What Is Gansai?

Until very recently, I had never heard of gansai, now I not only know the word, I have a lovely 12-color set of Kuretake Gansai Tambi — Japanese watercolors.

I found the set through St. Louis Art Supply.  The price was reasonable, and I was curious, so I quickly placed an order.

Gansai

I’ve come to love Japanese art, especially the soft, subtle colors, so I was eager to get this set and play with it. It arrived in only a few days, and I’m delighted with it.

Gansai Swatches (2)The colors included are:

  • Cherry Blossom Pink
  • Lilac
  • Horizon Blue
  • Cobalt Blue
  • Lime Green
  • Greenish Yellow
  • Natural Beige
  • Rose Beige
  • Indian Red
  • Maroon
  • Gray
  • Blue Gray Deep

Using a scrap piece of cold press watercolor paper, I made a quick little card of color swatches. Not a good photo reproduction, but maybe this will give you some idea of the color palette in the set.

UPDATE: Here is an online review of the Kuretake gansai.

Once I began playing with my gansai, artist friends began asking questions. Mostly all I could say was, “Well, they’re different.” Not being a true watercolor artist and having very limited experience with the medium, it was difficult for me to explain why these paints were different. The texture was different. The way they spread on the page was different. But, precisely how were they different from traditional watercolors?

To help me understand — and to share a little information with others — I began browsing. From the St. Louis Art Supply product listing, I came up with this:

Traditional Japanese watercolors are more opaque than Western transparent colors, making them simpler to use and a more direct medium for quick sketches. If you need more transparency for a particular project, just add more water and Gansai Tambi can also create lighter washes.  St. Louis Art Supply – Gansai Tambi

Yes, they are definitely more opaque, and that’s a quality that I like. I don’t handle transparency well in watercolor, I’ve learned. I’ve also found the gansai much easier to blend with, and I love the soft, light washes I’m able to achieve. Unlike my “western watercolors” that seem to run together and blend into an ugly shade of mud, these colors seem to spread and soften without getting muddy.

Morning Light (2)Here’s one very simple, very quick “five-minute” sketch I made with my gansai set. Here, I used the cherry blossom pink with the horizon blue — and a touch of gray — to paint a gentle morning sky.

I used both lime green and greenish yellow — along with a bit of blue gray deep for the trees and grassy areas. I also dabbed on a little beige — both the natural beige and the rose beige.

Painting this little morning scene was very enjoyable, and I’m looking forward to using my Japanese gansai to create more restful, reflective watercolors.

This painting was done on cold press paper. I’m planning to try hot press, and also to get out my rice paper to see what results I get.

I realize that my explanation about the paint is still limited, so for the curious, I dug around a bit more. Here’s what I’ve found:

Gansai (顔彩) is traditional Japanese watercolor. In English, we tend to refer to both types of paints as simply watercolor. However there are two words for these types of paints in Japanese. Gansai is written 顔彩 and the type of water colors that are more traditional in the West (also called transparent watercolors) are written 水彩.

While Western watercolor is traditionally bound with gum arabic, gansai is bound with a combination that could include glue, starch, gum arabic, beeswax, sugar syrup, sugar, or glycerin. The glue is made from concentrated collagen and gelatin that has been extracted from animal and fish skins through boiling. When the pigment and binder is mixed together, they are dried in pans. Those in large square pans are called gansai 顔彩, and those in round dishes are called teppatsu 鉄鉢. They can also be formed into a sort of watercolor pastel/crayon that is called bouenogu 棒絵具. – Watercolor 101

The site continues with more detailed information:

Vibrancy and Opacity

When gansai is watered down it retains its vibrancy more than Western watercolors do. Also, gansai’s binder can give it a shiny finish. Gansai tend to be more opaque than transparent watercolors. Remember that these paints were formulated to work on Japanese paper. Transparent watercolors do not show up very well on Japanese paper, and the additional opacity of gansai help them to appear on the paper with little bleeding.

Lifting

The binder adhesion in gansai is weak compared to other Japanese paints. As a result, they tend to lift much easier than most transparent watercolors, even when dry. There are a few things that could contribute to this. When gansai is used on Japanese washi paper, it doesn’t lift as easily as it does on Western watercolor paper, especially when used with ultrasoft Japanese goat-hair brushes. Traditional Japanese paintings are and also not as dependent on layering as Western watercolor paintings, so there is less opportunity for the paint to lift when new layers are added.

