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Yuko Shimizu: Make Your Own Path

Yuko Shimizu: Make Your Own Path
Published July 30, 2014 by Dave Benton
Venture capitalist Fred Wilson once quipped that the three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a weekly salary. There are numerous stories of the young buck going solo. But rare is the professional over a decade into her career tossing aside the steady paycheck and making the uncertain leap into the freelance life. 

After 11 years in the PR business, illustrator Yuko Shimizu decided to pursue her dream as an artist. Now, with accolades from The Art Directors Club to The Yellow Pencil Award and many Spectrum Fantastic Art Awards, the Japanese native is one of the most celebrated illustrators of our era.

Shimizu has a distinctive style that manages to combine traditional Japanese art with surrealism and comic book culture that has graced the pages of DC Comics, the New Yorker and Newsweek and she has contributed to magazines from Rolling Stone to the New York Times as well as countless books. With a client list that rivals any top tier agency, Shimizu is on speed dial for many of the world's most influential editors.

Although Newsweek Japan chose Shimizu as one of the “100 Japanese People the World Respects” Shimizu is never complacent, and she is constantly driving to challenge herself in new areas to keep the fire burning under her 12 years into her second career. But, as with most great success stories, the journey was not a direct trajectory to her current notoriety.

Is illustrating a lifelong passion?

Well, when I went to college I majored in advertising. I was so set on having a job in advertising that I stopped drawing. It wasn’t the art side of advertising, either. It was business school for advertising. So I stopped, then I got a job in corporate PR and I didn’t draw for a while.

Yuko via
Yuko via

Did you like the PR job?

I actually did …. I am not going to go back to it, but it’s probably better than other jobs I could have gotten. But it’s definitely not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. When people ask me what I would do if I wasn’t illustrating, I tell people that I would probably make a good illustration agent, as I have the PR background. The worst part of it was working for the corporate world. I don’t do great in corporate environments: I like to be my own boss.

You can’t pick a boss, and I’ve had some terrible bosses in the past, and it’s hard when your ideas are right and you try to convince them and they don’t understand at all…. I can’t deal with the corporate politics.

But you managed to stay there 11 years?

Initially I was going to quit – from the first day. But it’s hard to quit a job with a steady paycheck.

How hard was it to make that jump to working for yourself?

I didn’t really have the guts to commit to doing art. People say, “Oh it’s unstable, you will starve. No one makes money in art”. My family is a pretty typical Japanese family: My father worked for a corporation and my mother stayed home and took care of the family, and there was no-one remotely working in the art and design business. The only artists they know are the horror stories of Van Gogh.

An image from the Behance collection "slightly demented children's stories"
An image from the Behance collection "slightly demented children's stories"

What you do is a bit different than just “art.” With art, the artist gets to draw what they want and hopefully people find value in that. But you are doing illustration for design and advertising clients, so you draw what they want, right?

Yes, but they come to me because they want what I do. It’s not like they come to me and ask me to copy a style on the Internet. There are some people who do that who are happy to copy other people’s work styles or do what people ask them to do. I think there are two types of illustrators, and two types of creatives in general. Either do something you are told to do or create something only you can give them.

So yes, it’s not art in the fine art sense, but I like illustration because it is in between art and the corporate world. I am more interested in working with clients and art directors who give me a script and ask me what I come up with. But I work with them and create something together. I do like working with a team and clients and coming up with something together.

Did you aspire to have a certain style? Was there something you wanted to come out when you set off to be an illustrator?

I think in illustration, you have to start with a certain style, even if it’s not as concrete as it will be 10 years later on. There are a gazillion people who can draw and illustrate; you really have to stand out to get work. But then also, in your first jobs you are still learning, so if you draw every day for 12 years professionally you do get better. I think I did aspire to certain illustrators at the beginning. A few years in I had to stop looking at other illustrators, because if you want to be like them at that point, the best you can be is second best. 

I think it’s a common trend across designers, photographers and artists in general, that when you are young you want to be like a certain person, but then there is a shift to where take your own path, but they helped you get where you wanted to go.

A few years in I had to stop looking at other illustrators, because if you want to be like them at that point, the best you can be is second best. 

Would you say that turning down clients when you can see that you won’t do your best job for them has helped you on your career trajectory?

