Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Sarasa Creative Flood in the Kitchen

Eri and I are still getting together on Mondays to research sarasa stencil techniques. We are broadsiding the entire subject.We are getting better at making the pigment lakes. (Boiling the roots and barks and flowers etc, and mordant them with themselves, neutralizing the acid with ash alkaline and filtering the bath to get pure pigment.)We finished off filtering and started to use a great batch of rose madder lake that we started last week. Figuring out the techniques by looking at old samples makes the wheels turn. There are woodblock techniques, metal stamp as well as stencil techniques from India, Indonesia and Japan. It is a real headfull just to grasp the historic aspect never mind the techniques and evolution of designs.   We have to time travel back a few hundred years. I don't get far..things are pretty blurry without a lot of time period television dramas to fill in the details.

Today my teacher motivation/inspiration for student inspiration/motivation was a tad convoluted. Let me start with a quote from the catalogue from the stencil dye exhibition I went to last month.

"In the mid-nineteenth century Britain, the art production industry reaped the technological benefits from the Industrial Revolution and underwent an unprecedented growth as members of the gradually expanding middle class began to decorate their homes with an abundance  of wallpaper, tablecloths, furniture, ceramics, candlesticks, and other decorative goods. During the 1851 Great Exhibition held in London, however, it became clear how poor the the world of British design really was.

The following year, The Museum of Manufactures opened in London with the goal of promoting the aesthetic education of workers and ordinary citizens.  (Later the museum  was renamed the South Kensington Museum, and today, it is known as the Victoria and Albert Museum.) The quest to improve British design had begun, and for inspiration, it turned to samples, shapes and patterns from European history and from other non-Western nations.

It was about this time that Japanese design was first introduced to Britain.

The British eventually came to believe that life must have reached an unusually artistic level in Japan, given the abundance of Japanese objects that were both practical and artistic. It became chic and fashionable in Britain to to surround oneself by imports from Japan and items crafted in the Japanese style, and this helped to give rise to the aesthetic inclinations of the era."

There was something really wrong with and a lot missing in the 'items crafted in the Japanese style' at the exhibition. Here I would like to mention that the lines found in the European made stencils and floral and geometric patterns were a different quality to those Japanese.  Japanese did not use pens or pencils. They used ink and brushes. The quality of the lines and the motifs themselves had come from a different well.

Ink is ground on an ink stone. Water is dripped in from a suiteki and the charcoal stick is rubbed back and forth. The smell of the pine charcoal is divine. The brush strokes themselves are often used to make the entire shape of the mountain, leaf, flower petal or crane. The pressure exerted on the brush and how much water and ink is loaded and swiftness and direction of stroke makes for a heck of a lot to think about. Ink painting coupled with brush calligraphy truly created a refined sensibility to the expression of line.  Much has been written on the connection of Japanese Zen and the skill of ink, paper and brush. I studied ink painting for several years when I first moved to Japan. This was my first eye opener to Japanese art.

Teaching katazome the past few years I tried to avoid the dead looking stencils that are common these days. Competing with silk screen and machines the motifs tend to be perfect and soulless. I got around the stilted stencil syndrome by the tracing the shadows of leaves techniques. This technique works well for students who claim not  to be able to draw. First timers get fine results.

 Geometric repeating patterns were not coming out as good as they could. Explanations of how our right brains differ from our left brains and how it is absolutely impossible to work out a harmonious and attractive pattern when even a smidgen of our left brain is active while drawing did improve the students ability to find weaknesses in patterns and even remedy them to an extent. There is plenty of room for improvement.

Still looking for an effective way for students to make beautiful stencils the importance of the brush in Japanese art made me dig out some sleeping ink stones and have the students think about the role the brush played in motif design and try out some good old fashioned brushes and ink on beautiful Japanese Washi.

Four of us have carved out our version of the geometric pattern on the Katagami Style exhibition flier.

 I split the pattern into two stencils in order to use two separate colors. The results were not bad. But there is something trifling still and clumsy with the outcome. I'll try to cut out the stencil a second time but 30% finer.

