Although Masumi Ishikawa took avidly to drawing at a young age, it didn’t occur to him that he could make art his career.
The turning point came when he saw a television special about ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Toyokuni VI, promptly got in touch and showed the master some of his work, becoming an apprentice soon after. Unfortunately, the 97-year-old Utagawa died just a few months later, leaving Ishikawa to learn the art of ukiyo-e on his own.
Ishikawa spent his days at libraries and in secondhand bookshops hungrily studying the collections of different artists. But he knew it would be very difficult for him to shoulder all three roles of artist, woodcarver and printer by himself.
“I needed to figure out how to get satisfying results all by myself, so I experimented with ways to achieve the flat effect of woodblock printing with a brush. But using my nihonga Japanese-style painting tools, I just couldn’t get rid of the hand-painted effect,” Ishikawa says.
As he cast about for a solution, he came across a collection by Masami Teraoka in a bookstore. The Japanese artist, based overseas, produced his ukiyo-e in watercolors on canvas.
“It was like a light bulb going off in my head,” says Ishikawa. “So long as the finished product was good, the tools and processes used to create it didn’t matter. After that, I stopped being captive to the nihonga frame of mind and started looking for whatever might fit my needs. That’s how I arrived at the airbrush. I suppose, in a way, the process of repeatedly masking with tape to lay down different colors parallels how you press with multiple color blocks to make a woodblock print.”
As a rule, Ishikawa’s ukiyo-e are solo works, but in recent years he has increasingly been asked to collaborate on traditional woodblock-based projects with others. “As I’m doing the design work, I approach it in the spirit of ‘Maybe he’ll be able to carve this and maybe he won’t,’” he says.
“The quality of my work might suffer otherwise.” Such projects can bring delightful discoveries about woodblock techniques. “Sometimes the texture from rubbing with a baren — the disk-shaped tool used for pressing woodcuts — makes a print better than the original drawing.”
Following his past collaborations with the rock group Kiss and the film “Star Wars,” Ishikawa is working on woodblock print projects with other overseas partners. Since he has sensed for some time that ukiyo-e are more appreciated overseas than among Japanese, he’s pleased to have these foreign outlets for his work.
“Not that I see myself as an evangelist for ukiyo-e. I’m simply using my favorite art form to express what’s inside me. But it still makes me happy to see more people taking an interest in ukiyo-e as a result of my work.”
Chikako Shimizu contributed the text for this 2016 interview. For more information, visit konjakulabo.com and ukiyoe.cooljapanstores.net. Some of the ukiyo-e prints shown here may be sold out.For more insight into Japan’s culture, arts and lifestyle, visit int.kateigaho.com.