The thing I appreciate most about Japanese art forms is their open embrace of impermanence. While many western artists like Andy Goldsworthy have made temporality a focal point of their work, Japanese artists have seamlessly integrated time into their work for millennia. The art of painting in stone called Bonseki is no exception.
Bonseki is a dwindling art form, far less recognized than bonsai or it’s geological cousin suiseki. The craft involves “painting” crushed stone onto a black lacquered tray to create scenes of natural beauty: mountains, ocean, beaches, and even villages. While any type of stone or sand can be utilized to create the scene, the most common stone “paint” is gypsum, which is the white material you see in all of the examples shown here.
Artists use sieves of various sizes to separate the gypsum particles. Coarse-grained particles can be used to create a rocky beach, while the fine, nearly silt-sized grains are used to make wisps of clouds, silhouettes of distant objects, or mist from the sea. Stones and objects of other varieties can be used as focal points within the image and are included at the artists discretion.
I had the pleasure of watching a bonseki artist, Herb Bastuscheck, at work in early 2010 at the Oregon Agate & Mineral Show. Graciously, he permitted me to snap the photos you see here as he was working. The image to the left is a portion of a completed piece. Traditionally, the images are supposed to be ones of Japan, but I like to think of the composite cone pictured here as being my beloved Mount Hood; maybe the river is the Upper Clackamas.
Tradition prescribes the use of very specific tools for applying the stone to the “canvas.” Ivory spoons and the fallen feathers of water foul are common tools of the trade.
The patterns and intricacy that can be created using these tools absolutely blew me away! And Herb made it look like a breeze, which I’m certain it is not. The wave patterns and mountain slopes are certainly gorgeous, but my very favorite details were in background and distant objects like the moon pictured here. The craters and glowing wisps of clouds are an impressive attention to detail.
I searched the internet long and hard to see if I could provide a link where interested readers could purchase bonseki supplies, but I found none. There are, however, several online sources for the lacquer trays. Perhaps the other tools are more appropriately found, rather than purchased. My suggestion, if you’re interested in pursuing the art, is to inquire with your local agate & mineral society. Chances are, there are folks within your local group of rock hounds that can point you in the right direction.
Behind the cut I’ve placed a video (one of only two I could find on YouTube) so that you can see more examples of the process and of finished products.