Lazy Nerd Explainer: Rinpa School Techniques

Lazy Nerd Explainer: Rinpa School Techniques

Mastering the Basics of Rinpa School Techniques: An Introductory Guide for Artists

The Rinpa School of Japanese art has inspired generations of artists with its distinctive style, characterized by bold colors, elegant patterns, and strong connections to nature. This artistic movement has produced some of Japan's most revered artists, including Kamisaka Sekka, whose work is still admired today. But what exactly are the Rinpa School techniques that make it so unique? And how can contemporary artists master these techniques to create their own stunning works of art? This article will delve into the history and characteristics of the Rinpa School and offer a guide for artists who wish to explore this captivating style.

Brief History of the Rinpa School

The Rinpa School has a rich history that spans centuries, with its roots tracing back to the 17th century.

The Founders

The Japanese Rinpa School of painting was founded in 17th century Kyoto by Hon'ami Kōetsu and Tawaraya Sōtatsu. Hon'ami Koetsu founded an artistic community of craftsmen supported by wealthy merchant patrons of the Nichiren Buddhist sect in Kyoto in 1615, which was the beginning of the Rinpa School. The term "Rinpa" is an abbreviation consisting of the last syllable from "Kōrin" with the word for school (派, ha).

The Revival of Rinpa

The main artist responsible for the revival of the Rinpa School in the 19th century was Sakai Hōitsu. Sakai was a Kanō school artist whose family had been one of Ogata Kōrin’s sponsors. He published a series of 100 woodcut prints based on paintings by Kōrin, and his painting "Summer and Autumn Grasses" painted on the sliding doors of the Katsura Palace in Kyoto is considered one of the masterpieces of the Rinpa School.

Sakai had numerous students who carried the Rinpa style into the late Edo period. The Rinpa style continued to influence artists working in a variety of media throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Mastering Rinpa School Techniques

The Rinpa School is known for several key characteristics that set it apart from other artistic styles. For artists interested in exploring the Rinpa School, mastering the techniques that define this style can be both rewarding and challenging. Here are some steps to guide you on this artistic journey:

Why Rinpa Artists Used Bold, Exaggerated Colors

The Rinpa school is known for its bold, vibrant use of color. There are several reasons why Rinpa artists employed such vivid, expressive palettes:

  • To create striking visual contrast and immediacy. The bold colors stand out dramatically against each other and the background, instantly drawing the viewer's eye. This creates a sense of energy and dynamism.

  • To evoke emotions and atmosphere. The intense colors are meant to be emotionally evocative, conveying a sense of drama, excitement, or serenity.

  • To imitate nature. Rinpa artists aimed to capture the essence of nature's colors in a stylized, exaggerated way. For example, autumn maple leaves in vibrant reds and oranges.

  • For decorative impact. Rinpa paintings were often used as decorative elements in architecture and design. The bold colors helped the works stand out in their settings.

  • To accentuate line and form. The vivid colors delineate and accentuate the graceful lines and elegant forms of Rinpa compositions.

The Tarashikomi Technique

A signature technique of Rinpa painting is tarashikomi, meaning "dripping in." It involves dripping extra layers of paint or ink onto a surface before the previous layers have dried. This creates blurred, pooling effects and accidental textures that enhance the work. There are two major aspects of the tarashikomi technique:

Dripping Color on Wet Surfaces

  • The artist first applies a layer of pigment as the base color for a section.
  • While this base layer is still wet, a second layer of contrasting color is dripped or brushed on top.
  • Because the base layer hasn't dried, the colors bleed and blend softly into each other.
  • This creates subtle variations in tone and accidental blurring effects.

Creating Pooling Effects

  • As the dripped on pigments spread, they pool in certain areas based on the moisture levels of the underlying surface.
  • Denser pigments and inks will sink and gather in pools, while lighter ones will diffuse more.
  • This creates blossom-like pooling effects, similar to the natural randomness of paint sinking into absorbent paper.
  • The resulting pools add depth, texture, and a sense of fluidity and movement to the work.

Elegant Patterns

The use of elegant, intricate patterns is a hallmark of the Rinpa School. These patterns often reference nature, with many works featuring flowing water, plants, and animals.

Study the patterns used by Rinpa artists and practice creating your own. Consider how these patterns interact with the other elements of your composition to create a cohesive piece.

Flowing Water Patterns

The Rinpa school is known for depicting flowing water in stylized, repeating patterns. These water patterns evoke the natural world while maintaining an elegant, decorative look.

