Last weekend I attended a workshop at my weekly art class. It was about Nihonga, which is traditional Japanese watercolour painting. To sum up, what makes this so special is that the paints are derived from natural ingredients, as opposed to chemicals. Each individual colour has its own unique composition and consistency, making mixing impossible. We began the session with gluing the washi paper on a small plank of wood.
Sugawara-sensei, our instructor, had already primed the washi paper for us with a special shell-based coating. All we had to do was fix the paper onto the wood using animal-based gelatin and making sure all wrinkles were ironed out. So far so good. But the hard part has yet to come!
We were each initially given two sheets of gold leaf. So delicate and light as air they are that even windows had to be closed, let alone no breathing out or even talking, whilst handling them. We used some bamboo tongs to pick them up, and even that was a challenge as they are so thin. To place the gold leaf on the paper, we first brushed a thin but even layer of the special gelatin glue on the paper and then immediately but carefully picked up the gold leaf and laid it flat on the upper half of the paper before the glue dried whilst ensuring no wrinkling and no edges of the gold leaf folding over!
All was going well. For the first half, I managed perfectly. Must’ve been beginner’s luck! But yikes, for the second half I managed to “drop” the gold leaf as it slipped from the tongs and fell onto the paper folded in the middle and out of place. Nothing you can do about it but remove the loose bits and use another leaf over it. As they are very thin, adding another layer on top is fine as you can’t notice it.
Before painting on the gold, we need to ensure that the leaf is fixed firmly on the paper or else it may rip whilst painting. We took some small firm flat brush and gently ironed out the leaf, and any holes that appeared as a result got mended by filling small bits of gold on top.
Once satisfied, we let the glue beneath dry and chose our drawing. I chose the bottom half of a ukiyoe print and opted for lotus leaves and flowers on the pond. It looked quite Japanese to me and a subject I have never drawn before. Also as we had only 3 hours to finish it, it seemed not too complex to paint. Here, I decided to replace the blue pond with gold. The drawing was carefully traced on the gold-leaf substrate using carbon copy paper.
Now the exciting part begins. Paint away! We discovered though that especially with the sandy-textured pigments, the paints didn’t adhere well to metal. As such we needed to apply the paints thickly and let it dry completely before adding a second coat. The dry paint on the first layer acts like a surface to make the paint stay. And so:
Over time though the gold flaked off on the edges as you can notice. So I decided to continue the painting at today’s lesson and mended the areas with bits of gold leaf left over from the workshop.
And now much better! And to complete the painting, we added our signature on the bottom by using vermillion paint as if it were a stamp typical in Japan.
I must say I’m proud of this piece. The experience has certainly tested and helped trained my patience and precision, both of which I need to work on in my everyday life. For this painting, I am going have it framed and definitely displayed! A reminder of one of the many things I’ve achieved.