The making of “From silk to canvas”

It’s an old adage, and a good one: the best way to really understand something is to explain it to someone else.

I also value the related saying, “See one, do one, teach one”, which I first experienced when a junior hospital doctor (‘houseman’ or intern), working in neurosurgery. One week I saw a tracheotomy in the operating theatre; the next week I did one, under supervision; the third week I was invited to teach a colleague to do the procedure. By the end of that, I was pretty proficient.

Although this blog is, I hope, a bloodless field, writing for it is often far tougher than performing a tracheotomy. (I wonder how many blogs you will read that last phrase in?)

Mac and technology articles are often the most straightforward: I still have a lot of my old work which was published over the years in MacUser, and each day dig more out, freshen it up so that it is relevant to current Mac hardware and OS X, and add it to the library here.

New Mac and technology material comes from questions that people send me, and my own experiences. Getting to the bottom of a topic is not always as easy as it might be, but the great thing about computers is that you can explore and experiment. Sometimes what looks good turns out to be a dead end, and for the moment at least that seems true of VR for the general market, sadly. My expensive and thrilling Oculus VR headset lies unused, ever since Oculus shortsightedly dropped Mac support.

Oddly it is my painting articles which seem to require the greatest amount of work – and I hope that effort shines through in what you read and see.

Previous series, such as that on peri-Impressionists, required a lot of research. The series which I have just finished, on visions in landscape painting, turned out to be even more demanding, as I pushed beyond what I could find in books (even in my ridiculously large personal library) or online. When I went out for my daily walk, I found myself exercising as much mentally, trying to reason my way through the challenges of the next article, as physically.

But my new series, trying to discover how Japanese art became Westernised, has been in a different league altogether.

When researching, I have four main tools: books, Wikipedia, Google searches, and JSTOR’s online access to academic literature. For “From silk to canvas”, each has produced close to a blank.

The subject occurred to me over a month ago when I was preparing the article on Japanese Impressionists. Although I have not had a deep interest in East Asian painting, over the years I have collected quite a few books on the subject, and several times have explored traditional Chinese and Japanese approaches to landscape painting and perspective projection. When I dug out all my books on the area, I was shocked to discover that none contained any useful information about visual art (apart from coverage of ukiyo-e) since about 1800.

I located and bought three books, one of them secondhand, to help me give an account of the Japanese Impressionists, and my appetite was whetted for more. Why was it that every account stopped so long ago? I already had James Elkins’ book, and realised that he too had come across this extraordinary silence, in his case concerning recent Chinese painting.

Those three original books have been augmented to a total of six, one of which is in Japanese and had to be shipped from Japan, but the sum of their information is still not very great.

Wikipedia was helpful, but showed its lack of expert editorial direction. Its major accounts, for example on the history of painting in Japan, are excellent, but insufficiently detailed. As they inevitably rely on other published material, if the information is not already accessible, I could hardly expect to find it in Wikipedia. Coverage of individual schools and artists is also extremely patchy, and often mismatched with the availability of paintings in Wikimedia Commons.

I have learned to navigate the latter a lot better now too: when I was writing the Favourite Paintings series, I found it easier to locate images in WikiArt, but now I have a better understanding of the many quirks of Wikimedia Commons, it is usually my first port of call.

Google searches have also not been particularly forthcoming, and of course when they yield images, those are so often still in copyright or at least not free to use. As the little literature that there is on more recent Japanese painting is often in Japanese, searches can increase frustration.

Some years ago I had the pleasure and fascination of visiting Japan. I travelled solo from Tokyo to Osaka for a scientific conference, then back to Fujisawa and Kamakura using local railways. Whilst I managed to not get lost, I am afraid that my attempts to learn Japanese were extremely unsuccessful. So trying to tackle even the caption to a picture in Japanese would be doomed to failure.

I hope that you find this new series interesting. It draws upon the history not just of Japan, but of its relations with Europe, world trade and exploration, and a culture which I find uniquely fascinating, sophisticated, and very different from anything outside the Far East. I have learned a lot from researching the series, and hope that I can pass on some of that information and wisdom.

I have also promised myself that the next series on painting will be a little less demanding, but no less rewarding.