Some key techniques for flowing water patterns include:

  • Curving lines to suggest the organic movement of streams and rivers. The lines flow rhythmically across the composition.

  • Small circles or drips to represent splashing water or foam. These dynamic accents animate the water.

  • Gradations of color to show depth and dimension. Darker blues at the top fade into lighter shades near the bottom.

  • Metallic silver or gold backgrounds to make the water shimmer. The metal leaf catches the light.

  • Asymmetry and variety in the patterns to mimic water's natural irregularity. The flows of lines and drips are not rigidly uniform.

Plant Patterns

Stylized plant patterns are another signature of Rinpa works. Artists abstracted and repeated forms from nature like flowers, grasses, and trees to create ornate designs.

Common techniques for plant patterns include:

  • Stencils to efficiently repeat flower shapes. The modular forms interlock.

  • Bold outlines around plants to flatten and graphically define the vegetation. This enhances the decorative look.

  • Simplification of plant parts into basic lines and shapes. The essence of a bamboo stalk or iris leaf is captured.

  • Gold leaf backgrounds to make foliage and blossoms shimmer. The metal surface peers through.

  • Asymmetry and variety to add naturalism to the patterns. The plants dynamically intermingle.

Stencils and Pattern Repetition

Stencils enabled Rinpa artists to efficiently repeat motifs across a composition. Combined with pattern repetition, stencils unite works through a cohesive visual rhythm.

Key techniques include:

  • Cut paper or thin wood stencils to replicate shapes. The stencil is pressed against the surface.

  • Repeating stencil patterns across the background. A graceful continuity is created.

  • Varying the scale and rotation of the repeated forms. This adds visual interest within the uniformity.

  • Layering colors through multiple stencil impressions. Depth and color variations emerge.

  • Interlocking stencil patterns to form a unified allover design. The modular repetition knits together.

Animal Patterns

Rinpa artists incorporated tigers, cranes, fish, and other animals into their compositions, rendering them as gracefully stylized patterns.

Some key techniques for animal patterns are:

  • Outlining bodies in dark ink and filling them with flat colors or patterns. This enhances graphic clarity.
  • Arranging multiple animals in orderly, alternating rows. A sense of movement emerges.
  • Repeating parts like scales and feathers as decorative textures. The natural patterns are abstracted.
  • Capturing animals in mid-motion to suggest liveliness. Flowing robes or water animate the scenes.
  • Incorporating animal habitats like reeds and water. Context evokes narrative.

Nature Imagery

Incorporating elements of nature into their work is a defining aspect of Rinpa art. Artists often use natural themes and motifs to imbue their pieces with a sense of harmony and beauty.

Spend time in natural settings, observing and sketching the world around you. This practice will help you connect with nature on a personal level, and inspire your own creative interpretations.

Importance of Natural Motifs in Rinpa Art

Incorporating natural motifs was central to Rinpa art. Rinpa artists sought to evoke nature and the seasons in their work through the use of common motifs like flowers, birds, and landscapes. There are several reasons why natural motifs were so important in Rinpa art:

  • Connection to Classical Literature: Many Rinpa works referenced classical Japanese literature like The Tale of Genji, which contained extensive descriptions of nature. Using natural motifs allowed Rinpa artists to make literary allusions.
  • Expression of Seasons: Depicting flowers, birds, and seasonal landscapes was a way for Rinpa artists to capture the essence of each season, which was an important theme in Japanese art. The transient beauty of nature reflected Buddhist concepts about impermanence.
  • Decorative Appeal: The bold, graphic style of Rinpa relied heavily on decorative patterns. Stylized motifs from nature provided attractive decorative elements that enlivened surfaces.
  • Symbolism: Flowers like cherry blossoms and maple leaves carried symbolic meaning related to time passing and mortality. Birds and landscapes evoked poetic sentiment.
  • Abstraction of Nature: While botanically accurate, Rinpa depictions of nature were also creatively interpreted in an abstract way. This allowed for artistic expression and visual rhythm.
  • Yamato-e Revival: As part of a revival of classical Japanese yamato-e painting, Rinpa artists wanted to focus on native Japanese themes like nature rather than Chinese themes.

Gold and Silver Foil

Many Rinpa artists use gold and silver foil to add a luxurious touch to their work. This technique creates depth and contrast, enhancing the overall visual impact of a piece.

