The Art of Japanese Maki-e for Middle School

Student Work

Art by Siobhan, 7th grade
Art by Siobhan, 7th grade | Source

Lacquerware Techniques

For thousands of years, the process of converting tree resin into lacquer to add beauty and longevity to everyday objects has been practiced and perfected by Asian craftsmen.

However, the techniques developed in ancient Japan are the most highly regarded as fine art:

  • “Raden” lacquerware is designed with intricate details of mother-of-pearl, inlaid wood and precious metals.
  • “Maki-e,” which translates as “sprinkle pictures” and is perhaps the most beautiful lacquerware ever produced.

An Example of Raden lacquerware

Raden Lacquerware where thinly polished shells are put on the surface of lacquer ware.
Raden Lacquerware where thinly polished shells are put on the surface of lacquer ware. | Source

What Is Maki-e?

The term Maki-e literally means sprinkled picture, and is Japanese lacquer sprinkled with gold or silver powder as a decoration using a makizutsu or a kebo brush. The technique was developed mainly in the Heian Period (794–1185) and blossomed in the Edo Period (1603–1868).

Maki-e objects were initially designed as household items for court nobles, but they soon gained more popularity and were adopted by royal families and military leaders as a symbol of power.

To create different colors and textures, maki-e artists use a variety of metal powders:

  • Gold
  • Silver
  • Copper
  • Brass
  • lead
  • Aluminum
  • Platinum
  • Pewter
  • Metal alloys

Bamboo tubes and soft brushes of various sizes are used for laying powders and drawing fine lines.

More Student Work

Art by Meredith, 7th Grade
Art by Meredith, 7th Grade | Source
Art by Ryan, 8th Grade
Art by Ryan, 8th Grade | Source

Maki-e Masters

As it requires highly skilled craftsmanship to produce a maki-e painting, young artists usually go through many years of training to develop the skills and to ultimately become maki-e masters.

Kōami Dōchō (1410–1478) was the first lacquer master linked to specific works. His maki-e works used designs from various Japanese contemporary painters.

Kōami and another maki-e master, Igarashi Shinsai, were originators of the two major schools of lacquer-making in the history of Japan.

Student Work

Art by Claire, 7th Grade
Art by Claire, 7th Grade | Source

Objective of This Lesson

I have always been fascinated with the Japanese culture. Each year there is at least one assignment that is completed based on the Japanese culture or history.

This year I decided to focus on Japanese maki-e technique and to use that skill to teach my students a little about the history of Japan.

Another reason I always do a Japanese-based work is to have it included in the Japanese Day event that I did each year with my students. In this event, the classroom is transformed into a Japanese-style tea room and many artifacts from my collection, as well as the collection of others, are brought in and the day is spent heavily engaged in the Japanese culture. One year we were lucky enough to have a Sushi chef present who made sushi on the spot.

The main objectives of this lesson is:

  • To introduce students to the Japanese culture
  • To introduce students to the history of Japanese lacquer techniques, namely maki-e
  • To show students how to make an easy, contemporary version of this art-form, by creating the illusion of inlaid metal or pearl with acrylic-painted paper applied to a board.

Student Work

Art by Hunter, 7th Grade
Art by Hunter, 7th Grade | Source

Student Work

Art by Scott, 7th Grade
Art by Scott, 7th Grade | Source

Materials You'll Need

  • All-Purpose Chipboard 5" x 7"
  • Matte Acrylic black
  • Premium Construction Paper in:
  1. Gold
  2. Silver
  3. White
  4. Brown
  • Glue Sticks
  • Glue bottles
  • Jacquard® Pearl-Ex Pigment in:
  1. Aztec Gold
  2. Silver
  3. Bronze
  • Polymer Gloss Medium
  • Scissors
  • Graphite Pencils
  • Brushes

Student Work

Art by Jennifer, 7th Grade
Art by Jennifer, 7th Grade | Source


  1. Prepare powerpoint presentation of Japanese art form.
  2. Have students view examples of lacquerware and other Japanese art forms, such as painting, silk painting, woodcuts, etc.
  3. Have various resource books handy for students to research.
  4. Plan a trip to the library for research.

