Illustrator Profile - Lauren Tamaki: "The physical act of drawing makes me happier than anything else in the world"

By Robert Newman   Thursday March 24, 2016

Lauren Tamaki is a Brooklyn-based illustrator, graphic designer and photography art director who creates bold, stylish fashion drawings and expressive editorial illustrations for a wide variety of clients and publications. Tamaki has done graphic design and art direction work for Kate Spade, Bumble and bumble and more, and combines a keen sense of style and fashion to create smart, energetic work. She uses acrylic ink and pencils (plus some assistance from Photoshop) and works in a funky, loose style that brings to mind her visual hero Quentin Blake. Tamaki is a textbook example of a forward-looking illustrator who is making her art across multiple platforms and mediums, while maintaining a consistent aesthetic and building her visual “brand.”

I’m currently living and working in my teeny studio apartment in Park Slope in Brooklyn, NY.

I graduated from college in 2011 but freelanced throughout school (which was at once a great and terrible idea). I’ve been at salaried positions at various offices before going full-time freelance in February 2015.

My sister, Jillian Tamaki, is kind of a big deal (as you know)! Because of that fact I was a bit reticent to go after a career in visual communications (which resulted in me getting a fashion design degree before studying graphic design and illustration) but I just had to get OVER IT and do what I wanted with my life! Big life lesson there! We both grew up drawing all the time and our wildly creative parents were a constant source of love and encouragement. Boy, we were lucky!

I sold perfume from ages 16-25 (during holidays and summers), which was an insane job in many ways. I was younger then all the other ladies by about 30-40 years and it was extremely competitive. I think everyone should work retail at least once in their lives—it really gives an insight into the human condition and teaches you Buddha-like patience (or drives you completely nuts).

When I graduated from Ryerson University for Fashion Design I worked at Joe Fresh product development for a hot second. Since graduating from Alberta College of Art + Design (yes, I have two undergraduate degrees—so useful!), I’ve worked as a graphic designer/illustrator/art director for creative director Helen Steed at Bumble and bumble, a graphic designer/web designer for creative director Lydia Turner at Arch & Loop and a photography art director for creative directors Theresa Canning Zast and August Heffner at Kate Spade Saturday (a beautiful but now sadly defunct brand). The reason I mention the names of the creative directors who hired me is because I owe them so much—not only for expanding my design career but my illustration practice as well.

Right now I’m working out of my studio apartment, which I’ve made into a girly nest. I would prefer to have another room that separates my work and personal life, but I’ve made my space pretty pleasant with elephant pink paint, flowers, and art on every inch of the walls. I’ve been lucky to receive wonderful things from my sister and I’m amassing quite a nice Milton Glaser poster collection! I’ve recently separated my computer and painting areas, which is a stretch in my space but it was completely necessary. I fantasize about a room devoted to working where I could really get messy!

I’ve been on a big FW ink kick since my wonderful instructors at ACAD introduced me to the stuff. It’s a magical acrylic ink that can be washy or dense—I use it for everything. My other forever love is graphite, specifically Staedtler 2B pencils. I’m worried I’m getting into a rut—maybe I should take up oil painting?

My process varies depending what I’m doing. Sometimes freehand with ink, brushes and crow quill nibs yields the best results and sometimes I rely on a lightbox (Quentin Blake does it, therefore so can I!). I’d say my work is 80% traditional and 20% digital—I often use Photoshop for layering different drawings and cleaning up ink and paper texture.

Experimenting within a sketchbook has also been a game-changer for me. The discoveries you can make with media and style when there’s no pressure is pretty fantastic—I know I’m not the first person to say all this but it’s become a huge part of my process and I can’t shut up about it!

There were a couple pivotal moments in my (fairly short) career so far:

In-between graduating from Ryerson and going to ACAD, I did a large-scale watercolor lettering project for a Canadian company called Murale (a beauty store venture from Shopper’s Drug Mart). I can’t remember if it was my first real job, but the process of working with a branding agency which included creative directors, art directors, graphic designers and project managers was huge for me! I usually learn best by being thrown headlong into something! I think this was the origin of my particular brand of wonky lettering and am thrilled whenever I get to do it.

In my fourth year at ACAD I did a story with Calgary institution Swerve magazine. It was a cover and several interior images and the art director and editor wanted me to collaborate on the story, which was mind-blowing! What an amazing gift so early in my career—it’s still a rare thing for me to co-create content with a magazine. The story and illustrations ended up winning a silver medal in the 32nd Society of News Design Competition, which was even more incredible! The piece was about emphasizing the personality of the subjects, which was a handy primer for the figurative work and portraiture I do nowadays.


Quentin Blake is forever embedded in my brain from my voracious Roald Dahl consumption as a child. That’s perfection right there. Those batty 60s cartoonists are also everything to me: Ronald Searle, Saul Steinberg… and of course Mad magazine and Archie Comics from the 80s and 90s.

Milton Glaser—he is still making good stuff after how many decades in the industry? I love how he whips up illustration and graphic design into a delicious frenzy. You can sense the energy and love in everything he does. I’ll tell anybody who asks (and some people who don’t ask) that I wanna be Milton Glaser when I grow up!

