Nihonga Japanese Watercolour: Preparation

Today I went to my painting classes for the first time in ages. We learned the techniques of traditional Japanese watercolour painting, otherwise known as Nihonga, from Sugawara-sensei. He gave us all a small frame of Japanese paper which resembles a canvas frame except it is paper instead of canvas.

In addition, we were provided with materials including a myriad of powdered colour pigments to choose from, all individually packed in plastic ziplock bags. They can also come in little pots when you buy them. Apparently you cannot blend the colours like you can with other painting media. The main reason for this is that the pigments are purely made from natural products such as minerals, shells, corals and even semi-precious stones (!) and if mixed will merely separate rather than merge.

Now I had no idea a lot of preparation went to Nihonga! Did you know you firstly need to prime the paper? We have to brush two thin layers with gofun, a special natural substance of calcium carbonate derived from cured shells such as oysters, clams or scallops. It’s like gesso except it’s all natural and milky rather than gooey. In today’s class, we learned to create one from scratch.

First we take a teaspoon of powder and in a dish combine it with an animal-derived gelatin substance called nikawa. We then knead it all up till it gives a dough-like feel and then we pound it “a hundred times” so the substances will settle. Next we roll it up and add water, let stand for a minute and rinse out to get the impurities out, We add more water in the end till it liquifies to a milky consistency. Now ready to use!

After priming our framed paper with two thin even layers of this Gofun, we let it dry and now we are ready to paint away. I shall be writing more about that in the next blog so watch this space!


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