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Containers of red and pink pigment

In Search of Colors Forgotten


A documentary explores the venerable and ancient Japanese technique of making vegetable pigments, and a man who works to preserve them...

Sachio Yoshioka uses 3.3 pounds of safflower petals to dye a single sheet of paper red. Once colored, the sheets are used to make paper flowers to adorn the camellia bushes at the Todaiji Temple during the annual celebration of spring. Dedicated to the 11-faced goddess of mercy, the fiery rite has been celebrated every year, uninterrupted, for the past 1,260.

Somenotsukasa Yoshioka is Sachio’s workshop near Kyoto, in Japan. An artist of pigments, he represents the fifth generation of his family to run the workshop. Since 1988, when he took over the family business, he’s stopped using synthetic pigments and returned to only traditional, ancient methods and natural materials, among them flowers, roots, fruits and plants to preserve some of the oldest techniques for the production of Japanese pigments. He also preserves their colors and tones, and this can only be achieved through processes that have today been almost forgotten. (These processes were developed during the Nara and Heian periods, that is, between the years 710 and 1185.)

Yoshioka studied philosophy and has published several books on the history of color and textile arts. He also spends a good part of his time doing historical research on ancient pigments and their production methods. His work is not only to preserve the traditions and colors of the Japanese past. It’s also dedicated to beauty: “The colors you can obtain from plants are so beautiful. This is the one and only reason I do what I do.”

The processes described in the documentary – made by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London – show the meticulous work in Yoshioka’s workshop. It’s work that involves time, physical labor, and a great amount of faith to achieve colors that have, for millennia, ignited both Japanese art and imagination.

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