The Art of Onikenbai

Oni Final art LR
The final artwork

In November a team of Onikenbai performers travelled to Sydney to perform as well as conduct workshops. For those not in the know Onikenbai is a traditional Japanese dance. Although they are dressed like warriors – wearing oni (demon) masks and carrying katanas (swords), it is actually a Buddhist-inspired dance that acknowledges their ancestry, and the movements symbolise the cleansing of the air and the protection of the earth that they farm. It is not even practiced nationally within Japan which makes it even more unique.

Image courtesy of TaikOz

As students of TaikOz we are fortunate that our teachers learn directly from the Iwasaki Onikenbai Hozonaki (Preservation Society) of Iwate Prefecture, the oldest practitioners of onikenbai, and then share their knowledge with the rest of us back in Sydney. It is not an easy dance to learn – its physically demanding, which I believe is part of the ritual cleansing process, and very layered in the feeling and spirit in which you have to dance.

It was a great honour to have an entire team visit us in Australia – to see them perform in the flesh and to learn from them, so I decided to make a gift for them as a thank you.

The concept

Thumbnails in the beginning, to try and interpret what was inside my head.
Thumbnails in the beginning, to try and interpret what was inside my head.

The TaikOz community has given me lots of opportunities and inspiration to drawn and paint in the past. The bulk of it being sketches with an ink brush, and to be frank I’m a little over that style. I find when creating art, once I have “worked” a style quite regularly I cant continue it as I get bored – there’s nothing more I can learn from it. It feels like work rather than fun.

wip drgs 3 LR
More developments

I thought I’d challenge myself by creating a linocut. I’ve only done one or two in the past and was dying to do another one. I was familiar with the techniques and had all the tools, it was more a matter of if I could get it done in time. But that’s never stopped me before.

Another issue I had to overcome was how to come up with a linocut design that showed the constant movement of this dance. It’s very elastic in it’s feel, e.g as soon as you stretch out you pull back in, as soon as you push down you come back up. It’s a very complex dance. One has to move with lightness but stay very grounded, it has to be dynamic but show restraint, it has to be masculine but graceful. Generally linocut designs are very line heavy or kind of chunky and angular so I needed to express all this in the picture.

Developing the final image
Developing the final image
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I felt that not drawing in the complete figure gave the whole picture more movement

Photo reference was hard to come by, so in the end I had to use my own experience and learnings to get the pose I wanted. I did a few colour thumbnails first to work out how I was going to use colour. The colour choices were largely based on the dominant colours of the fan and uniform. I wasn’t totally convinced I was on the right track, but I felt that if I could make it work as a quick sketch it should work as a linocut.

The final drawing, after many alterations
The final drawing, after many alterations
Aftern scanning the original, I exaggerated the brightness and contrast to get a much cleaner image.
Aftern scanning the original, I exaggerated the brightness and contrast to get a much cleaner image.

A Herculean task

The largest sheet of lino I could get was 300mm x 300mm, but I would have preferred something a bit bigger. I drew up the final design on cartridge paper and it took me awhile to get it right. I scanned it in and adjusted the levels to get rid of all my extra markings and sized it to what I wanted. Once done, I printed it out and shaded in the other side with a stick of willow charcoal. This was going to be my carbon print that would help me transfer my image onto the lino.

The first couple of cuts
The first couple of cuts
Different steps and tools I used
Different steps and tools I used

I taped the design down onto the lino and used a biro pen to trace over my artwork. It worked really well as the imprint didn’t fade from the lino throughout the whole carving process. So off I went on my big lino cutting adventure. I wont talk about the tips and techniques of this medium because my experience is very limited.

To see if my cutting was clear and distinct I did a pencil rubbing to see if it came through
To see if my cutting was clear and distinct I did a pencil rubbing to see if it came through

What I will say is that lino cutting is sooo much fun, so therapeutic. I had to ask myself why I didn’t do it more often. I like mediums that have a strong character and qualities that tend to influence your own style and technique as you work.

