Doing All the Things with Google Goals

There are always so many things we want to do, but there never seem to be enough hours in the day. Since 2016, when I began to put more emphasis on my illustration, I really began to feel this. I wanted to improve my Japanese and keep studying, but at the same time, I wanted to build a presence for myself as an illustrator, and improve the quality of my work. I also wanted to write, and run, and have time to watch films or simply chill out.

For years I have been using paper diaries to make notes of all the things that I want to do. I use this calendar from MUJI which has week-to-view on the left and a whole blank page on the right. It’s great for making lists of things and jotting down thoughts or anything that interests me. But I found that I often struggled with actually making time to do all the things I would write in my lists. It’s all very well saying, “run three times per week,” but without making a set time to do it and no-one to keep me accountable, it’s very easy to let it slide. This kept happening over and over, and the result was that I felt like I was constantly planning things and trying to keep everything moving forward, while in reality I was achieving less than I wanted to, and feeling bad about myself much of the time.

The last two months, however, have been much, much better. I finally transitioned to Google Calendar, and have it synced across all my devices, so I can edit my events wherever I want. Of course, having a digital calendar is nothing new, but the revelation for me was my discovery of the Goals function.

Goals in Google Calendar

Goals work like this. Set the Goal from Google Calendar on your phone (currently the function to set the goal is not available on desktop, but you can edit them) using the red “+” at the bottom right, and choosing “Goal.” Imagine you would like to make time to draw three times a week. Google Calendar will then automatically schedule around all the other events in your calendar. This function is so brilliant because it simply “makes time” for everything you want to do. The Goals are fairly customizable, and have fun options like different colours too.

This has been life-changing for me because it schedules and re-schedules all the things I want to do on a regular basis, meaning that I effectively “make time” to do the things. By following what the calendar tells me, I can maintain all the habits I want, with the “empty” time where nothing is scheduled now truly relaxation time. I do the work when I am told to because, thanks to the calendar, I can see that there was not going to be anything else going on anyway.

When there is nothing scheduled, I can put work aside completely and simply be. This is bliss, as I feel myself moving forward and also being more mentally calm because I know that when the goals are completed, they are done until they pop up in my calendar again. You can also tell the calendar when a goal is completed, helping to keep you on track as you can see how many times you have completed the goal that week.

My current goals look like this:


Illustration – Four times a week for 45 minutes

Japanese study – Three times a week for 30 minutes

Running – Three times a week for one hour (this includes changing and shower time)

Admin – Once a week for 2 hours

In order for the calendar to not schedule during impossible times, I also added my daily work and commuting time as regular recurrent events 07:30 to 18:30, Monday to Friday. I’ve been using it for two months, and I love how little mental effort needs to go into thinking about when to do things now.

A useful tip that has helped me: Schedule less than you want to, and for shorter times. I feel like I should be drawing every day, for hours, but the fact is that isn’t realistic, and I’d be more likely to abandon this system if I got disheartened from inevitably skipping my goals when my willpower failed. For this reason, I scheduled illustration only four times a week, for 45 minutes. This is doable, and that confidence helps me carry on. I do believe that slow and steady wins the race, and that setting a goal you can continue with is the best way forward.

Good luck and I hope you give it a try!

Horse Sketch

One of the sketches I did during my scheduled Illustration time



Sketching the Jōmon Exhibition

In August 2018 I went to see an exhibition I’d been looking forward to for a while – the Jōmon Exhibition.

I liked the bright, poppy quality of the PR designs.

10,000 Years of Prehistoric Art – Jōmon is held at Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park, just a five minute walk from the Park Exit of Ueno Station. The exhibition runs until September 2nd 2018 and is a celebration of art and artifacts from the Jōmon period of Japanese history. The Jōmon period is roughly defined as between 14,000 – 300 BCE, and is known for its pottery. The alien-looking figures and flame-like pots produced in this period by the hunter-gathers of Japan exhibited a sophistication which was unmatched by any other ceramic arts at the time.

My sketch of the “Masked Goddess”

The exhibition included pots, jewelry and figures, all of which help to give us a picture of the kinds of lives that the people of Japan led during this period. The theme of this exhibition was “The Beauty of Jōmon,” and the items were truly stunning. Some had been very tastefully restored, and many seemed almost like contemporary art work that one might buy today. The special thing about this exhibition is that six Jōmon period National Treasures are collected in the same exhibition.

The “Jōmon Venus” as seen from behind

Although they were collected from all over Japan, the items were surprisingly uniform, and many featured distinctive “corded” designs made by pressing cord into wet clay.

