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Blank Space

An essay published in the Fukui Shimbun-Newspaper, on 27 June 2018 Shichio MINATO

The process of sketching turns our universe of color into a world of monochromatic tones. As a mode of expression, it is rather simple and plain. But the more I continue sketching, the more I understand how deep and profound an art this is.

Currently, I teach sketching at 2 universities. At both schools, I try to sketch together with my students as much as possible. The reason for that is, while of course I simply enjoy the act of drawing, I was strongly influenced by my professor Vandenbergh, who taught me sketching when I was an exchange student. Occasionally, the professor would sketch together with us, but (and I say this with respect) he was not superbly gifted at sketching. I remember witnessing several times our professor, stroking his impressive beard and mumbling to himself as he sat before our sketch model, troubled by his inability to draw as he wished. However, the professor's sketches were possessed with dignity, and contained a beautiful sense of "space."

Among the many sketching tools available to us (such as pencils and pens), I particularly like using charcoals. Charcoal tools made from wood (such as willow) are primitive and simple art tools, but they offer infinite expressive possibilities in dark and light - for example, using cloth to rub the charcoal particles into the paper, or smearing and spreading the charcoal with your finger. And those in the know will know that the best eraser for charcoals is bread. Tear off a white portion of the bread, roll it in your hand, and gently rub the paper, taking care not to tear it. The process feels different than using an eraser to eliminate written mistakes. Instead, it feels like you are using the bread to draw light where there was dark. It is a way of intentionally creating blank spaces while feeling and sensing your environment.

Historically, we Japanese have placed great importance on the use of "blank spaces" and "intervals" This is immediately apparent upon viewing famous Japanese paintings and works of art. One can intuitively recognize that the "space" that exists in a painting is not merely an empty area without excess content, but an "interval" or "pause" that is filled with its own meaning. The interesting thing is that the viewer is free to interpret that "blank space" with whatever meaning he or she decides is appropriate.

At the end of March, my 1-year term of researching abroad came to my end, and I returned to Japan. And already, 3 months have passed by. My 3 children who had accompanied me during my stay had, by the time they returned home, already forgotten how to bathe Japanese-style, and were shampooing their hair in the tub, or arguing with each other in Dutch. For a while we enjoyed these heartwarming little incidents, but now our entire family has settled back into its normal routines. However, perhaps because of my temporary stay abroad, my perspective on my mother country has necessarily been changed. I especially feel very uncomfortable with the "lack of calm" that exists in today's Japan, and that has led to an indescribable feeling of being unable to fit in, that something is not quite right. I feel as if there is a lack of a good and empty space of time, the kind of free time that is necessary in everyday life and a thriving society. In other words, it is apparent that we don't enjoy enough "blank spaces."

These days the media often mentions "labor productivity," but from a global perspective, Japan's labor productivity is said to be low. There are voices which declare that, because Japanese people work long hours yet produce relatively few gains, "Japan should reform its labor more efficiently!" When viewing international comparative research data measuring labor productivity per hour worked, Japan produces $46 per hour, whereas a country like Belgium produces $72.8. While there is plenty of room for debate regarding this kind of data, Japan's productivity remains at a level less than 2/3 of Belgium's output. However, it is difficult to imagine that the Japanese people and Japanese corporate industries are inferior to foreign countries. Moreover, I don't believe that high efficiency is the key to everything.

By the way, the end of June for European schools marks the end of the school year, with children excitedly anticipating their 2 months of summer vacation. To put it abruptly, this may be hard to believe, but most schools in Belgium do not assign homework, and there are no compulsory school days or swimming pool days during the break. Even the teachers get 2 whole months off (seriously!), and the schools are completely empty during that time. It's a time of absolutely nothing. Summer is a time for family vacations and plenty of other fun events. But as summer vacation draws to a close, even the children begin to get bored. I believe that this period of time, which may at first glance appear to be an unnecessary "blank space," could be the secret gateway to a blooming garden of ideas and creativity. What do you think?

The art classroom at the University of Fukui. This is about 2 to 3 hours into a sketch-modeling session. Sketching details while observing the entire picture. <Author / Photographer>

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