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Teachers' resource: Japanese art & design

This resource introduces teachers to the Japan gallery (Room 45). It shows ways to use the gallery to teach Art & Design and Design & Technology at all National Curriculum Key Stages through a number of themes. It provides links to background information, suggestions for preparing for a visit, activities to do in the Museum and ideas to follow up back at school.

Fashionable brocade patterns of the Imperial palace by Utagawa Kunisada (detail showing left panel only), 1847-1852. Museum no. CIRC.636-1962

Fashionable brocade patterns of the Imperial palace by Utagawa Kunisada (detail showing left panel only), 1847-1852. Museum no. CIRC.636-1962

Lacquered cosmetic box, 1620. Museum no. FE.3-1984.

Lacquered cosmetic box, 1620. Museum no. FE.3-1984.

Japanese style

Suitable for those studying Art & Design at Key Stages 2, 3 and 4.

For this activity students will learn about the various elements of Japanese style and decoration. Back at school they can apply these to typical Japanese objects or their own project work.

Gallery to use

  • Japan (Room 45)

Information to support this project

Before the visit

Before the visit students should choose an item that they will be designing during this activity. Working out in advance the size and shape of the item or items they will be designing will help them to select useful ideas to record when in the gallery. Urge them to consider a range of objects in different media; many of the designs are adaptable and students will he able to transfer ideas from pots to textiles, for example. It is not always necessary to record a whole design; sometimes a single leaf may be of interest. Encourage students to label diagrams and write brief notes as they record anything that catches their attention.

Practise transferring curly shapes by squaring up and using graph paper, or by copying lacy shapes such as ferns.

At the museum

Blue and white futon cover showing chrysanthemums and foaming waves, 19th century. Museum no. T.331-1960

Blue and white futon cover showing chrysanthemums and foaming waves, 19th century. Museum no. T.331-1960

Ask students to consider the following elements of Japanese style, draw examples of motifs and make notes on specific objects that interest them.

Examine how different decorative elements can be combined on a single item, such as a vase or a lacquer box. Students may prefer to study one style element at a time, as this provides a clearer focus. Ability levels will dictate how many elements from those listed below it is appropriate to explore.

Subjects from nature

Draw shapes and decoration linked to the natural world. A wide range is represented: animals, birds, fish, insects, people, flowers, plants, trees, water and mountains. Start by choosing an animal (including birds, reptiles and fish), a 'vegetable' (flower or plant) and a 'mineral' (rocks or mountain). Ask students to be naturalists and search the gallery for new examples of, say, Japanese flowers, insects or underwater life, to draw and add to their collection in a Japanese sketchbook.

Many Japanese forms are sinuous and/or interwoven and require careful, slow observation to be interpreted (tigers, for instance, can be very complex shapes). Allow students plenty of time to trace all the curls of waves, stripes, wings, fins, leaves and so on.

Motifs and symbols.

Pick one motif (flowers for example) and draw variations on different artefacts around the gallery. Line drawings from the student resource sheet Japanese motifs and symbols (PDF file, 227KB) could be used as a guide. At the end of the session, discuss together the meanings the motifs are intended to convey.

Colour

List the various colours they find in the gallery and note the objects on which they appear; they should he able to spot the main colour groups. Note frequent colour combinations, which colours are used in the foreground and which in the background. Place colours and colour combinations in one of the two categories: 'refined austerity' or 'luxurious'. Compare the colours of the cotton and hemp textiles with the more expensive silk ones, as the latter give clear clues as to what the colours mean.

Line

Record the way that Japanese artefacts use simple combinations of line for either the main decorative pattern (as in textiles) or as a border (as on screens). Draw a selection of different patterns based on straight lines, rectangles and zigzags.

Shape, balance and space

Draw the outlines of a range of objects in the gallery, then see if they can group them into those based on squares or rectangles, and those based on circles or curves. Record the decoration of those objects that have ornament mixed with plain, non-decorated areas and then try to estimate the proportion of decorated surface to plain. Older students could analyse how the balance between plain and decorated surface is achieved on some of the objects in the gallery.

