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Teaching Japanese Maki-e Art to Middle School Students

Gina has been an art teacher for 20+ years. She's taught in the judicial system and in community art programs as well as in schools.

Art by Siobhan, 7th grade

Art by Siobhan, 7th grade

What Is Maki-e?

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.

The term maki-e literally means sprinkled picture. This art form is a type of 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.

Art by Meredith, 7th Grade

Art by Meredith, 7th Grade

Art by Ryan, 8th Grade

Art by Ryan, 8th Grade

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.

Art by Claire, 7th Grade

Art by Claire, 7th Grade

Teaching Japanese Art and Culture

I have always been fascinated by 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.

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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.

Lesson Objectives

  • Introduce students to the Japanese culture
  • Introduce students to the history of Japanese lacquer techniques
  • 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.
Art by Hunter, 7th Grade

Art by Hunter, 7th Grade

Art by Scott, 7th Grade

Art by Scott, 7th Grade

Materials You'll Need

  • All-purpose chipboard (5" x 7")
  • Matte acrylic black
  • Premium construction paper in: gold, silver, white, and brown
  • Glue sticks
  • Glue bottles
  • Jacquard Pearl-Ex Pigment in: Aztec gold, silver, and bronze
  • Polymer gloss medium
  • Scissors
  • Graphite pencils
  • Brushes
Art by Jennifer, 7th Grade

Art by Jennifer, 7th Grade

Lesson Plan

  1. Prepare PowerPoint presentation on the Japanese art form of maki-e.
  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.

Maki-e Instructions

  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 sketchbook.
  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 sketchbook, 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 the 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.

Raden Lacquerware Technique

Another Japanese lacquerwork technique is called Raden. This type of lacquerwork is charactereized by intricate details of mother-of-pearl, inlaid wood and precious metals.

Raden lacquerware in which thinly polished shells are put on the surface of the artwork.

Raden lacquerware in which thinly polished shells are put on the surface of the artwork.

More Resources on Maki-e

© 2016 Gina Welds


Carlo on September 03, 2019:


I live in Chicago and wanted to learn how to do this Maki-e Japanese lacquer technique. Would you happen to know where I may learn step by step instructions as I would like to create art work for my children? How may find and purchase the tree sap etc?

Thank you

Shannon Henry from Texas on September 02, 2016:

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.

Gina Welds (author) from Tampa, Florida on September 02, 2016:

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.

Shannon Henry from Texas on September 02, 2016:

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 (author) from Tampa, Florida on August 31, 2016:

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.

manatita44 from london on August 31, 2016:

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 (author) from Tampa, Florida on August 30, 2016:

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.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 30, 2016:

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.