Illustrator profile - James Yang: "If your work is good the work will find you"

By Robert Newman   Thursday February 16, 2017

James Yang is a Brooklyn-based illustrator who has done extensive editorial work for numerous publications, as well as children’s books, posters, animation and much more. Yang creates his smart, elegant, graphic illustrations with Photoshop, but they have a soulful, hand-created feel. Yang’s cool new poster for the New York City MTA system is now on display in subway cars throughout the metro system. Be sure to look for it when you're riding the trains!

I am a Korean American illustrator who was born and grew up in Oklahoma. I currently live and work in Brooklyn.

My grandfather, Yang Dal Suk was an established painter who has work in the Busan Museum of Art in Busan, Korea. My father was a scientist and very supportive about me pursuing a career in art. This was in the 60s, when it was very unusual for Koreans to encourage children to pursue the arts. Mom was hesitant but supportive after an art teacher in elementary school told them I had talent. My parents resigned themselves to me turning into an artist so they did the best they could to improve my chances.

My first job as a teenager was working for a dairy. I had to take an empty plastic gallon milk jug, use a paring knife to cut out the inked label and throw the jug into a recycling machine. There was a giant warehouse full of empty gallon containers and I had a summer to recycle them all.

My summer job during college years was selling and designing advertising for the local newspaper in my city. Looking back it was a great job because I had to meet store owners and try to sell ad space for a special section of the paper. It was a small town so everyone was supportive. It was a great opportunity to use illustration for many clients and most of them were willing to go with my ideas. It was a great experience and a lot of fun hanging out in a small newsroom.

I received a BFA in Communication Arts and Design with an Illustration emphasis from Virginia Commonwealth University. Many of the professors were from Cranbrook so the design training was very strong. Back then, paste up work for ad and design firms was still a thing. I moved to Washington, DC after college because I had dreams of doing work for the Washington Post and DC had a lot of design firms.  It was a great way to make money while trying to start a career in illustration. Roughly six months after leaving college, I was making enough to make a living as an illustrator.

I’ve been working as an illustrator for 33 years. A publisher for one of the design magazines was joking that he remembers when I was the only Korean illustrator working in the US. Joo Chung was working then but I don’t recall any others. Now you can’t turn around without seeing a young Korean illustrator who is killing it.

We have a three-bedroom apartment and one of the rooms is my workspace. When my wife and I first checked out the apartment, the future studio had great light and the size was perfect. There’s a nice large window and the space has a zen-like quality which makes it easy to concentrate.

Illustrations first start out as sketches on tracing paper, which are scanned and imported into Photoshop. Sometimes I sketch with the iPad Pro. The sketch is used as a template in Photoshop where I have a library of custom textures and palettes to create the illustration. Not sure why I don’t use Illustrator more for distinct shapes but I like doing everything in Photoshop. It feels more intuitive. I use a combination of an iPad Pro with AstroPad to mirror a 27-inch iMac and a Wacom Intuos tablet for drawing on the computer. 

My career was more a case of a series of breaks, but the one which made the biggest impact was a pro bono poster working with Beth Singer and Joanne Zamore at Communication Design (Washington, DC) when I was 24. It was for a special 40th anniversary poster exhibit in remembrance of Hiroshima—which would show in Hiroshima—featuring designers and illustrators from around the world. The poster later went on to win a silver medal from the Art Directors Club in New York.

Shortly afterwards Steve Hoffman at Sports Illustrated called with a series of illustrations for a special Winter Olympics feature. Those two moments probably got the career going big time. The Washington Post started calling on a regular basis and I couldn’t have been happier. It looked like I would not have to go back to school for a degree in middle management.

When I was in high school, a former student named Stan Watts came to show his work. He was a big time airbrush artist in the 70s and I was smitten and knew this was the career for me. My high school teacher knew Alan Cober and exposed me to his work which spoke to me from the beginning. After college I sent him samples and he sent a lovely letter saying I was going to make it and have a long career. I still have the letter. Paul Rand is a huge influence both visually and philosophically. When I was an angry young man Ralph Steadman was a huge influence, and out of school Henrik Drescher was the man. Henrik and I are now pals so please don’t let him know because we love to torture each other for laughs. Jim Flora, Paul Klee and Miroslav Sasek were also big influences.

I really admire the director Danny Boyle. Who has a more diverse subject matter for filmography than him? He tackles all these genres and is so consistent yet fresh in telling a story. He is both a consummate pro and artist.

Looking though Instagram and Facebook since most of my friends are creative has been great for keeping a pulse on what’s going on. I’ve started getting back into the habit of browsing amazing picture books at the Strand. I’m more of a sponge guy than sketch guy so even people-watching and walking around and absorbing the environment is inspiring.

