Whitehot Magazine

Artists You Should Know: An Interview with Natsumi Goldfish

Natsumi Goldfish, Untitled Still Life, 2018, 36"x 36", oil on two canvases (Diptych).


By WM January 24, 2024 

Whitehot: Tell me about your childhood and how you got interested in making paintings?

Natsumi Goldfish: I grew up in a suburban area of Tokyo, Japan. When I was a child, there were many children around the same age in the neighborhood. We would often go outside exploring alleys; local parks and shrines; someone’s backyard, and around the riverside until evening. It wasn’t very dangerous then, so there was much freedom for the children.

We were often encouraged to go outside as kids, to play without adult supervision. There was so much time for us to explore local parks but also find different places to catch insects; follow wild cats; make a secret base; draw on streets; do hide and seek; climb trees and make toys from plants. We were very creative - and it was more fun for me than playing with video games. It made us discover and learn many things from experience but also made us mature and preserved our sense of freedom. 

Painting interested me in my early teens and I finally learned oil painting for the first time in university, but I have always loved drawing and making things by hand since I was small.

I was doodling as early as when I was practicing verbal communication. When I started to play outside with friends, I enjoyed drawing almost everyday with chalk on streets, and at home I drew on the back of used papers and made Origami and Misanga and we made many other things with gathered materials. Even though I didn’t have any family members with an art background, I was in a great environment to naturally learn my love for making objects. For instance, when we did paper making from recycled milk cartons and newspapers at kindergarten, my mother saw that I really enjoyed it, and she got a paper making kit at home for us to make more.

I also often went outside with my mother and friends and picked wild flowers and plants and made dry flowers and naturally colored water. I think kindergarten was the beginning of my interest in art without even knowing the word art. In elementary school, I practiced Japanese Shodo calligraphy as part of the school curriculum. My mother was a master of Japanese Shodo calligraphy, and although I didn’t pursue it professionally, I was fortunate to receive advice from her at home as well. Later in junior highschool I took a class on Suibokuga, Japanese ink painting made with the same materials as Shodo. It was the first time I fell in love with the difficulties of brushes and I immersed myself in painting. One day, I saw an image of an artist outside painting on a large canvas, and I remember that I strongly wished to paint freely on a large canvas like that too. 

WM: Where did you go go to art school?

NG: I went to the Tyler School of Art, Temple University and Temple University Japan Campus (TUJ). Originally I went to TUJ, and transferred to the main campus in the US after the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011 to finish my degree. 

Natsumi Goldfish, Article 9: The Constitution of Japan, 2018, 29" x 22", oil on canvas

WM: What are some of your artistic influences? You've mentioned Joseph Cornell but maybe that was later? I also think of the refined masterful quality of Vermeer in your small window paintings and the narrative quality of Balthus when seeing your larger works.

NG: I am inspired by all the artists you mentioned more or less, as well as many other artists. I’m often inspired by artworks (that I have the opportunity to see), as if I met a new person - there is a lot of life in works of art. I think it is because I am an extremely visual and experience oriented artist. Growing up, I have never worshiped or been deeply obsessed with an individual like a specific historical figure or a celebrity or an idol that I never personally knew.

I am however constantly receiving new influences from artworks by new and old artists and from many other places. There are three things I can think of that had a large artistic influence on me when I was growing up. First is the authors of children's books and novels that I read - second is my dreams. When I was a child, my life was occupied by daily dreams. The dreams were as real as real-life to me and they were the most otherworldly surreal things I was experiencing as a child. Third is the art in shrines and temples. Growing up in Japan, my parents brought me to local shrines and temples very often since I was an infant. The paintings, furniture, and the architecture there were the most aesthetic man-made things I grew up with. So more than renowned artists, these children’s book authors, my dreams, and art in shrines and temples were probably my three largest initial artistic influences.

There were many Japanese children’s books that I loved, but the authors who inspired me visually and artistically were Eric Carl and Leo Lionni. Both of their pictures had watercolor-like colors and organic textures that as a child I was moved by. In my adolescence, I was also surrounded with Manga and animations and novels, so those creations by mostly Japanese authors and animators were deeply rooted in my heart. I still try to absorb something new from reading, as much as I try to visit museums, and I especially see value in reading Japanese books that are out-of-print.

WM: When you choose colors for your paintings, is it an intuitive process, or do you pick out specific colors?

NG: Finding colors is an intuitive process for me that begins before painting. When I start painting, I already have a clear vision of the piece in my mind. Sometimes I start painting alla prima and I choose and enjoy mixing colors as I paint, but most of the time I already have an image in my mind including the colors - and my goal is to recreate it. For me, colors are very important but it is not an individual separate matter. It is part of the whole impression of an image I am trying to realize.

 Installation view of two paintings: A Rose from the Rosebush (left), Bird Flight 1/2 (right).

WM: Talk about the technique of painting and what brushes and mediums you use, and how you prepare the surface of your canvasses.

NG: I enjoy exploring different mediums but most of my recent works are done with oil painting. For brushes, I use various known brands and no-brand brushes. For a period of time, like two three years or so during the pandemic, I was heavily using the micro brushes by Princeton. But for the past several months, I removed all micro-brushes from my regular brushes and have been painting without them. So far I like this change and plan to keep it this way for a while - it's the same for oil paints. I do not have a favorite brand, rather, I like to try the same color from different brands until I find the one I like. For instance, I have been slowly collecting the same shade of blue from 6 different brands including Gamblin, Van Gogh, Williamsburg, Maimeri, Winsor&Newton and Holbein. I think I like Holbein because it is from my country. I do love supporting brands from my country, if they are making something good.

