Feeling a connection to a certain place can be magical. It helps to broaden our horizons and see things from another perspective. Many people forge a connection with Japan. But that doesn’t mean you have to visit a country to feel an emotional response. Lily Greenwood hasn’t travelled to Japan, but the culture has massively influenced her work as an artist.
In this edition of The Kokoro Files, I talk to Lily about how she got her start in the art world, how she’s been influenced by Japan and what it’s like to be an artist while looking after young children!
Thanks for taking the time to talk to Yamato Magazine about your work Lily. It was a great to stumble across your Japanese influenced paintings at the Manchester Art Festival. What’s your earliest memory of creating art for yourself?
Thanks so much for your kind interest in my work! Hmm, earliest memories of creating art. My mum and dad always encouraged drawing and saved the cardboard from cereal boxes to draw on. It probably also goes without saying that art was easily my favourite thing to do at school. If I delve into the recesses of my brain, my earliest ‘creative’ school memory would be sticking bits of cotton wool on a Santa picture, and blobs of white for the snow.
I also have a very strong association between happily drawing or painting, and a feeling of being cosy, with snow outside – so I wonder if that also comes from the time of the Santa picture. It’s funny what memories can fuse together and stay with each other for a lifetime! I also love getting messy, and I joke that I haven’t really moved on professionally since play school, as both then and in my work now I just get/got covered in glue and paint and whatever else I can get my hands on.
I was lucky to have a couple of teachers at primary school who were very supportive of my artwork, and after I drew a tree with black ink using cocktail sticks, one of the teachers managed to get it displayed in a nearby gallery. Looking back, it probably really helped to boost my confidence.
Of the paintings that stood out to me at the festival, I found your red sun koi and Japanese maple trees to be extremely beautiful. What is it about Japanese aesthetics that attracts you?
The fact that you mention the sun and the trees helps me realise the answer to that one, or at least a facet of the answer, and that’s the joy in the natural world. So much Japanese artwork exults in nature, in a simple, beautiful way, I find it impossible not to be drawn in.
I was lucky to grow up in the countryside and I think my parents were quite instrumental in teaching me to appreciate the beauty in nature all around us. It’s a thread that runs through my artwork, both as subject matter, and, less obviously, as inspiration for line, colour and pattern.
The shapes of the maple leaves, the depth of the colours, the simplicity of a sun, the intricate scales of the koi fish, the inspiration is endless. I find with Japanese artwork that there is always ‘just enough’ for a beautiful balance and simplicity to shine through, in terms of line, pattern and form.
A simple outline for a mountain range, for instance, or incredible detail in a pattern, the aesthetics are always so finely balanced. The same balance is always found in the colours, beautiful rich and deep colours, never garish, usually earthy, and that’s something I strive for in my own work.
What are some of your favourite Japanese motifs?
The Japanese inspired motifs most commonly found in my own work are koi fish, cherry blossoms, maple leaves, and butterflies. I’ve only quite recently realised that another thread running through almost all the work I create is multitude in nature, and the beautiful aesthetic that creates, in terms of both detail, colour, and more of an emotional aspect related to strength in numbers.
The motifs I just mentioned lend themselves perfectly to the idea of multitude, and I think that is why I have gravitated towards them.
It’s great to hear that you’ve been inspired by Japanese masters such as Hokusai and Hiroshige. What are the qualities of their style that mean the most to you?
Elegance, delicacy of line, beauty, balance, juxtaposition and depth of colours, subtlety, attention to detail – I just love their work. It has stood the test of time. It gives me great pleasure to look at their work, and ultimately that’s my own simple but challenging aim – to create something which can create some happiness for the viewer.
Are there any other artists who’ve inspired you in your work?
Too many to name, and I have such a poor memory for names! I find that any tiny little thing that I might see, either in artwork or in day to day life, can be a catalyst for a new idea, a new colour combination, and so on.
One of my favourite sources of inspiration is children’s book illustration, there are some real gems out there. If I had to name a name in that field it would be Lisbeth Zwerger, and Tove Jansson, but there are so many. I have small children so get to read children’s books every day, although I had quite a collection together before the children arrived on the scene.
In addition to painting, you also design kimonos. Do you employ a different kind of artistic technique when creating them?
The Kimono designs are directly from my paintings, so it’s all the same work really. I can’t claim to sew the kimonos myself unfortunately. I use some of my designs on lampshades, which started up after wondering what some of my paintings would be like with light shining through the colours.
The company that print my lampshade fabric started doing kimonos too and given the influence kimono design has had on my work and aesthetic, I couldn’t resist giving it a go.
If you could go back in time and pick the brain of any artist throughout history, who would it be?
That’s a tough question! Perhaps it would be Tove Jansson – she was an intriguing personality, and very connected to nature. She worked in a beautiful setting (building a house on a tiny uninhabited island), so I’d quite happily join her there for a cup of tea and a chat.
What kind of art are you currently working on and will your paintings be appearing in any other shows or galleries in future?
I’ve just started collaborating with a gallery called ‘Stories Art Gallery’ in Mayfair, London, and they are exhibiting a selection of my work. At the other end of the country, I’m due to exhibit work at the Biscuit Factory gallery in Newcastle, in March. I’m booked in for the Manchester Art Fair already for next October, it’s always great.
That’s enough for me right now – my youngest is not quite 1 yet, and sleep is still quite thin on the ground, so I’m pacing myself! In terms of new work, I have quite an exciting commission underway, which is five very large canvases destined for a Cuban restaurant in Miami. The canvases will all be made with my usual technique (using copies of my own original painting studies as collage material…) – but the subject material is quite new, as it’s a tropical theme. They will include palms, banana trees, exotic flowers, birds of paradise, that sort of thing. I think they might end up looking a bit bonkers, but hopefully in the best possible way.
What’s your best advice for someone who’d like to become a full-time painter?
Firstly, to be patient, as it takes some time to build things up. Secondly, to try first and foremost to do work which you enjoy creating and like yourself. You can’t please all of the people all of the time (I’ve stolen that from a Bob Dylan song I think…), so you might as well at least please yourself. Not everyone will like what you do, and that’s okay.
Lily Greenward is a UK based artist who grew up in rural Cumbria. Her work is influenced by eighteenth century printmakers such as Hokusai and Hiroshige, with their strong yet never garish colour palettes, and the beautiful patterns employed in Japanese kimono design. Check out her website to browse her art.