Category Archives: Japan

A Walk in Miyagawa

“A Walk in Miyagawa” coloured pencils, 37 x 25 cm. May 2023

With the latest art exhibition “Home & Heart – local love stories” behind me, I decide to indulge myself with a Kyoto drawing – just for the sheer love of it.

Miyagawa is one of Kyoto’s five geisha districts. I was last there in November 2019 and this drawing is from a photo I took during that trip.

I like spending time in Miyagawa as it is quiet. Just ten minutes’ walk north, the better-known geisha district of Gion is heaving with tourists eagerly (and sometimes brutally) trying to intercept maiko and geiko (geisha) for photos.

Below are three older drawings from Miyagawa; each portrays a rear view. I love drawing the kimono ensemble from behind, while pictorially, a retreating figure guides the viewer into the scene.

“Last Night I Dreamed of Kyoto” is the same street on the same night but treated differently. Drawn in 2021.
“Surprise!” – two maiko were ambushed by a group of cameramen as they turned a corner. Drawn in 2011.
“Step by Step” – a young maiko and an old lady represent the passage of time. Drawn in 2014.

Timeless Miyagawa – as I draw the scene, so I am also drawn in.

A Late Night Conversation

For several days I have been “in training”. “Each night I stayed up as late as I could and each morning attempted to sleep in. My goal was to adjust my body-clock so that I wouldn’t only be awake until midnight on Wednesday 6th April but also lucid, lively and with a reasonable vocabulary at my disposal.

I had been invited by Ann Kullberg to be her guest on a webcast LIVE from America. West Australian time is 15 hours ahead of U.S. Pacific time. Ouch – hence my “in training” sessions!

Everything worked out perfectly. I had a great time in conversation with Ann and midnight came around as rapidly as it surely had for Cinderalla on another night long ago.

While people tuned in from various parts of America to see the webcast live, in my region you were all in bed fast asleep. Now that you are up and about – here it is.

While some of my artworks are seen on the webcast you can see hundreds of them on my website – from the 1970s to now.

Last Night I Dreamed of Kyoto

“Last Night I Dreamed of Kyoto” 28 x 20 cm. October 2021

I have been self-disciplined in sticking to local subject matter in 2021. I tell myself “YOU ARE HERE”. I am at my drawing easel in North Coogee, Western Australia. But at night when I sleep there are neither domestic nor international borders. In my dream state I am a free agent. Quite regularly my dreams return me to Japan and if they are of the anxious variety, more often than not, my camera is lost!

In this drawing the maiko is not the bright centre of attention. She is fast disappearing as she smoothly moves away through lanterns, neon and darkness. Beyond reach and dream-like, perhaps a dim figment of nocturnal imagination.


Below is the drawing at various stages. I experimented by blending the undercoat of Neocolor II pastel with a blender pencil BEFORE putting on coloured pencil. Doing this altered the paper – making it a smoother surface to work on. (I often use blender over the top of coloured pencils but this was the first time I put it underneath.) I liked the feel of working pencils over the blended Neocolors but I’m not sure the end result is different from what it might have been had I done things in their usual order.

Neocolor II water-soluble pastels (without water) undercoat.
Neocolor II undercoat lightly covered over with Caran d’Ache Pencil Blender
Luminance 6901 coloured pencils beginning to go over Neocolor + blender.
The layers of coloured pencils spread across the work.
“Last Night I Dreamed of Kyoto” finished.

Undercover White

Wafting” 36 x 28.5 cm. September 2019

During the previous fortnight while I worked on a commission of a Japanese lantern, I reminded myself of the principle of undercover white.  What do I mean by this?  The same colour (let’s say red) when mixed with white, results in a different pink/light-red depending on whether white is put down underneath the red, or over it.  The following diagram illustrates this…

The first swatch in the diagram is Caran d’Ache Permanent Red 061.  In the middle swatch I have put down a layer of Holbein Soft White 501 and THEN layered Permanent Red 061 over the top.  Notice how soft and glowing the result is – perfect for creating luminosity – as in lanterns.  The final swatch is the result of Permanent Red 061 underneath with Soft White on top.  This is the SAME red with white, but mixed in reverse order.  TOTALLY DIFFERENT!

