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Botanical artist SUGISAKI Kiyohiko and botanical artist SUGISAKI Fumiko had turned 70 and 65 respectively in their 30-somethingth year drawing vibrant portraits of cherry blossoms, apples, shrubs and other vegetations mostly given birth in mountainous Yamagata Prefecture, where they hold their atelier.

Kiyohiko was the one who started painting plants at the age of 45 after realizing the company he worked for did not love him. He soon confessed to his partner he wished to make a living out of painting nature’s creations. Fumiko, an Audrey Hepburn-sort of distinguished and dauntless lady, saw the work of the still-aspiring artist she was married to and elegantly stated “If this artist becomes our breadwinner, there won’t be much bread. Give me that brush.” And so Fumiko too became an apprentice to the teacher Kiyohiko was learning under. Kiyohiko admits that Fumiko is more talented than he is. 

It was not until Carnegie Mellon University invited their paintings to their International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration in 1999 that they found out what the art world called their creations: botanical art. The couple also had realized that they were the only two professional botanical painters active in northern Japan. Their works of art are now found in the museum shop of the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, and in art exhibitions held periodically in the city.

Every single artwork of the Sugisaki couple, due to its nature (which I will explain concisely soon after), reminds you of the great biodiversity of our planet and makes you feel proud of being an Earthling.

No frills.

Hinageshi, SUGISAKI Fumiko.
Hinageshi, SUGISAKI Fumiko.

The Sugisaki couple inherits an art form that took shape as a merger of science and art. It’s in essence a celebration of a simple fact: plants are beautiful the way they are. The flowers and fruits the couple draws are not only scientifically accurate; they are visually accurate as accurate can be.

Kiyohiko wrote in a letter that what they do is paint, literally, what they see: the subtle color gradation of the petals, the flowers yet to be in full bloom, the dirt on the stem of a mushroom, and the insect bites on the leaves. They do not draw things their eyes don’t see: no flowers stretching towards imaginary directions, no flowers with imaginary counts of petals, and no simplification or complication.

The result of applying no mental Photoshopping, is pure beauty, because plants in their natural forms are beautiful to begin with.

Pursuit of accuracy.

Kinoko Iroiro, SUGISAKI Fumiko.
Kinoko Iroiro, SUGISAKI Fumiko.

Sugisaki botanical art cannot be reproduced without having excellent command of the brush of course, but also:

  1. botanical knowledge of the model
  2. drawing speed

The Sugisaki couple would sit down in front of a model (or lie down on the ground if the model is found in nature) to sketch it and create a color palette within a matter of 30 to 60 minutes. Why the rush? Because the model would change shape and color, so incrementally that it’s impossible for humans to perceive. If they took a longer time, it would mean they are trying to draw a montage of the model in several different states. The result will be a painting of an imaginary plant.

Then why not take a photo of the model and draw it later? That will also result in painting an imaginary plant. You may have felt frustrated the last time you saw a beautiful scenery but when you tried to take a photo of it, you realized that your digital camera or iPhone could not exactly capture the dynamics your eyes (or more precisely your mind) were experiencing. In photographs, the angles and distances of the objects look quite skewed and do not accurately represent what you see. The Sugisaki couple only uses photos as tools to remind them of the colors they saw once it’s time to give life to their sketches.

Wasabi, SUGISAKI Kiyohiko.
Wasabi, SUGISAKI Kiyohiko.

Also to be noted is that there is no compromise to the pursuit of accuracy. If the model, like the wasabi above, has several hundred roots, Kiyohiko draws several hundred roots, because that’s what he sees. Again, drawing the plants accurately results in creating beautiful art, because the subjects themselves are innately beautiful.

The Ōta Sakura you saw at the top of this article is a kind of cherry blossom that grows flowers with over 80 petals, and therefore close to 80 petals are drawn (not all because the painting is drawn, accurately, from the viewpoint of the artist).

The dimensions of each part of the plant are also depicted with precision. Kiyohiko laughs as he confesses that he uses a ruler to make sure his drawing precisely reflects what he sees, while Fumiko accomplishes precision solely with her hand-eye coordination.

Beauty is in the model.

