Exploring Japanese Style Painting

japanese style mountain contemporary spiritual acrylic painting

Spring Equinox by Amy Tanathorn

I like to work within themes, painting similar subjects within that theme. So far I’ve painted lotus flowers, Namaste hands, and some flowers and leaves. The next theme I’m exploring is Japanese style painting, using subjects and calligraphy that somewhat resembles that cultural tradition.

Why Japanese?

As an outsider looking into this world, I am an absolute beginner, but visually I am in love. Elegance and simplicity are reduced to the barest elements, taking years to master the discipline, whether through bonsai, ikebana flower arrangement, print making or writing haiku poetry.

Maybe it is through my humble ignorance of this deeply beautiful and disciplined culture that I pull together a few elements and create something new and different. I don’t know. But I do know what I like. Here are some ideas I have.

Bonsai trees

I love their unusual shapes and the way you can take many different kinds of trees, shrink them down and twist them into some incredibly beautiful shapes. Here is my Pinterest page with different kinds of Bonsai that have inspired this painting in progress:


Haiku and Zen Poems

I’m not a poetry person. I don’t get  much of the poetry I hear and read, and it is an art form that just doesn’t resonate. But the haiku! So short and sweet. And Zen poems, while a little longer still create a vision in my imagination. I checked out a few books at the library and found some really great poems to inspire future paintings. Here’s one that I really like:

I’m a wind bell
Hung from the eaves;
Whether I ring or not,
Depends on the wind.

I don’t know about you, but that really puts in image in my mind, and image to canvas is a work of art. Some poems even had calligraphy to go with it, and I plan to incorporate some Japanese calligraphy with my paintings.

Japanese woodcut prints

Like the other art forms mentioned, woodcut prints are simplified to their barest essentials. I like the clean lines and the color palette that these ancient prints have. I bought a little book on Japanese prints for ideas and inspiration.

This is one example of a print in my book and my painting that resulted:



Japanese calligraphy is so beautiful – the way the ink looks, flowing downward. It has motion and is an art in and of itself. The above photo with my painting “Sky Tree” incorporates a piece of calligraphy I found here . This calligraphy is by an artist still living and you can see more here.  Not sure of what copyright issues there could be, though.

But I love the different styles, and you can see my collection of calligraphy on Pinterest.

Wabi Sabi

When I discovered the philosophy of Wabi Sabi, I knew it was for me. Serena Barton, author of Wabi-Sabi Art Workshop, describes the wabi-sabi outlook

accepts that we are all impermanent on this earth and that the most important thing in life is to be fully present in the moment.

Barton goes on:

The term wabi-sabi comes from two Japanese words and refers to that which is imperfect, impermanent, aged, humble, and authentic. Both nature- and human-made objects may have wabi-sabi qualities. Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic that values the passage of time, the seasoning of time and the elements, the handmade and the simple.

Yes, yes, yes, I so resonate with this statement. While my art is different than what Serena Barton produces in her book, I grab bits and pieces from her knowledge and incorporate it into my own pieces. For example, I learned about tea bags in this book! She also provides some fantastic color combinations that I would not have thought of on my own.


Ikebana is the art of Japanese flower arranging. There are different styles of Ikebana, and seven principles that must go into all work.

I find the creative ways of using twisting branches, other elements such as copper piping and leaf folding to be very inspiring. Here is an Ikebana painting I did last year:

ikebana japanese style flower acrylic painting

And lastly, here are a few pictures I took last year at the International Ikebana Show at Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. It was my first time at an Ikebana show and was surprised at how large some of the arrangements were!

ikebana show 2013



Seems like the more I learn about Japanese style art, the more I love it. I hope that my future paintings can reflect even a little bit the emotion from the beauty I see and feel when I experience this extraordinary culture.

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2 Responses to Exploring Japanese Style Painting

  1. Lani April 15, 2014 at 5:37 am #

    Beautiful. Zen gardens will have to be next on your list 😛 Actually, I love the idea of drawing inspiration from poems (haikus). Sounds like you are having a lot of fun. Beautiful work, as always!

    • Amy Tanathorn April 15, 2014 at 7:41 pm #

      Oh my gosh, I forgot about Zen gardens, and YES! I love them too, especially the raking patters around the stones. The deer chaser fountains, moss-covered stone pagodas. Zen gardens are profoundly peaceful.

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