99 Yuko Shimizu

Yuko Shimizu drawing at her desk

Prof. Yuko Shimizu is an award winning Japanese-American illustrator who lives and works in New York City. Shimizu teaches illustration at her alma mater, the School of Visual Arts, in downtown Manhattan. She has illustrated many books, magazines, and advertisements, shown around the world. Major clients include Apple, MTV, NIKE, Rolling Stone, Pepsi, GQ, TIME, Warner Bros. Microsoft, DC Comics, and many others. Prof. Shimizu has also been nominated for a Hugo Award, and has won gold & silver medals from the Society of Illustrators, and the Society of Illustrators LA, as well as many other accolades (see her website for a full list). If you do check her website, you will learn that she is not the Yuko Shimizu that created Hello Kitty - that was someone else. But she did illustrate two children's books, Barbed Wire Baseball and A Wild Swan, and has two more books published to showcase her work.

Yuko Shimizu draws in a style resembling traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock printing:

Shimizu's work is particularly similar to master print makers Hokusai, Kuniyoshi, and Hiroshige, all of whom she has referenced at times in her work:

'Bracing for Climate Change' for Green Source Magazine, 2013

     But, Prof. Shimizu is no mere copyist. She is one of the most original, creative illustrators of our time. Each work is a totally new and breathtaking composition. Because of her Ukiyo-e style, it's not so easy to render subtle gradations of light and shadow. So, she breaks her works into areas of flat color, similar, in a way, to stained-glass windows. She uses a minimalist palette with one color dominating, and a couple more to stand out, drawing attention to major figures.

DVD Cover for 'Maximum, the Hormone', 2015

But, the true power of Yuko Shimizu's art is in her phenomenal drawing ability. She knows all the tricks to composition and uses them brilliantly, producing clear, focused and dynamic illustrations that are unforgettable. Take a closer look at her illustrations - each single line is an artwork! The secret to this effect is that she hand paints each work with ink and brush on a heavy watercolor paper, and then scans them to color digitally using Photoshop.

'The Coursera Effect' for Fast Company Magazine, 1212

Looking at her work now, it may surprise you that this was not her first career. As a child, drawing was seen as a hobby, but not a viable career. Shimizu explains in this interview (Creativeboom.com, 2017),

"I’ve always loved to draw, ever since I was little. I always assumed I would become a Manga artist, like any other Japanese kid who loves to draw. But when it came to applying to college, my parents weren’t happy about me going to art school. You know, they are typical parents who worried that art won’t get their daughter a job to pay her bills. I was also young, and not as determined, so I chose a regular university and ended up studying advertising and marketing (not in art, but in business). I thought they were the most creative subjects of the practical world. "

While in Japan, Shimizu studied at Waseda University, and spent the next 11 years working in public relations. But, she wasn't satisfied. On her website, she refers to this period as a crisis, and in her interview with The Atlantic (2011) she said,

"I didn't hate the PR job. The job itself was fine. I didn't belong in the corporate world, especially the Japanese corporate world. Women weren't treated that well. I haven't been there in 15 years, so it might have changed, hopefully, but still, it's a difficult place for women."

She's more specific in this 2015 interview, "Around then, I got a really really mentally abusive bosses. Not A boss, but TWO bosses. They made my working life HELL."

So, Shimizu saved her money, and eventually made the break. She moved to New York City, re-enrolled at the School of Visual Arts, and made a successful career as an illustrator, accomplishing something almost unheard of in the arts - being able to afford an apartment and a separate studio in midtown Manhattan.

Maradona's Famous Goals, Illustration for 8 by 8 Magazine, 2013

Yuko Shimizu credits her success in part with the rise of the internet. In an interview with The Atlantic Magazine (2011), she says,

"It sounds dumb, but before the Internet, if you made art, you had to show it, otherwise people didn't see it; you had to show it physically. Now, you make art and, even if you're someone who's not a professional artist and you make great art in the middle of nowhere, you put it online and, if the work is good, people start talking about it and linking to you. It's as simple as that."

Variant Cover for the 1st Issue of comic book Serenity, 2016

In that same article, Shimizu lists some of her favorite illustrators: Edel Rodriguez, Tim O'Brien, and Steve Brodner.

In her Creative Boom interview, she says,

"I think my forever design hero would be Alexander Rodchenko. I use his photos and designs to explain things to illustration students, though Rodchenko was not an illustrator. What’s most important about Rodchenko’s vision was that he always tried to see things from an extraordinary way, even if what he was looking at was an ordinary thing. Providing a new way to see things is crucial to art, and his works, whether in design or photography, was all about that."

Illustration for short story by Charlie Anders, 'As Good As New', 2015

Prof. Shimizu offers this advice for young people (Creative Boom)

"Change came when I was around 30, and I was not a ‘kid’ anymore. It was like the first time I started to think like an adult, and think seriously about the future, and I mean far into the future. Would I be happy working in a relatively comfortable job possibly up to retirement? And that thought scared the hell out of me. Then I started seriously thinking ‘what would be the thing I have to do now that would prevent me from having regrets later on?’,
"Now, as a much older self, I think of life like this: we regret and feel bitter about things we have NOT done, and not about things we have done. We make stupid mistakes in our lives, but most of them – as embarrassing as they are – the pain will eventually go away. The regret of things you didn’t do would haunt you, and the regret and bitterness get larger in your mind as time goes by."

She adds to this advice in her 2015 interview:

"Have a really clear goal where you want to be in five years, and based on that plan, work out each year accordingly in steps toward reaching there. It’s beautiful to take a big leap of faith in your life, that big gamble of your lifetime, but even that big gamble should be based on some kind of realistic view, especially financial reality. You may be happy to be really poor while pursuing your dream like I did, at the same time, you can’t run out of the money while you are working toward the goal. Make a really good game plan, even if it means waiting for extra few years to pursue it. If you are really committed to make that life change, you will do it even after that extra time of wait. In a way, that’s how your commitment gets tested. Good luck."

'Black Box' for WIRED Magazine's Sci-Fi issue, 2017

In the same interview, she says this about the importance of studying art at university:

"They are in school for four years for a reason. So, there are many things they learn, and we expect them to learn, starting from technique to work ethic to everything else. At the same time, we want them to see the world differently, and provide that different viewpoint to the world as a form of art. That’s very important."

Portrait of The Clash, for 8 by 8 Magazine, 2015

In her interview with 99u (2014), Shimizu explains what her main goal is as an artist:

"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."

Variant Poster for Batman Returns, 2016

In that same 99u interview she says on teaching,

"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. "

Cover for Fully Booked's Daily Planner, 2017

Book Illustration for Barbed Wire Baseball, by Marissa Moss 

Illustration for an art exhibit 'Blow Up', 2010

Illustration for an art exhibit 'Blow Up', 2010

Poster for Imago Gallery in Cinque Terre, Italy, 2017

Illustration for Men's Health Magazine, 2014

Illustration for Plan Adviser's Micro Plan Survey, 2013 

Book Illustration for Little Nemo, Dream Another Dream, 2014

Library of Congress Book Festival Poster, 2016

Poster for Nike's Uruma Call Cennter in Okinawa, 2014

'Snowbound!' for Outdoor Life Magazine, 2009

Quarantine Sketch for the NY Times, 2020

'Mitsui PR Poster no. 2', 2017