This biography of Paul Binnie was written with the help and active support by the artist himself. We had pushed him since 2003 to give us some input for a biographical publication. Paul was very busy at this time. But finally in summer 2004 we received first hand information from him. And this is the result - to our knowledge the first "kind of" Paul Binnie biography.
We met Paul Binnie on the internet in 2001. We were astonished when we saw the prints that he had created during his stay in Tokyo in the 1990s. Never have we seen anything similar since Nator Shunsen. Since then Paul has become ubiquitous on the internet and in the international art scene for contemporary Japanese prints.
The beginning of a series of famous views of Japan and finally a spectacular bijin series - "The Four Seasons" - established the young artist ultimately as an outstanding printmaker of the 20th and 21st century.
See Paul Binnie explaining his woodblocks himself in a video made by Japan Society of New York. Thanks to Paul Binnie and thanks to the Japan Society of New York for sharing this video with us.
Paul Binnie was born in Alloa in Scotland. Alloa is a small town on the River Forth in the very center of the Scottish lowlands, halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh. From an early age on Paul knew what he wanted to become - an artist. From the age of 12 he took extra classes with a local artist.
When he was 18 years old, in 1985, he went to study a joint degree at Edinburgh University and Edinburgh College of Art. And 5 years later, in 1990, Paul made his MA (hons) in Fine Art.
The degree was a combination of art history at the University - specializing in Asian art, japonism and ukiyo-e - and of painting, drawing and (Western) printmaking at the College of Art.
From 1986 to 1989 the young artist spent the summers in Paris and other regions of France - partly working to earn money or painting. It was during this time that he bought his first group of ukiyo-e in Paris in 1986/87. Paul's interest in ukiyo-e was firmly established and he decided to study it more intensively.
In 1990, after a difficult degree show and his graduation, the young MA (master of arts) decided to leave the United Kingdom - in anger and frustration.
What had happened? Some of Paul's final show works had been removed without his permission by the Principle of the College of Art for "obscenity" - they were erotic images of male nudes.
So Paul felt that he should make a break with the extreme conservatism of the Scottish "art world". He called it quits in Scotland and went to Paris.
Needless to say that it was not quite easy for a young and unknown artist in a megalopolis like Paris. Paul did first some English teaching and later taught L'Histoire de l'Art (Art History) at L'�cole du Louvre and gave art lessons in drawing and painting at a private At�lier.
At that time Binnie's major interest was in oil painting. He took friends as models, but found it hard to get any exposure for his works. His realistic style was considered too retrograde and old-fashioned.
During the Paris time his interest in Japanese prints was growing more and more. Whenever he had some money left, he acquired ukiyo-e. And slowly it turned into a passion. Binie was fascinated by the technique of Japanese woodblocks and wanted to learn more about it.
In 1992, he was asked to take part in an art show at the Herron Gallery in New York, and he went there for three months. During that trip he made the decision to go to Japan to learn more about printmaking.
The young artist left Paris for Tokyo in April 1993. He remained there for almost 6 years, until late 1998.
To prepare himself for Japan, Binnie had studied some Japanese in Paris. But upon his arrival he was lost. So he did what he had done before in Paris to get his feet on the ground. He worked as a teacher for English for a few months to find an apartment, organize his life and get acquainted to this very different Japanese way of life.
Paul Binnie's original plans had been to enter the studio of Toshi Yoshida, who maintained a printmaking school with international students. But at that point Toshi Yoshida was already very ill and did not take new students.
Luck was certainly not with Paul in his first Tokyo months. Destiny seemed to test his perseverance and stamina. But Paul was far away from giving up and used the time with a lot of self-study until he was recommended to Seki Kenji.
Seki Kenji is a printer who also knows and practizes the art of carving woodblocks. He had worked for Doi and other woodblock publishing companies. Binnie calls the years from 1993 to 1994 his "apprenticeship" with Seki Kenji.
He taught him the correct techniques of both carving and printing and helped him with the problems that Binnie had encountered during his phase of self-study. Seki Kenji even editioned some of Paul's prints when he was busy with painting.
It was an extremely busy and productive period for the artist. He was making stencil prints, sosaku-style woodblocks, relief prints, lithographs, oil paintings and watercolors. Binnie remembers that he hardly slept for more than 5 hours a night.
