My Japan Journey Interview 5:
Rachel: Kyoto travel sketchbook artist
I met Rachel for the first time in Kyoto this summer, in a quieter moment away from the sound and spectacle of the Gion Matsuri. We spent a lovely few hours together at peaceful Shoren-in Temple in Higashiyama, sitting on the wooden steps of the temple overlooking the beautiful garden.
We discussed everything from Kyoto as a city to live in, to our shared experiences creating art. We’re kindred spirits who share a love of painting, Kyoto tradition and culture, and nature.
I knew that Rachel would be wonderful to talk to for our blog series My Japan Journey and I looked forward to meeting her again online from her home south of Kyoto.
Meet Rachel, who runs classes in travel sketchbook watercolour for visitors to Kyoto, from her base in Fushimi near the sake breweries. Here, she guides her students to make sketches around the canals, and along the quieter back ways of the Fushimi Inari shrine.
Cathy: Hi Rachel, thank you so much for joining me today from Kyoto! Whereabouts are you?
Rachel: I'm located near the Fushimi sake breweries.
Cathy: Is it a really traditional area down there near the breweries?
Rachel: There are a lot of canals around here that were built originally for Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He built Momoyama castle in this area: they were the outer moats of the castle.
Cathy: And you have lovely cherry blossom in the spring?
Rachel: Yes, it's a beautiful place, it's gorgeous in the spring.
The castle wasn't around all that long and was eventually destroyed by an earthquake and then again in battle, until finally the moats became part of the canal network used for shipping.
Cathy: For shipping the sake?
Rachel: Yes, and for other things too, including transporting people, but nowadays it's basically a park and it's quite scenic as well.
Cathy: It sounds lovely!
Rachel: It is a very nice place, and more people have discovered it recently for the cherry blossoms.
Cathy: So, how long have you been in Kyoto now?
Rachel: About six years. Of course, like anyone who lives overseas, I miss my family, but I do really like Kyoto, it’s really good for me.
I feel like every day has something new.
Mono no Aware
From Rachel's Instagram @travelbugart, November 14, 2022:
My motivation for painting these miniature sketchbooks comes from a sense of deep admiration for all the places of beauty, history, and daily existence in Kyoto combined with a sort of sadness which I've identified as an awareness that I can't keep those moments and places forever. It seems like, and perhaps is, the attachment that the teachings of Buddhism warn about.
Miniature Sketch-book Visual Diaries of Kyoto
Rachel has about 20 sketchbooks which document her time in Kyoto since arriving in the city. They’re very precious to her, like diaries, and she would never part with them. She can remember where she did the drawings well, because she was absorbed in observing the places at the time.
Cathy: I'm really inspired by the art that you do. I think it's hugely interesting that you love going out and sketching and taking your painting kit with you.
Rachel: Most of my art is done on site, as you said. I take my sketch kit with me, which includes a sketchbook - a small one for my miniature books (mamehon), which you might know: the little books that can fit into a matchbox.
Cathy: I didn't know that they were that small, that's amazing!
Rachel: I keep them in a fireproof bag. They represent years of experiences that I can't replicate.
Rachel shows me a box filled with the smallest concertina washi sketchbooks, with gorgeous Kyoto yuzen paper covers. The folded out concertina washi paper insides are covered in the most beautiful watercolour scenes of Kyoto – both on the front of the paper and the back. I am astonished at what I am seeing!
I know that to pick up these little books and unfold them would be tactile and delightful. They tell a story of the days that Rachel has spent in her new home city getting to know it and record it in exquisite detail.
They are like visual diaries, and they are reminiscent of the unrolled illustrated manuscript scrolls of the ancient Kyoto literature such as the Genji Monogatari.
Cathy: They are so beautiful.
Rachel: When I started off with these little sketchbooks, I made them entirely myself by cutting strips of watercolour paper and folding it into an accordion shape. And I used to paint on both sides of the sketchbooks, but I have to confess to you, I'm not one for precision, so it took me a long time to make the paper and fold the paper and prep the paper.
