Biz-Archive Tute-List

06-13-03: Seth's Inro Post

  Japan Index
Hi Everyone!  Funny how the universe works. I don't spend much time 
reading this or any other Group boards. I just don't have the time, but every
now and then I drop in to read what the current talk is in the Internet polymer
clay community.  And last night  I just happened to drop in and found all the
posts about Inro. Being that the main thrust of my work is making as I call it
Modern Inro and other utilitarian vessel forms, it was very nice to see all the
interest. As a fine craft artist working in a new medium that has a very limited
tradition to build a cohesive technique in as artisans in other Craft Medium
such as glass, Fiber and ceramics have,  I find that I have taken to anchoring
my craft work in the traditions of those other media.  This is nothing new to
polymer artisans and in fact is one of the main things that draws me to
working with polymer. But unlike most  polymer artisans currently looking
more to glass, (milleflore/ caning) metal (mokame gane) and lapadisty arts for
their traditions, I have recently taken to artisan Asian lacquer work to be what I
ground my polymer work in.  ( That and all the others too.  As well as
printmaking, bauhaus and other modern design philosophies, Photographic
process and, well, computer technology as well ) 

 I am very fortunate to have a friend who just happens to be an art
Conservator and restorer. And, who's specialty just happens to be Japanese
woodblock prints and lacquer-ware. And, who just happens to own one of the
largest privately held collections of 14th through 19th century  Japanese  Inro
and netsuke in North America. And, who just happens to live 30 minuets
away. So I have been very lucky to not only have full access to his extensive
library  but have also been able to spend time  studying and examining actual
inro and other antique lacquer-ware up close. The first time i held one in my
hand i was amazed at how light it was  Very much like Polymer.  Actually,
lacquer is a natural polymer, so it is not a stretch to call my work modern
lacquer-ware. I Have done a lot of studying of traditional Japanese inro and
lacquer arts in the past few months and have found the parallels  between
polymer clay and traditional  lacquer to be a perfect fit.

I thought since there has been a discussion of Inro going on, that you all might
want to learn a bit about them and traditional Japanese lacquer as well.  I
think you will find some of the parallels to be Amazing. Understanding the
function and creative process of creating a hand crafted object of the past will
help you to find your approach to creating similar treasures today in your
chosen medium. I also hope to clear up some misconceptions and misuses of
the terminology associated with Inro and Japanese lacquer. (I am a stickler
when it comes to word usage and language. It come from my commitment to "
the for Agreements" the first being : Be Impeccable with Your Word. But that's
a whole other post <G> ) So on to the  Inro.

What is an inro? A device for carrying small objects by a people who had no
pockets, it was a small nest of boxes skillfully fitted into one another and
suspended by silk cords that pass through a sliding bead called the ojime,
thence under the sash {obi), and at the top edge, held in place by a toggle
called a netsuke.  (see my side view sketch in my picture folder: SL Savarick. ) 
The ojime could be moved up the cords to allow the boxes of the inro to open
or down to insure that the boxes stayed tightly closed. We call the inro a
medicine box, but the literal translation of the word is "seal basket,"
suggesting that originally the inro was used for the carrying of personal seals
and the accompanying ink pad. However, it is generally agreed that the main
function of the inro as we know it became that of holding the patent medicines
and drugs beloved of the Japanese. (One of my goals for my current work is to
create inro that are as functional for our needs  today as they were for their
users 250 years ago. Kind of like the new "fanny pack" <G>)   At first it was
worn only by men of the upper classes, but as the nineteenth century
advanced it was worn by anyone who could afford to buy so expensive an
item - becoming, in effect, a kind of jewelry for people denied any personal
adornment by Japan's strict sumptuary laws. Probably only rarely would it
have been worn by women; for a time the many layers of the fashionable
female costume would hardly allow it, and later the style of the very wide,
tightly fitted female obi made its use impossible.

The history of the inro coincides, roughly, with the Momoyama and Tokugawa
periods, about four hundred years. Its origin is murky, and the lack of
documentary evidence and records of artists makes it hard to find exact dates
and direct records of  techniques. Signatures in Japanese art, except on
painting, were not important. In lacquer they were rarely used at all until the
eighteenth century and then only on small objects, such as inro. Still, some of
the finest inro are unsigned, and many of the best artists worked for the
daimyos and the imperial and shogunate courts where an artist's signature on
his work would have been an arrogant breach of decorum. With the opening
of Japan and the Meiji era, and the accompanying rush to Western dress with
its pockets, the use of the inro declined rapidly in the cities, more gradually in
the hinterlands.

 As people who work with Polymer clay,  if you get a chance to view traditional
inro,  you will appreciate their beauty and sheer decorative qualities, their
wide range of colors and shadings, the variety of subject matter depicted, and
the mechanical precision with which the cases fit together so that the covering
design maintains an uninterrupted flow even while they are completely
functional,  and, the amount of time and infinite patience required to produce
these effects.  An inro may have as many as sixty layers of lacquer (or more)
from start to finish, each of which had to dry overnight or longer ( cure) in a
damp press (a box constantly covered with moist cloths), then ground to
smoothness and polished before the next layer could similarly be applied,
dried, and polished (sound familiar?  <G> ) The traditional lacquer process
takes weeks or months. Japanese lacquer is one of the most highly
developed fine craft forms the world has known. At first Japanese lacquer
artisans copied from the Chinese but soon artists began to evolve their own
styles and designs; Most interestingly, and importantly, Japanese lacquer
artisans continually invented new techniques which they proceeded to
develop to perfection. ( just as we are doing now in Polymer. Remember,
back then lacquer was a new medium too. Another reason I look to traditional
Japanese lacquer for a working tradition.) Some of these techniques,
especially with carved lacquer, were borrowed from the Chinese, but the
majority they originated themselves.

