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Nihonga Painter Allan West Shares the Joys and Challenges of Being an Artist in Japan

UPDATE: Because of the Coronavirus pandemic, Allan’s studio is temporarily close to the public. It may open again in autumn depending on the situation. If you intend to visit, please contact the studio beforehand to make sure it is open.

You may have seen his elegant kimono-clad figure on televisionin newspapers, or in your Tokyo guidebook. After almost 40 years of career in Japan, American-born Allan West has become a familiar figure in the world of Nihonga, the Japanese traditional painting.

I had the great pleasure to meet him at the end of Spring 2019 in his beautiful studio in Yanaka, Tokyo. Even though he was exhausted – he was just coming back from Paris where he was preparing an exhibition- Allan patiently and enthusiastically answered all of my questions. What’s the difference between Nihonga and other kinds of painting? Why did he choose this peculiar path and come to Japan? Is it hard to be a foreigner in the world of Japanese traditional painting? Read on to discover a side of Japanese culture that, sadly, is dying.

Nihonga: Painting Techniques Reminiscent of Humanity’s Shared Heritage

Nihonga, Japanese traditional painting, uses natural mineral pigments mixed with a deer protein-based binder. ‘What is considered Japanese painting is actually a really important direct line all the way back through human history to our shared heritage”, explains Allan West.

Since the discovery of the Blombos cave in South Africa a few years ago, in which the tools used by our ancestors to make cave paintings were preserved, we know that mixing natural pigments with animal protein are at the origin of human expression. The techniques spread through Egypt, ancient Rome, and Greece, to China… Over time people would use different sorts of animal protein such as egg tempera or casein until it was replaced by painting with oils about 500 hundred years ago – a very short span in terms of global history.

Nihonga tools on display in Allan West’s studio: rocks, natural pigments, solidified deer protein, different kinds of papers, and gold leaves.

“What we call ‘Nihonga’ traditional Japanese painting, is really the only tradition of animal protein-based paint that remains in the world. Although, to be quite honest, I am very concerned that it is dying out. Today, there are only nine stores dedicated throughout all of Japan to the materials and techniques of Nihonga’, he regrets.

Four of these nine stores are located in the Yanaka area – one of the reasons Allan decided to live there.

Discovering Nihonga and Japan

Originally from Washington, DC, Allan West has been a resident of Japan and a Nihonga painter for almost forty years. But he’s been painting since forever.

‘From a very young age I loved to paint flowers, and I felt oil painting were too viscous to do the delicate lines, the branches, the stems and pistils, that sort of things. As a teenager I thought I invented a brilliant way of mixing chemical pigments with animal protein to make a liquid kind of paint’, Allan recalls.

Allan at work in his studio.

But his life changed when, during an exhibition, a woman told him that a similar technique existed in Japan since a very long time. ‘I thought this was a brilliant invention of mine so I was very disappointed!’, he laughs. At the same time, it relieved Allan of the worry that paintings using such a technique would not last by flaking or cracking. At nineteen years old, he sold a large painting and used the money to come to Japan and study the techniques, thinking he would stay for two weeks. He never went back.

‘Not only did I find that the pigments were beautiful and permanent, but the deer protein binder didn’t smell, was pleasant to work with and more transparent. It was very hard to imagine myself going back to what I had been using before. So I ended up staying and I went to the university here at Tokyo University Arts.’

The Qualities and Drawbacks of Nihonga Techniques

For the modern-day painter, used to tubes that can sit on the shelves for years, Nihonga can seem difficult and inconvenient because you have to make your own paint and it doesn’t keep. ‘With protein, you don’t want to make any more than you can use during the day because it’s like meat: it goes rancid’, explains Allan. Oils keep a little longer, which is one of the reasons people ended preferring to use them instead of protein, but everything changed with the invention on the tin tube. ‘It meant that a person could mix their own paint and stuff it in a tube one weekend and the next weekend they could go out!” Originally, using protein or oil binders were equally labor-intensive techniques, but today all a painter needs to get at work is squirt the tubes. ‘Ironically, the professional painters today are using materials that were created by the manufacturers who had the amateur painters in mind’.

For Allan, the main reason he prefers Nihonga is the liquidity of the material. ‘You have a lot of freedom and can use it in many different ways. For me, it was the point from the very beginning.’

Allan has painted the ceiling of his studio with beautiful dragons

But he admits it comes with some drawbacks: you cannot mix colors as easily as with other techniques. Mineral pigments come from actual stones, so colors from heavier (and more valuable) pigments tend to sink to the bottom and be hidden by lighter pigments (that are less valuable). ‘So it does mean that when it comes to mixing colors, and getting the color just right, you really have to know the personality of each stone! But I think that knowing what goes in the paint that you use is a good thing, because that really affects the colors that come out and the way they look, at least for me. It also means that you’re going to do fun discoveries too; you come upon colors that reflect your own sensibilities.’

