Yuko Shimizu is a freelance illustrator lives and works in New York City. She works in a studio with two other illustrators whom she considers a her New York family.
How did you get started in the illustration field?
I did not have a typical path…
I was drawing ever since I can remember, but my typical Japanese businessman family environment did not allow me to choose a path to go to art school. I studied advertising and marketing because it was the most creative of the practical majors and landed a position doing PR in a general trading company in Tokyo. I actually worked there for 11 years. When I was about 30 years old, it hit me hard that if I didn’t change my life then I would probably stuck in the corporate world till I retire, probably get married raise a kid or two. It sounded like a nightmare to me, although that may be a happy path for a lot of my coworkers. My indecisive self finally made up my mind to work on a biggest gamble of my life; try out in art.
I moved to New York a few years later (I still worked a few more years after as I needed to save more money and I had to build up a portfolio from scratch. I was not drawing for a long time at that point). I enrolled at School of Visual Arts as a freshman at an age about a double of my classmates, after the sophomore year, my kind chairman, Thomas Woodruff (now my boss!), helped me switch to the graduate program. I got my MFA in 2003. I have been illustrating since then, also I teach a class at SVA as a part-time instructor there as well. I am very fortunate.
How did you find your style? Has it changed since you started?
I don’t personally believe in word “style”. If viewers see something in my work that they think of as “style”, I probably draw that way because I cannot do it any other way. I am not trying to say I don’t know how to paint in oil or draw with shading, but what I am trying to say is everyone has something we do naturally and comfortably because that works best for us, and people see that as style. But actually style is not about how it looks on the surface. It is what makes your work you because you do it naturally and that natural to everyone is so different.
As an artist I believe you should change, not force yourself to change, but change naturally. Your experience, influences and thinking affect how you work, so you make gradual change over the years. You kind of never know what you would be doing five years from now. That is part of fun being an artist, which is completely different from how corporate world works.
What is your process when working with clients? Can you run us through a typical job?
I think it is the same as any other illustrator’s.
I get a call (or e-mail), and we discuss the story, schedule, fee and all that. Then I read the article (if it is an editorial job, and a lot of my jobs are editorial), probably a few times at least. Like when you are in a high school English class, I underline things that are important or visual. Then I usually sleep overnight without thinking much about it. Sleeping over an article somehow almost always works. Then the next step is research. I am a research-mania. I LOVE research. If I retire from this job, I will be a detective! I read through everything related to the story on internet, and look at every photo I need to look at. People often ask me (or other illustrators) how we get ideas. We don’t work magic. Ideas actually come from thorough research. If you know a lot about the subject you are illustrating, you get a lot of ideas.
Then I start thumbnail sketches.Then pick ones I like from thumbnails and go to pencil sketches. I think my sketches are on the looser side. I draw on xerox paper with a pencil. I have a bookshelf full of folders with clear pockets that have all the sketches I have ever done for jobs chronologically by invoice/job number. I maybe a bit neurotic, but it is helpful to have an organized archive of everything.
Sketch gets approved, then I blow the sketch up to the size I want to draw and print out. Often times, I print out a few A3 sheets and tape together. I do better when I draw bigger. Usually my full page illustration originals can be 18″x24″ or 22″x30″. then I cut my favorite cold press watercolor paper to the size I need to draw. I trace the sketch loosely with pencil onto the paper. Loose is important, If it is too tight, my final would look too tight and stiff. Tight trace is just a waste of time. As an illustrator I have to calculate my time really well, and that is where I save time so I can spend more time drawing. And then draw with ink with Japanese calligraphy brush onto the paper. Scan the drawing in (I use a large format scanner, but I still scan in 2-4 ways), and the last step is to color it with Photoshop. Done!
How do you market/promote your work?
When I was starting out, I sent out a lot of self promotion cards. I printed out from my home printer, put them in clear envelops and sent them out to the magazines I liked. I sat at Barnes and Noble and wrote down all the information from mastheads. That is how I made my mailing list. The first mailing list consisted of about 30 names. Now it is more than 500. But it is the same list started from those 30 names, I have added more and more over the years. I do not do a lot of mailings now. Thanks to magazines that get distributed by themselves, people see my work and call me.
My website is my biggest promotional tool now. I built my very small website when I was still in graduate school as part of my computer class assignment (taught by Matthew Richmond of ChoppingBlock). Now it is huge but it was very small when started. Beauty of a website is that you can keep building on top little by little. If I have any advise on aspiring illustrators regarding website, it is that they should learn how to build simple HTML site by themselves (use Dreamweaver! So simple!), so they can always update whenever they want to, and make it look the way they want look how they should look. Now is a great time for illustrators, because you can get jobs from anywhere in the world through your website!