June Bride, SUGISAKI Fumiko.
June Bride, SUGISAKI Fumiko.

So after all this care for accuracy, portraits of plants end up being beautiful, not because the artists deliberately tried to make their paintings look beautiful, but because the model was genuinely beautiful.

If you look at one of these paintings and you feel that it looks beautiful, that is to say that that particular plant actually existed on Earth at one point in time, that it looked exactly the way you see it with your own eyes, and that that particular plant was both subjectively and objectively beautiful. Loving a Sugisaki painting is equivalent to loving a creation of Earth.

I was personally very moved by the thought that I had lived at the same time the proud rose above did, out of the 4.5 billion years Earth has been around. I am not Christian, but the word I am looking for is “blessed.” I am blessed that I was given birth during one of the prime times of Earth as shelter for such rich nature.

At the forefront of a 400 year lineage.

Kuroume-modoki, SUGISAKI Fumiko.
Kuroume-modoki, SUGISAKI Fumiko.

In some of the artworks of the Sugisaki couple, it is apparent that there was an intent to document the plant’s traits and the changes it undergoes through its lifetime, like the one above. Learning about the specimen is indeed an integral part of their job, and the reason for their doing so is in the scientific origin of their art form.

Tracing back how Sugisaki botanical art came about, we see a lineage across ages and a sea, and ultimately land on a Chinese researcher of herbal medicine of the 16th century. Sugisaki botanical art is the birth child of two currents passed on by at least 4 key persons who devoted their lives in the love for nature, as so:

Botany and Art met when MAKINO Tomitaro met ŌTA Yoai
Botany and Art met when MAKINO Tomitaro met ŌTA Yoai
  • 1579 – Doctor and herbal medicine researcher Li Shizhen of China during the Ming Dynasty publishes Compendium of Materia Medica in 1579, a compilation of 1,100 illustrations and 11,000 prescriptions of 1,800 drugs, which included 1,094 herbs. A result of 27 years of study.
  • 1803 – Japanese herbalist ONO Ranzan, after studying herbalism based on Li Shizhen’s Compendium and Western herbalism, realizes there was no research of herbs found in Japan, and therefore spends his life studying plants in mountains and forests Japan-wide, to ultimately publish his work Honzō Kōmoku Keimō in 1803, a compilation of descriptions of 1,882 herbs. An epic work completed at the age of 75.
  • 1931 – MAKINO Tomitaro reads Ranzan’s Honzō Kōmoku Keimō at the age of 19 and dreamed of documenting every single plant growing in Japan. He later came to be known as “Father of Japanese Botany” for documenting 50,000 plants, publishing Makino’s Illustrated Flora of Japan, finding over 600 new species himself, and left the famous quote “There is no vegetation that deserves to be called ‘weeds’.” An extremely skilled illustrator himself, Tomitaro meets painter ŌTA Yōai in 1931 and gives him guidance on botany.
  • 1969 – Western-art-trained ŌTA Yōai who had become a botanical artist after meeting MAKINO Tomitaro discovers an unidentified species of Japanese cherry blossom (he was able to tell it was not a known plant, most likely due to being influenced by MAKINO Tomitaro). The cherry blossom was named Ōta Zakura. His paintings of cherry blossoms are featured in exhibitions now from time to time.
  • 1999 – Students of ŌTA Yōai, Kiyohiko Sugisaki and Fumiko Sugisaki are invited to International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration at Carnegie Mellon University, kicking off their career as the only professional botanical artist couple in Northern Japan.

Frankly, it’s just fascinating to see how scientists had studied and utilized the benefits Mother Nature brought us for hundreds of years, and now see the Sugisaki couple drawing our eyes towards the sheer beauty these plants are born with. To me, this is an artistic representation of the Japanese cultural value of coexisting with nature, and it is as if we are reminded, at last, that we have always been surrounded with an abundance of things to appreciate.

The Sugisaki couple now teaches botanical art at the NHK Cultural Center in Sendai Prefecture, and Fumiko’s masking tapes are available for purchase at the National Museum of Nature and Science, and also their art catalogues are sold at their own website per order. Why not e-mail them?