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Virtues in Miniature

My introduction to etegami via Deborah Davidson coincided with a personal awakening: my buttons actually function as canvases. Since then, I have often been looking at her work, admiring and learning from it, as well as reading her blog. Trying to imagine myself painting in such a small format, then realizing that I do, has spawned a number of very helpful internal dialogues. For this post, I decided to create a new dialogue, an external one, and interview Debbie. The values underlying etegami have a lot to say to the small canvas represented by beads, pendants and other small format ceramic.

Debbie, what is etegami?

Etegami is first and foremost a kind of mailable folk art ("e" means art; "tegami" means letter). It consists of simple hand-painted images accompanied by a few hand-written words, usually on a postcard. The Japanese have a long tradition of sending greetings to one another in the form of hand-painted greeting cards with brief (often formulaic) phrases deemed appropriate for the season or purpose. What  differentiates Etegami from the more formal arts using similar tools and inks, such as Haiga and Sumi-e, is that it is more spontaneous, more colorful, and it depicts ordinary things from everyday life.

Etegami are almost always painted on postcards of 10 cm x 15 cm (roughly 4 inches x 6 inches) in size. But Etegami supply shops will occasionally sell cards that are up to twice as long, or twice as wide, or more rarely, cards that are irregularly shaped and which must be placed in envelopes if they are to be sent through the post.

Etegami is not Fine Art, and originals are not normally bought and sold. Printed postcard sets or printed calendars of the works of popular etegami artists can be purchased fairly cheaply.

When did etegami gain the popularity it has now?

In the 1970s, the artist Koike Kunio popularized the Etegami motto that translates roughly to: "Clumsy is not a problem. Clumsy is actually an asset in Etegami." This way of thinking made Etegami fun and accessible to people  who didn't have the time or inclination to take on a hobby with lots of rules that would take ages to master.

This sounds unlikely; how is clumsiness is a virtue?

 For one thing, excessive concern about perfection reveals that the artist is concerned more about the work itself than about the intended recipient. Such self-absorption is unseemly. For another, the "clumsiness" referred to here  is not purposeful clumsiness, but natural and childlike awkwardness, which are desirable qualities and evidence of spontaneity. Etegami should come from the heart.

Leaving something less than perfect/complete is desirable in that it leaves room for growth. And anyway, the idea that man would try to create something perfect smacks of unbecoming pridefulness in a culture that traditionally values humility.

Celebrating clumsiness is a bit unusual to hear. Is waste ever a worry? Do new etegami students express concern about "messing up the card?"

I haven't had much experience being among "students" of etegami, but I can tell you what my own concerns were when I was a beginner. I had been taught that there was no such thing as a failed etegami and that I must mail off every card I painted. This was difficult for me, not because I compared my work with other etegami artists, but because I compared each of my pieces with the image I had in my head-- how I had wanted it to end up looking. I did, however, mail each of my pieces-- even the ones I wasn't happy with-- usually to other etegami artists, who would give me valuable feedback and encouragement.

As I became more experienced, I finally grasped the concept that I wasn't meant to be in control of the process. That the way I was taught to hold the brush pen, the bleed of the paper, and other factors, all contributed to preventing the artist from having too much control of the results. I learned to appreciate the "accidents" and since there was no fixing the results, I learned to relax and enjoy the way the tools and materials took the control away from me.

The initial investment in tools and paper is not cheap, but the tools and paints last for years, and washi cards come in a wide range of prices. In the beginning I used the cheap cards that were mass-produced and didn't have much bleed. Nowadays I use more expensive, hand-produced cards that I have to order specially because I'm no longer satisfied with the way the cheaper cards respond to my ink. I can see where a young person without much money, or a retired person on a fixed income might worry a bit about cost of materials. Even so, I think Etegami is a lot cheaper to do than most forms of art that people pursue as a hobby.

