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  • A study of two birds by Kitagawa Utamaro

Kitagawa Utamaro studies inspired by nature in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

There are books, printing and paintings by the Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) often these illustrate insects, birds and the seashore and accompanied by poetry. Access the books here.


In this very extraordinary time it is important we look after those around us and we also look after ourselves. A good way to offer self-care is through ‘creative flow’ when you take on an activity that focuses your mind and attention in an imaginative and absorbing way.

We understand you might not have access to lots of art materials so we’ve designed these art idea starters with the most basic art kit but please adapt our suggestions to suit your home supplies and environment.


Two postcards or plain 2 x A6 card for your book cover Paper of your choosing but light cartridge works well

Tape, needle and thread, to stitch through pages and hold them together. Black, browns, greens, a subtle colour range of paints or inks

A medium and a fine sized watercolour brush, water in a separate clean container. HB pencil to draw or write.


Linking your image creates harmony. The visual compositions are often spread over two pages sometimes with an element such as a broad leaf or a branch unifying the two pages.

Including words. Notice that areas of the composition are left empty for the words of the poetry and enhances the balance of the painting. These East Asian ideas about composition greatly influenced Western artists such as Van Gough, Whistler and Degas who were intrigued by the compositional ‘spaces’.

Kitagawa Utamaro worked in wood block prints as well as in brush and ink, he uses different line weights (thickness) for different elements of his images. For example, in this bird book illustrated there is a depiction of two birds, a Woodpecker and a Grosbeak. The branches of the trees are made with broad sweeping brushstrokes that describes the solidity of the branches. The birds and their details are made with fine brush lines which enhances their delicacy as well as the more defined sharpness of eyes and beaks. Often the colours are delicate, this creates a soft effect, powered colour pigments were often mixed with rice paste as a binder, this results in a gentle, matt finish. Other books include volumes about the natural world: Plants and flowers, small animals and insects while others depict nature at the seashore.

Closely observe.

If you have access to a garden or a park there will be both insects and birds to observe, or you could use the details from a window box of plants or an arrangement of shells, pebbles and plants. Maybe you have pets these make good subjects for your illustrations and words.

Creating your painting

Draw lightly in HB pencil your observational studies then using your paints make the lines in your brush strokes, these are confident single lines. It helps to make up a puddle of your paints to use as you might use inks. Remember to wash your brush in clean water between different paint colours.

Write your words

Think about the words you want to write and what you want to convey, it might be what you felt when you observed the birds or insects or what you remember from the beach when you found the shell or pebbles. Write your thoughts or poetry on another piece of paper, cut around it and place it in different places on your picture to see how it affects the picture. When you are happy with its placement, copy it out onto the pages you have illustrated.

Bind your book

You can create more illustrated pages and add these to your book inspired by studies of the natural world just as those by Kitagawa Utamaro were. When you have finished arrange your illustrated pages between your card or postcard covers and bind them together either carefully taping or stitching. Japanese stab book binding instructions there are many tutorials available online this one is a good example.

Further images and poetry (with translations)