For artists interested in exploring the Rinpa School, mastering the techniques that define this style can be both rewarding and challenging. Here are some steps to guide you on this artistic journey:

Master the art of incorporating gold and silver foil into your work. This technique can be challenging, but it adds a distinctive touch to your art that is unmistakably Rinpa.

Symbolism and Cultural Significance of Gold and Silver

  • Gold and silver have deep cultural symbolism in Japan, representing wealth, status, and spirituality. Gold conveys elegance, divinity, and immortality. Silver is linked to purity, refinement, and the moon.
  • Pearls symbolize perfection, wisdom, wealth, and good fortune in Japan. They were treasured by aristocrats.
  • Rinpa artists revived old Yamato-e themes from the aristocratic Heian period, so using noble materials helped connect to that heritage.

Enhancing Visual Impact

  • Gold, silver, and pearl provided striking visual contrast and drew the eye to key focal points in compositions.
  • Gold backgrounds created a lavish, gilded look and helped unify and frame compositions.
  • Iridescent materials added luxurious texture, shimmer, and depth.
  • Rinpa aimed for bold, decorative styles, so opulent materials amplified the ornate aesthetic.

Influences from Traditional Arts

  • Rinpa was inspired by traditional arts like Yamato-e painting, Muromachi ink painting, and Ming dynasty flower-and-bird paintings which often incorporated gold and silver.
  • Collaboration with calligraphy, lacquerware, and ceramics led to shared techniques like gold ground and pearl inlay.

Combination with Other Rinpa Techniques

  • Gold leaf backgrounds allowed vivid mineral pigments painted on top to stand out through contrast.
  • Abstract, stylized motifs were made more striking when paired with lavish materials.
  • Gold and silver highlighted key elements, like flowers and text, in compositions.

Classical Japanese Literature

The Rinpa school of Japanese art frequently contained allusions to classic Japanese literature, especially The Tale of Genji, for several key reasons:

Cultural Significance of Literature

The Tale of Genji and other classic works of Heian period literature were revered in Japanese culture for their elegant writing and insights into courtly life. By incorporating allusions to this literature, Rinpa art gained deeper meaning and cultural resonance. References to The Tale of Genji imbued Rinpa art with the aura of high culture and the imperial court.

Shared Artistic Influences

Rinpa art and Heian literature were both influenced by the courtly culture of the Heian period (794-1185 CE). Rinpa artists looked back to the Heian court for inspiration in the same way the literature did. This shared cultural heritage enabled Rinpa artists to deftly incorporate literary allusions that meshed well with their style.

Literary Themes as Artistic Motifs

Rinpa artists not only made direct references to literature, but also adapted themes and imagery from literary works as motifs in their art. For example, the four seasons, nature, flowers, and birds were common themes in both The Tale of Genji and Rinpa art. Using literary themes expanded the subject matter available to Rinpa artists.

Narrative Quality in Art

By including references to literature, Rinpa art gained a narrative or story-telling quality, allowing the viewer to connect the image with a larger literary context. Scenes from The Tale of Genji evoked the drama and emotion of the story.

Connection to Patrons

Many Rinpa patrons, such as aristocrats and samurai, were highly literate and appreciated the literary allusions as a sign of sophisticated culture. For them, the references would have added meaning and value to the artwork.

The Rinpa Aesthetic

The Rinpa aesthetic refers to a distinctive style of Japanese pictorial and applied arts that arose in the early 17th century and has continued through modern times. Some key characteristics of the Rinpa aesthetic include:

  • Bold, graphic abbreviations of natural motifs like plants, animals, and landscapes
  • References to traditional Japanese literature and poetry
  • Lavish use of expensive mineral pigments and metallic paints
  • Incorporation of calligraphy into painting compositions
  • Innovative brushwork techniques and experimentation

The term "Rinpa" literally means "school of Korin", named after the Edo-period artist Ogata Korin (1658-1716). But Rinpa does not refer to a single artistic lineage or school. Rather, it encompasses a range of artists across different time periods who worked in a similar aesthetic style inspired by Korin and other early Rinpa masters like Hon'ami Koetsu (1558–1637) and Tawaraya Sotatsu (d. c.1643).

Rinpa Techniques Across Artistic Media

A key aspect of Rinpa was that its aesthetic and techniques were applied not just in painting, but across a diverse range of artistic media.


