Here at Sketchbook Magazine our love for illustration keeps us constantly searching for new and exciting artists worldwide. Our latest find is Scottish artist Paul Binnie, whose long enjoyed love affair with illustration and fascination of Japanese Culture has Sketchbook’s art hungry eyes widening. Inspired by his favourite Japanese artist Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950), Binnie explains how Yoshida is considered one of the first Japanese Impressionists and the poetic quality of his landscape work creates a moving image of a country vanishing in rapid industrialisation. Yosida’s understanding of western watercolour immediately attracted Binnie and it is in this way he hopes to emulate some of Yoshida’s vision, albeit in more modern and uniquely ‘Binnie’ style. I was lucky enough to catch up with Paul a short while ago and interview him on his artwork and also to chat to him about what 2012 had in store for him.
Q: Paul, its fair to say that up to this point you have lived a cultured and interesting life, how did a young art student from Scotland develop such an interest in Japanese art and culture?
A: It was a long progression, as I began with a strong interest in the French Impressionists, Japonisme and the graphic, fine and applied arts of the late nineteenth century, all of which were influenced by the first contact in the 1860s and 1870s with Japanese woodblock prints. From there I began to look in more detail at the prints themselves, and gradually my love of the prints became a collecting passion, then finally I decided I would like to learn how to make woodblock prints myself. Moving to Japan at the start of 1993 lead me into close contact with Japanese culture and art in a very profound way, and I lived in Tokyo for 6 years, until the end of 1998.
Q: Paul I know that while in Japan you became fascinated by the Noh Theatre and its actors, how did this particular artistic medium influence you and your artwork?
A: I was first seduced by Kabuki, a theatre form that has continued unchanged since the late 16th century, and through that I began to learn about Noh, a theatre whose origins are much older, developing in its current form in the 13th and 14th century from medieval origins. Both Kabuki and Noh are windows into a past world, and that aspect of unchanging traditions is one part of life in Japan which especially appeals to me, as well as the marvellously colourful silk and golden costumes and the elegant dance movements in both, which are a great inspiration for me as an artist.
Q: How did you find how Japanese culture differed from Scottish and in what way?
A: In fact it might be easier to say where the similarities lie, and those are not many! Scotland and Japan are in many way completely different; on the one hand Scotland is a small country of under 6 million people, with a comparatively small art world and perhaps limited access to cultural events, whereas Tokyo alone has twice as many people as the whole of Scotland, and the entire country’s population is over 120 million people, about half of the united States and twice the whole of the UK. In addition, Japan has had a rich and varied cultural life for over 1500 years and is as interested in contemporary art as that of the past, leading to a broad range of cultural experience. However, both countries are island nations, one the edge of a larger continent, and this may in some ways create an independence of spirit, which is shared by both nations.
Q: While in Japan you trained with Seki Kenji, a master of Japanese Ukiyo-e printing. You also began experimenting with kappazuri stencil printing where your prints depicted tattooed figures and also actor portraits. Kabuki as an art form in my opinion is steeped in dramatic and symbolic imagery and manages to capture and express many aspects of human emotion. Do you feel this is perhaps a reason why you were drawn to represent this through your art, or have I strayed too far from the point?
A: I think you are quite right; dramatic, powerful poses and colourful costumes are a gift to any artist, as the possibilities of making wonderful and arresting images with them are obvious. I was also drawn to Kabuki in particular, but tattoos as well, since there is a long history of these subjects in Japanese prints – indeed, Kabuki actor portraits were amongst the first types of prints made in the 17th century at the birth of Ukiyo-e. I worked on kappazuri stencil prints while I was learning the skills of woodblock, and it was a way to keep making prints while I honed my block carving and printing techniques. I hope that studying the Kabuki prints one can see a broad range of emotions and feelings, from quiet introspection to dramatic bombastic thundering.
Q: In 1998 you decided to return to London and set up your own studio. While working here you expanded your art to include landscapes. What influenced this divergence?
A: I felt a physical separation from Japan in London, and that prompted me to move more into landscapes as well as the genre of ‘bijin-ga’ or pictures of beautiful women, which I had only slightly dealt with while in Japan itself. I travel in Japan very regularly, searching for new landscape sites and views and that then leads to new prints as well as paintings created in Japan itself. I know too that the growing influence of Yoshida on my work plays a part in moving towards scenic views, and I must also admit to a certain pressure from collectors and print dealers, as landscape as a theme is very popular subject, perhaps more so than figurative prints.
Q: Apart from Japan and Japanese culture, what else inspires you as an artist and your artwork?
A: I have always been drawn to portrait and figure work, and in some ways that interest in people has helped with the various series of prints I have made. However, there are lots of drawings, watercolours and oils of figures and portrait heads, which fall far outside the Japanese theme, and I work with models and friends regularly to make new pieces of this type. In addition, I have done a few residences, for example at the Royal Shakespeare Company or Opera Holland Park, where I have worked on actor/performer portraits and views of the stage of European drama, so the link back to Kabuki and Noh is there, but extending in another direction.
Q: What will 2012 have in store for Paul Binnie. Are you involved in any interesting up and coming projects and is there any plans for exhibitions in the near future and if so where and when?
A: I am continuing several print series; one of tattoos (called Edo Zumi Hyaku Shoku, or A Hundred Shades of Ink of Edo), one of landscapes within Japan (Nihon Meisho Zu-e, or Famous Views of Japan), one of landscapes outside Japan (Meishou To No Tabi, or Travels with the Master) and one of beautiful women (Azuma Nishiki Bijin Awase, or A Collection of Eastern Brocade Beauties). 2012 will see a new series of beauties on the theme of the decades of the 20th century, starting in 1900 and progressing to the present, to show the changing styles, fashions and interests of Japanese women during the last hundred years.
In terms of exhibitions, I will have pieces in a show at the University of California in the spring; I’m doing a solo exhibition with my New York dealer later in the year and will contribute to the annual print show in Tokyo in October. I like to keep busy!
Words: Derek Jones-Bennett
Images: Paul Binnie