Me and the Torii School

Hello, my winsome and patent-leather-clad ducklings!

It’s a new year, and I’m poking my head out to wish you well and share a few forgotten treasures from the dusty corners of the art world. A few weeks back my friend Patricia was getting rid of some old art books, and I snapped up a few. Not enough, it turns out; now I’m regretting not taking them all.

But at any rate, here’s what I found.


This is “DANCER”, attributed to Torii Kiyonobu I, and is my favorite of the lot. Not much is known about Torii, but it seems that he learned to paint and print from his father, and that together they produced art for the Kabuki theaters: signs, backdrops, etc. Yes, I’m still fixated on kabuki after all these years.


Next we have the painting on the left, YOUTH DISGUISED AS A KOMUSO, by Suzuki Harunobu. The art world has gone back and forth on whether these two paintings should be paired together – the author voted that they should not – but I don’t really care. I just love the pose, texture and layout of the one on the left, and don’t find much of interest in the one on the right. Komusos, incidentally, were itinerant monks who played the shakuhachi, the flute-like instrument you see him carrying.


Finally, there is A PICTURE OF THE FIRST PURCHASE IN THE PARLOR, an impossibly lovely and graceful image of a courtesan/brothel beauty. The artist in this case is Chobunsai Eishi, who was classically trained but who left the academy for the dazzling lights of the ukiyo.

These three seemed to belong together, so I set about making that happen. I made a triptych sketch, and was immediately so happy with the result that I couldn’t bear to touch it for about two months, just pulling it out now and then to look at it. I was terribly worried that once I started to ink it in I would screw up and it would be ruined. Too, there’s something about a sketch that’s always better than a finished piece, if you approach it optimistically. Your imagination fills in the unfinished details, and polishes up the blurry areas, etc.

But a few days back I bit the bullet and finished the sketch and then inked it. Weighty decisions were made, Rubicons were crossed and sweat was besweated.


(Please click through on all these images, by the way. They are all so much better when full size.)

I couldn’t be happier with some of my decisions, such as adding the thin border around each image; I especially love it that the dancer’s fan and staff break through the border. I also like the way the leaves decorating the dancer’s robes turned out; my pen wasn’t fine enough – nor is my hand steady enough – to draw them the way Eishi did. In general I scaled back the decoration quite a lot due to space and my lack of ability, and I’m mostly pleased about how it turned out. Obviously I’m oceans away from the delicacy, proportion and grace of the originals, but overall I’m still delighted.

The piece does have faults that I must point out, though. I regret not finding a way to reproduce the mitsu tomoe (comma-wheels) of the dancer’s robe; the symmetry was really important to me, and every time I drew them crooked it was terribly distracting. So I went with a simpler, Japanese-y symbol that I’m not wholly thrilled with. I also wish I’d been able to find a solution for making a flower pattern on the dancer’s sleeve which is so much a part of the joy of the original. Ditto on the gorgeous pattern at the bottom of the courtesan’s gown. And of course I wish I had the skill to add some color, but fooling around with water-colors seemed like a recipe for disaster.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy my creation. I have another idea in the pipeline (another triptych!) so maybe in a few months it will work its way out of my head onto paper.

PS: If you are extra-excited about this, you may enjoy this .gif, which compares the original images to my poor imitation.

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One Response to Me and the Torii School

  1. Patricia says:

    What a beautiful piece Vinny! This is so good. I’m in awe of how well you’ve done this. I’m also just beginning to try to draw again, but you are way ahead of me.

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