Interview: Daniel Mitsui

Daniel Mitsui is an artist and writer. His invaluable blog, The Lion and the Cardinal, is an opinionated exploration of the world of Catholic art, architecture, symbolism, and iconography. In my opinion, he is one of the most original--yet traditional--Catholic artists working today. He recently agreed to do an interview with The Catholic Illustrator's Guild.

First off, let me say that I really like your art. It seems that often times today among devout Catholic artists, there's a tendency to only do a "retread" of the art from the late 19th century—which isn't necessarily bad, but it isn't really a development of a new style. Your style is something that looks very new to me. How did this style develop?

Thank you.

When you refer to my style, I assume you're referring to things like my tendency to work in black and white, my use of detailed ornamental filler for backgrounds, my decorative vocabulary that includes microorganisms, dinosaur eggs and the like. This style is not something that I deliberately developed for a new style of Catholic art - it's just the way that I've been drawing for years, and something that I've learned to apply in a religious context.

I have always enjoyed looking at detailed artwork - artwork that offers something new to find every time that it is seen. So even in childhood, my drawings were very detailed. At about the age of 14, I saw pictures of the Lindisfarne Gospels for the first time, and the effect was profound. To this day I consider them the greatest works of art ever made on parchment or paper. The intricate, obsessive ornament, ordered and geometric yet zoomorphic and fluid, is something that I have tried to emulate ever since.

That discovery led to some study of illuminated manuscripts and lettering. But by the time I left for College, I had been seduced by modern art, and spent several years creating abstract or semiabstract drawings, prints and paintings. But modernism never really suited me, and I was pretty miserable as an artist at that time. I first became disgusted with the artifice of the contemporary art business, and resolved to apply my talents to illustration rather than gallery art, which is why I started working exclusively in black and white - I wanted my work to be reproducible, so that it could be owned and enjoyed by more than the elite population of gallery-goers and art buyers.

I no longer consider reproducibility to an aesthetic virtue in itself, but the habit stuck, and to this day everyone seems to like my black and white work more. So I keep at it.

I later became disgusted with modern art altogether, and took up cartooning as a sort of purgative, to get the modernism out of my system. I drew comic strips, made some animated short films, and generally learned to have fun drawing again.

In my last year of college, I was baptized and received into the Catholic Church - something I had secretly wanted for a very long time. My conversion gave me a new appreciation for serious art, and I began to make drawings on religious subjects.

For the next year or two, I devoted most of my artistic efforts to religious art, and the results were poor - timid, awkward, and usually tainted by the modernist and cartoonist habits I had yet to shed. But with a lot of practice and study, they improved. And I found ways to apply the decorative vocabulary that I had developed in previous years to sacred art.

What artists do you look to, past and present, as influential?

My primary interest is Gothic art, because it is there that I see the traditions of Christian iconography expressed most perfectly.

By "iconography", I mean sacred art that is in continuity with an artistic tradition reaching back to the apostolic age, and that is ordered according to the exegesis of the Church Fathers; art that upholds what was said in one of the sessions of the Second Nicene Council, that "the composition of religious imagery is not left to the initative of artists, but is formed upon principles laid down by the Catholic Church and by religious tradition... The execution alone belongs to the painter, the selection and arrangement of subject belongs to the Fathers."
The two most ancient types of Christian art, those created by Greeks and by Syrians, developed into a common, theologically ordered system relatively early in the East, which is Byzantine art. In the West, it was a more complicated process - the ancient traditions were carried into the wilderness by missionaries in the form of illuminated manuscripts and ivory miniatures and other small, portable works of art; these formed the basis of the various regional traditions that developed in relative isolation for several centuries. It was not until the High Middle Ages that an international, comprehensive, ordered system came to be.

When I study Gothic art, I have less interest in the particular artists, their names or their biographies, and more interest in the symbolism and compositional conventions that they have in common, for it is in these commonalities that I can understand the larger iconographic tradition in which they worked. (In later eras, I give the artists more scrutiny, as they put a lot more of themselves into their work - not all of it good!)

That being said, I do have some favorites: Suger of St. Denis, Nicholas of Verdun and Godfrey of Huy; the cathedral builders of the 13th century; 15th century tapestry weavers, and the so-called "Flemish primitives".

