Illustrator Profile - Tatsuro Kiuchi: "Keep adding to the database within yourself"

By Robert Newman   Thursday November 26, 2015

Tatsuro Kiuchi is a Tokyo-based illustrator and artist who has created imagery of quiet power and grace for a wide array of publications, including Reader’s Digest, The Wall Street Journal, and Golf Digest. He balances his work between Japanese clients and those from overseas, including an extensive series of book covers, children’s book illustrations, posters, comics, and more. Kiuchi’s most recent children’s book illustrations are for the remarkable Red Ninja, written by Hiroshi Homura. His brilliant ongoing comic strip, The Earthling, appears in the quarterly The Thinker magazine in Japan.

Kiuchi creates his artwork in Photoshop, but it has an elegant, old school, hand-done feel, layered with subtleties and elegant color. Much of his work, including pieces for Reader's Digest and Golf Digest, feature beautiful landscapes and outdoor scenes. He was awarded a gold medal for his editorial illustration the past two years from the Society of Illustrators.

I live in Tokyo, Japan. I graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. I’ve been working as an illustrator for about 23 years.

My mother loves art. She doesn’t draw or paint by herself, but enjoys going to museums, reading art books, etc. My younger brother is a baker, and he operates his own bakery in a town in Tokyo. I helped him with a logo and business card graphics.

When I was very small, I didn’t know how to communicate or interact with the world around myself—which might be quite typical for a small kid in a day-care center. I was very shy and such an introvert—somehow this character seems to be still continuing even now. I don’t think I had been making any progress in schoolwork, nor impressing my teacher by speaking up actively in class. However, there was one incident I strongly recall. At that time I had yet to realize that I enjoyed drawing or painting, but one painting I made in class got an award. It was like a bolt from the blue. I suddenly became aware that I loved art. From that time forward, the art class became my favorite class, and when I was at the fifth or sixth grade, I won first prize in a poster contest.

I have a studio right in front of a train station. I walk 25 minutes every day from home. Since you can get on a train so easily, it is very accessible to the central area of Tokyo, where you can visit galleries and museums. Also there are so many restaurants and drinking places near my studio.

Actually it is quite simple. I use Photoshop. I make thumbnail idea sketches in my sketchbook, and when I know what to illustrate, I draw on screen, and paint on screen using a Wacom tablet. That’s it. You can view my process video here.

I would probably say that it was a series of illustrations I did for a serial novel that appeared daily in the Asahi Shinbun newspaper in 2002. Most Japanese newspapers run two different serial novels, one in the morning edition and the other in the evening edition. Each novel comes with a different illustration every day. This is a link to a Flickr page collection of the entire series of illustrations that I created.


Phil Hays, N.C.Wyeth, Bernie Fuchs, Brad Holland, Hiroyuki Izutsu, Ukiyo-e, and my designer friend Hiroshi Maeda, and many others. The first three persons are my biggest influences. I learned directly from Phil Hays what illustration is all about, light and shadow from N.C.Wyeth, composition from Bernie Fuchs. Fine artists like Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Ben Shahn, Edward Hopper, and Giorgio Morandi are also very big influences on me.

I don’t usually read comic books, but I would say Go Nagai. I really respect both his stories and drawings. As a child, just like other kids, I regularly watched many of his anime on TV. Mazinger Z and Devilman were among my favorite titles.

It is very hard for me to take time off. I tend to work all the time...

Art books, and social networks like Twitter, Tumblr, etc. I also get inspired by reading novels by writers such as Haruki Murakami. I love vintage junk, and one of my pleasures during my art school years in the United States was treasure hunting at flea markets on the weekends. Because there are not so many interesting flea markets in Japan, I do treasure huntings on eBay instead. My studio is full of those vintage junks.

Spanish art director Miguel Losada at Pizzicato contacted me requesting an illustration for the Santander Music poster. I was asked to illustrate a landscape of Magdalena Peninsula where the festival would take place, but I was free to interpret the landscape and compose the illustration in any way I wanted. In addition to this, I was invited to visit Santander, and have an exhibition and give a lecture to art students. I got out of Japan’s melting hot summer in July, and flew to Spain. It was a fun trip. The food and climate there were just terrific.

Some sort of concept art and character designs for movies or animations. Something that doesn’t require polished final art, where sketches are more important.

Also, I would like to work on some projects that involve lettering. I love handling letters and type.

In Japan, illustrators don’t really work with art directors unless your main field is advertising. In the editorial and book field, magazines and publications have art directors who supervise the design part, but in many cases, we deal with editors rather than art directors. So I don’t know many art directors. That said, I would say Jun Kidokoro is one of my favorite art directors. Japanese editorial illustration is different than in the US; we don’t really have conceptual illustration. Even though conceptual illustration is not emphasized in Japan, sometimes some subjects require conceptual thinking, and that’s when Jun calls me because he knows I can handle those assignments. He attended an art school in the US, and he knows illustrations very well both in Japan and the US. Though it was not a hardcore conceptual assignment, I enjoyed working with him on this illustration, coming up with comical solutions to introduce home appliances.

I would also like to mention Ken Delago at Golf Digest, and Miguel Losada at Pizzicato (Spain).

Gérald DuBois, Andrea Ventura, Mark Ulriksen, Brad Holland, Koji Azisaka, Yosuke Yamaguchi, Hiroyuki Izutsu, and Tadahiro Uesugi are among the many illustrators I admire.

As I said before, in Japan we don’t have so much editorial illustration that is conceptual, so what I do mainly are book and magazine covers, narrative illustrations, children’s books and comic strips.

The Red Ninja, written by Hiroshi Homura, who is a well-known Japanese tanka poet and essayist, is the latest children’s book I illustrated. The story is about a ninja in who wears red color. Ninjas are supposed to be dressed in black in order to be inconspicuous, but since he is in red, he totally stands out.

I have illustrated a few children’s books written by various authors, but I have also been trying to write a story by myself, which leaves me many incomplete bits and pieces of ideas. I was wondering if I could somehow make use of these small ideas. Then comic strips came into mind. I made 10 or so stories, and sold them to a magazine. The result was The Earthling. I am currently contributing regularly to the quarterly magazine The Thinker (Kangaeru Hito). The comic strip at first appears to be about environmental issues but in fact is a nonsensical manga.

What I enjoy most is the fact that I am my own boss—the fact that I can do whatever I want as long as I meet deadlines. I don’t have to commute by taking a packed train in the rush hours, or driving through a traffic jam. It feels really good to go into my studio whenever I want, and to use my own time creatively, making artworks.

Sometimes I get very lucky and surprise myself by coming up with images that I had never thought of before. I think this is one of the best things about being a professional illustrator.

I try to keep creating new pieces whether they are for clients or for myself, and putting them out online.

I use Tumblr mostly, then Behance, Twitter, Facebook. I enter annual competitions like American Illustration and Society of Illustrators. I also work with a rep, but haven’t sent out promotional postcards for a long time. Once in awhile, I put my work in a sourcebook, but that’s for Japan only.

I always tell my students that it is important to keep adding data to the database within yourself. This data could be anything. It could be something beautiful you see when taking a walk, or books you find interesting. Of course it could be inspiring paintings, but it doesn’t have to be art-related. Be conscious and aware of the fact that you are adding them to your database. In general, the more substantial you make this database, the better your taste becomes. When people say you have a good taste, it means you have a good database in yourself—unless you are a natural born genius.

See more Tatsuro Kiuchi illustrations, new work, and updates here:
Tatsuro Kiuchi website
Tatsuro Kiuchi at Heflinreps