Thursday, February 4, 2010

let's talk paper

Traditional etegami is drawn on washi postcards. Many different brands and types of these cards are available throughout Japan. I have a favorite brand that I've never found in stores, but which I order through a friend who has connections. Many of you have asked how to get hold of washi cards. Not having the faintest idea what is available overseas, I sent samples of various brands to friends in Europe and the United States, asking them to check with art supply stores to determine whether similar paper can be purchased there, and what it is called. So far, nothing like what I use has been found. Furthermore, according to Linda from St.Louis, in America the word washi is commonly used for colored origami paper that is quite unlike what we use for etegami, so asking for the paper by that name isn't much use.

Then I realized that not having the traditional tools and paper should not be an obstacle to pursuing etegami. The main thing is to try many different types of paper and learn how they responds to various inks. When you find something that appeals to you, keep experimenting with it till you are completely familiar with its characteristics and you can produce the kinds of images you want. Linda thinks watercolor paper is not a bad alternative, and she felt that 2-ply 100% rag had something like the absorptive quality of the card stock I use. I gave the paper that Linda sent me a try and found it did not respond the way my usual cards do, but it was similar to some other types of etegami cards I've seen.

I've attached photos which show the contrast between the brand of washi cards I usually use, and the high-quality 2-ply 100% rag card stock that Linda sent me. The image of the single eggplant is one I drew many years ago on my favorite washi paper. The image of the two eggplants is one I drew recently on the paper Linda sent me. When I apply paint to my usual paper, the color spreads horizontally, and I just lay (not stroke) the brush on the paper for as long as I want the ink to spread. This is a skill that took me a long time to master. With the new paper, the color will go only where I stroke the paint brush, and not beyond. This makes it a bit harder to make two different colors blend naturally together where they meet. And though I used the exact same gansai paint for both cards, I had to lay layer upon layer to get an equivalent intensity of color on the American paper.

I'm not at all an expert on paper and ink, and have no idea what makes them different from each other. I just jump in and experiment until I find what I like. There is a great variety of cards sold in Japan that are labeled for etegami use, but which have very different qualities from one another. So no matter where you live, it may take a while to find the one that feel "right" to you. Good hunting!


  1. Hi Debbie, When I saw your invitation for the etegami exchange I was excited. I know this may sound cliche and maybe a little touristy for lack of a better word but I have for some time wanted to learn as much as I can about the Japanese culture. I am more of a textile person and was planning to come there to study embroidery and am still planning to, but I am interested in learning more about this too. (an artist at heart) I did a search for the supplies and came across one place in Japan that looks like you can order the washi post cards online. Check it out and let us know what you think. I've worked with water color paper before with water color and guash paints and your right the paint does not move like how you described with the washi cards. Look forward to hearing what you think about the paper the above online store is selling.

  2. Marisa, that link looks very promising. The samples of cards with painting on them had a pleasing effect. They offer postcards of various hues, which is pretty cool. Colored cards limit what paints look good on them, but if you choose well, it really enhances the drawing.

    The pricing confused me for a bit, and I compared the English page with the Japanese page before I finally got it clear in my head (I'm not good with numbers). The price is quite steep for etegami cards. You may want to use these for a special occasion/recipient, rather than ordinary use.

    Depending on how some cards are made, the paint spreads downwards very quickly and seeps through to the other side. To address such cards and mail them, you end up having to glue another layer of paper over the side where the paint seeped through. This is worth it if the paper itself is interesting to look at and to touch. They may have to be protected by being sent in an envelope, rather than as a "naked" postcard.

  3. Hello Deborah,
    (excuse my poor english...)
    I am very interested in etegami, and I will try to send you something (I hope I can).
    Yours are so beautiful !
    I discovered your blog owing to Yuyun
    See this mail art call : "Let paper talk" !... an etegami would be greatly appreciated !
    Regards from France

  4. Laurence, thank you for your comment. You have a great blog. I'll try to send you an etegami soon!

  5. I did the tiger orchid on a sketch paper of 150 gr. lightly humidified by drawing gum on the surface. The paint spread quite nicely, except that you have to let the first colour dry a bit before putting the second one, otherwise they'll mix each other (and that's what happened to my orchid)! Good article Debbie, i've started with the French version since last week.

  6. I think you are right, Debbie. Rather than worrying about finding the exact type of paper, just paint on what works well for you. It is the style that counts. And if mailing as a postcard, the thickness.

  7. Hi, Debbie!

    What lovely cards!

    Our company in Canada imports all kinds of Japanese paper, including hagaki (kozo fibre postcards).

    If you're interested, let me know. We'll try to point you towards a source.

    e-mail us at

  8. Thanks for finding us, Alison. I took a quick look at your company website and it's quite impressive. Couldn't find the etegami card stock in my superficial search, but I have no doubt you'll be able to advise my readers of specific products when they contact you.

  9. Hi, I fell in love with etegami when I saw a show in Portland OR at the Japanese gardens in their main building there. The show featured etegami from Japan. However, as I recall (this was a few years ago) the pieces looked bigger than postcard size--more like 11 X 13 or bigger. Do people also create these larger than postcard size? I love them! Wish I could do brush painting, because I think that's integral to the style.

  10. Hi Chad. In modern times it is very unusual for etegami to be anything other than standard postcard size, since mailing the pieces is such an integral part of what makes etegami- etegami.

    You can get larger postcards, or non-standard sized cards like fan-shaped cards, which require more than postcard postage, but they are always "mailable." If what you saw were truly etegami, and not haiga or sumi-e or some related art form, it's possible that they were drawn specifically for the exhibit (or enlarged?) to make them easier to look at.

    However, etegami are also sometimes drawn on the thinner paper used for calligraphy, then folded up and mailed in an envelope. Maybe this is what you saw at the exhibit.

    Etegami is a different tradition from the brush painting that requires so much practice and has so many rules. Anyone can do it from Day 1. Nothing should be able to stop you from jumping right into it.

  11. I want a chop. Any advice on purchasing one? Thanks.

    1. Limner,
      Etegami artists usually carve their own chops from rubber erasers. Go to the following post to find out how easy it is>>