The Q&A: Jillian Tamaki

By Peggy Roalf   Monday August 19, 2013

As an artist, what are some of your favorite things about living and working in Brooklyn?

Brooklyn is, for better or worse, a very "culturally relevant" place in design culture right now. Being "a creative" has come to encapsulate and signify more than simply what one does or how one makes money. But the fact remains that Brooklyn and New York City still attract some extremely smart, talented, interesting people. It's a good idea to surround yourself with such individuals.

How and when did you first become interested in art, design and illustration? When did you decide to go to art school?

I wanted to be a fine artist and study art history, but one year in a fine art program at a university convinced me I wasn't in the right place. I transferred to design school (Alberta College of Art and Design) for second year, hoping to be a designer…at least I knew that there was some sort of profession at the end of that path. The Visual Communication program also included illustration courses. It was a total fluke; I would have never pursued illustration because I don't think it even occurred to me that was a real job. 

What was your first assignment?

A teacher recommended me to a local designer for some theatre posters. Which is why I say to students that you must be a professional even while you're in school. The most valuable contacts when you first start out are your teachers.

Aesop's LeopardNew York Times, 2013.

What is your favorite part of the creative process? 

Reading/studying/researching the content and making notes.

Do you keep a sketchbook? What is the balance between art you create on paper versus In the computer?

Yes, I always have had a sketchbook and have been keeping a sketchblog since 2007. It seemed novel at the time. The time-split between paper and computer varies with the nature of the job, the point in the process that I'm at, etc. I don't tire of the computer, since it's just another medium. I tire of using the computer in the same way over and over.

What is your favorite time of day for working? How do you usually spend the first hour of your work day?

I keep fluid but relatively regular hours. I work 7 days a week. The first hour of the day is spent surfing junky websites. I usually stop when I catch myself doing something particularly heinous. Like, I'm googling "Paula Abdul" or "Scarlett Johansson nose job".

 From This One Summer, graphic novel, to be published Spring 2014.

What are you reading?

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.

You work in so many different types of media, from brush and ink to embroidery. How do know when embroidery would be the better medium than, say ink, for an assignment?

When the client asks for embroidery and is willing to pay me more money for additional time and effort. 

Below: The Secret Garden, Penguin Books, 2011.

If you could invite any artist, living or dead, for dinner, who would it be? What would you want to know? Where would you eat?

That's a pretty horrible thing to think about. It would be so awkward. I have been fortunate enough to have had dinners with some of my comics heroes and striking the right balance is pretty hard because coming off as a crazy fan pretty much extinguishes the possibility of having a real conversation. Any person I could resurrect from the dead to have this dinner would not feel a conversation with me would be a very fulfilling use of her time.

Who and what are some of your strongest influences?

Books, friends, pop culture.

What was the last art exhibition you saw and what did you take away from it?

The last exhibition I saw was the Punk exhibit at The Met. My parents were in town and we saw it. It felt shallow. The couture pieces were fantastic objects. But was the intention to assess the movement? It felt thin. They recreated the CBGB bathroom and it was just this perfect metaphor for the whole thing: it kind of looked like the bathroom but did it smell like the bathroom? Where was the sensory assault?

Has social media been a boon for self-promotion? Or do you have methods you’ve always used that still work?

It's revolutionized everything. It's the best thing. (Except for when it's the worst.) I think it's great because it's powerful and cheap and there can still be a degree of meritocracy to the whole thing. I've met such good friends on Twitter…people who I now hang out with corporeally. The worst thing about it is that I think it can be an echo chamber that can result in an "internet house style", not to mention a real distraction away from work.

Have you ever had a creative block with a deadline looming? What do you do to get crackin’?

Not really. It's not that hard to come up with a creative illustration idea (or, at the very least, one that is passable or useable). It's much harder to execute. That's when it is stressful. 

Where do you teach—and what do you like best about teaching?

School of Visual Arts, Senior Illustration Portfolio. Hanging around young people is good for you, even when they drive you a little insane. It's good to see their perspective and very rewarding to help them develop as artists and people.

What advice would you give to a young illustrator who is just getting noticed?

Make good work, continually make new work, be professional, engage with the community, make friends that inspire and push you. 

Jillian Tamaki is an illustrator and cartoonist living in Brooklyn, NY. Her graphic novel This One Summer, co-created with Mariko Tamaki, will be released in Spring 2014.


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