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Introduction to Maki-e

Over a thousand years of history and celebrated worldwide, Maki-e is perhaps one of the best-known styles of lacquering in the world. Please read on to discover my fascination with this age-old technique.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I must confess I am not the foremost expert on this topic! However, I do have a very keen passion for the ancient art of maki-e and it should also be noted that due to the length of its prestigious history, it would be almost impossible to cover everything in only one article.

However, there is a lady by the name of Yukari Mochizuki whom I follow on Instagram which has one of the most detailed blogs on Maki-e out there, ​​http://makie-yukarim.com she updates regularly and showcases stages of Maki-e production. I’d highly implore you to check out her work and follow her on Instagram ​​https://instagram.com/yukari_mochizuki1987.

My aim of this article is really to highlight lesser-known companies for those of us living in the west. So whilst there will be some photos and references to better-known companies, the Maki-e artists and studios I reference are certainly not widely heard of or spoken about. 

Hopefully, this will encourage people to seek out those companies and in time create more intrigue and support for what is a dying trade.

Copyright @yukari_mochizuki1987 Detailing of Yukari’s latest work, with heavy doses of Raden and taka Makie

This ancient art of sprinkling a picture dates back to 794 AD, with the earliest recorded piece being dated back to 919 AD. Since then, many culturally important pieces have been created to levels of absolute perfection. It’s this artistry that draws me deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of Japanese culture.  Over the next millennium, the art form has been refined and expanded upon. 

In this article, we will explore some of the emotional elements as well as some of the more popular techniques. 

Life for maki-e starts with this tree above. Toxicodendron vernicifluum foliage

Maki-e is one of those art forms that takes years, if not lifetimes to even get close to some level of mastery. It’s this process and execution of what seem to be very simplistic designs, that often are misconstrued and in fact, can have extremely difficult complexities associated with the production and completion. 

The tangible and decorative elements really express the artisan’s intent and whilst seemingly a lot of designs on the outset can appear to look quite similar, there are nuances to the designs that separate each artist. This could be in the form of themes or as nuanced as a brushstroke.

The thing is, appreciating maki-e is not too dissimilar to enjoying wine, the more bottles you taste, the more you understand the various elements that go into making a fine bottle of wine. This could range from the acidic nature of the ground the grapes are grown in, to the climate of the region. Like wine, Maki-e has many elements that dictate the complexities of design. It’s within these designs that you start to appreciate the skill of the artist and in doing so a love affair begins.

The symbolism of designs is richly celebrated as well, this is evident in the Namiki line of pens right from the Nippon art right up to the Emperor models. This alone deserves recognition as it’s quite easy to get swept up in the aesthetics alone. The designs that go into the pens, hit many cultural elements and go a long way to selling the story that the pen has to offer. 

The symbolism of designs is richly celebrated as well, this is evident in the Namiki line of pens right from the Nippon art right up to the Emperor models. This alone deserves recognition as it’s quite easy to get swept up in the aesthetics alone. The designs that go into the pens, hit many cultural elements and go a long way to selling the story that the pen has to offer. 

Taking a look at the Yukari Kusudama Herb Decoration, at the outset, it appears to be a pretty pen with some herb illustrations. But, when one digs deeper into why these designs were chosen, we begin to realise the cultural significance. Certainly, this is much more apparent than perhaps on other pens made from acrylics.

The Kusudama translates to Medicine ball and in times gone by was often used for its’ medicinal healing powers. So, even with a brief description, we can start to appreciate that maki-e isn’t just as simple as a pretty picture on a pen. In fact, it goes a long way to bringing home the cultural importance of a nation.

Recently on Inkstable, a review was done on the 5 beautiful maki-e pens 

Namiki Emperor Maki-e Fountain Pen – Rakucho Birds and Weeping Cherry Blossom. The Rakucho Bird alone symbolises many aspects such as Eternal Love and a Happy Marriage. It’s those elements that start to chip away at your heartstrings and eventually start lusting! The fact that it’s executed to perfection goes to cement Namiki as one of the top houses for Maki-e on pens.

We must also consider the fact that writing alone can be an emotional experience and when we marry the design aspects of the pen together, we begin to appreciate the art form even more. Often this appreciation can lead to other ventures and of late I have been looking at purchasing some maki-e plates and pen storage solutions.

One must consider that throughout time art was always a form of communication. Certainly in England, where I reside, art was the main form of trying to get a message across. So, just like in Japan, Maki-e was often used to communicate stories, myths and to celebrate events. Of course, this was often reserved for those that could afford it!  Not much change there then haha! Of course, as we have become more literate as a race, pictures have become less important to telling a story as we have learnt to read and write. 

