Biting Into Summer

sumi-e ink painting of peaches with haiku

summer solstice
peaches ripen
into sweetness

Today was fun: I tried the Japanese art of etegami for the first time. Debbie Davidson, an inspiring practitioner of this custom who was born and raised in Hokkaido, Japan and goes by dosankodebbie, explains on her blog:

“Etegami (e= ‘picture’; tegami= ‘letter/message’) are simple drawings accompanied by a few apt words. They are usually done on postcards so that they can be easily mailed off to one’s friends. Though etegami has few hard-and-fast rules, traditional tools and materials include writing brushes, sumi ink, blocks of water-soluble, mineral-based pigments called gansai, and washi postcards . . . They often depict some ordinary item from everyday life, especially items that bring a particular season to mind.”

Most of my paintings come together over a period of weeks or months. I start by writing the haiku and let possible images percolate for awhile. I then sketch and paint multiple versions of a piece until I have one I consider finished. After that, I take it to a framing shop to be professionally dry-mounted, since the rice paper needs to be smoothed and strengthened. Then the piece goes to another place to be professionally scanned or photographed, as it is usually too large for me to scan at home.

Aside from all those logistical steps, I have to get over the hurdle of knowing that my sumi ink painting skills are quite basic: it takes decades, or even a lifetime, to truly master this delicate art, and I’ve been at it for less than two years. At this point, my vision often exceeds my grasp, which can be frustrating. So I have to overcome a certain level of resistance before I even get myself into the studio to paint.

But with etegami, the idea is just to draw and write freely, without practicing or sketching anything in pencil first. It’s about authenticity and personal expression, not perfection. In fact, the imperfections become part of the piece, with ink splotches and bleeds adding character. And the heavy postcard-weight paper is ready to mail as soon as the paint is dry.

So, freed for a moment from my perfectionist tendencies, today I set out the etegami supplies I ordered from Debbie, grabbed three peaches from the kitchen, wrote the haiku above, painted the piece, scanned and uploaded it. And I made three other etegami besides.

Is it perfect? No. After I finished, I decided I really need to make a smaller and simpler chop (name seal) for signing these cards: the smallest one I have, which reads “Makino,” seems too big and obtrusive here. And I wondered if the haiku should have read “the peaches ripen” instead.

But no matter. In the space of a morning, I created four new art cards that are full of heart, and mailed one off to my sister for her birthday. That’s what I call a juicy day. Oh, and the peach I ate was really, really good. Happy summer!

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4 Comments

  1. Posted March 23, 2013 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    Hello. I am new to etegami but I have a feeling that I will be better at it than I am at sumi-e. I feel it in my bones.

    I like your peaches. Where did you get your stamp?

  2. Posted March 26, 2013 at 12:29 am | Permalink

    Hi Limner,

    Thanks for your note! The stamp is a carved stone custom-made in Japan. I also had one custom-made in a store in Chinatown in San Francisco.

    But for etegami, according to Debbie Davidson, the custom is to use much simpler chops — you can carve one or more for yourself out of an eraser!

  3. girl friday
    Posted March 9, 2015 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    No definite article needed. In fact, it would be ‘de trop’ here, as peaches have become a class, or group or stand for all peaches. Your instinct was right. Of course :-).

    • Posted March 9, 2015 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

      Thanks girl friday! Can’t wait for peach season to come around again…

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  • By River Flow | Makino Studios on September 11, 2012 at 3:00 am

    [...] the river. These small-scale, intimate works are inspired by the Japanese tradition of etegami (see my previous post on [...]

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