Binnie's original plans had been to stay in Japan for a year or maybe two. But he started to sell his kabuki prints and he decided to do more, to expand his technique. Gifted and ambitious (..and stubborn) as he was, he wanted to create new prints which could rival those of the past. Within his budget limits he also continued to collect ukiyo-e.
Okubi-e (bust portraits) now became of special interest for Binnie. He wanted to make them as good and psychologically penetrating as those of a glorious past. This was the time when he discovered Natori Shunsen, Yamamura Koka (Yamamura Toyonari) and Ota Gako (Ota Masamitsu). Paul had the impression that shin hanga type images were more in line with his Western art training.
During a visit to a sento (public bath) Binnie saw for the first time Yakuza (members of the Japanese mafia who traditionally have body tattoos) bathing. And another interest was born for him: the traditional Japanese tattoo. Binnie did a series of stencil and woodblock prints on this theme. They remained unpublished for many years until we at artelino were lucky to offer them in our online auctions. By summer 2004 they were sold out.
Near the end of 1997, Paul Binnie did his first four landscape prints - one of the Mountain Temple in Yamagata and the Shitamachi Setsugekka series. The prints became a huge success at a solo show in the American club in Tokyo. He had done landscapes before, but it was the first time that he had made these Japanese landscape subjects. He was surprised himself about their popularity.
In spite of the successful acceptance of the kabuki and the landscape prints, the situation became somewhat frustrating for Binnie in 1998. Lack of interest in his oil and watercolor paintings and restricted possibilities to show and sell his prints to a wider audience, caused some frustration.
Indeed, the Japanese art scene and art market is characterized by a different mentality that is not always "logical" from a Western perspective and requires a lot of patience and time.
Binnie decided to return to England and to move to London. And it was his intention to concentrate there on painting and not on printmaking.
For two years the artist made no prints at all. But when he launched a web site where he featured those prints that he had made in Japan, he received many, many requests.
Binnie started to sell his Japanese-style prints on the internet. And encouraged by the unexpected interest he decided to make a move back to woodblock printmaking. That was the time when he created the "Clouds" series of prints. He drew the designs from the balcony of his London home.
Paul had continued to send prints to the annual CWAJ (College Women's Association of Japan) show. He decided to try a pair of the cloud prints Yozora (Night Sky) and Amagumo (Rain Cloud) in that show and they sold very well. There were in total about ten prints in that group.
The success of the "Clouds" series encouraged Binnie. And with an international audience through the internet he saw a good chance to continue to make woodblock prints as well as paintings, which he still continues to do.
At the same time he was commissioned by one of his American dealers, Bruce Tierney and his partner Barry Stokes to undertake his first series of bijin-ga, called Shiki ("Four Seasons"). The "Bijin" series is a two-year project due for completion in spring of 2005. At the time of the publication of this article, the first two designs had been released, "Summer" and "Winter". They caused a sensation among Japanese art aficionados and inspite of an elevated price, they sold well.
The commissioners had explicitly asked Binnie to pull "all strings" without regards to the costs. The result are prints on an artistic and technical level that nobody thought could be done in the 21st century.
In addition the continued response to Binnie's tattoo prints encouraged him to work on a new series - tattoos with a twist. The news is exciting and we better quote Paul Binnie with his own words:
"This time, the tattoos will be completely invented by me, using ukiyo-e artists' prints as a basis, and applied to models. The series will be called Edo Sumi Hyaku Shoku or A Hundred Shades of Ink of Edo. And the first two designs will be called Kuniyoshi's Cats and Yoshitoshi's Ghosts, released as a pair in late summer 2004. They will be followed by Hokusai's Waterfalls, Harunobu's Bath and Utamaro's Shunga amongst other designs."
Towards the end of 2004, Binnie plans to finish the third Shiki print, Aki ("Autumn"). The release will take place in the U.S.A. And towards Christmas, the fourth print in the series of "Famous Views of Japan" will come. It will be a snow scene at the Sankaien Garden in Yokohama.
Paul, the best of luck to you!
We made this little video a few years ago about Paul Binnie. It is not half as interesting as the one on top of the page. I therefore put this one on bottom of the article: - smile!
Author: Dieter Wanczura