My favorite thing about the exhibition were the numerous Dogū figures. These earthenware figures were made in the later Jōmon period. They have such bizarre and interesting shapes; they almost seemed like something from another world. Some of the pieces are so famous that I had seen them before in pictures, so it was really interesting to see them up close.

I visited on a Saturday, and it was rather crowded. To avoid the rush, I would recommend visiting on a week day if at all possible. Even though it was crowded, I was able to make some pencil sketches of the items, which helped me to really look at the pieces in front of me. If you decide to do some sketches, make sure to bring pencils, as pens are not allowed.

Our own Dogū figures!

A real highlight was the impulse purchase my partner and I made at the museum shop after the exhibition. We picked up two cookie cutters in the shape of the Dogū figures we had just seen, and used them to make our own very yummy biscuits the next day! We’re not great bakers by any stretch, but we had a lot of fun making them.

I think any recipe which produces firm biscuits that don’t expand much on cooking would work with these cutters. We had a very fun Jōmon themed weekend! Definitely check out the exhibition if you are in Tokyo.

When: July 3rd – September 2nd 2018

Where: Tokyo National Museum (Ueno Park)

Entry: 9:30 – 17:00, last entry 16:30, open until 21:00 on Fridays and Saturdays, and open until 18:00 on Sundays. Closed Mondays except August 13th.

Admission: A general ticket on the day is ¥1600. This is reduced to ¥1400 if you buy in advance.


Richard Hoare – The Song of Koumi – A trip to Koumi-machi Kougen Museum of Art

Off to Nagano Prefecture

During a three day holiday in July 2018, my partner and I rented a car and trundled off to mountainous Nagano Prefecture on the west coast of Japan.

Matsumoto Castle, Nagano Prefecture

We stopped at the beautifully preserved Matsumoto Castle, and climbed all the way to the top by the steep stairs inside. After sitting in the car all day, the exercise was a welcome break. The castle dates from the late sixteenth century and is constructed of wood. It was surprisingly cool, even in midsummer. The views over Matsumoto City to the mountains were refreshingly different from the scenery I’m used to in Tokyo.

After our brief pause in Matsumoto City, we set off to Sanjō Ikoi Hiroba Campsite. We pitched our tent at dusk and enjoyed a BBQ supper. The campsite was far into the mountains, about an hour from Matsumoto City by winding roads, giving it a peaceful, secluded atmosphere. The stars were beautiful, too.

Utsukushigahara Highlands

The next day, we got up at 5am and drove to our next destination, Utsukushigahara Highlands. This grassy plateau is higher than most of the surrounding land, offering stunning views across the picturesque landscape to blue mountain ranges in the distance. The altitude also helped us escape the midsummer heat. We were surprised to find the bustling Ōgatō Hotel on the highest point of the highlands.

We stopped for an ice cream at the Ōgatō Hotel

We enjoyed a rich ice cream made of cow’s milk from the herds which we could see grazing all over the highlands.

Saying hello to one of the cows

Koumi-machi Kougen Museum of Art

From there, we set off to visit the Koumi-machi Kougen Museum of Art. The winding route over the mountings following the picturesque Venus Line route took about an hour and a half, but it was worth it for the views.

The museum was built by the famed Japanese architect Tadao Andō (b. 1941), who is renowned for his creative use of natural light. The Koumi-machi Kougen Museum of Art was a great example of his work, and the minimalist concrete structure was lit beautifully by large windows.


Beautiful natural light in Koumi-machi Kougen Museum of Art

Richard Hoare – The Song of Koumi

I was especially happy to see the museum because, from September 8th to November 4th 2018, it will host a solo show of the works of British artist Richard Hoare (b. 1967). Richard is currently undertaking a residency in Koumi-machi to produce work for his exhibition, The Song of Koumi. He uses his background in Fine Art to great effect, capturing the light and landscape around him with expressive brushwork.

I was honoured to speak to Richard at his studio

The challenges presented by his residency have encouraged Richard to develop new ways of working; he explained to me how he had devised a portable system for working on his large oil paintings outside.

The scale of the Koumi-machi Kougen Museum of Art has also caused a change in the size of his work; several pictures I saw were around two meters in height, and one will be up to four meters, specially produced for a specific wall in the Museum.

Richard’s paintings capture the natural world around him in innovative ways. The use of light struck me at once. His energetic brushstrokes bring movement to his work and beautifully recall the atmosphere of the places he has painted. His work embraces light and colour in all their forms. While one painting may focus on bright sunlight through leaves, the next might recall mist over water.

