Cultures & Traditions

Ink Painting (Japan)

Although Chinese ink painting had been known in Japan since the Heian period (CE 794-1185), it was in the 13th century that the concepts and techniques of Song dynasty (CE 960-1279) ink painters profoundly impacted Japanese artistic culture. The resurgence of ink painting was due to the introduction of Ch'an Buddhism, which became Zen in Japan, and the style of the Ch'an monk Muqi (Japanese: Mokkei) was particularly influential. Early practitioners of ink painting were Zen monks who executed abbreviated, direct paintings of Buddhist subjects in monochrome ink. Although ink painting often continued to be associated with Zen temples throughout the following centuries, not all painters were monks.

Chinese-inspired themes and models played a significant role in the production of ink painting; however, the themes treated by ink painters eventually expanded, and the techniques were adapted to Japanese styles. In the 15th and 16th centuries, more secular and decorative approaches to ink painting emerged. The Muromachi period (1333-1568) saw the application of ink painting to larger formats such as screens, whereas it was previously in smaller formats such as scroll,; and in the Momoyama period (1568-1600), ink was applied to a gold background on screens. The Chinese ink technique was also combined with the rich color of Japanese style painting, or yamoto-e creating a fusion of the two styles.

In the Edo period (1600-1868), Maruyama Okyo, founder of the Maruyama school, combined the Western influenced approaches of direct observation and objective portrayal of nature with ink painting techniques to produce familiar Japanese scenes and subjects. It was also in this period that another style of Chinese ink painting, called nanga (Southern school painting) or bunjinga (literati painting), rose to prominence in Japan. This style of painting, pursued by landed gentry of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties for their own aesthetic enjoyment, became professionalized in Japan. Chinese models were executed with ink as a primary medium and occasional washes of color. Following the Edo period, in the 20th century and beyond, ink painting continued to exert an influence on modern and contemporary Japanese artistic practice.

Drawn from

  • "Scroll Painting," DMA Connect, 2012.

  • "Suibokuga," JAANUS, jaanus/. Accessed April 21, 2015.

  • Miyeko Murase, Byobu: Japanese Screens from New York Collections (New York: The Asia Society, Inc., 1971), 9-16.