Tokyo Portraits in London (interview with Carl Randall)


In the middle of last year I spoke with British artist Carl Randall about his extraordinary portraits of modern Japan. Randall recently returned to the UK and has been receiving tremendous interest and success with his works since that time.

He is currently presenting a solo exhibition in London, ‘Tokyo Portraits’, featuring many paintings which are previously unseen in the UK. I spoke with him about this work, and expanded upon some of the issues we discussed in our previous interview, describing many of his themes and techniques in great detail. Follow the link below.

The exhibition, at The Daiwa Anglo Japanese Foundation, runs from January 16 – March 12.

Carl Randall – in more depth

The last time we talked it was during your display ‘In the footsteps of Hiroshige – Portraits of Modern Japan’ at The National Portrait Gallery. It seemed there was a very positive response to both the work, and your ‘Japan Portraits’ book. How do you think it went?

I was very pleased with the response I got from that body of work. There were numerous blogs about the work from all over the place – England, Spain, Holland, Russia. There were articles in established art magazines such as Artists and Illustrators and The Jackdaw, in magazines such as Glass and Yoo, and also in Japan’s The Yomuiri Shinbun (possibly Japan’s biggest newspaper).

The ‘Japan Portraits’ book was also extremely popular, selling heaps of copies, much more than we had anticipated, and the ‘Japan Portraits’ documentary has also had over a couple thousand views so far.

Amongst others, possibly one of the best comments about my work was from a Japanese guy I randomly met at The National Portrait Gallery, who said that before he saw the name of the artist on the wall, he thought the artist was Japanese. Another Japanese guy said a similar thing at the private view of my solo show at Daiwa the other night – that the reaction to the scenes depicted seemed quite Japanese.

I liked these comments because I think it means the work perhaps showed a level of understanding of Japan, rather than just surface appearance. I also liked the way my work appealed to many people who had never been to or had no particular interest in Japan, which makes me feel they were successful pictures in their own right, not just for people interested in Japan.

How does this solo exhibition with The Daiwa Foundation differ from your display of paintings at the portrait gallery last year?

Well, my idea for the portrait gallery display was to make a contemporary portrait-based equivalent of Ando Hiroshige’s woodblock prints based on The Tokaido Highway, giving an overview of various urban and rural locations along the route.

My present solo show ‘Tokyo Portraits’ at The Daiwa Foundation focuses specifically on Tokyo city – responses to the city and its people as a visiting foreign artist. Tokyo is a fascinating city, with a lifetime of inspiration for artists and writers, and this exhibition looks at some of my own responses to the place.

From what I can see, the works seem to be divided into two types – narrative images showing people and locations, and those that are more about portraiture, focusing on faces.

Yes, its fair to say that works being exhibited can be separated into two parts, although perhaps with more of a leaning towards portraiture. The exhibition is actually divided into two rooms according to this – with narrative paintings in one room, and the more portrait-based work in another.

The narrative work combines people with places, showing scenes of everyday Tokyo. These include works that have been shown in some good exhibitions recently – The BP Portrait Award, The Royal Academy of Arts Summer Show, The Jerwood Drawing Prize. The other half is work that can be described as portraits of crowds, featuring exclusively the human head – hundreds of faces crammed onto large canvases.

There are also some small portraits made in the more traditional one-face-on-one-canvas format. This includes a portrait of an Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) master living in Tokyo, painted from life in one day, and also a drawing of the late Japan writer Donald Richie, which I made a few years ago at his home in East Tokyo. Richie took a great deal of inspiration from Tokyo, coming back to the city over and over again in his writing.

CarlRandallDaiwa-Ikebana CarlRandallDaiwa-DonaldRichie

We have also put the ‘Japan Portraits’ documentary on loop on a monitor in the gallery space, alongside the works, which adds something to the show. It’s interesting to see how it all hangs together.

Could you explain a little about the crowd portraits, the large canvases that show hundreds of faces? What was the process behind their making?

These would be the three works ‘Tokyo Portrait’, ‘Tokyo Portrait 5’ and ‘Japanese Ink Diptych’. They are part of a series of eight works I made in Tokyo featuring only the human head, and inspired by the crowds of Tokyo. For me, one of the main features of the city is its crowds rather than the buildings and so on. I also quite liked the idea of creating “crowd portraits”, a kind of modern twist on the genre of group portraiture – portraits of large anonymous groups of city dwellers.

The series was made in collaboration with over 1000 people, ages ranging from ten to eighty four. Each came to my studio to sit for a single 2 to 4 hour session, every head being completed with the one sitting. The very limited amount of time with each person forced me to concentrate and work very quickly – a process I found challenging but rewarding.

Although photography could have been used as a reference, I chose not to, as it reduces my ability to see and understand the subtleties of surface, shape, light, form etc. I also find it much more powerful and interesting to have a real person sitting in front of me rather than a photograph. Besides that, people in Tokyo were very helpful in offering to sit for me.


