Japanese Art: Types & Styles

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

From ancient ceramic sculptures to painted silk scrolls and colorful woodblock prints, Japanese art is made in many ways. In this lesson, learn about the various types and styles.

A Long History of Art

Japan is a fascinating country with a deep, rich history of making art. People have lived on the islands of Japan for thousands of years, and over time created artwork of many types and styles.

For centuries, large parts of Asia, including China, Korea and Japan, while not in contact with the West, did interact with each other. As a result, many elements of Japanese art were influenced by the Chinese or the Koreans. Some Japanese art traditions were connected to religion, particularly Buddhism, while others were secular.

Reoccurring themes in Japanese art include many subjects related to nature like birds, flowers and animals. Landscapes have long been popular, sometimes with an emphasis on changing seasons. Scenes of life in palaces and homes are common, as are a wide variety of human figures, often stylized and elongated.

Let's explore several areas of art for which Japan is known.

Ceramics and Sculpture

Some of the world's oldest ceramics have been found in Japan.

During the Jomon Period, from around 10,500 - 300 BC, ancient artists made decorative, earthenware vessels, which are made of a coarse reddish-brown clay that's fired at low temperatures. They also made figural sculptures called dogu, often shaped like women with exaggerated features. These dogu figures were possibly used for prayers connected to fertility.

Later, during the Kofun or Tumulus Period (roughly 250 to 552 AD), artists made clay sculptures called haniwa, often shaped like horses or warriors and placed outside ancient Japanese tombs. Haniwa sculptures, made of unglazed earthenware, were hollow. Sometimes they had incised geometric decorations or were colored with natural pigments.

Haniwa were often shaped like horses or warriors and placed outside ancient Japanese tombs
Haniwa sculpture

In addition to ceramics, sculpture in Japan tended to be made of bronze or wood. Following the introduction of the Buddhist religion into Japan from China and Korea around the 6th century, almost all Japanese sculpture was connected to Buddhism.

Temples featured massive statues of the Buddha. These included the bronze Buddha of Kamakura placed outside near a temple called Kotoku-in, made between 1185 and 1392 and standing over 42 feet high.

The Buddha of Kamakura
Buddha of Kamakura

Painting

Painting in Japan came from China and grew out of calligraphy, or writing done in ink with brushes, with an emphasis on the beautiful appearance of the words. Eventually artists began creating images with brushstrokes. Some of the earliest Japanese paintings represented scenes from the life of figures associated with Buddhism.

As Japanese painting developed, subjects widened to include things like nature, including birds and animals. Another popular subject was landscapes, often shown in an aerial perspective where sky, mountains, rivers and structures were pictured in vertical compositions.

These paintings, sometimes done in simple black ink washes and other times in watercolor, were at the same time delicate and spontaneous, with curving brushstrokes of varying thickness. Some paintings were done on silk scrolls that could be rolled when they weren't being viewed.

Scroll painting of black ink wash
Scroll painting

During the Heian Period (roughly 794 - 1185), a painting style developed called Yamato-e, or literally 'Japanese painting', a term to distinguish them from Chinese painting styles. Yamato-e paintings were more formal and less spontaneous than earlier works, sometimes with bright, bold colors and highly stylized figures. They featured flattened forms with an emphasis on line. Subjects tended to be figures and landscapes of Japanese personalities, folklore and places.

Yamato-e landscape painting done on six screens
landscape screen painting

Woodblock Prints

Elements of Japanese painting like emphasis on line and flattened space found their way into another type of art, woodblock prints. Woodblock printing involves first carving an image into a block of wood, then applying ink to it and pressing it to a surface. Sharp knives and chisels are used to remove areas that will not be printed.

At first, woodblocks had been used to print texts related to Buddhism. But like calligraphy, they eventually became used for images.

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