I think waste, when your budget is limited, can be troubling. Also, some of us grew up with "waste not, want not." It's deeply ingrained. My own mind, and my work, changed when I decided that less glorious results were not "trash," or a waste, but the mother of my success...in some ways more valuable than beautiful pieces. Not seeing mistakes as trash changed how I used my materials and also gave me lots of freedom to try anything. I don't know how other people leave the place of worrying about "waste," but for me, waste ended as a concept when all the work became "good."

That is close to what I was trying to say. Except that, strictly speaking, we're not even supposed to think in terms of success. There is no "failure" in etegami.

Wow...an art form valuing clumsiness, that has neither success nor failure as guidelines, is very challenging, and thought-provoking.

One thing that always speaks to me from your work are your cropped images--that you let a portion stand for the whole. Can you say something about the freedom to fill the whole space, and STILL not "finish" the picture? I think this is really challenging, but so important. Overworking a piece is counterproductive, and even more so in such a small space. How do you know when you are finished?

When we paint etegami, we place the washi card on a larger sheet of washi (cheap, thin sheets), partly to protect the work surface from the ink, but also to extent the boundary of the card itself. We try not to "frame" the image within the borders of the card, but let our brush strokes extend beyond the card to the sheet of washi behind it. That's why the finished image on the card looks cropped. Children do this quite naturally, but inexperienced adult artists are often inhibited by the dimensions of the card and have trouble ignoring the boundaries. They will try to "center" the image on the card, which results in the image appearing small and tight.

I've already addressed the issue of "when is the painting finished?" in previous responses, but to repeat an important factor, the traditional Japanese aesthetic has always valued minimalism and just-short-of-completeness, so an etegami artist who has any appreciation for traditional Japanese art will recognize this, and it will affect the way he paints. I was taught to use no more than three colors and to leave the background of the image blank. I've noticed that many etegami artists do use lots of colors and will fill in the background, especially if they're painting a scene, rather than an object. But in my opinion, it makes the work appear like any other watercolor painting, rather than an etegami.

Sometimes I think the freedom to leave “unfinished”, or to crop, has to do with getting away from the (concrete) idea that the picture is really the object (which I think is behind the "completeness" idea that requires the whole item to be shown) and grasping the idea that the picture is a suggestion of... many other things, sometimes the object , but often an idea or a feeling.

You expressed it well. Etegami is the suggestion of something (an experience, a thought, an object) that extends beyond the painted image. Just as Haiku suggests in a few lines a much bigger situation or feeling.

Many thanks, Deborah. You've already given me a lot to think about over the last months. Now, I will be pondering the restrictions that can be engendered by my concept of success! 

Deborah Davidson is a professional translator and Etegami artist based in Hokkaido, the gorgeous northernmost island/prefecture of Japan. Her series, Humanizing the Quake, is a particular favorite.


  1. Loved learning about etegami and the thoughts behind the process.

  2. Debbie introduced me to etegami and I struggle with giving up the idea of perfection but etegami is forgiving and a lot of fun, especially when you receive one in return for the one you have mailed! The Etegami Fun Club on Facebook, a group started by Debbie is a good place to start out.

  3. Thanks for sharing your experience in etegami. I found etegami a lively genre of art. It's simple, colorful and lots of fun. It reminds me to appreciate my daily life, except on ordinary things. It magnifies the happiness and teaches me to see things by heart.

    Nagori Yuki

  4. Thank you for this inspiring piece; very stimulating, new, and interesting. Joan T

  5. Inspiring and informative interview. Love the "less glorious results...were the mother of my success." I've never seen any clumsiness or "less glorious results" from Debbie, but appreciate the freedom she gives us to be less than perfect. Love the artistic beads on this site!

  6. What an enjoyable and insightful interview. Thank you.

  7. Fascinating interview. Love the interactive part. Great to learn about this Japanese art form and how it pertains to "issues" around creating. Thanks so much for choosing to write on this topic.


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