Daniel Mitsui is averse to photography, so finding a picture of him is tough. But don’t worry, you’ll see more than a little of who he is in his answers and his artwork.
Witty and charming, Daniel’s attention to detail not only translates into eye-popping pen-and-ink artwork, but into beautiful well-thought out answers to what makes his art what it is. (His answer to question number one has to be one of my all-time favorites.)
I have included some samples of his artwork from his website, but look carefully. The backgrounds, all done by hand, are even more stunning in their delicacy and precision than the main figures.
Tell us about yourself in five words or less:
What sparked your interest in your artistic medium?
My principal artistic medium is ink drawing; I use calligraphers' inks, applying them with metal-tipped dip pens and small paintbrushes on paper or calfskin vellum.
I've specialized in ink drawing (not always using these same materials) for more than a decade. This is because I realized that it played to my particular strength, which is precision. If there is one thing that distinguishes me as an artist, it is that I am able to render very fine detail.
This medium has proven suitable for creating drawings that resemble my favorite works of art: the illuminated manuscripts, millefleur tapestries, and panel paintings made in Northern Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Obviously, there are subtle effects that can be realized with textiles or paint that cannot be realized with ink. But ink drawing is quite versatile; I can use the same materials and basic approach to imitate, or to absorb influences from, other kinds of art, such as Japanese woodblock prints, Northumbro-Irish manuscripts, Persian miniatures, and Russian lubki.
Using this medium makes a lot of sense for me logistically and economically. I can buy the best pens, the best ink, the best paper and vellum available, and the cost of materials is still not so high that I take a serious risk if I cannot sell a drawing immediately. I do not need a large studio space; none of the materials is especially messy or toxic.
I am working to learn a secondary artistic medium, that of fine press books. So far, I have not published a book, but I have issued several letterpress broadsides in preparation. Here I act as the illustrator, designer, and typographer; I hire other professionals to do the platemaking, printing, papermaking, and bookbinding.
My interest in this medium was sparked by three things. First was the realization that my existing oeuvre of black and white ink drawings could provide most of the pictures and ornaments. Second was my desire to issue prints of my drawings using traditional inks, printing methods and papers. Third was my desire to illustrate complete books.
Ideally, I would like to create illuminated manuscripts, but it is difficult to find patronage for such expensive endeavors. The works I am most keen to illustrate would be more easily realized as fine press books, done in imitation of the blockbooks and incunabula of the first 50 years of European printing.
Why do you keep producing art? What's your inspiration to continue?
Most obviously, my art is my livelihood and I have a family to support. And I really do enjoy making it, and genuinely like almost all of my patrons. I have enough commissions to keep me busy for some time; if ever I do not, I have more ideas for works to draw on speculation than I could possibly finish in a career. As long as I continue to make a living, I see no reason to stop.
Also, it seems that there is a dearth of Catholic artists working in the idiom that is my specialty. Byzantine iconography is very popular right now, as is Romanesque art; and there are a good number of successful Classicists. But Gothic art and manuscript illumination, especially in the style of the late Middle Ages, has fewer practitioners, which I think is unfortunate.
What excites you about being a visual artist?
Medieval religious art is the visual expression of the medieval worldview. Its art is in harmony with its theology and metaphysics, its law of worship, its idea of history, its popular culture and literature. Studying this art and creating similar art provides insight into all of these other expressions. I am perpetually astonished by the integrity of this worldview, and by its enduring truthfulness and relevance. This is what is most exciting: discovering, through its art, some new aspect of it that had hitherto been mysterious.
What connection do you see between your artwork and your faith?
About four-fifths of the drawings I make have religious subjects. Their religious content is sincere; I do not appropriate this imagery for any ironic or subversive purpose. I really do believe the things that I draw.
An important part of my approach to religious art is expressed in this statement from the Fathers of the Second Council of Nicea: "The composition of religious imagery is not left to the initiative 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 belong to the Fathers."
This was the attitude of all religious artists of the Middle Ages, both Western and Eastern, even in those regions where this Council was unknown or its authority disputed. Sacred art has an objective, permanent content and is governed by incommutable principles. Not even in 13th century France, an era of astonishingly rapid artistic development, was there ever an antitraditional attitude that saw the sacred art of previous generations as a problem to be destroyed or replaced. There was nothing akin to the critical attitude of certain humanists of the Italian Renaissance, or of the post-Tridentine art censor John Molanus, or of the 20th century modernists.
When I create a work of religious art, I do my best to uphold tradition and to use medieval conventions for the selection and arrangement of subject. I consider this a matter of principle, not taste. This requires a certain amount of theological, hagigraphic and liturgical research. The Bible, the Golden Legend, the Rationale Divinorum Officiorum, the Bestiary, the Biblia Pauperum, and the Speculum Humane Salvationis are my usual texts for reference.
What's the most rewarding aspect of creating your art?
I find satisfaction in seeing my work improve over time. This is the one compliment I most like to receive: "You've really gotten better." I try to maintain a pace of development such that I am dissatisfied with drawings I made three years previously.
In your spare time, what are we likely to find you doing?
I have three children, two sons and a daughter, and I spend a lot of time playing with or reading to them.
My wife and I are adventurous eaters; we can't afford to dine at restaurants more than a few times a year, but when we do, we seek out good ones. And she is ambitious with the food she prepares at home. I enjoy mixing cocktails; it's part of my usual routine of relaxing in the evening. We often entertain guests for dinner, and host larger parties on occasion.
We love classical music, especially opera, and try to attend several performances at Lyric Opera of Chicago every season. In the summer, we take picnics to the Grant Park Music Festival.
I'm not one to watch many movies; indeed, I've not met anyone with a lower general opinion of cinema than I have. The exception is that I have a good deal of respect for traditional animation. This past winter was brutal, so I spent more time inside than usual and watched many animated films, mostly short ones. I find Russian and Czech animation especially interesting.
The one form of art that I practice entirely for fun is origami. I've only recently developed an interest in this, but I find it fascinating. It allows me to think and work in three dimensions without needing much for materials or equipment.
Find more of Daniel’s work at his website. It’s a feast for the eyes!
Interested in more Catholic Artist Spotlights? Here’s the archive.
Copyright 2014 Katie O’Keefe