Illustrator Profile - Yuko Shimizu: "Drawing is what keeps me going"

By Robert Newman   Thursday June 4, 2015

Yuko Shimizu is a powerful artist who creates rich, sensual illustrations. She has made a huge splash in the illustration world over the past 13 years, with stylish ink drawings that have appeared in countless magazines, product design and advertisements, book covers, posters, and much more. Yuko’s style ranges from bold and graphic to detailed and ornate; her illustrations have highlighted a range of serious issues including sex, race, and cultural identity, but also can be light, whimsical, and childlike. A superb craftsperson and imaginative, engaging visual storyteller, she illustrated a children’s book, Barbed Wire Baseball, written by Marissa Moss, and did over 70 covers for the DC Comics Vertigo series The Unwritten. Yuko is also a passionate ambassador for illustration and visual creativity. She teaches at SVA, is active in the Society of Illustrators, and regularly promotes the work of other artists and illustrators.

I first became aware of Yuko in 2007, when she began illustrating a brilliant series of CD insert covers for a now-defunct UK music magazine called The Word. Yuko went on to create 33 monthly CD covers for the magazine, all energetic graphic explosions of forms, colors, and lines. Each cover was a different take on a scantily-clad woman doing something sensual with musical instruments and gear. The result was a fun, sexy and perfectly crafted collection of imagery that is truly one of the top illustration series of the past decade.

Yuko has a hyper-active social media presence, most notably on her Instagram feed, which includes work updates and steady stream of short videos of current projects in process. She has an infectious enthusiasm for illustration and the creative process, and maintains a steady schedule of lectures and workshops in locations around the world. Yuko obviously has a great love for both her art and the work that goes into creating it, and that heartfelt passion adds a special glow to everything that she creates.

My father was a businessman, and mother was a stay home mom. They were totally opposed to their daughter pursuing art. They think of Van Gogh when they think of a career in art. My parents are still around; they live in Tokyo. I have an older sister in New York who is in banking/accounting. 

I worked in a corporate PR job for 11 years before going back to art school. My undergraduate degree was in business (my school was called School of Commerce. It is a large university in Tokyo.)

I went back to art school at age 34, to the School of Visual Arts. I did first and second year undergraduate classes with then-18 year old classmates (some of them are still friends, and they are adults now). I have an MFA in Illustration from SVA (and I do NOT have a BFA in illustration because I switched out. My undergrad degree is forever in business). My very first job was in 2002, so I’ve been working as an illustrator about 13 years.

I have a studio in Midtown. I know, I am probably one of the last to have a studio space in Manhattan.

I never had luck finding inexpensive apartments (like some of my friends who have rent stabilized apartments), but to think about it, I think I am really lucky in the studio situation. When I finished my MFA, I moved into the studio with two other friends (John Hendrix and Katie Yamasaki) from grad school, because none of us lived in Manhattan, and we wanted a studio in a convenient area. Remember, it was 2003, and when I did a large enough illustration job, I still needed to burn that to a CD and take it to clients. The studio is about a 5-10 minute walk from The New York Times and the (now-former) Conde Nast building, and easy access to pretty much every client in NYC by just hopping on the subway.

Studiomates switched around (one of the longest studiomates was my best friend Marcos Chin), and eventually people all went on their different ways, but I kept the studio. It’s in a very small building, and not fancy at all (the elevator is often out of order), but the landlord always liked me, and thus, the rent doesn't go up much. When everyone moved out, I had the space renovated and cleaned up. I feel very comfortable working there.

It’s about 25 minutes door to door (15 minute subway ride) from my home. I worked in corporate for a long time, and though I didn’t love the office job, I did like the separation between work and private. Thus, I still like to dress up in the morning, and commute to my studio. I usually get there sometime around 10am-ish, sometimes earlier, sometimes later (if I stayed till very late and need to sleep in, etc). I still don’t even have internet in my apartment. Work is work; home is private.

Ink drawing on watercolor paper, then scanned in and colored in Photoshop. People often ask me why don’t I just do everything digitally. But I never draw in Photoshop. For me, the digital part is just “work.” I don’t enjoy it but it is a necessity. Ink drawing is the fun part I enjoy. So, it is not the matter of what is faster, etc. Illustration is hard work, so at least let me enjoy the part I love. Drawing is what keeps me going.