Organising a narrative

Draw the narrative scenes on screens, prints, chests and larger boxes. Work out what is happening in different parts of the scene, and see if they can piece the story together, noting how life-like each picture is.

Back at school

After the visit, use the sketches and notes made in the Museum for project work. If students have recorded many different ideas it may be advisable to focus on just one or two elements at a time. Different colours or colour combinations could be tried out on photocopies of their outline drawings. Motifs and symbols can be made into cardboard stencils so that repeats can be made easily.

Extension activities

Paper works

The aim of this activity is to draw a selection of Japanese objects or motifs using line but no shading.

Before the visit give students a range of pencils and crayons that make black marks - charcoal, pencils in a range from 4B to 6H, wax crayons, pastels, biros but please do not use felt tips or markers while in the Museum. Encourage students to draw using line but no shading, keeping the line simple and flowing. Look together at some examples of prints and emphasize the economy of line and lack of fussy detail. The need to select the right tools for thick, thin, heavy or light lines will make this an interesting exercise.

At the Museum you will need the range of pencils and crayons listed above and handmade Japanese paper, available from art shops.

Ask the students to draw a selection of Japanese objects or motifs using line but no shading. Provide a piece of high quality paper for students to draw their very last piece of work in the gallery. They can also use papers that they have previously coloured or decorated with gold or silver foil or pens. Paper can be made more interesting by sprinkling slightly damp sheets with a line speckling of dry poster paint and by carefully tearing the edges. For display, it would be very Japanese to make a border by layering slightly overlapping torn pieces of paper.

Encourage students to work in the Japanese tradition by thinking and planning their drawings before they put pen to paper. They should then concentrate deeply until they have finished: simplicity is much prized.

Woodblock prints

Post-16 students who are studying the work of any of the nineteenth century artists, designers or illustrators influenced by Japanese woodblock prints (Whistler, Degas, Toulouse Lautrec, Manet, Van Gogh, Schiele and Klimt, as well Rennie Mackintosh, Lalique, Christopher Dresser, and Aubrey Beardsley) might like to study the woodblock prints in the Japan gallery. This would help them develop material for their own work, for instance in poster design, printing or graphics.

At the Museum students could look for evidence of woodblock techniques and make a detailed critical analysis of one (but preferably two or more, so comparisons can be made) of the prints on display. They should examine:

  • the accuracy of the registration
  • the body colour of the paper
  • how many colours have been used
  • how many tints (made by adding different amounts of white) of the same colour are used
  • whether differing densities of colour have been achieved in the same area (this is done by wiping the ink off parts of the block before printing, so that the ink is not of even thickness)
  • whether any blocks of colour are overprinted (sometimes a fishing net or open-weave basket, say, is printed over another colour to create a subtle effect of transparency
  • whether the grain of the cherry-wood printing block is apparent in the ink.

Making a Japanese Kamiko coat

Silk kimono for a young woman, 1790-1830. Museum no. FE.32-1982

Silk kimono for a young woman, 1790-1830. Museum no. FE.32-1982

Suitable for those studying Art & Design at Key Stages 3 and 4.

For this activity, students will visit the Museum to gather and record examples of Japanese decorative style, use of colour, and motifs and symbols used in Japanese art and then make and decorate their own kamiko (paper) coat in Japanese style.

Galleries to use

  • Japan (Room 45)
  • British Galleries (Room 125) section on the Influence of Japan 1850-1900
  • Textiles (Room 98) for examples of modern kimono

Information to support this project


Before the visit

Fireman's coat, Japan, late 19th - early 20th century. Museum no. FE.107-1982

Fireman's coat, Japan, late 19th - early 20th century. Museum no. FE.107-1982

Talk to your students about the design of the kimono, which is quite different from the western dress designs they will be used to. This affects how the garments are made and decorated.

