[twitter-follow username=”roisincure” scheme=”dark” count=”yes”]
When I was a teenager, I stumbled across the beautiful prints of Japan known as Ukiyo-e. I was hooked on sight. I did what I always did when I was inspired by some kind of art – I copied it. All the bedsits and flats I had in my late teens and early twenties had the results of my efforts hanging on the walls, mounted in those glass frames with clips around the edge. In those days, the minute I moved into a flat I painted everything black, from the palettes I used as a bed base to the floorboards under horrible carpets that I lifted and made the landlord take away, to the door I used as a desk. My peers and I couldn’t accept the absolute yuck that was the interior of most student dumps, so we used to drag things from skips and upcycle them. The fake (faux!) prints I did looked great in my little gaffs. Very minimalist, unique – and at a cost of thruppence ha’penny!
They also made lovely gifts for my pals. A few years ago, I received a wonderful message from a school friend, whose wedding I had attended. I had no memory of having been at the wedding, nor of the gift I had brought, but she told me that I had given her two paintings of ladies in kimonos that she still had hanging in her kitchen.
(I was so moved, and we picked up where we’d left off after that. I was reminded of how funny she was.)
I drew countless images. Ukiyo-e means “floating world” and it’s all about a certain aspect of Japanese life of a couple of hundred years ago: mostly prostitutes of some kind or another (there were lots of types); women getting dressed, looking in the mirror, hanging out, fiddling with their hair, going for walks over humpback bridges.
The men are always Kabuki actors, or occasionally Samurais (I’m not sure if they fit into the definition of Ukiyo-e, but I loved them anyway). I was not drawn to copy pictures of waves, or Mount Fuji, or any landscapes with no people in them. I only wanted to draw people: their amazing dresses and robes with beautiful patterns, the elaborate hairstyles, the tiny little peeky eyes, the crazy make-up, the crazy gestures.
In those days, I didn’t own a box of watercolours, just a set of gouache paints. I drew the prints carefully in pencil, then painted them in opaque paint, then put black lines on top with thin brush or something. I still like to copy Ukiyo-e prints, but I do them very fast and I draw them with a Sailor pen, and paint them in watercolour. It’s a great way to flex your creativity muscles, because while you are copying something, you can do what you like with colour and technique.
In this quick lesson I am going to show you what I did with a couple of prints of Kabuki actors. There are countless images online, and while they’ve all been in existence for two hundred years or so, the fact that we can save them with a click is like a gift to anyone wanting to fiddle about with a bit of painting, with something gorgeous to show for it at the end.
In this lesson I will show you in a very simple way the order in which I apply colour (eg. lightest first), and give you some suggestions for how to come up with some ways to paint your own with watercolour. You can download the line drawings included at the end of this article if you feel like making it easy for yourself and trace them, or you can look up your own (just put “kabuki prints” into Google).
You can access this lesson (and at least 11 other lessons and articles) for free if you leave a comment on my website. I simply want to know what sketching topics you want to see me cover. To see how to apply (it’s easy) to be one of 100 people to get this offer, please follow the link here
This is a PREMIUM access article. We use a simple to use web wallet that can be filled up using a credit card, PayPal or with XLM using a secure payment system. Once you have paid, you will have ongoing access to the article from the device (tablet, phone, PC) that you used to pay for it.
You can access the post by topping up your web wallet with 40 stellar lumen tokens (the price of a stellar lumen is currently [price id=”stellar” fiat=”usd”] ) if you haven’t already done so and then making a micropayment of 8 lumens to continue reading this post.
Remember: NO subscription required, NO monthly fees, NO personal information, just a new secure micropayment mechanism for content you want to see.
Here are the two prints I chose:
I chose them for no reason other than that I liked them. I knew I could change the colour if I wanted, so that wasn’t a factor. I just liked them. And I thought there were a couple of things that could be picked up with them in terms of painting. When I teach children how to handle watercolour, I have to find a nice subject for them to copy, something they’ll like. I have found that painting pictures of food with faces hits the spot – google “kawaii food” to see what I mean. I am not going to ask you to do that (although you won’t regret it if you do!) but as I said, there are almost as many Japanese prints online as there are pics of pizza slices with moustaches, cupcakes laughing prettily and paper cups of soda with big smiles.
Welcome to the Playground
Copying a beautiful Japanese print is like messing about in your personal playground.
Some of the watercolour techniques you can learn with these prints are:
– how to use a limited colour palette
– how to identify harmonising colours according to your own taste
– how to get used to different techniques – glazing, wet-on-wet etc.
– observational skills, if you draw them too;
– how to simulate print techniques using mixed media (gel pens etc.)
1. I started with a quick scribble using a Platinum Carbon pen with Lexington Grey ink by Noodlers. This is because the nib is fine enough that it will fade into the background when the image is finished, and the grey isn’t very intrusive.
