Shades of the Subconscious
16.11.21 Interview by Hannah Valentine

Shades of the Subconscious

In her stencilled pastel works, Tomoko Mizuno explores the layers of meaning that lie in the human subconscious. With soft edges and blurred outlines, her figurative illustrations show that sometimes, atmosphere is more important than detail.
16.11.21 Interview by Hannah Valentine

At the beginning of this year, Tomoko Mizuno decided to narrow her artistic focus. Her older illustrations which have been exhibited at numerous galleries, showcased a myriad of subjects from sweeping landscapes to portraits of anthropomorphised animals. However, she always felt the need for a unified style, which she has found in the clear and consistent artistic tone of her recent work. Human figures appear throughout these, delicately stencilled with pastel powder to create a soft focus. With vague features and blurred outlines, these pieces show people standing alone, in couples or groups, against identifiable scenery, abstract backdrops or just a blank page.

Born in Tokyo, but raised in the Ibaraki region of Japan, where she still lives, Tomoko discovered an emotional connection to art from an early age. She found herself fascinated by the way that different artistic approaches—from Impressionist paintings to contemporary charcoal sketches—conveyed impressions of light and dark; suggesting things hidden in the shadows as well as things overtly on show. This is perhaps the reason for her own interest in exploring what is concealed in the human subconscious, and her belief that it can reveal more than that which is deliberately displayed.

We talk to Tomoko about overcoming uncertainty, her struggle to find her personal style, and the best creative advice she ever received.

Tell us a bit about your artistic background.
I was a child who loved to read and draw. One day, when I was about six years old, I saw a watercolour landscape sketch that my father, an amateur artist, had done, and I was very moved. In this work, my father had painted the colours of the plants in dots, inviting the viewer to look deeper. I loved the painting so much and I think that this experience was one of the things that made me want to become an artist.

Later, I studied art at the University of Tsukuba, majoring in oil painting. My parents were very supportive of my decision to paint. I feel very lucky that I am now able to draw as a job.

Talk us through your artistic practice. What does a regular workday look like for you?
To create my works, I use a stencil technique with pastels, rubbing the pastel powder into the cut-out moulds to fix the colours and shapes. I don’t need a lot of space for my work, so I work from home rather than renting a studio.

I usually divide my work types into separate days, for example, allocating two days for illustration work, and a third day to computer admin; answering emails, scanning my images, talking to clients etc. I try not to mix too many different tasks in one day, because once I start concentrating, it becomes difficult to switch my focus. After a day's work, I try to work out as much as possible. This balances my brain and body and allows me to relax until I go to bed.

You often portray people in couples, groups, or crowds. Is this an exploration of the different relationships that exist between people?
This year, I decided to make people my creative theme. My focus is on portraying the atmosphere that surrounds human beings; I like to try and capture a moment of their subconscious behaviour, rather than a relationship that can be shown by an obvious gesture. I believe that subconscious actions reveal more truth about people than the things they do deliberately.

Your style makes use of this blurred aspect, so that your illustrations appear almost like Impressionist paintings. Why does this kind of style appeal to you and how did you develop it?
I believe that my drawing style is rooted in the influence of charcoal sketching, which was one of my main mediums as a student, and yes, I greatly enjoy looking at Impressionist paintings and am inevitably influenced by them. When working on my charcoal drawings, I was interested in learning how to convey light and shadow and by studying the Impressionist paintings, I learned how to use light and colour in a more personal and subjective way.

As I continued to create, I gradually came to want to paint the atmosphere and aura around subjects. This kind of personal orientation was not all conscious from the beginning but was the result of repeated trial and error and redirection, such as changing the way I draw, changing the way I exhibit, and participating in workshops. I am happy to say that my work has finally become a unified style.

Finding this kind of unified style—something that is unique but consistent and appealing—is a concern for a lot of artists and illustrators. What was the journey to finding your own personal form of expression like for you?
Since starting my career as a painter in 2002, I have been searching for a way to draw that is comfortable for me. I have experimented with different materials and methods, showing my work in exhibitions, and receiving orders for illustration work. There were so many methods I tried which just didn’t fit me. When I was trying to work according to these methods, it was so difficult to feel motivated to actually draw.

How did you finally overcome this uncertainty and lack of motivation?
In 2018, when I felt that I had reached the limit of being able to explore these problems on my own, I took a short course in illustration organised by a gallery. I was greatly inspired by the ideas of the instructors I met there. Their advice was very specific, for example one of them said, ‘Observe your inner world carefully, take note of anything that catches your attention, and think about why it makes you feel the way you do, so that you can learn more about yourself.’ I was in a hurry to find a way out of my problems, but these words really touched my heart and reminded me to stay calm.

At that time, I was also teaching a pastel painting class. One day, while preparing an assignment, I was working on a reference piece using the pastel stencil technique, and I thought it might be useful for my own work, so I created an illustration for myself using the same method. It was rough, but something clicked and I immediately had a good feeling about it. At first it was difficult to draw exactly what I wanted. I drew many prototypes and gradually overcame my technical problems. It took me quite a long time to find my own way of drawing, and I am looking forward to continuing to pursue it and seeing what kind of works I can develop in the future.

/ @tomoko__mizuno