Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Art of Yuko Shimizu

Yuko Shimizu is a freelance illustrator living and working in New York City and an instructor at the School of Visual Arts. She was born and grew up in Tokyo always dreaming of becoming an artist. As a woman, the pursuit of that dream was made difficult by growing up in a traditional Japanese family. She studied marketing and advertising at prestigious Waseda University and following graduation worked in advertising in Tokyo for ten years until deciding it was time to make a change and do what she really wanted to do. She left Japan in 1999 to study at the School of Visual Arts in New York. And as they say, the rest is history.

“Panda Bear Girl—The First Asian American Superheroine”—illustration included in the book Artistic Utopia

Since finishing her studies at the School of Visual Arts Ms Shimizu has worked full-time in illustration. Her work has been published in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Turkey and Japan, and her client list is filled with names like The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Interview Magazine, Esquire and Financial Times Magazine. She also finds time to teach in the Illustration and Cartooning Department at the School of Visual Arts.

Outside magazine March 2006; illustration for an article on species that have the fastest growing populations. Beautifully rendered blackbirds stare with a puzzled expression at the creatures inside eggs of an exquisite robin’s egg blue. Note the tree branches drawn in the ink wash style of fifteenth-century Japanese landscape painter Sesshû Tôyô.

Shimizu works in a Manhattan studio, a space she shares with two artists whom she thinks of as her New York family. She loves to travel and usually for two months of the year visits different cities and countries, lecturing at art schools and events, meeting other artists and teachers.

Utne Magazine February 2005 Cover; a totally bizarre illustration showing a young Japanese kamikaze pilot riding a harnessed snail over New York City.

One of three billboards created for a Tiger Beer ad campaign; here in what resembles the design of an old postcard we see a modern container ship loaded with Tiger Beer. Created for billboards, the three illustrations are huge.

With her strong Japanese heritage, it probably is not at all unusual that Shimizu’s illustrations harken back to Japanese woodcuts. With its artful mixture of old and new, in another way her work brings comparisons to modern poet Tawara Machi, who shocks the reader with unexpected combinations. Like the poet, within tradition there is a strong sense of modern sophistication, evidence of a life fed by the color and electric throb of New York City. One magazine cover may include cell phones and iPods beneath falling cherry blossoms with Mt Fuji in the background, while another will show a full moon over an arched bridge straight out of Hiroshige and a half-clothed tattooed woman holding a boom box.

Cover for the October 2007 issue of Word magazine (UK) monthly supplement CD Now Hear This!

A personal favorite is the magazine cover inspired by the Clint Eastwood film, Letters from Iwo Jima. The foreground is framed by a Japanese army officer handing over a letter to a demure Japanese woman—wife or mother. In the middle ground Japanese soldiers toil through curling waves, while in the background Iwo Jima stands against the Rising Sun flag and bombers fly through blossoming cherry trees. Two panels in the top right display the name of the film and the director.

Entertainment Weekly year end Issue 2006; cover illustration for the movie, Letters from Iwo Jima.

In creating a new design, Shimizu reads the attached article, sometimes as many as twenty pages, or in some instances a mere sentence from which she must extract an idea. First comes research before making several free sketches with pen and pencil to help solidify ideas. Having settled upon a basic design, she makes a drawing in the actual size stipulated by the client. She traces the drawing on a light box using pencil and ink, with brush and India ink for any Japanese calligraphy. After the drawing is complete, she scans it and adds color using Photoshop.

Theater poster for the Stephen Sondheim-Amon Miyamoto production of Pacific Overtures, Kanagawa Art Theater, June-July 2011; a gigantic and redheaded Commodore Matthew Perry forces his way through the doors into Japan. The fusuma doors are a clever twist on the opening of the country to foreigners in 1854.

Yuko Shimizu is a fairly common name in Japan and one or two other figures in the limelight share the name. The Yuko Shimizu here is not to be mistaken with another Yuko Shimizu known for designing the well-known Hello Kitty icon for Sanrio.

For an excellent and informative Interview with the illustrator look here.


  1. Wow. Beautiful designs, and the use of the traditional and the modern makes for contemplative viewing. Her art speaks volumes on its own--as in the poster for 'Pacific Overtures' with its meaning so evident. I love this woman's work.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America