The final piece
The final piece

It took me two weeks and weekends of long late night labour and once I made the final cut it was all done! I sat back, pumped, and looked at my completed mission, feeling really proud of myself and excited about the coming printing stage when I realised…

This is the dumb bit

What my picture would look like printed as a linocut
What my picture would look like printed as a linocut

I didn’t flip my design when I transferred it to the lino cut! It had completely escaped my mind when I began. I made a mental note to reverse the image weeks before, but completely forgot it once I started cutting. Some of you might say that it looks fine and no one could tell it was wrong, but it is. Onikenbai is danced with the fan in the right hand and the sword in the left hand. ALWAYS!! If I was printing it for the general public, yes they would be totally clueless, but it was for the professionals. People who have been practicing this dance since…forever!

What was I going to do? All my energy completely drained from me. I couldn’t entertain the thought of doing another one as I was so exhausted at the end of it plus I didn’t have time. I was so angry at myself for being that stupid. I was in a state and was desperately working out how I could salvage this.

This is the smart bit

That’s when I thought of getting it reproduced as a silk screenprint. I would make one lino print in black, scan it, flip it in photoshop, print it out and use that to create a screen. Could that work? How would I get it done? Would I be able to get it done in time.

Flipped in photoshop
Flipped in photoshop

Thankfully I came across a screenprinter who runs small workshops and not that far from me too. I sent her a email to see if she could make the screens for me and how much it would cost. I spent a very sleepless night hoping it wasn’t an old ad or a dead end. Thankfully she replied. Not only could I get the screens made by her but I could print them all myself if I signed up for a one day workshop. I was so relieved. And screenprinting was another creative thing I had on my checklist of “things to do” for awhile so it was great to tick that one off as well.

Workin’ it

My spirit was a little better. Anxious, but better. One good thing about putting it through photoshop was I could muck around with colour choices and decide beforehand what I wanted. I also changed the background layer too and inversed it, meaning there would be more colour printed rather than a white paper background.

Marking up my original background linocut.
Marking up my original background linocut.

The workshop was great. I was shown, and involved in, putting my images onto the screens and prepping them too, so I learnt about all the different stages of screenprinting. As each stage started to come together I got more and more excited. And I guess it wasn’t until I put the second, and final, layer of colour on that I sighed a huge relief that it worked. (Anyone interested in the workshops in Sydney click here)

My two options for background - the black area indicates the printed colour area
My two options for background – the black area indicates the printed colour area
Photoshop gave me the opportunity to try out different colour options, which saved me a lot of time and guesswork
Photoshop gave me the opportunity to try out different colour options, which saved me a lot of time and guesswork

I was really happy with the result. The colours were strong and I was amazed at how much of the detail came through. The trickiest part was lining up the black layer with the red, particularly where the mask was as that had to be a clean white. But I kind of liked that they were occasionally a little out of register, it gave some animation to the image.

And yay, the ogi and katana (fan and sword) were in the correct hands!!

Onikenbai Workshop

Three weeks later we had our workshops and they were awesome. It was amazing to watch them the night of their performance, but to then learn from them was incredibly fulfilling. Basically, it rocked. Despite my body begging for mercy for it to end (three days later I still cant walk properly), I could do it again in a heartbeat. Oh, yeah and they really liked my prints too. Double YAY!

Quick sketches during a performance
Quick sketches during a performance

Iwasaki_Onikenbai_2_LRWe were also very lucky to get a private performance from them in full costume on the last day of our workshop, which gave me a chance to draw them. I fought the urge several times over during their “tour” because this was an opportunity to learn, not draw, but I gave in towards the end.


Not an easy task – drawing someone or something that moves so quickly in so many directions. For those unfamiliar with onikenbai it might be hard to see what’s happening in the sketches, but I got a nod of approval from the most senior member that I got it right. Smiley face!



Abu Dhabi Do!

Me drawing a very willing 4WD driver out in the desert. Photo courtesy of Heidi Yuko Lincoln.

In February I was given the exciting opportunity to travel to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates to play with TaikOz. A huge honour, considering I’m not one of their more dedicated students. It was a unique advenutre and a bit of an insight into the life of a professional touring musician, and it was to a part of the world I’m not sure I would have visited in my own time.

