Figure Paintings

A bunch of figure paintings from class. Oils on 20×24 cavas pad.




Honors project for last semester:




Emakimono (emaki) is the art of Japanese narrative hand scrolls. Emaki influenced many other artistic traditions, was the main mode of narrative storytelling in Japan for centuries, laid the thematic roots for the well known Ukiyo-e woodblock printing of the Edo period, and could be considered an ancestor of currently popular manga. What makes emaki special is the intertwined visual and written narrative that could be of potential infinite length. Within the history of emaki is an endless trove of fantastical stories, creatures, and landscapes. (Seckel) The cultural significance, unique composition, and masterful narrative techniques are what drew me to comprehend and apply the intricacies of this now antiquated art.




The idea to paint narrative art scrolls initially was imported in about the 7th century A. D. from China.(Okudaira) By this point in history, Chinese artisans had painted and carved continuous pictorial compositions on tomb walls for five centuries and proper scrolls for two centuries. (Grilli) Originally, this format was solely employed by the Chinese Buddhist monks to document the lives and deeds of great monks. The roots of this practice are traced to Indian Buddhists who started this practice in the first century. Later, during a period of free communication between China and Japan, Nara (646-794) and into the Early Heian (794-897), the Japanese were infatuated with all things Buddhist. The earliest surviving scroll from this time is the Sutra of Cause and Effect (E Inga-kyo), which is a copy of the Chinese Buddhist work Sutra of Cause and Effect of the Past and Present (Kako Genzai Inga-kyo). (Okudaira)


During the tenth through twelfth centuries emaki transitioned content to secular stories about the human condition. The Fujiwara clan ruled during this time by influence through wealth instead of military power, which created peace and prosperity throughout Japan. (Seckel) This enabled time to be devoted to the creation of art. The stories included not only famous samurai and court drama, but also fisherman and farmers who through circumstance exemplify the valiant nature of even the common man. This is unusual to consider since aristocrats created the scrolls at this time. Generally, there was not disdain for those low in the social hierarchy, but more a fascination with the freedoms and garrulous ways of the peasant. (Seckel)


The dark side of life was a favored topic also, for numerous emaki are about demons, monsters, and general scenes of warfare and destruction. The viewer is runs a gamut of human suffering from psychological to physical to the point beauty can be seen in it. The term to describe this major literary theme is mono no aware which “is the association of beauty and sorrow, the recognition that what is beautiful is also pathetic because it is inevitably transitory and doomed to disappear.” (Okudaira) This concept is not exclusive to emakimono, but a pervasive theme in most Japanese arts. The overall construction of the scroll furthers the mono no aware. Emaki are crafted from all fragile and biodegradable materials that are actually touched by the viewer, so for one to enjoy the work in its truest form the viewer must unwittingly accelerate the decay. Each scroll encapsulates the essence of a transitory world.


The two most famous pieces of emaki are The Tales of Genji and The Pillow Book. Both were created during the early stages of emaki’s maturation (between 966-1027) by female authors. (Okudaira) The Tales of Genji’s position in literary history is important but debated, for some tout is as the “first novel”. (Tyler) This is highly subjective and dependent which definition of novel is used. The semantics of historic title aside, there is little doubt to this epic masterpiece’s overall significance for insight into the culture and arts of the time. Interwoven into the fictional story is documentation of the artist’s contemporaries and mundane daily tasks. The same holds true for The Pillow Book, which is a collection of personal observations and diary entries of the artist Sei Shōnagon – a court lady for Empress Consort Teishi. (Okudaira) Writers and artists have referenced this work for centuries, the most recent being “This is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn.” (Pillow Book)


Stories and illustrations increased in complexity during the Kamakura period (1185-1336), which is considered the peak of emakimono. The rise of a wealthy middle class in Japan caused a higher demand for luxury items. With this new market of patrons, whole establishments were developed to the creation of emaki. These establishments streamlined the process by specialization of each step for each contributor, from line work, kanji, calligraphy, and coloring, to allow for mastering in each. The majority of emaki is from this time period and exemplifies the art form.

Emakimono remained popular until the Edo period (1603-1868) in Japan, which is when more vogue and accessible art forms became available. The Ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) were the new desire of the Japanese public and for eventual export to Europe. Ukiyo-e covered many of the same topics that the scrolls did, like daily life, epic grandeur, and beautiful tragedy, but in an easier to mass produce form. Emaki was still created during this time, however as a kitsch or homage to the past, as opposed to a serious art form. (Okudaira) By the time of its demise, emaki had a foothold in Japanese culture for almost a millennium, which solidifies its undeniable influence in the arts.



