Friday, June 25, 2021

Likka and Yatate

 One day I will possess the faculties and resources to write the scientific research paper this topic is deserving of.

In the interim however, please enjoy rambling, near-baseless conjecture. Much of the information I have to work with is wikipedic in nature, things I recall from art history studies in college, there is no secret knowledge here.

Writing, upon its invention, cemented itself rapidly as a pillar of a strong and versatile civilization. And as vast amounts of information became more portable, it was necessary that the means to transcribe information become portable as well. Ink became a choice material for mark making, it is easy to produce large quantities from relatively simple materials, it has good adhesion qualities, and provides a more finished permanence to work. But, adversely, it can ruin unsealed surfaces in the blink of an eye. 

To this end, there are two interestingly similar developments in this technology, the likka of the (Arabic?) world and the yatate in Japan.

Likka, in and of itself is a fairly simple contraption. Mulberry silk fibers soaked in liquid ink, sitting in one's inkwell.

raw likka
likka with ink in well

The objective here is to saturate the silk with enough ink that it can readily load up a brush or dip pen, but not so much that if the well is tipped you risk spillage.

The Japanese yatate is an extrapolation of the likka, in fact making use of the same mechanism for ink retention. Yatate actually refers to a portable writing system that is a kit rather than one item. It includes the ink-soaked silk or cotton fibers (alternatively ink-paste, sometimes called moxa, but I digress), a brush, and a case to carry it all.

a simple yatate, very often cast in bronze

lid on the inkwell open, and brush tucked into the hollow stem

like with modern writing devices, they can be made into intricate displays of taste and wealth

One the most widely seen styles of yatate is the aptly-termed "smoking pipe," but there are variations where the inkwell and brush-stem are connected by cord or chain, rather than welded together.

Now, not that there is a contest at stake here, but who developed what first? These two developments share such particular and specific similarity that one wonders if one culture passed it off to another, or were they both developed synchronously?

There are other mutual material uses between the Arabic and Japanese worlds: mulberry silk and bamboo pens.

It is difficult to date the advent of likka, we can presume it happened shortly after someone spilled ink on a pile of silk, which is... a large window of history. However, we can approximately date the yatate. The original yatate really just refers to the habit samurai had of storing ink-stones (for grinding ink-sticks) in their arrow quivers. but it was during the reign of the Kamakura Shogunate (about 1185-1333a.d.) that someone or some folks started implemented ink-soaked fibers into their writing kits.

Imagine carrying a bottle of ink in your arrow quivers. Just accidents waiting to happen.

But back to the Kamakura Shogunate. Things get interesting here.

The Kamakuras, amongst other things, were quite good at keeping the Mongol Hordes (then under the command of Kublai Khan) at bay and from conquering Japan (they also had the help of some very belligerent weather).

The Mongols serve as a convenient bridge between the Arabic and Japanese writing worlds, though it does not settle who decided to soak fibers in ink first. There is another explanation as well, that in all possible likelihood it was all invented by the Chinese, who in the region very often spearheaded many material technology innovations, and then dispersed it to their neighbors.

You can still buy likka from contemporary calligraphy suppliers, and yatate (of dubious validity if prices are to be believed) too. You can even make your own. They're unique period pieces and still quite fun to use, even if they have been rendered irrelevant ever since an impatient Romanian man saw fit to invent fountain pens (thank you Mr. Poenaru).

- NW

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Process: "floating3: passage"

 It's been awhile, thought we'd ease back into this thing with a process post on one of my most recently completed paintings.

This is the third iteration in the floating series, which really wasn't intended to be a series at all to begin with.

It started with this:


This was just a little exercise, a small little study. I'd been thinking a lot about water imagery and symbolism, as one does.

And then I gave the floating guy a little more space:


And then I just started working in the open empty space. I put in a couple of robots, inspired by Boston Dynamics' "Spot," and other similar sorts of robots. I played with dappling and reflecting light on the water, and that became floating2: found, and a loose story starting taking shape.

I was really pleased with how this piece turned out, so I started vaguely planning out something sequential. I had some helpful input from others too, and I started scribbling ideas on scrap paper, nothing that was concrete or descriptive enough to mean anything to anyone other than me. My shorthand is quite illegible at times.

But then the project fell to the back burner, and then even worse, fell off the back burner, down to the dim recesses of my hard drive and collected dust.

I often struggle with creative block, and I've been trying something new recently, is to revisit old, unfinished works. It's nice, you can go back to something that's already been somewhat started, which removes the hazard of Blank Canvas Syndrome, and if you're really lucky there's something salvageable, perhaps the composition, or at least a concept.

I still had an underdrawing that was enough to go on. So after months of neglect, I picked it back up.

the initial sketch, done with just a mental image


blocking in toned values

more values, light and shadow, introducing more color. it's always going into things already having a pre-established color palette. you can add and grow, but there's something to fall back on

 The first floating pieces were done in Clip Studio Paint, saved as CSP files. For this next one I proceeded initially in Photoshop PSD, I think at the time it was because I had just come off a Photoshop-intensive project, so all of the reflexes and shortcuts were fresh in my mind. For the duration of this project I worked between the two programs. Clip can open and operate PSD's, the only issue in my experience is that if you are using complex assets or procedures that are a little too particular to one program or the other, in transference they can become flattened or deleted. I don't really use any fancy custom brushes for the most part in doing illustrations like these. A hard round, toggling pressure for width and opacity here and there, or the odd rectangular brush, gets most things done.

at this point i drew lines into the composition, both to adjust and reaffirm details, as well as enhance the graphic quality

new lines superimposed

 next comes a new layer of paint, refining shapes and lighting.

cleaning up the scribbles

At this point I realize I've struck too far out of balance, it's too flat in some areas for my liking, I've deleted some of the painterly touches that I found attractive in the first place. This requires correction. One of the most valuable skills in art (presumably applicable elsewhere) is to know how to see what is wrong, why is wrong, and how to make right - or less wrong.

adding little texture touches, working back and forth with brush and eraser

added a background gradient for depth and ambiance

airbrush the glow of the robots' light fixtures

and finally, some gaussian noise at 3.5% for just an extra touch of texture

and i made a gif because they're fun

And way she goes boys. It was nice picking it back up, and I've renewed my interest in this series again for now. Hope you find the breakdown interesting. Ta.

- NW