The poster for Richard’s upcoming exhibition

I’m sure The Song of Koumi will be a fantastic exhibition, especially for art lovers who also appreciate nature. This exhibition is a great reason to get over to Nagano Prefecture and explore the path less travelled.

About the Exhibition:

Where: Koumi-machi Kougen Museum of Art, Nagano Prefecture

When: September 8th (Sat) – November 4th (Sun), 2018. Cosed Tuesdays.

Opening Hours: 9:00 – 17:00 (last entry – 16:30)

Entry: 6-14 years: ¥150, 15 and up: ¥500

Tel: (+81) 0267-93-2133

With Thanks:

With thanks to Richard Hoare and Nakajima Minoru, Curator of Koumi-machi Kougen Museum of Art


Mori Art Museum – Japan in Architecture

One Saturday in July 2018, I visited the Mori Art Museum to see Japan in Architecture: Genealogies of its Transformation. Both the museum, and the exhibition were brilliant, and the views over Tokyo a nice bonus!

Outside the Mori Museum

About the Museum

The Mori Art Gallery is located in Roppongi. There are several embassies there and the area is an international hub, with lots of foreign food restaurants. Since 2003 this museum has occupied the top floor of the Mori building. It’s so big that you sometimes forget you’re on the 53rd floor of a skyscraper!

Tokyo as seen from the Sky Deck

Because the exhibition we saw was special entry and cost ¥1800, we were able to go up to the Sky Deck to see the view for free (it normally costs an extra ¥500). The museum is conveniently located close to Roppongi Station.

Off to The Mori Museum

The Exhibition

Japan in Architecture: Genealogies of its Transformation focused on architecture in Japan, its history and influences, and how it in turn influenced architecture as a whole. The exhibition looked at the work of Japanese architects like Kenzō Tange and Kazuyo Seijima across nine sections, giving a comprehensive overview of Japanese architecture.

Kigumi Infinity – Kitagawara Atsushi 

The exhibition opened with a section about wood in Japanese architecture. We were greeted by an incredible wooden wall called Kigumi Infinity, created by Kitagawa Atsushi. The wall was enormous, stretching floor to ceiling. Watching a video of its construction revealed it was made of long pieces of wood which interlock. Looking at it was like seeing a mental puzzle in three dimensions.

Looking at books in the rest area

The exhibition was well laid out, with this nice rest area to relax and look through books on architecture half way through. There was even a reconstructed Japanese tea house you could crawl inside of.

An exhibit showing space in transformation

An audio visual exhibit showed us a variety of layouts and their measurements. Each of the nine sections focused on a different topic of Japanese architecture. The sections had themes including Living with Nature and Linked Spaces.

“Only the Beautiful is Functional”

There were quotes stencilled on the walls, adding an extra dimension to each section.

The exhibition was honestly very good indeed. Even as someone who doesn’t know anything about architecture, I could still enjoy the precise architectural drawings, and the uses of space and light in the architectural creations. There were several intricate maquettes and scale models. The exhibition left me in awe of how amazing human ingenuity can be.

Japan in Architecture: Genealogies of its Transformation runs until Monday September 17th 2018 (cost: ¥1800) at the Mori Museum in Roppongi. If you’re in Tokyo, go see it!


Atelier U and the Work of Umetarō Azechi

The print series, Yama Okoko

It’s rare that I see images I like instantly. When I discovered the work of Umetarō Azechi (1902 – 1999), I knew I’d found something special. Azechi was born in Aichi Prefecture in central Japan. He’s known for his collection of woodblock prints showing various aspects of Japanese mountains, the creatures living there and the people who climb them.

Hāken, 1967

Aged 24, Azechi got a job with the National Printing Bureau, but in his free time he dabbled in brush painting. In the summer of 1937 he traveled to the mountainous region of Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture, for work. While there, he created multiple images of the dramatic Mt. Asama, the most active volcano on Honshū island. He went on to create multiple woodblock prints centering on mountains, a subject that was to occupy him for the rest of his life.

Takachiho, 1968

Despite his work commitments, Azechi missed the mountains and would sometimes stay there for up to a month at a time. From his 50s, his interest shifted from landscapes to the people who climb them. His Yama Otoko (“Mountain Men”) series is the best example of this. His work began to garner interest and Azechi gradually became famous as a modern printmaker.  

L: Tori no Yobu Goe, 1968 /R: Tori Totomo Ni, 1969

The work Azechi produced involved creating woodblock prints which he carved himself in his studio in Machida, located to the west of Tokyo Metropolis. I visited Atelier U in July 2018. The gallery is about a 20-minute walk from JR Tsurukawa Station. Standing outside it, you imagine you’ve come to the wrong place, because the studio is hidden in the garden of a normal house, and not visible from the street.

