A Basic Knowledge of Maki‑e
If you like Maki‑e, you will appreciate the art more if you know more about it. For this reason, I have compiled this information to help you feel more familiar with the art. I have provided standard examples under each category described below and sincerely hope that you will like them.
The Techniques of Maki‑e
Shitaji‑nuri is a base‑painting method done at least twice in order to provide a good foundation for the overlay of Maki‑e design. The next step, Naka‑nuri or “interim” painting, prepares the piece for Uwa‑nuri, the final coatings. Urushi with a bit of oil will be used for a Hana‑nuri finish, which is a natural finish that does not require burnishing; if an artisan wants to use Roiro‑migaki, the Urushi they use has to be oil-free so that the surface can be repeatedly burnished so as to bring out the Urushi’s luster. All Maki-e work needs to start on this Roiro‑migaki base. All methods of Maki‑e work have to start with Okime, the transcription of the designs.
- Hira Maki‑e
- Togidashi Maki‑e
- Taka Maki‑e and then
- Shishiai Maki‑e
And these four categories can be divided further by using different materials and techniques and individual skills and tastes as follows:
Hira Maki‑e, after Okime, begins with drawing lines of the design and then painting the surface with Urushi between the lines, called Ji‑nuri. Then, the piece is placed in a Furo, which is a temperature and humidity‑controlled cabinet until the Urushi is half-dried. At this point, powder is sprinkled onto the surface, this is called Kona‑maki. After the Kona‑maki, more Urushi is painted over the surface, called Kona-katame. After the Kona‑katame, the piece will be burnished with both a grinding powder and vegetable oil, and then followed by a burnishing using only the grinding powder to make the surface lustrous.
There are four types of Hira Maki‑e.
(1) Hira‑fun Hira Maki‑e
The big difference among the types of Hira Maki‑e is the size of powders each uses. Some Hira Maki‑e is done completely with 100% Hira Maki‑e methods, while others would use some Togidashi Maki‑e methods as well as the Hira Maki‑e. Using non-precious metal powders for these methods is mainly for the purpose of mass production. Genuine gold powders come in many different sizes, ranging from the smallest (#1) to #20 and beyond. Among them, the smallest size of powders is called Keshi-fun, which cannot be burnished after it is applied to an object. The Hira‑fun used for Hira‑fun (or Hirako) Maki‑e is a size larger than Keshi‑fun; it is sprinkled with cotton because it is too small to be sprinkled with a tube. Polishing this type of Hira Maki‑e is usually done with three fingers gently rubbing the piece.
Standard Samples: Since we never use Hira‑fun for Maki‑e, we do not have any samples to fit this category. Hira‑fun is used for mass production only because it is too thin to be burnished.
(2) Han Maru‑fun Hira Maki‑e
Han Maru‑fun is a slightly larger powder than Hira‑fun, with a semi-round shape. A soft hair brush is used to sprinkle this fine type of powder. The process is similar to Hira-fun, but it can be polished more rigorously than Hira‑fun Hira Maki‑e because of its larger powder size.
Standard Samples: We do not use Han Maru-fun for Maki‑e either because it is still too thin to be burnished; therefore, we regretfully do not have samples to fit this category.
(3) Maru‑fun Hira Maki‑e
Maru‑fun are round shaped powders whose sizes range from #1 (smallest) to #20 and beyond. Maki‑e that used this Maru-fun was called Hon Maki-e (standard Maki‑e) in the Kamakura era. Different sizes of round gold or silver powders are used on different occasions. #5 size or smaller powders are sprinkled with a soft hair brush, while tubes are used to sprinkle #6 or heavier powders. All these powders are heavy enough to sustain repeated burnishing.
N‑160, Ancient Design of Flowers and Birds. After the base was done with Tame‑nuri Roiro‑migaki, the design was drawn with a special sticky Urushi and gold powder (#5 & #7) was sprinkled onto it. Raden was also made on a few places and the piece was burnished repeatedly complete.
N‑162, Sakura & Stream. The base was finished with black Urushi Roiro‑migaki. The design was drawn and sprinkled with gold powder as with the one above. Uwa‑nuri (added drawing on design) was usded for the leaves and Sakura was completed with Raden. The white part is set with quail's eggshell.
(4) Uwa Togidashi Hira Maki‑e
Uwa Togidashi Hira Maki‑e is Hira Maki‑e with part or parts done with Togidashi Maki‑e.
DE‑105 Nami Chidori (Plovers flying on the waves) This design has gold powder sprinkled onto it; the waves were finished with Togidashi.
