Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Weaverly Photo / Reading about Japanese Designs / Negative Space

I needed a photo with me as a weaver, so Ben chopped off about 25cm of my hair, (the weight of my pony tail was giving me a scalp-ache), and then he had a go. At shooting. Pictures. I first put on a shirt that made me look less rotund, but I really like the shibori job I did on this, so I changed. It's a secret handshake of sorts to all of you who saw it here first.

I like the laughing one because it's more me, but we decided to use the one with both arms intact and the hair less messy. Ben treated it with a softening portrait something-or-rather with his application to the top one.

Chris, our Marlborough Weavers leader, said at the start of this year, we weavers should be seen wearing garments made of fabric from our looms, but similarly, I think it's nice to have profile photos where we are on our looms or with our equipment. Even if you can't see it in the final product.Ben and I shall try harder to show more loom next time, but considering how much I hate having pictures taken, this will have to do for now.

* * * * *

I'm staying with the Japanese design book. It's called "Katachi no Nihon Bi", or very roughly, "Japanese Aesthetics in Shapes" by one Professor Mitsui Hideki. He teaches design at university level, might have written a textbook or two judging form the titles, but he also writes numerous books on Japanese aesthetics and Japomisme for lay people, and this is one such.

From time to time, I want to say , "Must you spell it out thus? Don't we Japanese all know it?" But he does in order to move to the next level of discourse, and that's when things get hairy. I don't know design jargon in Japanese, and not much about Japanese art history. And according to him, I am more "Western" in taste/preference than Japanese, and sometimes I try to analyze design in a more "Western" way. So the fact is, he has to spell everything out so I, or any reader, can understand what he claims is a normal/average Japanese way of appreciating design, and place ourselves on a spectrum of Japanese-ness. And if you this sounds very restricting, well, we Japanese like to think we are all the same, even though there are big regional, generational, socio-economic, and personal differences; but it's polite to assume we all see things the same way.

He covers excruciatingly interesting stuff, like how Japanese prefer geometric balance in composition, how we have a Silver Ratio (1 to square root of 2) as opposed to the Golden Ratio, and the dichotomy of Japanese preferences seen in the use of diagonal lines. And much more.

The proportion in composition explains why I see Japanese -style quilts made in the West and they feel "wrong". Japanese are very big on how things are supposed to be done, the myriad of unwritten rules called "common sense" in all spheres of life. And if you challenge these rules, the answer is often, "If you're Japanese, you wouldn't have to ask."

This is why the book is interesting. Mitsui tells us what pleases us, and shows these to us using numbers and pictures. That he quantified and wrote in words what we think we know instinctively is in itself fascinating.

I can only read 4 or 5 pages at a time, and study the illustrations over and over again. I thought to explain some parts on this blog, but as with many things Japanese, it just doesn't translate; in our language even a grammatical suffix can change the nuance and I need sentences and paragraphs to clarify.

I will need to read the book several times to understand, to learn, what Mitsui writes, and I'm only a quarter of the way in Round One.

* * * * *

Japanese are supposed to be great at negative space. With some paintings and woodblock prints from the Edo period in particular, the majority of a work's plain can be negative space with only a hint of "positive" stuff around the edges.

I've never been good at spotting negative spaces and once again it came back to bite me in class on Friday. We were to show the figure using a minimum amount of the lightest areas. I can't do that, so I started putting in the lighter area and built up the lightest parts, in the same way I do shades. All the (electric) lights were turned off, except the two bulbs above the model's shoulder. Ronette kept reminding us to get the distances between the light areas right.

This was very difficult and slightly strange to me, and when it's this difficult, the experience feels very personal, as if I'm caressing the model, not in a sexual but a friendly, mutually-supportive way. And if I had to do it, I'm glad we had this model.

When I don't understand something, my imagination dons a straight jacket. I hoped I might get something from a negative image of the drawing, but no.

I bet we're going to do this technique again next week.


  1. I think the comment that you think more in a Western Way is very interesting. When younger, I always thought we were all alike, but cultures do affect us in so many unspoken and unknown ways, that living with someone who was brought up in a different culture makes it very difficult to sometimes even understand what the other person is thinking, let alone why and that is because often we don't know why we are the way we are.
    It must take a lot of research and study to understand why I do or see something someway and someone else sees it a different. way. Thanks for writing this, I'll have to read it over several times to understand all you said.

