Thursday, April 30, 2009

expressing movement in etegami

In Japan, we are now smack in the middle of Golden Week, the period from April 29 to May 5 and whatever weekends can be roped in to expand its duration. There are four national holidays during this period, and since many companies chose to close for the in-between days, for much of the labor force it is the longest vacation period of the year. The etegami I posted today commemorates Kodomo-no-hi (Children's Day), which is celebrated every year on May 5. It is a drawing of a koi-nobori, one of the many huge carp-shaped windsocks that fly from tall poles next to homes, schools, and community parks all across Japan from April to early May. The custom honors children (originally only boys), and represents the hope that they will grow up healthy and strong like the carp, which is said to swim against the current. The number of koi-nobori flying from any one pole depends on the number of children (or sons) in the household. They are strung in the order of larger to smaller, and come in various colors. The largest one at the top represents the father of the family. Koi-nobori can be gorgeous works of art with beautiful details, and are treasured family heirlooms. They are made of soft fabric, with metal rings placed in the mouth openings, on which the string that connects them to the flag pole is tied. I wanted to convey the power and energy symbolized by the koi-nobori. So rather than showing how they look from afar --as pretty a sight as that is-- I chose to try a close-up of the Daddy Carp. Since the mouth isn't inside the frame of the card, someone unfamiliar with koi-nobori might think I was trying to draw a real live carp. But I was actually trying to show a koi-nobori whipping about in the wind, like a real live carp might swish and leap against a fast-moving river current. The accompanying words can be translated roughly as "with great vigor."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

one part of the whole (crab claw)

One of my personal favorites among etegami I have received over the years is this one from Ogawa Yoko. The card she used is pinkish-brown rather than white. The subject is one crab claw reaching out from the bottom edge of the card. It stimulates the imagination in several ways. For one thing, you can almost feel the bumpy texture of the claw with your fingertips. And because only the claw is visible, while the main body of the crab is hidden from view, your mind is stimulated to imagine how the rest of the crab looks. Really interesting etegami seldom show the whole subject. Like this one of the crab claw, some part--or even most-- of the subject is left outside the "frame" of the card. I often do this myself by laying the card on a large sheet of cheap washi (the kind Japanese children use for writing brush practice). I start the drawing on the card, then spread outside the card onto the washi paper to complete the picture. This way, the part of the drawing that is on the card is more believable as a segment of the whole, and the imagination is stimulated to "see" beyond the frame of the card. Yoko accompanied her drawing with the words: " let's sit and talk a while." The words make you imagine that the claw is beckoning invitingly.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

etegami and the 5 senses (see)

Newcomers to etegami are often advised to start by drawing a green pepper. I'm not completely sure why. Maybe because the focal point (the stem) is easy to identify. Maybe because the shape is hard to ruin beyond recognition. Lots of wobbles and irregular coloring only serve to give the subject greater character. I used a reed pen to draw this pair of bell peppers, so the lines are smoother than they would have been if I'd used a writing brush. One problem with a reed pen (at least the cheap ones I use), is that it tends to drop most of its ink as soon as the tip touches paper. Knowing this tendency, I tried to make swift clean lines starting from the rounded end (near the stem) and moving to the narrow end for each of the puffed segments running lengthwise along the body of the peppers. The pen dropped most of its ink at the start of the line, just where the pepper bulges, so the line is thickest there, contributing to the roundness of the bulges. Laying the paint on each of the bulges (leaving the main body of the pepper relatively pale) is another strategy for emphasizing the roundness of the bulges. I figured this out by trial and error, discarding at least twenty attempts before I managed this one. My sense of sight came into play again when choosing the accompanying words. Though it was simple coincidence that I drew one red bell pepper and one green bell pepper, my brain associated the colors with a traffic light, and the image of the traffic light brought Shel Silverstein's humorous rhyme to mind. The whole thing goes like this: When the light turns green, you go. When the light turns red, you stop. But what do you do when the light turns to blue with orange and lavender spots? I take it to mean that life is more complicated than they told you in kindergarten. And so it often is.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

etegami and the 5 senses (taste)

