An interview with illustrator Yuko Shimizu

This month we’re celebrating our illustrated books, with our Picture Perfect theme. Earlier this month we encouraged you to feast your eyes on the beautiful pages of Michael Cunningham’s dark and perverse collection of fairytales A Wild Swan and Other Tales and now, to lift your Friday, we have an interview with its illustrator, the amazing Yuko Shimizu.

How did the collaboration with Michael Cunningham come about?

Book designer Rodrigo Corral, whom I had worked with in past, contacted me from the publisher that Michael was looking for an artist to illustrate his new book. Rodrigo thought I may be a good match, and recommended me to him. Some projects have a lot of obstacles from start to finish, some projects are just too smooth to be true. It was the latter. It was a lot of work for everyone, but it was always very smooth.

Which is your favourite story in A Wild Swan?

They are all great for different reasons, but maybe Monkey’s Paw. The original story is already really dark, and Michael’s version is even darker than that. I love it.


Could you tell us about the technical process you used to create the illustrations for the book?

They are all straight forward brush and ink drawing on watercolour paper.

What do you think it is about the fairy tale that makes it so popular, so compelling, and so transcendental of time?

Because they teach the core things you need to know about life. World change, history happen, but the core of being alive (and dead) doesn’t change. Very simple and important messages are in fairy tales.

How hard (or easy) was it to visualise the illustration that accompanied each of the tales in the book?

Nothing is easy. Creative process is hard. However, having said that, the best thing happened to me in this project was what Michael said to me in the beginning. ‘I am an artist; I do what I am good at. You are an artist too, and I respect and trust that you do what you are good at’. Michael and the publisher basically left me alone to come up with what works. Usually, clients art direct me, but it was more me art directing myself more than anything. I even re-did some of the images, and reworked on top of something that I initially thought were done. I wanted them to be good. I had to live up to their expectations.


Did you feel constrained in that you had to draw these images to accompany a story, rather than being able to create illustrations of your own?

The job on an illustrator is to illustrate the content to add something to it. So, yes, I did illustrate the story, but not literally illustrate the scenes, but more like illustrate the mood of each story. We had lots of meetings during the process. We wanted the images to be the reminiscent of turn of the last century illustrated books by artists such as Harry Clarke and Aubrey Beardsley. So, I did look at their and their peers’ works a lot, and try to include some contemporary touch to them.

Do you have a favourite illustration in A Wild Swan?

Probably Beasts. It took longer than any other. Just sit and draw the roses for days and days…


The pictures drawn for the book quite often (and shockingly) contain nudity; did you feel that the book being a grown up and uncensored reinterpretation of the fairy tales told to children allows you to present characters in their truest (naked) form? 

We had discussed about this in the beginning during our early meetings. Because the stories often include sexual context, and because sometimes US publishing is very strict about nudity and all, but the publisher clearly stated there is no restrictions for interior illustrations for this book, so we are like, ‘then, let’s do this’. Especially because the illustrations are reminiscent of traditional children’s illustrated book style, we thought it would be fun to give it a bit of a twist.
(By the way, the publisher did a give away of A Wild Swan signed poster, with the image of the swan prince,  for New York ComicCon, we have to tweak the image to make a PG version.)

Your art is usually bursting with colour. Why was no colour used in A Wild Swan?

For the style of the book, we thought it was more suitable. Just like the books from the turn of the last century. Also, I actually prefer to work just in black and white. But of course, everything that’s printed now a days is color, so I end up using colors. I still prefer simple and graphic black and white images.

Your website says that you get mixed up with the creator of Hello Kitty. How often does that happen, and how annoying is it?

Often enough. My name is very common Japanese name, so it is not like a surprising coincidence that would fascinate any Japanese person. It’s just my name sounds so exotic outside of Japan. I am just tired of explaining that all the time.


You moved to New York in 1999. How different do you find the city compared to Tokyo, where you’d previously lived?

I grew up in New York as a child, so it was more like coming back home than moving to a foreign land. They are both big cities, so there are similarities. And then there are differences. What matters to me is that I feel at home in New York, way more so than in Japan. So, it is all good!

What’s your favourite book?

This is tough! I am a book junkie, so I read a lot of books, in various genres, styles, and from different countries, fiction, non-fiction… you name it. It is really difficult to pick one favourite book.
Maybe I will pick a book I just recently read I thought was great. I finished reading Nobel Prize winning Albanian author Ismail Kadare’s The Siege (1970), which is about Ottoman attack on Albanian citadel. It was epic, but never heroic. War is the same today or 16th Century, it is foolish, and people suffer. We have not learned anything in 500 years, is a take away. Great read.



A Wild SwanA Wild Swan is out now!

Take a look at Yuko Shimizu’s website here

Subscribe to the 4th Estate podcast here

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