So I hope you enjoy my sketchbook slideshow of my time in Abu Dhabi. Please click on any image for a larger view.

1 Taikoz Title page LR

1 Taikoz UAE Syd Airport LR
Sydney Airport – watercolours and artline
1 Taikoz UAE Plane LR
Dinner and a movie – watercolours and artline
1 Taikoz UAE AD Airport LR
Arriving at Abu Dhabi airport – – watercolours and artline

There was plenty of time waiting in our portable dressing room, so I’m thankful I brought along my sketchbook. Most of these sketches were done during this period – waiting to do a rehearsal or sound check, waiting to go on, waiting to go to lunch, waiting for the bus to take us back to the hotel. There weren’t any windows looking out onto anything either, so all my inspiration came from within the room.

1 Taikoz UAE Rehearsals DPS 2 LR
Ten minutes to dress rehearsals – watercolours and artline
1 Taikoz UAE Uniform LR
Our happy Hanten coats hanging out – watercolours and artline
1 Taikoz UAE Rehearsals Kevin 3 LR
Curious onlookers from the dressing room next door – watercolours and artline
1 Taikoz UAE Rehearsals 4 LR
Early morning breakfast box – inktense pencils
1 Taikoz UAE Rehearsals 5 LR
The 12 faces of my breakfast apple – inktense pencils and artline pen
1 Taikoz UAE Rehearsals DPS 6 LR
Yet another rehearsal call – artline pen
1 Taikoz UAE Rehearsals 7 LR
Colourful dengaku okedos (roped drums) – inktense pencils and watercolours
1 Taikoz UAE Rehearsals 8 LR
The youngest member of our tour group – inktense pencil
1 Taikoz UAE Tabi LR
My clean white tabi (ankle sock shoes) on the first day and last day of performances – watercolours and artline

We had afternoons and evenings free so we managed to do some sightseeing and shopping whenever we could.

1 Taikoz UAE Central Souk LR
Central Souk Market – watercolours and artline
1 Taikoz UAE Mosque 1 LR
The Grand Mosque – watercolours and artline
1 Taikoz UAE Mosque 2 LR
The Grand Mosque – watercolours and artline
1 Taikoz UAE Mosque 3 LR
The Grand Mosque – watercolours and artline

I found the Mosque to be one of the more visually appealing and challenging sights for me. Because of its clean white exteriors the light reflections, especially as the sun set, was quite interesting. So I stayed to try and capture the sunset, and made a second visit to capture it at night. These were done with watercolour/brush and ink/dip pen.

Taikoz UAE USK 1 LR Taikoz UAE USK 2 LR Taikoz UAE USK 4 LR Taikoz UAE USK 5 LR

We had most of one day to ourselves so we headed off to do a 4WD Safari.

1 Taikoz UAE Safari DPS 1 LR
Camels – watercolours and artline pen
1 Taikoz UAE Safari 2 LR
Rasheed – dip pen and ink
1 Taikoz UAE Safari DPS 3 LR
Bellydancing under the stars – inktense pencils

An international security and defence expo was on at the Exhibition Centre.

Ready and waiting - watercolours and artline
Ready and waiting – watercolours and artline
1 Taikoz UAE Tanks DPS 3 LR
Old and new parked on either side of the motorway – watercolours and artline
Military manoeuvres - watercolours and artline
Military manoeuvres – watercolours and artline
UAE Defence force were obliging and posed for me - artline pen
UAE Defence force were obliging and posed for me – artline pen

The last day before we hit the malls, I did some sketching around Emirates Palace.

1 Taikoz UAE Architecture 1 LR
A typical sight in AD, cranes and construction – inktense pencils
Etihad Towers and a work in progress gold tower - watercolours and artline
Etihad Towers and a work in progress gold tower – watercolours and artline
Emirates Palace at night - watercolours and artline
Emirates Palace at night – watercolours and artline

And back home… sorting out the souvenirs from the shopping.

