Maki-e is a unique craft developed in Japan. It is a technique that uses the thick, adhesive strength of urushi to affix gold and silver powder to a surface to create a design. Though time consuming, the maki-e painting process gives objects a strikingly beautiful finish.
The history of maki-e goes back about 1500 years and its fundamental methods were established about 800 years ago. Decorative urushi (lacquer) painting referred to as 'maki-e' can incorporate a wide range of techniques. It includes pieces in which motifs are drawn using urushi and then sprinkled with gold powder, as well as those in which seashells, eggshells or gold foil is inlaid or pasted on with thickened urushi.
Typically, patterns and motifs are first drawn with urushi, then gold, silver and other coloured powders are sprinkled on the surface before another layer of urushi is applied to coat it. After it has completely dried, the surface is polished with charcoal, and then further decorations are added. The process is repetitive and it takes from several weeks to several months to finish a single piece.
The three basic techniques of maki-e are called togidashi maki-e, hira maki-e, and taka maki-e.
togidashi maki-e: polishing-down maki-e technique. A pattern is first drawn in urushi, and then gold, silver or other pigmented powders are sprinkled over the drawing. When the drawing has hardened, a layer of clear or pigmented urushi is applied to the entire surface. Then the surface is polished down to the layer of the drawing with charcoal to expose the very top of the sprinkled pattern.
hira maki-e: low-relief maki-e technique. Gold or silver powders are sprinkled over a pattern drawn in urushi. Then a small amount of urushi is applied only over the drawing, just to fix the particles onto the surface. After it hardens, the motif is polished with charcoal. A characteristic of this technique is that the entire surface is not covered with urushi.
taka maki-e: high-relief maki-e technique. In this process, a high-relief pattern is created by first drawing a motif in urushi, then repeatedly sprinkling powder only over the drawing and polishing it. This technique produces a dramatic three-dimensional effect on an otherwise flat surface. To reduce the time and expense associated with this technique, a mixture of fine powdered pumice and urushi is sometimes used to build up the base before the final layers are applied.
shishiai togidashi maki-e: complex maki-e technique. After Togidashi, Hira, and Taka maki-e were developed, this new technique emerged in the late 14th century. It employs combinations of the other three techniques to enhance the artistic depth of a piece, and because each of these techniques are individually very difficult, shishiai togidashi is the most demanding and requires the greatest skill of all.