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Why Paint Japan?

October 23, 2020

Sleeping Cat (mixed media) from my pre-watercolor era

Sleeping Cat (mixed media) from my pre-watercolor era

Why Paint Japan? I am asked that a lot.

When I respond that I lived in Asia for ten years, people imagine my life as an artist in Japan, me happily painting the days away. But that’s not how it happened. I didn’t do a single painting while I was living in Japan. The reason? It’s simple – I didn’t know how to paint.

I moved to Tokyo in 1991 as a newlywed. My husband was fluent in Japanese and soon entered the business world. I took a couple of jobs, teaching English for a few companies and even doing voice acting for animated children’s videos before landing a job with a Japanese electronics company.

Lunch under the sakura trees, photo taken by a coworker circa 1994

Lunch under the sakura trees, photo taken by a coworker circa 1994

I fell in love with Japan. I loved the the exactness, the politeness, the bowing, the traditions, the gorgeous kimonos. I absorbed Japan. And I sketched. I filled many sketchbooks with drawings, but my ability was limited to that of a pencil artist.

It wasn’t until I was 34, living in California with two little kids that I took a real watercolor class. My original intention was to learn watercolors in order to illustrate a children’s book about Japan that I was writing. The ideas for my book were floating around in my head and I had played around with different types of paint and colored pencils, but it seemed that watercolors would fit the Japanese style my book needed. Many of my early watercolors looked like this:

But as I spent more time painting, the less I wanted to be an author-illustrator and the more I wanted to be a watercolor artist.  And I found it hard to paint anything but Japan. It was what brought me the most happiness.

November 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of my return to the US from Japan. I can’t really wrap my head around that. I’ve been back to visit Japan probably 10 times, and each time I feel in a way that I’ve returned home. While I love the modern buzz of Tokyo, I like to take clickety clackety trains to small towns far from the city and just…breathe in Japan.