Making these works was a lot of fun, and meeting hundreds of people from different strata of society made me feel connected with the city. I see the process behind these works as kind of “social painting” – the antithesis to the often-solitary lifestyle of being a painter.

The process behind the making of these paintings became interesting – a bit like online social networks and communities such as Facebook or Twitter. In order to find the hundreds of models required for these works, I asked friends and associates to sit for me, who then introduced me to their friends, who then introduced me to their friends, creating a large interlocking social network, bringing together and making visible on one canvas the unseen social web of Tokyo.

These paintings reflect the random nature of forming relationships via modern social networking sites, creating an artificial ‘community’ of strangers, similar to those formed on social internet sites.

‘Japanese Ink Diptych’ is made using Japanese ink and Japanese paper. Why did you choose these materials, and how did you find working with them?

I found Sumi-e (Japanese ink painting) difficult, much more so than using oil or acrylic. Marks made on Japanese paper seem to work best being kept minimal and fresh, which is very different to how I normally work. I deliberately didn’t prepare the Japanese paper, so that the ink would bleed – creating interesting effects, but making it very difficult to control or predict the outcome. As mistakes cannot be erased or painted over, there was little room for error, and subsequently a lot of works went in the garbage, until I arrived at works I was happy with.

‘Japanese Ink Diptych’ is less about the crowds of the city, and more about experimenting with Japanese materials, to see what could be achieved that couldn’t be through oil or acrylic. One of the things that interests me about traditional Japanese drawings is the way ink is used in varying strengths to describe the effects of fog and mist, and to create space and atmosphere.


I tried to echo this idea in this work by using the natural transparency of the Japanese paper, mounting drawings on top of one another, so that faces painted on a second sheet of paper underneath the image appear pale and distant, creating a sense of depth. As with many Japanese ink paintings, I kept large areas of the paper blank and white, with the negative space being used to activate areas of detail.

Could you talk a little more about the paintings of everyday Tokyo, the narrative scenes showing people and places? We know they are about life in Tokyo, but are there any other ideas or themes you wanted to express in these works?

These would be the five works ‘The Yamanote Line’, ‘Tokyo Triptych’, ‘Tokyo Subway’, ‘Mr.Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar’ and ‘Notes from the Tokyo Underground’. On one level, they are just visual documents of everyday life in the city, as seen through the eyes of a visiting European artist. The ordinariness of these scenes appealed to me, the fact that there is nothing obviously dramatic or unusual about the environment – scenes of people going about their daily business on trains or in noodle bars.

On another level, they are concerned with the theme of urban alienation, which is present in a lot of my Tokyo work. They illustrate my interest in the contrast between the private and public co-existing together, examining the idea of people occupying the same close public space, but mentally being within their own private worlds. I am not suggesting that urban alienation is exclusive to Tokyo, as it is obviously present in many large cities such as London and New York, but I think the sheer size of Tokyo perhaps adds to this feeling.

‘Mr.Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar’, which people may know from the BP Portrait Awards 2012, is used to explore this idea. It shows a crowded noodle shop, a very common part of everyday life in Tokyo. Customers sit close to each other, but nobody communicates, facial expressions are blank, and each person remains within his or her own separate sphere. They appear to be eating and drinking, yet at the same time they don’t seem fully engaged with the activity, as if their minds are somewhere else – each is trapped in his or her own isolation.


‘Tokyo Triptych’ is about the relationship of a young couple, suggesting an emotional distance between the two. The middle panel depicts them sitting together, the man reads a newspaper and the woman stares ahead. They are physically very close, with arms linking, but mentally they are worlds apart. The two side panels show the same couple (it isn’t made explicit that it’s the same couple, its just suggested) – the left panel shows a salary man standing outside a bank holding a mobile phone, and on the right is a woman sitting at a table with a coffee, staring out of a window. Whether together or apart, they occupy their own separate mental worlds, distanced from themselves and their environment.

There are also three works set within Tokyo’s train system. What interests you about this subject matter?

Well, its not the actual trains that fascinate me. I don’t hang around train stations wearing an anorak, with a camera in one hand and a train timetable in the other, or anything like that. I’m usually there with my camera in one hand and a sketchbook in the other, which is perfectly normal, you understand. It’s the behaviour of people and their relationship with the city and each other that I find interesting. Trains and train stations are good environments through which to explore this ongoing theme of urban alienation.


In ‘The Yamanote Line’ (named after one of the main train lines in Tokyo), a city train is filled with commuters, set against the backdrop of the sprawling metropolis. Each sits close side by side, occupied with their own activity and oblivious to each other – a scene that is experienced by millions each day in Tokyo. The figures are silhouetted against a bright exterior, darkening their appearance and concealing their identity slightly, and therefore helping to increase their sense of anonymity.


From a design perspective, ‘Tokyo Subway’ was an opportunity to combine different visual elements and patterns – heads, limbs, clothes, Japanese newspapers and magazines, printed images, urban spaces. On a thematic level, it is a depiction of urban alienation, of people occupying the same close physical space, but psychologically being very distant from one another. Newspapers, magazines, games and mobile phones are used as a refuge and way of escape from the external reality, and people are not aware of each other.

