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The Colours of Japanese Mineral Pigments and Their Origins

Mineral pigments in Kinkaido art supplies shop, Yanaka, Tokyo, 2023

Art supply shops are happy places for artists, and Japanese art supply shops can be especially aesthetic experiences when rows of pigments are arranged like a rainbow on the shelf. It is one of life's great joys to walk past and look at all the different colours that you didn't even know existed before. Each pigment offers up new paths for the creator and new ways of seeing and appreciating the world around us. A tree no longer becomes just "green", but far more interesting and nuanced when you look at it more closely and try to understand what shades of green you need to depict it.

rows upon rows of colourful mineral pigments in an art supplies shop in Tokyo
The art supplies shop Pigment Tokyo, Shinagawa, Tokyo 2023

Mineral pigments are experiencing a resurgence in popularity as people seek a return to simpler, more "earthy" materials, fostering a deeper connection with nature. Japanese mineral pigments, known as "iwa enogu" (岩絵具), are celebrated for their rich hues and natural origins. These pigments are derived from various minerals found in Japan and across Asia, each bringing its own unique colour and characteristics to traditional Japanese art. Here is a closer look at just a few of the different colours and their origins.

Kinkaido shop, Yanaka, Tokyo, 2023

1. Gunjo (群青) - Ultramarine Blue

Origin: Azurite

Gunjo is a deep, vivid blue pigment made from azurite, a copper carbonate mineral. Azurite has been used as a pigment for centuries and is valued for its intense, rich colour. The process of creating gunjo involves grinding the mineral into a fine powder and then purifying it to achieve the desired hue. This pigment is often used to depict skies and water, bringing a sense of calm and depth to artworks.

Detail of gold leaf screen, showing women on a bridge tossing fans into a river, 17th century

2. Enji (縁起) - Carmine Red

Origin: Cinnabar

Enji, or carmine red, is derived from cinnabar, a mercury sulfide mineral. Cinnabar has a bright, striking red color that has been used in Japanese art for its vibrancy and longevity. Enji is traditionally associated with protection and vitality, often used in depictions of sacred and powerful objects, as well as in the creation of seals.

3. Odo (黄土) - Yellow Ochre

Origin: Iron oxide minerals

Odo, or yellow ochre, is a natural earth pigment containing iron oxide. This pigment has been used since prehistoric times and is found in various regions in Japan. Odo ranges in colour from yellow to brown, depending on the specific mineral content. It is commonly used in landscapes to depict earth and foliage, providing a warm, natural tone to the artwork.

4. Sekio (石黄) - Litharge Yellow

Origin: Lead monoxide

Sekio, or litharge yellow, is derived from lead monoxide, giving it a bright, lemon-yellow hue. Although lead-based pigments have fallen out of favour due to their toxicity, sekio was traditionally used in Japanese art for its brilliant colour and opacity. It often appears in ornamental and decorative elements, adding a pop of bright colour.

5. Byakuroku (白緑) - Light Green

Origin: Malachite

Byakuroku is a light green pigment made from malachite, another copper carbonate mineral like azurite. Malachite produces a vibrant green colour that has been prized for centuries. This pigment is used to depict natural elements such as leaves, grass, and trees, contributing to the serene and harmonious qualities of traditional Japanese paintings.

6. Shio (紫黄) - Purple

Origin: Manganese oxide

Shio, or purple, is derived from manganese oxide. This pigment provides a range of purple hues, from soft lavenders to deep violets. Purple has historically been associated with nobility and spirituality in Japan, making shio a significant pigment for religious and imperial artworks.

7. Kohaku (琥珀) - Amber

Origin: Fossilized tree resin

Kohaku, or amber, is derived from fossilized tree resin and provides a warm, golden-brown hue. While not a mineral pigment in the strictest sense, amber has been used as a pigment for its unique translucence and warm colour. It is often used in decorative arts, adding a sense of richness and depth to the composition.

8. Jin (青磁) - Celadon Green

Origin: Green earth minerals (such as glauconite)

Jin, or celadon green, comes from green earth minerals like glauconite. This soft green pigment is reminiscent of the colour of celadon pottery, highly prized in both Chinese and Japanese cultures. Jin is used in paintings to evoke a sense of tranquillity and natural beauty, often appearing in landscapes and botanical scenes.

9. Kōdō (紅銅) - Reddish-Brown

Origin: Hematite

Kōdō, or reddish-brown, is derived from hematite, an iron oxide mineral. This pigment provides a warm, earthy tone that is often used to depict landscapes, particularly soil and rocks. It can range from a deep, rust-like red to a softer brown, adding a natural and grounded feel to artwork.

10. Gofun (胡粉) - White

Origin: Shell powder (calcium carbonate)

Gofun is a white pigment made from finely ground seashells, primarily oyster shells. It has been a staple in Japanese painting and is known for its brilliant opacity and smooth texture. Gofun is often used as a base layer or to highlight and add details to paintings, providing contrast and light.

11. Rokusho (緑青) - Verdigris

Origin: Copper acetate

Rokusho, or verdigris, is a green pigment derived from copper acetate. This pigment has a bright, almost turquoise hue and has been used historically for its vibrant and slightly transparent quality. It is commonly seen in depictions of foliage and water, adding a fresh and lively element to paintings.

12. Tsuchi-iro (土色) - Earth Colours

Origin: Natural earth pigments

Tsuchi-iro refers to a range of earth tones derived from natural clays and soils. These pigments include various shades of brown, tan, and ochre, each reflecting the specific mineral content of the soil. These colours are used extensively in landscape paintings to depict mountains, fields, and other natural elements, bringing a warm and organic quality to the artwork.

13. Shikkoku (漆黒) - Jet Black

Origin: Soot or charcoal

Shikkoku is a deep black pigment made from soot or charcoal. This pigment is prized for its intense darkness and matte finish. It is often used for outlines, calligraphy, and creating dramatic contrasts in paintings. The depth and purity of shikkoku make it a powerful tool for adding definition and emphasis.

14. Mō (萌黄) - Yellow-Green

Origin: Green earth minerals or plant extracts

Mō is a yellow-green pigment that can be derived from green earth minerals or certain plant extracts. This colour is particularly useful for depicting young leaves and fresh vegetation, bringing a sense of growth and vitality to the artwork. It is a common colour in spring and summer-themed paintings.


Pigment Tokyo, 2023

The above are just a few of the thousands of pigments available. The diverse palette of Japanese mineral pigments offers a glimpse into the rich geological and artistic heritage of Japan. Each pigment, with its unique origin and properties, contributes to the depth and vibrancy of traditional Japanese art. Understanding the origins of these colours not only enhances our appreciation of the art itself but also connects us to the natural world and the meticulous craftsmanship of past artisans.



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