A Different Perspective on Drawing Techniques with Japanese Artist Yu Kawashima

yu kawashima

Biography: Yu Kawashima was born in Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, in 1988. According to what he himself says, the vocation of painter came to him when he was still in elementary school when he contemplated a collection of paintings that his uncle owned by Masakuni Hashimoto Gahō.

This Japanese “Nihoga” master from the Meiji era played an important role in the survival and modernization of traditional painting and represents our painter’s starting point: working with traditional materials but rethinking issues.

In high school, he continued to practice the art of watercolor and drawing. But it won’t be until his admission to the Aichi Prefectural College of Fine Arts that he will acquire a master’s degree in secular art. In college he mastered the techniques of Japanese painting and its materials and acquired a deep training in Western art and philosophy. The conciliation between the traditional Japanese style and Western thought will be the basic pillar of the way of painting it.

After graduating in 2012, he began exhibiting his work and immediately achieved great success in 2014 by receiving the first prize in the “FACE” contest organized by the Sompo Art Museum in Tokyo, with his work Toxic (2013). Since 2015 she has been exhibiting individually or in groups on a recurring basis in different galleries and art fairs in Asia.

Yu Kawashima
Yu Kawashima, 2020, “Remind”

Philosophical-pictorial thesis of Yu Kawashima.

His doctoral thesis, approved in 2018, explains the intention of his work. His title is quite clarifying: Pictorial expression as a dialectical manifestation of internal feelings: a transformation of “anxiety.” His work is intended to be his personal escape from a society in which he does not feel comfortable.

Yu Kawashima has the feeling that the modern world we live in and the artificial environments we surround ourselves with do not fully satisfy the human being and hence he feels an internal unease. The painter longs for another reality, which is not the one he faces on a day-to-day basis. For him, technologies and visual information media such as television, magazines and social networks distance us from the natural and from the truth. This denaturation is what causes in man the feeling of not fitting into reality, which translates into a feeling of incongruity and anxiety.

Kawashima seeks to reconcile with his interior and for this he uses, in addition to his oriental heritage, the theoretical basis of pre-existentialist Western philosophers of the 19th century such as Sören Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. He shares with them the search for an authentic existence.

He agrees with them that the anxiety we feel in the modern world makes us aware that what we live is not natural, that we exist above the superficiality in which we live. The fact that we experience anguish allows us to recognize our true existence and allows us to look for ways to transmit it. He proposes painting to find his deep existential self and face that vital anguish.

Yu Kawashima, 2020 , “Erosion

Style characteristics And Pictorial Influences Applied To His Work.

It is evident that the Nihonga is the immediate and formal reference to express yourself. It uses materials and techniques from traditional Japanese arts such as linen paper on a wooden panel and mineral pigments to make the ink. The paint is monochrome, but covers incredible shades of black, gray and white. Use very fine brushes to linearly apply the quality details of each of the hair of your figures.

Yu Kawashima also washes the surface of the paper with water to create an aged texture on its backgrounds, as if it were deteriorated concrete walls. With this resource he makes visible the traces of time and his process of self-exploration.

Occasionally, to provide contrasting effects, you can incorporate copper and silver leaves into your paintings, which serve to decompose the figure and deteriorate it, as if we were passing them through memory.

Yu Kawashima
Yu Kawashima, 2021, “Remind”

Another pictorial resource that he often uses is to use a geometric pattern that, either as a background or as a perspective projection, serves to frame his figures. This format serves to link past and present, since on paper we appreciate reality and at the same time articial forms that can be interpreted as a tribute to Japanese tradition or technology.
They can be simple symbolic mandalas that represent spiritual states and that recall the traditional Japanese decoration of many objects such as porcelain or textiles, such as pieces of industrial design.

Yu Kawashima, Dawn F6 detail
Yu Kawashima, Dawn F6 detail

There is also in his work admiration for the Japanese and Western masters of the 19th and 20th centuries who, somehow, appear in large-format works.

Above all, he is attracted to the work of Kiyoteru Kuroda Seiki, the painter who introduced in Japan the new pictorial trends that were making their way in Paris at the end of the 20th century. This master is not so interested in color or impressionism, which is what usually stands out from his work from his years in France, but his revolutionary interpretation for the time of women and the interrelation of him with the symbolism.

The triptych “Wisdom, Impression, Feeling” that he made in 1897 is one of his clearest inspirations. Leaving aside the differences between the nude and clothed images of women, it is the same introspective world where the woman serves as a symbolic channel to express deep moods and feelings.

Yu Kawashima
Kuroda Seiki, Wisdom, Impression, Feeling, c. 1897, oil on canvas, Kuroda Memorial Hall, Tokyo.

This work by Kuroda was also a scandal because it broke the taboo of the female nude in Japan. Her three nudes, justified by the allegorical title of the painting, are represented with the plasticity and three-dimensional volume typical of French academic painting. However, the flat gold bottom is reminiscent of the golden screens popular during the Momoyama period of Japan (1573-1615).

For both Kawashima and Kuroga, the woman is the center of their paintings. Kawashima undresses her models, in fact they all appear under modest dresses, sometimes excessive. Her wives are very young, some almost girls. Some with androgynous faces and bodies. They are stereotypes in which several women are mixed, although it is always the same.

Let’s analyze one of his most interesting compositions to see how he combines all these features and what may be behind some of his best creations.


Yu Kawashima also makes triptychs with women who hide mysteries. Through her gesture, her eyes and her hands, subtle expressions are outlined that force you to reflect and contemplate with a religious silence. The best set is that of “Re-actor. Toxic, Zeta, Inside” from the year 2017. As in the Kuroga triptych, only the woman in the center panel fixes her gaze on the viewer, while the other two women turn and they collect themselves with a furtive look down.

Yu Kawashima
Yu Kawashima, 2017, “Re-actor. Toxic,  Zeta,  Inside”

The non-naturalistic background of the concrete wall and geometric pattern enhances the symbolism of the figures. The concepts that these figures embody are feelings or thoughts of the artist himself. When presented in triptych format and raising the central panel, the figures acquire a timeless sense that could be defined as sacred. They become images of worship like the religious icons on Christian altars.

Regarding the central image, the woman remembers a ritual posture of someone embarking on the esoteric path of being Buddha (Bosatsu) and reaching the supreme knowledge or enlightenment. The postures of her hands and fingers leave no doubt about the mysterious meaning of the young woman who seems to attend a deep inner transformation and self-realization. The circle that the halo can also be the symbol of enlightenment and divinity.

Yu Kawashima

Kokuzo Bosatsu (Akasagarbha). Kamakura period, 13th century. Kokūzō symbolizes the “vast and limitless” Buddha wisdom that permeates the universe. In Japan, believers pray to Kokūzō for wisdom in their quest for enlightenment. They also pray to Kokūzō to improve his memory, technical skills, and artistic talents.

Finally, The Controversy.

2014, Toxic

The work with which he was released in 2014, Toxic, was controversial because he used a photograph as an element of inspiration, which does not seem a disgrace to me, and some Internet users accused him of plagiarism. The composition below shows how a studio photo of the Japanese actress Fumi Nikaido was the undoubted reference.

Thanks to this we discover that he uses photography as a starting point for many of his works and that the actress inspires him in some of his compositions, it is true that by transforming the face of his muse into a different character.

Communication channels where you can get more information about this painter: Instagram, Twitter

An article that might interest you: Very Realistic Drawing Examples

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