Looking longer and seeing more

by Victoria James

If you love art, you probably like nothing more than browsing at an exhibition; then perhaps, enthusing with friends that evening about what you saw. Maybe you even indulge in buying the occasional artwork.

But . . . making it? Something about the idea of creating our own art makes even the most devoted art enthusiasts apprehensive. “I couldn’t do that,” we find ourselves saying. Why do we feel so self-conscious about expressing ourselves artistically?

“There’s such a gulf between going to a museum and actually attempting art yourself,” says Andy Boerger, a commercial illustrator and art teacher. “But it needn’t be like that. Even if trying your hand at drawing or painting only makes you a better appreciator of art, that’s great.”

While Japan famously attracts foreigners keen to master its traditional arts of calligraphy, sumi-e ink painting or woodblock printing, few people realize that the expertise of Tokyo’s art community covers almost every art form, including emerging media.

Not that you have to be an expert to join a class.

Take me, for example. I spent Sunday afternoon soaking up the instruction of master engraver and pen-drawer Ryu Kadosaka. Even though I joined in only toward the end of his intensive two-day drypoint class, afterward my eyes were tired from squinting at the gleaming copper (even the finest of scratches show up in the finished print) and my hand, which had clasped the needle for several hours, felt like it would never unclench.

“That’s why I couldn’t teach engraving in a short workshop,” explains Kadosaka. “It’s far too difficult. Drypoint is more suitable for first-timers — not that drypoint is easy.”

The thrill — and the frustration — of drypoint is that you cannot monitor your progress. The design is only visible once inked and impressed onto paper. Kadosaka was preparing my plate, and I was impatient to see how I had fared.

“There’s definitely a drypoint mentality,” sympathized student Fumihiko Yamashita, who had spent the day painstakingly etching an image of the Great Buddha of Kamakura. “It’s very good for precise people.”

Yamashita, who lives in Kobe where he works at City Hall, explained what had brought him all the way to Tokyo for the weekend workshop. “When I first started drawing, I felt very self-conscious. I took an initial five-day class four times until I felt I’d got it right. Finally I learned to shut down my own harsh self-criticism, and now I find art both relaxing and energizing.

“In my job, and in life, you can’t make even a small mistake. But in the studio, in art, even if you make a mistake it’s OK. Only you are responsible for what you’re creating.”

Others embrace art not as an alternative to their working lives, but to enhance them. “I wanted to try drypoint,” said one student in Kadosaka’s class who will shortly begin training as a jeweler, “as I thought it would complement what I’ll be learning about engraving rings and jewelry.” She had spent the weekend producing exquisitely detailed prints of two ink drawings by Albrecht Durer showing gem-encrusted German imperial treasures.

In a nearby studio in Azabu Juban, Boerger was leading a pastel portrait-drawing session. Unlike the engraving class, no one here was a novice, but the students were paying close attention to his words and frequent demonstrations.

“You can’t teach people how to be creative,” Boerger said afterward, “but you can give them the tools to experience creativity. There’s a kind of visual shorthand — proportions, measurements — that helps. Not everyone teaches these, but I think they’re important. After all, what else is taught purely intuitively? We don’t say ‘here’s an aeroplane, fly it,’ so why should we do that with art?”

“You’re always learning,” agrees student Julianne, a songwriter-musician whose sketchbook is filled with confident, colorful pastel sketches. “To work in a group is great because there’s a current of creativity running right through everybody.”

Julianne’s been interested in art all her life — “I’ve always dabbled, it goes with the music, I guess” — but her interest moved to a whole new level three years ago after an intensive drawing class.

And what you learn in art classes isn’t useful only in the studio. “It’s never ending,” says Julianne. “The more you look, the more you see.”