Techniques

Next, we will have a look at some of the popular techniques which are deployed on pens. This is in no way an extensive list, but I aim to cover some of the most popular skillsets which are utilised on pens.

Hira Maki-e

Before I carry on, there is no such thing as an easy technique, just ones that take longer to work at. Please do not think that techniques that take only a matter of weeks are any less complex. 

Hira maki-e is perhaps one of the oldest techniques out there.  Taka maki-e came much later. The premise of this art form is one of a semi-flat nature.  This of course is determined by the size of the particles of metals that are sprinkled on top of the urushi, from this point, other Hira maki-e forms can be named.

Essentially artwork is either hand-painted or transferred to the body using a technique called okime. The urushi that is used for this process is Neri Bengara Urushi Lacquer ( red pigment), this is heated up and then filtered to remove any imperfections. Once the design is transferred, the object is left to partially dry before sprinkling with the metal powders.

Togidashi maki-e

This technique is not too dissimilar to the starting point of hira maki-e and essentially gives you a brighter finish. This is in part due to the burnishing aspect of the charcoal over the design. For this to work, the artisan will paint their design and apply Rō-iro-urushi over the top. As mentioned before the artist will slowly rub over the surface of the object with a little charcoal and water until the design is revealed. 

The next step in this process is suri-urushi which is applied over the design using cotton buds and then wiped with rice paper. Further burnishing is applied with charcoal with a technique called shiage togi. The last few steps of this technique involve granular pieces of charcoal and water with 3 more layers of suri-urushi to finalise the design.

As you can tell so far, these techniques are very time consuming and an awful lot of polishing is required!

The next technique I will talk about is Shishiai-togidashi-maki-e which frequents the upper end of Namiki pens. On their website, you’ll see this as togidashi taka maki-e.

Shishiai-togidashi-maki-e

This is probably one of the most time consuming and technically difficult techniques out there and certainly is more akin to sculpting. Roughly translated, this means raised and burnished.

Designs start off again akin to hira maki-e but then comes the complex part of using charcoal powders to raise the design. Once shaped, then more lacquer is applied over the top before a final layer of gold is applied and then burnished.

These designs really are reserved for those who have money and really offer the owner/viewer a sublime textural experience, offering a 3D finish to the pen unlike anything else. Quite often you’ll see this as a combination of techniques between hira, taka and the aforementioned shishimai-togidashi. Usually, this is to emphasise a specific element or for the artist to simply show off.

Lastly, we will talk about Raden before talking about a few brands that you may or may not have come across.

 

Raden

This is probably the flashiest of all techniques and one that people go nuts for! Raden for many will need little introduction as it is commonly spoken about in the fountain pen world.

You’ll probably notice from the first included photo from Yukari, that the entire background of the object is covered in abalone shell. When turned in the light, this gives immense depth and splendour. Quite often people will become transfixed in watching pens twirl, letting the light catch the object.

Raden techniques can be used in all manners of finishes, some being extremely elaborate and some in a way to highlight specific characteristics, for example, the eye of a bird.

There are many factors to why raden is so complex to produce, namely, time, but when you’re dealing with getting pieces expertly placed in a constrained design, making sure you’re cutting the object at the right angle and placing the object down is extremely tricky to execute.

If we take a look at what appears to be simple designs such as the Namiki Capless raden water stripes, you’ll notice how well the pieces are laid down and how symmetrical each piece is.

notice the fine detailing and placement of each perfectly cut piece of raden

Raden can be completed in 2 main ways, firstly, aspects of the object can be cut into and then raden placed inlaid into the surface. Similarly to togidashi, layers of urushi can be built up over the raden and then burnished. Depending on where you go in Asia, these techniques can be more popular in certain areas.

Chinkin

Ahh chinkin, I have reserved perhaps the most beautiful form of maki-e till last. Chinkin is a technique that zero mistakes can be ill afforded. Essentially the artist is removing the built-up layers of lacquer. Using a variety of chisels that are often modified by the artist themselves, tiny indents are gradually carved out. When the artist is satisfied, lacquer is applied to the base and then wiped off bar the indents, allowing gold powder or leaf to be applied to the recessed areas.

If one mistake is made, the product must be discarded. This means the artist must have impeccable skill and attention to complete such a piece.

