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Idea Starter 5 - Kitagawa Utamaro Picture Books Inspired by Nature

There are books, printing and paintings by the Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806). Often these illustrate insects, birds and the seashore, and are accompanied by poetry. Access the books here.

In this very extraordinary time it is important that we look after those around us and we also look after ourselves. A good way to offer self-care is through ‘creative flow’, when you take on an activity that focuses your mind and attention in an imaginative and absorbing way.

We understand you might not have access to lots of art materials, so we’ve designed these art idea starters with the most basic art kit, but please adapt our suggestions to suit your home supplies and environment.


Linking your image creates harmony. The visual compositions are often spread over two pages, sometimes with an element such as a broad leaf or a branch unifying the two pages.

Including words. Notice that areas of the composition are left empty for the words of the poetry, and enhance the balance of the painting. These East Asian ideas about composition greatly influenced Western artists such as Van Gogh, Whistler and Degas who were intrigued by the compositional ‘spaces’.

Kitagawa Utamaro worked in wood-block prints as well as in brush and ink. He used different line weights (thickness) for different elements of his images. For example, in the bird book illustrated, there is a depiction of two birds, a woodpecker and a grosbeak. The branches of the trees are made with broad sweeping brushstrokes that describe the solidity of the branches. The birds and their details are made with fine brush lines which enhance their delicacy as well as the more defined sharpness of eyes and beaks. Often the colours are delicate: this creates a soft effect. Powered colour pigments were often mixed with rice paste as a binder, which resulted in a gentle, matt finish. Other books include volumes about the natural world: plants and flowers, small animals and insects, and nature at the seashore.

Closely observe.

If you have access to a garden or a park, there will be both insects and birds to observe, or you could use the details from a window-box of plants or an arrangement of shells, pebbles and plants. Maybe you have pets – these make good subjects for your illustrations and words.

Creating your painting

Draw lightly in HB pencil your observational studies, then using your paints make the lines in your brush strokes: these are confident single lines. It helps to make up a puddle of your paints to use, as you might use inks. Remember to wash your brush in clean water between different paint colours.

Write your words

Think about the words you want to write and what you want to convey. It might be what you felt when you observed the birds or insects, or what you remember from the beach when you found the shell or pebbles. Write your thoughts or poetry on another piece of paper, cut around it, and put it in different places on your picture to see how it affects the picture. When you are happy with its placement, copy it out onto the pages you have illustrated.

Bind your book

You can create more illustrated pages, inspired by studies of the natural world just as those by Kitagawa Utamaro were, and add these to your book. When you have finished, arrange your illustrated pages between your card or postcard covers and bind them together, either carefully taping or stitching. For Japanese stab book-binding instructions, there are many tutorials available online: this one is a good example.

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