The Pigments of Nihonga – by Lucas Perez

I’m happy to introduce the first of our series on Studying Nihonga in Japan, by Lucas Perez. In this article, Lucas gives a brief introduction to the pigments used in Nihonga painting and shares some of his preferred pigments and techniques he uses for getting the desired colours. He has also included the addresses of supply shops where you may find them.

We welcome discussions from all on the subject of pigments from artists, students and researchers alike. Please post your comments and questions below.

 Pigments for Nihonga  by Lucas Perez

Possibly the most recognizable part of Nihonga are the wonderful materials. The vivid, semi- precious pigments come in an astounding array of shades and consistencies, each with their own tokuchou (特徴, special characteristics). The fine brushes, exquisitely crafted from a bit of bamboo and fiber, paint with katana precision.  The robust and versatile washi (和紙, Japanese paper) challenges the artist with a myriad of surfaces.  I would venture to say that to master each of these elements takes a great deal of patience and practice, but when handled capably, the materials of Nihonga produce extraordinary imagery.

The semi- precious mineral pigments of Nihonga produce the vivid colors found throughout Asian art.  These pigments can be broken into three essential groups: tennen (天然, traditional) Japanese pigments, shiniwa (新岩, minerals and pigments found from around the world) and gousei (合成岩, synthetic colors). I almost never use synthetic minerals as I think it’s contrary to the philosophy behind Nihonga. Many Nihonga painters often find that they end up using tennen colors primarily because the colors are soft, easy to mix and more versatile than the other pigments.

There are thousands of colors, each with a  difficult Japanese name written in Kanji. But, in my opinion, there are a few which should be an indispensable part of any collection of colors. Shinsha (辰砂, ground cinnabar) is an intense red used throughout Asia for thousands of years. All colors differ between makers and the best shinsha pigment can be purchased at 喜屋 (Kiya) in Tokyo, or 放光堂 (houkoudou) in Kyoto.  Kiya is one of the main suppliers for the students at Tokyo University of Fine Arts (東京芸術大学) and has many rare items for sale which you cannot find in the big chain stores.

Two great colors that I often mix to create  a lovely purple shadow color are gunjyou (群青, ground lazurite) and shinsha.  Mix both in separate dishes and be sure to apply nikawa to the shinsha twice!  You can darken the value of the purple by searing the gunjyou pigment beforehand in a small frying pan. Because it is a tennnen color, it will darken, eventually turning a deep, blackish-blue and is completely safe. They sell pans made specially for this purpose at Kiya, but be advised that they are a little hard to find! Also note that gunjyou is about 4,000 yen per 15 grams so use it wisely.

Purple Shadow colour by Lucas Perez

Another versatile mixture is rokushou (緑青), ground malachite) and kiguchi iwa kicha roku (黄口岩黄茶緑 ) which produces a greenish brown. This mix is useful because many of the yellow colors in Nihonga are opaque, kiguchi iwa kicha roku is not, enabling this mixture to be used as a great transparent shadow.  Similar to the gunjyourokushou can be seared to darken the green to an almost black pigment.

Green Shadow colour by Lucas Perez

Some of the most beautifully subtle colors are the shu ( ) pigments, which have all been seared as described above.  By far the best place to acquire any shu color is at 後素堂 (kousoudo) in Kyoto. Among the wide variety they offer, some of the best are kodaishu (古代朱) a lovely brownish yellow color, and akagushihonshu (赤口本朱), an intense orangy- red color.  Be aware that  shinsha as well as some of the shu colors contain mercury and may well be extremely toxic!  So please take great care when using these colors.

喜屋 Kiya
〒113-0034 東京都文京区湯島3-44-8
TEL +81 03-3831-8688

放光堂 Houkoudou
〒604-0092京都市中京区新町通竹屋町北入 TEL +81 075-231-0938

About Lucas Perez






For me, Nihonga has sparked a creative explosion in my work that has yet to be rivaled in my life as a visual artist.  The unique challenge in finding new ways to apply beautiful ancient materials with modern sensibilities is one that has greatly stimulated the quality and originality of my painting.  I feel quite honored that destiny has allowed me, as an outsider, into this wonderful tradition, and I hope that I am able to pass the things I’ve learned along to any eager artist with the desire.

My name is Lucas Perez and I’ve been studying Nihonga for 3 years in Tokyo, Japan.  Originally trained as a Fashion Designer at New York’s Pratt Institute of Design, I often found myself unsatisfied with the ephemeral nature of apparel design,  and so, soon after graduating returned to my primary love, painting. I’ve always had a passion for eastern art’s lyrical design qualities and restrained perfection.  So when the opportunity arose to live and work in Tokyo, I did not hesitate to make the change.

However, I have had many challenges learning this new media.  First I had to acquire a working command of Japanese. Once I was able to speak with reasonable proficiency I began to look for a teacher.   My first attempt was finding a teacher from a popular website, but found that this was not a good option as the teacher wanted to teach me at a very slow pace.  I also sat in on a Nihonga class at the NHK Culture center, and immediately realized, these classes were geared primarily for hobbyists and retirees.

Fortuitously, I had casually mentioned my dilemma to the students in one my english classes .  By chance a friend of one of my student’s was the husband of a woman, Susuzi Mari, who graduated as a doctor of painting from Tokyo University of Fine Arts (東京芸術大学). Soon after, I began studying with her and have been for 3 years now.  I was very lucky to have found her, as her intimate knowledge of the various minerals, papers and other materials are of a caliber not common in Japan.  Her world class education at Geidai allowed her to learn under great contemporary masters such as Kayama Matazou and Tezuka Yuji.

The next great challenge was unlearning all my previous training in painting and starting fresh with these new materials and design principles.  As I write this I still have not completely mastered the various techniques necessary for the creation of a really good piece of Nihonga, but continue to strive for perfection.  I must confess it has been a real struggle and I have often come close to quitting it all together.  But I am always drawn back by the unique qualities of Nihonga.