About my painting surface, I like wood and canvas. For canvas most of the time I stretch my own canvas and prepare it with multiple layers of base medium and sanding. For wood panels, now I am actually trying to start making my own unique shaped surfaces, and I am excited for the new challenge...

WM: Your work kind of forces viewers to look into windows or through other kinds of containers into the picture. These frames are depicted for various reasons. Are you trying to turn the viewer into a voyeur?

NG: Great question. Many people have asked me similar questions in the past. It is reasonable for people to think this way because of the idea of “looking inside of something” - and at the surface is a physical action that suggests a sense of voyeurism. But my focus is much deeper, it is more about mental trips. My work suggests to see one thing in various ways, especially minor points of view. It also suggests inner explorations and personal discoveries, because I believe in the strong connection between people in the world. My interest in looking into something comes from me living as a minority, as well as the experiences I had growing up as a female in Japan.

I find a container and a divided space interesting; something behind glass; it's like the entry point into another world - but we can all relate to it. Living in this fast changing, fast advancing society, we have lost opportunities to take a long time to examine or learn one thing fully from scratch. We are having less time to accomplish tasks, and less time to think and wonder and question things. The only thing we need for advanced living is some basic knowledge, or how to utilize the provided technological devices. I'm trying to create a certain amount of mystery in my images that goes further than that kind of currrent shallow tech mentality - my art is hopefully more subtle than that.

Natsumi Goldfish, A Rose from the Rosebush, 2019-20, 30" x 23", oil on canvas.

WM: Your paintings have an autobiographical quality. Is the self portrait aspect, either literal or suggested important to you?

NG: I think most artists make extended self-portraits - in all their works. My painting is made from a very personal space that I believe is connected to the whole world.

They are made by sums of concerns and or matters around me; what affects me or people around me; or something I read or heard and got interested in, or was somewhat affected by. And I insert my perspectives or ideas and try to stay subtle for this part of my process. So perhaps my works are always somewhat intentionally personal. Like I mentioned in the beginning - I believe I am connected to things and phenomenon in this universe in various ways directly or indirectly.

The idea of, “everything is connected to everything else '' - is what I am experimenting with in my art. Therefore I try to stay curious and honest to what I receive from society, and I insert a piece of myself there to create a new piece of art. I think of many things while I create one painting; there is nothing an audience of my work has to see; they have their own freedom to look. My work might have a self portrait aspect, but it is a part of the work and only as important as many other elements you may or may not see there. 

WM: Do you make studies for paintings? How much of your process is intuitive or planned out? 

NG: For most of my figurative paintings, there are many sketches before painting them. Before I start drawing I think about the idea for a while in my head to find a perfect image that translates my idea. I will also write out words in my notebook or next to the sketches. I have thousands of pictures as my personal archive that help me to make a half-real half-imaginary image.

Sometimes I make models with clays or photoshoots if needed. It takes quite a long time for me to prepare before I start to actually paint. Because I am a very visual oriented artist, I need a vivid image in my head to start painting. My passion for this tiring method comes from my experiences from various dreams I have been seeing since my youth. The dreams are sometimes surreal, sometimes based on my memories, but they are always realistic. Explaining them with words has never been successful nor enough for me to share the experiences with others. For me to share something, I need a strong image or vision first, and to give it a visual form. That has been my joyful challenge of making.

That being said, I often change my plan and follow my instinct when I paint. As long as I start with a strong vision for the piece, some changes and adjustments during the progress won’t destroy it, and I am afraid of not being able to listen to these subtle signs. I enjoy painting as an action and the changes in my mind are interesting. I enjoy the conversation between my work and myself...

Also, the world keeps moving forward while I am making one painting, so that changes me and my paintings as well.

WM: What is it like trying to pursue a career as an artist in 2024? Do you find it challenging? What advice would you give other artists?

NG: Choosing an art career is always challenging - if we are trying to be a good artist. By saying a "good artist", I mean the ones who are trying to stay curious and productive; or not afraid to keep making and sending out honest works; and maintaining their own special environment where one can produce their own unique work. Such artists are the ones I enjoy conversations with, and I see value in their work, especially in today's world where we already have enough things.

I don’t recommend art as a career - unless they really want to live that way. I think being an artist is a lifelong career and once we decide to live as an artist, there is no retirement. The only advice I have are very basic human things, like surround yourself with people with good energy, and stay curious and honest to yourself and others. Maybe to be more human than others, because we cannot give up on ourselves and our society. In terms of oil painting, I believe the idea “oil requires confidence”, and this confidence comes from continuous painting...

Natsumi Goldfish, An Intermission, 2018, 30" x 30", oil on canvas.

WM: What do you have coming or wanting to accomplish in 2024? 

NG: I have a studio mantra that is “laying paints yesterday, painting today, and not letting my palette dry.” It is not always easy but I want to keep that to be true throughout 2024. There are several unfinished works currently in my studio which I hope to see all completed by early this year. Other than making art, I would also love to meet a new curators or gallerists in 2024. WM 



Whitehot writes about the best art in the world - founded by artist Noah Becker in 2005. 


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