  2. One of the most interesting aspects of cultural perception, I think, is how we see colors, Viejo. I understand physiologically we see them similarly, but for e.g. in Japanese, the word that roughly translates to "blue" covers far, far into the green territory if translated into Enlgish. I'm not saying this right, but teals are usually described by older folks as "blue", and even some greens. Because our word for "blue" covered a wider range on the spectrum.

    But then on the red side, we have separate words for yellow-red ("shu", which is the true red in Japan) and for blue-red("beni", or lipstick color).

    Ditto with the many words for rain, or snow, etc.

    I know aesthetic perception is heavily influenced by culture, or where you've been. When I visited China, particularly around Beijing, I understood why the red & gold combination is used often in China - they look good in their sun, and I was quite shocked I liked the combination.

    Now, I'm going to bed for some more reading of this book. Nighty night, my gentle friend.

  3. Thought provoking post, Meg. And I love those photos of you!

  4. Meg, can you show us a comparison of a golden ratio rectangle and a silver ratio rectangle? I am completely ignorant of math. I can't read math or understand the discussion in any meaningful way. Not my fault. Someday if you want, I'll tell you the long story. Anyway, I like your discussion of cultural perception. My husband identifies colors so differently. Something I'd call teal he calls blue. Something I see as purple, he sees as blue. He doesn't get the blue/green combinations or red/blue combinations at all. They are either blue or green, red or blue. Causes all kinds of consternation when we talk about laundry. LOL

  5. Hmmm.... all very interesting, especially in the context of our recent Japanese/Brazilian exchanges. I grew up with so many different influences that I have no idea what I am anymore. But, genetically, I am Icelandic and other Nordic mixes. When I decided to move from Chicago, I knew that I had to go South. Partly because I hate long winters, but it had even more to do with light. I thought I would like the Northwest and went to visit a friend in Washington. The light was pale, on the blue side and it made me depressed. Then I visited Kentucky, North Carolina, and Arkansas, all during the winter months. Even in the cold, the sunsets cast a golden glow over the landscape that warmed my heart. So, I guess in two generations, the Nordic palette has been completely wiped out of my subconscious. That translates into my art, as well. I don't like the pale colors used in Swedish and other Nordic compositions. I prefer Mediterranean colors. But, I also don't identify with palettes that are too bright, too heavy on the primary colors.

    I have felt very drawn to the Japanese quilts that I have seen exhibited here in the States, but not the ones that look traditional Japanese. Instead, there is a type that uses a lot of soft plaids, loosely woven fabrics and are warm and rustic. Same thing with other Japanese textiles. A friend of mine sells vintage kimono here and although the "geisha" types are gorgeous, I go for the peasant ones that are more earthy. So, my point is that I am wondering if there really is a true Japanese sensibility or if there is a big difference in how class and environment expresses taste and space in their textiles.

  6. Connie, the book reads as if a small boy is poking my brain with a stick, but by the time I turn around, he's gone, every time.

    Sunny, calling green "blue" I was going to ask if he's Japanese, but then we're hypersensitive to purples and navies, and come to think of it, the yellow end of greens, so perhaps not.

    Golden Ratio, a.k.a. The Golden Mean, Phi, and a few other names, I guess the place to start is Wiki:

    But if you're visual, check these out:

    Basically, it's around 1:1.61803399.

    Wiki on Silver Ratio, which I heard about for the first time yesterday, is worse:

    And most other Google findings appears to be about math, not visual.

    I'll cut up some paper and do a post in a day or two, because these two numbers aren't THAT far apart, but the application visually is interesting. And it also proves AND NEGATES Professor Mitsui's claims, I feel - or is that the Japanese dichotomy... Goodness, if you thought my identity crisis was bad before, this book takes it to a whole new level.