I found in Fushimi Inari a miniature book specialist, and I showed him my books and I asked him if he could help me make them. The deal was that he was going to do the folding at first. I thought it might be something he had a machine for, but no, it’s done by hand - they are flawlessly done.
He sells reproductions of things like chōjū-giga, famous 12/13th century works depicting animals imitating humans. He sells miniature versions of these in this folding book format, which is one of the things that led me to him, as I bought one of those.
And then I thought, maybe I can utilize this man’s skill. So, I commissioned a bunch of blank pages and then I continue to bind them myself with Kyoto yuzen paper. For the covers I use locally made paper.
Cathy: They are beyond precious, they are absolutely gorgeous!
Rachel: For me, they are precious, because they represent the memories that I have. And really the motivation behind doing them in person, in the first place, is that I might have a short attention span - maybe we're all guilty of that - I'm sure most of us can relate to snapping a picture and then just getting on with our lives.
But when I stop and sketch something or paint something, I feel that I build a lasting memory and a relaxing relationship with that time and place. When I fix it to a page, I fix it to my memory as well. And so, all of the places that I've ever painted, I remember them very well.
And if I see them again in a picture or something, I recognize them instantly, it’s like seeing an old friend. Whereas if I've travelled to places where I haven't had time or an opportunity to do a sketch, I don't have them fixed in my memory quite the same way.
It grounds me, and it's a way for me to really appreciate and fully absorb my surroundings. So that's my motivation. All of them are done on site. The only exception would be if there is a reason why I can't use paint in a particular location, but that's only happened once or twice.
Sketching in Kyoto Locations
Rachel speaks about sketching in a temple, and how she wouldn’t use colour when she is working on a temple steps, being respectful and mindful of what might happen were it to spill.
She would position herself on the path where she isn’t in the way and can’t damage anything accidentally.
She has only been asked to move once, and that was very politely done, saying she could finish off what she was doing first!
Rachel: I am very mindful not to be in the way of foot traffic or risk damage to any structures. When necessary I may use watercolour pencils as a substitute, or complete the piece from a vantage point away from any such risk.
Cathy: That's incredibly respectful to the environment.
Rachel: I think any of us that sketch on site have the same feeling :)
Capturing the City
Rachel’s drawings usually take about 45 minutes. So that’s 45 minutes of filtering out what isn’t relevant to the drawing and distilling it to capture the essence of the view.
She has a catalogue of Kyoto places in her mind that she knows from different times of day and different times of the year.
Cathy: Do you have a time limit on how long you sketch for, or do you just go with the flow?
Rachel: Yes, I usually go with the flow. I'm usually by myself when I go to do my sketches, but if I have to meet up with friends again that's maybe the only time I have a hard time limit or if I'm trying to catch a train or a bus. But other than that, it is not a time limit.
Cathy: How often do you go out?
Rachel: I started this project in 2020, right before the pandemic. At it's peak, I would do one or two a week, then take a break, and do another one. It wasn't super consistent and the books are in chronological order in the sense that, typically, unless there's a compositional reason why I can't, I typically do them in the order in which I experience the location.
And because the books are folded like this, I have the flexibility to change the size of them.
Cathy: The only thing I can equate them with are the small diaries I kept when my boys were little. They were little books that always felt lovely to pick up and handle. And they were full of memories in a similar sort of way, not illustrations at all, just writing, but a wonderful precious thing to have.
These beautiful miniature works of art are too precious to sell, but an exhibition would be a wonderful way to be able to view them, or perhaps as reproductions in a book.
Rachel’s Travel Sketchbook Classes
Cathy: I'm really interested in your classes because you take visitors to Kyoto out sketching, don’t you. I’d like to join you!
Rachel: Mainly the classes that I do are travel sketchbook classes for anyone who's thought about getting into art or getting back into art. Most of the people who join my classes are beginners or people who don't have lots of experience.
However, I have had professional artists take my class, which can be a bit intimidating sometimes, and I always wonder what I can teach! But they always have the same response, and they say, well what I do in my professional life is different. I want to learn how to do a looser style or quicker style and take a more relaxed approach and use art as a way to connect to my surroundings.
