Article in 'Artist & Illustrators' about artist Carl Randall's 2012 BP Travel Award exhibition of Japan paintings at the National Portrait Gallery London, 2013.  'In the footsteps of Hiroshige: Portraits of Modern Japan'.

‘Tomorrow’s World – Paintings of Modern Japan’.

BP Travel Award winner Carl Randall reveals how he retraced the footsteps of a 19th-century master in order to create a contemporary portrait of Japan.

There is a history of artists and writers leaving their native countries to find inspiration in foreign cultures. Perhaps one of the most popular examples is the French painter Paul Gauguin, who moved to Tahiti and spent the remainder of his life making art about primitive Tahitian culture. A more contemporary example is British artist David Hockney, who moved from London to Los Angeles in the 1960’s. Some of the feeling behind my motivation to leave London for Tokyo can be expressed in the following comment by Hockney, referring to his decision to make the American city the subject for his paintings: “In London, I think I was put off by the ghost of Sickert, and I couldn’t see it properly. In Los Angeles, there were no ghosts; there were no paintings of Los Angeles. People then didn’t even know what it looked like…and I suddenly thought: “My God, this place needs its Piranesi; Los Angeles could have a Piranesi, so here I am!” 

- ‘David Hockney: Portraits’. David Hockney. p.39. Yale University Press, 2006.

Similarly, the appeal of depicting a place that had not previously been popular with Western painters influenced my choice of Japan. Capital cities such as London, Paris and New York have provided subject matter for many artists. Tokyo is a fascinating example of a major and modern city, and although has been recorded many times by foreign travel photographers, is unfortunately rarely represented by Western painters. The challenge of depicting aspects of modern Japanese society as a European artist, combined with my general interest in the countries history, people and culture, resulted in Japan becoming my home for 10 years.

The sense of refinement, simplicity and understatement associated with many traditional Japanese arts also appealed to me, and I experimented with Sumi-e (Japanese ink painting) as way of allowing this aesthetic to enter my work. Letting ink naturally bleed on unprepared Washi (Japanese paper), curiously distorted, organic portraits were created. This way of working seemed the polar opposite to oil on canvas – marks have to be very brief, cannot be erased once made, cannot be worked into or layered, and results were often unpredictable. My natural inclination towards a more controlled way of painting lead me back to oils, and so my work continued to be rooted in the detailed, decorative tradition of figurative European oil painting.

The country offered me a variety of artistic experiences, from being invited to be artist in residence in Hiroshima city (to meet and paint the portraits of survivors of the Atomic Bomb), to being chosen to represent Japan as artist in residence at the Formula 1 Races. Completing a Masters and Doctorate in Fine Art at Japans prestigious Tokyo University of Fine Arts resulted in being awarded the top graduate prize at the University, with a painting being bought for the permanent collection of Tokyo Geidai Fine Art Museum. However, perhaps the most exciting opportunity came upon winning the 2012 BP Travel Award at The National Portrait Gallery in London. 

My idea for the award was to travel in the footsteps of the Japanese woodblock print artist Ando Hiroshige (1797–1858), who in 1832 traveled along the Tokaido Highway - an old trading route that ran from Tokyo to Kyoto, producing a series of woodblock prints showing the people he met and the landscapes he experienced along the path. The prints now serve as a valuable artistic document of life in Japan at that time, and I thought it would be fascinating to produce contemporary equivalents, documenting the people and places of modern Japan, 180 years after Hiroshige made the same journey.

Equipped with Japanese language ability (learnt whilst a Daiwa Anglo Japanese Foundation scholar), and a familiarity with the culture, I started work on the project immediately. Basing myself in Tokyo, I would take the bullet train to areas along Tokaido Highway to collect reference material for my paintings. My studio was a little wooden house in the middle of Asakusa - a lively, traditional area in east Tokyo. I slept in one room with traditional tatami flooring and sliding doors, and the adjacent bright, sunny white-walled room was my studio. When I opened my studio window, I was greeted with a rather surreal but amusing gigantic 40ft sculpture of mustached chef’s head (sitting on top of building across the road, advertising a kitchenware company). For a further description of my Tokaido Highway project, please see my essay within the 2013 BP Portrait Award catalogue, available through the portrait gallery. 

