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).
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