Forge an Old Master: The Japanese Art of Ukiyo-e



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When I first started getting really serious about art, I learned a lot about drawing and painting by copying classical woodcuts from Japan. I’m going to show you how to do so too and with a bit of luck you’ll produce something to be proud of – you might even surprise yourself. I’ve taught these tutorials in classes to adults and children as young as eight years old, and they have all improved their skills in watercolour in the process. The lesson is accessible to anyone who can follow a set of simple instructions. Of course, we’re not actually going to forge an Old Master – it’s a lesson, but I think you’ll enjoy it. At the end of this article, you can purchase the extensive lesson to make a set of 3 watercolours. I’d like to continue the theme and introduce more “Forge an Old Master” exercises. Feel free to make your own suggestions, and please vote for the next one at the end of this article, to help me choose the next lesson to devise.

The truth is I cut my teeth on the Japanese art of Ukiyo-e when I was a teenager. In copying them willy-nilly I learned a lot about drawing accurately, and mixing paint well. Sure, those early attempts were in gouache as opposed to watercolour, but a lot of the principles were common to both. Ukiyo-e means “pictures of the floating world”, but finding out what it meant in English didn’t enlighten me much – what’s a floating world? Now I know it’s not that different from what I and countless others do as urban sketchers. We draw the floating world too – the world that floats by before our eyes. Thirty years ago I had no idea that I would one day draw the floating world as an urban sketcher – all I knew was that I loved these prints.

Ukiyo-e prints were popular in Japan from the 17th to the 19th centuries, until they gave way in popularity to photography. When they reached France, lots of cutting-edge painters were as enchanted as I was and made lots of paintings inspired by them. Painters such as Mary Cassat, Edgar Degas and Vincent Van Gogh painted in the style of Ukiyo-e. For their part, Japanese artists were developing painting styles hitherto popular in Europe.

The first images that I copied were of beautiful women looking into mirrors. Nowadays, mirrors are still one of my favourite things to draw. I also love the delicate and intricate patterns on the women’s kimonos, their hair pins and elaborate coiffures and their delicate hands. I have a vague long-term aim to paint women in kimonos and that has to have been inspired by my early experience with Ukiyo-e prints. I must have taken to making those early forgeries pretty strongly, as I recall giving my painted imitations as gifts to lots of friends. One of my earlier attempts was a pencil drawing on a card for my father’s fiftieth birthday, and he’ll be eighty-one this year…so I’ve been drawing them for a while. Not too long ago an old school friend and I were in touch. She showed me two Ukiyo-e paintings that I’d given her as a wedding present. I had no recollection of this, even when she sent me photos of them, but I put that down partly to the fact that I was extremely scattered in those days, and partly to the fact that my memory isn’t what it used to be. Those paintings just floated on by…

The years did too, and I nearly forgot about my teenage passion for Ukiyo-e prints. Then a couple of years ago I had occasion to stay in a really special B&B in Tenterden, Kent, called Little Dane Court, when my family and I went to visit my in-laws. It’s run by a Scotsman who has a close connection with Japan, and he has the most exquisite collection of prints on the walls. One of them looked familiar. I realised with a flash of recognition that it was one I had painted all those years ago. All of a sudden I longed to copy those prints again. This is my own version of that print, of a woman looking at herself in a mirror:

Forge an Old Master: Ukeyo-e mirror portrait, watercolour by Roisin Cure
It’s by Utamaro (1753-1806) who is one of my favourite Ukiyo-e artists. He painted lots of beautiful women, especially close-up. Here is another that I liked, again of a woman admiring herself. I love the soft coral colour of her kimono, and those stripes…

Forge an Old Master: Utamaro portrait, watercolour by Roisin Cure
and here’s one of a woman drying herself with a towel, which I liked for its simplicity:

Forge an Old Master: Utamaro towel, watercolour by Roisin Cure
Drawing the patterns on the kimonos puts me in mind of carefully colouring in picture books as a child. I find those black lines with a brush pen very satisfying to draw. I love using my brush pen in any situation, but it’s particularly suited to copies of Ukiyo-e prints. The images range from quite complex to utterly simple. Here’s one that caught my eye, of an old crone patting the belly of an expectant mother –

Forge an Old Master: Hiroshige, watercolour by Roisin Cure
Sadly I didn’t catch the perfect curve of the younger woman’s belly as well as I might have, but hopefully I’ll do a better job next time. I found the image in a magazine on Hokusai, which was a special supplement to Le Figaro that I bought while on holiday in France. It was a very comprehensive piece on the life and works of Hokusai (1760-1849) and if I was a little more scholarly I would sit down and read it properly. But while my French is fine for most situations, I appear to feel a sort of weighty classroom vibe when I try to read something academic in French…my loss. However, it did occur to me that the work of Hokusai puts me in mind of some of the best urban sketchers of today: deceptively simple scenes of people going about their everyday business are drawn with consummate skill.

