an etegami primer

What is etegami

  • Etegami are cards with simple images that you paint, along with some heart-felt words that echo the image and reflect your feelings. You usually mail the card to a friend or loved one.
  • 絵手紙 — literally means “Picture Letters”
    • e = picture
    • tegami = letter
  • All etegami have the following:
    • A simple, hand-painted image — outlines in black ink and filled in with watercolor
      • Traditional subjects are fruit and veggies, flowers, and trees animals, and are often seasonal (flowers in spring, autumn leaves in fall)
    • Words — written in a simple, almost childlike, way, making them easy to read
    • Stamp as a signature
      • Made from an eraser, using an exacto knife — here‘s a handy guide
      • Usually very simple, just your first initial, but can also be something more creative, such as an animal or flower that you really like (see example below; in Japanese, “ant” is “ari,” which is a nickname for Alison). Alison's hanko
  • Click here for a sampler of etegami I have made or received.

On the origin and philosophy of etegami

  • Created by Kunio Koike in the 1960s
    • He was originally a traditional calligraphy student.
    • He wanted something more spontaneous, personal, and accessible than traditional calligraphy.
    • Examples of Koike’s work:
  • “Clumsiness is no problem. Clumsy makes it better.”
    • Motto of etegami – heta de ii, heta ga ii
    • Etegami are spontaneous, and often done quite quickly. There is no sketching on your paper beforehand.
    • Etegami are “living.” You’ll notice that the black lines are very wobbly, almost breathing. These are called “living lines” in Japanese and they are achieved by drawing the lines very, very, very slowly, and holding the brush in a unique way that causes the ink to be sort of wobbly. You’ll find that you can feel your heart beat and feel that sensation go into your brush.

Materials for etegami

  • Paper
    • Practice paper – rolls of “rice paper” are useful for this
    • Postcards with varying levels of “bleed”
      • Higher bleed is more advanced as it’s more difficult to control the ink and watercolor.
  • Ink
    • Sumi ink – either liquid or in stone form
    • Waterproof
    • Sometimes, for the words, you might choose to use an easier to manage type of pen (gel pen, or other sort of ink pen)
    • Inkstone
  • Watercolor
    • Traditional: mineral-based watercolors from Japan, called gansai
    • If you can’t get gansai – higher quality watercolors will work just fine!
  • Brushes
    • One for ink, and at least one other for the watercolors
  • Paint dishes
  • Water cups
  • Stamp – can be made from an eraser.

How to do etegami

  • Posture!
    • Hold the ink brush so as to purposely make it difficult to control. Why? To help you ignore the voices in your head that prompt you to paint well.
  •  Lines
    • “living lines”
    • Practice – Set aside some time at the beginning of any etegami session to practice your line.
  • Watercolor
    • With higher-bleed paper, the paint will spread in amazing, unpredictable ways.
    • Leave some white space – don’t fill in the blanks.
    • Generally, use no more than three colors.
    • Don’t worry about representing the colors exactly.
  • Choose a subject, think about who you want to give the card to.
  • Paint.
  • Sign it with your stamp.
  • Mail the card!

Etegami Resources

  • Etegami communities

  •  Blogs:

  • Local places to buy traditional etegami materials (watercolor, ink, brushes)

    • Blick Art (aka Utrecht Art) and Plaza art stores sometimes have ink and gansai watercolor that are traditionally used. Paper, however, is harder to get in stores. I sometimes just use thin sumi paper (aka “rice paper” and glue it to regular postcards. Sometimes I just use regular postcards and give up the “bleed” found in traditional etegami paper. I have also tried to use some wood block paper you’ll find in art stores but they just don’t have the level of bleed that is crucial to etegami.
  • Online places to buy materials (watercolor, paper)

  • Further reading:

  • Online video tutorials

    • Hanaoka Yuko’s Etegami 24 Seasons YouTube videos (in Japanese, some with subtitles), including: Green Pepper; New Year’s Cards; Etegami Chopstick Holder
    • Henry Li’s YouTube channel Blue Heron Arts has links short videos on etegami, as well as Chinese brush painting.
      • The one where he paints a winter melon is a good start — he talks through the process and emphasizes that the point of etegami style is to emphasize the heart, not the skill, of the painter.
      • One I particularly like though is his video on painting a durian fruit (jackfruit). In it he hits on the key point that what etegami artists do — they “summarize” the subject, they don’t aim to reflect everything. Moreover, you can practically smell the durian! That’s perhaps a good place to end my summary — I don’t aim to capture every tool out there that can help you learn etegami, just the important ones for me.
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