Depending on the kind of art that they do, they might have a completely different process and mental framework for what they do. So, they're looking to try something new.
The concept for my sketchbook class is that you show up wearing shoes that are comfortable to walk around in and you also dress for the weather, and then I take you around outdoors to some spots to sketch.
I provide all of the materials which are take home kits. They're pretty much identical to what I carry. And these outdoor paintings are not done as miniatures, by the way - I think miniatures present their own set of challenges, so we use this larger sketchbook.
I offer public classes and private classes. The public classes always follow the same itinerary. We start down here in the brewery district painting by the canals, and then we go up to the Fushimi Inari shrine. That place can get pretty crowded, but I take us to spots that are off the beaten path a little way, so that we can feel room to breathe.
Cathy: Do you have a special type of paint that you use in your kits?
Rachel: Yes, we use Japanese brand watercolour paints, and I custom fill the palettes.
I order empty palettes and then I fill them myself with the paints. They are 12 colour palettes, so they're limited. For people who want to carry them around, they aren't stuck carrying a super large palette. And it's also much easier for new artists to get acquainted with colour mixing if they haven't done much of it before.
But you know, even I don't use more than 12 colours. I use an identical palette for my own artwork, and my personal opinion is that you don't need more than that.
Cathy: I think less is often more, isn't it! And it is quite easy to make colour muddy as well, so, if you've got a reduced number of colours you'll achieve an overall sympathetic harmony in the colour balance of the painting.
I was interested in what you were saying about professional artists, when you were saying how they wanted to do something different, because I can completely relate to that.
Having done digital artwork for so long and not connected with a paintbrush for so long, until very recently, I can completely understand why it'd be nice to pursue something where you feel a bit more connected, rather than quickly making art for a deadline.
The Art Journey
Cathy: How long have you been painting for, and how did you start on this journey?
Rachel: When I was a kid I got an interest in art, pretty much as early on as I can remember.
I had a couple of cheaper paint kits as a kid but I don't think I did too much painting until I was a university student, and at that time it was mostly oils. When I was doing my personal art, I used acrylics because they dry faster, and they're a lot less messy.
Cathy: I’m interested that you say that, because the process is completely different to watercolour, isn't it!
Rachel: Yes. Actually, I didn't really do watercolour much until fairly recently. I had the perception that watercolour was a very unforgiving medium.
I had the perception that once you put paint to the paper that you were stuck with whatever you put on there and I didn't like losing that sense of control. But once I learned more about watercolour as a medium, I found out that first of all, the materials are quite different and actually do allow for a large degree of adjustments - although you'll probably agree with me, that it's not a great idea to do too much or you'll muddy everything up.
And then second of all, watercolour has its own unique beauty and it doesn't need to be perfect to look good. So in my estimation, due to the properties of watercolour, both the paper and the paint, you can get pretty stylized with it.
You can make what would be quote-unquote ‘errors’, and they look quite nice, due to the nature of the medium. And so I actually think that now I've changed my mind, and that watercolour is quite forgiving.
And the reason why I got into it in the first place is because I did want to do painting outdoors; it seemed like a natural fit for somebody who in university studied natural science.
My first jobs were doing natural science education and it seemed like the right thing for me to do, and watercolour is much easier to deal with than any other medium outdoors, in my opinion.
Cathy: That's interesting. You're painting watercolour in the Western tradition but at the same time I understand you're learning sumi-e, so how do the two painting styles collide?
Rachel: Yes, in a lot of ways they do.
The biggest difference would be the paper. As you probably know, the paper that Western watercolourists use was developed in Europe and perfected in England.
The way that the paper handles the paint that's put on it, and the different kinds of sizing and the surface treatments for the paper that you can get are fundamentally very different to Japanese so-called rice paper - it's not made from rice but from mulberry bark usually.
And, in that sense, once you put something on that Japanese paper, that's not moving. Those papers were developed for calligraphy, which is the parent art of sumi.
