Japanese painting is one of the oldest and most elegant of the Japanese visual arts, embracing many
varieties of genres and styles. The long history of Japanese painting expresses synthesis and competition
between native Japanese aesthetics and the adaptation of imported ideas.
From a decorative view, Japanese paintings are full of mesmerizing Asian charm.
Although, this can also be a confusing subject for novices that want to learn more about it. Different painting styles and schools, a variety of media, the deep roots in Zen Buddhism, and the use of specific terms from the Japanese language can make this art form difficult for Westerners to access.
One should know that Japanese painting has always been torn between three mainstream movements: Japanese, Chinese, and Western.
Like most forms of art, Chinese culture had an influence over early painting. Eventually, Japanese styles were developed and painting schools were established. Each school practised their own style, but the Chinese influence remained strong until the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1867). The general term to describe painting in Japanese style is called yamato-e.
After the opening of Japan to the West during the Meiji period (1868-1912), the early years of art were characterized by an exaggerated embrace of the West. Newly founded universities established departments for Western art, called Western academic artists into the country as teachers, and sent out students to study art in Europe.
Together with rising nationalism, the pendulum soon swung back into the other direction. The public opinion began to recognize the magnificence of the old tradition.
The twentieth century is when cooperation took place, with art colleges offering both departments in Japanese and Western painting styles.
Over the years, many different schools and painting styles were developed.
The term for painting in black ink is called suibokuga. This style was adopted from China and was significantly influenced by Zen Buddhism. Ink painting gained a more Japanese style of its own during the 15th century.
The Kano School of Painting was established by Kano Masanobu (1453-1490) and his son Kano Motonobu (1476-1559). It was commenced when there was a protest against the Chinese ink painting technique in black. The Kano school put bright colors to use and set forth daring compositions with large flat areas, which later dominated the ukiyo-e designs.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the nanga painting style became popular. This style consisted of idealized landscapes and natural subjects, like birds and flowers for a cultural elite.
In the 18th century, the shijo school split from the official Kano school. Shijo is portrayed by subjects taken from people's everyday life. It is a kind of realism that can include satirical elements.
Traditional Japanese painters used a wide variety of media over the centuries.
Horizontal scrolls, emakimono, were created by pasting single sheets together to form a long roll. Viewed from right to left, emakimono are among the oldest forms of paintings.
Kakemono are vertical scrolls mounted on a roller on both ends. Vertical scrolls were very popular during the Edo period, like framed canvas paintings in the West. They were ideal for decorating a wall for small Japanese houses.
Folding screens called byobu were another form of media for artists. Screens became a major medium for rich and detailed paintings. The screens had similar themes to those on ukiyo-e.
Fusuma (sliding doors) and uchiwa (fans) were also popular mediums for Japanese painting.
Painting themes were very diverse, and of course, each of the media used had its own preferred main focus.
Various themes include landscapes during the four seasons (shiki-e), views of famous places (meisho-e), views from Kyoto (rakuchu-rakugai-zu), kabuki theater images (kabuki-e), images of beautiful women (bijinga), and many more.