Surrounded in the rambling plants of the garden and built of wood, the atelier seems like a mountain cabin. Inside, framed prints hang from the beams. Postcards, wooden carvings of the raichō bird which features heavily in his works, badges and books are arranged around the room. There are even t-shirts provided by the Japanese mountaineering company Montbell. The atelier acts as both gallery and museum to the life of Umetarō as an artist.

Azechi’s printmaking tools

His printmaking inks and tools are displayed, and the room still has the atmosphere of an artist’s studio. His work is colorful, unique and very creative.

Atelier U

I bought a raichō bird badge and postcard, a book of the Yama Otoko print series, and a T-shirt. The outing was a lovely chance to get out of central Tokyo and see work created by someone with such passion.

Our postcards displayed at home

After taking a class in making woodblock prints last year, I fully appreciate the time, effort and skill required to make such an expressive and prolific collection.

My partner Suguru, an avid mountain climber, had this to say; “His Yama Otoko prints are very creative, almost like cubism. But with the mountain landscapes, they pick up certain features which help me clearly recognize which mountain he is drawing. I think for me this shows what a skillful artist he was.”


Bijutsukan e Ikō  (Let’s got to an art gallery) – Masako Itō, 2018. ISBN: 978-4-10-313874-7

(Azechi Umetaro Hanga-shū “Yama Otoko”/Azechi Umetaro Print Collection “Man of the Mountains”)ISBN:978-4-635-77015-6

Note: Photos were not permitted inside Atelier U, so some pictures come from Bijutsukan e Ikō, listed above.

The Influence of Japanese Woodblock Prints on my Illustration Style 

Illustration styles are made up of peoples’ experiences, interests and the way that they see the world. For me, one interest which influenced my life in many ways was Japanese woodblock prints, a fascination which began in childhood. I loved the expressions of the characters, ranging from serene to manic, the bold shapes and the unexpected compositions. It was the text to the side of wood block prints that gave me the curiosity to begin studying the Japanese language. I believe this art aesthetic has had an enduring impact on my relationship with art, illustration and language, and in turn my path in life.

One of the prints I grew up with. ©︎ Ottilia Stephens[[[[[[[[[[

Woodblock printing originated in China, but appeared in Japan around the 8th century. The prints are created by layering of light to dark colours, with each block hand carved to print a specific part of the image, such as the lines, background or designs on the clothes of the characters in the image. The level of detail is staggering.

The images produced have a flat quality, similar to the linge claire or ‘clear line’ style employed by artists like Hergé. The prints often depicted scenes from myth and legend, famous kabuki performers, or erotic encounters. Wood block printing became a very distinct art form that reached exceptionally high levels of precision.

Knowledge of the Japanese style of woodblock printing came to Europe when items from Japan began to be imported during the 17th century. More items arrived after Japan re-opened to the world with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and interest in Japanese art boomed. Items arrived wrapped in Japanese woodblock prints, fueling a fascination with Japanese art that formed the base for the Japanomism movement. Japanese wood block prints ultimately influenced many well-known painters at the time, including the post-impressionist, Vincent van Gough (1853 – 1890). He told his brother from Antwerp, where he acquired his first Japanese prints, “My studio’s quite tolerable, mainly because I’ve pinned a set of Japanese prints to the walls that I find very diverting.”

Portrait of Père Tanguy, 1888 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

These images included conventions not seen in Western art; empty middle ground, cropped elements peeking into the image from the edge of the page, flat colour and unfamiliar uses of blank space. Van Gough and his friend Émile Bernard (1868 – 1941) began to stylise their paintings in similar ways; by adding lines, bold colours or changing the composition.

In the winter of 2017, I took part in a woodblock print making course at the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints. This experience made me understand the incredibly high level of skill and precision required. Namely, because I possessed neither!

My first and only attempt at wood block printing. ©︎ Ottilia Stephens.

Although I did not go back to physically printing any hand-carved blocks after that course, I began to incorporate elements into my work. Simply by drawing naturally, I noticed the pervasive way in which elements from Japanese prints found their way into my work. The linge claire style of some of my drawings has become more apparent since 2018. Although I do appreciate shadows and depth, I found myself valuing form and layout beyond realism, and stylising my work accordingly. This street scene is one example. I use lines which have little variation from foreground to background, and repetitive mark making to give a sense of foreground detail to background vagueness.

A Vietnamese street scene, based on my visit
in May 2018. ©︎ Ottilia Stephens 2018

My current attraction to fine lines and flat colour will, I’m sure, morph into something else as I evolve as an illustrator, but for the moment this style comes very naturally. It expresses the unity of my interests, of which Japanese prints will remain an underlying inspiration.