The kimono is designed to have a loose fit; it does not reveal the wearer's body shape in the way that modern western dress does. Interest is therefore concentrated on the fabric and the decoration. Kimono are made from lengths of standard width cloth stitched side by side, and vary in length. The diagram shows how all adult kimono are cut in eight sections from one roll of cloth about 36 cm wide and 11 m long. As kimono are hand-stitched, it is relatively easy to take the sections apart and clean them flat. Kimono do not have pockets and are always worn with at least one kimono undergarment.

Paper garments called kamiko were first worn by priests in the tenth century. During the Edo period wearing kamiko became an example of shibui, a way of making a comparison between the austerity of the priest and the rich silk garments worn by others.

How a kimono is cut from a bolt of cloth

Ask students to design kimono appropriate for specific occasions - a birthday, a wedding, a winter country visit, a trip to a tea ceremony and so on. Give students coloured crayons and photocopied sheets on which there are several pairs of outlined kimono shapes to draft out their design ideas. Use one outline for the front and one for the back. Designs can he varied by using linings, hems, motifs and stitching in different colours.

Back at school

Use the student resource sheet Make a Japanese kamiko coat (PDF file, 350 KB) back at school. Younger students will need help with the cutting and taping of the paper, but Key Stage 3 students should be able to work directly from the instructions. Then transfer their chosen decorative design to the coat itself.

Making a Japanese wind streamer

Stencil with design of carp leaping a waterfall, 19th century. Museum no. D.957-1891

Stencil with design of carp leaping a waterfall, 19th century. Museum no. D.957-1891

Suitable for those studying Art & Design at Key Stage 2, though can be adapted for Key Stage 1.

The art of flying kites and wind streamers has been practised in Japan for centuries and produced some of the most spectacular kites in the world. This activity asks students to make and decorate their own Japanese wind streamer.

Gallery to use

  • Japan (Room 45)

Information to support this project

Before the visit

Introduce your students to Japanese kites and wind streamers.

The art of flying kites and wind streamers has been practised in Japan for centuries and produced some of the most spectacular kites in the world, ranging from just a few square centimetres to over 300 square metres. They come in many different shapes and styles: there are kites shaped like hawks, hexagonal fighting kites and ones decorated with traditional symbols like the carp. It is thought that kite-flying was originally a way of making visible prayers to Shinto gods, and so they are used in many religious festivals. Kites painted with devil-like faces were believed to ward off evil, but they were more usually thought to bring such positive things as good harvests, good fortune and happy, strong children. Kites crop up in many Japanese stories as signals for warriors, message carriers and means of escape.

In some rural areas grandparents still present their grandchildren with kites at their first Children's Day Festival, held on the fifth day of the fifth month. Carp streamers (koinohori) are flown outside the house, while inside warrior dolls are displayed and special rice cakes are eaten. The carp became a popular kite shape for this festival as carp are associated with success.

Show students how wind streamers are made and ask them for some examples of other ways that you might decorate the wind streamer other than with the image of a carp (dragons, snakes, etc). Kites were associated with good luck and positive things such as good harvests and happy children so other ideas for images could include faces of happy infants.

At the museum

Go to the Japan gallery. Find images of carp to copy, looking closely at the different ways carp are represented. Gather and record other ideas for the decoration of their streamers back at school, such as designs based on devil like faces, believed by the Japanese to ward off evil. Look closely at the displays of netsuke (toggles) and inro (seal containers) for inspiration.

Back at school

Each member of the class should make and decorate a Japanese wind streamer, using one of the designs made at the V&A.

Designing and making a Japanese-style container

Lacquered miniature picnic set, 1880-1930, Museum no. FE.19:1 to 14-2003

Lacquered miniature picnic set, 1880-1930, Museum no. FE.19:1 to 14-2003

Suitable for those studying Art & Design and Design & Technology at Key Stages 2 and 3.

This activity introduces students to containers and vessels used in Japan for special occasions. Students will compare and contrast present day containers with the objects in the Museum. They will also study the range of functions and features associated with Japanese containers and vessels. Back at school their research will help them design and make containers for special occasions.

