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Akae saibyo or red detailed painting - 赤絵細

Published on : 2 May 2019

Akae saibyo or red detailed painting - 赤絵細描
Red pigment or Bengala


Akae Saibyo - red detailed painting is one of the most famous style in the Kutani ceramic. It was particularly developed by Saida Isaburo – Dokai (1796 - 1868) mainly in the Sano area and Iidaya Hachiroemon (1804-1852) in the Miyamoto kiln in Daishoji. The pigment used for the red detailed painting is coming from Iron oxide and is called bengala.

Bengala production:

Human beings have been using bengala (α-Fe 2O 3) as red pigment ever since ancient times. It is also called Hematite. As for Japan, the first bengala was manufactured at Fukiya town, Okayama Prefecture in the 17th century by the Nishie family. The city was famous for copper mining and became a major producer of vivid red bengala color pigment made from oxidized iron. Fukiya bengala has mainly been used for red painting of porcelain and was used by pottery painters throughout Japan in Arita, Kutani, Kyoto… for about 300 years. This traditional Japanese red pigment is generally prepared by mixing and crushing for a long time, for example 100 hours, a low-melting-point glass-frit powder, 10−25 % weight of iron-oxide red pigment (α-Fe2O3) and a solvent generally soda, in a wet process. The glass frits used at that time was containing lead to allow a low melting point when burning the ceramic in the furnace. Fukiya bengala was therefore prohibited by an antipollution law in 1970, eliminating this pigment from the market.

Since, many companies in Japan have worked on developing lead-free glass frits to produce bengala. However, the coloring tone in hematite powder depends on its particles size, color and arrangement and the mixture with lead-free frits do not provide a very high-quality pigment. It depends significantly on the process used by the painters, despite different painters may use the same lead-free frits.

The bengala used by Fukushima Buzan is coming from an old stock kept by M Nishie from the Nishie Residence (西江邸) which has been producing bengala pigment since 17th century. Today the 18th generation of Nishie is managing the company and I had the great pleasure to meet him at a Fukushima Buzan exhibition in Nara.

The fact is that each painter is using his own technique which is passed down from generation to generation through an apprenticeship system. With this special skills acquired after so many years of experience, as well as a great deal of trial and error, the painter succeed to elaborate the perfect pigment. The process is generally not documented. We can understand now that there is a great number of red colors and each kiln, each painter has his own process and therefore different color, brightness, tone…
For a non-specialist it is difficult to understand why it is so complex, what are the difficulties? I heard from Buzan sensei himself that it took him many many years to master the preparation of the red pigment. The technique to obtain not only the color, but also the brightness, the smoothness, the consistency of the paint must reach the perfection in order to be able to draw extremely narrow, perfect and even lines.

The Nishie Residence

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The Nishie family (西江家) lives in the Fukiya area (Okayama Prefecture) since the end of Muromachi period (1573). The first Nishie was a local samurai. After the battle of Sekigahara in 1615, he quit and came back home. The place is located close to a very important iron oxide mine. In 1647 the 3rd Nishie succeeded after many trials & errors to produce red iron-pigment for porcelain painting, clothes dying... However, the production was very small. In addition, in 1705, the Nishie residence became the center of the Government of the local administration.

In 1751 the 6th Nishie succeeded to mass produce from the Motoyama Mine (本山鉱山) in the Sakamoto area (坂本地), Roha (ローハ), (alum) which is necessary to make good quality red iron pigment. The 8th generation Nishie worked with the Fukiya district to improve the quality of the production and reach almost a monopole of production of red iron oxide in Japan until the middle of Showa. It was so famous that this red iron pigment was called Fukiya Bengala (吹屋ベンガラ).

The 13th Nishie received many prizes at various expositions and galleries during the Meiji and Taisho eras, the market extended even to Western Europe, and the village of Fukiya expanded a lot. However with the new developments in the chemical industry, iron oxide started to be produced industrially very inexpensively. At the same time the Japanese anti-pollution law forbids the use of lead in the glass frit. As a consequence, in 1974, the 15th Nishie stopped the production of red iron oxide.

In 2008, the 18th Nishie together with the Kyushu University revived the red iron oxide with a new production method using lead-free component. Since, Roha bengala (ローハベンガラ) has excellent characteristics for ceramic painting, for clothes dying, it is weather resistant, can protect wood, and is therefore widely used for the preservation of cultural property of historic buildings such as shrines and temples, and other national treasures.

Reference: Controlling the Color of Lead-Free Red Overglaze Enamels and a Process for Preparing High-Quality Red Paints
By Hideki Hashimoto, Hirofumi Inada, Yuki Okazaki, Taigo Takaishi,Tatsuo Fujii, and Jun Takada