The most important Japanese invention was called makie. The word makie
made its first appearance in print in the ninth century. Literally it means
"sprinkled picture" and it is a process that involves drawing a design in
lacquer on a carefully prepared ground and then, before the lacquer cures,
sprinkling it with gold or silver dust, sometimes colored powders.  ( can you
say Pearl-Ex? <G> )    The point is that the design is not, as always before,
painted on with a brush, using powders bound together with glue, but is
sprinkled onto the still damp drawing. When this layer is dried and polished,
the process is repeated many times. In other words, the makie technique
consists essentially of building up the design by repeated applications of
lacquer followed by metallic dustings and rubbings. By thus applying lacquer
to specific areas of the design rather than to the entire surface, the artist can
obtain varying degrees of relief and delicate shadings, and the individual
specks of gold, brought out by the repeated polishings, glisten. At the same
time a lovely lustrous finish is created and a sense of depth, even when the
final surface is completely flat. It might be pointed out that the makie technique
allows no margin for error because there is no way to remove the dustings
from the sticky lacquered surface. ( a bit more difficult than today <G> ) 

 The three most important types of makie are : togidashi, hiramakie, and
takamakie. In togidashi, which literally means to "bring out by rubbing," the
finished design is completely covered with several layers of lacquer, usually
black, which are then very carefully polished down with charcoal until the top
layers are worn away and the sprinkled design reappears. ( kind of like wet
sanding Nan Gane <G> )  As a result of this gradual grinding down, the
design is now on exactly the same plane as the surrounding ground.  ( Can
you say mica shift? ) Then the whole surface is coated with transparent
lacquer, which, in turn, is polished. The finished effect is an absolutely even,
flat, softly shimmering surface. There are so many special techniques that
were developed  just as we are currently doing in polymer.  One special type
of togidashi, known as sumie, produced a very distinctive effect. Powdered
charcoal sprinkled into a silver (sometimes gold) ground and then rubbed
down resulted in a design that closely resembled an ink painting {sumie). Hira
means "flat" so hiramakie is a "flat sprinkled picture." It is easier to make than
toydashi: the sprinkled design is simply covered with transparent lacquer and
polished to a fine gloss. Because the design is not polished down, as in
togidashi, hiramakie is, in fact, not strictly flat but slightly raised from the
surface. Taka means "raised," so takamakie is a "raised sprinkled picture,"
wherein the decoration is first applied in relief and then sprinkled so that
varying heights can be achieved. Takamakie, which originated in the
fourteenth century and was fully developed in the fifteenth, is perhaps the
most distinctive feature of Japanese lacquer and surely the one requiring the
most patience.

 The three basic types of makie are often combined in numerous ways. They
are also combined with inlay and incrustation work of many kinds of materials:
mother-of-pearl, awabi and other shell, ivory, metal, faience, porcelain,
pottery, hardstones and the like. There are more than four hundred
refinements of the makie technique, depending upon the type and fineness of
the metal powders, the over-lacquerings and polishings, no polishing, and so
on-each with its own distinctive name. Makie lacquer is unique to Japan and
over the years was brought to an artistic and technical perfection.

 O K back to the inro. The traditional lacquer inros' base, or cores, usually of
wood, had to be prepared with extreme care and accuracy by a specialist
called ajoiner. Woods had to be thoroughly seasoned, and sometimes inro
cores were suspended in the air for years, exposed to the vagaries of weather
and temperature, so that no possible cracking or warping should ever occur.
When the core was at last deemed fit, it was primed and covered with several
layers of lacquer by a special class of workers called the nurimono-shi whose
job was to prepare the core for the lacquer artist, known as the makie-shi. 
Dozens of steps were involved in applying these basic lacquer layers onto the
wooden core before it was ready for decoration. Only then did the makie-shi
begin his slow task of transferring his design onto the core and of repeated
lacquerings, dustings, dryings, and polishings, until he was satisfied that he
could do no more. Often he worked with other specialists in metalwork and
inlay.  The evolution of the inro resulted in perhaps the finest miniature
lacquer art ever seen, a utilitarian object of exquisite beauty that was highly
prized, especially during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and again

 So you see that working in polymer today is in very many ways the same as
the  ajoiner, nurimono-shi and makie-shi  were in their time. Of course We can
also do so much more with todays polymer but  i love to think about what my
fellow lacquer artisan of the Momoyama and Tokugawa periods were thinking
as they developed their art form as i work to develop mine. It is what grounds
and centers me in my polymer work. I feel apart of a tradition that has roots in
over 500 years of history yet is  new and  open to new creative ideas more so
than any fine craft medium today.

I have posted a few pictures of my inro work as well a few sketches i made.
They are in my photo folder SL savarick. I hope this   gives all of you some
ideas to help you develop you own work even if you have no interest in
making inro or other vessel forms. these techniques can be applied to any
polymer form. Remember, Nan Roche  took the mokume gane technique from
Japanese metal working techniques. If you have any questions please e-mail
me directly as i don't read the post on the boards too often, but  I am always
available to help. my e-dress is  I am also teaching a 2
day wearable vessel workshop in july in So-Cal. if your interested  let me
know and i can send you more information. and please please fell free to send
me any Polymer Questions Directly to my Email. as i said  i dont have time to
read the boards ofton but i read and respond to emails daily. Enjoy Creating!

Peace to all,