Galleries to use

  • Japan (Room 45)
  • British Galleries (Room 125) section on the Influence of Japan 1850-1900

Information to support this project

Materials & equipment

  • Clay
  • Papier mâché
  • Transparent acrylic plastic in a range of tints
  • Card and corrugate cardboard
  • Plastic webbing
  • Straws
  • Coat hanger wire
  • Wooden dowel
  • Welding rods
  • Wood
  • High-density polystyrene
  • Cotton
  • PVA glue

Before the visit

Think about the containers for special purposes that we use today: think about lunch boxes or bags, pencil cases or boxes, make up trays, games boxes etc. Consider what design features make them appropriate for their use. What are they made from? How are they decorated? Are they special or more everyday items?

Explain the design brief. Students will take on the role of product designers for this activity. They have been commissioned by a company to design a Japanese-style product to be sold in a mail-order catalogue in this country. The company sells products at the top end of the market and so wants designs that are distinctive and suitable for use on special occasions; the theme is 'East meets West'. They will use the gallery to carry out research and look for ideas to help them design a lunch box, a picnic set, a writing set or a box for playing cards.

At the museum

Silk gift cover (fukusa), 1800-1850. Museum no. T.94-1927

Silk gift cover (fukusa), 1800-1850. Museum no. T.94-1927

Compare the Japanese containers and vessels with ones they use at home. What are the similarities and differences between the Japanese objects and those that we use for special occasions? What materials have been used? How are objects made to look special? How have they been decorated? How has the designer tried to ensure that an object looks good when displayed, as well as when in use, carried or stored?

Select and sketch objects with a range of shapes, sizes and proportions. Look out for small details such as lids on tea caddies, handles on picnic sets, fastenings and rounded corners. Examine how containers are divided into separate compartments, and how some containers hold smaller containers that fit together to form a set.

If designing a container to hold food, consider whether the materials are suitable. Drinking vessels need to be watertight, so ceramic and lacquered wood are ideal. If they are to hold hot liquid, the handle should ideally be insulated, or else there needs to be an area that does not get hot such as a stand. All food and drink containers need to be washable.

Look for examples of fukusa (decorated cloths which covered a present when it was handed to the recipient with due ceremony) and record some of the designs and colours.

Back at school

Decide how the container is to be carried and the contents kept in place. Think about how the container will be made to look special, and how the item will be made to look good whilst in use. Present ideas in the form of design proposals to the client company.

The easiest way to make a model of their design is by modifying a cardboard box. Compartments can be made inside the box by adding pieces of cardboard, plastic sheet or balsa wood. Reinforcement might be needed where handles or other fittings join, and at corners.

A more sophisticated activity would be to require the different parts to fit together like the sets in the gallery. High-density polystyrene, papier mâché and wire might be useful for construction. Papier mâché can be used either as newspaper strips soaked in diluted PVA glue, or in a mouldable form. This is available commercially as a powder or can he made by boiling torn pieces of newspaper in an old saucepan containing a mixture of one part PVA glue to five parts water. Allow sufficient newspaper to absorb most of the water - about half a broadsheet to 100 ml of glue and 500 ml of water. Let the mixture cool before using it. It will keep for some time in an airtight container.

Students can achieve a variety of decorative finishes with simple materials. Absorbent surfaces such as cardboard can be coated with diluted PVA glue to make them smooth. High-density polystyrene can be sanded down and then covered in fine plaster for a smooth finish.

Extension activity

Create a suitable design for a fukusa to accompany the other objects they are studying or designing. Work in small groups to present a short scene in which one wealthy individual, accompanied by his or her retainers, exchange gifts with one another using fukusa.

Making Japanese-style dress accessories

Lacquer showing a ship in a stormy sea, about 1650-1750. Museum no. W.110-1922

Lacquer showing a ship in a stormy sea, about 1650-1750. Museum no. W.110-1922

Suitable for those studying Art & Design at Key Stages 2 and 3.

In this activity students study the craftwork in two types of accessory worn with Japanese traditional costume, in particular the inro (a small decorative seal holder which hung from the belt by a cord) and the netsuke (which fixed the end of the cord to stop it slipping.) They will then make their own versions back at school.

