Duplex: Tell us a little about your background.
Ayumi Takahashi: I was born in China and lived there until I was about 12 and I moved to Japan and then I came to America after high school. I was in San Francisco first and just trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Because both my parents are artists, and I was a rebellious kid, so I’m kind of not trying to be an artist. But I think it’s just in your blood and it just start to come out. So I got in Art Center College of Design in California, majored in Illustration Design. When I was at the Art Center, I also went to London for study abroad for half a year for graphic design and I did a lot of editorial illustration for the New York Times, and other magazines.
D: Are you still doing illustrations for publications?
AT: Yeah, I still am, but I’m trying to be more selective of my clients. Illustrations can help me with conceptual thinking, meet awesome art directors, which I really like; but I have to be very representational most times, which I don’t really like. Sometimes I like to be more abstract and that’s not really clear enough. After I graduated, I moved to Portland, mainly because my boyfriend got hired at Nike. During my grad show, I made this huge shopping cart, wood; it’s like eight feet tall. I was trying to showcase my work with a lot of textile design and jewelry and some products, mainly hand painted plates and stuff. That made me think Portland might be perfect for this kind of thing I’m doing. I thought I’d open a store. Portland is very crafty. I think the lifestyle here is very relaxing; people have a lot of time to make things.
D: Yeah, it’s a very supportive marker and crafter community.
AT: Yeah and you guys are very supportive of artists too. But after I graduated, I was trying to figure out ways to start my career. What do I really want to do? Illustration or more fine art painting. I thought I should build a little project for myself. That’s where the portraits started. I started doing daily little paintings as a good way for warming up for the day. Just thinking if I keep painting little ones every day maybe they’ll turn into something totally unexpected and now I have all these little girls. All these little drawings. I’m actually writing a book with my dad. He’s a writer and design school president in China. We’re going to do something a little more meaningful, like a book that can help people realize themselves, because they might teach you something. So I’m trying to work on a project for that and slowly painting little portraits on panels.
D: These are incredible. But they are pretty representational. Is this what you feel is more your style though? You were talking about becoming more abstracted.
AT: I started with this more illustrative patterns and people as I started moving forward. The abstracted the figure by cutting and cropping it. And the patterns are more abstract. Usually they’re in a perfect shape and more illustrative, like the Golden Book illustration style. I love Matisse and paper cuts, so when I was doing these, that’s was how I approached the abstracting the shapes. You kind of have to start somewhere and slowly you’ll know what you really like and what you want your painting to look like. Before, I would do large sketches and it would look really perfect, the lines were so sharp and straight. Now I’m kind of doing smaller ones and blowing them up and they’d look really different, it’s not like how I would usually draw a line. Like in some of these lines, I would probably never draw it like that.
D: Oh yeah, is this a little too imperfect for “past Ayumi”?
AT: Yeah! But I’m still trying to incorporate the cleanness and perfectness. I really like that. Maybe I’ve been in Japan for too long. I would be bothered if there was a little something coming out.
D: How do you know when something is finished?
AT: That’s the thing, you don’t. I don’t know I guess depending on the mood. It’s kind of like graphic design, you just have to align something and it’s a mess and you can’t finish. But sometimes I feel like it’s good to fall back a little too. Trying to like the unfinishedness. I’d like to like not adding more on to it.
D: Do you take breaks and then come back to them?
AT: Yes, always. I would do a painting and then keep working on them forever. I used to never do that. I used to make one painting a day but sometimes when I come back to it and think “why did I do that?” Because there are very little shapes and colors in my work, each mark is very important. If I make a mark and then I don’t like it, I would have to redo almost the whole thing or try to mix the colors again. I’m trying tone very carefully and thought out. I’ve even been making little color comps. And I work on the color comps for a while too.
D: That’s so cool! They are even hand painted. You are really carefully planning out what your paintings will look like. Did you make these?
AT: No, they’re pre hand painted. The comps on the computer look really different from the actual and sometimes I zoom in my on phone to see if the color really matches. But I rework the color comps as well. I do these in ten minutes. It’s the first impression I have for the painting, what I want it to look like, what kind of mood the color produces, and then if I really like it, I’d try hard to match the color. It’s really important because sometimes the actual painting is a little bluer than the machine. Especially when you’re painting something bigger. It’s really hard to paint and remix the colors to make it really perfect. But these days I feel like the imperfectness is okay too like I love some of the shapes that are not super clean. I am starting to like the brushstrokes.
D: From where do you draw your inspirations for the portraits? When I look at these, I haven’t recognized anyone except for Frida Kalho.
AT: I have a list for what kind/type of people and what they like to do and sometimes I’ll go through fashion magazines, but also from KENZO because I love their colorfulness and playfulness, they are so conceptual. I’m trying to put great fashion in my work but I guess color is the most important thing for me. I feel like people really attach emotion to the color, its like immediate response. And I always like happy environments. Happy and bright. Joyful. That kind of response would make my day. That’s why I always like colorful stuff, but a little more sophisticated. And I do really like people. I get really inspired by humanity type of stuff. Maybe because I’ve been to a lot of places. I lived in Thailand and I lived in a third of my life in Japan, China, and America so there is this very international environment for me. There’s this constant culture shock has been a big part of my life. I know it sounds cliché, but I really get pleased and warm hearted by that. That’s why I get really drawn to people and their stories.
