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Backgrounds to transport you

Backgrounds to transport you

Kazua Oga’s hand-painted backgrounds contribute hugely to the impact of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, as they have to all of the animated films he’s art directed. Illustrator Mariya Prytula steered me to this video,  At the Master’s Workshop. 

We watches over his shoulder as the 62 year old Oga completes a scene, Paulowia Rain.  He ruminates a little on his process and how he starts with only a rough idea of the colors he’ll use for this nature vista that he’ll paint from his pencil sketch.

Of course Oga’s notions of color are supported by a lifetime of painting natural settings for animations — perhaps most famously for the Hayao Miyazake movie My Neighbor Totoro, which he created the ‘look’ for. Totoro’s Forest was the name of the retrospective exhibit of his Studio Ghibli work.

Like many artists working in traditional animation in Japan, he uses opaque Nicker Poster Colors. They’re ‘Korean Colors’ water-based paint, but more like gouache than watercolor. You can think of them as a kind of industrial grade gouache. A gelatin base binds the pigments to paper instead of the gum arabic used in traditional watercolors.

“Because we have to paint much, we can’t use expensive paint,” Oga explains in an interview attributed to the ConceptArt. org website. “Poster colors can show brightness or depth of color and, above all, it is easy-to-use,” he says. He begins by wetting both sides of his paper with his Hake brush. As the paper soaks up the water he charges the bright poster paint into the surface, working ‘wet into wet’ like the watercolorists do.

He adds the sharp detail with his pointed round brush as the paper dries. But look again: Details are merely thick ‘color spots’ to denote twigs and blossoms. All Oga’s work seems hyper-realistic at first blush. It’s our brains that mix the values and colors into an image resembling a high re photograph.

Of course Oga’s notions of color are supported by a lifetime of painting natural settings for animations — perhaps most famously for the Hayao Miyazake movie My Neighbor Totoro, which he created the ‘look’ for. Totoro’s Forest was the name of the retrospective exhibit of his Studio Ghibli work.

Like many artists working in traditional animation in Japan, he uses opaque Nicker Poster Colors. They’re ‘Korean Colors’ water-based paint, but more like gouache than watercolor. You can think of them as a kind of industrial grade gouache. A gelatin-base binds the pigments to paper instead of the gum arabic used in traditional watercolors.

“Because we have to paint much, we can’t use expensive paint,” Oga explains in an interview attributed to the ConceptArt. org website. “Poster colors can show brightness or depth of color and, above all, it is easy-to-use,” he says. He begins by wetting both sides of his paper with his Hake brush. As the paper soaks up the water he charges the bright poster paint into the surface, working ‘wet into wet’ like the watercolorists do.

Kazuo Oga at his work table

Kazuo Oga at his work table

He adds the sharp detail with his pointed round brush as the paper dries. But look again: Details are merely thick ‘color spots’ to denote twigs and blossoms. All Oga’s work seems hyper-realistic at first blush. It’s our brains that mix the values and colors into an image resembling a high re photograph.

You might enjoy James Gurney’s take on the formulaic stylization and economy of means Oga uses in his work, which after all is meant to last only a few seconds on the screen, normally.

Princess Kaguya director and Ghibili Studio co-founder Isao Takahata tapped Oga to paint the backdrops of the film with perhaps the loosest, most spontaneous, watercolory art style of all the studio’s films.

“I aimed to have the audience vividly imagine or recall the reality deep within the drawings, rather than thinking the drawings themselves were the real thing,” Isao Takahata says in this interview with UK Wired.  “In order to have people believe in a fantasy world and characters that no one has seen in reality, it may be best present the space, objects, and characters in a three-dimensional manner.

“It is as if that world existed right there, in a trompe l’oeil fashion. The current American animation films utilise 3D CG to aim in that direction. But I wonder about the representation of the world we know well, how to depict very ordinary daily landscapes, nature, and people,” Takahata says. (Compare the plainly realistic Grave of the Fireflies with the more fantastical Spirited Away, for example.)

“I have long thought that it is better to appeal to the viewers’ memory and imagination but this was impossible to express through animation. The initial act of sketching has been the best method for carving onto people’s minds and memories the true impression of objects and figures…

“Without Osamu Tanabe, who created the character design, animation design and layout, and Kazuo Oga, who created the artwork, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya could not have been made,” Takahata concludes.

Anime and studio Ghibli fans will probably recognize many of the settings inhe above assemblage of breathtaking ‘sets’ from classic Hayao Miyazake movies like Spirited Away,  Howl’s Moving Castle and My Neighbor Totoro. The video is said to be a DVD from the Totoro’s Forest exhibit of Oga’s paintings for Ghibli Studio. (Both videos in this post are best enjoyed full screen, on HD 1080p or 720p. You can find these settings on the player’s setting knob once the video starts playing.)

If you’re interested in painting you’ll get a kick out of this series of fun posts by children’s book artist (and animation afficianado) Mike Blake about his quest to acquire Nicker Poster Colors (almost impossible to find in the West) and his experiments made with similar paint from another Korean artists’ materials company, Shin Han.  They’re cited here:

Intro to poster paints:
http://monisawa.blogspot.com/2010/04/ponyo-kazuo-oga-and-poster-paint.html

Using poster paints Part 1 (of 3)
http://monisawa.blogspot.com/2014/02/shinhan-poster-paint-part-1-of-3-journey.html

Using poster paints Part 2 (of 3)
http://monisawa.blogspot.com/2014/02/shinhan-poster-paint-part-2-of-3-my.html

Using poster paints part 3 (of 3)
http://monisawa.blogspot.com/2014/02/shinhan-poster-paint-part-3-of-3-using.html

About The Author

Mark Mitchell

Award-winning children's book author-illustrator Mark G. Mitchell teaches classes in watercolor painting and children's book illustration at The Contemporary Austin Art School in Austin, Texas. Mark is also the creator of an online course, "Make Your Marks and Splashes: A Natural Approach to Children's Book Illustration."

5 Comments

  1. Kathy Jurek

    i loved this, Mark, especially since I am currently learning more about landscape painting!

    Reply
    • Mark Mitchell

      So glad you enjoyed it, Kathy! Can’t wait to see your landscape watercolors. I’m sure they’ll be as great as your “people watercolors.” 🙂

      Reply
  2. Mike Blake

    Thanks for the feature Mark! Just for the record I’m actually an illustrator (in the children’s market: http://www.mikeblakestudio.com) who is an an animation enthusiast…especially Studio Ghibli! ^_^

    And regarding your links…not sure why… but a few aren’t working. Here is breakdown of them:

    Intro to poster paints:
    http://monisawa.blogspot.com/2010/04/ponyo-kazuo-oga-and-poster-paint.html

    Using poster paints Part 1 (of 3)
    http://monisawa.blogspot.com/2014/02/shinhan-poster-paint-part-1-of-3-journey.html

    Using poster paints Part 2 (of 3)
    http://monisawa.blogspot.com/2014/02/shinhan-poster-paint-part-2-of-3-my.html

    Using poster paints part 3 (of 3)
    http://monisawa.blogspot.com/2014/02/shinhan-poster-paint-part-3-of-3-using.html

    Reply
    • Mark Mitchell

      Mike, Thank you for this and those great posts you did on anime and poster paints. I’ve made the correction that you’re an illustrator in the children’s market, not an animator. (It’s always great to meet an illustrator!) And I’ve put in the working links for your posts. Apologize for the delayed response. I’ve been traveling on summer vacation. Not sure I’m done yet with Oga and Ghibli Studio. Have another post coming out today and another set for next week!
      Kind regards,
      Mark

      Reply

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