Allan’s very Peculiar Sketching Tools

When asked to show his favorite tools, Allan West takes out a sketchbook from the folds of his kimono and untucks a peculiar set of items from his waist. It’s a yatate: a tube that can hold a brush, and an inkwell. These are not made anymore so he buys them in antique shops, and he has to replace them every now and then because he uses them so much: ‘Every morning I make the ink and pour it in, and I carry them around with me wherever I go so I can sketch whenever I feel inspired.’

Allan’s yatate and sketchbook. A sketch like this one takes him about 30 minutes.

About 30 years ago, Allan decided he would never use a pen or a pencil anymore – and he doesn’t (except for some official documents). After seeing the quality of a sketch on an antique postcard, drawn by just a normal person, he realized he needed the same brush experience Japanese people had in everyday life a long time ago. ‘All of my sketchbooks are brush and ink. That’s made a difference. The harder you press, the harder the line, the less you do, the thinner the line. That’s a feeling that doesn’t come without a lot of experience. It’s a part of who I am too.’

Allan explains he was looking to express with a brush the same kind of line that can be found in the West in El Greco’s paintings or in the Nihonga paintings of the Kano school. ‘I found that when I was painting plant life in a more sort of realistic, photographic way, it was very frustrating to feel that it looked like the nature that we see, but it didn’t feel like it. And what I really wanted was that energy and that rejuvenating sense that we feel when we’re in nature.’

A Different Kind of Painter

When he’s not travelling the World for his exhibitions, Allan spends all his time in his studio in Yanaka, Tokyo. He paints the whole day until daybreak, allowing himself breaks only to talk to customers or eat dinner. ‘I’m usually mostly heavily focused at night, after dinner, before daybreak. I usually wake up around noon’, he explains.

Allan paints on all sorts of formats: hanging scrolls, folding screens, fans, and much more: I have a Noh drama actor who asked me to paint his fans for him, and a whole troupe of Noh drama actors who have me paint the backdrops of their plays. Geisha halls have commissioned hanging scrolls for their banquet halls. It’s exciting all the different ways art is actively pursued in daily life here in Japan!’

But Allan’s relationship with art does not stop there; he’s also kind of an inventor, and has designed some items to make his life as a painter more comfortable:

‘I paint doing seiza (the Japanese traditional way of sitting) because the painting is very liquid. The larger the painting, the farther I have to lean out. If it’s a very large painting, there’s this bridge that I’ve built. So I sit on it, and I lean over to paint. The bridge itself is not an unusual tool for large paintings, but I’ve put it on rails so I can slide back and forth!’

Allan’s bridge on rails

‘I’ve also invented a brush washing bowl that constantly has water going like at the dentist’s office’, he laughs. ’I can put it wherever I want. I don’t have to get up and get down and go to the corner of the room. When I’m doing seiza it’s perfectly fine. It’s the getting up and the getting down all the time that makes it difficult’.

Changes of Perspectives after Living in Japan

You can see a variety of works in Allan’s studio.

According to Allan, he did not have a major culture shock after starting to live in Japan – mainly because he expected one. Actually, it was almost the opposite:

‘I think in many ways, it felt like coming home in some ways. Things that felt sort of scratchy and uncomfortable were resolved in interesting ways here.’ And while learning the language was a challenge at first, it opened doors to new perspectives, and he always encourages people to learn it so they can understand the local culture better.

‘You really cannot separate a culture and a language. A language reflects the thought process of a culture in a way that almost nothing else does’.

And while he as always been close to nature, living in Japan has made him feel even closer to it because it’s part of everyday life. ‘People tend to be more aware of the subtle changes of the seasons, the waxing and the waning of the moon and things like that. Here when people meet, they’ll talk about the weather, or ‘Did you see the sunset?’. Subtle things like that are part of life’, he rejoices.

The Necessity of Creating One’s Own Exhibition Space

Living in Japan as a foreign painter is very enriching, but it also comes with some drawbacks: One of the reasons Allan has his own studio and gallery, is because he knew it would be hard for him to exhibit his works the usual way.

‘As a foreigner, most people make the assumption that I’m probably not going to be here for a long time. I don’t blame anybody for making this assumption because that’s typically what happens. So, I knew from very early on that it was going to be important for me to not rely on institutions to do that. It’s been proving quite well considering that after the economy fell in the 90s, most of the galleries that I had a relationship with went bankrupt’.

Another reason Allan does not work much with galleries is that, since he was a painter in the USA, he has always liked to do commissioned work by order, for which he has to meet the needs and expectations of a client. And so, already having established some venue here on my own, I hoped, would get me passed that. ‘That’s just part of my temperament as an artist. It’s not particularly common either. It takes myself out of my comfort zone in a way that I would not have necessarily thought on my own. That kind of challenge is a great thing to be able to take into my sort of mid-career part, where artists tend to be more set in their ways.’

You can also purchase affordable replicas of Allan’s works at his studio.