1 Taikoz UAE Goods LR
Watercolours and artline

Breaking out

Photo reproduced courtesy of FezzusAustralis and TaikOz

I was given the opportunity to sell some paintings. I wasn’t sure what to charge as it puts a bit more pressure on you when it’s commissioned work. But the brief was pretty open as long as it related to taiko music. So I came to an agreement if they let me experiment I won’t charge too much, especially as it was a non-prof organisation.


Photo reproduced courtesy of Prudence Upton and TaikOz
Photo reproduced courtesy of Karen Steains and TaikOz

I had no idea what I wanted to do but I had a few ideas and techniques running through my head. Ultimately it was governed by what reference material I had on offer. I used photos I found online of TaikOz from various photographers. If you would like to see more of their photos, please click on the photograph or their name. If these paintings were to reach a wider audience, ie reproduced professionally,  I would have gotten permission to use them as reference material before I started. But it is unlikely they will be reproduced beyond this blog and my flickr site. Also I didn’t plan on my paintings being so true to the photos as there was more detail in them than I wanted.

Anyhoo, I planned to use watercolours and Indian ink, and I also wanted to capture the energy of taiko playing and the atmosphere it can create. It’s hard to replicate movement from a static photograph, so I had to rely on my personal experiences of taiko music to give it life.

First step I lightly drew in the basic shapes. As mentioned, these paintings weren’t about detail but about movement and energy, so I only wanted enough detail to comprehend what was happening in the image.

The first stage – light pencils to mostly mark in areas I want to apply masking fluid.

Masking Fluid

As I planned to go crazy with colour I wanted to make sure there were some splashes of white in each painting. There is something about leaving a bit of white paper in your artwork that really lifts the picture more than if you coloured every square inch. Even cartoon drawings or watercolour landscapes have more vibrancy and depth to them if you allow a bit of the paper colour to come through. And I don’t think it works as well if you add white paint afterwards.

So I decided to use masking fluid. For those who have never used it before, it is a very wet liquid but when exposed to air will dry in several minutes and becomes waterproof. Masking fluid is usually used whenever there is a significant difference between the foreground and background colours, and you want the background to be applied seamlessly.

Masking fluid step by step: once the masking fluid has dried; apply colour straight over the masking fluid; when the paint dries rub off the masking fluid. Please click on image for enlargement.

For example, if you wanted to paint a sunset – instead of painting around the trees and cliffs in the foreground leaving little brushstrokes around the edges, you liquid mask out the foreground shapes and paint the sunset in from top to bottom, left to right over the masked areas where it repels the paint. Then when the paint dries you gently rub off the masking fluid with your finger and it reveals your clean white paper.

But for me it was more about creating theatre in the paintings.

A few tips when using masking fluid

It’s something that is traditionally used only with watercolours. In the past I have managed to use it with gouache, but it is not something that works well with all art mediums. Also, depending on the quality of the paper, it can tear the paper when removing it (a bit like so-called “magic” tape). So it’s always good to test out the masking fluid on the paper you plan to use. Manufacturers also warn you not to leave masking fluid on the paper for too long as some versions can stain, especially the yellow version. Clear masking fluid is also available but it’s not always easy to see it when applying it.

To remove masking fluid when it dries, rub it off gently with your fingers (or thumb) – it’s the only way to remove masking fluid. I don’t think there is a tool for it at this stage, and I wouldn’t recommend using an eraser. Sometimes you can peel it off but be careful it doesn’t also start to peel the paper. Oh, and make sure your fingers are clean too!

Testing masking fluid: Some papers tear when removing masking fluid, or it may require a more gentler hand to do so. Please click on image for enlargement.

Also when applying it with a brush it can totally stuff up the bristles and as a result ruin a good brush. One brush I own the bristles have started to come out when I clean it, so don’t use an expensive brush. I have kept two brushes aside just for masking fluid application (I labelled the ends of the brush so I know) and try to have two different sizes.