  7. Rayela Art, first off, you must know I've lived in Japan for about half my life, spent formative years (3-6, high school and college) in Minnesota, (and a year in Tucson), and the last 16 in New Zealand, the last 14 in Nelson. My parents were liberal city folks, I didn't have a home town or relations in the country, and most crucial to me, I didn't start to weave (ergo wasn't interested in textiles other than as a consumer) until I came to NZ.

    That said, here are things I know, have read, or seen in docos: we used to have different dialects if we crossed a river or a mountain, and there was very little traveling or cross-regional exchange by the masses. During some periods, travel was even prohibited and policed. So we have very many regional traditions, including the material and aesthetics for/of/in textiles.

    At the same time we've always had two distinct streams of culture and especially art; that of the masses and that of the Imperial Court.

    Some traditions, (pottery, textiles, furniture, food) become known to us because of commercial success, Imperial customs (businesses can still advertise the fact they have the Imperial Office customs if/when they do - there are cute, often gold, stickers on merchandises to show that sometimes), or being "discovered" by the press or critics. I wouldn't be surprised if there are many others yet unknown to us, and I hope the makers don't all die out, because in many crafts, there is only one or two persons in their 80's and 90's left who know the skills.

    As well, we are too easily influenced by what others think, and in the 80's there was a big resurgence of old wooden furniture shapes like steps, and Noh plays, because Westerners told us they were nice.

    The popularity of Imari and Arita pottery is possibly an older example of that; Mashiko pottery because of Hamada's travels and his relationship with Leach, though talk about a disparate aesthetic in one "school", you could call almost anything "Mashiko" because that one seems to be more a philosophy or the location of your kiln than aesthetic.

    Then there is the dichotomy of attitudes as I discussed that in our conversation. We were a feudal farming nation for a long time - I'd say up to 1886 or after The War. Most folks were poor, most folks worked hard and obeyed their employers at work, their local leaders in town, and elders in their families. Head down, bum-up, suck it in and move on kind of a life. One does not flaunt, or show off wealth and success, and this tradition is alive in well in the language. At least if you know how to speak the old-style polite language. (The Labor movement in Japan spread, among other reasons, because of the ill treatment of young female workers in textile mills in the early 1900's.)

    Along side it was a different kind of carefree, merry, almost-drunken,child-like joie de vivre that I didn't see much while growing up. They are associated often with farming, in spring cherry season and in autumn, and this is the part of Japan that was never touched by Christianity and its guilt package, (we have our own guilt package), nor the post War Protestant work ethic. (to be continued.)

  8. Where am I? Like any group of more than one person, there is no solid, catch all anything in Japan. There are country vs ity, Imperial vs lay, regional, generational (and even within the Post War generation, there are probably... oh at least 4 or 5 different subgroups,) differences.

    Having said that, the "geisha" style kimono shows the influences of the Imperial style, (that is, what the aristocrats liked, mostly in the Heian Period), whereas the Indigo tradition in all its numerous permutations is closer to the lay tradition.

    I'll probably cringe reading this in the future after I read some more stuff. But this is an important point: in spite of the vast differences, Japanese, particularly those of us from the Tokyo region, like to think we are one people, in contrast to "The West".

    So yes, I do think there are a few traditions in our aesthetics that we see as strictly "Japanese". The manga/horror/teenage-girly stuff since the 80's really boggles the old minds because it's seen as just a fad by those who decide what is "Japanese".

    Oh, boy, I'm way out of my comfort zone now.

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  10. Great posts Meg!!! Lovely to see your photo. You look so ... so... YOU!! Lovely, truly lovely.

    I shall travel to see you sometime my friend.

  11. SB, look at all those grays! And the hair is nowhere as shiny or full-bodied like when you knew it. :-(

  12. I like the laughing one too Meg. I don't know if this will help you with your negative space issues or not as it's likely different in context to drawing, but as a designer, I learned that the alphabet relies on negative space as much as positive space to be legible. Think about it, if you fill in the negative spaces of letters, or condense them to the point they are distorted, it is hard to read most letters. And in page design, I was taught that in the same way, you must create areas of negative space so that your eyes can move around the page, and recognize what it is seeing.

    In interior design, negative space is often used to create places of rest for the eyes. Or rhythm to the room, ie: active, bold, rest, active rest active. I hope this makes sense.


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