Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Principles of design and composition and ukiyo-e

Kinryusan Temple at Asakusa by Ando Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797–1858)
From the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (JP2519)
Oban format, woodblock print; ink and color on paper;
H. 14 1/16 in. (35.7 cm), W. 9 1/2 in. (24.1 cm)

My intention was to do an overview about the principles informing the design of Japanese art and prints - but I'm overwhelmed and becoming aware of how absorbing this project might become!

My new aim is to set down some initial impressions - and I'll revisit this topic again towards the end of this project.

In my reading, I'm finding a lot of space devoted to narrating biography and history and describing images but very little which actually discusses images in terms of pictorial form and construction. the only book which has a detailed discussion is the Japonisme book which has a hefty section. However skim reading convinced me that the various devices highlighted and discussed almost need a post each.

I'm also trying to relate a Japanese way of making pictures to western concepts of what's important in terms of Principles of Design (as discussed in the last project) Again this is more about me finding a way to understand what's going on initially rather than saying the western way of looking at things is best. As we'll see as this project progresses, there's an awful lot of western art which adopted conventions which originated in the East.

This was a particularly illuminating passage for me - found in Japanese Prints by Gabriele Fahr-Becker
Academic art theory in the West had established a study of nature which, with the help of classical schemata, sought to render the world as a body in space by means of light and shade.......In the East, by contrast, the eye and hand were schooled by copying models in which the pictorial experience of centuries was distilled to extreme levels of concentration. The rules, however, aimed not the external imitation of sterotypes, but at developing a feeling for the animated brush stroke, which in its organically controlled process, was required to reflect the original being copied. In the process the eye inspects not only the shape of the lines which together go to make up a blossom, a wave, a fold or a hand, but also and with the same attention, the intervening spaces, or rather, the emptiness inbetween. It is this emptiness which determines the rhythm of the drawing and the tension in the pictorial plane. The lines are drawn briskly. As there is no way of correcting the ink drawing, the pupil has to learn to master his repertoire of brush-strokes so that the result was right first time.
Japanese Prints (page 28)
So here are some initial impressions - accompanied by some images which reflect points being made. Remember I'm not an expert - this is documenting my journey of discovery. [This may be updated as I progress in order to keep a record of things to remember!]

  • images are often asymmetrical eg large empty spaces balance small areas of concentrated details
  • truncated objects are often more important than those which are wholly visible (the eye wants to work out what is 'hidden' from view
  • Key motifs apparently dominate drawings due to the simplification/elimination of backgrounds (eg. see image at the top)
  • drawings often work in reverse - rather than being very busy, they are often very simple. Drawing techniques are used to simplify and render subjects with minimal mark-making
  • Drawings 'work' in monochrome - and flat colour is used to heighten areas of emphasis
  • Design often 'frames' a view
    • a dramatic and close cropped item in the foreground is set against a distant view
    • views through windows and doors - sometimes giving a sense of 'peeking'
    • objects sometimes break out of a 'drawn' picture plane
  • Simple colour schemes often have a bold but harmonious impact
  • We need to remember we're often not seeing prints as originally produced. Many were produced in sets and series and the harmonies which were constructed were intended to have most impact within the set
    • examples of diptychs and triptychs are useful examples of this in miniature (these also remind us that the screen and the fan were important items in a Japanese household and people were used to only seeing part of a picture - and it then unfolding. The nearest equivalent in the west is the religious icon and altarpiece.

Children at Play Image 2
(Shinpan: Kodomo no asobi), ca. 1875.
Album of color woodblock-prints, 17 in. x 11 in.
Library of Congress Asian Division
(46)(LC-USZC4-8739, 8740, 8741, 8742)
  • there is a culture of movement.
    • people are often portrayed doing something - often routine and everyday - the image on the right is a little unusual!
    • The potential for a very static picture of line and flat colour is counterbalanced by the nature of the subject matter.
    • Hiroshige is famed for producing series of 'moving pictures' which demonstrate dynamic progression.
  • the graphic line can produce a strong sense of movement - diagonal lines can be very dominant.
  • Important motifs in a picture (eg waves) can be reduced to a symbolic pattern
  • Lots of patterns are often used together and juxtaposed to 'explain' shapes which is important given the lack of values for explaining form and depth
  • Pattern is frequently adjacent to areas of flat colour and calm.
  • The trellis motif is often used in drawings
  • Compositions are typically represented in one plane and perspective (as understood in the West) is not considered important until art from the West begins to influence Japan
  • Motifs are not always scaled accurately. Dominant motifs may appear larger than in real life. Beauties may be tall and willowy.
the proportions of figures are often purely arbitrary, both to one another and to the surroundings in which they may be placed, their size being governed by their importance in the general composition.....Whether this was the deliberate intention of the artist, or whether it was a point little considered-perhaps ignored altogether-cannot be stated for certain.
A Guide to Japanese Prints by Basil Stewart (Chapter VIII Characteristics of Japanese Drawing)
  • form is not represented except through line and cast shadows are not considered worth drawing
  • for me, the rhythm can all be found in the nature of the line and how that works with other lines
  • Many designs are meant to be metaphorical and contain images which have meaning in Japanese life. Thus an image may be connected to a wider culture of meaning.
  • many pictures promote unity through
    • repetition of similar shapes
    • a limited palette and/or use of analogous colours
    • consistency in the the stylisation of motifs throughout the picture plane.
  • Although artists draw and the prints show the same motifs over and over again, it's very rare to find images which repeat. In fact, one can be amazed at just how many different ways it is possible to represent, foir example, Mount Fuji!
The next posts are going to involve a report back from a seminar I went to at the National Gallery plus I think I'll do something about the actual printing process next.



  1. Thank you for working out this further "entry" into the world of japanese printmaking. This post is certainly not for quick consumption and provides excellent resources for one´s own studies on the subject.

  2. Glad you're finding it helpful Martin - I'm finding it hard work! I'm now going to have a little break and see whether it all sinks in and takes up residence in my brain cells! :)


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