Next tip: as mentioned before, when exposed to air masking fluid starts to dry. This includes drying on your paint brush as you use it. After the first few dips it will start to dry and harden leaving you with a clumsy stumpy brush. Unfortunately it doesn’t come off the brush as easily as it does on paper. To combat this I have two jars of water when I work. One is plain cold tap water and the other has warm water with a few drops of dishwashing liquid. When my brush is starting to feel a bit chunky I wash it out in the soapy warm water, then rinse it in the cold water. If you only use the soapy water it may dilute the masking fluid when you next apply it.

Left jar has hot soapy water and right jar cold tap water.

So I’ve applied the masking fluid to the areas that correspond to light reflections in the photographs, but I also splashed it around a bit too.

Applying Colour

I worked out the colour combinations earlier. Winsor & Newton watercolour paint can be quite expensive, and although I don’t need a lot to paint with, working out the colour combinations beforehand can save you a lot of paint.

I wanted the watercolours to blend in with each other as I applied them, so I wetted the paper before I started. Watercolourists will do this when they want to paint large areas and have really smooth blends and not leave any brush marks. I used this sponge brush (seen on right) to apply the water.

The only problem with this is that large amounts of water can make your paper buckle. If its important to you to keep your artwork as flat as possible, tape your paper on all sides to a thick piece of board and hopefully that will reduce the buckling in the end.

Mixing it up or going straight

I’m not sure if there are two schools on using paint, ie are there artists that like to mix up their own colours or do they prefer using them straight out of the tube? I used to like mixing colours but I found that if you weren’t happy with the results it is a lot of wasted paint. Or, if you did like the colour but needed more remembering how to remix the same colour again is a futile task. So now I prefer to use colours straight out of the tube. The only time I mix is mostly when I’m using my half pans and its an en plein air situation.

Although I wanted areas where the colours bled into each other, I also wanted to leave some areas “pure” so the colours weren’t muddy all over, like they were squeezed straight out of the tube.  So it was hard to refrain from overworking it. The good thing about applying it quickly was that it also emphasised the movement and energy of taiko music.

As you can see in this photo, because of the liberal amount of water and paint I applied, the paper buckled.
This close up you can see where the paint repels off the yellow masking fluid.

Next step was applying the Indian ink. I decided to leave the masking fluid on for this stage as well, because I wanted to splash the ink around. My only concern was if I could peel off the masking fluid without making a mess, as indian ink is quite thick and can sit on the surface rather than be absorbed into the paper.

But it turned out okay. I did have a few issues in some areas – where the indian ink was very thick it tended to flake off when removing the mask. While others where it was thinly applied I accidentally smudged it. If I had smudged it with watercolours or even gouache you could probably clean it up with a lightly wet paintbrush and dab off the water with a tissue.

Close ups of areas where I smudged the ink trying to remove the liquid mask.

Then I added a few finishing touches like the bolts on the drum, facial features etc.

In the end it was a really good experiment. Probably not how I envisioned it but that was part of the excitement. I learnt I should tape my paper down before starting and that there is still a lot more I can do with masking fluid. Anyway, hope that was helpful. Below are the rest of the pieces and the separate stages it took to produce them.


A double dose of drumming

As several of you know I am a student of Japanese taiko drumming, and over the last month Australia’s TaikOz and Japan’s very own Kodo have been touring the country together. To explain how exciting a prospect that is, it would be like the Avengers teaming up with the X-Men. I did promise myself not to spend the whole evening drawing as I tend to not listen and absorb it all as a musical performance, so I decided to draw only one drawing per piece, give or take.

It was a brilliant concert, it was so full of energy and the character of both groups came through. So hope you enjoy my results.

From baci to brushwork

One of the few ways to play taiko. The drumsticks are called baci (pronounced ba-chi). Drawn with a disposable brush pen.

One of my pleasures these last few years has been learning taiko. It is a Japanese drumming practice which spans thousands of years. Not only are the taiko, or drums, beautifully crafted generation after generation in Japan, this style of drumming is an art. It not only requires great technique but an insight into Japanese aesthetics because taiko playing is a very visual form of music making. It is one instrument that is for the eyes as much as the ears.

So in Sydney we are lucky to have TaikOz, an established Australian taiko music company, who tours nationally and internationally performing predominantly taiko music, both original written and traditional pieces. They have student classes every week and several students are members of an off-shoot group called Taiko No Wa. It is made up of advanced students who want to take their taiko playing to the next level which includes composing music and performing publicly.

