Miki Ishii w/translation by Keno Katsuda
In 2019, the first incarnation of LightBox Expo, a convention devoted to entertainment design, was held for three days in Pasadena. As an unknown writer for a small Japanese publication, I was extremely nervous to interview some of the artists in attendance. Because I had been busy raising children, I had mostly stayed away from the art world for the past two decades. So I felt that I lacked both the credentials and the courage to speak with these established members of the art world. My only connection to many of these artists was our alma mater, ArtCenter College of Design. Because of this, I made it a point to bring up that I’d graduated as an illustration major in the mid-eighties whenever an opportunity came up. Every time I did so, the artist in question would ask me if I knew Bob Kato. Soon after Bob graduated in the late eighties as a fledgling illustrator, he started teaching a class at ArtCenter. Even amongst his class of extremely talented students at the school, Bob was a standout, an artist with his own expressive style which stood out from the rest. His drawings had speed and were so fluent and classy, pieces that couldn’t easily be limited by description. I remember the time when I first heard that Bob was going to be teaching at ArtCenter, I immediately said I wanted to take the class. He laughed as if I was joking. I wasn’t. Of course, I would have wanted to learn from someone like him. It turns out my wish to do so was granted--albeit thirty years later.
In the fall term after the Expo, my daughter Kotta began studying at ArtCenter and taking Bob’s class. During one visit home for the holidays, she introduced me to Bob’s book, “The Drawing Club: Master the Art of Drawing Characters from Life.” The book reminded me of the long-forgotten excitement of what the fundamentals of creativity were all about.
The book, as Bob writes, was inspired by his studio in Los Angeles, The Drawing Club. Each week, the studio hosts a model in a costume with a specific theme, coordinated with props, backdrops, dramatic lighting, and music. All of the poses, costumes, and intricate details in each of the settings were so compelling, it was almost like a scene in a movie or watching a play in a theatre. Viewing these models and their poses, it would be incredibly easy to be drawn into the imaginative world that each inhabits. Though it’s obviously impossible to capture the experience of being in the studio on the page, the book is written in a way that makes it almost feel as if you’re in his class, listening in. Each of the sections describes a different aspect of drawing in the studio--constructing the page, developing a concept, manipulating lines and shading, and so on. But the book also demonstrates the importance of digging deeper and becoming a storyteller in the process of becoming an artist. As an art student, I often skipped the more philosophical chapters of my textbooks and rushed to the pages that would explain the technique, hoping to find a quick solution to making a drawing look good. However, it’s difficult to move from good to great if you’re only technically adept. What this book teaches you are those other more intangible characteristics that add to great design--things like humor, motivation, and character. Bob talks about finding inspiration for storytelling by simply observing the world around us, improvising, and developing a more creative mindset. When an artist is able to define what they have to say, their drawings will more clearly reflect their ideas and stories. Each page of the book is filled with beautiful drawings of participants in his studio. Every artist, from novice to trained professional, shows a command of dynamic composition, experimental lines, and drama. Though they are all drawings from the same models during each studio session, the unique interpretations from each artist show the extent to which their imagination has affected their design. One can feel the confidence of the artists in each of the drawings. Bob’s magic is in his ability to show each artist how to take their own path, and in doing so, develop a style and learn techniques and skills along the way. It’s no coincidence that so many respected artists at LightBox Expo mentioned Bob’s name. They were all students who were inspired by Bob’s work and carried out his teachings in their own work. Now, I’m lucky to have the book, and also my daughter passes these inspiring messages to me from her studies at ArtCenter.
------------------ Though the Drawing Club is currently closed due to the pandemic, you can see photos and drawings from past events on its website.
writer/translater/editor Keno Katsuda