There are so many different polishing steps between the repeating of Urushi paintings and dryings from the rough polishing to the very fine hand polishing before the Maki‑e is completed. Charcoal is used to smoothen the surface and some other charcoal is used for polishing on the powder sprinkled part where needed to polish to shine the surface.
These charcoals are from different types of wood and are used for polishing.
- Hooh‑sumi (Hooh charcoal from a magnolia wood): is for a rough base polish intended to smooth the surface.
- Suruga‑sumi (or Shizuoka‑sumi from a paulownia wood): softer than Hooh‑sumi, is used during the interim and final steps for finer polishing.
- Roiro‑sumi (from a crape myrtle or a lettuce wood): a soft fine size used for polish after the piece's surface is polished with the above Suruga‑sumi.
- Tsubaki‑sumi (from camellia wood): is used for polishing the surface where gold powder is sprinkled.
Whether it is a flat or curved, Togidashi Maki‑e has to be done on the surface, which must be perfectly clean and smooth. The surface has to be rubbed with Urushi, leaving no pores before Togidashi Maki-e can be applied. The Okime, Ji‑nuri, Kona‑maki, and Kona‑katame are done first. However, Maki-tsume may be done at the same time as the Fun‑maki and may need to be repeated with more powder, to make the surface.
Togidashi can also have 4 different Togidashi Maki‑e as
(1) Hira Togidashi Maki‑e
Designs created by sprinkling powder or repeated paintings need to use heavier powders large enough to undergo Kona‑katame (coating and polished to protect the surface). After the surface dries (2‑3 days), good quality Suruga or Hooh charcoals are used for rough polishing and then rubbed with Urushi into the surface. The next step is to burnish the surface after it has dried, followed by more Urushi rubbed onto the surface, and an additional polish with Tsubaki charcoal to prepare the piece for the final polish.
The final polishing starts with Doh-suri(using fingers or cotton wool to polish, with polishing powders mixed with seed oil):moving the fingers or cotton wool clockwise on the surface to erase any hair‑thin scratch lines made by the charcoals, to bring out the Urushi’s luster. This is followed by cleaning the remnants of oil or polishing powders from the surface. This step, called Kasane‑suri, needs to be repeated on the surface where the powder was sprinkled.
DE‑121, Fuji (Wisteria) & Swallows. Coarser gold powders have to be used when the design needs to be repeatedly burnished . This design uses #8 and #10 gold powders and black Urushi. The flowers were painted and Raden and Kirigane (gold foils) were set by hand.
DE‑125, Toki (A Japanese crested ibis). Gradation and Tsukegaki techniques are used for the ground with water and the grass. The bird uses #7 gold powder for Tsukegaki and the body was beautifully painted with beige and red Urushi.
(2) Nashiji Togidashi Maki‑e
This is Togidashi method, which is used with Nashiji‑nuri. After gold powder is sprinkled and transparent Urushi painted onto the design, burnishing is needed to shine the surface. This is called the Nashiji‑nuri process, if Togidashi Maki‑e is also performed.
When gold powders are sprinkled over the base, the surface will look like the skin of a pear; hence the name “Nahi (pear) ji (surface)”. Gold powders can be sprinkled very thickly or very thinly. Different sized gold powders are also used for this technique. The finish will always be Togidashi, burnished repeatedly to complete.
(3) Ukiage Togidashi Maki‑e
Ukiage means floating or a “raised” portion of the surface. The difference in this method is the use of #9 powders sprinkled on the specified area, which is heavily painted with E‑Urushi (high quality sticky Urushi for drawing lines on which powder is sprinkled); this is followed by sprinkling smaller powders and burnishing the piece. Then, Roiro‑Urushi, mixed with around 10% of Nashiji‑Urushi, is used to coat the surface, and again the surface is polished, except for the raised portion, to make it appear as if it is floating. The painting of Roiro‑Urushi mixed with Nashiji‑Urushi can make the lines between the raised work and the Urushi painted surface softly visible. This is the reason that this method is called Ukiage Togidashi Maki‑e
DE‑107 Hagi (Bush clover). Gold powder is used to raise the leaves; it is then painted with heavy Urushi and gold powder is sprinkled onto it. It is again covered with thinly painted Urushi and burnished with care to make the raised area look like it is floating on the base, which is called "Ukiage".
(4) Nerigaki Togidashi
Nerigaki is the method of painting with Urushi that is kneaded together with gold or silver powders. The powders and the Urushi are kneaded appropriately so that the artist can draw thinly or heavily at their will. After the design is etched, a layer of Urushi is painted over it and burnished to completion.
DE‑106, Botan‑Karakusa (Peony lower pattern design). Drawing with Urushi kneaded with gold powders on the entire design and finished with the Togidashi process.
