Friday, April 23, 2010

lessons from the tomato exhibit

Today was the once-monthly gathering of "The Group of Four," a group that includes myself and three other Etegami artists. I use the word "artist" for the reader's sake. None of us really thinks of ourselves as artists. We just "do etegami." Of the four, Yoko has been doing etegami the longest, and as she is also the oldest, we tend to look to her for answers when we have questions.

I'm the only non-Japanese in the group, and the others are always interested to hear about the responses I get from the readers of my etegami blog. So today, I brought along the cards from the Tomato Etegami Exhibit. I was curious as to what their reaction would be. Their comments were quite enlightening, so I recorded them to share with you here. After you've finished reading their comments, please leave a comment of your own in the comment box.

Yoko, Michiko, Ryoko: Oh, how pretty these cards are! How creative!
Debbie: They are, aren't they? They were all submitted to my Tomato Etegami Call.
Yoko: These are etegami? (There is doubt in her voice.)
Debbie: They were intended as etegami. Do you think they qualify as etegami?
Michiko: Well, I think this one is an etegami. (She picks up a card showing three tomatoes in the hues of matcha green, chocolate, and brown). Isn't it amazing that she found tomatoes in these colors!
Debbie: I don't think the tomatoes actually came in those colors, Michiko. I think she chose to paint them in those colors to make them more interesting.
Michiko: Oh... but then it's not etegami... is it?
Ryoko: Oh, look at this one. How interesting. (She holds up a piece showing a tomato-red splatter with a stem in the middle) But this seems to be drawn from her imagination, not by observing an actual tomato.
Michiko: Yoko, if the image isn't drawn with a border, is it still etegami? (She points out a piece showing one red tomato in the middle of the card. We study the card, and for the first time I realize the tomato has no border.)
Yoko: I've never seen an etegami where the image wasn't first outlined in black ink, but the question never came up before that I know of. (She picks up another tomato card) Now, this one is close to being a traditional etegami, except I suspect the artist wasn't observing an actual tomato as he drew it. Observing the actual subject while drawing it is pretty basic to etegami.
Debbie: But what about the "War Memories" etegami exhibit that was published in the Japan Etegami Society magazine last summer? Those pieces were obviously drawn from memory, not from the actual scenes.
Yoko: That's true. But that was an unusual case. Those people were asked to draw something from the past that didn't exist anymore.
Ryoko: Wow! Look at this one drawn on corrugated cardboard! What's all the writing on the bottom, Debbie?
Debbie: That's my address, Ryoko. This artist puts the address and postage stamps on the same side as the artwork. See? She does it here too. (We look at two submissions from the same artist)
Ryoko: That's very creative, but it's unthinkable in etegami.
Yoko: As beautiful as it is, the shadow on this one disqualifies it from being etegami. (She points at the purple shadowing underneath a tomato. And I notice that this one also has no border.) It's a still life painting rather than an etegami.
Michiko: These are all gorgeous. But I wouldn't describe them as etegami. They are Art with a capital A. Some of these are still life paintings, like Yoko says. Some are graphic arts or illustrations, but they're not etegami. (She points at several pieces and then waves her hand over all the cards.)
Debbie: Can someone articulate the difference for me?
Ryoko: It's like they're making it look the way they want it to look by maintaining control over the image. In etegami we don't have that kind of control over the drawing. We're not supposed to have that kind of control. We don't know what it's going to look like till we're done. And it's almost impossible to make adjustments once the ink is on paper, so we have to take it or leave it as it turns out. Right, Yoko?
Yoko: The method and the tools we use make it purposely hard to control the drawing. We move the ink brush so slowly that it jerks with each heartbeat. Add that to the coarseness of the card which creates friction with the brush, making our lines even harder to control. There aren't many rules to etegami. But trying not to have too much control over the ink brush is fundamental. I was also taught that you should draw from observing the actual subject and that you should try not to use more than three colors in one etegami.
Debbie: Yeah, that's how I was taught. But I break the color rule a lot.
Yoko: Yes, I know. (She says it with a smile.)
Debbie: I also draw from photographs sometimes.
Yoko: That's allowed if you can't get hold of the actual subject. But it's a poor second choice.

This is as much of our discussion as I have room to put here, but I'd like to direct your attention to the April 2009 post on "living lines" that explains how important it is in etegami not to have too much control over your ink brush or other writing utensil. If you use a pen rather than an ink brush, you might want to try dangling it from the end with the tips of your fingers, as shown in the photo in the post.


