The SadaoHanga Catalogue

Introduction to Sadao Watanabe

Sadao Watanabe in 1988 © Dutch Mission Calendar

Introduction to Sadao Watanabe

Short story of Watanabe's life and work

Sadao Watanabe 渡辺禎雄 was born in 1913 in Tokyo. On Christmas Day 1930 he was baptized a Christian. In the late 1930s, he worked as a dyer and designer of patterns for kimonos and obis in a dying shop. In that time Sadao Watanabe met Keisuke Serizawa (1895-1984) and his textile dye art. He became his student. Serizawa Keisuke was an artist of the Mingei movement that was inspired by the beauty of traditional Japanese and Korean folk craft. Mingei 民芸 can be translated as people's crafts or people's art. Serizawa was inspired by the Okinawan bingata 紅型 technique of katazome 型染め , a technique of paste resist stencil dying. Serizawa learned this dying technique and mastered all the stages of the proces. The technique was used for decorating cloth, but Serizawa started using this technique on paper: kappazuri 合羽摺り. Watanabe learned to use this technique from Serizawa. Serizawa recognized Watanabe's talent for kappazuri and encouraged him to develop his own style.

The first documented work by Sadao Watanabe is The story of Abraham. Watanabe made this work in 1943 and wanted to expose it in a Tokyo exposition. As his teacher Serizawa was not satisfied with this work, Watanabe withdrew it. The second documented work is well known: The story of Ruth, made in 1947 and awarded with a prize of the Japanese Folk Art Museum as well as with a prize of the Japanese Print Association. Years later, in 1956, another print was awarded by the Japan Print Academy: Girls and Quails.

After this appreciation for Watanabe's art in Japan, appreciation abroad followed soon. is In 1958 The bronze serpent won a first prize at the Modern Japanese Print Exhibition in New York City. And in 1960 his print Listening won a competition and was awarded by including original copies of this print in the limited edition of James Michener's book The Modern Japanese Print (1962).

From then on his work was highly in demand. His large stencil designs on crumpled Japanese paper, momigami, were made in editions of 50 in the 1960s to 100 copies in the 1980s. The larger editions in the 1960s, 200 or 210, are the editions commissioned by The International Graphic Arts Society (IGAS) (New York). Watanabe used stencils he previously cut for prints in an edition of 50 to make 200 or 210 extra copies for the IGAS commission, mostly adding a title to the print. Catalogue nrs.: 1961-5, 1962-3, 1963-18, 1964-20, 1964-22, 1965-22.

Watanabe was a prolific artist. He made more than 500 large stencils and numerous smaller one's. Each witnessing a story of the Bible, executed through the eyes and hands of Watanabe. Watanabe worked from his Tokyo home in the Shinjuku ward and was assisted by his wife Harue Watanabe (1919-2010). In 1996 Watanabe passed away in the age of 82.

The katazome/kappazuri process

How does Watanabe's technique work? First of all there must be a design. Watanabe drew his design on tracing paper and used that to cut out a stencil. The stencil is made of multiple layers of washi paper that are bonded with a persimmon solution to strengthen and waterproof it. The stencil was put on a light box and the paper on top of the stencil. As the stencil could be seen through the paper the colors were painted. When the colors had dried, the stencil was placed on top of the paper and, after a paste was drawn over the design, the stencil was removed. The effect was that only the painted areas were covered with the paste and not the lines that should be black. After the paste had dried, black sumi paint was brushed over the entire design. The paint just adhered to the lines that were not covered with the paste. Next and last step was to wash the paper in water to dissolve the paste. When dried a work of art was born.

The stencil works of Watanabe are mosty referred to as prints or in Japanese hanga 版画. These words suggest that his stencil works are made by making a copy of a design by pressure, as is the case with woodblock prints. But the katazome/kappazuri process doesn't need pressure. Beside the cutting of the stencil, it's all brushing of colors, sumi and paste on the paper and washing the paper. So Watanabe's stencil works are in fact stencil paintings. Nevertheless, they are often referred to as katazome hanga, following the titles of books about his work that were issued in the 1980's and 1990's.

More about Sadao Watanabe


Biblical prints by Sadao Watanabe 渡辺禎雄聖書版画集 by Sadao Watanabe 渡辺禎雄 and Masao Takenaka 竹中正夫, Tokyo, Shinkyo Shuppansha,1986.

Printing the word: the art of Watanabe Sadao by Anne H.H. Pyle and Patricia Pongracz, New York, N.Y.: American Bible Society, 2000.

Heeding the voice of Heaven: Sadao Watanabe Biblical Stencil Prints by Richard H.W. Brauer, Martin Marty), Sandy Kita, Gregg Hertzlieb , Brauer Museum of Art, 2010.

Beauty given by grace: The biblical prints of Sadao Watanabe by Sandra Bowden, John Hesselink, Makoto Fujimura, John Kohan, Baltimore, Md, Square Halo Books, 2012.

Biblical Prints by Sadao Watanabe - All Thy Marvelous Works くすしきみわざ―渡辺禎雄聖書版画集 by Kenji Kanda 神田健次 and Anne H.H. Pyle アン・パイル , Shinkyo Publishing, Tokyo 2013.

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