the Chinese painting style common in prominent Zen temples of his era. Masanobu’s grandson, Kano Eitoku, expanded upon the style in the 16th century, as did the Tokugawa shogunate in the 17th century. This shogunate (form of Japanese government from around 794 to 1867) was also known as the Edo shogunate since it ruled during the Edo period. The Kanō movement faded toward the end of the 19th century, as did the shogunate.
Key themes in Kanō
Chinese subjects, particularly landscapes and Zen patriarchs, dominate the early Kanō style. Kano Motonobu expanded the style to include patterns that evoke native Japanese interests. Later, Monotobu’s grandson Kano Eitoku painted several folding screens (“byōbu”) and sliding doors (“fusuma”) with a focus on large figures, animals, and nature. His goal was to evoke energy and power, and as you can see from his painting ‘The Folding Screen Painting Of Chinese Lions,’ he succeeded.
Common techniques in Kanō
Ink and clear brushstrokes are the hallmarks of the early Kanō style. Kano Motonobu further strengthened the style’s brushwork while adding brighter colors. As the style evolved over generations of painters, more elegant and decorative elements became prominent. Toward the end of the movement, the painter Kano Tan’yū introduced ink monochrome into the Kanō style.
Commonly used materials Kanō
Ink was the dominant material in early Kanō paintings, which also lacked much pigment. Later, Kano Eitoku introduced gold foil into the style, adding a resplendent splash of color. Eitoku also brought sliding doors and folding screens to the Kanō style.
This style’s name is the Japanese word for “Japanese painting.” Artists, art historians, and other people interested in art started using the term “Nihonga” during the Meiji period.
A brief history of Nihonga
The Meiji period spanned October 1868 to July 1912 and opened Japan to outside influence for the first time in centuries. At the time, the term was used to separate traditional Japanese paintings from Western-influenced Japanese paintings known as “yōga.” Today, though, some historians argue that “ Nihonga” encompasses all traditional Japanese paintings. Other Japanese art experts distinguish it from other styles based on the materials that the painters used.
Key themes in Nihonga
A fascination with people, animals, nature, and tranquility can be observed in several prominent “nihonga” paintings. For example, in the works of painter Hishida Shunsō, a hazy background is common, with simple trees or animals in the foreground. Shunsō’s esteemed painting ‘Cat and Plum Blossoms’ exemplifies this approach. In other Shunsō paintings, the background remains the same, but the focus shifts to royal figures as they observe tranquil moments.
Common Techniques in Nihonga
In “Nihonga” paintings, brushstrokes are difficult to see since linework is a stronger focus. Nihonga painters typically started with a sketch on silk paper, followed by an ink outline and the use of chalk to create a background. Upon this chalk drying, the painter would typically add additional colors to finish their work.
Commonly used materials in Nihonga
Paper (“washi”), wood, silk (“eginu”), or plaster supports were common in Nihonga paintings. Nihonga painters often used mineral pigments and coloring materials made from vegetables or animal products. If anything, animal glue was the foundation of their most complex works since it kept the pigments in place. Nihonga artists also used “hake” (flat, wide tip) and “fude” (flat, narrow tip) brushes — typically with animal bristles — for color applications and linework. Notably, Nihonga materials were historically prominent in Japanese art yet often very challenging to use, as mastering them often requires years of practice.
How does traditional Japanese painting borrow from Chinese styles?
In the sixth century, Chinese Zen monks and Buddhist religious figures introduced Japan to ink sticks and bamboo-handled brushes. Chinese religious painters used these tools to create “ink pictures” that are at once easy on the eye yet technically complex when you look closely.
Several traditional Japanese paintings, such as Kano Motonobu’s ‘Birds and Flowers’ series from the 16th century, embody this influence. Although the scenes are spare — a bird or two, and a prominent but not dominant plant — vivid linework forms each figure. Traditional Japanese paintings of religious figures in practice more explicitly show the gentle linework and sparse brushstrokes that stem from Chinese influences.