My biggest break was that toward the end of my tenure at the corporate PR job, I ended up with two really really horribly mentally abusive bosses. It was really hard to give up a steady paycheck from a big and stable corporate job. But when I had to deal with bosses from hell, it let me make up my mind that I should pursue what I always wanted to do (art), instead of clinging onto the job I hated. I never want to see those two bosses ever again, but I thank them almost every day. I wouldn’t be here if they weren't there.

Sometimes the worst situation is what makes people take the biggest risk, and they’re thankful for it later on in their lives.

For me, there are millions of big influences, but the most major thing is that I moved to New York when I was 12 years old, and spent four years in the suburbs. After my family went back to Japan, I realized I was not able to fit back into being a Japanese. I have been living back in New York for 16 years now, and I still don’t see myself as an American, yet, I am definitely not Japanese either. I think it’s interesting that this is fully reflected in my work. Japanese people think of my work as “gaijin” (Japanese term for foreigner, sometimes a derogatory term), and Americans think my work is very Japanese. The truth is, my work is neither.

Anyone who is doing anything groundbreaking—those who don’t stay in a safe ground and take risks to create something that’s fresh and new in the genre. It can be Bjork, Haruki Murakami, Wong Kar-Wai or Stefan Sagmeister... just to name a few. The more those innovative people exist, the more interesting the creative field gets.

My first year of working freelance, I caught a very severe flu. I had over 100F fever, and my whole body ached like I hit my back on the floor badly. It was terrible. I had a deadline for my first opener spread magazine illustration. I asked for a deadline extension, but I still needed to finish it while I was severely sick. It was a good learning lesson. When you are your own boss, nobody can take care of your job just because you are sick. I’ve been very careful about being and keeping myself healthy. That's part of the job as a freelancer.

I listen to [radio station] WNYC pretty much all day long, and that’s how I get most of the knowledge and information I find on an everyday basis. I buy music because I hear something fresh on the radio, I read books because I hear the author interview. The best part is listening to topics I have zero interest in before I hear about it on the radio, and I learn something new, or get a different perspective of the world.

Being an illustrator is about dealing with various topics of projects you were never expecting to illustrate until you got the assignment. It always helps to have a wide range of interests and knowledge. Besides, it’s good to have that wide range or interest and knowledge, just as a person.

It’s still going on: A collaboration with writer Michael Cunningham and the editorial and design team at FSG. A true collaboration of this scale won’t happen often; it’s a once in a lifetime experience. I have to be honest, I am glad I was not the HUGE fan of Michael, so I can just talk to him like I am taking to a person, and that has helped. It may be more of a curse working with someone you are a huge fan of. My biggest nightmare would be talking to a client/collaborator like I am a big nerdy fan.

Also, in the past year, a seven-year run project working for DC Comics Vertigo series The Unwritten has concluded. I think I made a total of 71 covers, pretty much every month, sometimes two a month. I ended up getting to know the writer Mike Carey and interior artist Peter Gross very well. The conclusion of the project was like graduating and seeing your closest classmates all go separate ways—exciting for our future, and sad all at the same time.

I used to have a dream client list. It was a huge pleasure to cross out one at a time, aiming for those jobs that had not been crossed out yet. After working for 13 years, I ditched that list a while back.

Of course, there are still clients I would love to work for. But it is OK if things work out in the future, or if things never work out. You can’t win everything. That's life.

I like working on regular editorial or book cover projects that start and finish in a rather short period of time. But long-term larger projects, though they can get stressful at times, can be very rewarding. Those are the projects that you fully immerse yourself, and get deep into, and fully involved in the creation from start to finish. The project I mentioned earlier with writer Michael Cunningham and with the editorial and design team at FSG for his upcoming book is one of those. I would love to get into projects like this more in the future. Of course, it only happens when it happens, and you can’t plan it.

My favorites are those art directors who think their most important job is to pick the right artist for the right project, and let us come up with ideas. Some clients treat illustrators like we are drawing machines who realizes their vision, which is sometimes OK too, but illustrators are also good thinking machines, and I love it when ADs hire us for both.

