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by SL Savarick

Click for a Larger View The history of the inro coincides, roughly, with the Momoyama and Tokugawa periods, about four hundred years. Its origin is murky, and the lack of documentary evidence and records of artists make it hard to find exact dates and direct records of techniques. Signatures in Japanese art, except on paintings, were not important. In lacquer they were rarely used at all until the eighteenth century, and then only on small objects, such as inro. Still, some of the finest inro are unsigned, and many of the best artists worked for the daimyos and the imperial and shogunate courts where an artist's signature on his work would have been an arrogant breach of decorum. With the opening of Japan and the Meiji era, and the accompanying rush to Western dress with its pockets, the use of the inro declined rapidly in the cities, more gradually in the hinterlands.

If you get a chance to view traditional inro up close, you will appreciate their beauty and sheer decorative qualities, their wide range of colors and shadings, the variety of subject matter depicted, and the mechanical precision with which the cases fit together so that the covering design maintains an uninterrupted flow even while they are completely functional, and, the amount of time and infinite patience required to produce these effects. An inro may have as many as sixty layers of lacquer (or more) from start to finish, each of which had to cure overnight or longer in a damp press (a box constantly covered with moist cloths), then ground to smoothness and polished before the next layer could similarly be applied, dried, and polished. Sound familiar? While the current techniques I have developed take days or a week at the most to complete, the traditional lacquer process takes weeks or months. Japanese lacquer is one of the most highly developed fine craft forms the world has known. At first Japanese lacquer artisans copied from the Chinese but soon artists began to evolve their own styles and designs; Most interestingly, and importantly, Japanese lacquer artisans continually invented new techniques which they proceeded to develop to perfection. Just as we are doing today in Polymer.

The most important Japanese invention was called makie. The word makie made its first appearance in print in the ninth century. Literally it means "sprinkled picture," and it is a process that involves drawing a design in lacquer on a carefully prepared ground, and then, before the lacquer cures, sprinkling it with gold or silver dust, or sometimes colored powders (Can you say Pearl-Ex?!). The design is not, as always before, painted on with a brush using powders bound together with glue, but is sprinkled onto the still damp drawing. When this layer is dried and polished, the process is repeated many times. In other words, the makie technique consists essentially of building up the design by repeated applications of lacquer followed by metallic dustings and rubbings. By thus applying lacquer to specific areas of the design rather than to the entire surface, the artist can obtain varying degrees of relief and delicate shadings, and the individual specks of gold, brought out by the repeated polishing, glisten. At the same time, a lovely lustrous finish is created and a sense of depth, even when the final surface is completely flat. It might be pointed out that the makie technique allows no margin for error because there is no way to remove the dustings from the sticky lacquered surface. While the process of makie was a bit more more difficult and time consuming than today's polymer techniques, one can achieve results that are just as dazzling when they approach polymer with the same attention to detail as did the traditional asian lacquer artisans.

The three most important types of makie are togidashi, hiramakie, and takamakie. In togidashi, which literally means to "bring out by rubbing," the finished design is completely covered with several layers of lacquer, usually black, which are then very carefully polished down with charcoal until the top layers are worn away and the sprinkled design reappears. As a result of this gradual grinding down, the design is now on exactly the same plane as the surrounding ground. Then the whole surface is coated with transparent lacquer, which, in turn, is polished. The finished effect is an absolutely even, flat, softly shimmering surface.

There are so many special techniques that were developed, just as we are currently doing in polymer. One special type of togidashi, known as sumie, produced a very distinctive effect. Powdered charcoal sprinkled into a silver (sometimes gold) ground and then rubbed down resulted in a design that closely resembled an ink painting {sumie). Hira means "flat," so hiramakie is a "flat sprinkled picture." It is easier to make than togidashi: the sprinkled design is simply covered with transparent lacquer and polished to a fine gloss. Because the design is not polished down, as in togidashi, hiramakie is, in fact, not strictly flat but slightly raised from the surface. Taka means "raised," so takamakie is a "raised sprinkled picture," wherein the decoration is first applied in relief and then sprinkled so that varying heights can be achieved. Takamakie, which originated in the fourteenth century and was fully developed in the fifteenth, is perhaps the most distinctive feature of Japanese lacquer and surely the one requiring the most patience.

The three basic types of makie are often combined in numerous ways. They are also combined with inlay and incrustation work of many kinds of materials: mother-of-pearl, awabi and other shell, ivory, metal, faience, porcelain, pottery, hardstones and the like. There are more than four hundred refinements of the makie technique, depending upon the type and fineness of the metal powders, the over-lacquering and polishing, no polishing, and so on - each with its own distinctive name. Makie lacquer is unique to Japan, and over the years was brought to an artistic and technical perfection.

Back to the inro! The traditional lacquer inros' base, or core, was usually of paper. Washi paper was coated with lacquer and wrapped around a core form or mold that was later removed. This work was carried out by a class of workers called the nurimono-shi, whose job was to prepare the core for the lacquer artist, known as the makie-shi. Dozens of steps were involved in applying these basic lacquer layers to create the base core before it was ready for decoration. Only then did the makie-shi begin his slow task of transferring his design onto the core, and of repeated lacquering, dustings, dryings, and polishing, until he was satisfied that he could do no more. Often he worked with other specialists in metalwork and inlay.

It should be noted that contrary to popular belief, inro cores were not made of wood. Wood was used only for the floors and roofs of each compartment and had to be thoroughly seasoned. Often, wood intended for use in inro was suspended in the air for years, exposed to the vagaries of weather and temperature, so that no possible cracking or warping should ever occur. The evolution of the inro resulted in perhaps the finest miniature lacquer art ever seen, a utilitarian object of exquisite beauty that was highly prized, especially during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and again today.

So, you see that working in polymer today is in very many ways the same as the ajoiner, nurimono-shi and makie-shi were in their time. Of course, we can also do so much more with today's polymer, but I love to think about what my fellow lacquer artisans of the Momoyama and Tokugawa periods were thinking as they developed their art form, just as I work to develop mine. It is what grounds and centers me in my polymer work. I feel a part of a tradition that has roots in over 500 years of history, yet is new and open to new creative ideas, more so than any fine craft medium today. If you have no interest in making inro or other vessel forms, these techniques can also be applied to any polymer form.

Back to the Beginning

SL Savarick
©2003 Text and Photos


SL Savarick is a full time polymer clay artisan living in Los Angeles, California. He describes his work as the fusion of traditional Asian lacquer techniques with modern sensibilities. He brings to his work a strong background in the graphic arts and his love of early 20th century design philosophies. He is honored to have been chosen as one of 27 instructors teaching at the EoPC Conference coming up in August, 2004.

We would like to thank SL for sharing this Inro article with PCC! If you have an article or lesson or project that your would like to see pubished at PCC, please contact or or any staff member and we will help you prepare your article for the PCC Website!


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