Yuko Shimizu

Yuko Shimizu

Yuko Shimizu—whose distinct illustrations you’ve probably seen scattered through the pages of your favorite publications—hasn’t always spent her days as an artist in high demand. In fact, it was only in 2003 that Yuko graduated from New York’s School of Visual Arts, leaving behind a long PR stint in her native Tokyo to finally follow her childhood dream of becoming an artist.

Today, the NYC-based Shimizu fills her days drawing for clients like The New York Times and Rolling Stone Magazine. We caught up with the busy artist long enough to learn about following your dreams, why black and white is better than color, and how she stays inspired.

“To be honest, if I had gone to art school when I was 18, I don’t think I would be doing this for living now.”

Format: Could you share your background with our readers who may be unfamiliar, please?
Yuko Shimizu: I am an illustrator, originally from Tokyo, Japan, that now lives and works in New York City. I have been drawing and painting ever since I can remember, but my traditional Japanese family background didn’t allow me to consider going to art college, so I majored in marketing and advertising in hopes of doing something creative in a practical field. I did PR for a big corporation in Tokyo for eleven years before I finally moved to New York to go back to school, with the decision, commitment and will to do what I love. I got an MFA in Illustration in 2003, and have been freelancing in illustration since.

I also teach at the School of Visual Arts, where I studied. I believe it is important to give back to the school that made me who I am today.

Format: It took you a while before you finally landed in a field that made you happy. How important do you consider the years you spent in areas other than illustration?
Yuko Shimizu: When I started out as a new illustrator in my late 30’s, I felt like I was starting out so late. I didn’t feel I was fresh enough. Then I soon realized I could use my age to my advantage; I may have not been as fresh as the rest, but I had a lot more life experience in general. I was completely committed and focused on being an illustrator. I had things I wanted to express in my work, and thanks to my long torturous years in corporate Japan, I had developed good business planning and communication skills that wound up helping me a lot to run my small business as an illustrator. To be honest, if I had gone to art school when I was 18, I don’t think I would be doing this for living now. I am at peace with my late start, and I don’t regret my “previous life.” Everything falls into its place, I guess.

Yuko Shimizu

Format: As an illustrator, you expose yourself to a huge variety of subjects, cultures, and issues in order to create the perfect image. How has this exposure shaped your view of life, and of the world?
Yuko Shimizu: One of the best things about being an illustrator, especially working in an editorial field, is that I read and learn about things I would never expect otherwise. For instance, one day I am researching companies that are searching for oil in Israel based on what is written in the Bible, the next day I am learning how men should fight depression during winter, and then the day after I am reading a story on small tips to make air travel pleasant. Sometimes I have to draw a portrait of a musician I have never heard of, and after I am done with research I find myself becoming a huge fan.

My goal is to win Jeopardy when I am like 65. It sometimes feels totally possible, with my brain filled with all of this trivia. I love it.

Format: As a result of the research you put into each piece, is your work heavily symbolic?
Yuko Shimizu: Whether my work is symbolic or not is up to the viewer to decide. What I can say is that good ideas come from thorough research and understanding of the subject matter. What people imagine happening in an illustrator’s head – like a light bulb flashing on out of the blue – is not a reality. It is a lot more logical and methodical.

Format: When you draw for yourself as opposed to clients, what are some of your favorite themes to work with?
Yuko Shimizu: That I don’t have to have themes [Laughs]! I treat my personal work as abstract drawing. Of course, I am no Jackson Pollock, so my sense of abstract is still representational.

For illustration jobs, because there are articles or themes, there has to be a concept that can be understood by the majority of viewers, and a sketch and approval process is involved. So, [for myself] I want to do everything I am not supposed to do for work. I do very rough composition thumbnail studies in my sketchbook, and then just attack the paper – really big paper. No sketch, the composition gets determined and finalized as I work, mistakes are left as is, or made non-mistakes by working around them, concept and narrative are very loose and open to interpretation, and I don’t even use color. It is, in a way, a detox process. But then, I can’t just keep detoxing, so I need to do [my] job too. I love them both – I cannot just do my own work or just do illustration jobs.

