The Arterview: Chou Toshio

By Alchemator.
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Don't you wish that more artists were British? It was much easier doing the first ever 'Arterview' — I only had to hop on a train down South. I certainly didn't have to take a long-haul flight all the way over to Japan (not to mention that my interviewee wasn't even paying!) After rendezvousing with the lovely Nastyjungle I had sworn that I wouldn't take a flight further than America. Never mind, I guess. I knew, however, that this interview would be worth it. Probably.

Stepping off the plane, I expected an asphyxiating (and perhaps slightly romantic?) plume of smoke to pile into my lungs, but other than the busyness of Narita Airport, east of Tokyo, there was very little to see. As I got onto a bus headed for Tokyo proper, there were only rice fields and a calm, Asian sun skimming the landscape.


Nope, that wasn't the sound of the bus crashing. It was the sound of being engulfed in the mechanical undergrowth of Tokyo. Finally I had arrived at my Western vision of Japan — a densely-populated mass of metal, spewing forth some of the greatest technological innovations of the modern world. Just as quickly as I encountered the wonders of the Japanese capital, however, I leave it behind, grabbing a train back out into the rice field wilderness.

A few hours later, the train rumbles a goodbye and I look around what seems to be a few planks in the middle of a rice field. It's probably a station, but —aside from a train stopping there —; there would be little to tell it apart from the landscape. An old woman thrusts a peach into my hands and tries a welcoming smile — it didn't look like she'd had much practice. A voice echoed across the platform Some guy shouted at me from yet another rice field, and — despite not looking American at all — I deduced this was my host, Chou Toshio. Fortunately it hadn't taken too long to find him...

Eventually we arrive at a house that seems to have been randomly dropped into this cluster of wooden structures, but Chou's interior decorating is certainly top-notch — it is a mixture of colorful plant-life, merging high-tech and tradition, and... oh we're here to talk about art. I suppose we'll get to that later.

Chou invites me to sit down on a pillow, and the interview can finally begin.


So, Chou, who are you?

Chou looks up for a moment, before offering me some green tea and some bowl of rice crackers, which I can't identify. He says they are "some bay", so I decline on account of not liking sand. After preparing everything adequately, he kneels down on a pillow opposite, describing his position as "in seizure". Perhaps Japanese isn't the language for me...


A couple people on the forums know already, but "Chou Toshio" is actually my real name. Not my legal or full name, but it's actually my real Japanese name, and my last name as it would be pronounced in Japanese. My last name is Chinese, since I'm half-half, born and raised in Hawaii (where such an ethnic background is normal at best, if not downright boring). I'm now 25 years old! God das' old brah, das mid-20's!


So what got you into Pokémon?


I've been playing Pokemon since RBY; I'm part of that entire generation who was older elementary school / early middle school when Red / Blue came to the US and everyone played Pokemon. I played the Surfing Pikachu mini-game before homeroom everyday in 7th grade, and Japanese Gold / Silver with all my friends in 8th grade, even though none of us could speak Japanese back then!

Somewhere after entering high school though, peer pressure from the wrestling team pretty much cut off my ties with Pokemon. I was the so-called "ace" of my grade, which made it even more inexcusable to be a Pokemon dork it turns out. Looking back on it, falling out of Pokemon in late highschool pretty much directly resulted in me missing the creation of Smogon. Hmm, will never know if that was for the better or worse.

As an interesting twist of fate, it was a Pokemon movie that reeled me back in. During college I just happened to turn on the TV one day, and there it was — Pokemon. I was about to change the channel when I thought: wait, damn, this is some really good animation! The movie was Pokemon Movie 5: Protecting Gods of the Water City, Latios and Latias, and I ended up watching the whole thing. I'm a real nature nut, so seeing the Pokemon set naturally into the movie's beautiful take of Venice and the scenes of Lati@s's secret garden... it really got to me! It pretty much brought back all the magic of Pokemon to me, not as a video game, but as what's at the core of this RPG: The story of a young boy going out to explore nature.

Ironically, I'd return to Pokemon to appreciate the movies as an artist / nature enthusiast, but would end up moderating a competitive community site. Seems pretty typical of me somehow.


Following on from that, what brought you to Smogon in the first place?


It's a pretty typical story really. Even when I'd "broken" from Pokemon, I'd always had a vague interest in reading the featured Pokemon articles at GameFAQs or Serebii. When I wanted to get more into Pokemon (after watching the movie), Serebii seemed like a natural starting point, so I joined the forum there (can't remember the user name, and I must have been there for only two weeks tops). But, at that time, the forum was extremely laggy, and I also found it extremely aesthetically displeasing (I hated the color scheme). When the name "Smogon" came up in some thread, I was more than enthusiastic to check it out.

