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Japanese 'grandpa' artist becomes surprise YouTube hit with watercolor classes

A "grandpa" YouTuber posting videos mainly about watercolor painting techniques is becoming an unlikely hit with viewers both in Japan and abroad.

    Painter Harumichi Shibasaki's most popular video has garnered over 5 million views, and as of Sept 22, he had amassed 28.4 million-plus total views and some 679,000 subscribers. And so I visited his studio in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, to ask about his recent fame.

    The first thing out of the 73-year-old's mouth when meeting me was, "I'm Shibasaki," replicating his introduction at the start of all his videos. Among the countless art supplies in his studio, tucked into a landscape of woods and fields, was video production equipment including a single lens reflex camera, LED lights and a computer. "I almost always shoot the videos myself," he explained.

    YouTuber and painter Harumichi Shibasaki is seen in his art studio in Chiba Prefecture on Sept. 4, 2020. (Mainichi/Kaho Kitayama)

    Shibasaki was born in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, in 1947. After graduating from the Department of Art at Wako University, he taught oil and watercolor painting at a correspondence school of art, and did a three-month sojourn in the United States in 2001 to further cultivate his skills. Shibasaki also holds a personal exhibition once or twice a year in the Ginza shopping district.

    "Thankfully the number of regular customers gradually increased, and I got called to come over and teach at various places," he said.

    He became a YouTuber after being asked in 2016 by his 47-year-old son, who works at an IT firm, "Don't you want people from all over the world to look at your artwork?" Until then, YouTube had been irrelevant to Shibasaki. However, he made up his mind after thinking, "I have the knowhow based on all my years spent teaching. Not only do I want people to look at my work, I want to convey the joy of painting." He set up his channel "Watercolor by Shibasaki" in March 2017.

    Most of Shibasaki's videos are about 5 to 15 minutes long, and instruct viewers how to paint natural landscapes and other scenes with watercolors. The videos also delve into the nitty-gritty of technique. For example, in a video on painting trees, Shibasaki tells viewers to "fan out the brush" and poke at the canvas to portray different kinds of leaves.

    Some of the works that YouTuber and artist Harumichi Shibasaki finished while filming his videos are seen in in Chiba Prefecture on Sept. 4, 2020. (Mainichi/Kaho Kitayama)

    The YouTuber told me, "Beginners stumble over the frustration of not being able to paint familiar items that seem like it would be easy. I hope to help them get over that phase."

    Shibasaki is also particular about his recording methods. When showing a close-up of his work while painting to explain his process, Shibasaki keeps his smartphone near his face "to provide the audience with a realistic eye-level view," and to prevent perspective distortion caused by wide-angle lenses.

    But since he films his work in one shot, he occasionally makes mistakes. Shibasaki gave a wry smile and said, "Sometimes I become too focused, and don't notice that I've forgotten to press the record button until I finish the work. Then I have to start all over again."

    Painting doesn't have borders, so his viewer base comes from all over the world and every age group. Soon after Shibasaki started posting on YouTube, he saw an increase in his foreign viewership, many of them asking for English subtitles. "Most of the people asking detailed questions are foreigners," he explained. And so Shibasaki immediately asked a translator to put English subtitles on all his videos.

    To inform the viewers about rural life and traditional events in Japan, the artist also tries to select various subjects for his paintings. According to 1-year viewership data provided to YouTube channel owners, as of Sept. 12, 22.4% of Shibasaki's viewers were aged 18 to 24 and 19.9% were in the 25-to-34 bracket. Though many of his audience are young people, 18% of his viewers are aged 65 or above. Furthermore, 51.4% of his viewers are Japanese while the other half are from the U.S., India, the U.K. and elsewhere.

    "After I began YouTube, the range of people who came to my personal exhibitions changed," he smiled as he told me. Previously, the majority of visitors had been elderly women residing in Tokyo, but he now sees people from the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, the southwestern island of Kyushu, and even foreigners. Families with children as well as young people have also come through his exhibitions' doors.

    Shibasaki has also been posting on the popular app TikTok since January, and has attracted about 30,000 followers.

    Mindful of those who don't have watercolor supplies as well as people with more time on their hands indoors because of the coronavirus pandemic, Shibasaki has started new segments on his channel, including posting more videos introducing simple pencil drawing techniques.

    When he asked viewers to use the hashtag "#shibastayhome" with photos of their paintings on Instagram and other social media, several hundred pictures were posted almost immediately.

    "I'm happy as my motto is to enjoy drawing, to provide easy to understand (instructions), and to work with everyone," Shibasaki commented. The artist says he has so many more things he wants to film. "There's a saying that art is long and life is short. I plan on doing things that I want to do now. I hope I can convey to others that one such method is painting."

    (Japanese original by Kaho Kitayama, Photo Group)

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