Friday, August 27, 2010


Nihonga (Japanese-style painting) is an ancient art form based on traditions and techniques over 1000 years old. It is typically executed on washi (Japanese paper) or eginu (silk), using sumi ink or pigments from minerals, shells, corals, and even semi-precious stones like malachite, azurite and cinnabar. The pigments are ground into 16 gradations from fine to sandy grain textures. A hide glue solution, called nikawa, is used as a binder.

Nihonga is known for its delicate washes and pure, luminous color. One specific hallmark is the way in which light is captured and bounces off the edges of the various ground edges of the mineral pigments allowing the various built up layers to play off each other.

This blog represents notes taken during a recent class at Regent College in Vancouver given by Makoto Fujimura, a leading Japanese-American Nihonga painter. It only addresses specific processes and techniques as they might help the individual Nihonga student and is not meant to be a full treatise on the art of Nihonga painting.

Please feel free to use this information as you wish. However these notes are not meant to be published outside this blog except for personal use.

Please feel free to add on to these notes based on your own Nihonga experience and understanding in the comment section. The main goal of this site is to exchange information and learn more about the process and how it's being used.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

10. Sumi Ink

9. Gofun

Gofun (oyster shell white)

Gofun is made from ground oyster shells and has many uses in Nihonga painting. Different kinds of gofun are used as a ground, for under-painting, and as a fine white top color.

  1. You first need to really grind the white powder. We did it for about 10-15 minutes in class.

  2. Mix a little glue with the white oyster shell. First do it with the pestle. You may need to add more glue but be careful to not add too much. You don’t want it soupy. (If you do add too much glue, grind up some more powder to add to the mix.) It will start to make little balls and it will eventually start sticking to the pestle and become hard to mix. (it is very similar to bread for those who make bread)

    *It is good to use fresh glue. The gofun will last longer.

  3. When you can no longer stir it, scoop it up with your hand and form it into a ball and start kneading, picking up as much from the bowl as possible.

  4. Now you begin to pound it or throw it down forcefully in your bowl several times. (similar to making Chinese fish balls). What you are looking for is the ball to feel like your ear-lobe, smooth and slightly moist. This is called the “hundred times” technique because you need to throw the ball many times.

  5. Form into “snakes.” They should be able to be rolled out and not break.

  6. You can let the snakes dry right now and use them later, reconstituting them with a little water. They last pretty long.

  7. Or you can mix the snakes with water right now and begin to use it. This is good for grounds and underpainting

  8. Or if you want a nice bright luminous white, cover the snakes with water and let sit for a little while. At least 20 minutes…can be longer. Some artists let them sit overnight.

  9. Dump the water out and cover with fresh water (just enough water to easily cover the snakes, we were using a little too much water in some of the batches we made in class) and then heat, gently bringing up to a simmer (not a hard boil but hotter than when making the glue). Let it simmer for about 5 minutes.

  10. Take off the heat and let it sit for a few minutes. Now begin mixing it with your finger. Sometimes it feels gritty, keep working it until its nice and soft and without any lumps. Now let it sit a few minutes and the layers will seperate out.

The very top layer looks like thin milk and is the finest translucent white, good for top painting, very luminous. The next layer is the consistency of gouache and is good for more opaque painting. The bottom layer is thicker and a little more chalky looking. It is good for underpainting and grounds.

You can use this for quite awhile. The top silky transparent layer you should use fresh or it will lose some of its transclucency. The other layers can dry out. Then grind it up a little again and reconstitute with a little water and keep using.