To be honest, Smogon's high speed, its much more eye-pleasing color scheme, and generally much more intelligent posts (hahaha man my standards were low I guess!) sold it to me. After just seeing Smogon once, I never went to another Pokemon forum again. It's funny because I didn't even join Smogon for the competitive stuff, and was more interested in a place to do Pokemon art. But the competitive inclination of the site is what piqued my interest in learning competitive battling. After a month of lurking, it would be Stark Mountain, and not Smeargle's Studio, where I started posting. All things come full circle though, neh?


Ah, yes. I remember your archived warstories and the like. And your girl-strangling avatar... Anyway, do you feel Smogon has changed you somewhat?


Hmm... I'm not sure to what degree I'd say I've changed as a person (outside natural maturation that comes with getting older), but Smogon has changed how I view internet communities. At first I only really viewed Smogon as an information site, and never really cared about the people that much (beyond "how do I get Mingot to trade me his flawless Empoleon"). I worked for the artist badge with the attitude of "eh, I plan on being here and don't plan on leaving. I might as well have a cute little symbol under my name if it just means drawing a bit."

Access to Inside Scoop though (Smogon's "mysterious" badged user forum) totally changed my view of the site. It was inspirational to see how much people cared. IS was unlike any other forum I'd posted in at Smogon (which was mostly just Stark / PR / Wifi). People really cared about each other and the community, and posted earnestly and intelligently, and it showed me a "different side" to many users I'd already known over the years. It turned an entire corner of my world upside down, as did a post of Firestorm's I read: "Honestly, I care as much about my internet friends as my IRL friends," which I'd never even thought of before. I'd honestly never thought of weighing internet acquaintances that importantly.

All of this was inspirational, and seemed like a lot of fun! From there I decided to seriously bring my "social know-how" to bear (to what degree I have any), and treat Smogon like a community I belonged to rather than just a site I dabbled at. This was about a year ago, and Smogon has been infinitely more rewarding since then.

I notice that Chou changes his position to cross-legged. I wouldn't blame him — "in seizure" both sounds and looks uncomfortable.


What is your history with art?


I've been sketching and drawing ever since I could hold a pencil! Until I reached 2nd grade, my parents were constantly annoyed at my prolific use of paper (I'd toss a sheet aside after drawing only a couple lines!). My motor skills weren't good enough to keep up with my vision at that point, and I'd be intent on starting over really easily. It got to the point where my parents donated cheap paper to the elementary school because they felt guilty with my overuse of it.

I basically drew with that intensity through my entire childhood and adolescence. People always ascribe the ability to draw to "talent," but really talent has very little to do with it in the long run. The ability to draw simply comes from continual repetition, and dedicated practice. Now the ability to focus on drawing so intensely without giving up — well I guess you could call that a talent if you want to.

As a child my favorite motifs were animals. As mentioned, I've always been a nature nut, and animals were always a big deal to me. I spent countless recesses reading about animals and drawing/painting them after school. I also had profound respect for one of Hawaii's greatest landscape painters, from whom I also received some light mentoring.

Of course I'm a big anime nut, and in middle school / high school especially, I focused a lot on anime style artwork. When all was said and done though, I think I have and always will come back to nature. My interest in Pokemon is also tied up with this. High school was kind of a "golden age" for my development as an artist — I took a lot of serious classes, had many rivals (especially anime artist friends) I eagerly competed with, learned digital art / bought a tablet, and also discovered aquascaping.

The folks in Smeargle Studio know that while I love drawing, I consider my primary artform to be planted aquarium design. I've dedicated a lot of time and effort to studying rock and wood arrangement, Japanese garden design, patterns in nature, and of course all the science that goes into it — everything from equipment, fertilization, plant species, fish species, etc. etc. In 2007, I placed in the top 100 out of 1200 contestants in the respected International Aquatic Plant Layout Contest sponsored by Aqua Design Amano. I have yet to replicate that level of result a second time embarrassingly.

In English we call the art form Aquascaping, I'd definitely recommend you check it out!


How did you develop your style?


I guess I'll talk mostly about digital art, since its not like there's a big aquascaping fanbase in Smogon, and most who follow art at Smogon really know me for illustration anyway.

Really, a lot of messing around. In high school I had a lot of friends to compete with and bounce ideas off of. We taught each other a lot about Photoshop, and were also taking classes. I refined my drawing and painting technique in highschool (though it could still use a lot of work, honestly), and learned a lot of photoshop basics that would eventually lead me to discovering more interesting uses of them.