I tend to like recent artists the more they hold common purposes with the artists of the middle ages; a few who have influenced me are A.W.N. Pugin and the other Gothic revivalists, Rev. Felix Granda, Antoni Gaudi and his school, and certain members of the Arts and Crafts movement.

When creating sacred art, I attempt to be faithful to the same traditions that were expressed in Gothic art in composition and content and arrangement, but I use a newer and more personal decorative vocabulary. I also do secular work, and the rules are much looser there. Most of that is biological illustration inspired directly by nature rather than by other art. I admire many cartoonists and children's book illustrators, although it has been a while since I've drawn anything influenced by them.

You used to draw comics art in college. I've also heard from an iconographer that the skills picked up in cartooning and caricature, such as exaggeration, help when exploring symbolic or iconographic styles. Do you find that to be the case?

Not exactly. As I said before, I consider iconography to be more a matter of keeping the traditional symbolism and arrangement of holy pictures than of using the stylistic conventions of Byzantine art. I am primarily interested in Gothic art, which never much employed these sort of exaggerations. If I were commissioned to draw an icon in the Byzantine style, I would do so, but I would be careful not to bring a cartoonist's sensibilities to the project, as the conventions of that art were developed to make men laugh, not to make men holy.

That being said, I do think that cartooning can teach an artist a lot about sacred art. Visually and compositionally, a comics page from the early 20th century resembles an illuminated manuscript. The figures in mediaeval illustrated manuscripts often look cartoony, simply due to the speed (fast) and scale (small) at which they were drawn. My own figures often look cartoony for similar reasons; I can draw very realistic figures if I have charcoal, a kneaded rubber eraser, and models willing to sit still for six hours, but they're not something I can improvise easily.

There is also a vigorous comic tradition at the edges of mediaeval sacred art - in manuscript drolleries, misericord carvings, gargoyles, and, ultimately, Hieronymus Bosch - that is very interesting in itself, and even more interesting when considered as an essential part of the iconographic system.

Personally, I credit cartooning with teaching me to compose narratives. For example, I recently received a commission to illustrate a spiritual journey in allegory; it involved a woman climbing a mountain with her family, falling away from them, being led back to the path by a priest, and rejoining them to ascend to the summit. I was able to compose the story in a single continuous landscape. It begins in the top left corner, then moves counterclockwise around the border, breaks into the center of the drawing, and zigzags to the top center. It's complicated, but I think that anyone can understand the events, and their chronology, without any panels or numbers or arrows to direct him. I wouldn't have been able to compose that without having read a lot of Popeye and Krazy Kat and Little Nemo.
The backgrounds to most of your drawings are full of little biological creatures, fish, skulls, and symbols. Do these have a special meaning?

Originally, they had no meaning except that I found them visually interesting. Over time, I have tried to apply them more deliberately. Some of them had established meanings - skulls for death, starfish for Mary (Stella Maris), chambered nautili for perfection. Others did not, but seemed to have a latent symbolism that could be developed more fully. Mitochondria are life-giving; fossilized dinosaur eggs might represent mortification - dragons, which for my purposes are the same as dinosaurs, represent sin; here be dragons destroyed before opportunity to hatch. Planarian worms might represent the Holy Eucharist, due to their ability to be divided into parts no less complete than the whole.

What is your process when creating one of your pen-and-ink pieces? And what tools / materials do you use?

I start by outlining the frames and borders with a ruler and a compass and a circle template. I sketch in the difficult parts with pencil, then draw over them with ink, then erase the pencil marks. Most of the background patterns I draw freehand, without pencilling them beforehand. I never make rough drafts, but always start the final drawing right away. This is probably a bad artistic habit, but it's how I work.

I use an art pen in the smallest size available (005) for most of my drawing, and a brush with india ink for filling in larger black spaces. I use colored inks and colored pencils when needed, and calligraphy pens on occasion. I draw on white bristol board. My wife just bought me some goatskin vellum for an anniversary gift, but I have not attempted anything on it yet.

Most of your art that I have seen is pen-and-ink. Do you also paint or sculpt?