Yuko Shimizu

Format: It seems like you favor working within a slightly muted set of colors. Has this always been a trademark of yours, or was it something you purposefully settled into?
Yuko Shimizu: To be honest, I am not so interested in color. Of course, almost all the illustration jobs are in color nowadays, so I try to make color work for me, but my passion is in drawing. If I am done with the drawing, 90% of the job is done (not time-wise, just mentally). I just color so the viewers can still see my drawing and lines. If I used brighter, stronger colors, viewers would see colors before they see drawing. That is not what I want.

If I had a choice, I would do all my work in just black and white. For me, it is a lot more interesting to try to figure out how to make a drawing work compositionally only [using] black and white, and it is a fun, challenging process of drawing.

Format: When you work, do you have certain things that you like to listen to or be surrounded by?
Yuko Shimizu: It depends on what I need to do that day. During the day, I mostly listen to WNYC [radio] through my computer as I work on illustrations. In the evening, I pick chilled out music from my iTunes. When I am just doing my personal work, I blast upbeat songs from iTunes.

Format: You have such an amazingly international client base – do you feel the need to change elements of your illustrations for different countries, or do you find that art is fairly universal?
Yuko Shimizu: When a foreign client contacts me it is because they are interested in my work, so I never feel the need to change my work to accommodate them. I do work on variety of different subjects and topics as I said earlier, however, the bottom line is that they call me because they think my work is suitable for their project. When I get calls for any other reason, I don’t take it.

Yuko Shimizu
Format: You’ve mentioned the importance of “freshness” in a few of your interviews. When you’re not traveling, and not being exposed to new things, how diligently do you need to work to find inspiration?
Yuko Shimizu: I know! I love movies and I don’t even have enough time to go to theaters! What do I do when I cannot even walk a few blocks to go see a movie? Well, there are a few different things. Radio online is one of them. WNYC is always filled with great stories. I sometimes go to the Studio 360 (NPR art and design show) website (www.studio360.org) and do a day of “Studio 360 marathon” or the classic “This American Life” (www.thisamericanlife.org) marathon! They work really well when I am doing “auto-pilot works” like coloring on the computer – they keep me from getting exhausted (I hate coloring). And the archive is so well organized you never run out of stories to listen to. If I am home at 11:30 PM, I watch ABC Nightline – in fact, I am addicted to this show. Again, very well edited, good stories all the time; this keeps my brain stimulated. I watch TV with an antenna. I only see like four channels, which prevents me from being sucked into TV for hours. I watch news and Nightline – that is all I need from TV anyway.

If I have a bit more time, I go down to Strand Bookstore, go through all the design and art books, and buy at least a few books at one time, if not more. My friends gave me a Strand gift card for birthday, and I still have a big balance left! Strand is the artists’ favorite bookstore in New York, and of course, it’s my favorite too.

Format: It’s an interesting balance, work as art/art as work. Do you see any difference between the two?
Yuko Shimizu: Right now, the biggest problem I have is that I don’t have a good hobby! Drawing and painting had been my hobby for more than 30 years of my life. Now it is a job, so I guess I cannot call it a hobby right? What do I do?

Format: You’re currently working with a project, Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far, that has been getting a lot of press. Can you tell us about it?
Yuko Shimizu: I am not exactly part of the whole book; I have worked with Stefan (www.sagmeister.com) on one of the projects featured in the book Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far. It is called “Everybody Who Is Honest Is Interesting,” and it is a ten panel mural project with Pentagram (www.pentagram.com) and Robin Hood Foundation (www.robinhood.org), a local charity that donates libraries to schools in poor areas of New York City. About two years ago, we collaborated over the course of about four months to create the mural. Unfortunately, the construction of the library is delayed. We are hoping it gets finished by fall. It is a charity work, so payment is minimal, but how rewarding it is [makes it] purely priceless. I consider New York my home, and as an artist working in the city, the best thing I can do is to give back with my artistic skill. And of course, I get to work with one of my biggest “hero” designers – how much better can it get?

More Info: http://www.yukoart.com/

Carmel Hagen

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  1. Both Yuko and Jean was invited to pitch on that assignment. Along with a few others. And they both worked from the same sketch that the agency did. James was obviously chosen as the one to finish it and go to print.

    But Yuko’s art is awesome as well!!

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