Since I work at home, the biggest challenge is getting stuck in a rut creatively—it’s very easy to fall into a routine. I’m not adverse to revisiting ideas but I like to see my work and career constantly evolving. As most of my friends know, I leave the apartment to hang out with friends or play tennis or golf. It really helps to clear the mind and reboot.

I have two projects which tie for first. The first is the Table of Contents and Web Curtain assignment for Len Small at Nautilus. The subject was the year 2050 and Len fought for an idea we really liked. His art direction is very smart and I finished the piece while working from my sister in law’s apartment in Hong Kong, which has a breathtaking view. The other assignment was for Eight by Eight magazine with Robert Priest and Grace Lee. It was a very collaborative process integrating the art with their amazing typography. It was a hilarious article about the trials of an Arsenal fan. It was also a thrill when Kevin Fisher from Audubon magazine asked me to contribute to the Illustrated Aviary.

My dream assignment is doing a book about my favorite 20th century designer for my favorite major museum. What is spooky is the same museum recently approached me with an offer to propose a children’s book about my dream designer. It’s very early and things need to be sorted out so I can’t give details but my dream could actually happen. Another dream is working with a talented team on an animation project. Animation director David Redl and I worked on a PSA piece called Globe Guy which went on to win awards. It would be great to work on more stuff like this.

I have to mention three because we have a strong body of work together: SooJin Buzelli of Asset International, April Montgomery of ComputerWorld, and Len Small of Nautilus. What all three have is a good eye, a collaborative process, and a back and forth environment that helps to create better work. I’ll use Len’s assignment for the year 2050 as an example. He mentioned in his notes he wanted a poetic approach which did not include the usual robots or futuristic devices—the metaphor should be something which is both familiar yet different. Len knows me well and knows this kind of direction and freedom is right in my wheelhouse. We both agreed on the best approach and he fought for the idea. When the team saw the final, they were very happy. This similar story also happens with SooJin or April. I’m very lucky to have great ADs like these to work with. I also love working with Tim Oliver and Ken DeLago at Golf Digest and Ronn Campisi. Catherine Gilmore-Barnes at The New York Times and I have been working on a fun continuing series about climate change.

There are so many crazy talented illustrators today it’s hard to choose. I admire my former student Brian Rea because he really knows who he is as an artist, works within his language yet still surprises. Julia Breckenreid’s work is blowing me away these days. She has an artistic quality I wish I had. Roman Klonek is amazing and makes me feel I should be more playful. Wesley Allsbrook is ridiculous. Her color palette is amazing and I could never do what she does. The list of who catches my eye morphs but these are the guys on my radar at the moment.

The Impolite Gentleman is a web comic inspired by a couple former students who liked the humor of my twitter feed. A couple partners and I are planning on creating products and creating a store. It’s top secret but we have plans. Most of my work is commissions and I haven’t done books in years but opportunities to pitch books have popped up. I just recently signed a deal with Viking and other book publishers have been calling.


For a while I was thinking I needed to change my work but realized this was a mistake. Changes in your art should be more organic and from an honest place. If your work is good the work will find you. Since the editorial market has been shrinking and book publishing has been on an upswing, I’ve focused on getting more book publishing projects. Some of this is a coincidence from meeting book people at events and following up.  I met Jim Hoover at Viking and Giuseppe Castellano from Penguin as part of a panel discussion. Jim was familiar with my book, Puzzlehead and said if I ever had any ideas to give him a call.  I got back in touch with proposals after a couple weeks. Jim and my new editor, Tracy Gates, eventually offered a two-book deal for Viking. I’ve also started making gifs since this is has been a request of clients lately. I am learning to be aware when a new door opens.

I put the work out on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Bechance. My rep, David Goldman and I are always tweaking the mix of stuff we do. We’re big believers in cards these days and surprisingly still get calls from directories. I’m a little pickier about competitions—that attitude comes from my stock trading days where it’s crucial to cut losing ideas and keep winning ideas. I put more effort into shows that support my work and reduce entries for shows where I have less luck. I meet ADs through various events but mainly go to support friends and a night out. Not sure which approach is most successful; it’s probably the cumulative effect of everything.

It’s important to find your voice as an artist but that voice has to be flexible enough to adapt to new environments. It’s a delicate balance because you need to keep what makes you special. Perseverance is what separates those who make it from those who don’t.

See more James Yang illustrations, new work and updates:
James Yang website
Instagram: @yangblog
Twitter: @yangmeister


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