For instance, I learned about the tools in highschool, but it was years later in college where I would develop a style of illustrating aquariums based on using clone stamp with custom-made paint brush heads. Combine with some other editing and the water color filter, and I was able to create very visually pleasing illustrations of what I wanted aquariums to turn out like.

Those techniques would carry over into landscape illustration, and are the foundation of my "Japanese paintings" that have won me a couple of MACs, and also feature in The Smog #14's cover picture, Ho-Oh.

Unlike most of Smogon's artists, I don't think I have a very defined consistent style. I'm known for everything from zany cartoons, to giant-boob'd manga characters, to serious landscape paintings and aquarium design. I also love photography. Putting aquariums aside, if I had to pick one I think of as my "true" style of illustration, it would probably be my nature paintings.

Stuff like Ho-Oh, or Misty / Milotic "Twilight Meeting." That's my real bread and butter (though those take hours to make, which is why I don't do them often). I'm one of Smeargle's laziest artists unfortunately!


And, since I hear you have somewhat strong views on this subject, how do you feel about the use of Photoshop? From an ethical standpoint, that is.


I'm glad you asked this Alch, because it's an art philosophy question I feel strongly about.

Let me ask you Alch, and the wider art community how much do you know about cave art? Pictures scratched with rocks on a cave wall, or painted with berry or mud dyes or what-not? My guess would be not that much. Something that people have to understand is that technology is an enabler of art. One could go as far as to say that technology is a prerequisite of art. What we can do as artists is directly limited by technology. The greatest paintings could not exist without the paints and the brushes that were used to make them. Marbel statues can't exist without refined marble, and the tools to carve it. Photography? Film? Animation? Shall I go on?

Take a look at this planted aquarium Alch.

Chou gestures towards a large tank at the side of the room. Something vaguely resembling an Alomomola looks back at me angrily.


Planted aquariums have incredible visual impact. It's vivid, it's captivating it's alive. This is a truly great art form! But take away the pressurized CO2 fertilization, high-powered compact florescent lights, external canister filtration, top-grade-glass etc. etc., and you got nothing! Moreover, take away the airplanes needed to transport aquatic plants and fish to local stores, and again — you're left with nothing! What we can do as artists is directly limited by the tools, resources, and technology available to us.

There are a lot of traditional-minded people in the art community who cringe at the capacities of Photoshop, especially filters. Frankly, those people are going to end up in the same boat as traditional photographers who bitch and moan at digital photographers who can just use Photoshop to get rid of some bad white dot somewhere in the photo (as opposed to scrapping the photo and starting all over).

If there are tools, people will use them. The masses are not going to whine about this-or-that-somehow-"cheap"-technology. The world will only remember the final work. The world will only remember how great it was, how inspiring it was, or how crappy it was. When it comes to art, the people, the audience, will only ever remember if a piece existed or not, with no care at all as to how the piece was made.

Now, I'm not saying that there is no code of ethics — there is. You can't just take someone else's work, fiddle with it a bit and claim it as your own; especially if the piece is still recognizable. You can't filter a photograph and claim that you drew it, you can't lie. But if credit is given where credit is due, permission is taken where permission is needed, and no lies are said as to how a piece is made, then the sky is the limit frankly.

Technology and tools are made to be used, and art has always changed and evolved alongside it. People's expectations of art have and will always evolve alongside it. Very few people can enjoy watching Speed Racer after having seen Kung Fu Panda. Is this anyone's fault? Is it unfair to the older film? No that's absurd. It's a natural reality that our perceptions of art and media evolve along with technology.

It's pretty obvious what I'm getting at. Whether it's filling that white dot in the middle of black on a digital photo, or using a water color filter to make that Ho-Oh picture extremely bad-ass, using Photoshop is frankly a free-for-all as long as one doesn't lie. Whether the final product actually looks good or not, is a different question to be answered by the viewers.

Worrying about whether or not a certain tool is "cheap"? That's just pointless. Art evolves with technology, and the losers are the ones who refuse the technology for superficial reasons of their own narrow thinking.

I blink. Arterview questions don't usually go this deep (is that an aquarium pun? Eh...), though I suppose that reflects Chou's personality in general.


How do you think Smeargle's Studio could be improved? I know you've already set up the tutorial thread.


Well, I'm not the most active user in the studio, but I think most have seen the Professor Smeargle thread, and know how I feel about "raising artists" in Smeargle. It's a pretty lofty goal, especially for the low-key casual attitude of the studio. I don't think that Smeargle should take on the "serious" attitude of an art school or whatnot, since frankly that's not what most of the members are or have assembled for. Even those artists in the studio that pursue art professionally don't come to the studio for that, but instead to chill. That's not a bad thing at all.

