Nihonga is a Japanese style of painting with a history of over a thousand years. Influences from China were integrated into the Japanese climate and independently developed as nihonga. Japan is a country blessed with four distinct seasons, and throughout history the Japanese people have had a great appreciation for the changes in the natural world around them. The four seasons and people’s lives within them are prominent themes in nihonga. Also common are spiritual themes reflecting East Asian religions and philosophies such as Buddhism and Confucianism, which have become integrated into Japanese culture since long ago. Aiming to capture the subject's essence as opposed to its outside appearance, as well as concepts such as yohaku—the use of blank areas of canvas as an important stylistic element—are examples of quintessentially Japanese aesthetics seen in this tradition. Both monochromatic paintings drawn in sumi ink as well as varied color schemes are present in ancient examples of nihonga, but modern work has concentrated on the rich legacy of color.
In later years, nihonga was to be heavily influenced by Western art. In the latter half of the 19th century, much effort was placed in bringing the level of Japanese art to the level of Western art. As a result, the realism and composition as well as rich color variations of Western art were employed in nihonga, some of which was no longer discernible from Western oil painting when viewed in print or in films.
The largest difference between Western painting and nihonga, however, is in the materials used. Whereas oil or acrylic paints on canvas are used in much of Western art, nihonga uses iwa-enogu pigments on washi, a durable, hand-made paper. Iwa-enogu are traditional pigments made of natural minerals ground into powder. Colors are categorized according to particle size: the finer the powder, the lighter the color. The beauty of nihonga lies in the serene hues and textures produced from these pigments. In the past, mineral paints were used not only in the East but also in Western countries. However, since synthetic paints were invented as a result of the chemical and technological developments of the industrial revolution, synthetic paints were adopted in almost all countries and the use of mineral pigments waned. Nihonga, however, continues the tradition of using iwa-enogu made of natural minerals. Today, although synthetic iwa-enogu made of ground glass for colors hitherto unavailable from natural sources has modernized nihonga, the tradition of mineral iwa-enogu is kept intact. Nihonga artists also continue to employ haku, gold and silver leaf—pure gold or silver pound into a delicate sheet—as decorative elements in their paintings.
While undergoing development through the ages, nihonga has faithfully retained its original techniques and stylistic elements. The same can be said of the motifs and philosophies expressed in these paintings. Remaining true to its traditions while undergoing developments throughout the ages, nihonga can be said to be an important symbol of Japanese culture.
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