Korea Insights

Patterns & Colors of Dancheong

Patterns & Colors of Dancheong

One of the great joys of my life at the moment is a Korean Buddhist painting class which I take every Friday evening. The class is taught in Bukchon, a historic neighborhood of Seoul, full of hanok and close to Gyeongbokgung Palace in the city center. Four other women connected to my school have joined me and our teacher is a graduate of the prestigious Hongik University, recognized as the best design school in South Korea.

Once upon a time, only men were permitted to produce dancheong(as this style of painting is known). My teacher’s family lineage can be traced back many generations, common practice here in Korea, and her male relatives were all 단청장, or dancheongjang, artisans trained in the skilled painting technique. Even as recently as her mother’s generation, women were still barred from decorating wooden temples with this tempered traditional art form. My teacher remembers how her mother applied for a job in a temple and, with her masculine sounding name, was permitted an interview. Upon seeing that the artist was female, the monks declined her immediately. My teacher was just a young girl but she still remembers how her mother then shaved her head, changed her clothes, and returned to the temple, determined to earn the job. They still denied her.

Determined to be a modern artist, my teacher eschewed her family heritage, gaining a degree in graphic design and working for a well-known firm in Seoul. Little by little, however, her birthright began to creep into her designs, and she found herself drawn to the dancheong color palette and it’s symmetrical designs. She gave up the fight and began practicing dancheong full time.


Dancheong is a tempered art, possibly the most controlled art form I have ever studied. It’s fundamental purpose is for protection of the soft pine wood used in pagodas and temples all over South Korea. Decoration is it’s secondary purpose, although the designs have evolved into a gorgeous art form over the centuries. The modern equivalent of the art form can be traced back to the 12th Century. Today it can still be seen all over Korea, even on a pagoda in the park outside my building.


The palette consists of five basic colors; blue (east), white (west), red (south), black (north), and yellow (center). Symmetry is paramount – the entirety of our first 3 hour lesson consisted of learning to fold circles, in 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, and 8ths, in order to create the King’s flower. Let me tell you – folding into 5ths is a mindbender! Though it might sound slow, we are actually moving at an extremely accelerated pace. Typically students spend a month learning to draw a perfect circle before even being permitted to take a stab at a flower petal. #Westernprivilege strikes once again, I suppose. Below are some of my beginner efforts using the traditional color combinations of greens, blues, and orange/red. You always begin from the outside petal and work your way in, lightest to darkest, to the yellow center.


My classmates and I feel very lucky to study under the tutelage of an accomplished artist with strong family ties to this art form. And this whole experience would not be possible without the incredible translation skills and selfless attitude of one of my juniors, Michelle. I first noticed Michelle’s dancheong homework in my AP Studio Art class this past fall. She immediately encouraged me to study with her teacher and offered up her own services as translator when the English speaking instructor left the studio. We’re so thankful to her for providing us the opportunity to learn Korean Art History in such an authentic way. Michelle has told me that it’s her goal to bridge Eastern and Western art, bringing cultures closer together through the study and understanding of traditional crafts. I’d say with an attitude like that, she’s well on her way.


Original Article – https://artnseoul.wordpress.com/2016/01/28/patterns-colors-of-dancheong/

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