In the above drawing “Wafting”  the entire area of the lantern has Soft White underneath.  White acts like a secret agent; Undercover White.  This method creates glow.

Four years ago I wrote a post about this use of white (which I taught myself) however after doing the current drawing, it seems like a good idea to repeat the lesson.  It is useful knowledge to have up your sleeve.

The delicate-red parasol in “Being There” also employed this technique.   –  the link to the first post on this subject in 2015.

“Good thinking, 99”.

In case it is still confusing here is another colour chart: –

The first column shows three primary colours; red, yellow and blue. In the second column I have put down a layer of white pencil directly onto the paper and then put colour on top. Compare this to the third column where red, yellow and blue went onto the paper FIRST with a layer of white over the top. Can you see in each case that the colour produced in column 2 is more luminous and bright than the colour in column 3?

Conclusion: The result of putting white underneath a colour is NOT the same as the result of putting white over the top of a colour.

Undercover white is not only a useful method for rendering neon, lanterns, and lamps. It can be used in a universe of subject matter – anything that requires a bit of zing.

Two small drawings in stages to illustrate my theory of undercover white.

“Art” a drawing shown in six stages. 6 x 9 inches.

I made two drawings, photographing them in stages, to show my undercover white process. The first work is on Arches Aquarelle hot-pressed (smooth) paper using Caran d’Ache Neocolor wax pastels and Luminance 6901 coloured pencils. The exercise was for the Colored Pencil Society of America publication “To the Point” magazine, November 2020. Click on the images to enlarge them for better viewing.

I took the source photo for the drawing “Art” in Paris. I had stood transfixed looking at a blue neon sign in an art gallery window which read, “The Liberation of Art”. At the time I had wondered to myself, “But what IS the liberation of art?”

Figure 1

Figure 1: What you see here is mostly paper without pigment on. The letters ‘art’ and any other patches of colour you can see already have white pencil underneath them. These are the areas that will be glowing in the finished piece. (At this stage all areas of colour you can see are made with Luminance pencil, not Neocolor.)

Figure 2

Figure 2: I lightly under-painted with Neocolor all the areas except for the lettering and the other small areas of colour already seen on Figure 1. Then I put the Neocolor away and only used pencils from this point onwards. After the underpainting I set the darkest tone with heavy-pressured Luminance.

Figure 3

Figure 3: With the darkest area in place, I began building up and intensifying other colours, not touching the letters ‘art’ for the time being.

Figure 4

Figure 4: There was a dance between blue and purple going on in this drawing. But what was blue and what was purple? Where did one begin and the other end? Blue and purple are so close to one another that whenever I adjusted one colour, I needed to adjust its neighbour. There was constant readjusting happening just as if I was putting ingredients into a recipe; a bit more of this, less of that, more, less, more – ad infinitum – trying to achieve exactly the flavour required.

Figure 5

Figure 5: At this point I built up the blues on the three letters. This was a matter of careful gradation; pale to deep blue on top of undercover white, trying to be even-handed at all times. I called the painting finished at this stage. But it wasn’t. It looked very much like the source photo I was working from, but it wasn’t glowing like it was supposed to. I wanted the painting to be a statement – “ART!” But it was more of a sigh – “ho hum…art”. So I put the source photo away in a drawer and rolled up my sleeves. It was time to leave the source behind – and see what I could do by myself.

