SINCE GOING PUBLIC WITH HIS WATERCOLORS, Tsutomu “Tom” Tomita has been winning accolades from architects, interior designers and, most importantly, homeowners who opt to bring his large-scale paintings into their homes.
In a medium noted for its hazy, ethereal, transparent and sometimes drippy effects, Tomita’s floral and landscape imagery has been praised as being realistic, with sun-splashed hibiscus flowers, plumeria, torch ginger and birds of paradise rendered in layers of saturated color that look as if the viewer could pluck them off a branch. Although some images utilize thin washes that capture the transparent, papery nature of bougainvillea, and some have a fairy tale quality in which one almost expects to spot a menehune among the foliage, others are marked by the precision and clarity of a scientific illustration.
Harbor images seem to move with the rippling of waves reflected off boats and smooth stones.
Despite of his accomplishments, the Japan-born artist has more abstract aims.
“If it looks realistic, that’s very good, but to me, it’s no different from a photograph-and anybody can take a photograph. Abstracts can say so much more. That’s the kind of stuff I’m looking for, so maybe 10 years from now, I’m painting something different.
“You have to be free in making abstracts. There’s no subject to paint. It’s free, but it’s so tough for me,” he adds.
Tomita has spent a lifetime working at his art, beginning in high school followed by studies at the Musashino Art University and San Francisco Academy of Art University. His first job out of school was at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Mo., where he specialized in hand-lettered greeting cards.
From there he moved to Los Angeles, where as a freelance artist, he picked up illustration work for magazines, TV shows, advertisements and film, before feeling the desire to return home in 1990. But it wasn’t an easy homecoming.
“After more than 20 years away, I felt like I needed a little more time to adjust because the style they like in Japan and the U.S. is different,” the artist concedes.
He had become too Americanized and believed that a stay in Hawai’i would help him reacclimatize to an Asian sensibility.
But first, there was the problem of making a living.
“I looked for some kind of job in illustration and was carrying my portfolio around downtown, but they usually said, ‘That’s very good but we don’t have a budget,’ or ‘We don’t have that kind of big project.’ I could get a job, but it was not like L.A., so I had to figure out how to stay here.”
Finding inspiration in the island landscape and the local flowers, he started trying to capture them in watercolors, a medium he found challenging, albeit with beautiful results.
“I really got into it. I painted several pieces and tried to sell them at the Zoo Fence,” he shares, noting that it didn’t take long to figure out that it wasn’t the right venue for him.
“The other artists told me, ‘Your stuff is not for here.’ It wasn’t because it was bad, but there, the price is like $20, $30, $40; and they said my paintings were too nice to sell there.”
With another plan quashed, he settled into a job as art director and graphic designer at the Sanjo company, creating signage and logos for a number of Japanese businesses in Hawai’i, such as Kuub cosmetics (flourishes of leaves) and Maguro-Ya (a fish outline), both with logos bearing Tomita’s illustrations.
All the while he continued to paint. In 2009, he started showing his work in Hawai’i, Japan and California, where one of the highlights was showing a series of jazz musician paintings in the Lush Life Art Gallery at the Jazz Heritage Center. At each destination, he found buyers receptive to his large format works, measuring more than 6-by-3 feet.
Because most watercolor works are done in small format, he had to reinvent the way he worked, from stretching the paper, to working on the floor versus propping his paintings on an easel. He also switched to large squirrel-hair brushes that allow him to cover large areas before the paint has time to dry.
“You have to paint very fast, otherwise the watermark will show,” he said.
Last April, he presented a benefit exhibition at Bishop Square Pauahi Tower to benefit the American Red Cross Hawaii chapter’s relief effort for victims of the earthquake and tsunami.
He plans to continue showing here and abroad, including his native Japan, though he no longer entertains dreams of moving back to his homeland, saying, “No way, it’s impossible. This year, I’ll be 60. It’s way too late.”