I can, but I don't really have the space or equipment for it now. Currently, I am considering taking some classes in jewelry-making, as I think my aesthetic would be well applied to metalwork - better than to painting or sculpture.

What resources (other than your excellent blog) would you recommend to artists seeking to deepen their understanding of the Catholic artistic tradition?

I recommend the French art historian Emile Male's trilogy Religious Art in France of the Middle Ages, which is the most thorough, penetrating and erudite study of Roman Catholic sacred art and its symbolism that I have ever encountered. I refer to these books constantly. There is one volume on 12th century art, one on 13th century art, and one on late mediaeval art; the middle volume was the first written, and is the most comprehensive. It has been published in English several times, sometimes under the title The Gothic Image. This book, at the very least, is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the iconography of the western Church.

The other two volumes are also available in English, although they are much harder to find. You can find used copies of them for a couple hundred dollars apiece. I excerpt passages from them on my web log pretty often, so if the books themselves are too expensive for you, you can receive some of Male's wisdom piecemeal there.

There are other fine studies of mediaeval iconography available in English (e.g. Alphonse-Napoleon Didron's Christian Iconography) but Male's books are much more enjoyable to read, and cover a broader range of subjects.

I also recommend reading what is available in English of the Rationale Divinorum Officiorum, by the 13th century liturgical writer William Durandus of Mende. This an encyclopaedia of sorts on the symbolism of the liturgy, covering vestments, the calendar, the ministers, the church building &c. It doesn't have a lot of direct instruction for artists, but it really shows well the mystical understanding that earlier ages had of worship and sacral objects.

Until recently, only two of its eight books had been translated into English - the first (on the church building) and the third (on the vestments). These translations have long passed into the public domain, and you can find .pdf editions of them in the Internet Archive. I also have the third book transcribed at my web site. There is a professor at Nazareth College - Timothy Thibodeau - who has begun translating the entire work anew. His translation of the prologue and first book came out a couple of years ago, and the second book is due to be published any time now, if it has not already been.

An excellent resource online is the Digital Scriptorium, hosted by Columbia University. This is a searchable database of illuminated manuscripts in major academic libraries in the United States. There are similar European databases, but this is the biggest one in English, and the one I use the most. The easiest way to learn the traditional iconographic arrangement of a scene, or the traditional appearance of a saint, is to look through a lot of illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages and note the commonalities between them.

The Golden Legend, the great 13th century encyclopaedia of hagiography, is also indispensible for deciphering mediaeval artwork on the lives of the saints, or creating artwork in the same spirit today. It can be read online in its entirety at the Catholic Community Forum.

Suger of St. Denis, the originator of Gothic art, is to my mind the single greatest genius in the art history of the Catholic Church; luckily, he left written records of his administration and works, which I obviously recommend.

And finally, I recommend reading the defenses of divine images written by the old iconodules - especially St. John of Damascus's Three Treatises on the Divine Images and whatever you can find translated of the Second Nicene Council. These help to remind the sacred artist what is really at stake; in so many ways, our current situation resembles the first and second iconoclastic crises, and wise advice on overcoming the iconoclasm of our own times can be found in them.

As a postscript to this interview: Daniel's art is available in high-quality reproductions. Details about purchasing art can be found in the links below.

The Lion and the Cardinal (Daniel's blog)
Religious Art by Daniel Mitsui
Biological Art by Daniel Mitsui
Bookplates by Daniel Mitsui

The Golden Legend
The Digital Scriptorium
Rationale Divinorum Officiorum: Book One, Book Three


Kevin said...

Thank you so much for posting this interview! I have admired Daniel Mitsui's work for a couple of years now. I was amazed (when I found his art) at how adherent to tradition he is, yet is able to add his own personal touch in the execution.

I have a copy (published by Dover)of Emile Male's book on the 13th century art. Yes, essential reading. I was unaware of the other two. Time to start hunting!

Thanks again John for the post. Greatly appreciated!

Tommy said...

Well posted. Daniel's own site is always a delight.

PaperSmyth said...

Thank you to both Daniel Mitsui and to you, Herreid.

Matthew Lickona said...

Thank you for this. Buy his art!