I'm not sure what to call it. A vegetable? A fresh herb? An edible flower bud? This harbinger of spring is myoga (Zingiber mioga) which, according to Wikipedia, is "an herbaceous, deciduous, perennial native to Japan that is grown for its edible flower buds and flavorful shoots." The flower bud shown here is usually shredded finely and used as a garnish. It has a distinctive crunchy texture and a fragrant, fresh taste that cleans the palate. The bulb shape, the pretty color, the crunchy texture, and the singular taste of myoga is very familiar to the Japanese friends with whom I exchange etegami. The accompanying words are a quote from Job 34:3, "For the ear tests words as the tongue tastes food."

Friday, April 17, 2009

etegami and the 5 senses (smell)

Last summer, we received a case of peaches from a friend. These were top-of-the-line peaches of the hakuto (white peach) variety, from the part of Japan most famous for cultivating them. Fresh hakuto find their way into my mouth only once every few years. I think the giver intended for me to share the peaches with my neighbors, the usual custom around here when one receives a whole case of something yummy. But greedy me. I just couldn't bear to part with a single one of them. I could have peeled them right away, and frozen them in batches for later eating, but that didn't occur to me till it was too late. The peaches got riper and riper. They were beautiful to behold. The sweet juice was luscious to the mouth. The aroma was fragrant to the nostrils. My husband, the poor man, is allergic to peaches, so I had to bear this tasty burden all myself. (grin) At last there was just one over-ripe peach left, and that's when I realized it was begging to be made into an etegami. Did I convey its juiciness? Did I convey its fragrance? I hope so.

etegami and the 5 senses (touch)

This is a drawing of a bitter melon, one of the bitterest vegetables cultivated for human consumption. Very nutritious though. And a taste you can get hooked on. We eat a lot of it in the summer when the heat drags us down and makes us lose our appetites. The exterior of this oblong vegetable is deep green and extremely warty. Most of the bitter melons we get around here have been shipped from way down south in Okinawa or thereabouts, and I never saw one when I was growing up in northern Japan. Nowadays you can find them in any Japanese supermarket, and almost everyone has seen, touched, and tasted one at least once. Unlike the spiky bumps on a just-picked cucumber, the round and oblong bumps on a bitter melon are smooth to the touch, and they cover the vegetable thickly and completely. I tried to convey the texture of the bumps, but it was a difficult challenge.

etegami and the 5 senses (hear)

Recently, I was flipping through one of my growing collection of etegami books and my eye caught the phrase "drawing etegami with each of your five senses." I may have been doing this all along, but doing it consciously and doing it unconsciously are two different things. It's probably a concept one learns in Art 101, but I am not an Artist with a capital A, and I guess I never did take that class. What little I know about etegami is like the treasures and tools a character in a role-playing video game wins, or stumbles across, during his heroic adventures. I looked through the etegami I've done up till now and picked out a few that attempt to communicate a particular sensory perception. The one posted here is of a shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute). The shakuhachi is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, made from a whole segment of bamboo, and this particular one incorporates the actual root end of the bamboo plant at the wide end (opposite the end you blow into), giving it even more character than usual. I've taken shakuhachi lessons. It's a notoriously difficult instrument to master. The sound it produces is like the wind-- like the real wind blowing through real forests and real canyons. And like the wind, it whispers, sighs, moans, howls, screeches, and croons. Sometimes rich, deep, and melodic. Sometimes weak and ephemeral. The drawing-- and the words-- will surely convey this aural sensation to those who are even slightly familiar with the references. For those who are unfamiliar with either, it may be more of a struggle.

