Discussing My Urushi-e

Discussing My Urushi-e

Message from Taiwa Matsuoka
Reprinted from “Imperial Craft Art, Vol. 8, No. 11” (published in December 1934)

 Many people look into craft works when Urushi is mentioned, and the perception hasn’t changed much since the old days to the present. I studied ink brush painting in order to obtain painting effects with Urushi, but I ended up utilizing Urushi craft techniques. I used diluted Urushi to be handled like ink in order to draw monochrome paintings. I used silk and paper to draw on in order to create works that would be considered art, but there was no comparison to the effect that inkbrush painting could produce.

For a while, in my younger years, I studied oil painting and sketching in order to become a “Western” artist. Through such efforts, I gained recognition at the Nika contests and continued to gage my oil paintings against those of others. In a humid climate like that of Japan, it is extremely difficult to preserve oil paintings from becoming moldy. It is inevitable that artworks are eventually destroyed due to this condition. In addition, the impurity of colorant causes color change and discoloration, and the lifespan of an oil-painted artwork is certainly less than a century. When I realized this, I was convinced that oil painting was not the life work of a fine artist.

 Meanwhile, my passion for Urushi had grown more intense day by day, and I felt that the aroma and color of Urushi had penetrated deep within my soul. Today I have already been involved in Urushi art for more than a decade. Throughout the five-year period during which I studied sculpture at the Art School in Ueno, I also audited theory classes in the Urushi Art Department. In addition, I studied Urushi techniques from Urushi artists at their studios and absorbed the theories and techniques of Urushi while continuing to study colored Urushi (Urushi Artwork) on my own.

 Around those years, the excavations of Rakuro on the Korean peninsula astounded the general public. Two-thousand-year-old Urushi craft arts buried in the earth had been uncovered, and their original shapes remained intact. This event solidified my decision to concentrate on my creative work with Urushi-e, without a doubt in my mind.

 Due to its characteristics, it is difficult to use saishitsu for Eastern-style artwork, but by contrast, the oil-painting techniques are somewhat suitable. With its characteristics in mind, specific techniques must be applied when working on Urushi-e. That is, should an Urushi-e be created as genuine fine art instead of a sprinkled picture decoration—like maki-e, or armorial bearing as in litharge painting–I needed to be able to handle saishitsu freely as a medium of my own. Then, having made such an accomplishment, I finally discovered my course in Urushi-e as decorative paintings with symbolic style, resulting from a strictly naturalistic approach.

 Although Urushi isn’t readily available in the countries of the West, more people have been using Urushi imported from Asia. Looking at saishitsu fine artists in various countries, the world of saishitsu fine arts may become more diversified. I was born in Japan, which is known globally for its leading Urushi technologies, and my mission has been to promote such refined art. Given that mission, I came to doubt my direction in devoting such grueling effort to oil painting, which is quite difficult in the Japanese climate. I am convinced that Urushi-e has great potential to thrive as a specialized art form for the Japanese climate. I am firmly committed to devoting myself as a pioneer in order to pave the way for Urushi-e.

 When pioneering in an unprecedented field, not only do I have to select the suitable colorant but must also pay attention to the base materials used. In oil painting, one can easily obtain oil paints and canvases from an art supply store, squeeze paints from tubes, and mix them on a palette for immediate use. In ink brush painting, high-quality colorants and materials such as paper and silk are readily available for the artist to use. Urushi-e, however, is not in the same league as such luxuries.

It is minute to state the difficulties of obtaining materials or techniques. Urushi-e is not precious because of its novelty value, nor do I consider it superior due to its durability. Only the elegance of the artwork will determine its integrity. I am a fortunate fine artist. After studying all fields of fine arts, I realized that the best course for my work was in enhancing the unique characteristics of Urushi-e and its format. The sixteen pieces displayed at the Kogyo Club could also be expressed as oil paintings. It is even possible to express them as ink brush paintings. Because it is Urushi-e that I love, Urushi-e is the one with which I am most comfortable expressing my heart. It is the effusion of my soul. I have a number of oil-based sketches, and I use oil paintings as rough copies so that I can embed the images into my heart before expressing them. Traditional Japanese decorative art has a firm place in me, so I feel it is important to use such tradition in a new type of Urushi-e.

Until recently, Urushi has been characterized for its black or vermilion color. However, with the recent discovery of white colorant, colored Urushi can now be used freely. This is still rather new to the field.

The discovery of white colorant has in fact enabled Urushi-e itself, as well as the freedom of tones with gradations added to traditional primary ones. This is the breakthrough in saishitsu, by which it will gain its artistic position. The use of lake colorant, which is prone to fading, as a primary material should not be recommended.

