Interview with artists vol.4: Matthew Phinn

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Left – Fishing Boat at Ine
Middle – Shirakawago
Right – Woodland Shrine

How long have you been painting, and when did you know an art career was for you?

Matthew: I’ve been painting since I was a child. I didn’t paint much during my art studies and it was during my early twenties that I decided to concentrate fully on painting.

Have you always worked with watercolours?

M: I focused on watercolours for a long time, but over the past year, I’ve been painting a lot in oils. I find it refreshing to change medium as it presents so many more challenges. It’s important to try to keep a fresh approach to every painting.

Could you talk us through your process – how long does it take to research or prepare, and how long does it take to create the painting itself? Are you working on multiple paintings at any given time?

M: I’m always working on a lot of paintings at the same time. With watercolour, it often works out best to focus and paint with gesture and speed over a short time and then add more detail later. Oil of course is different as the drying time is much longer. I spend time before every painting drafting out a composition in my sketchbook from the sketches and photos I have taken in advance. This helps me decide how to arrange the focal point of the painting. Although the paintings often look like direct copies of the subject, they are in fact worked on quite a lot in advance.

Does the scene or context of a specific work influence which materials or papers you use?

M: I tend to use the same colours and paper for watercolour unless there is an unusual subject matter with particularly vivid colours. Smooth paper suits portraits and detailed still lives, and if I want a strong sense of gesture, a rough paper and a large brush are appropriate. I still use Japanese hake brushes a lot for this.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the way in which you work and develop your craft?

M: COVID has been a problem in that I’ve had to cancel exhibitions both in Japan and here in London. I consider myself very lucky however, as I can keep painting away at home. I was able to exhibit with a group over in Osaka last winter. Although I couldn’t visit, at least I can keep some kind of presence there.

You’ve previously taught painting in Japan – do you have any advice for novice painters interested in taking up painting during lockdown?

M: I think painting is a great thing to take up during a lockdown. I would suggest not going out and buying a lot of materials but a small selection of artist’s quality paint and paper is enough for watercolour. Like any skill, painting takes time before you’ll see improvements. My main advice for watercolour is don’t get bogged down in too much detail, use plenty of water and don’t be scared of strong colours, particularly when painting onto wet paper.

It’s become very difficult for young people in particular to sustain a career in art. Do you also have any advice for those looking to pursue a career as a watercolour artist, or as a creator more generally?

M: I was so fortunate to have had a good start as a painter in Japan. What allowed me to do it was applying to as many artist-in-residencies as I could. Most are around three months but I was lucky to have got a placement for a one-year residency near Hiroshima, which ended up being extended for five years. I also did a three-month residency in Bermuda. This wouldn’t be possible for me now, having a family, so this is definitely an option depending on the situation. Aside from that, exhibit as much as possible and to begin with, don’t worry too much where. I’m sure social media is very powerful these days, but I’m far from an expert at that!

You’ve held many shows in both Japan and the UK. When it comes to curating, do you approach these exhibitions differently? And do you feel there is a difference between how your work is viewed or received by Japanese and British audiences?

M: I have noticed that Japanese people generally have a great sensitivity to the craft side of painting and art in general. Many Japanese people view watercolour as a traditional English thing and I have tried over the years to combine elements of both traditions into my paintings. I’m sure there is a novelty value element when I exhibit in Japan as it is quite rare to have Westerners exhibit in the department stores and galleries. People can be reticent to approach me to begin with, but speaking basic-level Japanese helps a lot.

Can you tell us a little more about your time as an artist-in-residence in Hiroshima?

M: The name of my artist-in-residency was Noro San Geijitsu Mura and was based in the village of Kawajiri, about an hour along the coast from Hiroshima. The area was rural and as a result most of my friends there were of the older generation, as the young people tended to move to the city. I taught painting in the cultural centre and drove to my studio at the top of the 800-metre-high mount Noro every day. I also taught private classes in the city at the weekends. I had such a wonderful time and often miss it very much for countless reasons. The kind people, fascinating culture and traditions, fantastic food and beautiful landscapes are often in my mind, so I hope to get back there soon!

Lastly, we ask all of our interviewees to share their favourite aspects of Japanese culture! Are there any underrated books, films, artists – anything – that you recommend checking out?

M: My first interest in Japan actually came through watching classic films, such as those by Ozu and Kurosawa. Having lived there my interest has spread to so many things from antique furniture, musical instruments, pottery, martial arts and cooking. In terms of painting, I’m a big fan of Nihonga, the materials and method of which come from Japan… a personal favourite is the work of Okoku Konoshima. I often, in my own way, try to emulate the dynamic use of space and detail one can see in this tradition of painting.