Colors

The colors of traditional Japanese gansai sets are often different from those in transparent watercolors. These paints were created for Japanese picture painting, which comes from a different tradition than European painting. Japanese colors are also based on colors that can actually be seen in nature, which would probably explain the abundance of blues and greens in many gansai palettes. The colors can give a calm and peaceful feeling to the viewer because they are not overly saturated.

Pans

Why are gansai pans so big? Japanese brushes can be much bigger than Western-style brushes, so they need a bigger pan to ensure the brush hairs are not damaged.

Mixing

Gansai were not made to be mixed in the same way that transparent watercolors are. This is part of the reason that many gansai sets do not come with a mixing palette. I have read many reviews that say that gansai paints get muddy when mixed, this makes sense considering the traditional background of the paints, however I have never experienced this. The colors I have been able to mix from gansai have been very clear and bright. (Emphasis mine – JLK)

Quality

Many reviews disparage the quality of gansai because they don’t act in the same way that Western watercolors do. I think that this is unfair. They are not the same type of paint, so they can’t be expected to behave in the same way. Of course, just like there are high-grade and low-grade watercolors, or high-grade and low-grade oil paints, there are high-grade and low-grade gansai paints.

Although watercolor has been tricky for me, I think that gansai is a good fit for what I enjoy most about the medium and what I hope to use it for — creating gentle images of peaceful places, with soft, subtle colors that reflect the natural world.

I’m very happy with my gansai set and look forward to using them often.

18 Comments

  1. I’m so glad you liked them! ^_^ And this review bumps it up on my wish list. LoL … Of all the things you said about them, the only difference I see between Japanese and Chinese watercolours (without having actually used the Japanese set) is the abundance of greens and blues to match what is seen in nature. This makes sense to me, but with the basic Chinese set, there are 3 blues and only one green that isn’t very natural at all. So, to make natural greens, you must use one of the blues and mix it with yellow. That took some getting used to, and I’m not sure why that is because, like Japanese paintings, Chinese paintings tend to be nature-oriented. It makes me curious why that “aoi” hue of green was included, but not more natural greens. Or why not more yellows? There are secondary sets of Chinese watercolours that offer options more similar to these you’ve shown here. But it’s a curious difference. Thanks so much for the information! I think I’ll be dropping this link into my sumi file for when I get my own gansai. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am really loving them! They seem better suited for who I am as a fledgling watercolor artist. For some reason, I feel more comfortable in using these than with other watercolors. It’s almost as though I feel these paints are “friends” who will be patient with me as I learn. St. Louis Art Supply has other sets with lots more colors. I really don’t want to spend the money right now though. So far, with this limited palette, I’ve been able to come up with the colors that I want with just a little mixing and blending. I am really liking the results I’m getting with the set, so it’s no wonder I love it so much!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You’ve introducing me to a new word and new medium. Although I don’t paint, after reading your post, I feel that I, too, might like these opaque watercolors better than regular ones. What fun to have something new to experiment with! Thanks for sharing with the rest of us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really like the gansai. I’m not good with watercolor, but for me, these seem so much “friendlier” — I can’t say exactly why it is, but I feel that I’m a little more in control with these than with traditional watercolors. They just feel very comfortable, and I really like that feeling. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this great information. I had never heard of them. I love watercolor. I did not read if this medium bleeds into the surrounding water resulting in a diminished color which I love about western watercolors. Could you show an example maybe?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can try showing some examples. To answer the question, yes, it will bleed into water to create very soft, subtle effects. I wish I were more experienced with watercolors so I could provide better information. Oh, I just found a YouTube video review. I’m going to update the post to include the link.

      Like

    1. Since I’m not very experienced with watercolor and find it difficult to talk intelligently about it, I browsed around and found a great review on YouTube. I’ve updated the post now to include it!

      Like

      1. I have a teensy gansai kit in my amazon cart….I think I may order a second one for my son’s girlfriend for a gift as well. Limited colors but the addition of a sparkly gold will come in handy.

        Liked by 1 person

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