Nihonga Painter Allan West Shares the Joys and Challenges of Being an Artist in Japan

Amélie Geeraert
Kokoro Media
Published in
13 min readDec 15, 2023

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You may have seen his elegant kimono-clad figure on television, in newspapers, or in your Tokyo guidebook. After almost 40 years of career in Japan, American-born Allan West has become a familiar figure in the world of Nihonga, the Japanese traditional painting.

I had the great pleasure to meet him at the end of Spring 2019 in his beautiful studio in Yanaka, Tokyo. Even though he was exhausted — he was just coming back from Paris where he was preparing an exhibition- Allan patiently and enthusiastically answered all of my questions. What’s the difference between Nihonga and other kinds of painting? Why did he choose this peculiar path and come to Japan? Is it hard to be a foreigner in the world of Japanese traditional painting? Read on to discover a side of Japanese culture that, sadly, is dying.

Nihonga: Painting Techniques Reminiscent of Humanity’s Shared Heritage

Nihonga, Japanese traditional painting, uses natural mineral pigments mixed with a deer protein-based binder. ‘What is considered Japanese painting is actually a really important direct line all the way back through human history to our shared heritage”, explains Allan West.

Since the discovery of the Blombos cave in South Africa a few years ago, in which the tools used by our ancestors to make cave paintings were preserved, we know that mixing natural pigments with animal protein are at the origin of human expression. The techniques spread through Egypt, ancient Rome, and Greece, to China… Over time people would use different sorts of animal protein such as egg tempera or casein until it was replaced by painting with oils about 500 hundred years ago — a very short span in terms of global history.

Nihonga base materials in display in Alan’s studio: gold leaves, stones and powder that will be turned into paint.

“What we call ‘Nihonga’ traditional Japanese painting, is really the only tradition of animal protein-based paint that remains in the world. Although, to be quite honest, I am very concerned that it is dying out. Today, there are only nine stores dedicated throughout all of Japan to the materials and techniques…

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Amélie Geeraert
Kokoro Media

Living in Japan since 2011. I love interviewing inspiring people.