In Which I Ramble on about Ghosts and Ladies that Go Bump in the Night

So October is here, and gone.  I was intending to post this sooner but the month was a blur of comings, goings, deadlines and disasters.  Probably poor excuses, but it was a poor way to spend what is normally the happiest time of the year for me.

For the occasion of Halloween a local store decided to hold a monster themed art show and they were kind enough to let me join in the fun.

So I get in the show, no worries right? Well actually I realize that “Monster” is a pretty big heading. Are we talking classic movie monsters? Modern monsters? Urban legends? Zombies? The list goes on.

After a bit of mentally throwing darts at a board for ideas and coming up with nothing  a friend suggested I try to do something with “those Japanese ghosts like that one artist you obsess over.”

kunohaleavesherchildI am a bit of a folklore and art history nerd, and one of my favorite things is a series of woodblock prints by a Japanese woodblock artist called Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. He was an artist in the late 1800s while woodblock printing was starting to decline in popularity due to the introduction of lithographs and photography. I could go on, but to cut an interesting life in a turbulent time to the point I was trying to make, my favorite work by him is the “Series of 36 Ghosts.” Which is as the title says, a series of woodblock prints based on ghost stories and superstitions from the time period. As a young nerd this was my introduction to Japanese yokai (translated means spirit or creature) and left a bit of an impression on me back in the day. I still get excited when I manage to find prints of his in art museums, which is pretty rarely.

Ghostofokiku   oldwoman PoetEncounterstwoghosts

Sadly while I am a nerd for trivia and stories I am horrible with names. Names in a foreign language I am even worse at. This makes googling fun if I only have a minor grasp of an idea like “that tall ghost that cackles at brothels” or “the toilet monster” Thankfully, exists and has a keyword search option, so my sanity is saved from awkward Japanese porn or other things I don’t want to imagine.
After a day or so wading through the database and a bit of side googling and randomly doodling, I discover that drawing lantern ghosts and monster umbrellas is a fun drawing exercise.

yok1Sadly, these guys are traditionally more mischievous than threatening and fond of sneaking up on people and startling them and generally harmless.  So the Monster show is  not getting any paintings of the adventures of chōchin obake and  karakasa kozō anytime soon. Though making small paintings of them to add to the original painting box for my next convention might be fun to consider.

After I get drawing silly spoopy umbrellas and lanterns out of my system I end up choosing some pretty straightforward subjects. A futakuchi-onna and a  rokurokubi. Literally translated, a “two mouth woman” and a “pulley neck.” Japan loves their creepy lady monster ghosts.

Futakuchi-onna is a woman with a mouth on the back of her head. The most common story involving her goes like this:
A miser did not wish to pay for feeding a wife and so was determined to never marry. But one day he met a woman who was never seen to place food across her lips. It was love at first sight and he wed her. But like all things that are too good to be true he discovered his food stores were shrinking rapidly. He pretended to leave for work one day and snuck back to watch his wife. To his horror he witnessed her unpin her hair to reveal a large red lipped mouth. With great relish her hair acted as tentacles and shoveled food into this mouth, gobbling it down.
There are other stories, one where the mouth is the ghost of a step daughter who starved to death and has attached to her abusive step mother to haunt her. Another where the mouth is an axe blow that turned into a mouth to punish another abuser. The trend is the same, essentially a motif of starvation and gluttony.

shrugWhile link hopping I ran across a post that talked about it in relation to the
standards that women and girls are held to, be quiet, be meek, be dainty, small mouths are beautiful, don’t eat too much, and the futakuchi being a sort of perversion of this.

In Japan and in a lot of other cultures these standards are still in force now as much as they were centuries ago when these stories were told. Thus inspired I decide to scrap the traditional looking concept and decide to dress our hungry girl into something a little more modern. Sadly years of anime conventions has taught me that apparently the”perfect” Japanese woman is shy, underage, and wearing a school uniform. I decide to set her in a street scene full of restaurants, bars and eateries to tie back to the gluttony/hunger motif.

welpWhen I started hashing out the street scene a friend kindly reminded me how perspective works. So this thing become explosion of the grid lines, ss I try to make sure everything lines up and looks right. If you want to know how perspective works, do not ask me I don’t really know and usually play it by ear and pray.

ideksI will also spare you the large glut of reference
photos I keep around of city streets, and the pile of Japanese signage I looked up and riffed off of. Though I have to admit, drawing and inking this whole thing started making me hungry for sushi, noodles and all sorts of things that I don’t even usually eat or want to eat. I really regretted no longer being at college where the Japanese place was a short walk away.

Once I get the composition and lines sorted out I start playing with color keys. I grabbed a color I knew for certain I was going to be using and set the rest of the color scheme around it. In this case the big pink tongue which I wanted to draw attention to. Usually I don’t spend too much time on sorting out color scheme details, but in this case this picture is full of lots of background items and elements and keeping colors in mind from the start helps keeps things straight.

purpleAfter I get the colors figured out I start assigning them places. The final piece will be watercolor but I like to plan my color keys digitally before getting to work on the final copy.

The actual transfer and painting process is pretty straight-forward. If you are more interested in how my process for that tends to go I have written it up last December with a lot of the same materials.


pulleyneckI would like to say the same sort of energy went into the concept for the Rokurokubi piece. But the stories about them have less of a concise theme.

They are monsters, they are victims, they are women cursed as punishment for misdeeds the men in their family committed. They are dangerous, they are harmless. Sometimes they are said to drink lamp oil.

Some variations their neck stretches when they sleep, or when the sun sets. Other versions their whole head just pops off their body and takes flight to attack and plague innocent folks (I recall there being a Hellboy short story featuring these).

The only thing that’s pretty certain is night fall is their domain. During the day they appear normal and pretty much conduct themselves as such.

img192The idea for this piece came really from a really cramped little sketch I did in my sketchbook while goofing off.  I really like the visuals of the weird ass long neck lady and wanted to find a use for her besides scaring small animals and drinking lamp oil.

I liked the idea of placing her in a modern setting to go with the other piece. But what could someone do in a modern setting with a long neck? I ended up deciding that reading books over peoples shoulders was a decent use of pulley neck skills. I made her older and bit more nosey as a nod to the brothel peeping yokai that show up in folk lore. She’s not peeping at folks getting it on but shes peeping over someones guilty reading, that will just have to suffice.


Composition and perspective on this one is pretty simple. I’ll once again spare you how often I looked  up subway and train cars. I’ve only been on a hand full of mass transit cars in my life, and none of those occasions have been recent.

traincol2I wanted it to be clear its late and night, and wanted to push the sleepy feel so I kept the colors muted and cool with a few highlights here and there. This piece was a lot simpler so I didn’t end up resorting to using any aids to come up with the color keys. In the end there is a slight shift when I start painting this and the color scheme starts sharing a few common hues with the two mouth lady painting.

Before I transferred the piece to my watercolor block a friend made a rather dramatic suggestion; that I move the sleeping figure from the right to the left to give the figures a bit of breathing. In the end I ended up doing that but didn’t save a process image for it since it was a split second edit.

After a lot of careful work and constantly touching up the shadows, the paintings are removed off the block and handed off to the organizers of the show to hang.

Epilogue: Sadly I wanted to get photos of the event and the pieces hanging in the gallery since I missed that last time. But like I said, this was the month of disasters, and the night of the reception was rained out and my area was under flash flood warning. So I instead stayed in bed where it was dry, with my cat and a book. 

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