My ultimate goal is to be respected by peers and people I respect. In order to achieve that I probably make less money than those people whose goal it is to purely make money because I do turn down jobs because my work isn’t suitable for everything. There are people who do work that is a lot more suitable for a lot more things. Mine is kind of specific, so if the job doesn’t fit in the specific criteria they will call someone who does something a little more general. So it’s a decision you have to make.

It’s a hard thing to explain. It’s kind of like, being a pop star that sells lots of albums to everyone, or being like Bjork…everyone knows what she does and she is probably a lot more respected than those pop stars who make a lot more money and are a lot more popular. I want to do work that I can be proud of, and something that people I respect would think that I am doing interesting things that are unique and different.

Missy Elliott for Paste Magazine by
Missy Elliott for Paste Magazine by Yuko Shimizu

You teach at School of Visual Arts in New York. Why?

I started teaching right after I got out of graduate school. I never thought I would teach, I didn’t think I would like to do that. I have ups and downs and sometimes you have great classes and sometimes not, but after six or seven years of teaching I kind of got it, and learned how to connect with students. I’ve learned how to tell them what’s not good and how to get better. And I’m not that young anymore and it’s really good to stay close to people who are just about to start working, They know a lot of things I don’t know like popular culture. Sometimes they tell me but just by looking at group dynamics each year I learn a lot. Illustration is a very lonely business – it’s just one person and I can come here (to the office) and not talk to anyone if I choose for days. It’s not good – you need communication with the outside world. It’s good to go to school and talk to 19 year olds and see what they have to say. It’s very interesting. 

Was there something that clicked for you when you found your own path?

I grew up with comics and that was booming then, so it wasn’t that I tried to do what other people were doing but I drew that way and I was looking at people who were starting out and I realized you could get illustration jobs drawing that way. So in that sense I did follow a few other people like Tomer Hanuka who was already working a few years before me, and my classmate Nathan Fox was also doing a similar type of direction. We are in the same group, the three of us. They started earlier. Tomer started something very innovative. I rode the wave.

I started getting emails saying “I am doing the same kind of thing, and I am not getting jobs, how are you getting jobs?” That’s when I realized that I wanted to lead and not follow. It’s easy to follow in the bunch, a group of people who have the same look. That’s when I really started experimenting with different coloring techniques and inking techniques without changing what I like to do but experimenting a lot more. 

I started getting emails saying 'I am doing the same kind of thing, and I am not getting jobs, how are you getting jobs?' That’s when I realized that I wanted to lead and not follow.

I used to work with the Financial Times magazine in England and the budget wasn’t high and the timeline was tight so they let me experiment there. Once that almost once weekly job ended, I felt like I had moved out of that bunch of people. But it wasn’t that intentional at that point. I was always saying “thank you!” every time I got a job. I didn’t turn away any jobs at that time. When you start out you need to think about keeping your monthly bills low… my rent was $300 a month back then! The job let me pay my bills and experiment. 

Do you have any advice for someone coming in to this?

Freelancing sounds like a good life to people who aren’t doing it but it’s not that easy. It’s not a stable life, and there can be a lot of worries at times. The first two or three years of my career I worked 365 days a year. I really wanted to make it and my name to be known. I didn’t mind then and you kind of have to have that attitude, especially at the beginning. 

Do you miss that level of ambition?

I do and I don’t. Tell me to do it today and I’d say “hell no!” It’s like a life cycle – puppies are hyper and grow up, it’s like that too. If you can’t do it in the first few years, then you are in the wrong business!

Everything I do, I try to do something in it that I don’t know how to do and solve it. It’s really stressful and sometimes I want to quit, but then after I am done I feel good about accomplishing it. Everyone once in a while I have to throw in things I am not used to, so it’s kind of like that time when you are straight out of school and learning so much. 

Once you reach a certain time in your career you don’t have anyone to look up to anymore. You look up to your peers, but you kind of have to do your own thing that no one else has done.

More about Dave Benton

With a life mission to create exceptional experience Dave founded interactive design firm metajive in 1999. Focused on collaborating with his clients and team Dave is always looking for new opportunities to disrupt. When Dave isn’t working he’s trying to catch a few waves.

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