Grace Helmer: Magma Print, Japanese Street

Work / Illustration

Grace Helmer’s intricate paintings and sketchbook pages from a trip to Japan and Taiwan

Looking through illustrator Grace Helmer’s paintings from a trip to Japan and Taiwan made us envious for a number of reasons. Firstly and obviously, was the fact she spent time travelling around each country on what looks like a dream holiday. But more importantly and to the point, Grace’s documentation of her trip – sketchbooks full of train ticket stubs stuck next to delicate oil paintings – put our iPhone snaps and thumb-lensed disposable camera shots of holidays to shame.

Initially booked “on a bit of a whim because I’d had a stressful few months,” Grace’s trip took place last year with the loose aim “to go away for a bit and make work just for myself again,” she tells It’s Nice That. “I’d been to Japan a few times before but wanted to go back and travel around a bit more.” The trip started in Kyoto, “following a nonsensical route dictated by who I was travelling with or visiting,” before she went on to “Nara, Naoshima, Hakone, Takayama, Lake Biwa, Wakayama, Saga and Osaka,” after which she went to visit Taiwan to visit an exhibition of her pal, Charlene Man.

With the objective of getting back into illustration in mind, Grace’s suitcase contained oil paints (“I use a medium that makes the paint dry quickly”), pencils and a couple of sketchbooks. “For a lot of the trip I was with my friend and studio buddy Charlotte Mei, who ended up featuring in a lot of my paintings from the trip,” Grace explains. “Our routine was mostly exploring and sketching in the day, then huddling round a kotatsu table in the evening and painting from what we’d seen”.

The relaxed nature of the holiday meant Grace didn’t “really have a plan for what to paint, it was very free,” she explains. “I’m rubbish at keeping sketchbooks so it took a while to get into it and figure out how to work outside of the studio. There were a few occasions where I’d run out of oil paint medium so used some random oils from hostels we were staying in (and now I know that if you do this, don’t leave it a few weeks before you scan it in because everything turns yellow…)”.

Although it’s difficult for us to believe Grace’s isn’t a regular sketchbook keeper after seeing the intricately put together result of the trip, the illustrator says, on reflection, that working in this manner and the trip in general “really gave me more confidence in how I approach painting,” she says. “After overworking a lot in London I’d started to lose part of what made painting so enjoyable, so just responding to my surroundings and doing some paintings reminded me how to have fun again!”

On returning to London Grace continued to paint from her pictures, creating a zine of the results, “which is really nice to have as a document from the trip”. When we got back in contact with Grace to ask about the work she was coincidentally back in Japan for Hot Air, a group exhibition of paintings, ceramics wooden sculptures and prints by herself, Charlotte Mei and Charlene Man. The exhibition is on display in Tokyo from 2 – 13 March and Osaka from 30 March – 8 April and more details can be found here.


Grace Helmer: Huallen, Beach Green


Grace Helmer: Huallen, Taroko


Grace Helmer: Kyoto, View


Grace Helmer: Lake Biwa, Charlotte


Grace Helmer: Lake Biwa, Trees


Grace Helmer: Osaka, Dotonburi


Grace Helmer: Saga, Koume Chan


Grace Helmer: Sketchbook spread


Grace Helmer: Sketchbook spread


Grace Helmer: Sketchbook spread


Grace Helmer: Sketchbook spread


Grace Helmer: Sketchbook spread


Grace Helmer: Taipei, Cars


Grace Helmer: Taipei, Frog


Grace Helmer: Wakayama, Up Hill