D: It’s curious that you say that, when you sent me the preview images, I didn’t immediately read them as happy. I read this as having a sort of smoke or smell. Like a colorful mystery. This wood, and that maybe was a feminine pad and this could be someone’s messy room.
AT: I think this approach started when I was doing a collaboration with Chris Osborn for Pair Shaped, he is a sound artist based in New York. While we were working on a series together, he would send me a sound piece and I would paint it and then I would send it back to him and he would make another sound piece and I would make another painting. I think that’s how I broke from the super illustrative. It came from pure feeling, different from than visual. A more internal image in your head. The piece, Pair Shaped Collaboration, gets more abstract as it goes. The last one is the previous three combined, like a flash back, really busy and electronic like the music. All the elements of the previous pieces became the last one. That’s kind of like the breaking point. I like making people guess what it is. It becomes a play for color, for shapes and pattern. I really like pattern because it can be another way of telling a story.
D: Are you still making fabric?
AT: I am trying to. My first fabric is from the style guide for fashion of different years using graphite. I was making some scarves. I still like doing them cause its kind of like painting on a different canvas, but also you have to consider the fashion side of things, it has to be well designed for that purpose. It would look weird if you just print your illustration on them. So it is very different than painting.
D: Is it the more commercial part that keeps you from doing it all the time?
AT: No I just don’t have time right now. I would consider that as my hobby, on weekends, because you can’t just make paintings 7 days a week. You need to take breaks.
D: How often are you here in your studio?
AT: I’m here every day, a lot of times seven days a week. Things are always more complicated and takes more time than you think. I like to feel like I’m actually going to work to a job. I’m here from 9-7 and then my boyfriend comes from work and pick me up or I would ride my bike if the weather is good. Also what else are you going to do here, it’s raining outside.
D: I’ve noticed a lot of your formatting is vertical.
AT: I’ve thought about that too! A lot of times my works are vertical except when an art director makes me do it horizontal. I don’t know why actually. I like to make books and vertical is a really good format for that, and on the website it looks nicer. I’m just drawn to it I guess. I do want to do a horizontal one and square ones for my next pieces.
D: It looks like the in the Are You Drawing Me series, you are inspired by women, but I do see one token man.
AT: I don’t really like to draw men. I think the reason why my figures look chubby and round and melting in a way is because I’m really in love with old traditional Japanese woodprints and the old Chinese drawings because all the figures are very feminine. I like the 15th century British paintings and Egyptian paintings. It’s not so much about perspective technique or reality of the form as in my work, but it’s also about girl power and the self. That’s the type of environment I want to be surrounded by, the softness, very calm type of environment. I also don’t like to draw male features. I don’t really like looking at them that much. And I can’t make them super fashionable; they look kind of weird.
D: How long have you been doing these daily paintings and how many do you have?
AT: It hasn’t really been daily lately but I first started in March. I have sixty. They say some look like me.
D: You do a great job making them separate with different faces and own autonomy.
AT: This one kind of looks like Jessica! I think I got better towards the end. I’ve never really worked with gouache before. So the first one was really bad. It’s hard to control the consistency and it gets muddy. So it started off as practice. I usually try to keep them less than thirty minutes but with more patterns they’ll take longer.
D: Do you do a color composition for these?
AT: I only do thumbnails for these and I try to use 5 colors. As I paint, I figure it out the person and I try to keep the color very limited.
D: This is such an impressive exercise. All the parameters that you give yourself to do these almost every day, I’m impressed.
AT: Thank you! I know me too. My teacher said it takes 21 days to shape a habit and now it’s my ritual every day. I come here and do one to start the day; I don’t have to think too much about it. When I’m painting on panels it’s a lot of planning and I like how these are more direct.
D: Do you have a favorite person to paint?
AT: No, I guess they all look pretty similar. But I think it’s more about their story. Hopefully that will relate to people.
D: Tell us about the name Are You Me Is it a series but it isn’t at the same time right?
AT: Actually Are You Me is what I used to tell people how to remember my name. That’s kind of a thing I registered with the potential of becoming a fashion or commercial brand name. With the drawings, I started a website called “Are You Drawing Me?” I’m trying to be a little more consistent.
D: You said you have a list of types of people with stories, are those storied just for you or do you share those somehow?
AT: I will, it’s hard to tell a story through portrait painting because people don’t really read that much into it. When I was young, there was this big illustrator in Taiwan his name is Jimi. He would write this very Buddhist type of writing, very abstract and romantic. That’s what you like when you’re a teenager. It really inspired me because all of his messages were positive. I definitely want to do that too. I want to show the younger generation the good side of life. I feel like that’s part of my duty as an artist. Not to sound very formal but that’s really my honest feeling. We have too many artists now, anybody can be one and it’s really easy to call yourself an artist. But you have to remember why you want to make art. I am not a self-expressive artist. Everything about me and my life. I’m not into that. But I do want to promote a positive message behind everything and for myself as a person too.
See more photos here.