Japanese Painting Techniques From the Edo Period

by Bronwyn White
Japanese artists in the Edo period often decorated lacquerwares with their paintings.

Japanese artists in the Edo period often decorated lacquerwares with their paintings.

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During the peaceful Edo period, creativity and artistic expression flourished in Japan. The end of the shogun's strict rule brought economic prosperity and stability and an increased interest in new painting schools and techniques. Japanese artists developed rinpa, tarashikomi and woodblock print forms of painting. When trade was opened between Japan and China, Japanese artists adapted and modified Chinese literati painting into the bunjinga painting technique.


Rinpa paintings embody the aesthetic of indigenous Japanese art and reject any blending with Chinese painting techniques. Rinpa paintings are focused on subjects in nature and the four seasons. Artists used stretches of rich color and were influenced by scenes from Japanese literature. The paintings were applied to canvases, lacquerwares, textiles and ceramics. Rinpa paintings are part of a classical revival by Japanese artists who drew inspiration from the Heian period (794-1185). Japanese artists in the Edo period took these classical themes and infused them with more vivid color and stylization. The paintings were known for their refinement and were popular with the nobility and the samurai.


Tarashikomi is a technique that Japanese artists developed for use in rinpa paintings. The technique consists of pools of ink applied one on top of the other. The artist paints a section of the painting with one color and then, before the first layer dries, paints a darker color in the middle of the first. This is repeated until the artist achieves the desired effect. The result is a pool of colors, each blurring into the next. This technique was well-suited to the nature imagery of rinpa paintings.


Woodblock prints were used to create multiple copies of books, paintings and calendars. In the Edo period, woodblock prints were most often used to copy elaborately decorated calendars commissioned by wealthy patrons. The paintings on the calendars commonly depicted courtesans and kabuki theater actors. Woodblock prints were first painted onto thin paper, placed over a wood block and then a negative version of the painting would be carved into the block. The print-makers then inked the appropriated colors onto the woodblock and pressed blank paper onto the block to make a print.


The Bunjinga style of painting was adapted from Chinese literati paintings in the middle Edo period. Like the rinpa paintings, bunjinga depicts natural scenes, including plants, landscapes and animals. The paintings are done in dark ink exclusively. Calligraphy is often part of the painting and the little color in the scene is reserved for a few highlighted Japanese symbols. The scenes were painted onto hanging scrolls, screens and hand scrolls. Literati-style paintings were created by scholars who were amateur painters. They focused on themes that they prized, such as friendship, social gatherings and nature.

About the Author

Bronwyn White resides in New York and has been writing since 2006. She holds a Bachelor of Music in vocal performance from the University of Texas at San Antonio and is currently pursuing a Master of Music in vocal performance and opera studies from the State University of New York-Purchase.

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