Lacquer techniques, an interesting video from a contemporary lacquer artist.


The video above shows a contemporary lacquer artist lacquering a box. It gives a brilliant insight into the tools, techniques and processes used today, and indeed in the past, to create these wonderful works of art.

I found especially interesting the use of clay to build up the takamaki. Sadly, I’m unable to speak Japanese well enough to understand exactly which type of clay he used. For those unfamiliar with lacquer techniques, here is my explanation of the three most common, which nearly all inro and lacquer works will encompass at least one of them. Takamaki is lacquer in high or low relief, with the design built up and modelled using various materials. One such material is doro, a fine tonoko clay mixed with water and glue and hardened with several coats of raw lacquer. The finished structure is covered in the same way a flat surface would be, with very thin layers, dried and cut back to create the final surface.

The inro shown below, by Hasegawa Shigeyoshi, dates to the late 18th and early 19th centuries and depicts a pair of mandarin ducks, the male stood on a rocky outcrop with a river flowing beneath, to the verso, his partner floating on the river looking back at him. The river has been created using togidashi, the reeds and female duck in hiramaki, and the rocks and male duck in takamaki, as shown in the video.

Japanese Inro

Fine 4-case inro depicting a pair of mandarin ducks. 

Signed Hasegawa Shigeyoshi 

Two other techniques used on the inro above, togidashi and hiramaki. Togidashi is the process of creating a completely flat design; if you were to run your hand over a togidashi inro it would feel completely smooth. The 19th century inro below uses Sumi togidashi to depict the crows and was created by a maki-e-shi toyo. The design is taken from a painting by the 18th-century artist Kano Hidenobu.

Toyo Inro

Another wonderful example of togidashi is the inro below from the late 18th century, depicting a dragon shrouded in swirling smoky clouds. This inro was lacquered by Kajikawa Bunryusai, a member of the prolific Kajikawa family. The impact of the Kajikawas can be observed over many hundreds of years – there are more inro signed ‘Kajikawa’, with their easily identifiable signature and red pot seal, than any other group of artists. 


Kajikawa inro

The original design was taken from the work of another Kano school painter, Hogen Eisen. The beauty of this inro lies in the depth that the artist has created using varying tones of black and grey that appear sunken against the gold, giving the design an almost enamelled, glass-like depth.  

Inro Kajikawa dragon

 Four-case inro, depicting a dragon emerging from swirling clouds. 

Kajikawa Bunryusai

Hiramaki is a process that raises the design, but by no more than the thickness of a piece of paper. The inro below, from 20th century artist Tobe Kofu (1888–1965), displays the twelve animals of the zodiac. Surrounding the red cartouche that the dragon sits within are leafy tendrils rendered in gold hiramaki.


Zodiac Inro

A bold and unusual four case inro in the shape of a pouch tied with a gold rope. 

Kofu Saku - Tobe Kofu (1888-1965)

Inro and other lacquered items were created from many materials. In addition, an artist had at their disposal a vast array of techniques to choose from in their quest to create original and ambitious designs to satisfy demand from clientele. The above video and descriptions give only a small glimpse into the beautiful world of Japanese lacquer. 

Robert Willford