The first sumi painters were calligraphers, and the art originated in China and came to Japan through mainly Chinese artists (although not exclusively), and then sumi developed its own life here in Japan.
At the same time, it retained a lot of the same fundamental principles, such as the Chinese brush. Ink wash painting in Japan has taken on a life of its own, particularly I think in relation to what Zen Buddhism grew into here and some of the philosophies. I think, when you look at masterworks, that that is an important thing to consider.
There are, from what I've seen, a lot of contemporary sumi painters, who are experimenting a lot and doing some very interesting things.
Rachel talks about art materials – about how the brushes are designed to be barrel-shaped and to hold a lot of ink, so that the art can be continuous (or at least look like it’s continuous!). She spoke about how the paper reacts in different ways to watercolour paper.
Rachel: But I would consider myself a watercolourist. I'm learning a lot from the compositional approaches taken by Japanese artists, and some of the brushwork is also quite interesting.
And I think watercolourists can and should experiment with Eastern brushes - they behave quite differently from Western brushes.
So, after the paper, I think the next biggest difference is the brushes.
Cathy: So much in sumi seems to be about the breathing, and using your body to push the brush or spring the brush etc. I can imagine that that would expand your watercolour abilities and it would inevitably have an impact on the sort of marks that you're making on the paper.
Rachel: Yes, definitely. I think I owe a lot to inspiration from Japanese art, and I also consider myself a beginner with sumi too. I think it's one of those arts that you practise your whole life, so I'm still probably in the beginning stages, and it’s been very inspiring to make my attempts at it.
And yes, there is a physicality - maybe a big part of it is the size of the paper that you're working on.
You can work on any size of paper that you want, but typically, I think the smallest size that you would work on would be probably twice the size of a piece of office paper.
Rachel: Sumi is making me think about composition in a way that I was already trying on my own, but then I realised so many connections between what I found to be the goal or the look that I was going for with my Western watercolours.
I was finding a lot of inspiration in sumi in that sense. I don't reduce it to ‘less is more’, but just being comfortable, leaving parts of a composition either faintly rendered or unrendered.
I think that if I had to pinpoint a difference between sumi and watercolour, in a compositional sense it would be that most watercolourists (and this is a generalisation) are going to cover their page, their surface. But then in sumi, that is by far not the case.
It’s common to find a sumi piece that is at least half white space, and I think you can see why if I'm working in a miniature format taking some fundamentals from that.
It helps my compositions to be more cohesive and make visual sense on such a small scale. It's not that they lack detail or that I have left a lot of white space, even if occasionally I do. But basically, what it's helping me do is think about ways to distil a composition down to something that works successfully.
And so, while I'm definitely still on the Western watercolour side of things, when I am making these art pieces, and I'm still using Western materials and mostly Western techniques, I think for me the most valuable thing has just been thinking, do I need this?
And that's so interesting because I believe it is left to the imagination of the viewer, who's looking at it.
Cathy: But this is so interesting, isn't it? Because, in the tradition that we're brought up in the West, we just don't question it. We're so surrounded by paintings and book illustrations, and so many of these images are full of activity, aren't they! It's interesting to think that there's another culture that has art sensibilities ingrained in a different way, which are more about restraint and discretion.
I can see why that would have an interesting influence on your composition.
Rachel: I think you know, from your many visits to Kyoto, that something really special about Kyoto is that you can view the artwork as we did at Shoren-in temple. You can view it in its original context and there is something very powerful about that.
Cathy: In the sense that it’s not isolated in a museum.
Rachel: And the other thing would be having the chance to see that same philosophy of less reflected in a lot of other aspects of Japanese culture, like tea ceremony or performance, where there is a lot unsaid, unspoken, or unrendered. The ma; the pause; the space.
That's been a special experience.
Even though I haven't taken a deep dive into any of those realms I've been fortunate enough to make friends here in Kyoto who have shared more and more of those things with me, and it's interesting to see the cohesiveness and how one reflects the other in a lot of ways.
I'm sure you've noticed that too through all of your studies?