I always try to paint portraits directly from life, and hence the studio became important place to paint people. I find photographs reduce my ability to see and understand the subtleties of surface, shape, light and three-dimensional form, and cannot be compared to the presence of a real person, which for me always makes for a more interesting, successful painting experience. 

While making my paintings, I avoided referring to Hiroshige’s prints, so as not to be overly influenced by his visual language. I don't feel that any artists in particular directly influenced these works, but generally I am interested in images combining people and places with a hidden narrative. Paintings executed with a fairly studied, analytical approach appeal to me, especially when coupled with an element of distortion or psychological tension – some examples being early Lucian Freud, Otto Dix, Christian Schad, Hans Memling, Rogier van der Weyden, and the sculptures of Ron Mueck. Many of my favorite artists are good draughts men and know how to create good design, but are guided by the personal or playful rather than the academic - Ben Shan, Stanley Spencer, Edward Burra, David Hockney, Peter Blake, Paulo Uccello. I am also drawn to images of the everyday imbued with a feeling of the sublime, surreal or uncanny (Edward Hopper, De Chirico, Peter Doig). 

I find many of these artists have an ability to combine a sense of the unreal with the real, something I also strive at in my work. Playing with perspective is one way I try to do this, often flattening space or changing the scale of objects, to create a slightly disconcerting feeling. This relates also to my interest in flat pattern making, and reducing elements of the real world to tapestry or textile-like patterns, their three dimensional, spatial qualities being less important – highlighting the fact that painting is essentially just an arrangement of shapes and marks on a flat surface. It is interesting to contrast this to very early work made whilst an undergraduate at The Slade School in London – three-dimensional constructions based on alleyways, using the idea of forced perspective to give the appearance of great depth in a very shallow space (studies for which won the 1998 Singer & Friedlander/Sunday Times Watercolour Competition). The main aim was to create the illusion of deep receding space, whilst recently I largely ignore this and prefer a more non-naturalistic approach to space.

Aside from depicting the physical world, I was also interested in portraying a certain feeling or atmosphere. With particular reference to monotone works, the use of grey helps create a mood of solitude and silence; emphasizing my ongoing theme of urban isolation. In ‘Shinjuku’ (based on one the busiest train stations in the world), a tide of people flow past in the foreground, apparently unified and as one, but upon closer inspection, they are unaware of each other. Similarly in ‘Tokyo’, the cities inhabitants are shown staring ahead in the same direction, physically together but psychologically separate, each trapped within his or her own private world. In the foreground of ‘Shibuya’ (based on an area popular with teenagers), seated couples sit poised as if communicating with each other, but their faces reveal little emotion; their eyes do not quite meet and communication isn’t quite achieved. Urban alienation is the underlying theme is many of these works.

With my Japan paintings, I set myself the rather difficult challenge of how to present the country in a fresh light, avoiding hackneyed images often seen in travel photography. A cross-section of old and new Japanese society is presented, from salary men in office blocks to farmers in rice fields; and a variety of modern and traditional Japanese icons depcited - from love hotels, sushi restaurants and bullet trains; to Mount Fuji, Zen Gardens and Kabuki. 

Depicting Japanese society and culture as a foreign artist proved immensely rewarding, and I am hoping these works will appeal to anyone who has experienced or has an interest in this fascinating country. 

Carl Randall’s exhibition ‘In The Footsteps of Hiroshige: The Tokaido Highway and Portraits of Modern Japan’ is showing at The National Portrait Gallery in London, June 20th to September 15th, as part of the 2103 BP Portraits Awards. The show then tours various locations in the UK till May 2014.

‘Carl Randall - Japan Portraits’ – a 120-page full color hardback catalogue of artwork made in Japan, is available to buy at The National Portrait Gallery shop in London. Foreword by English author Desmond Morris, and introduction by Japan writer Donald Richie.

Artist website:

Short documentary about the artist painting in Japan: