Tuesday 25 October 2016

The Permanence of Japanese Pigments (1928)

Below an extract from a biographical sketch of Chiura Obata (1885-1975), a well known Japanese-American artist and art teacher, from California Art Research  Volume 20 Part 2 (1936), edited by Gene Hailey. (HERE)

Gene Hailey art critic, in an interview with Obata, learned from him many secrets of the methods employed to make Japanese paintings on silk. Miss Hailey writes in the Argus of May 1928, under the title, The Permanence of Japanese Pigments:

Peace and permanence are spiritual ingredients of the Oriental traditions. The sense of permanence is always subject to disaster but the good sense of the artist who grinds the plants and pigments used in the Orient is always founded upon the calm facts of some survival of works of art made in centuries past. The formula for paint pigments and mixtures is as settled as the formula reciting reactions to nature in either picture or poem. The Japanese and Chinese, and many Asiatic and Indian artists, are sure scientists in the matter of chemical make-up of paints and mediums.

Japanese white of the utmost permanence is made from oyster shells. The thickest shells are selected and buried for about one year, then taken out and water poured over them in a steady stream for another year, to whiten them even more. Then the nicest shells are ground and sifted one hundred times through trays of screening. The last and finest powder is never discolored or changed by sunlight directly upon it. Each artist mixes his own powder in a cup, molds it to the consistency of dough and pounds it one hundred times, then fills the cup with water and lets it boil one. minute to purify and rid it of certain chemicals. Each artist gauges the thickness of his paint to the type of stroke he plans to use, or habitually uses, and mixes his paint accordingly. The white paint is beautifully transparent when mixed with other paints.

Blue is ground into twenty different shades equally permanent, all of them from semi-precious jewels,such as lapis lazuli, turquoise and others.

Green is found in thirty shades, made from the peacock stone, a blue green which is laboriously separated into blue or green by the water process. Agate, coral and amber are all used in Japanese painting powder. White-gold, green- gold, platinum and silver powder are also used in pictorial decorations and screen designs.

Yellow is also made from natural color found in stones. Red, in pure Vermillion shade is quick-silver burned. Orange-vermillion is lead treated chemically. Pink is the hardest color to make permanent. It is done, however, by a secret process of steaming the stems of certain high-altitude flowers found on Fujiyama. Prussian blue, a blackish blue, is the leaves of a vegetable.

Black is a smoke from an oil, slowly burned by a secret process. This process was perfected about twenty-five years ago by Baisen Suzuki, a wealthy Japanese recluse who gave forty-five years of his life to research. He believed that he could find a better black than the Chinese black of those times. His wife deserted him and he devoted the rest of his days to trials and tests with black pigments. He lived in a distant place in the mountains and did not return to the city until he had achieved his end — a permanent and blacker black.
The article then gives this interesting story of the silk and brushes as used by Japanese artists:
The silk used for Japanese paintings is selected from the first spring threads of the best silk-worms. These threads are expertly woven by hand with five shuttles. The result is a very expensive surface to paint upon. The silk for.painting about eight feet by five costs today more than $100. The silk is stretched with rice paste which the artist mixes himself. Then the silk is washed with warm water over the whole surface with a big Japanese brush, which is very thin and flat. The handle is bamboo and the hairs are a mixture of rabbit and fox. The sturdy winter hairs are always chosen. The whole family of furry animals is liable to contribution to Japanese brushes. Deer, bear, rabbit, badger fox and cat are used in the brushes for different characters of stroke.