30/30 Days of Illustration – Glad it’s All Over

When I was in my early teens, the series Trigger Happy TV was on in the UK. My parents watched it and we had a copy of the soundtrack in our house. The cover gave you an idea of the kind of music to expect; a collage of peoples’ faces in purple, to give the overall impression of an unhappy punk-rock clown. Even though the show was a comedy, a lot of the music was a bit sad, and I loved it.

I listened to the soundtrack a lot, and discovered several new artists from it. One of the songs I liked most was Glad It’s All Over by Captain Sensible.

When I was trying to think what to draw for 30/30 Days of Illustration, the lyrics popped into my head. Glad it’s all over, we’re glad it’s all over… I hadn’t listened to the song in years, but that’s what I kept coming back to. I think the song was essentially anti-war, about the Falkland’s War, so I was concerned that applying something so meaningful to my illustration might be seen to trivialise it. But no matter what else I tried to think of, I kept coming back to the lyrics.

I think the reason for this was that, while I was so happy to do the challenge, that it was actually a challenge for me; I found it difficult to think of something new to draw every day. If I’m honest, I was glad that it was all over, but also happy that I’d done it.

So this is what happened. His hands are too small, but it was a fun sketch to create, and I’m just happy I managed to do something different.

I’m happy, too, that I did this 30 Days of Illustration challenge. The reason I started it was because I wanted to reevaluate my style; to grow. I was tired of the perfectionism and fear of failure which was stopping me from trying anything new. I think I took a couple of steps in the right direction, and thanks to this project I have discovered a couple of new paths I’d like to explore in my work.

All the best with your projects too! Don’t let perfectionism get in the way of progress, or try to find a good balance between the two. I’m excited to see where I can take my illustration from here.

29/30 Days of Illustration – A Japanese Black Bear

I love painting animals. Continuing from my painting of the Japanese Macaques relaxing in their hot spring is a painting of this Japanese Black Bear.

It was a quick painting, and this version is unedited, but I like what’s happening with it’s fur; how the paint has been moved around by the water to make interesting patterns of colour in its coat. I also like how even though it’s a ‘Black Bear’, in reality it’s more a ‘Purple Bear’. Perhaps we’ve discovered a new species?

Regardless of their colour, these bears are at high risk of extinction due to human expansion, like so many animals all around the world. When I go hiking with friends, one of us often has a bell or a radio on their rucksack. If we’re in a secluded, wooded area sometimes we sing or talk loudly so that if any bears are around they will know that we are humans and not to come near. Stories of bear attacks are in the news from time to time, too. For an animal which is so much in the consciousness of people living in Japan to be so endangered was surprising for me.

Even though I’d made this illustration just because I wanted to draw an animal and bears came to mind, this illustration made me read more about them, and become aware of their predicament. I’ll look out for any conservation initiatives to see what’s being done for them and their situation.

28/30 Days of Illustration – Kawara Soba Sketch

When I was living in Yamaguchi Prefecture, to the south of Honshu in Japan, I always enjoyed trying the local food. Here’s one of the dishes which is specifically associated with Yamaguchi. Kawara soba, or ‘roof tile soba’ is a ‘dish’ of green soba noodles presented on a piping hot roof tile. To express just how fun this is, I added my friend thrilled at the idea of eating the soba.

This sketch only took about half an hour, and I like the energy of it. The colours are a bit of a mish-mash, but it was fun to just scribble away and try to approximate what I wanted to put down on paper. I don’t think I’ll rework this one as I like it’s sketchy quality and the interesting colours.

The noddles are served with a sheet of nori seaweed, grated ginger and lemons on top of them. It looks really yummy, and the fact that the noodles are green adds another unusual dimension to this dish.

I like drawings that help me remember times or people in my life. Here’s another I can add to the collection.

13/30 Days of Illustration – Grandad and I

Today’s drawing is an ink sketch of my grandad and I when I was about six.

When I was little I had the most amazing charity shop dresses, and hair bands with flowers or Peruvian Worry Dolls on them. I think this captures me as I was when I was little; something of a wild child.

I also thing the sketch of Grandad turned out nicely. You get a sense of how caring he was, which is how I remember him. I hadn’t expected him to pass away last year, and I find that I want to draw him and Grandma very often. I hope I can find more ways to work them and their memory into my art.

As with many of my 30 Days sketches, I think this is one of the ones I’d like to take a bit more time over at some point to rework. I’d like to add more details to the garden, for example. But for now, here’s a sketch, just to get the idea down on paper.