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Taiko No Wa achieved great success last year when they performed and won a taiko contest in Japan. Which is no mean feat for an Aussie team to win a traditional Japanese music contest in its land of origin. Anyway, they were invited back to Japan to perform in a “Best of” concert with other past winners. So they put on a small concert in Sydney to iron out any kinks before they headed off.

I love drawing live taiko playing, so this concert was a great opportunity to do some more. Taiko drumming isn’t always loud and frenetic, even so, it is the most exciting to draw. It’s very similar to 15-30 second life drawing exercises. They move so fast you have no time to think or get finicky with lines being in the wrong place, it allows you to capture the essence of the movement and its energy.

Very top pen is my Pentel waterbrush and below is the disposable brush (unbranded).

For my materials I grabbed a couple of brush pens. A friend gave me a couple of disposable pens from a recent trip to China. Initially I didnt take to them because they required a lightness of touch which I do not have. You only have to look at them and a line would appear on your page. But I thought this would be a good opportunity to use them. I also took a Pentel waterbrush  filled mostly with Indian ink and a touch of water. I was scared the ink would clog up so I watered it down a bit.

The disposable pen was made for this kind of drawing! They allowed my hand to flow over the page and replicate the movements of the musicians. And the flexibility of the brush going from thin to thick was great in capturing the turns and shifting of weight as they moved.

Drawn with a Pentel brush pen filled with Indian ink

The Pentel brush was good too. I’ve only ever put water in it but the ink was pretty fluid coming out. However, it did take a few days of soaking the brush section in water to get rid of all the ink residue.

Anyway, I’m not sure how many people will get the chance to draw taiko players BUT if anyone likes life drawing or drawing quick moving objects like animals for instance, I would recommend trying a pen with a brush tip. It has a very exciting feeling and result.



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I’ve been crazy busy lately, and cannot fit in as much drawing as I’d like. One small project I usually work on around this time of year is my TaikOz Student Concert tshirt and programme design. I like to give it some thought and time, but only had an afternoon to come up with something. Luckily with Asian-influenced art its very clean and simple. Although I received a lot of positive comments on the design, I realised that I’m not really taken to this style of painting. I dont think it suits my personality.

What Asian-style painting lacks is the opportunity to get down and dirty, and spend a lot of time working and developing a drawing. It requires you to spend more time thinking about your image before you execute – to capture the whole essence of a subject with minimal strokes. It is after perfection and completeness in simplicity. And that’s not me. I love delving and getting lost in masses of linework, much of which is created spontaneously or instinctively. And although you might have a visual idea of what your picture may look like, there is that exciting surprise (usually)  of what you may end up with.

So it worked well for what I needed it to for, but I dont think its something I will want to explore for my personal development.

Are you ready to rock?

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Creating music opens wide the doors in terms of how hands can be manipulated to play a multitude of instruments – striking, stroking, plucking, strumming, shutting, dampening, stretching… It is a very skill-orientated domain and what you can see in the hands are the technical demands (and years of practice) an instrument needs in order for it to be played correctly. On top of that depending on the sound you want to create affects how much pressure you might apply to an instrument, or the way in which it is handled. For instance, even the largest gong can be played with tenderness. It’s all very exciting!!

If you would like to read my drawing notes (or view larger images of these drawings) go to Hand Study – Musical Instruments.

Drum • draw • drum • draw • drum • draw • drum • draw • drum • draw

Hello February!

This is going to be a crazy period for me – I have Chinese New Year commitments coming up for a few weeks so will find it difficult to do much sketching. But I hope to at least get some decent research material for it.

I also just returned from a 4 day Intensive with Taikoz, so lots of drumming and feeble attempts at learning Onikenbai. Anyway, at least I got some drawing in. Lots of pencils and a few watercolours, which can be viewed on my flickr site and a handful of inks which are located on my scratchy sketches page. All those wonderful trees were courtesy of Eling Forest Winery Estate in NSW, where the Intensive was held.

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