What is Nihonga?

What is Nihonga?


Nihonga 日本  literally means "Japanese painting".

But what is significant about this traditional Japanese art style?


Traditional art in Japan is understood as a creative representation of reality, not as an attempt to recreate the real world in a naturalistic and detailed manner.

So less realism - more elegant and stylized motifs that are displayed graphically.


The focus of the Nihonga style is the conscious emphasis on outlines, the use of natural-looking light tones, as well as gold and silver. The image is also often kept flat and two-dimensional.


Great attention is paid to empty space (also negative space) in Nihonga:


The empty space, ma , the philosophical meaning is attached to a space that is intentionally left blank to allow the existence of relationships and functions between people and things.

This Japanese notion of space is influenced by Shintoism, which attaches almost as much importance to spaces and relationships between objects and people as it does to the objects themselves. This means that all things consist not only of themselves but also of space and relationships that surround and influence them.


In Japanese art, the empty space refers to the artistic interpretation of the empty space. As much attention is paid to this in a painting as to the rest of the picture. This goes hand in hand with the intention of directing the viewer's gaze to the empty space of the picture.

The empty space is consciously used to interpret further possibilities in the picture. The use of empty space can have a dramatic impact on the mood and tone of the finished image. 

Ma is consciously created to give our thoughts the necessary space to flourish.


The aesthetic concept used in the Nihonga style is called mono no aware 者の哀れ.

Mono no aware refers to the awareness and beauty of the impermanence of things, to the beauty and the conscious perception of the moment.

As an example, one could refer to the Japanese fondness for viewing cherry blossoms. Cherry blossoms are not necessarily more beautiful than other flowers, one might think, but they are given a higher value due to their transience - because almost a week after they are in full bloom they start to wither again. 

It is precisely this transience of the moment that makes the viewer wistfully perceive and appreciate the true beauty of the moment.