Gallery to use

  • Japan (Room 45)

Information to support this project

Before the visit

Initiate discussion about the things that people carry when going out and how they are carried. Discuss the items we use to carry small things when we wear something that has no pockets. Purses, pouches and money belts are common examples of containers that hold small items and are secured to the body. The dress accessories they will study are the traditional Japanese way of doing something similar.

Introduce the design brief. A Japanese educational trust wishes to produce a small touring exhibition of traditional Japanese clothes and accessories. They have kimono and sashes but they do not have the inro and netsuke to go with them. Your students have been asked to make models to show the missing parts of the outfit. They will use their visit to the V&A to see some actual examples to research their models.

At the museum

Netsuke in the shape of a tiger, late 18th - early 19th century. Museum no. 2006AL0431

Netsuke in the shape of a tiger, late 18th - early 19th century. Museum no. 2006AL0431

Discuss with students the displays of kimono, inro and netsuke. Draw labelled diagrams of how the inro sections fit together with the cord, then add a netsuke to their labelled diagram, noting the line detail of the carving.

Record some sample inro decoration, noting the way in which it spreads across the different sections. Examine the lacquered surface and see how it is sometimes applied in relief. Research ideas for decoration to adapt back at school by recording the ornamentation on a number of inro, netsuke or on other artefacts in the Japan gallery, such as samurai armour and swords. Helmets and face masks make particularly good subjects for netsuke.

Back at school

Students should use their research to decide on the size of their inro, how many sections it will have, how it will be decorated, and the shape of their netsuke. Students can then turn their ideas into finished models. Netsuke can he carved from a variety of semi-hard materials. Clay may be difficult for some students to manipulate when carving small details, and protruding parts may break off. Plastic modelling compounds that can be hardened in a domestic oven may he more suitable, and come in a variety of colours. A hole will need to be made in the netsuke for the cord. The same material can be used to make the tightening head, or a ready-made bead could be used instead. The cord should be red, black or a neutral colour.

The simplest way to make the inro is to decorate stiff paper and then wrap it around an existing box. Straws can be used for the tubes that guide the cord down each side, and these can either be decorated or also covered with paper. If the paper and straws are cut into separate pieces, they will look like they separate into sections.

Students can make more complex models by using a number of open trays, say from a matchbox, to form the sections and join them together with cord. They could also make their own sections from flat card. In this case the decoration would spread over separate sections. Models with a high craft element can be made from papier mâché or high-density polystyrene. Papier mâché can either be applied to an existing box, or moulded.

There are a number of ways of suggesting a lacquer surface. Gloss paints and varnishes will make most surfaces shiny. Small relief shapes can be made out of cardboard, glued to the surface, and the whole surface covered with a thin layer of tissue soaked in PVA glue. Lacquer-like decoration can then be added to the relief shapes using metallic markers and crayons, foils and papers. Students should experiment with different ways of adding decoration; they could even simulate lacquer techniques by making the surface tacky with a coat of clear varnish or glue and then sprinkling glitter or shavings from metallic crayons.

Make a samurai helmet

Suit of armour in Medieval style or O-yoroi (13th & 14th centuries), Japan, 1615-1865. Museum no. 362-1865

Suit of armour in Medieval style or O-yoroi (13th & 14th centuries), Japan, 1615-1865. Museum no. 362-1865

This project is for younger students who will use the student resource sheet Make a samurai helmet (PDF file, 148 KB). They will then decorate their helmet with drawings inspired by originals in the Japan gallery.

Gallery to use

  • Japan (Room 45)

Information to support this project

During the peaceful Edo period, although fighting equipment was no longer needed, the provincial governors were regularly required to attend the shogun's court. The samurai's interest in fine armour arose from their desire to appear with as much prestige and status as they could on their way to and from court. Both wearers and makers had a fascination with the armour of the past and revived many past styles. Traditional armour became functionally redundant after the introduction of firearms by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. Armour became a showcase for the arts of many types of metalworkers, embroiderers and weavers.

Private Group Tours & Talks

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