Monday, April 13, 2009

etegami birthday cards

Ideally, all etegami should be drawn with the intended recipient in mind. Each etegami is unique; each etegami has a message; and each etegami is an intensely personal creation of the artist. (I mean, good grief, your heartbeat is captured in the lines! See the "living lines" post if you haven't already.) This makes it the perfect medium for creating a very special birthday card. The etegami posted here was drawn for a dear friend whom I have yet to meet in the flesh. But I know something of what he treasures. His pet, a Rex Rat, is one of these treasures. I drew the outline of this drawing not with the usual writing brush, but with a reed pen. We call them take-pen, which is literally "bamboo pen," but the tool I used is not technically bamboo. It's a reedy plant dried stiff, with one end shaped like an old-style fountain pen, a very narrow groove splitting the triangular tip so as to hold a bit of ink. I will discuss this tool in a future blog. I wonder how many readers will recognize where the accompanying words came from... It is part of a longer quote from a once-famous TV show, starring British actor Patrick McGoohan, called "The Prisoner." The quote is another thing that my friend treasures.

drawing from a photograph

I drew this one of worn-out soccer shoes for the teenage son of a clergyman. At the time, the boy was nearing the end of his second year in high school, and had few interests in his life other than soccer. I drew the shoes from a photograph, which is not at all approved among some etegami circles. But sometimes it's the only way. The boy never did acknowledge the card (I didn't expect him to), but I heard later that he was seen showing it off to several of his friends. : )

Thursday, April 9, 2009

choosing words in english

If you are an English speaker who wants to send an etegami to another English speaker, it makes the most sense for English words to accompany the drawing. Choosing the words is a lot of fun. Sometimes I quote from a book, a poem, a hymn, Scripture, or a famous saying. Sometimes I make something up. I started this one with the intention of making a Christmas card on the theme of the song "Partridge in a Pear Tree." But by the time the drawing was done, other words had popped into my head and insisted on being put to paper. (That happens sometimes. You can't always control your own work, you know. It's like raising children.) I didn't use it for Christmas after all.

necessity is the mother of invention

One day, when I was totally out of washi postcards, I cut up some old file folders (stiff, thick, non-absorbent paper) into postcard-sized rectangles, and drew --with crayons!-- very rough renditions of some of the new spring growth in my yard. The sample posted here is of fiddlehead ferns, the curled baby shoots that grow out from the center of the withered remains of the previous year's ostrich ferns. Then I brushed sumi ink over the drawing, and this is the result. The words were added with a black marker. Different. Maybe even cool. : )

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

remembering with etegami

Here's another wobbly one for you. These flowers were part of a bouquet I received from my husband on our wedding anniversary. I'd never seen flowers shaped quite like these, and I still don't know what they are called. I drew the flowers so that I could remember my husband's gift, even after the flowers themselves had long disintegrated. Etegami is, in fact, a wonderful way to keep a record of special events and things. The accompanying words say: "Sharing both the burdens and the joys." The letters were written not with a writing brush, but with the blunt end of a wooden skewer dipped in ink. I will discuss more alternative writing tools in future blogs.

dancing shiitake

I thought I did a fairly decent job of making "living lines" with this etegami of shiitake mushrooms. I found them in my refrigerator, and the way their stems curved this way and that made them appear as though they were dancing. So, for the accompanying words, I quoted a verse from the Bible: "go out to dance with the joyful." (Jeremiah 31:4) I find it difficult sometimes to judge how light or heavy a hand to use when coloring in a monochromatic subject. This time, at least, I managed not to ruin the drawing by filling it in too much.