On the flight home from that trip to France I used sketching as a means to distract me from thoughts of being all alone in the sky in a tiny metal vehicle, as I always do. I chose a complex drawing by Hokusai to copy – the more complex, the better to distract me. All was going well until the altitude made my pen leak. The poor lady on the left never saw that blob of black coming. It’s a very rough drawing but it served its purpose perfectly well, and before I knew it the plane had landed in Dublin.

Forge an Old Master: Ryanair Hokusai, watercolour by Roisin Cure
I always paint cards when my kids’ birthdays come around. Sometimes it’s the night before by the time I get around to it, and I often end up stumped for an idea of what to paint. I’ve discovered that Ukiyo-e prints always give me inspiration. This is a Kabuki actor I painted when my son turned 13, and there’s a meme that he had found funny a few days earlier in the background that isn’t in this picture. But discovering Ukiyo-e prints of kabuki actors has provided me with a rich seam of images – and as a bonus, they often have patterns on their faces that are great to copy.

Paddy card, watercolour by Roisin Cure
Now that I think of it, the passionate relationship I have with my brush pen is a direct result of my experience of Ukiyo-e. Looking at some of my work, the influence of the simple shapes and bold line of Ukiyo-e is clear. Even when I use a fountain pen rather than a brush pen, I’m drawn to subjects which have their roots somewhere deep in my teenage experience of Ukiyo-e, like this sketch of a mirror in my home that I did:

Mirror and Beams, watercolour by Roisin Cure
But I keep coming back to copying the original prints as a nice way to spend a few hours. I wondered if others would find the same quiet contemplation in copying Old Masters that I do, so I thought I’d construct a tutorial based on some of the lovely woodblock prints that I’ve shown here. There’s a lot to be learned from copying these and other Old Masters, even though a lot of them were not painted in watercolour, or even painted at all, as is the case with these prints. But in copying them you’ll learn how to mix colours, how to copy a line with accuracy, how to handle the various properties of watercolour – all valuable things you need to know anyway when you’re painting “for real” in the field. So I’m offering two tutorials, based on three of the woodblock prints introduced here. The first contains instructions, plus one full project on “forging” your very own Utamaro. The second is an extended version of the first – it offers you everything in the first, but with two more projects so that you can take your new knowledge further, and end up with a set of three paintings that will look fine as a set. I’ve used the pictures of women looking in the mirror and the woman drying herself with a towel as subjects, for their aesthetic quality and their accessibility.

I should add that I’ve done these same lessons with children and although I do help them a lot (my aim is always, first and foremost, to get them to produce something of which they are proud) you would be amazed what they can achieve on their own. Sometimes a child has trouble reproducing a line in the correct orientation, or applying paint in the correct way – or both – but by and large children as young as eight produce paintings that are very similar to those which I or any other adult produces. So take the plunge and present these tutorials to children if you’re in that arena – and please let me know how you get on.

Here’s a slightly more complex picture of a woman stretching, by Utamaro. I haven’t included it in the tutorial but if you feel like a challenge it’s not a bad one to try. The colours I used are Payne’s Grey, Naples Yellow and Permanent Carmine. It’s amazing how you can get such variety just by mixing those three.

Forge an Old Master: Utamaro stretch, watercolour by Roisin Cure

If you enjoy the tutorial, which can be downloaded below, keep an eye out for the next project which will be quite different in that the artist chosen will be more in the European mode. You can help make the decision about who that should be by voting here:-

We will keep the poll open for a while, so get your friends to vote too by sharing this article.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter , where we will announce the next tutorial of Forge an Old Master and you won’t miss it…and don’t forget that I love to hear your comments – I’ll always try to tailor a tutorial according to what people would like to see.


Download the tutorial here