Cathy: I'm trying to apply it to the poetry of Genji Monogatari, and I'm also thinking about the Japanese dramas that I watch as well.
Rachel: Well, you would have to tell me about The Tale of Genji, but from my recollection, aren't a lot of the characters referenced indirectly in that novel. So rather than being called consistently by a name, they’re just..
Cathy: Yes, of course! The characters are referenced by their position in the court, and you have to concentrate hard because the characters may then be promoted to another role. It’s very easy to lose track of who is who!
Cathy: I'm interested in the sumi classes that you're taking. You must be learning such a lot!
Rachel: It's a fairly casual class, I would say, in the sense that my teacher is very laid back and kind, and it's just a couple of times a month. But I have been building up my supply of materials here and there, and I practise in my own time when I have a chance and prior to taking lessons with an instructor.
I was working on my own from books, but it's been nice to have a space where I have a person giving me feedback.
Cathy: I think that must be because if you have been learning from books, you've been taking on board the fundamentals, and you can travel a certain distance doing that but then to have someone knowledgeable help you at that point in your learning would be very valuable.
Living in Kyoto
Rachel didn’t know Japanese when she arrived in Japan, and has learned. She originally came on the JET English Language Teaching programme, where she had to speak English most of the time.
Cathy: Are you fluent in Japanese?
Rachel: No, I wouldn't call myself fluent.
I can handle my daily affairs and I can chat with people, but if the conversation shifts to an area where my vocabulary is lacking, I get lost pretty quickly. So, I couldn't talk about Japanese politics, you know!
Cathy: I'd love to know what it's like living in Kyoto from day to day - the difficulties, as well as the wonderful things that you experienced.
Rachel: Basically, I think we both have a love for Kyoto and maybe we have a love for it for similar reasons, which is that it's the cultural heart of Japan, which is something that I'm very interested in.
It's the city of traditional culture and art, so that's kind of an automatic reason why I like it. But as far as daily life and daily living, one of the things I find refreshing is that it's easy to see green. You can see the mountains because of the restrictions on building heights in Kyoto, or most of it, pretty much anywhere you are.
You can peek down the street and see something green. You can see the mountains and that's really important for me.
You can live here for possibly your whole life, and always, just around the corner you'll find something beautiful.
I don't want to misrepresent Kyoto as a place where everything is traditional or everything is old, because, as you know, that's not the case. This is a living breathing city with plenty of modern buildings and the warts and bumps that any urban space is going to have. But as a whole, I think that there is quite a bit of charm in most of the city.
And there are so many interesting events to take part in.
As far as the negatives, sometimes the transportation can feel a bit disjointed. You know, there are multiple train companies operating in Kyoto, and given its size that can sometimes be a little confusing, I think, especially for visitors, and the network doesn't align quite the way that one might expect, but that's a consequence of the city having such a long history and those things being added much later.
You'll hear people complain about Kyoto and the summers being very hot and humid, and that is true given its location in a valley surrounded by mountains. The air tends to stagnate in that basin, but I love summer because of all the events and the air is so full of life.
Cathy: Have you got a favourite part of the city or a favourite thing that you like to do?
Rachel: I think most people in Kyoto would agree that the Kamo River is kind of the life's blood of the city in more ways than one. And so, if I have a day off and I can't decide where to go, when in doubt, I'll go somewhere either along the Kamo river or near it.
It's a beautiful vantage point to see the mountains, and you can also see locals and tourists alike, out enjoying nature together, and musicians will go and practise their instruments by the riverside, so as not to disturb their neighbours. I think it creates this great atmosphere where you see people from all walks of life, and for various reasons enjoying the outdoors.
And I also really like the mountains near Arashiyama. Some of the hiking trails around there, and the rivers, and that part of Kyoto, it feels a world away.
It's still a part of Kyoto, but you feel like you've been transported to another place entirely.
Cathy: I only discovered the confluence recently – that bit of the river that stands out on the Kyoto map where the river diverges - there's a classic sort of ‘Y’ shape in the river on the map beyond the Imperial Palace.