Figure 6 – the finished piece

Figure 6 – the finished piece: I figured out the problem by turning the composition upside down. Sometimes I turn a work on its head or sideways in order to see it with a fresh eye or (another method) look at it reversed in a mirror. When I saw it upside down I realised that one half was working while the other half wasn’t. Why? The top half had the intensity I wanted – that strong contrast between pale blue neon letters and bottomless blue/blackness behind. The panel of colour on the lower half was wishy-washy, neither here nor there. It needed to be as intense as the saturated black of the upper half.

I made minimal adjustments to the word ‘art’ when I was fine-tuning the drawing, mostly adding more blue to the outer edges of the letters. The bulk of the changes were made outside of those letters. Once I altered the lower panel by deepening and enriching its colours, the neon lettering came into its own.

Problem solving can be like that, where the thing you thought was wrong actually isn’t wrong – but some other part is. Fix that other area and the initial thing which was worrying you suddenly and mysteriously works. That reminds me, another problem-solving technique is to cover a section of your work. Is the part you can still see problematic or is it not? Then move the cover around so that you are isolating different sections for critiquing.

“Super Dry”

The second drawing was composed from a detail of a photo I took in downtown Osaka. The composition shows part of a neon advertisement for Asahi Beer with some traffic signage on the left.

Figure 1

Figure 1: The first image of “Super Dry” shows the underpainting completed. I did the underpainting with Neocolor wax pastels except for the letters which were layered in white coloured pencil only. There is white Neocolor underneath the yellow area. I put yellow over the white Neocolor before taking the photo so that the word ‘dry’ (while still only in white pencil) could be distinguished from its surrounds.

Figure 2

Figure 2: The only difference between Figure 1 and Figure 2 is that in this one a layer of red pencil was gently worked over the white area of the letters. After the underpainting was completed in Figure 1 I finished with the Neocolor and from here on all else was (and will be) worked in Luminance.

Figure 3

Figure 3: More layering has taken place, especially in the dark area above the word ‘super’. Because I wanted the neon red to ‘pop’ I worked red’s complement – green – into the coloured panels surrounding the letters. From the top to the bottom of the artwork everything around those red letters contains green except the left-hand street signs.

Figure 4

Figure 4: At this middle stage of the work I was continuing the colour intensification process by methodically adding more layers of colour. I mixed the complementary colours red and green to produce the dark tertiary colour which surrounds the word ‘super’. Mixing any two complementary colours together (red/green; orange/blue; yellow/purple) make richer tertiary colours than, say, using one tertiary (for example grey) coloured pencil.

Figure 5

Figure 5: I worked on the traffic signs on the composition’s left side. Not influenced by electricity, these plain street signs didn’t need to glow. Their muted tones don’t compete with the bright red and yellow of the neon but drive your eye towards it. In fact there is an arrow directing your eye away from the left edge.

Figure 6: “Super Dry”

Figure 6: “Super Dry” is complete. Undercover white pencil was used on the lettering. Undercover white Neocolor was used on the bright yellow area. Although it is not obvious, there was liberal use of green all through the work to bring out the luminous red letter as much as possible.


A recent glow piece I drew is of a railway station at night. The title is “Europe Endless”. I show it in three stages. The first image shows the drawing fully undercoated in Neocolor II. It looks like you can see nothing but Neocolor, however underneath the white lamps and their yellow halos, the tracks, fence railings and circular signals there is a layer of white coloured pencil. Keep an eye on these pale areas because these are going to be the glowing areas in the finished drawing.

Neocolor II undercoat of “Europe Endless”

In the following image the top section of the drawing has Luminance worked over the top of the Neocolor but the lower part (the tracks) are still only undercoat. Note at the undercoat stage that when I put Neocolor on, I have not been overly careful. I use Neocolor with light pressure so it fully disappears under Luminance, therefore it does not have to be tidy.

Finally you see the finished work. The joy of the ‘glow’ genre is in the contrast between extremely light areas and the equally extreme inky dark areas. This is a simple composition which only took six days from start to finish (which is fast for me). While the shapes are uncomplicated and there is not much detail, the power of the piece is in the colour intensity and the contrast of electricity lighting up the night. Putting white pencil underneath the light areas increases their brightness immeasurably.