Emakimono are usually painted on paper, sometimes silks, and even rarer paper mounted on silk. It all depends on the artist and which materials they prefer. (Mason) In my project I decided to use paper, because it was the more common choice of old. According to Penelope Mason in History of Japanese Art “Emaki are between 8 and 20 inches (20 to 50) high and may be as long as 66 feet (20m). The individual sheets of paper vary in width from one scroll to another and are joined by a narrow overlap. Emaki papers were usually made either from kozo, the bark of the paper-mulberry tree, or ganpi, thin rice paper from the wickstroemia canescena. “(Mason)


To further understand these choices, I visited Timothy Barrett at the University of Iowa Center for the Book. He received the 2009 MacArthur Fellowship for his work in preserving traditional paper making techniques and also has authored two separate books about the topic of Japanese paper making.   After explaining my project to him, he recommended to use kozo and even provided me with a stack of handmade paper to use. They were separate sheets, as opposed to a long continuous roll that I could purchase at the local art store. He advised me to use rice paste to adhere the sheets together, for this was the traditional way to construct the scroll. Rice paste is a neutral ph, strong, clear drying adhesive, and is sometimes called “library paste”. Since it can spoil when bought prepackaged, I opted to make my own. I have included the recipe I used below in the application portion.


The complete physical construction of the scroll, starting from the outside in, is a piece of decorative silk or paper with a silk cord or ribbon to bind it all together. It is then followed by usually a title page, then the text and illustrations. Finally, there is a blank space for any further annotations by owners of the scroll. It is adhered to a spindle usually made of cedar or pine, which is used because of its natural bug resistance. (Seckel) It is stored in a special made box or wrapped in clothe. (See image below)



Emakimono provides unique challenges with visual composition, because of its infinite length but limited height. The two ways to lay the scroll out are mono scenic and continuous narrative. Mono scenic is where there is a block of alternating illustration then text, much like modern books. Even though this was a commonly utilized layout, Tales of Genji is composed as such, it did not interest me to use that form. It is simpler for the artist to paint the image followed by text, but it also doesn’t use the elongated scroll format to its full advantage. (Okudaira)

Continuous narrative is where one scene flows into the other, which creates if unrolled completely for the most part a congruent image. This style is more of what interested me, because I feel it applies the format to the full potential. With that being said, scrolls are rarely exclusively continuous or mono scenic. To tell the story effectively the author will layout the scroll in a manner that will regulate the rhythm and flow to their liking. (Seckel)


The text in continuous narratives is included in a variety of ways. The three major ways are flowing images with text in separate boxes, the text incorporated with the pictures as the scene unfolds, and the text continuous over or under the continuous image. Boxed text dispersed within the scroll is the most common because of its simplicity. The text being incorporated right into the image is generally only used to speed up the scrolling, or when the text is sparser than the illustration. The last technique of two parallels running together of illustration and text is really only used in more formal scrolls or ones with a lot of text. (Okudaira) I decided to mainly use the text in separate boxes, because I wished to keep the poem’s stanza together.


There are two predominant styles in emakimono, onna-e (feminine pictures) and otoko-e (masculine pictures). Onna-e is the formal style used by the aristocracy. What makes it distinctive is the built up layer of watercolor paints, non descriptive treatment of faces, highly static stylization, and the subject matter was usually (not exclusively) of the affluent melodrama. It is almost exclusively composed in the mono scenic style, and focused on overall aesthetic as opposed to plot. (Okudaira)


Otoko-e is the more informal style that monks, samurai, and eventually the common man use. It is defined by loose rapid brush strokes, less layering of colors (sometimes completely monochromatic) and high dynamics. The narrative subject matter could be anything, thought usually more lively and uninhibited than onna-e. Otoko-e is almost exclusively continuous narrative, and focused on plot overall as opposed to aesthetic.  (Okudaira) Onna-e and otoko-e are direct opposites in approach to creation of the scrolls, but both have an end product that is equally beautiful.


When creating a continuous composition the major elements the artist needs to think about are negative space, settings, and repetition. All three find their importance to create continuity, while allowing each scene to flow into the other. Negative space is crucial because the blank paper can be more applicable than filling it in with detail when trying to join scenes together. Also, it can give the characters a feeling of isolation or directs the viewer to focus on what is important at that moment in the story. (Seckel) Setting ties the whole work together, whether it is one scene or movement through a landscape. Repetition of the characters or settings helps tie the whole work together. The character repeated through the moving background is a technique called Hampuku-byōsha, meaning ”repetition pictures” (Okudaira). The technique of actions at varying times in the same scene to show the progression of events is called iji-dōzu, meaning “different time, same illustration.” Emaki are temporal in nature, so most of the compositional tools are ones in which the artist can regulate the flow of the story.