"living lines"~ wobbly is a good thing

One of the basic goals of the etegami artist is to draw "living lines" (ikita sen). "Living lines" give the drawing character and is a crucial part of what makes etegami what it is, and not some other kind of art. To make a living line you must hold your inked writing brush at the very end of the shaft by the tips of your fingers, letting it dangle straight down toward the paper. This prevents you from having too much control over the pen. Too much control is not a good thing. Practice making lines on the rough side of a sheet of rice paper (hanshi). Hold your elbow in the air, approximately parallel to your shoulder. Let the brush move very very slowly over the paper, from left to right, progressing only 10 cm (4 inches) per minute. This is unbelievably difficult at first, and is a great strain on your arm. After you've practiced that a bit, start practicing lines from right to left. Then practice vertical lines: top to bottom, bottom to top. Then practice circles and spirals. All at the same snail-like pace. Practice some letters while you're at it, but at a more normal pace. The friction of the brush against the paper, the trembling of your arm, and the beating of your heart will travel down the pen shaft to the brush and make your lines wobble. The thickness of the lines will be uneven. This is a good thing. Practicing these lines is how we should start each etegami session. I confess I sometimes skip this practice. Skipping practice is not a good thing.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

etegami penpals

This card was drawn by Chida Takako, one of my many etegami penpals. We have never actually met, but we exchange etegami about once a month. Takako has far more experience than I do, and is, in fact, a certified instructor of etegami. (I didn't even know there was such a thing!) So I study the cards I receive from her and try to learn as much from them as I can. My favorite etegami are the simple ones. This one is a simple drawing of a tangerine. You can see that she leaves blotches of uncolored space within the borders of the tangerine. I tend to lay the paint on the paper so that different shades and colors blend into one another, but she uses fewer shades and colors to begin with, and doesn't try to make them blend together. What I find most charming about this card is the way the letters are formed. I tend to space individual letters and strings of letters evenly, as though they were text on a printed page. I have to keep reminding myself that the words are part of the artwork. Takako's words are squished in places and elongated in others, and deformed to fit into the space beside the tangerine. They have a playful quality. The words say: "Never neglect curiosity," and refer to an etegami I had sent her, on which I did some experimenting (with mixed results).

Friday, April 3, 2009

beauty in blank spaces

In my coloring book days, I was taught to "stay within the lines," and to color "thoroughly and evenly." This is something I have had to unlearn. Etegami looks best-- most etegami-like-- when the drawing is not completely filled in with color. This is an aspect of etegami that I continue to struggle with. Because of the nature of the paper I use, the colored ink spreads easily, and my drawing will often get filled in from border to border even if I meant to leave blank spaces. This attempt at preserving blank space came fairly close to what I had aimed for. Fans of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, that delightful series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith, will recognize the reference in the accompanying words.

the focal point

I drew nothing but fruits and vegetables during the first couple of years. This was partly because plenty of subject matter could always be found in my refrigerator. Another reason they are suitable subjects for a beginner is because you're supposed to determine the focal point of the subject and begin drawing the outline from there. For most fruits and vegetables, this is the stem, an easily identifiable part of the subject. Oh, just in case you haven't figured it out, this is a Japanese eggplant. I was rather pleased with the color. The more wobbly the outline the better. More on that later.

the reason for this blog: an introduction

I am a big fan of the Japanese folk art called etegami. I love creating my own etegami, and I enjoy looking at etegami made by other people.

Etegami (e="picture" tegami="letter") are simple drawings accompanied by a few apt words, done on a soft absorbent postcards. They are meant to be mailed off to one's friends, not hoarded. They often depict some ordinary item from everyday life. Seasonal flowers, vegetables, and fruit are popular themes.

There are very few rules on how to draw etegami. The usual tools include two brush pens (one for the black outline, one for the colored paints), small bricks of etegami paints called gansai, and sumi (india ink), but, if that is not possible, you can use whatever is available to you-- even crayons. The postcards used for etegami are usually of the washi variety, soft and absorbent (often handmade), so that the ink soaks in and spreads to a certain degree. The brief message accompanying the drawing can be as simple as "Hi, I miss you." Or it can be a quote from something like a proverb or song.

My intention is to use this blog to record my own work, and to post explanatory notes and informative links, in the hope that it will draw you, the reader, into the intriguing world of etegami art.