  • Kimono fabrics designed with Rinpa motifs like seasonal plants and flowers
  • Bold, abstracted patterns and use of metallic leaf and dyes


  • Porcelain and earthenware decorated with Rinpa-style plant and animal motifs
  • Lavish use of colored glazes in abstract, expressive patterns


  • Urushi lacquerware with Rinpa designs in maki-e gold or silver inlay
  • Decorative lacquer techniques like raden (mother-of-pearl inlay)

Woodblock Prints

  • Rinpa-style floral patterns and seasonal motifs printed using multiple woodblocks
  • Calligraphy and poetry integrated into print compositions


  • Folding screens, hanging scrolls, and fans painted with Rinpa style on gold leaf or paper
  • Bold, expressive brushwork and use of mineral pigments

Collaborative Rinpa Workshops

Rinpa artists often worked in collaborative workshops, which allowed them to produce works in different media.

  • Hon'ami Koetsu established a community of Rinpa artisans in Kyoto in the early 1600s.
  • Ogata Korin collaborated with his brother, the potter Ogata Kenzan, to paint designs on Kenzan's ceramics.
  • Rinpa painters like Sakai Hoitsu collaborated with calligraphers to integrate text and painting.
  • Later Rinpa artists created works across media like prints, painting, and lacquerware.

This collaborative approach allowed Rinpa motifs and techniques to disseminate across different artistic traditions in Japan. The Rinpa aesthetic had a widespread and long-lasting influence well into the 19th and 20th centuries.

Famous Rinpa Artists

Several prominent artists have contributed to the Rinpa School's legacy, including:

Tawaraya Sōtatsu

Tawaraya Sōtatsu was a Japanese furniture designer and painter of the Rinpa school. He is best known for his decorations of calligraphic works by his partner Hon'ami Kōetsu and his highly influential byōbu folding screens. Sōtatsu's painting of the Sekiya and Miotsukushi chapters from The Tale of Genji is considered one of the masterpieces of the Rinpa School.

Sōtatsu's work was highly influential and he is considered a significant figure in art history. He is known for his innovative techniques, such as the use of gold and silver leaf, and his bold, abstract designs. Sōtatsu's work had a significant impact on Western art, influencing artists such as James McNeill Whistler and the Impressionists.

Ogata Kōrin

Ogata Kōrin was a Japanese artist of the Tokugawa period, regarded as one of the masters of the Sōtatsu-Kōetsu school of decorative painting. He is particularly famous for his screen paintings, lacquerwork, and textile designs.

Kōrin's first masterpiece was a screen representing autumn grasses and flowers, which combined his two most outstanding characteristics: a fine sense of design and a brilliant use of color. He is best known for his paintings of Irises and Red and White Plum Blossoms.

Kōrin's style shows elements of the realism of ukiyo-e, but resembles particularly the decorative style of Tawaraya Sōtatsu, which Kōrin took major steps to revive. According to critic Robert Hughes, the core achievement in painting during the Edo period was the allusive and delicate work of the Rinpa artists, and Kōrin was one of the most significant figures in the Rinpa School.

Kamisaka Sekka

Kamisaka Sekka was an important artistic figure in early twentieth-century Japan. He was born in Kyoto to a Samurai family and his talents for art and design were recognized early. Sekka eventually allied himself with the traditional Rinpa school of art and is considered the last great proponent of this artistic tradition. He worked in lacquer and in a variety of other media.

Sekka is known for his innovative designs that combined traditional Japanese motifs with modernist elements. He is credited with bringing the traditional aesthetic to the Western world.

Sekka's work was influential in the development of modern Japanese design and he is considered a significant figure in art history. His sixty-image work, "Momoyogusa," displays a variety of landscapes, figures, classical themes, and innovative subjects, captured in a small space, and shows Sekka's complete mastery of traditional Rinpa.

For Lazy Nerds and Visual Learners

The Rinpa School on YouTube

Lazy Nerd Explainer: Rinpa School Techniques

The Rinpa School has captivated audiences for centuries with its unique fusion of nature, bold colors, and intricate patterns. By studying the work of Rinpa masters like Kamisaka Sekka and practicing the techniques that define the style, artists can unlock their own creative potential and contribute to the legacy of this extraordinary artistic movement.


Frequently Asked Questions

The Rinpa School is one of the major historical schools of Japanese painting 1. It originated in 17th century Kyoto by Hon'ami Kōetsu and Tawaraya Sōtatsu 12. The style was consolidated by brothers Ogata Kōrin and Ogata Kenzan 1.