It would be cool however, if the studio did provide avenues for people to be more serious if they wanted to be. For instance, if we had outlets that would better encourage critique, both for people who want to critique and those looking for serious critique. The art threads themselves are not a really good place for this, since they are more of a chill place to hang out, squeel, "kyaaa" over each other's art etc. People can't feel comfortable getting or giving critique in that setting. You'd probably have to make threads specifically for critique. I'm not even sure how much real interest there would be on either side, both giving and receiving (no homo), but it might be worth looking into. The IRC channel, #Smeargle, is already a good outlet for this kind of activity.

Smeargle's already a cool place, so no need to stress the small stuff I think. Mostly, we'll see if Arti and the team can or will build us any new techs to play with, or if we can think of anything we'd like to request. Again, what we can do as artists is limited by the tools available to us.


And, of course, we must mention another of your projects — the great JAP! What's your opinion?


JAP is my brainchild, an idea I came up with when brainstorming easy ways I could earn brownie points for my Smog badge (joking, but not really, lol). The idea was inspired by Jumpluff's cute mons article, but I expanded the idea by making it more of a humorous panel with flexibility to comment on designs in a broader view. JAP has been going for almost a year now, hard to believe! It's been a really fun run, and I'm glad to see both the writers and readers continue to enjoy it. As a social article, I think it's accomplished a lot, in being funny, entertaining, and making a few badged users of the art scene more "accessible" to the community by making us known personalities — something I think is cool since artist badgers tend to be some of the most anti-social, or at least unknown.

Oh, something weird I noticed as of late — while Az was the only user to join JAP as a mod, all 4 of the other regular members (Fatecrashers, Alchemator, Kinneas, and myself) have all become forum moderators over the course of the year we've been doing this. Moreover, there are no longer any non-forum mod panelists. Good advertising is good advertising I guess? My super-secret evil plot is super effective.

Suddenly a pair of sunglasses appear on both of our faces, and we laugh maniacally. Even the beast in the tank has some shades, but doesn't stop looking any less angry.


Any plans for the future?


I'm not quite settled on my plans. One thing's for certain, and that this Japan gig is getting old. I plan on moving onto something else next year. My #1 plan would be to move back to the US and go into aquarium design. I can't talk about the details, but I'm having talks with a certain company.

Alternatively, I might go back home to get a Chinese International Business MBA from UH [University of Hawaii]. I'm kind of wanting to learn Chinese language and culture now that I've gotten a good amount of experience with Japan.


So no plans to enter any MACs?

Chou laughs. A lone tear escapes my eye...


And finally, the most important question of all. A question that will most certainly blow your socks off, and rock you away, err... Anyway, what's your favourite Pokémon?


This has always been a tough question for me! On one hand I definitely have a soft spot for Tyranitar (and that's partially why my avatar is always Tyranitar / Larvitar), I'd have to say that my favorite Pokemon is Gyarados. The compelling story of Magikarp's struggle to become the great dragon is truly inspiring. Plus, Gyarados is just awesome, especially the red Gyarados. It reminds me of the red Arowana, bred as "Dragon Fish" in South East Asia, and probably amongst the most prized of fresh water aquarium fish. Gyarados is as elegant as it is vicious; a truly spectacular Pokemon.

The favorite Pokémon of these arty folk never seems to be obvious...


Chou has long been one of my favourite artists on Smogon, despite his infrequent posting and — I think — a lack of self-discipline. His work is extraordinarily different from your average Smogon artist, and this almost solely due to the different culture in which he lives, bringing a fresh, Japanese twist to a forum filled almost exclusively with Western styles. Being a nature fan, Chou beautifully combines a Japanese painting style with plant-life — it leaves little to be desired, no? Along with shading that makes Chou's style unique comes an intricate knowledge of hues, whic have always been central to traditional Japanese art. In the piece depicted on the right, Chou sets the tone with a blue hue, which makes well with the Water-type and the Water-type Gym Leader.

It was actually this very piece which made me an instant fan of Chou's artistic abilities, some years ago now. I simply hadn't seen anything like it, not only on Smogon but in my entire life. The warm colours of the autumn leaves bring the trees to the fore, with Suicune — and the lake — being pushed slightly into the background. This gives the viewer the feel of peering through the forest at this magnificent Pokémon. I really will have to have Chou make some large paintings for my house...

You can check out Chou Toshio's art thread here. Overall, I rate his art a B+.

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