Zen painting in Japan
In the early Kanō paintings, Kano Masanobu borrowed from the Chinese styles found in the art of powerful contemporary Zen temples. Additionally, you can trace the ink-wash landscapes common in traditional Japanese painting all the way back to the Chinese literati movement, which spanned the 7th to 20th centuries. This movement emphasized personal expression and learning over superficial artistic beauty.
Later, 16th-century Chinese art began to impact traditional Japanese styles.
You can also compare and contrast Japanese art with and without Chinese influence to easily observe the impact of Chinese styles on traditional Japanese painting. The yamato-e style exemplifies this perfectly since it emerged during an era of minimal Japanese interaction with China. Motifs associated with Japan’s changing seasons, as well as Japanese history and literature, mark this style. Natural renderings of locations within Japan are also hallmarks of yamato-e paintings. These features are notably lacking in Chinese influence.
Ukiyo-e painting and Japanese art prints
In the 17th through 19th centuries, the Japanese artform “ukiyo-e” emerged. Though not explicitly a traditional Japanese painting style but instead a form of printmaking, it is often discussed alongside traditional Japanese painting. In particular, much is made of how artists within this art genre used woodblock printing.
The ukiyo-e style promoted the fashion, beauty ideals, and public heroes of the Japanese Edo period, which ran from 1603 to 1868. Originally, the term “ukiyo” — borrowed from Buddhism — was all about the transitory elements of life. At the outset of the Edo period, though, the term “ukiyo-e” grew to encompass everyday indulgences and pleasure.
Often, artists working in the ukiyo-e style created woodblock prints and paintings that depicted kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, and women who embody Japanese beauty ideals. Other ukiyo-e works focused on historical scenes and folk-tale imagery. Others still depicted landscapes and travel scenes, as well as flora and fauna, with erotica on display in certain works.
Many original ukiyo-e artworks have been lost to history, though their images can be seen online. You can nevertheless find some ukiyo-e originals in museums or private collections, or you can buy them at in-person or online art auctions.
The impact of the Meiji period on Japanese painting
During the Meiji period of 1868 to 1912, when the emperor of Japan came to power, the country’s prolonged period of artistic isolation ended. As a result, Japan was exposed to Western culture and ideas for the first time in a whopping two and a half centuries. The result was a divide between two schools — one adhering to traditional Japanese values and another exploring all the new possibilities of Western approaches.
Initially, the school drawn to Western values dominated. A shift in Japanese painting resulted, leading to “yōga,” which translates to “Western-style painting.” In this style, painters use Western techniques, materials, and artistic conventions while still focusing on traditional Japanese themes, subjects, and landscapes. For this reason, the yōga style is not always considered part of traditional Japanese painting.
Simultaneously, the “Nihonga” style emerged. Traditionalists used this term to distinguish their work from the new, Western-influenced styles of the yōga movement. You can look at a Meiji-period Nihonga painting next to a contemporary yōga painting to easily see the difference between the styles.
For example, Uemura Shōen’s Nihonga paintings and prints fall in line with Japanese tradition. So exemplary were they of a certain kind of Japanese style that many of his works were posthumously employed by JAL (Japanese Air Lines) for their marketing campaigns, taking Shōen’s portrayal of Japan to the international stage in the 1960s. The sharp linework and bright pigments of the women’s garments evoke the centuries of traditional Japanese painting that preceded the Meiji period. By contrast, there’s a clear Western perspective in Kuroda Seiki’s 1893 yōga painting ‘Maiko (apprentice geisha),’ yet the geisha pictured is a traditional Japanese theme. The materials, techniques, and colors all resemble European art, but the subject matter is clearly Japanese.
The legacy of traditional Japanese painting lives on
Although the era of traditional Japanese painting has passed, the movement’s paintings remain prevalent in art museums and esteemed among collectors. The immediate beauty and subtle technical complexity of traditional Japanese works have secured their legacy in art history. The emotions these works evoke are as strong today as they were in contemporary times — the mark of unforgettable art.