Friday, April 11, 2008

Japanese Art - drawing the Chokushi Mon in Kew Gardens #1

coloured pencils in Daler Rowney sketchbook (8.5" x 11.5")
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

We visited the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew this week and I attempted to draw the Japanese Gateway (the Chokushi-Mon) while at the same time trying to remember all the things I'd been learning as part of my Japanese Art Project. This post is about I designed my sketch and the things I now need to do to translate it into a more formal drawing.

Chokushi Mon

Chokushi-Mon (Gateway of the Imperial Messenger) is a replica (four-fifths actual size) of the Karamon of Nishi Hongan-ji in Kyoto.

The replica was created for the Japan-British Exhibition held in London in 1910, and after the exhibition closed, it was dismantled and reconstructed in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. It is the finest example of a traditional Japanese building in Europe.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew - Chokushi-Mon and Japanese Landscape
You can find this Japanese Gateway at the southern end of Kew Gardens, it's located at number 17 on the visitor map. You can find out more about it and the Japanese Landscape Garden which surrounds it here. It's very peaceful - I walked on the stones amongst the stone lanterns in the tea garden and read the haiku chiselled into one of the stones.

Two blog posts for one sketch!

As this sketch is related both to my Japanese Art project and to 'travels with a sketchbook' I'll be writing about it on both blogs - in different ways.
  • On this blog I'm focusing more on the design of the sketch and how it might be changed to try and improve the design for a more formal drawing.
  • On my Travels with a Sketchbook blog, I'll be looking at the lesson it provided about walking around a subject and what sort of material you can get from sketching - and why it's still a good idea to do a thumbnail and take a photo! I'm inclined to think that my thumbnail sketch was maybe a little more successful at rendering the values!
  • I'll include the link here when I've completed that post [Update: Sketching the Japanese Landscape at Kew Gardens]
  • If you want to know more about the sketchbook I used just follow the link to details about the sketchbooks I use on my website.

To start, I'm going to show you the view I actually saw from where I was sitting - see right.

I'm now going to walk you through

  • what I thought at the time - in terms of designing the sketch
  • what I NOW think in terms of what I need to do if I work this up further.
These are the previous Japanese Art project posts which are most relevant to the thought processes:
The view - and the scope it offered for a 'Japanese design'

Design wise, I started off at another vantage point but wasn't entirely happy and started walking around, camera in hand. As soon as I got to the spot I drew from I 'knew' this was 'the view' - in the blink of an eye as it were!

I tried to work out afterwards why I liked this view so much. This is what I've worked out so far:
  • It provides a simpler view in terms of 'stacking the zones' (foreground, middleground, background plus having three key motifs - the tree trunk, the gateway and the flowering cherry)
  • It offered scope for a 'truncated view' of a large object in the foreground which is lopped off in an unusual way ie the trunk of the conifer
  • The gateway and the flowering cherry are subjects which were often featured in Japanese prints.
  • The juxtaposition of these two subjects seemed to work much better from this perspective than from any of the others I had tried. From this view the gateway was decidedly higher which seemed more appropriate.
  • I liked the way that the conifer branches framed the view of the gateway. Features in Japanese drawings are often used to 'frame' a view.
  • Japanese drawings often employ a considerable amount of flat empty space and I wanted to try and create more empty space if I could. I decided the way to do this might be to leave out quite a lot of background greenery - which also seemed to get in the way of 'reading' the scene and to reduce the rest to a flat 'zone' of green.
  • Finally, doing a drawing of Kew fitted well with the habit of Japanese artists who tended to produce a series of drawings of landscapes at different times of the year. I've drawn at Kew on many occasions and will continue to do so - although I maybe ought to make more of an effort in the winter months!
I decided to crop the view for sketching and debated between the portrait and landscape format. My intention was to try and make it as simple as possible.

In executing the sketch, what I found most difficult was the notion of developing a drawing in terms of flat colour and without any shading to denote form. In translating the sketch to a drawing I think that might be the part I struggle most with.

Designing a more formal 'Japanese' landscape drawing

Here are some of the things which I've extracted from my mental 'to do' list as I sat down to write this post.
  • I think the portrait format might offer more scope for a good design and I need to try this out
  • I want to try and work with conventional Japanese paper formats and will be designing within their dimensions - probably around 15" x 10".
  • I'm wondering whether I can get a scroll format out of this (I need to find out what the word is for that!)
  • 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
Principles of design and composition and ukiyo-e
  • I need to work out where the empty space is going to be in the design - and how this might work with an asymmetrical angle to balancing different aspects of the design. I've noticed that the more emphatic the empty space is, the more you focus on the subject of the piece. I think the way forward is to adopt the portrait format and remove the green blur behind the conifer trunk (as I've done in the sketch).
  • Some of the shapes and forms need to be simplified and exaggerated. I need to make sure that the drawing works in monochrome before adding colour
  • I also need to focus more on the graphical line elements and symbolic patterns within the design in order to compensate for the lack of shading in a more formal 'Japanese' drawing.
    • I started to do this through emphasising the markings on the bark of the conifer. Lots of scope to do more here.
    • I still need to work out ways of drawing the conifer needles and the cherry blossom so that they read well and add visual interest. I'm wondering with both whether there is scope to draw with pen and ink to get simple lines and then overlay with colour and then draw into the colour with an eraser to get yet more lines.........we shall see!
  • A simple, clear colour palette needs to be worked out. I also need to think about unity and the scope for using analogous colours! I'm wondering how many colours I can use - and how I can get those colours to be ones I like working with. Simple, bold and harmonious are the words I need to keep at the front of my brain!
  • I'm wondering whether an initial drawing in pen and ink with coloured pencils to provide flat colour might be a possible way forward. It fits well with what I like doing when sketching.
I need to emphasise that I'm not trying to copy in a literal sense what is found in a Japanese woodblock print so much as trying to find a way in which the key elements and principles of their way of designing might work with my natural style.

I'm going to try and design and complete a more formal drawing before the end of this month - and the end of the project.

If anybody would like to to join in with their own development of "a japanese landscape drawing" just leave a note in the comments and I'll come and take a peek - and then. as per usual, reference and link to your work in a wrap-up post.



  1. I really enjoyed following your thought process on this one, Katherine. It was a great revision for what you have already studied and posted about. It must have been a treat, unexpectedly coming upon such a beautiful Japanese subject.

    Very much enjoyed seeing the photos on your other blog but couldn't work out what your compositional problems were.

    I love the way you created your cherry tree out of the negative space here. I haven't got to landscapes yet, still caught up with fish and my first original Japonisme study. Always running to catch up with you.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it Robyn. I could imagine you could some very effective 'Japanese' landscapes out of the Tuscan countryside - you've got all those nice strong shapes with the poplars and the umbrella trees.

  3. This is very instructional and interesting. I am so far behind as you see. Maybe I'll catch up in the summer. :)


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