The Prints of Sadao Watanabe

by Helen H. Merritt

Ms. Merritt is associate professor of art and assistant chairperson of the department of art at Northern Illinois University, De Kalb, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century December 21, 1977, p.1194. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


East and West draw closer together in this Japanese artist’s seemingly naïve images. His spirit seems to permit forces beyond himself to flow through his brush and knife, touching fundamental chords that are universal.

The appealing works of the contemporary Japanese printmaker Sadao Watanabe have in recent years become quite popular in this country. Watanabe, a Christian, deals exclusively with biblical themes, and Western Christians are initially attracted to his art by the familiarity of the stories he illustrates. But the strong appeal of his prints is not due solely to our pleasure in encountering illustrations of familiar stories. Why do certain elements of the imagery linger in our minds even when, as is sometimes the case, we cannot identify the stories?

First of all, the boldness of pattern engages our emotions. The contrasting primary colors, the juxtaposition of masses and the compelling rhythms remind us of primitive masks. It should not surprise tis that there is in the prints the same kind of emotive power that we encounter in these, for Watanabe’s purpose is similar to that of the tribal carvers of ceremonial objects. Like them, he works within a framework of faith. He is a craftsman whose products fulfill a need -- the need of Christians to be reminded of their faith.


In speaking of his work Watanabe makes no allusions to self-expression or artistic purpose. Indeed, his training was that of an artisan it. the workshop of a textile printer; he was a designer of kimono fabrics before he became a printmaker. He describes his work simply as that of making pictures for Christians, and he gives the impression that he works in the spirit of those early medieval artisans who carved biblical characters on capitals and reredos to remind worshipers of well-known stories.

Says Watanabe: “My work is very easy; anyone can do it.” This self-effacing artist seems to conceive of himself almost as an anonymous agent: whatever is expressed in his prints comes from beyond him and is simply transmitted through him. It is as if he feels that the creative urge of the universe, which the Chinese have traditionally called Tao, is working in and through him. Do the prints appeal so powerfully because Watanabe is open to the Tao, and because something universal and greater that, the artist is at work? The painter Paul Klee used different terminology in discussing his own art, but he was obviously seeking a freewheeling state in which impulses could flow into his being to be transformed by his hand and tool into visual images. And there is in many of Klee’s images, as in Watanabe’s, an appeal that plumbs some unexplored depth of soul.

Watanabe, like the Romanesque sculptors, seems to be more involved in sharing his faith than in representing visible reality. Disregard for realism was possible for the early medieval artists because the Renaissance concern for a faithful rendering of reality had not yet come about. It is possible for Watanabe because of his roots in the Japanese decorative tradition.

Like his medieval counterparts, Watanabe communicates through symbols. In some cases his symbols are the old ones familiar to all Christians -- the cross or the lamb. But to these he adds such uniquely Japanese symbols as the tai -- a much-prized fish in Japan, regarded as especially appropriate for ceremonial occasions. To uninitiated Westerners the large-eyed red fish may be simply charming, but to the Japanese the tai on the table of the Last Supper print brings the biblical stories home as surely as the blond, blue-eyed Madonnas in northern Renaissance paintings took the far-off events of the Holy Land to the doorsteps of northern Europe. Similarly, Watanabe uses circular motifs derived from the family crests worn on formal kimonos. For the Japanese, still very conscious of important feudal families, use of these motifs suggests the association of biblical stories with important personages.


The Watanabe process of stencil dyeing is quite different from the wood-block technique usually associated with Japanese printmaking. Watanabe’s teacher, Keisuke Serizawa, learned the process in Okinawa in the early 1930s from craftsmen who made a traditional fabric called bingata. It can be used with equal effectiveness on either fabric or strong paper. Watanabe studied with Serizawa in the 1940s; he received early recognition in a 1947 prize from the Japanese Folk Art Museum for a large black-and-white print depicting Ruth and Naomi. He made only black-and-white prints for five years or so, until he developed the color prints for which he is now best known.

He begins by drawing in brush and Chinese ink on heavy, handmade paper which has been soaked in persimmon juice. This strong, brownish paper becomes the stencil; the motif he draws on it is the beginning of a design that changes and evolves as he cuts with small, sharp blades.

To make a black-and-white print he places the finished stencil on top of a sheet of strong handmade Japanese paper and places a fine silk screen over the stencil. Using a flat-edged wooden squegee, he applies a starch paste made from boiled rice just as serigraphers apply paint over a silk screen. Perhaps to increase the coverage or to hasten the drying, he sprinkles additional dry starch over the surface. When the paper is dry, he applies Chinese ink that has been ground in tofu water, a by-product in the making of curd from soy beans. Apparently the protein in the water increases the opacity and indelibility of the ink. When the ink is thoroughly dry, the paper is washed in cool running water and brushed vigorously with a stiff brush. The starch washes off, leaving a sharp-edged black-and-white pattern corresponding to the stencil.

To produce color prints, he places the stencil beneath the paper on a glass surface with a light behind it so that he sees the outline of the stencil under the paper. He then paints the light areas with the desired colors, using pigments derived from minerals and other natural sources. When color has been applied to all such areas, the stencil is removed and the paper dried. Stencil and silk are then placed on top of the paper, and starch is applied over the colors. When the starch is dry, ink is applied just as in making black-and-white prints. When the ink is dry, the starch is washed off, leaving the finished color print.


