Born in Gifu prefecture, Hiroko Otake completed her Doctor of Fine Arts degree at Tokyo University of the Arts, majoring in Nihon-ga (Japanese-style painting). In 2014, she was awarded the Emerald Grant Award by Tokyo University of the Arts. She lived in New York for a year from 2015, supported by the Agency for Cultural Affairs Program of Overseas Study for Upcoming Artists. Since her postgraduate studies, her artwork has featured butterflies as a motif. Her use of Japanese painting materials such as haku (metallic leaf) and iwa-enogu (mineral pigments) to discover new ways of expression have garnered high praise both within and outside Japan. Building on such traditional techniques, Otake has been exploring the theme of “permanence in the moments of constant change” through her creations. We spoke with the artist about her expressive world that leaps over the boundaries of Japanese painting into the international stage.
Drawn to the “New” in Japanese Painting: Starting to Paint at 15 Years Old
Otake grew up surrounded by nature. As a child, she used to play with butterflies in the forest, and the flowers that would come and go each season. “I felt the cycles of nature and its life force very closely—the flowers blooming, falling, the seeds getting planted, new seedlings sprouting up,” she recalls.
From a young age, she started drawing and trying out various media: dessin sketches, watercolours, oil painting. When she was fourteen years old, she encountered Japanese painting. Around fifteen, she began practicing it in earnest.
“It was in the library that I discovered Japanese painting for the first time, coming across some artworks by Hasegawa Tōhaku, Maruyama Ōkyo, and others. Paradoxically, it felt ‘new’ to me—I was drawn to how they were already painting such abstract works from so long ago, how they valued nature, and how they conveyed a sense of space—so I decided to pursue Japanese painting.”
After that, she graduated from a senior high school with a special focus on art. Aspiring to build and sharpen her skills further, she went on to major in Japanese Painting at Tokyo University of the Arts and completed her doctorate degree.
Fascinated by the Ecology of Butterflies, Dissolving Itself Once to Become an Imago
According to Otake, she began to paint butterflies while she was a postgraduate student.
“It started when I was struck by the morphing process of butterflies: inside the chrysalis, the larva dissolves itself once before becoming a fully-formed imago. When I was painting butterflies, the thought of this complete metamorphosis resonated with my desire at the time to grow and transform as a person as well as an artist. After that, I delved into butterflies and encountered notions such as the butterfly effect and the word “psyche” in Ancient Greek. I think butterflies are a very fitting motif for me, since the theme that runs through my work is ‘permanence in the moments of constant change.’”
Otake calls her own artwork contemporary Japanese painting. Her paintings attest to her strong desire to paint Nihon-ga as contemporary art: to break away from its classical image while respecting its tradition, and to use the materials and techniques of Nihon-ga as an artist living in the present day.
Unique Expressions of Chance
In her work, Otake often uses mineral pigments as well as gold and silver leafing. When we ask her why, she answers, “Using metal such as gold leaf and silver leaf can enhance the depth of a painting in a way that’s different from oil, acryl, or watercolour painting. It expands the range of my expression. Metallic leaf reflects light, and I’m fascinated by how it changes depending on the time or the angle you view it in. For silver leaf, I create a burnt kind of tone by sulphurating it. By incorporating such chemical reactions into my creative process, I introduce an element that I can’t fully control, which I leave up to nature.”
Otake also feels sympathy towards the ways of thinking and the attitudes that live on from ancient Japan. “I wish to pass on the spirit of animism that existed in Japan from long ago,” she says, “as well as the willingness to learn from and to coexist with nature.”
The Influence of New York on Otake’s Art
From 2015 to 2016, Otake lived in New York, immersed in the dynamic city of cutting-edge contemporary art. This experience left a significant mark on her creative practice and her approach to her artwork.
“By coming into contact with many pieces of contemporary and conceptual art, I realised how important impact is. Also, by living and creating art overseas, I was able to think more deeply about the distinguishing features of Japanese painting, which led me to explore how I can use traditional techniques of Japanese painting and present my work as contemporary art. For example, I began to define and to consolidate the concepts behind my artwork more thoroughly, and I became more aware of creating highly saturated, vivid images that will have a powerful impact on the viewer.”
“When I held a solo exhibition in New York,” she continues, “many visitors gave me feedback face to face, in their own words, so I learned so much from that. I was delighted and pleasantly surprised that they saw the techniques of Japanese painting as something new and were genuinely interested in them.”
The more exhibitions she has had overseas, the more her own feelings towards Japanese painting have changed.
“At university, I paid more attention to honing my technique or deepening my knowledge of Japanese painting, but gradually, I came to think of Japanese painting techniques as just one of the many tools of expression. Now, my aim is to use that tool to express my concepts more effectively, to create unique works of art that would stand out in this information society and embody my own identity.”
Widening Horizons through Collaborations with Companies
While throwing herself into creating her own artworks, Otake is also active in collaborating with many companies and brands. On her future prospects, she says, “I often get invited to collaborate with companies, and I hope these projects will help to bring Japanese painting as well as art in general closer to the daily lives of many people. There’s a collaboration project with a famous brand coming up soon, so I’m really looking forward to that, too. It would make me happy if projects like that open up my artwork to more and more people.”
Otake dazzles us with her art that reaches beyond the framework of traditional Japanese painting, crossing over genres and national borders. Her magnetism and energy were more than palpable in this interview.