Kyoto Belle Époque

“Kyoto Belle Époque”
coloured pencils and oil pastels. 22 x 27 cm. September 2017

To each of you who came to my art exhibition “Entranced” this month, thank you so much!  Many of you saw me working on this drawing and some of us discussed techniques together.

The drawing as a work-in-progress at the gallery in September 2017.

Once the exhibition closed I finished the drawing at home.   I call it “Kyoto Belle Époque” as it calls to my mind the elegance of the ‘beautiful era’ of Paris in the late 19th century.  So, to me, this is a touch of Paris in Kyoto.

People who came to the exhibition saw that looking at my blurry drawings close up and far away were two different experiences for the eyes.  So for this post I have taken a photo of the drawing from a small distance.  The blurry drawings make more sense from a wall across a room (as they are designed to be viewed)  than they do as a close-up computer screen image.

“Kyoto Belle Époque” on the easel.

Finally, who were these two maiko?  They were Taka and Hisamomo of Pontocho.

The two maiko in the drawing



“Daydream”  coloured pencils and oil pastels, 215 x 290 mm.  August 2017.

Daydream – a pleasant fantasy or reverie.

“Daydream” is my second drawing from a photograph I took in Pontocho, Kyoto in the spring of 2013.  The first drawing is “Promenade”, February 2016.

190 x 250 mm, February 2016

I was persuaded to let Matthew (husband) keep “Promenade” as it is a favourite of his.  However I did so want to exhibit it in my exhibition Entranced next month.  A few days ago I had the bright idea to do another version of it, this time using Sennelier oil pastels as well as coloured pencils and drawing it larger than the first one.

I was curious to see how I would treat the subject 18 months after my first interpretation and after months in the interim doing impressionistic Paris drawings.

Here they are side by side; the new one on the right.  I didn’t look at the first drawing   while I drew the second so as not to be influenced by it.  The dark areas are more intense (saturated) in “Daydream” than “Promenade” and I think the new drawing has more luminosity and power than the older one.

In the new drawing, the figures have a floating quality and the road sweeps up rather than along, but the scene has a gentle dreaminess so I’m leaving it this way.

So Matt gets to keep “Promenade” while I get to exhibit “Daydream”.  This is called ‘having one’s cake and eating it too’!

“Daydream” is the 23rd and final drawing for Entranced opening on 7 September (until 20) at Kidogo Arthouse, Bathers Beach, Fremantle.



Coloured pencil drawing of Katsutomo. 370 x 460 mm. June 2017

“Entrance 1. the act or an instance of going or coming in; a door, passage etc. by which one enters; right of admission; the coming of an actor on stage.”                                        “Entrance 2. enchant, delight; put into a trance; overwhelm with strong feeling.”           (The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary)

In September 2015 I took many photos of Katsutomo during her erikae (when she become a Geiko).  This month, June 2017, I have made my third drawing from this auspicious occasion.

Two previous drawings of Katsutomo …

A Reflective Moment
330 x 490 mm, 2015

Being There
365 x 510 mm, 2015

and when she was still a Maiko…

Here she is in my drawing “The Art of Elegance”, 2014

I have recently been invited to exhibit my drawings at Kidogo Arthouse – 7th to 20th September 2017 – hence a return to memories – and new drawings – of Kyoto.  My co-exhibitor will be Ceramicist, Stewart Scambler.  This is a Gallery East exhibition.


Fascination:  Maiko, Geiko, Kyoto

invitation 3 jpeg

From September 17th to October 2nd 2016, Robyn Varpins and I open the doors to our art exhibition Fascination: Maiko, Geiko, Kyoto celebrating maiko and geiko (geisha) of Kyoto.

