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Japanese Traditional Colors ~SANSEI JOURNAL

Kitagawa Utamaro, The courtesan Ichikawa of the Matsuba Establishment, late 1790s.

By David Yamaguchi The North American Post

The level of art education in Japan has long been above that in the United States. Most recently, we saw this in the watercolors of A-bomb survivor Rikuko Tanaka (Aug. 13), who is notably a nurse, not an artist, by training. More regularly, we observe it in the manga-like drawing of Arisa Nakamura’s “Shin-Issei Journey.” Arisa also makes the superb graphic advertisements for the JCCCW that grace each issue. Readers also find it in the artistic layout of the NAP since 2016, when Misa Murohashi joined its staff from the Japanese magazine world. In this milieu, how can an art-disadvantaged Sansei hold his own?

As the layout of the paper has gradually shifted to me since late May, it strikes me that there is one small artistic contribution I can make. It is to simplify the color schemes the NAP uses in banners, headlines, shade boxes, and the like. Instead of choosing from the essentially infinite palette possible in Adobe InDesign, the software used for page design, I have begun drawing from a more practical, limited menu of Japanese traditional colors. These are the standardized tints and hue combinations used in Japanese textile dyeing and woodblock printing since Japan’s Nara period (AD 562-793). As mentioned in a brief note on page 9 of the August 13 issue, the dark blue-green and red-orange shades there (and in the preceding July 9 issue) are from the Nara and Heian (AD 794-1191) eras.

Adopting the traditional Japanese palette matters because it slightly streamlines layout (every efficiency counts) and adds another layer of Japanese culture to the newspaper. It creates an opportunity for many readers to improve on our limited American art educations by learning about Japanese color schemes.

To start using traditional Japanese colors, I am beginning with a basic set from the Nara to Edo periods (table). In doing so, I am employing a book I picked up at the University Bookstore years ago, thinking that its charts of the colors, complete with the corresponding Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-Black (CMYK) percentages needed to obtain them using paired printer inkjets (black and CMY), might one day prove useful.

The subtle colors displayed therein at once call forth the works of the great woodblock artists of the past —Hokusai and Hiroshige, perhaps Kitagawa Utamaro. Yet at the same time, the names of the individual colors are charming and hint at their origins.

Many come from nature’s paint box. There is Matsubairo, the soft green of pine needles. There is Kitsuneiro, the fleeting flash of foxes in fields. Among the grays, there is Keshizumiiro, the shade of used charcoal cinders. The darkest black is Sumiiro, that of the opaque ink used for calligraphy.

Of course, many of these colors arrived in Japan from China. In those early days, certain colors of textiles were reserved for the nobility.

If one explores the Japanese traditional colors further on the internet, more shades beckon. They have names like Umenezumi — the soft brown of plum mice — Urahayanagi — the green-gray on the undersides of willow leaves—and Suzumecha — sparrow brown — but the basic set for which I have the CMYK recipes is ample to begin with for now.

In any case, I invite the reader to join me in a slow exploration of the traditional Japanese palette across future issues. Perhaps in using it, we can begin to learn why the tints work graphically and why they have persisted over time.

DesignEXchange, 2001, “Japanese Design, Modern Approaches to Traditional Elements, volume 1,” Gingko Press, Corte Madera, CA, 191 pp.

Period               No. of colors

Nara (AD 562-794) 21

Heian (794-1185)  30

Kamakura (1185-1333)   6

Muromachi (1336-1573) 11

Momoyama (1568-1600) 20

Edo (1603-1867) 26

Total (with a few replicates)    114