Allan’s Studio: a Legitimizing Space for a Dying Art

Allan’s studio in Yanaka is actually his sixth studio and he has been there for twenty years. He really loved the previous one, but was forced to go out when the foundations were put in danger by the tearing down of the neighboring building: ‘I was noticing things like putting a brush down and having it roll, and the water kind of flowing the same direction!’

Having to move out gave him the opportunity to change the concept of the gallery, and the new idea came to him when he walked in front of his current studio, which was a garage at the time: ‘I would walk by and watch them pulling the engine block out of the car, and all these things. I was thinking ‘What I really want to do this time is have a studio where people could watch as they pass by, see the development of the painting, that goes from beginning to the end’. By doing this, he was also hoping to make Japanese people more familiar with Nihonga, as the techniques are not taught in school. ‘They’ll look at the finished product and talk about that, but they don’t know about the materials and techniques and I found that it was really important to make that appeal to Japanese people as well because it is dying out. It really is’, he regrets. He loved that, place, the huge sky in front of it, and the huge tree on the corner, so he kept the place as an ideal in his mind, and searched for a year, visiting three places a day, but could not find a studio meeting his expectations until a miracle happened: ‘As I passed this place on December 24th, the shutters were down, unusually, and a piece of paper had been taped saying ‘to let’ and I called the number there and the landlord said he had pasted that no more than 20 minutes ago!’

At first, the studio was a very modern place, because Allan wanted to show people that traditional paintings could fit modern-style rooms. But with time people had less problems imagining an eclectic environment, so Allan decided to switch to a typical Japanese traditional atmosphere. ‘I felt that instead showing the artwork in a purely Japanese environment with sliding doors and everything like that, would be kind of legitimizing. People could look at it and say, oh, this really is a genuine article, in spite of the fact that this foreigner is creating these things.’

He also paints in front of people because, sadly, some Japanese people still can’t believe Allan is making his own paintings because… he’s not Japanese. ‘A lot of people say ‘Be honest with me, you actually really have a Japanese assistant painting for you, don’t you?’ It’s a very common thing.’ The misconception is held by foreigners as well. ‘When I was asked by the Japanese government to be part of the satellite for the Japanese pavilion at the Milano expo in 2015, they had me displaying the artwork, and also painting there so people could watch me do it. And this Italian woman starts leaning over me, pointed her finger right at me and said: ‘YOU-ARE-NOT-JAPANESE!’’, he laughs.

And even if a great master from Nihon Bijutsuin (a non-governmental artistic organization in Japan dedicated to Nihonga) visited Allan’s studio, claiming loudly that what was this was not Nihonga, Allan does not mind much‘I’m not invested in being considered Nihonga and that’s perfectly fine with me. I am just pleased to be able to paint as I wish.’

Allan West’s studio is easily recognizable with its nice Japanese-style entrance and Allan’s beloved huge tree on the corner of the street. You can watch Allan work and even ask him questions!

Message to our Readers: Welcome to Yanaka!

 To our readers who would like to visit Allan’s studio and neighborhood, Allan has the following message:

‘Welcome! I’d love to evangelize the Nihonga technique and that’s something I get very excited, when people show interest. But my wife and I will also be more than happy to guide you and recommend different places in Yanaka that might suit your interests’. Allan loves his neighborhood and he finds it beautiful.

 Some of his recommendations include:

  • The Asakura sculpture museum was the home and studio of the sculptor Asakura Fumio. ‘That’s a fun place to visit because of the garden, all the time of the year there is something spectacular happening there’.
  • The Yanaka Ginza shopping street: It’s fun to get a sense of what it’s like to live here. In Japan, you go shopping every day and the food aesthetic is incredibly developed here, to the point where freshness is essential, and shops are fun because of that.’
  • Wander around the temples and look at their gardens, as there is almost a temple at every corner! These temples are not just places to visit but are also fully functioning.

Allan explains the historical – and mystical – reason for this: ‘This area is the North-Northeast area from the city center, although it is now the center of the city, but when this was established, this was acting as a kind of spiritual fortress for the city. It was believed that evil influences in the abstract sense of the word, came from the North-Northeast direction. So establishing a kind of temple zone created a kind of a barrier that would repulse those influences and protect the city in a spiritual way.’

In the streets of Yanaka surrounding Allan’s studio, there is literally a temple at every corner.

Allan invites everyone to visit Japan if they have the chance to. ‘Japan has so many facets to it, that there are elements to Japan that will be stimulating to any visitor. A trip to Japan can be a really excellent wake-up call to realizing that things don’t always have to be the way they assumed they should be.’

He also thinks it is better to write down everything that happens while you are in the country and the experiences you make there:

‘Make sure that you put down those impressions and record those and write them down in ways that you can remember them, to really take advantage of and to keep those experiences fresh in your mind’, he advises..

‘Because after you get home, it’s like waking up from a dream.’


Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.