Saturday, July 19, 2014

Interview With Bookplate Artist Daniel Mitsui

This interview  with the noted bookplate artist Daniel Mitsui was conducted via Email.
It was from my perspective  a very effective format and I hope to do several more  of these interviews with artists , collectors and booksellers  in the next few months.



Do you use a bookplate ?
The saying is that the cobbler's family is always ill-shod, and I suppose that holds true here; I do not have a custom exlibris for my family library yet. I started drawing one years ago, but had to set it aside as I was busy with other projects. By the time I revisited it, I was no longer satisfied with the design. I have a new design in mind, one that will function also as a colophon for my publishing imprint, but I probably will not have it finished this year.

In the meantime, I am using the printer's proofs and overruns of the universal bookplates I issue in my own books.

What was the first bookplate you designed ?
I received my first exlibris commission in 2007 from an English philosophy professor. It was for his daughter and depicted her patron saint, Agnes. The same man has since commissioned bookplates for all of his children and godchildren, and for his wife. The subjects include St. Francis, St. Dorothy, St. Barbara, St. Columba and St. Margaret of Antioch.





Before I received that first commission, I had not considered designing bookplates and did not even clearly understand what they were. After posting my first two or three bookplate designs on my website, you contacted me and it was through your web log that I realized how many exlibris enthusiasts and collectors exist. In order to build a better portfolio, I drew bookplates as gifts for family members and friends over the next year.





I receive commissions for custom bookplates pretty consistently, usually about half a dozen each year. This year I have received quite a few more; I have already completed ten.

What was the most challenging bookplate you designed ?
Generally, bookplates are easy work for me; detailed black and white ink drawing is my greatest artistic strength, and this is what the medium requires for printing.  Composition is something that comes naturally to me; I don't have much trouble figuring out how to arrange dozens of elements into a small space.

Bookplates do require me to incorporate unique subject matter which I normally would not draw. This is a challenge, but an enjoyable one. Probably nine-tenths of my drawings are based on late medieval Northern European art. Most of my bookplates are designed in the same style. But on occasion, I am asked to draw a stave church portal or a Korean turtle ship, or something in a Victorian or Persian style.

What questions from a client need to be asked before you begin ?
It is one of my artistic peculiarities that I do not like to prepare rough drafts. I've found that doing so results in a less lively drawing. Because of this, I want to have all of the details of a commission worked out before I put pen to paper. Generally, a patron gives me a central subject or theme, a list of other details to include, the name and motto, and a general description of the intended style. 

Do you have a series of scans or a video showing  the start , the progression and the completion of a bookplate?
Not that I remember saving. Once I start work on an exlibris I usually finish it within a few days, so it hasn't occurred to me to record its progression recently. Generally, I work on the ornamental parts first, then the lettering, and then the central image.

My sense is that you have completed and have been paid for more bookplates over the last four years than any other American artist .
Why do you think this has happened?

I receive commissions from bibliophiles and exlibris enthusiasts, many of whom find me through your website or recommendation. Most of my commissions, however, come from the same base of patrons who are interested in my religious artwork. This is evident from the number of bookplates I have designed featuring saints or religious themes. Often, these are commissioned as gifts to commemorate baptisms, confirmations, weddings or ordinations.

I would not be so prolific in bookplate design had I not succeeded in getting this group of patrons interested in exlibris. I imagine that many of them were not at first interested in bookplates per se, but saw in them an opportunity to commission original, personalized artwork from me on a small scale and at a low cost.

Your designs are unique. How would you describe them?
Black and white ink drawing has been my specialty since I was eighteen years old. I have explored many styles and forms of art in the fourteen years since then (including surrealism, comic strips and film animation) but my affinity for minutely detailed ink drawing with crisply defined lines and general horror vacui has never changed. I have for this entire time been fond of organic, non-repeating decoration. One of my signature practices is to fill borders and backgrounds with tiny cell organelles, seashells or plants.

Currently, my principal influence is late medieval Northern European art. Most of this is religious in nature, although I admire secular art from the same era as well. For obvious reasons, the two-dimensional media of manuscript illumination, panel painting, millefleur tapestry and printmaking most strongly interest me. The influence of works such as the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries and the Sherborne Missal can be spotted in most of my drawings; illustrated incunabula such as those produced by the partnership of Philippe Pigouchet and Simon Vostre are especially strong influences on black and white bookplate designs. The 19th century medievalist William Morris is another obvious source of inspiration.

This late medieval style is one that harmonizes well with my own strengths as a draftsman, but it is not the only one. On occasion I enjoy drawing pictures that resemble Northumbro-Irish manuscripts (such as the Lindisfarne Gospels) or Japanese woodblock prints, and would welcome more exlibris commissions in these styles. Mughal miniatures have my curiosity as well. One day, I hope to integrate elements from all these different kinds of art into a single signature style.


If you were the recipient of a Guggenheim grant that enabled you to create art without concern about on going bills and expenses what would you like to create ?
Had I such funds, I would do the same things that I am doing now, but more quickly and with less worry about the cost and risk. My long-terms plans as an artist are to devote significant training, practice and study to improving my calligraphic hand, my figure drawing, and my land- sea- and skyscapes. As I mentioned, I want to work more in the Northumbro-Irish, Japanese and Mughal styles, and to complete a series of speculative drawings in each. Cartographic art is something that I've loved for years but not yet tried, and I want someday to draw an elaborate mappamundi.

There are dozens of letterpress broadsides and universal bookplates that I am ready to issue through my Millefleur Press imprint, but have not because I still need to secure funds to pay the papermakers and pressmen.

Eventually, my ambition is to publish not only broadsides and bookplates, but complete fine press books, all done with letterpress printing and handmade papers and bindings, all featuring my own illustrations and typefaces. Projects that I have in mind include new versions of short 15th century devotional blockbooks (Biblia pauperum, Ars memoranda, Exercitum super Pater Noster, Symbolum Apostolicum). I want to illustrate and publish a Book of Hours, which was the most popular devotional book for literate laymen of the late Middle Ages, and which has not existed since then. I would like to publish, using the style and (as far as I am able) process of Japanese woodblock printing, an edition of the Tenchi Hajimari No Koto, a text produced by the hidden Christians of Japan during the period of persecution. A work of secular literature that has my interest is The Rime of the Ancynt Marinere, which I would publish using the original 1798 text, matching the illustrations and typography to the deliberately archaic 15th century vocabulary and spelling.


Note From Lew

Here is Daniel's contact information:

Danmitsui@hotmail.com

See you again next Sunday.

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