I have a few Saul Steinberg and Quentin Blake books that I crack open every now and then to replenish the well. There’s just an effortless and fearless aspect to their lines that kills me!

Stopping! Since I’ve gone full-time freelance in February 2015 I seem to be working more (nights and weekends). But it’s on my terms (taking midday naps and runs is key) and no one can frown upon me working late into the night.  Recently, I been analyzing the types of jobs I’m taking and asking myself if they’re helping me get better. This is probably my biggest challenge right now.

I did all the interior illustrations for the Brooklyn edition of Wildsam Field Guides, which was a huge labor of love. It was incredible because I got to see my work span an entire volume and the creator of Wildsam gave me an extraordinary amount of freedom. I feel very lucky to have gotten that gig.

I would completely flip over a New Yorker cover (putting that out into the universe now) or a series with an opera or theater company. I’m currently working on a project straight out of my dreams which will be out next summer! I couldn’t be happier and I don’t want to jinx it by saying too much!

Chelsea Cardinal gave me some really fantastic jobs when she was art director at GQ magazine. It definitely gave my portfolio some heft and she is a dream to work with. Even though magazine jobs are usually a short-ish turnaround, she always delivered briefs in a clear, concise manner. She gives the perfect amount of direction and has incredible taste (obviously). One of my favorite jobs we worked on together was a page about Brazilian liquor, in which I created drinks and bottles as well as a beach scene containing many Brazilian bums.  


I’d be remiss not to mention my sister, Jillian Tamaki. She’s a great teacher and is constantly evolving and challenging herself —inspiration central! Graham Roumieu never fails to delight me! He’s funny as hell and also has those wonderful, effortless lines that I covet. Jon Han does stuff no one else is doing. Grace Lee is killing it in Japan! Her output and quality is so impressive. Roman Muradov’s work is timeless. Maira Kalman is a goddess. I could go on and on; there is no lack of talent in this field!

I’ll never fully get away from the fashion stuff and tend to do a fair bit of illustration for fashion and lifestyle companies. That background has served me well in my other work as a graphic designer and photography art director. I tend to have a fair bit of jewelry and beauty clientele as well, probably because of the trajectory of my career and the contacts I’ve made. I’m so thankful for the variety of experiences I’ve had within different creative fields! Art directing a photo shoot is a trip—these extremely talented photographers, stylists and models following my lead? Holy smokes.


I was enthralled by fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s shows as a wee pre-teen. The heady mix of romance, violence, theater and beauty was almost too much for me to take! Like most things, the majority of fashion is kind of terrible, but when the artistry, technique and theater all come together, I (still!) find it really moving. I’m a sucker for drama, which explains a lot.

I draw fashion figures nowadays because I wasn’t digging the fashion illustration I was seeing (except for Samantha Hahn's freaking fantastic fashion studies). I found most of it tended to be a bit cold (and scary in a bad way). The joy, love, strangeness, awkwardness… I wanted to cram it all into my drawings.

Because I draped and sewed the clothes I designed, I love getting into the little details of things and I definitely think this mentality extends to the stuff I draw, from clothes to faces to buildings to cars. It’s about capturing one or two special aspects of a subject (be it an expression or the way ice is melting in a glass) while making the overall vibe gestural and effortless—that’s the goal, at least!

The physical act of drawing makes me happier then anything else in the world. I think it boils down to that—it’s just so incredibly pleasurable for me to push pigment around. I tried to ignore it and go down a different path but I was miserable.

I feel like I’m still at the beginning phase of my career and am thrilled when someone wants me to draw something for them! I feel so grateful that people like my work enough to call! I’m very open to different kinds of work, web-only fashion illustrations, small map series, etc…

I’m on a constant quest for that perfect/imperfect yet effortless line! Being obsessed with Quentin Blake informed much of what I did when I started and now I’m drawn to the spontaneity of quick, observational sketches. I get pretty bored with one way of doing things and would love to switch it up more. I remember a great instructor telling us “if you have a specific style, you’re dead in the water,” which I don’t FULLY agree with. My take-away was that you should keep up the (sometimes painful) process of evolving what you do.

When I first graduated I sent out postcards. It was a good way to familiarize myself with different magazines and art directors but I’m not sure how great my return was. Like most people, my promotion is mostly online nowadays. Instagram is fantastic—it’s quick, easy and immediately gratifying! I try and keep an updated Tumblr with exclusively sketchbook stuff (I’ve been bad about updating lately). I’m on the hunt for a rep (oh hey!)—I’d like to try out that way of working and see if it fits.


Getting your work seen is really important, but so is working constantly and getting better. It’s tempting to rely on trends, but good drawing chops are so very important! Wow—I sound like an old-timer there, but it’s true!

See more Lauren Tamaki illustrations, new work, and updates here:
Lauren Tamaki website
Instagram laurentamaki
Twitter @laurentamaki
Cargo Collective (design, photography & illustration)


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