Taka Maki‑e is a general term for all Maki‑e incorporates ‘raised’ designs to make it look multidimensional. The Taka‑age Urushi used for raising the designs is Roiro‑Urushi mixed with E-Urushi. Then, half of this Urushi will be baked and referred to as Yaki‑Urushi. A little glue is added to the baked Urushi and kneaded with lamp soot to make a special kind of Urushi, which does not easily dry and does not shrink the surface of the piece. This Urushi is used for raising designs in many different ways. After the designs are raised, the process on the raised part will be the same as Hira Maki-e
Taka Maki‑e can have:
(1) Sumiko-age Taka Maki‑e
This Taka Maki‑e technique uses charcoal powders under the raised designs covered by Urushi and is completed with the same Hira Maki‑e process. It is done by Sumiko‑age on Aoinoue on Kimono, Obi and the Fire. The maples on Obi were made with Urushi‑age.
MK‑26, Aoinoue (Noh Play from the Tales of Genji). This design uses charcoal powders to raise the design on Kimono, Obi and the Fire.
(2) Urushi‑age Taka Maki‑e
The Urushi‑age Taka Maki‑e technique uses layers of Urushi to raise the designs instead of the use of charcoal powders, as in the Sumiko‑age technique above.
MK‑38, Katawaguruma (wheels on the water). Urushi‑age, the wheels raised with Urushi.
MK‑44, Shakkyo. "Stone Bridge" from a Noh Play. Kanji and the faces raised with Urushi.
(3) Kuro (black) Maki‑e
Instead of Taka‑age Urushi, black Roiro Urushi is used for raising the designs. Black raised designs on a black surface are finished with Roiro Shi‑age, as it is with Roiro‑migaki
N‑145, The Horse. Black Urushi is used to raise the design on a black base and the design is finished with Roiro‑migaki
(4) Suzu‑age Taka Maki‑e
uzu is a tin powder which is used to raise the designs. This process is the same as the above Sumiko‑age technique. Suzu is easy to use for higher raised designs.
MK‑18, Chrysanthemum & Butterfly. Using tin powders to raise the design is also called Yuji Maki‑e method. This is an easier way to raise the design and widely used.
(5) Sabi‑age Taka Maki‑e
Sabi is crude Urushi mixed with grinding powders and water, widely used for base treatment; various Urushi paintings with colored Sabi are also common. Sabi is easy to use for Taka Maki‑e technique.
MK‑19, Hyotan (bottle gourd) & Bee. These big Hyotan were all raised with Sabi (Urushi mixed with grinding powder and water).
DE‑108, An old pine tree & a crane. The entire design on this pen uses Taka Maki‑e with Sabi‑age including the bird; Raden is used on the trunk and the Nashiji‑nuri is applied on the entire piece.
These five different materials used for raising the designs are in fact invisible to our eye, as they are all covered under layers of Urushi. I asked our Maki‑e shi from Wajima, if they can tell what is inside of the raised part of the design; their answers were that some experts may be able to tell the difference between hidden layers of tin and silver by touching them, or they can guess whether it is Urushi or Sumi. They said the only way to really confirm the makeup of the material is by X‑ray; hence, we have to trust the artist’s word. Artists choose which materials to use to raise the designs not out of concern for cost but for necessity. Very often they have to use different materials on the same piece; for example, initially using silver powder or charcoal powder to raise the design and then using Urushi to complete it. This complicated usage is needed on pens because the base is cylindrical.
Shishiai Togidashi Maki‑e
Hira Maki‑e is a simple and somewhat monotonous technique. Togidashi Maki‑e covers the entire surface area of an object and is colorful,but flat. Taka Maki‑e has colorful, raised designs, but still makes you feel like something is missing. Hence, artists began to combine the Togidashi Maki-e and Taka Maki‑e methods, creating a new method called Shishiai Togidashi Maki‑e. Different techniques have to be performed separately and the timing of these actions is dependent on when the Urushi dries; otherwise, the work cannot be completed as planned.
This difficult technique can be most effective when the designs are intended to be multi‑dimensional, have perspective, or use a gradational effect. For example, painting mountains to appear in the distance would require Taka Maki‑e, while painting the sky would need the non-dimensional effect of the Togidashi Maki‑e method. Trees in a foreground may need the Taka Maki-e method, and a sea or a creek may need a Togidashi Maki‑e method, etc. The difficulty lies in burnishing flat and raised parts of the design at the same time. Aside from these Maki‑e techniques, other non‑Maki‑e techniques are also used on Maki‑e pieces, such as Kirigane (applying rectangular shape gold flakes) or Marugane (applying round gold flakes), Hyomon (applying metal pieces cut and pasted onto the Urushi surface), and Raden.