Why not pencil? Because I want to be forced to place my lines carefully, but with a flourish. You can erase a pencil line so it can end up over worked. We’re only doing a flick of the pen here.
After I did those light lines, I started picking out a nice strong line, using black ink in my Sailor 55-degree nib.
2. Here’s the second guy, on the right, done in the same scribbly, lose technique.
If you don’t want to draw the image, just download the finished line drawing, pop it on your light box and trace it onto some kind of watercolour paper.
3. I go over the two actors in my Sailor. I correct as I go, noticing the balance of my figure is rather skew-whiff. Because the lines are so light and fine underneath, I can draw with flair at this stage, letting the brush-like nib of the 55-degree Sailor work its magic.
4. In this image you’ll see I have done nice strong lines on both actors. My ink of choice is waterproof (called Document Ink, by De Atramentis). I also used a pen with red ink for the red squares on the guy on the right.
5. In keeping with the idea that you always paint the lightest colours first in watercolour, I pick out whatever colour I think is the lightest – the skin tone – and I paint it in a dilute layer. You know this, but I’m going to say it again anyway: never mix white paint to make a colour lighter, but dilute it with water. White is yuck and makes the paint opaque and lose its translucence.
6. I’m keeping the colours simple – I’m not bothering with yellow or blue – but I decide to make a deeper shade of beige to stand in for those two colours. I use a glazing technique to build up the colour, always waiting for the colour underneath to dry before I add the next layer. If I don’t, (a) the colour underneath will lift and (b) your results will be less than intense.
7. Next up is the nice red colour: I debated using pink or alizarin crimson, but in the end I mixed alizarin crimson with cadmium red light to make this nice soft red. I like the way the print technique gives muted, soft colours, so I’m deliberately not going for really intense colours, which I would achieve by building up layers.
8. I really liked the green, and I had just the shade in mind – green apatite genuine.
9. The prints had lots of black in them, but I thought black risked looking heavy and dead. I also didn’t want to use my usual black substitute – indigo – because it’s very blue (although also very lovely), and I didn’t want it to act as a fourth colour. Instead, I used a colour I haven’t used before, and I loved it. I shall jettison indigo for Daniel Smith’s Neutral tint!
Meanwhile, I put each colour in a little square at the side, so I could see at a glance how they looked with each other.
Sad bit that will bring the mood right down
Much as I enjoyed painting these two guys, and much as I have always loved painting men and women of Ukiyo-e, I have been reading a little background info on the lives the subjects of these beautiful prints led in 18th and 19th century Japan. The prints were made by men, for men, and the point of view of the women was wholly irrelevant. I’m sad to say that the women in the prints, whether prostitutes or geishas, led a pretty dreadful life, often, I read, dying around the age of 20 from various nasty things like venereal disease, lead poisoning (thanks the white stuff on their faces) and from the effects of childbirth, which were an unasked for side effect of their lives as prostitutes. I read that the women all have identical faces, because they were regarded as less than men, who were painted with distinctive, individual expressions.
Oh well – plus ça change!
More Fun With Kabuki Colouring
Kabuki are a great way to practice using different colour themes. I loved these two, but I decided to change the colours around…sure you can do this with something real in front of you but sometimes we’re stuck indoors for any number of reasons.
This one was painted in colours that I changed just because I liked them…teal and pink and lime…
And this one was an experiment in complementary colours…cold and warm side by side, isn’t it lovely? I also did a bit of playing with wet-on-wet…
You can make any Kabuki print match whatever colour scheme you like. I might do one in peacock blue, white and burnt umber for my bedroom, or maybe lime green, black and dark brown for my kitchen.
So if you feel like playing with watercolour, go hunt down a Kabuki print online and get creative with colour. Or, if you don’t feel like drawing such a complex subject, download the PDF, pop it on your light box and trace them onto some good watercolour paper with a nice brush or Fude pen with waterproof ink – and have fun!
[download id=”8440″ template=”Kabuki Lesson”]
I love your Galway sketches! Having just visited, I recognize places and this brings back glorious memories.
Thank you Debra! I am so happy to hear you had such a lovely time. Hopefully I’ll have a book of urban sketchers out by next summer – keep an eye out.
I would love instruction in simplifying the figure
Design and composition instruction
No wonder Roisin you are so good at drawing people! Also I know Van Gogh loved the Japanese Ukiyo-e! Can’t wait to access this article. I would love to read it and all your other articles.
You mention using red ink. What is the brand? I didn’t;t know they made a water-proof ink in red. Thanks. I’m loving your lessons
Cynthia did you get the last message I sent? Might not have gone through. Would you consider Turin 14th to 18th October 2020? That’s a five day workshop. No booking form yet but there will be soon!