Do you have a rep? Why/why not?
I do now. It is quite new to me, and I used to think I would never get an agent.
Editorial market works very simply. If you do what I wrote above, people will start noticing you and start calling you. And they see more of your work and more people start calling you… like that. But at some point, I wanted balance between editorial work and advertising work. Honestly, good agents have really good contacts to ad agencies, and most of ad agencies contact illustrators with agents. Once you step out of editorial market, fee and contract negotiations gets really tricky, stressful and unpredictable. When I started considering of having an agent or not, I met my agent Louisa who was about to start a new group, Boutique. I really liked her vision and we got along. So now I have an agent. It is not exclusive, so I still do take care of most of my own work. And Boutique takes care of mainly advertising work. I am really happy with this balance.
Having an agent is like a marriage. I suggest illustrators to spend a lot of time figuring out what you want, if you get along, if you trust… before signing on with any agent.
What was one of your favorite assignments?
It is hard to say… Every project is fun in a different way, it is hard to pick one.
In general I think illustrators do our best jobs when we are given a lot of freedom to interpret the projects. We are illustrators not just because we can draw or paint, but half of our job is our thinking and ideas. When art directors don’t trust we have good ideas, projects tend to fail, unfortunately.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I just enjoy the act of drawing. I don’t think there is anything else I like better in the world than drawing. It just needs to come out of me everyday.
Describe your work setting.
I share a studio with two friend illustrators Marcos Chin and Katie Yamasaki. It is a small space (because it is New York!), so we really need to get along well. They are like my family, not just studio-mates. We each have tables set up to draw and work on the computer with bookshelves full of books. Marcos and I also have a room two doors down called “messy room”, which is just for drawing on the walls. It is an empty room (often becomes a storage room as well, whether we like it or not…) and we just tack large sheets of papers on the wall and draw.
Do you have side projects you work on?
Whenever I have time. I usually take a month or two off in the summer and pretty much move myself into the “messy room”. (see pics below)
How do you maintain balance in your life between work and play?
That is an eternal question. I don’t know if I balance well between work and play. Drawing had been my hobby pretty much for the first 30 years of my life, and although it became my work, it is hard to think it is just “work”. there is always a part that is “play”.
But besides that, I travel a lot. I mean a lot. Some of my friends say I am out of control. I crossed the pond 6 times last year. I have already done twice this year, on top of smaller domestic trips. However, these trips too are not exactly play either. I go to different countries to meet illustrators, clients, publisher, show organizers, give lectures and crits in art schools, etc… So they are business trips also works well with the travel bug I carry inside me.
I am not a typical tourist. I am not interested in tourist attractions or monuments. I am interested in how people carry their lives in the different parts of the world. I am more interested in places local people go or what they do in their everyday lives.
I am obsessed with cities and public transportations. Each city has public transportation system that works in their logic, but not to the logic of others. Once I understand, it completely makes sense. And how each city comes up with these different systems tells so much about their culture. Fascinating. I get inspired so much.
Do you ever have creative slumps? What do you do then?
One good thing about getting older is you stop struggling when it doesn’t work. When things don’t work, close your sketch book, shut down your computer, and take a walk. If a walk doesn’t work, take a day off and relax. Don’t try to solve the problem that is already not working. Have a good sleep. If that is not enough, go away for a trip.
Anyway you do it, the trick is come back to your desk refreshed. You will be surprised the results that brings.
What do you do for fun/when you’re not working?
Travel travel travel. If I don’t have time to travel, I do research on the next travel destinations. Having travel plan ahead keeps me going even if I am going through 16 hour days 7 days a week, by the way which is not an exaggeration. We illustrators, often get stuck in our studio for as much as that long.
What has been inspiring you lately?
For me, traveling is the biggest inspirations. I was just in Venice last month for a group show. My schedule was crazy busy, but I decided to take this trip, because how often do I have a show in Venice, and how often can I go to Venice as a business trip? I just had to go. Although I had been there long time ago as a weekend tourist, the experience I had this time was completely different. I spent a lot of time with the show organizers and their family, had a glimpse of their lives. Learnt both good and bad of living and working in one of the most touristy cities in the world. If that is not inspiring, what is?
Any advice for others who are pursuing creative goals?
Love what you do, and really want what you love. Illustrators’ jobs are nothing glamorous. Sitting at your desk day in day out. You sometimes don’t have time to see your friends for a long time, and they don’t understand. You may be able to make OK living, but you will never be rich. It is not a job unless you ABSOLUTELY LOVE creating your work. But if you do, what a wonderful occupation this is! You make living doing the thing you love the most!!!!
Thank you, Yuko!