An artist can only employ two or more different techniques at the same time on the same piece. For instance, one can use Hira Maki‑e with Togidashi techniques or Togidashi with just a bit of Taka Maki‑e here and there; it all depends on what the design requires, as you see in the above samples, which have all used more than two different techniques on the same piece.
DE‑122, Horaisan (Mt. Horai). This beautiful piece uses Urushi to raise the design on the rock and burnish it, using the Shishiai technique. Another technique included here is Tsukegaki (very thin lines drawn with sticky Urushi and with gold powder sprinkled on the line). The whole piece is burnished repeatedly, to finish.
MK‑20, Chikubushima (an island on Biwa Lake, from a Noh Play). Gold raised by the Yuji Method. Shishiai Togidashi method on the gold tassel.
MK‑1, "War Drum Beating". This design is the best example of Shishiai Togidashi Maki‑e in our collection. Four drummers—the demon (with naked bust), the angry old man (at the drum), the ghost with weeping eyes (in white dress) and Daruma (Dharma) at the flame—are all done with Shishiai Togidashi Maki‑e.
The Value of Maki‑e
The cost of a Maki‑e piece is determined by the volume of work required to make it. Pieces requiring more Shishiai techniques will cost you more, and pieces that use simpler Hira Maki‑e will be much less. But this doesn't mean that using more Shishiai techniques will yield better Maki‑e. The beauty of Maki‑e does not depend on the type of technique used to create it; it depends on the artist’s designs, skills and Zen‑like concentration. Using Hira Maki‑e or Togidashi Maki‑e can yield beautiful pieces. Of course, what is considered a masterpiece by one person does not necessarily it will be considered a masterpiece by anyone else. One’s own judgment can be nurtured by reading about and seeing more Maki‑e, and then one can assess the quality and beauty of a piece, and decide whether the price is reasonable. I believe that the value of Maki‑e should be decided by the buyer/viewer.
None of our Maki‑e artists would be considered a Picasso or a Horowitz of Maki‑e, but they are very talented and diligent artists. Interestingly, they like to be called "artisans" or "craftsmen" rather than artists. In my experience, these artisans are very humble, honest and friendly. The pool of Maki‑e artists in Yamanaka and Wajima is dwindling. There are no more than 50 artisans left in both areas, and that number is decreasing. Maki‑e, which requires talent and hard work, simply does not attract young people in Japan anymore. There is no such person as a Mozart in the Maki‑e world that can finish a Maki-e piece overnight. It requires time to paint, time for the Urushi to dry, and this process is often repeated many times over. Thus, no matter how skilled an artisan they are, it still takes two to six months or even more to complete a single Maki‑e work, no matter what size. There are some very expensive Maki‑e artists in Japan. Because of their high positions in the community, some medium‑sized Maki‑e pieces I have seen cost hundreds of thousand dollars, but they didn't impress me. I prefer traditional designs and tastes.
None of our Maki‑e artists had ever known of putting Maki‑e on pens before we asked them to try this, five years ago. They Maki‑e on Natsume (small tea containers for the tea ceremony), all types of boxes, trays, dinnerwares and many other pieces. I wouldn't know how many Maki‑e or Urushi pens were made in Japan each year. Based on the fact that one pen requires an average of ten grams of Urushi, making 10,000 Maki‑e pens will consume 250 lbs of Urushi (sap from the Urushi or “lacquer” tree), while the rest of items created yearly cumulatively require 500 tons (110,000 lbs) of Urushi. The pens only account for around 0.0023% of the Urushi used nationwide. Perhaps there is no reason to use fake Urushi instead of genuine (and more expensive) Urushi, except to cut down on costs. But using fake Urushi does not require using such difficult techniques and is not as time‑consuming. Fake Urushi lacks the unique character of genuine Urushi, which has a unique membrane that is not only incredibly hard and durable, but keeps the Urushi beautiful, warm, colorful and vibrant for a thousand years.
We all know that Urushi is harder than a rock. Metal can be melted in aqua regia (royal water), but it cannot melt Urushi because of its protective membrane. Yet, Urushi has a serious weak point; it can last thousands of years under a roof, but not under the sun. The membrane will eventually tarnish, losing its luster and becoming “chalky.” The Japanese think that Urushi is a living thing; it is formed in Urushi trees, with help from the sun, earth and water, and is then oxidized by an enzyme called "laccase," which hardens it. But under ultraviolet rays, the hardened Urushi will lose its weight and be gone with the wind. It is just another example of the circle of life.