"Odori" by Robyn Varpins

“Odori” by Robyn Varpins

Maiko and geiko are practitioners of the traditional arts of Japan.  These are cultivated, refined and graceful women who not only perform art, but themselves become works of art.

“This has felt like creating icons, as maiko and geiko have an ‘other-worldliness’ that make them symbolic and able to be imbued with meaning” ( Robyn Varpins)

"Super Deluxe" Drawing by Julie Podstolski

“Super Deluxe”
Drawing by Julie Podstolski

In case you wonder, “But what do maiko and geiko actually DO?”, we are fortunate to have copies of “Geiko and Maiko of Kyoto” by Robert van Koesveld for sale.  This sumptuous photographic book, published this year, will answer many of your questions.

"Geiko & Maiko of Kyoto" by Robert van Koesveld.

It is our wish that you will find contemplation, inspiration and even a touch of enchantment when you visit our exhibition of drawing (by Julie Podstolski) and sculpture (by Robyn Varpins).  Our muses are mesmerizing.  Welcome to our fascination.

Artist talks at 1 pm Sunday 18th and Sunday 25th September.  We welcome questions and discussion on our exhibition subject, our art techniques, art materials and Japan.

I have a list of all my drawings in the exhibition on my blog page Fascination: Maiko, Geiko, Kyoto – an Art Exhibition

The exhibition will be open 7 days per week: 10 am – 4 pm.  Early Work.  Shop 9, 330 South Terrace, South Fremantle WA 6162

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Super Deluxe

Super Deluxe A new drawing for August 2016 in coloured pencils

Super Deluxe
A new drawing for August 2016 in coloured pencils

Word association:  the words on the taxi are a perfect description for maiko and geiko.  These practitioners of the refined arts of Japan are cultivated and rarified beings.   They are super deluxe.  The geiko in this drawing is Chisako; this has just been confirmed by my good Kyoto friend, Mima-san.

This composition was hidden inside a very ordinary photo which I took last September. While examining the photo, it was seeing the words on the taxi which piqued my interest.

Here is the source photo for the drawing "Super Deluxe".

Here is the source photo for the drawing “Super Deluxe”.

It took me a few months to see the potential for a piece of art hiding inside my hastily taken photograph.  That is the exciting thing about candid photography on Kyoto streets – one never knows what treasures lie within the copious material brought home.  What a bonus to have captured the reflection of the lantern in the taxi’s shiny paint.  I loved drawing this.




Doll of Paradise

Doll of Paradise A drawing in coloured pencils of a doll I saw on display in a Higashiyama shop window. July 2016

Doll of Paradise
A drawing in coloured pencils of a doll I saw on display in a Higashiyama shop window.
July 2016

As I sat on the plane on the way to Japan last month, I instructed myself, “Don’t forget to take photos into plate glass windows”.

Two days later I found myself in a narrow lane in Higashiyama which was lined on both sides with souvenir shops.  I stared at a row of dolls who danced without moving in a display window.  As I looked, my visual awareness deepened.  I noticed fans reflected in the glass from the shop opposite.  What perfect accompaniments for a doll in a dance pose. I manoeuvred myself into position to capture the composition with my camera.

Back home in my studio I wanted to draw the doll in the window but I was unsure.  Did I have enough patience to handle the amount of detail on the kimono?  Was drawing an impassive doll a worthwhile project anyway?  I asked Matthew.  He reassured me on both counts.  He said, “You’ll enjoy it”.  He was right.  The obsessive-compulsive part of me was in its element.  I drew for extra-long hours by day and into each night as I could hardly pull myself away from the colourful and intricate work.  I would say it was a labour of love, except that it didn’t feel like any labour was involved; only joy.

I call the drawing “Doll of Paradise” as she is a figurine who is exotic, rich, colourful, luxuriant and unusual.  She is an imitation of a maiko.  And yet, often maiko are described as looking so much like dolls.  So my question to myself is – who is imitating whom?