A Conversation With Yuko Shimizu, Professional Magazine Illustrator

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Yuko-Post.jpg A self-described nerd who, as a child, sat in the corner and drew while the other kids played dodgeball, Japanese artist Yuko Shimizu didn't always know that she wanted to be an illustrator. She spent 11 years doing public relations for a corporation in Tokyo before escaping to New York for art school. And after graduating from the School of Visual Arts in 2002, she gradually amassed an impressive roster of clients including The New Yorker and Playboy. Her style is surreal and sexy, combining the language of Japanese woodblock prints with the grammar of graphic novels. Here, Shimizu talks about which artists she worships, what advice she would give to young illustrators, and why she'd rather stay away from the animation world.

What do you say when people ask you, 'What do you do?'

I used to say, "I'm an illustrator" when I started out, and I realized nobody knows what illustrators do -- unless you're a children's book illustrator. So now I say I draw pictures for magazines and newspapers, which people seem to understand.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the illustration world?

The Internet. It sounds dumb, but before the Internet, if you made art, you had to show it, otherwise people didn't see it; you had to show it physically. Now, you make art and, even if you're someone who's not a professional artist and you make great art in the middle of nowhere, you put it online and, if the work is good, people start talking about it and linking to you. It's as simple as that.

I started in 2002 when not everyone had a website and blogs; I started out in that transitional period. The Internet has helped a lot to establish me as a working illustrator, making a living from it. For people who started a little bit before me, it took five years, ten years to establish themselves because they had to physically bring their work around to show to magazines and newspapers. Now students do their work, they put it up online, and next thing you know, anyone from anywhere in the world can see it.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your field?

It is art, but it is also about running a small business. You can do amazing artwork, but if you're unreliable and irresponsible or can't keep track of your paperwork, you can't succeed as an illustrator. I'm in my studio a lot working, but actually half of the time, I'm doing my paperwork and organizing and talking to clients. Actually, it's half art and half running a small business.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the art or illustration world?

People say it's animation. A lot of illustrations get animated because of the online presence -- you know, iPad and all the tablets that are new; you have a more interactive quality than before.

But trends are trends; they come and go. I try not to get too caught up in the trends. Right now, definitely, animating your drawings seems like the hot thing. But I also think that good, static drawings and paintings will probably not go away. And I do not do animation. The best animation from illustrators always comes from illustrators doing the character design and the professional animators animating them. There are artworks that are easier to translate into animation, and some that are not. And I guess my work is not that easy. It's not animation-friendly.

What's an art or illustration trend that you wish would go away?

Whatever is a trend, I wish it would go away. There's always something that's very popular right now, at this moment. And a lot of people go, "Oh my God, there's a goldmine out there!" and they try to do it. And a lot of people's work starts to look the same. And those people might get work at that point, but then the trend goes away, and then the next thing comes along, and you're not in fashion anymore. I feel it's a bit sad to chase the trend -- any trend. Especially for young people who want to be illustrators, I hope they just do their own things and do not chase the trend.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

Well, for the last two and a half months, I haven't been taking on any new work. I'm working on a children's book. It's my first children's book. And it's hard. It's a lot of pictures that are based on the same theme. I'm so used to doing magazines and newspapers and book covers, and it starts and ends with one image -- or five images at the most. This is the whole book from start to finish. It is taking a lot of time. I'm still working on it.

Who are some people that you'd put in the illustration Hall of Fame?

Definitely Edel Rodriguez. He does a lot of diverse work. Lots of great concept and political work. Very simple graphics but strong. Tim O'Brien, who also does a lot of political things -- lots of Time covers. Super realistic, almost like photos. He does a lot of portraits for Time when there is no good photo of that person around. He did a great cover of Qaddafi recently. And Steve Brodner. Most of these are all the political illustrators. I think they're great.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

I used to do PR for a big corporation in Tokyo -- drawing was always my hobby. I worked there for 11 years. It was always a hobby, and now it's my occupation. I didn't hate the PR job. The job itself was fine. I didn't belong in the corporate world, especially the Japanese corporate world. Women weren't treated that well. I haven't been there in 15 years, so it might have changed, hopefully, but still, it's a difficult place for women.

At first, I didn't know what else I wanted to do. It took me 10 years to figure out that I wanted to be a professional artist. Also, I wanted to come to art school in New York. I needed a lot of money for my tuition and living expenses, so I ended up staying in that job so I saved up enough money; international students cannot take student loans. Looking back, it was the best thing because I graduated and didn't owe anyone any money, which was great.

What iPhone app or program most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

I do not have an iPhone. I'm the last person on Earth who has a flip phone. So an iPhone app doesn't apply. I use Photoshop to color all my drawings, so none of my illustration work can be finished without Adobe Photoshop. That is one program I cannot live without.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

People think I listen to music when I work. I actually work with WNYC on because I'm in my studio by myself. Usually, some interview that I listen to on WNYC is stuck in my head, not music. Actually, there was an interview with Chris Isaak a few days ago. That was good, all the Elvis songs that he made -- maybe those.

Image: Yuko Shimizu.

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Grace Bello is a copywriter and freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in McSweeney's, Nerve.com, BUST, The Hairpin, USA Today's Pop Candy, and more. She performed in the improv comedy troupe Wizard Sleeve.

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