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.

27/30 Days of Illustration – Cherry Blossom Coffee & Pancakes

With spring finally upon us, I wanted to paint something to suit the season. Last year when I was living in Hagi, in Yamaguchi Prefecture, I went to Café Jantique (カフェジャンティーク) on a fairly regular basis. One of the best things about Café Jantique was the great latte art. This illustration is actually based on a drink I had there. The pancakes were added because that is what I would most like to have with that latte. I actually cooked them, took a photo or two for reference then ate them for breakfast! So that was a very good morning. Both images painted together end up as an extravagant spring-themed breakfast!

I wish here were a cafe near me which sold breakfasts like this!

26/30 Days of Illustration – Skier

As with the snowboarder illustration which I published just before this, the Skier was also inspired by the incredible stunts which were being pulled by the freestyle skiers at the Pyeongchang Olympics, 2018.

Like the Snowboarder, I painted the skier then scanned the watercolour and edited it to add a smooth blue background. I like the freedom of this image, and the funny angle of the skier upside down in space.

12/30 Days of Illustration – Watching Koi Carp

Last year I took a trip to see the house of Thomas Glover, a British man who lived in Meiji Japan.

His house overlooks Nagasaki Straits, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site registered as one of the Sites of Meiji Japan’s Industrial Revolution. These sites are places which were particularly significant to the development of Japan as an industrial nation.

The house was so pretty in summer, with flowers everywhere. The conservatory pictured here was one of the most unusually shaped buildings of the house. The view out across the Nagasaki Straits from the top floor of another building standing nearby gives you an idea of the amazing location of Thomas Glover’s house.

Situated on the top of a hill, the house has a great view, and it was a lovely place to be in the summer sunshine.

These are the fish in the pool from the second photo. They must get fed by lots of people as you can buy the feed from a little stand by the pool, but even so they still seemed very interested in the feed I was holding.

This is a painting of my memory of feeding the fish at Thomas Glover’s house. I like how the painting helped me to recall that day. It was also fun thinking how to best depict the water, and the eagerness of the fish swimming through it. I’m looking forward to painting more scenes from trips I do.

25/30 Days of Illustration – Snowboarder

Watching the Pyeonchang Winter Olympics 2018, I’ve been endlessly astonished at the amazing tricks of the snowboarders. Hurling themselves into space to spiral away in a series of crazy somersaults to land perfectly (most of the time) seems just so incredible to me.

I’ve had a few fairly unsuccessful goes at snowboarding. Day 1 is always lots of falling over and bruises, Day 2 is more of the same with perhaps a little actual snowboarding. By Day 3 I feel just confident enough to begin to enjoy myself, but then it’s already time to go.

This is the view I typically have when snowboarding. It’s not bad, but perhaps not what the word ‘snowboarding’ really implies.

To this end, I decided to join in with the amazing snowboarders at Pyeongchang in the only way I know how; with paint.

I painted this snowboarder in watercolour, then edited the image to remove the background and add a gradient, to give a sense of height. I’m fairly happy with it, and it’s a nice memory of watching the snowboarders during this Olympics, too.

24/30 Days of Illustration – Camping in the Early Morning Sunshine

Whenever I go camping, I always get so cold and tired, but for some reason I keep going. I love camping. The experience of being out in nature, with nothing else around you for miles is wonderfully refreshing. All the burdens we carry around with us in our normal lives don’t matter when we’re off camping and hiking.

The inspiration for this image was a camping trip to Kyushu, the southern island of Japan. It was cold and my tent was whipped about by the winds on the hillside, but waking up at 4am to have cocoa and watch the sun rise was the best, and it’s that experience which has stayed with me. I wanted to capture the essence of that memory in this drawing.

The tent is shielded by the thick grasses and shrubby bushes that cover the mountainside. I like the contrast of the colours in this picture. Obviously I have to go camping more and do a series of pictures like this one! Looking forward to my next trip…