‘Notes from the Tokyo Underground’ is a series of 78 framed drawings (from about 1000), made whilst I was commuting on Tokyo trains. They show my practise of keeping very small sketchbooks as a way of making notes of what I saw each day in Tokyo, using a kind of visual shorthand to record them through the most simple and economic means possible – line on paper. They depict people on trains engaged in personal activities – sleeping, reading, using mobile phones or game consoles, or staring vacantly into space. They are academic exercises in trying to use quick decisive line to capture form, but also comments on urban alienation.


In the five narrative works just mentioned (and many works shown at The National Portrait Gallery last year), I often include the motif of the mobile phone. Everyday in Tokyo I observed hundreds of people staring into these devices, their purpose being to connect people, yet they in some ways seem to remove them from real human contact and their immediate environment. The mobile phone in my work reflects this idea, and is symbolic of a person’s private interior world.

Many of the works in the show are in monochrome, painted in tones of grey. Is there a specific reason you do this?

Apart from the simplicity and beauty of black and white images, which I very much enjoy, one of the reasons I do this is to help emphasize the feeling of alienation. By reducing everything to tones of grey, removing all color, and exaggerating contrast between light and dark, it imbues the scene with a strong mood of solitude and silence. The same images painted in bright vivid colours would have a very different feeling.

Paintings don’t need to jump out at you with bright colours to hold your attention – very powerful works can be made in black, white and grey (look at Picasso’s ‘Guernica’).

This London exhibition is at Japan House, The Daiwa Anglo Japanese Foundation. What’s your connection with Daiwa?

My relationship with Japan started with The Daiwa Anglo Japanese Foundation. They have a very good annual scholarship that sends UK graduates in a great variety of fields to Tokyo for 19 months, to learn Japanese and experience Japanese culture. I was awarded one of these back in 2003 (after which I stayed on with a MEXT scholarship, to study oil painting at a Japanese University). Their gallery at Japan House (Regents Park) has been showing some fairly big names in the art world over the past few years.

They have also since started the Daiwa Art Prize, which is specifically for artists to have a solo show in Tokyo, with some big past winners such as Marcus Cornish and Haroon Mirza. Anyway, it’s fitting that I show some of my Japan work with Daiwa, as they originally gave me the opportunity to go to Japan.

Installation views:



How did it come about that the author David Mitchell opened your show? 

When I arrived back in the UK, I was looking to contact some creative people who have some connection with Japan. I had read a couple of David Mitchell’s books, we have the connection of living in Japan for many years, and both of our work has been influenced by the country, so I thought that he would be an interesting person to contact. I wrote to him to ask if I could paint his portrait, which he agreed to and came over to my studio. I am presently working on this portrait.

I then asked him if he would open my show and say a few words at the private view – he was in London on business anyway, so he kindly agreed. He’s a very talented writer, with a startling ability to describe people and places, creating a convincing world combining both a sense of reality and unreality. To a certain extent, these are also things I’d like to think I do well in my paintings, which is perhaps why I was attracted to his writing.


David Mitchell (right) with Carl Randall at the exhibition opening.

Lastly, being in the UK is there anything you miss about Japan?

I think perhaps the general sense of learning, which is something you don’t realize when you are there, or perhaps even take for granted. Even after 10 years, small things can still be of interest, which adds to the pleasure of being there, and also certainly helps with the creative process (as does being an outsider). For some reason, it felt like I was learning more about myself in Japan than I am in England, but perhaps that is one of the benefits of living in a very different culture generally, rather than something specific to Japan.

It’s common for long-term residents to become slightly disillusioned with Japan, always being the gaijin and on the outside etc, but there is certainly something special about living there. I also miss the food, weather, good customer service in shops, and the magic in the air when it snows, the cherry blossoms bloom, the leaves turn red, or the fireflies come out.

Things I don’t particularly miss – mosquitoes, cockroaches, and the question “can you use chopsticks?”


exhibition details:

– ‘Tokyo Portraits’
The Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, Japan House, Regents Park, London, January 16 to March 12, 2014.

– Special talk event:
Carl will be talking about his work and experiences in Japan (in conversation with Andrew Stahl – Head of painting at The Slade School of Fine Art), at the exhibition venue on 13th February 2014, 6pm – 8pm. click here for reservation information

– The last leg of the BP Portrait Awards 2013, which includes Carl’s 2012 Travel Award exhibition ‘In the footsteps of Hiroshige: Portraits of Modern Japan’, will be at The Wolverhampton Art Gallery, 3 March – May 31, 2014.

See the previous JapanGasm article about this exhibition here.

Carl Randall’s official website, Facebook and Twitter pages.

~ by JapanGasm on 20 January, 2014.

One Response to “Tokyo Portraits in London (interview with Carl Randall)”

  1. […] Read a second interview with Carl Randall, to mark the opening of his solo exhibition at The Daiwa Anglo Japanese Foundation, […]

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