(Eri cut even finer than the teacher. )

This morning a catalogue from an exclusive pottery shop in Tokyo arrived in the post. There are about 50 items in this weeks exhibition. Cups and bowls and vases and small dishes. Some are very old and some are from the 1950s and 60's. The prices start at 350 000 yen and skyrocket to 8 500 000 yen.($4000 to $90 000). Yes... you can buy a very good luxury car for the same price as a small dish. One particular dish was made by Tomimoto Kenkichi.

8 500 000 yen for this plate.

Looking carefully at the above plate we could make out that he had used some sort of stencil to resist the white and then paint on the red background. The finishing touches of the blue and black crosses were painted on by hand in subsequent firings. He had started with a brush and ink when designing the pattern.

Inspiration comes from sudden and disconnected sources. Here is a jump...

Something else red and repetitive was on my mind after watching this scene in the movie, "Across the Universe" yesterday.  The top link is filled disturbing scenes of an artist freshly dumped by his girlfriend singing, 'Strawberry Fields Forever' as he goes bananas pinning strawberries to the wall and then painting them while montages of his friend in Vietnam singing the same song as napalm drops and then strawberry bombs drop... (skip it if you aren't in the mood for it.)

This second clip from the same movie had me singing, 'Dear Prudence' all day long while we painted with ink and cut the stencils and then dyed them. Strange combination of inspiration. The red plate and to scenes from a well...."I saw a film today oh boy"...kind of movie.

You know what it is like when inspiration waves over you. The studio is going to get really messy...really quick... Like his strawberry smushed studio the kitchen looked like a few bombs hit it yesterday as we went on a rampage with sarasa research.

It is hard to hold an inspiration for any length of time. Especially if it is a scattered hybrid one like this one. (An insanely expensive hand painted dish, a broken-hearted angst-filled artist stuck in a Hollywood faux-Beatles flick , and a small insight into why cross cultural katazome stencils sometimes don't really work because of culturally specific traditional writing instruments.)  Singing the song helped me hold it. (Even through making lunch for students and the long process of soaking the cloth in soy bean milk and mordenting it, making fresh ink and then ink drawing a crane motif, transferring it to a persimmon paper, cutting it out, repeating the pattern, heating the rose madder lake and brushing it on and steaming it and then pasting it and dipping it in the indigo five times.... )The rainy season is here and it needs a little energy to fight off the sticky blues. "The sun is up, the sky is blue, it's beautiful and so are you, Dear Prudence...won't you come out to play....."was the glue that stuck them together today.

Using an ink stone and a piece of charcoal to make ink and then practicing on washi to make simple brushstroke, almost calligraphic shapes and then use them as a repeating patterns. It worked. Red and amber cranes with an indigo background. Natural home made pigments on hand-woven linen. All these techniques and styles we are working out will one day be used on larger projects. For the time being we work on small stuff like this narrow width linen. The translating of old texts, the cloth preparation and the pigment making and stencil design and cutting take up a lot of time. A lot of grind....it was great some fresh air moved in for once.


  1. Oh, Bryan, how stimulating being your student and exploring all this!
    The research and study of stencils, the preparation of pigments, the brush strokes: there is enough matter for an 'Advanced Japanese Textile Tour'. Please.

    1. Blandina san, it will take a few years to be proficient enough to tackle teaching a sarasa course. The ideas for one are turning in my head though.

  2. onesmallstitch20 June 2012 at 03:49

    that's "a heck of a lot to think about" - wish I could space travel to sit in on the processes. the cranes and woven linen are breathtaking.

    1. Jean san,
      It is like the centipede who can't move when he actually thinks about which foot to move. That is why Japanese (and Chinese) practice the same ink painting a thousand times over and over. The body remembers what is going on. The expression comes with technical mastery. Like playing an instrument I suppose. There are naturals out there who just pick up the brush and go. (envy)

  3. what i like so much here bryan is that journey you AND your student(s) take. and that piece of linen is absolutely sublime. i really love the simple shape/repeat. and who knows how/why images and music mix with hand process...but i made an edition of simple books once and listened to one record endlessly throughout. i know those songs intimately.

  4. I love the way you tackle something"new". That piece of linen is gorgeous,, with such simple repeat patterning. It is difficult to keep in mind the amount of hard work involved in getting it to that stage. How I wish I was a fly on the wall.

  5. I really love the soft offset of the patterns.

    I've just got to come visit one of these days!