Perspective is also a tricky thing to deal with in the scroll format. The solution is furinuki-yatai (blown away roof).  In some scenes, the roof would literally be removed to allow the viewer to spy what is going on inside, but that is not exclusively furinuki-yatai. Overall, it is where everything is from a bird’s eye view, usually at a diagonal direction. Implied diagonal lines are used quite frequently to keep the viewer scrolling or to slow them down. This is dependent on which way the diagonal is directed. Why furinuki-yatai is considered the optimal vantage point is because all characters could be included without being obstructed by another, as which would happen in standard western linear perspective. (Seckel) This is also believed to give the viewer a heightened sense of involvement and awareness, because they are able to see all that is going on but are removed from it. (Okudaira)

Proportions are not dependent on the actual naturalistic view of them, but how important they are to be noticed in the story at that time. From my examination of many different scroll examples, there are countless instances of the main hero fluctuating from a dwarf to a giant, just because of their narrative importance at the time. It is common also for other elements, like plants or trees, to be enlarged depending on their symbolic meaning. (Grilli)




After spending most of the semester researching and studying scrolls to gain understanding of this format, I ventured to create my own. I decided to illustrate the Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll. I am a fan of Carroll, and enjoy the nonsense of this particular poem. More pertinent though, is I thought the subtle commentary on Imperialism would bring this scroll together conceptually. It is about the time Western Imperialism broke down the walls of Japanese isolationism (Edo period) that the scrolls dissipated in popularity. It may not be a direct correlation, but the subtle change in artistic tastes could be the indication of an ideological shift in the Japanese culture. Instead of the laborious scroll, people wished to purchase the relatively quick to produce and consume Ukiyo-e.


I attempted to embrace the traditional methods as best I could, while adapting them to comfort of the Western viewer. The major aspect I changed is the scroll is backwards, better suiting traditional English reading habits.  As stated before, I obtained the paper of Timothy Barrett, and made my own glue. Below is the recipe I used:


1 level teaspoon deglutinated rice or wheat flour 1/8 cup distilled water, at room temperature

1. Mix enough distilled water with the flour to form a mixture that has the consistency of heavy cream.

2. Boil the remaining water and add it to the mixture, stirring constantly.

3. Heat the mixture, in the top of a double boiler, stirring constantly until the mixture clears and thickens.

4. After the paste has cleared, thickened, and cooled, apply the paste in a thin coat

5.  Immediately after application, apply pressure or a weight protected by a slip sheet until dry, usually between 30 and 40 minutes.” (Saityk)


I first sketched out the poem with a composition on a continuous roll of old dot matrix printer paper. I could not find any examples of the old artists creating a sketch first, but since I am not practiced at this art I needed to do so. After making adjustments, I started on the scroll itself. I did it section by section, increasing and decreasing the amount I was working on at a time to ensure that everything flowed together smoothly. I moved, added, and eliminated portions of the illustration as I saw fit to ensure the composition flowed and fit on the paper I had available. I first sketched lightly with vine charcoal the rough positions I wished the illustrations to be in. I then inked it in with a traditional Sumi-e brush and ink created from ink stones. Since I was not a practiced calligrapher, for the text I used a fine tip brush marker.

After the first inking dried, I colored the piece with watercolors. I was not going to do color at first, but after seeing examples of old scrolls I realized the bright colors were one of the more appealing factors of them. After that dried, I re-inked the lines that were lost under the watercolors with a brush tip marker. The whole painting process that I followed is how the artists traditionally did it, with only adaptations of using modern made materials.



Emakimono is a wonderful format that any narrative artist would enjoy working. With its long history, there are countless different techniques and nuances that were developed to help abstractly convey the story to the viewer. It may be an antiquated art right now, but there are many possibilities that have yet to be explored with the format. Hopefully, the future for emaki is bright as its colors and enduring as its stories.





















Grilli, Elise. Japanese Picture Scrolls. London: Elek.


Mason, Penelope. “Emakimono and Paper Making.” Hungry Ghosts. Saint Xavier University. 5 May 2011. <>.


Okudaira, Hideo. Narrative Picture Scrolls. Tokyo:Shibundo,1973.


“The Pillow Book.” Wikipedia. 25 Apr. 2011. Wikipedia. 5 May 2011. <;


Seckel, Dietrich. Emakimono The Art of the Japanese Painted Hand-Scrolls. London: Cape, 1959.


Saitzyk, Steven. “Hinging.” True Art. 14 Jun. 2009. 5 May 2011. <>.


Tyler, Royall. The Tale of Genji. New York. Penguin Classics. pp. i-ii & xii.