I am sure many people have mentioned her name, but SooJin Buzelli is great in that sense. She gets some of the most interesting “almost personal work” out of me pretty much every time.

Stefan Sagmeister, of course, is always a pleasure to work with. Working with him is almost like getting a school assignment, in the sense that I may give decently OK ideas, and he comes back and say “it’s good but I think you can do better,” and pushes me hard. The process working with him is never easy, but I always end up feeling like I had a breakthrough in that collaborative process. He is a rare AD who has that mentorship quality.

I also love working with book designer Rodrigo Corral. He is a great collaborator. Working with him I always end up feeling that WE made this together. He gives me ideas, and I give him another idea back. We sit in his office a lot, or talk on the phone. I don’t have a lot of client relationships of the type I have with him.

Of course, there are many more lovely clients I have worked with. Those are just three completely different work experiences I have with three completely different art directors.

There are so many people I respect and admire; it’s hard to name them all.

I respect the sharp advice Mirko Ilic always gives me. Also, he helped me so much when I was just starting out. There’s a Japanese saying, “ I can't sleep with my feet facing his direction” (the utmost respect to someone who is mentioned as such).

Thomas Woodruff and Istvan Banyai also helped me tremendously when I was starting out, and we are still very close. This is the beauty of the New York illustration world. Those who are working already do everything they can to help new artists. And those who have been helped will end up helping the next generation when they are in that position to do so. It is truly a beautiful culture that’s going on here.

I am so used to doing one-shot editorial and book cover projects. When I am on a larger project, the hardest part is that I feel like the light at the end of the tunnel feels far far away. When the deadline comes closer, the level of stress goes higher as the number of images I have to finish goes higher.  The beauty of it is the tremendous focus you can get and you can fully immerse yourself into the project, which is rare. And the outcome you get! It's a full book! It’s like being a mom saying giving birth is so hard, I don’t want it ever again, then you see the baby, and you are like, it’s the best thing in the world!

The world changes, the industry changes. It is unavoidable. What I am doing, and not just as an illustrator, but as a person living now, in general, is to be consciously keen on what is happening in the world and how things are changing. It helps to be teaching, because as much as we instructors teach students, students also teach us a great deal about the changing world. The younger generation is a lot more entrepreneurial in general, and I discover a lot about what’s new from just talking with them.

When I stared out, 99% of my work was editorial. Now I have a lot of different projects. Now I may even do more book projects than editorial. Also among editorial, I do more college publications than regular consumer magazines. Maybe it’s because my work’s gotten a lot weirder and a lot more serious over the years?

I still enjoy the more commercial aspects of consumer magazines, though. For me, it’s the balance. I don’t want to be doing the same things over and over and being repetitive. I quit my corporate job to be a freelance artist, so I want to try and push myself, push boundaries, push envelopes and keep doing something new, and want to surprise myself.

I have done animations, advertising, name it. As long as it is fitting and interesting for me, I want to challenge and surprise myself. Of course, it is also important to have the courage to say no when I think the project is not for me.

How you promote yourself changes according to what life stage in career you are in. I did a lot more self-promotion when I was starting out, because obviously nobody knows you till you promote. Then once your work gets printed, that acts as self-circulating promotions. Nowadays, I rely mostly on my website and social media. Of course, I always try and apply to the key competitions (American Illustration, Society of Illustrators, Communication Arts and Spectrum). When you get in, your work is presented with what’s pretty much the best in the industry right now. That’s a no-brainer.

(This what’s on my FAQ on my website. I can’t think of expressing this better than what I wrote there.)

> First of all, love what you do.  If you are not in love with what you do you can never compete in a field where everyone else has so much passion in what they do.

> Have high ambitions, and work harder than your ambitions. School may be hard work, but you will soon realize that you have to work even harder in the real world. Hard work is not so hard if you are in love with what you do.

> Let yourself experiment and grow. Be open to constructive criticism. You are an artist and not a craftsman whose job is to create the same things over and over again.

> Don’t forget that you are running a small business as well as being an artist. Learn to be a good business person. Be nice.

> Don’t ever try to be someone else who is already in the field. Be the best of who you are and who you can become. Try and aim to create something nobody else has done/seen.

See more Yuko Shimizu illustrations, new work, and updates:
Yuko Shimizu website