The major colors currently in use (which are stable and mineral-based) for mixing into Urushi are red, vermilion, orange, yellow, green, dark blue, brown, silver-gray, black, and white. Adding midnight blue to the list, my color palette is complete. It is easy to create fifty or sixty colors on a palette with these colors. I use Urushi black as a black base, and it adds a unique flavor that no other can create. In addition, numerous materials for saishitsu are available, including metal powders such as gold, silver, tin, and aluminum, and eggshell for pure white. It is the wisdom of the artist to understand the effects of Urushi techniques and how to use them.

Colorant can be mixed into Urushi and packed in a tube for use like oil paint, but one must bear in mind that the natural drying process will be more difficult if you use tubed Urushi. It is a known fact that mixing saishitsu as one paints will bring a better result when dried. On the other hand, such tubed Urushi presents no difficulty when used with the high-temperature hardening process. It is very convenient and less time-consuming, particularly when one needs only a small amount of a particular color that merely requires the squeezing of a tube.

There are two types of drying methods for Urushi: humid temperature drying (under appropriate temperature and humidity), and high-temperature hardening. Most of the artworks at the current exhibit were dried with the high-temperature method using iron or aluminum sheets. That is, Urushi is painted onto the rough surface of a metal sheet to which it can adhere, and is then placed in an electric oven at 212o to 302oF and baked. Within three to six hours the Urushi is hardened, forming an extremely hard layer that adheres firmly to the entire surface of the metal sheet.

When Urushi was used for battle armor in the old days, the baking method was commonly used. At present one uses an electric oven, which also prevents dust from settling, and repeats the process several more times to bake the painting onto the sheet. When coated wood is used, the humid temperature drying method must be used because wood materials do not withstand high heat. There is no significant difference in Urushi color development between the two methods, but it takes at least a full day to dry if a humidified room is used, and often it takes two full days by the time the polishing process takes place. On the other hand, the high-temperature hardening method takes just about three hours to harden without complications, and naturally, this method is more convenient. When using mineral materials in colored Urushi, some will produce subtle color changes. It is essential to make distinctions in using the same color depending on its chemical characteristics when using the high-temperature and humid temperature methods.

The finishing process involves polishing the surface to expose the lower layer of colored Urushi. This is done to attain tones that are closer to those of when the drawing was done. As it ages over the years, Urushi increases its transparency, and the color tones become more vivid. It should be noted, however, that the development of an austere tone as Urushi is dried is a characteristic unique to the medium. It gives a noble elegance and creates a unique surface. Such austere tone created from Urushi’s unique luster gives dark as well as bright colors, creating a one-of-a-kind atmosphere in the painted artwork.

Bright, flamboyant tones can also be obtained to some degree in Urushi-e, but Urushi-e as one of the fine arts should gain its own recognition along with the fields of oil, watercolor, and Japanese inkbrush painting. The future of Urushi-e will be in place as one of the prosperous formats of Japanese fine art.

In addition to the traditional craft art field, the durability of Urushi can be employed in a variety of uses, such as a new style in decorative trends or for coordinated interior decorations for an entire room. Urushi-e can be the most suitable decoration for the cabins of cruise liners and aircraft.

The news that a cruise liner cabin supposedly created by a renowned French Urushi artist Jnan burned down faster than other parts of the boat sounds somewhat strange to the Japanese because the parts that used Urushi could not be set on fire before others, such as parts coated with paint varnish. If the news is accurate, it is obvious that the so-called Urushi was not pure Urushi. If the Urushi was mixed with other materials such as celluloid-based lacquer, it is obvious that an object could easily be ignited by fire. Through our experience, it takes about 20 seconds for a flame to appear when an iron plate coated with Urushi is placed in the kiln at approximately 1,472oF. It is obvious that Urushi, an organic material, has superior heat resistance.

Lastly, I wish to express my sincere appreciation for Mrs. Ambassador Dirksen of Germany. Mrs. Ambassador is the first non-Japanese individual who showed interest in my Urushi-e. I was invited to her tea party, got to know her in person, and was assured of her genuine interest. She came to the first day of my Urushi-e exhibit in order to learn about my artistic style and interests, with a sensible heart to love the serenity and refined courage of Japan. When she found that none of the artworks was for sale she was deeply disappointed but made a special request, so I decided to give one of my favorite artworks as a gift to her in the hope that my artwork would remain in Germany for a long time, as an encouragement for me to make diligent efforts for the art of Urushi in Japan.