Fine examples of chinkin can be seen on Namiki’s website and as far as I am aware there is only one artist by the name of Yasuji that’s completing the chinkin work. Or please see the fantastic work of revolving pens @revolvingpens https://www.instagram.com/revolvingpens/

 

Copyright @revolvingpens akebono chinkin from stylo art, you’ll notice that the chinkin has also other metal powders being used on the butterflies. Not something you traditionally see

Modern Techniques

Of course, we are not limited to just traditional techniques, these days we have new processes for completing maki-e. This is predominantly done with silkscreen prints. Now you have to bear in mind that this does mean that very little human touch has been involved with the production of the pen. Still, in return you end up with some beautiful images, albeit a bit more artificial! This does mean it’s more affordable and for those that do not mind this process, you’ll score yourself some beautiful pens!

Companies to look out for 

Now, there are a number of companies in Japan that offer Maki-e on their pens and if you’re a fan of inkstable you’ll likely have heard of the likes of Namiki, Sailor and Platinum.  It should be noted that other than Namiki, most Maki-e are completed by individual artisans, some of which are regarded as National Living Treasures. This explains the cost of said techniques, but if like me, you like to go off the beaten track? Well, I am going to highlight a few companies you may not have come across.

StyloArt 

StyloArt is located in a small town named Karuizawa, approximately 80 miles outside of Tokyo run by a gentleman by the name of  Motoshi Kazuno. Upon scanning his website you’ll notice a few distinct areas! Urushi, wooden capless pens and Maki-e. 

Mr Kazuno is essentially a maker of pens and then employs maki-e artists and artisans to produce the work on top. Unfortunately, the names of these artists are disclosed, but the artwork is superb and there is a range of Maki-e pens utilising a number of techniques. 

Motifs are varied, but very much keeping in the theme of wildlife and scenes of nature.

I do hope to own some of these fantastic pens at some stage! Especially the goldfish! 

Copyright @revolvingpens the stunning details of the Stylo Art Kingyo, a mixture of techniques have been used here ranging from togidashi maki-e to raden
Copyright @revolvingpens full-length focus stacked shot of the Kingyo. A stunning example of maki-e produced by stylo art in collaboration with maki-e artists

Wajima Zen-ni

Oh boy, this place is a tour de force, Wajima Zenni is based in the Wajima region of Japan and has the most incredible display of Maki-e and Urushi. Fountain pens are not their bread and butter though, but you can find a wonderful collection of their pens in stationers and pen shops.  Please take a virtual tour around their shop here.

The level of Maki-e skill deployed here is on par with Namiki in my honest opinion. Some of the eagle-eyed readers out there will notice that the pens share a similar silhouette with another fairly well-known company, that being Eboya! Well, that’s because they use the Hakobune model both in medium and large models. If Maki-e is your thing and you want something more unique in your collection, I really can’t begin to recommend their work enough!

If however there is something you’d like more bespoke, they offer an Atelier service with prices starting at 1000 pounds. 

Detailed below is a recent post from their Instagram.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CdILUeErIUG/

This is just one example of their exquisite maki-e produced on pens.

A range of Eboya Hakobune models with custom designs for https://www.instagram.com/ginza_tsutayabooks_stationery/ in medium and large models available to purchase here https://store.tsite.jp/item-detail/stationery/13392.html
Shimada Mfg featuring goldfish - https://k-shimada-ss.com/english/company/ these pens are produced with this company's barrel. One thing you’ll note is that I like goldfish!

Furuta Pens

Furuta pens, now this company is akin to that of stylo art, but very very much unheard of in the west. Still, the unique aspect about Furuta is that they produce their own nibs! As well as providing pens covered in maki-e.  Please see the link for more details and make sure you’re using a web browser with Japanese translations!

Final thoughts

Maki-e is endless in fascination, and to truly appreciate this, it’s something one must see in person.  The range of contemporary and historic designs keeps this trade skill alive and continues to instil wonder in those that glace upon the beautiful designs.

My collection of Maki-e is limited, but one I hope to grow as I ever get closer to retirement. Staring at the designs and utilising them as a writing tool is one that gives sheer bliss. 

It should be noted that whilst this is an important aspect of Japan’s cultural history, urushi and maki-e are dying art forms. Whilst there are still artists and artisans practising the ancient art form, the interest in learning this skill just does not inspire young people within Japan. So, if we wish to preserve this technique people need to buy into this.

I must give Jon from Revolvingpens on Instagram a massive thanks for the photography of the Stylo Art pieces. The time, effort and energy used to capture these beautifully detailed shots have been hugely beneficial to the article.

I’ll finalise this article with a few Instagram accounts that are worth following.

Maki-e Artist https://www.instagram.com/yukari_mochizuki1987/

Maki- Store https://www.instagram.com/wajimaya_zenni/

Fountain Pens – Urushi and Maki-e https://www.instagram.com/styloart.karuizawa/

Maki-e Instagram account https://www.instagram.com/revolvingpens/

Raden Instagram account https://www.instagram.com/huyhoangdao.pen/

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