Introduction to Nihonga

Nihonga literally means “Japanese painting.” The term was coined in the Meiji era in 19th century.  Toward the end of the Edo period (1603-1867), when oil painting first became familiar in Japan, it was called “Western painting” (seiyō-ga), and the corresponding term—Nihonga—came into use to distinguish the two.

But in its more restricted sense, Nihonga refers to paintings done with specific methods using Japanese dry pigments, which are mixed with a binding solution called nikawa, a glue derived from animal protein. This more specific meaning of Nihonga refers to a traditional genre of painting distinct from monochrome sumi-e (suibokuga), as well as ukiyoe paintings.

There are two types of pigments—Iwaenogu and Suihienogu. Iwaenogu is made from minerals, and Suihienogu is made from plants, insects, clay, and other organic materials. Both types of pigments are mixed with a solution of nikawa. The resulting mixture is painted usually on paper or silk. Iwaenogu is further classified on a scale of 1 to 13 according to the size of the particle after it is ground. The largest particles produce the deepest colors (high saturation, low luminosity), and the finest make the lightest (low saturation, high luminosity.)

In modern times, both oil paints and water colors are sold in tubes, premixed with a binding agent, although in the past an artist would have mixed his or her own paints. In contrast, for Nihonga, even now the artist mixes the pigments for each color. This is done in order to precisely control the nature of the color and to make the finished painting durable.

Pigments of identical particle size will appear differently depending on the consistency of the nikawa. Furthermore, if the nikawa is not precisely adjusted depending on the process, it can affect the color of the finished painting, as well as lead to flaking or cracking.

The process of deciding the consistency of the nikawa is entrusted to the experience of the artist, and every artist develops subtly different and singular styles depending on the choices they make while painting.

Although similar dry pigments are used in the world, there are differences. The same natural pigments will come out differently depending on the climate, the terroir of the mineral or plant, the binder used, the canvas or paper or wood to which colors are applied, the way the painting ages, and of course the cultural background of the artist. In Japan, an artist’s sensibility has been nurtured in a climate blessed with four distinct seasons in a landscape rich in greenery and water. The traditional elements of Nihonga—natural pigments mixed with nikawa—aim to express the beauty drawn from this aesthetic consciousness.

In our modern information-based society, our eyes can see all the colors and shapes of the world, and study many different cultures and their values. In a time when man-made colors are readily available in dazzling array, contemporary Nihonga artists sometimes experiment with non-traditional ingredients into paints, and sometimes utilize canvas and other fabrics instead of paper and silk.

With so much experimentation and variation, it has become difficult to pin down a precise definition of contemporary Nihonga, However, by learning various Nihonga in the context of Japanese art history, one might find Japanese aesthetic, artistic values, and color sensibilities embodied in the Nihonga.

©2000 Fumiyo Yoshikawa, 2002 Revised