Student Work

Art by Victoria, 7th grade
Art by Victoria, 7th grade | Source

Student Work

Art by Meredith, 7th Grade
Art by Meredith, 7th Grade | Source
Art by Enak, 7th Grade
Art by Enak, 7th Grade | Source
Art by Lauren, 7th Grade
Art by Lauren, 7th Grade | Source
Art by Mackenzie, 7th Grade
Art by Mackenzie, 7th Grade | Source

The Process

  1. Coat one side and the edges of the board with black acrylic paint and allow to dry.
  2. Paint reverse side as well.
  3. Make preliminary sketches in your sketch book.
  4. Explain the concept of mosaic and that the simple technique will be utilized in this assignment. This piece will be assembled like a mosaic, with individual pieces placed so that they form a whole picture.
  5. Once the designs have been made in the sketch book, students can then use that design template to cut the pieces out of the color/metallic papers.
  6. Remember that the complete design has to fit onto the 5" x 7" board.
  7. Distribute one piece of each color of painted paper to each student.
  8. Cut shapes out of the painted pieces of paper, based on the sketches.
  9. Secure the shapes to the board using a glue stick or liquid glue. We found that liquid glue works best although it will take some time to dry. TIP: Use the glue stick to gently keep in place, just in case you need to reposition.
  10. Reposition if needed and remove any excess glue with a paper towel or tissue.
  11. Once the entire design is assembled on the board, and glued down, brush a generous coat of Acrylic Gloss Medium over the entire surface of the piece.
  12. Allow it to dry and apply a second coat.
  13. While second coat is still wet, gently sprinkle Pearl-Ex powdered pigment into the surface for the look of “Maki-e” lacquerware. A light application is best.
  14. Once the gloss medium is dry, remove any excess powder by gently blowing on it.
  15. Display by gluing the finished work onto a white background.
  16. Students can sign their name in Japanese, for added authenticity.

Check out this video to learn more about the Secret of Maki-e

Have you heard of Japanese Maki-e?

Have you heard of Japanese Maki-e?

  • Yes.
  • No, but it sounds intriguing.
  • No, but I don't see what the big deal is.
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AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 7 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

The art created by the students is beautiful. I love the technique that you've described. Thank you for sharing the interesting ideas for both students and teachers.

Gina Welds-Hulse profile image

Gina Welds-Hulse 7 weeks ago from Rockledge, Florida Author

Thanks, Alicia. I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. My students really enjoyed this assignment, although it was a challenge. They certainly rose to the challenge, though, producing some amazing work.

I have a wealth of lessons to share, so I think I will share my most interesting ones.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I appreciate the feedback.

manatita44 profile image

manatita44 7 weeks ago from london

The video is fascinating! Different from Calligraphy, yes, but reminds me of it. The same beauty, meditation, intuitive feel required. You sometimes choose some intriguing pieces and do them well. Dare I say that perhaps you once had a Japanese Soul?

You're truly artistic! God is the supreme artiste. To become a willing conduit for His creations is very special indeed! Alleyuia! Praise be!

Gina Welds-Hulse profile image

Gina Welds-Hulse 7 weeks ago from Rockledge, Florida Author

There was definitely a meditative environment that was created during this process. Ever since I was a young girl I was very fascinated by the Japanese culture. My Grandmother gave me a book about Japan and the fascination never stopped.

Yes, God is the ultimate Artiste, and I get much of my inspiration from His canvas.

shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 7 weeks ago from Texas

I tried to comment shortly after you published this, but it wouldn't post for some reason. I think it had something to do with HP's mobile site. Anyway. . .

You brought back memories from high school. We made something similar to this using a cardboard backing and then other pieces of various objects to cut into shapes and to make a raised design with texture. We covered it all in aluminum foil and then colored over that with a sharpie marker, I believe. Maybe it was paint or something else. Then we took a brillo thing to the upraised parts. The result was much like some of the pieces you shared here. I had that thing in a portfolio of some of my artwork throughout my school years mostly. It all burned when my house did in Sept of 2012.

Gina Welds-Hulse profile image

Gina Welds-Hulse 7 weeks ago from Rockledge, Florida Author

Hi Shanmarie. I know exactly what you're talking about. The technique used in what you're referring to was to create a raised relief, rather than an inlay technique. It's very different from this particular piece. The ones that are shown here are flat, unless they are formed into a particular shape afterward.

I'm so sorry about your house, but glad you're ok, and hope that everything turned out well after that. I know it must have been difficult to start over.

Thanks for stopping by, and for sharing.

shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 7 weeks ago from Texas

I thought it was different because the technique sounded different, but it looked very similar to me as I was looking at your examples. Thanks for the distinction.

Yes, things are fine now. It was not easy starting over after the fire, but there were also many other challenges that hindered progress. Life's full of the ups adn downs, though. No way around that.

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