Japanese Illustrator Kaori Watanabe on How Travel Informs Her Creative Process
The whimsical artist, also known as foxco, reflects on how her early travels shaped her perspective on life, and why she feels the most inspired when she’s on the road.
“My biggest inspirations are traveling and fashion,” says Kaori Watanabe. The Tokyo-born illustrator’s cheerful, pop drawings have graced brands such as Ralph Lauren, Shiseido and Starbucks. She’s sketched her way around the world, her drawings serving as a record of the people she’s met, the things she’s seen, the details she’s noticed and the feelings she’s experienced.
Exploring from a young age
Kaori started to travel and draw at a young age. “We would go on family trips when I was little, but I started wanting to travel, or rather I started to get interested in seeing the world from a different scope, when I was a 6th grader in elementary school.”
But it was a homestay experience at an Australia farmhouse while in elementary school that cemented her wanderlust. Although she was confident of her social skills in Japan, she felt frustrated that her poor English skills made her shy, by her shyness caused and became determined to explore places outside of her comfort zone. Australia taught Kaori to challenge herself and question the “common sense” ideas that actually vary from country to country and culture to culture.
The artist also has a great fondness for Canada, where she lived during high school. She recounts an example of how the Canadian way of life influences her still. “In Japan everyone gets on the bus in a fixed and orderly line, but in Canada, they had a rough order like if there was a person with big luggage, they get on the bus first even when the person is young. I appreciated the easy-goingness…. I brought back that idea to Japan, and let a person with big luggage go first. Then another person in line started to help that person carry on the luggage. At that moment I realised the importance of trying something new.”
Speaking of Canada... “The best trip I have been on is probably a trip to Banff,” says Kaori. “On the “Mountains in Banff the trees are asymmetrical as the side facing the northern winds are barren, while branches on the other side spread out gracefully. It was distorted and beautiful. When I saw the grandeur of that nature, I felt that beauty was not in appearance, but in the way you live.”
Seeking creative inspiration
Kaori’s Instagram account is a mix of her travels; whimsical fashion details; sketches of people and animals with flowing caftans and brightly colored handbags; and glimpses of nature. Travel is one of the driving forces of her art, and drawing is an integral part of the way she travels.
“I make illustrations of what happens every day during my trips. Sometimes I draw at restaurants, and other times, if I can get a brochure or a flyer, I draw on them, too. All in all, I like to draw at cafés or hotel lobbies and watch the people go by; they are my favorites,” she says.
Taking on the streets of Paris
Her love for art and travel brought her to Paris during university, where she studied drawing and sculpture at the Pantheon-Sorbonne. She kept busy with plenty of assignments, but gained energy from the streets. “When I felt tired, I would go out to the city and sketch seemingly happy people drinking and chatting outside. I had so much fun doing this, and it feels like it all started from there, so Paris holds a special place in my heart.”
Another cultural difference became clear on a train in the French countryside. “During a train ride from Paris heading south, the train suddenly stopped. If this was the case in Japan, there would probably be transfers that sent us to our destinations, but that’s not how it was in France. I was told ‘that’s it for the day’ and the train just got stuck there. We got off and stayed one night in the city where the train had stopped. I was shocked, but no one was angry,” she laughs.
Indulging in her wanderlust
Kaori has continued to hit the road as often as she can, especially when life starts to feel predictable. She also makes it a point to record as much of it as she is able to. And her wandering provides not only subject matter, but also informs her craft.
“I tend to draw, things that can’t be seen on Google Maps, and I draw by virtue of the people I meet and the inspiration I get from them. And that inspiration influences how I choose the brush and the colors I use when creating illustrations.”
Inspiration comes thick and fast on the road. And unlike normal days at home, while traveling, Kaori finds her enthusiasm can’t be contained. “I feel like going on trips gives me new ways of drawing or new ways of expressing myself. I always draw pictures in white margins, but when I go on a journey, I put everything in one sheet and make it like a diary because there are many things to cover.”
Kaori briefly moved to London in 2019, but returned to Japan once COVID-19 hit. And she can’t wait to get back to traveling. “In my illustrations, of course I have my favorite motifs, but I always look for something different, like new motifs, and seek new kinds of expressions. I want to remain an explorer.”