And I only walked down there for the first time when I came to Kyoto last autumn and discovered the stepping stone crossing there. So this summer, I went down there again. It was hot and the water was cool, and the colour so clear and bright and everyone was having fun by the river there. It's a lovely spot, isn't it!
We'd originally gone to Kamigamo Shrine and walked all the way back into the city along the riverside, and I was surprised how quickly the river becomes quite naturalised. There are a lot of flowers and plants, and it gets very beautiful, very quickly, the further up the river you go, doesn't it.
Rachel: Yes, and I think once you get all the way up into the mountains near Ohara or Kibune and Kurama, it's really beautiful.
Yes, the river banks get wider and greener, that's for sure, and it's very pretty.
Cathy: You can begin to imagine how it might have looked centuries ago.
A Passion for Dinosaurs and Fossils
Cathy: Recently on Instagram you had a post where you were painting a dinosaur skeleton on your yukata! Do you have a big passion for fossils?
Rachel: Yes, I've been a dinosaur fan since I was a kid.
I was fascinated with them very early on and I've continued to be interested in them my whole life. And at one point, I worked part time at a natural history museum. So, it's always been a part of my life and as far as how that came to be a sumi subject, it's actually one that I've been doing as a consistent subject in my sumi paintings since I first started.
I can't quite remember why I decided to do a dinosaur skeleton in sumi, but it clicked for me and I didn't really understand why until I started studying sumi more formally and we talked before about how a lot of sumi art is left to your imagination.
When you look at a sumi piece, the viewer is a participant and the viewer has some visual cues to work with, but is basically left to fill in the rest with their imagination. I thought wow, that is exactly like fossils. The reason why I was so fascinated with them as a child is because the place where I grew up in rural Ohio, there was a creek bed and it was full of fossils from before the dinosaurs.
Cathy: Were you able to handle them - go along and bring them home?
Rachel: Yes, they were all in the riverbed.
And you have the Jurassic Coast in England, that's on my bucket list, actually!
Cathy: Yes, there are rocks that are exposed on the beach where you can see ammonites, it is cool - I think you'd love it!
Rachel: I would! So, I think that the fascination that I have with fossils was in large part because there was a bit of a mystery left there: what did that world look like? What would it feel like?
And having a child's imagination, it's easy to see why so many kids are interested in that kind of thing. I was maybe making a subconscious connection between that and the attraction I felt to sumi and in that same sense of participating using your imagination to visualise it.
Cathy: I’ve been learning a bit about how that applies to tea ceremony, and it strikes me that that is similar, in that beautiful objects are placed in the room to spark imagination and a story.
Things can make a big impression on you when you're a child, and when something strikes you, it can often stay with you. I can completely understand why you carried that through your life and why you're still fascinated by it.
I saw one of your paintings of fossils and it was beautiful. I loved the ink brush strokes that you were making. I thought the subject really lent itself to those kinds of expressive forms.
Rachel: I'm glad you agree.
And let's go sketch some ammonites on that beach some time!
Cathy: Yes, I'll come down with my Winsor and Newton British watercolours!
And I'll let you know when I'm next in Kyoto and if you're about it would be really wonderful to enrol in one of your travel sketchbook classes.
Rachel: I would love that. And thank you. Thank you so much for talking with me.
I had a great time chatting with you at the temple. It's really cool to talk about these kinds of things with a fellow artist and Kyoto fan. I'm sure we could go on for hours about it all.
Cathy: Yes, I agree. I think there should be a follow up to this!
Thank you so much to Rachel for talking to us here at Zusetsu.
If you would like to find out more about her Travel Sketchbook Classes for visitors to Kyoto,
check out her website:
And find Rachel and her beautiful paintings on Instagram:
All photos are by Rachel unless otherwise stated.
Sources and Further Reading
Kyoto National Museum, Chouju-sumo
Inside Kyoto: Exploring Fushimi, Kyoto's Sake District
Kaibunsya: Fushimi Inari miniature book specialist
Kyoto Journal article about ma
Cathy at Zusetsu photos:
Photos of Kyoto