The Rinpa School is known for its dramatic sense of design and pattern, unusual techniques of painting, and a flair for exciting composition 3. Rinpa artists worked on every format imaginable, including screens, scrolls, fans, lacquer objects, and ceramics 2.

The Rinpa School is characterized by the use of gold and silver leaves in the background, daring picture compositions, repetitions of stencil patterns, and the use of bold, abstract designs 4. The Rinpa style had a significant impact on Western art, influencing artists such as James McNeill Whistler and the Impressionists 2.

The Rinpa School is still influential in modern Japanese design and is considered a significant figure in art history 5.

Some famous Rinpa artists include Hon'ami Kōetsu, Tawaraya Sōtatsu, Ogata Kōrin, and Ogata Kenzan 1.

Hon'ami Kōetsu and Tawaraya Sōtatsu were the founders of the Rinpa School 1.

Ogata Kōrin is particularly famous for his screen paintings, lacquerwork, and textile designs. His paintings Irises and Red and White Plum Blossoms are well-known 2.

Ogata Kenzan was a potter and painter who worked in the Rinpa style 1.

Sakai Hōitsu was a Kanō school artist who revived the Rinpa style in the 19th century 1

Kamisaka Sekka is considered the last great proponent of the Rinpa School 3. His work was influential in the development of modern Japanese design 2.

The key characteristics of Rinpa art include a dramatic sense of design and pattern, unusual techniques of painting, and a flair for exciting composition 1. Rinpa artists worked in various formats, notably screens, fans, and hanging scrolls, woodblock printed books, lacquerware, ceramics, and kimono textiles 4.

Rinpa artists often ignored drawn outlines and used tarashikomi, the application of ink or pigment to pool on wet paper, as a chosen method for shading or coloring 1.

The stereotypical standard painting in the Rinpa style involves simple, elegant, yet powerful designs4. Rinpa artists were gifted in their ability to express motifs through a unique composition and a sophisticated, but minimal, amount of artistic labor 2.

Rinpa works are characterized by their stylized, two-dimensional, and usually vividly colored representations of natural features such as birds and flowers on gold-leaf backgrounds 3. Gold and silver leaves were often used in the background of Rinpa art 12.

Rinpa art is an aesthetic tradition that can be traced back to medieval Japan and is periodically rediscovered 3.

Rinpa artists made spectacular screens showing trees, grasses, and flowers painted in compositions that demonstrate their strong sense of design and love and appreciation of nature 1.

The Rinpa artists were captivated by the beauty of nature and often depicted natural motifs in their works 2. The Rinpa style is characterized by bold natural motifs, references to traditional court literature and poetry, the use of lavish pigments, and experimentation 2.

Rinpa artists were gifted in their ability to express motifs through a unique composition and a sophisticated, but minimal, amount of artistic labor 3. The Rinpa style is known for its stylized, two-dimensional, and usually vividly colored representations of natural features such as birds and flowers on gold-leaf backgrounds 4.

The Rinpa artists had no enforced limits to their artistic expression, but they all seemed bound by an awareness of the refined taste we associate with Kyoto – a taste for color, line, texture, and the beauty of nature 1.

Some lesser-known facts about the Rinpa school in Japan, focusing on techniques, artists, and influence, include:

  1. Techniques: Rinpa artists employed unique painting techniques such as tarashikomi (dripping ink or color on wet surfaces to create pooling effects) and mokkotsu ("boneless" painting, where drawn outlines are often ignored) 38.
  2. Influence on Art Nouveau: The Rinpa aesthetic had a significant impact on the development of Art Nouveau in the late 19th and early 20th centuries 2.
  3. Revival by Sakai Hōitsu: The Rinpa school's popularity was revived in the early 19th century by the painter Sakai Hōitsu, who established the Rinpa school in Edo (present-day Tokyo) 5.
  4. Influence across various media: Rinpa artists worked in various formats, including paintings, textiles, ceramics, and lacquerware1. Their style is characterized by pure forms set off by bright colors and compositions of simple elegance, with themes inspired by nature, literature, and classic Japanese theater 16.
  5. Not a hereditary school: Unlike other traditional Japanese art schools, the Rinpa school was not inherited by blood but was developed by artists who chose their masters, surpassing time and location 7. This unique characteristic allowed the Rinpa style to be inherited by people of various social standings living in different times and locations.

These lesser-known facts highlight the unique techniques, influences, and artists associated with the Rinpa school in Japan.