Watanabe’s approach to space is distinctly Eastern. A Western landscapist drawing a mountain scene in perspective will make the huts at the foot of the mountain larger than those near the top because the lower ones are closer to the viewer. A Chinese landscapist, on the other hand, makes each of several huts along a mountain path the same size, as if the viewer were standing just opposite each hut. Likewise Watanabe makes each person the same size with little regard for distance from the viewer. As in medieval painting Christ is sometimes larger than other figures because of his importance, but in general, size relates to the spatial organization of a design. The animals in the ark are more or less equal in size, whether ducks or lions, horses or mice!

The Chinese artist treats each section of a landscape as if the viewer were seeing just that horizontal segment; buildings and trees are shown in their most characteristic views. In one of his prints of the Last Supper, Watanabe treats the receding surface of the table in a series of horizontal bands, each of which contains bottles and plates of approximately uniform size. The plates are circles, as they would be seen from above, but the bottles are presented in profile as if seen from the side. We read these images clearly as plates and bottles because we see them in their most distinctive views. In Western perspective the table top would be wide at the bottom of the print, or at the end of the table closest to us, and narrow at the top or at the end most distant from us. In Eastern depictions of space, the area most distant from the viewer is spread out as the world expands in the distance, while the area close at hand is narrow and confined. Similarly Watanabe’s table is wide at the distant end and narrow at the close end.

In the context of the conventions of Western perspective Watanabe’s depiction of the table and its contents is symbolic of things as he knows them rather than representative of things as he sees them. Easterners have always thought of visual arts as symbolizing that which they know or feel. Medieval art as well dealt in symbols in an era when artists were more concerned with the world of Christian faith than with the world of scientific observation.


The Western viewer tends to think of Watanabe’s images as expressively distorted, as indeed they are. But they are often distorted in the interest of rhythm and pattern. This kind of distortion was common in Japanese fabric design long before Western artists were concerned with the emotional impact of distortion. We can see rhythm in Japanese art as an expression of the strong feeling for movement that has traditionally permeated Eastern, religious thought. The Easterner tends to see the human being in the context of the slow working-out of a natural pattern through eons of time.

Hence, a favorite traditional form of painting has been the long makimono which one unfolds so that only a small section is viewed at any one time. The viewer unrolls the scroll almost involuntarily as the flowing lines entice his eye along a visual journey. Japanese connoisseurs delight in the rhythmic strokes of calligraphy, seeing them as manifestations of the vital processes of natural life. The Westerner looking at Watanabe’s prints may not be conscious of these implications, but one responds to the rhythmic lines nonetheless.

It may well be also that features which seem distorted to us do in fact have roots in Watanabe’s cultural heritage. The very high eyes, for example, bring to mind the custom of shaving the eyebrows and painting on new ones near the hairline -- a practice of beauties in the Heian period which has been perpetuated in the masks of the Noh drama.

Watanabe probably shares the commonly held Japanese view that Westerners have very long noses. Though there are many Westerners in large Japanese cities today, one still hears groups of small children giggling about a foreigners funny nose. We can see a manifestation of this kind of perception in the early Japanese paintings of Portuguese clerics or Dutch traders, who were characteristically shown with exceedingly long noses not unlike those in the Watanabe prints. The stereotyped perception of occidental noses corresponds to the Western idea that Orientals have slanting eyes. It may well be that the elongation is Watanabe’s way of signifying that, from the Japanese point of view, the people depicted in the prints are foreigners.

The distortions are also an outgrowth of the stencil process. It is possible to shade colors in stencil paintings, but Watanabe uses the stencil with directness and economy of means. The result is an adaptation of three-dimensional scenes to sharp-edged silhouettes and clearly defined patterns of flat color.

Whatever their source, Watanabe’s distortions create the feeling that his Christianity is humanistic. Over the years the human figures in his prints have filled more and more of the space, leaving less and less for the plant forms, abstract patterns and calligraphy that appeared in early works. The people seem drawn to each other by their big sad eyes; their thrust-back heads seem to speak of common griefs.


Returning to the question of why Watanabe’s prints appeal strongly to contemporary American Christians, I suggest that the answer lies in an expression of faith deeper and broader than even Watanabe may realize. On the one hand, his symbols are overtly biblical, and carry with them all the implications of Judeo-Christian faith. His figures speak of Christian concerns for human worth and human love.

On the other hand, Watanabe, devout Christian that he is, has received a host of Buddhist feelings as his birthright by virtue of his Japanese heritage -- just as a feeling for Christian values is an Americans birthright whether one chooses to accept the Christian faith or not. There is a common saying that Japanese live Shinto and die Buddhist -- that is, in daily life they take comfort from Shinto belief in hundreds of spirits, and in death they take comfort in Buddhist promises of future life. At the season of the Bon dance in mid-July -- when, according to Buddhist belief, the spirits of the dead return to visit the living -- Watanabe honors his father according to Buddhist custom by placing fruits before his picture, symbolically to nourish his soul. I have no doubt that his basic perception of the world is almost inevitably colored profoundly by Japanese Buddhism.

On its long trek from India to Japan, Buddhism absorbed many Chinese ideas, including the notion that we are most effective when we assert ourselves least and let forces beyond our own modest individuality work through us. Although this concept is Chinese in origin, it is basic in Zen Buddhism today.

Watanabe does not actively follow the tenets of Zen, but we recall that he spoke of his own work as being easy -- as something that anyone could do. His humility is genuine, as his demeanor and gestures express even more clearly than his words, and such a spirit does indeed seem to permit forces beyond himself to flow through his brush and knife. The resulting images touch fundamental chords that are universal. Christian faith has emphasized certain needs, and Eastern faith has emphasized others. But East and West are drawing closer together, and Watanabe’s seemingly naïve images penetrate to a core that is common to both.