  1. Very interesting conversation. I am still comptemplating what subject I want for my etegami, but after reading the above conversation I think it is more the fact I have a hard time relinquishing control to the etigami itself so to speak. This will be a exercise for me. Hope to send one soon.

  2. I've been doing etegami for more than ten years, and I still have to remind myself time and time again to slow down, and to resist trying to control the ink brush.

  3. I would agree with your friends that many of the cards are not technically etegami, but art based on etegami. Apparently etegami is a certain style with rules, just as tanka poetry style is different from haiku style is different from free-style. Didn't the Impressionists have this problem, too?!

  4. Linda, I agree that "art based on etegami" would be a safe way to describe most of the submissions. But in my opinion, there's no real problem in calling most of them "etegami." Maybe non-traditional etegami?

    Etegami does have some traditions, but the only real *rule* is that it be a combination of a simple drawing and words. The name of the art encapsulates the only real rule. E=picture Tegami=letter (written message). And since it's a message to someone, it should be sent.

    Not all cards used by etegami artists are the coarse washi cards that make the ink spread, cause friction with the ink brush, and are recommended by the Japan Etegami Society. The smoother cards don't result in the irregularities that I find so interesting about etegami. But that's up to the artist's own sensibility, if you ask me.

    Not all etegami artists use ink brushes or gansai paints either. I've known etegami artists who use unusual materials. And I've seen plenty of etegami depicting scenes in styles common with watercolor paintings, but they are called "etegami" because they are done on postcards, and because words accompany the drawing.

    BUT, if you want to produce an etegami that isn't likely to be taken as being in the style of a still-life oil painting or a western-style watercolor painting, the traditions (as opposed to rules) of etegami will make your etegami stand out from other forms of art.

    --traditions such as the wobbly lines, choosing seasonal subjects, observing the subject as you draw rather than imagining it, leaving the background of the card clear of decoration, leaving uncolored spaces even within the border of the drawing, and other techniques that I've mentioned in my posts.

    So, although the conversation in the post contained a lot of food for thought, I don't think it should discourage anyone from producing non-traditional etegami. The post was meant to point out different characteristics of traditional etegami that might help someone who is trying to do it in the traditional way, and can't figure out that they have, or where they have, misunderstood the traditions.

  5. Thanks Debbie, this post and comments have taken away some of the mystery I had in my mind about Etegami. Maybe I should give it a try! The recipe etegami idea appeals to me.
    Cheers, Helen.

  6. I do hope you give it a try, Helen. Combining Etegami with one of your other interests (cooking is another passion of mine-- and maybe yours?) is a fun way to go about it.

  7. I would love to join the others to thank you for this very interesting and enriching post + comments about Etegami. I'll try to remember all the traditional rules to be able to do it correctly and beautifully like yours, Debbie!

  8. Yun! Thank you for the compliment, but I don't think Etegami has to be correct or beautiful. It should be enjoyable, for both the sender and the receiver. I aim for etegami that are thoughtful or thought-provoking. But you can aim for other things too.

    Since discovering the world of Western mailart, I have been experimenting with etegami and making non-traditional etegami-collage hybrids. You've seen some of them. It is so much fun to experiment, but it feels good to go back to traditional etegami once in a while. Traditional etegami feels peaceful to me.

    Anyway, if you aim for correct and beautiful, you end up trying to control the etegami. And that is not such a good thing.

  9. I especially enjoyed this post. Very insightful about the spirit of traditional Etegami.

    Thank you so much for sharing. Without your translating, this would not have been as accessible.

  10. Momo, thank you for visiting this blog. I'm glad you thought the post was insightful. Please feel free to participate in the various etegami and mailart calls that I regularly announce. The next one for Etegami is Hydrangea blossoms. I will post a mini-exhibit here next month.

  11. I remember reading this a couple of years ago, and it's just as instructive and enlightening now as it was then. I had forgotten about the 3-color rule! Are differing shades of the same color ok?
    When I read these blog posts, it makes me feel more hopeful about painting again. The simplicity of it makes it less daunting-- pick up something fresh and paint it...

    When I "teach" adults etegami at the library where I work, several of them invariably want do scrap the rules. I explain about not having good control over the brush, and how you paint the outline first, then color it in. The outline really adds to the colors & is also more arresting visually. But only a few people actually stay to what I show and tell them. I try not to let it bother me, lol.
    Thank you for this post!