“Guardian Angels” - Illustration, 2016

You didn’t have the most conventional path into illustrating, will you tell us how things developed before you became an internationally recognised illustrator?

Life is very interesting. When you are going through major changes, you are just so focused on what you are doing, and to get through that situation, you don’t really think much more than you really need to focus and get through it. It is when you look back at what you had done, you feel like, holy crap, I didn’t know I had that much of a will power. 

What I learned from that, or any other life changing experiences is, when things get too overwhelming then stop thinking too far in the future, and really really focus on each problem I need to solve now. For example, I am working on quite a big project where I have to do seven illustrations, each need significant amount of research. In order to not freak out, I try and focus on one at a time, and keep the rest out of my mind. This tactic really works. 


So, yes, I studied busienss (marketing and advertising) in college, and worked in corporate PR job in Tokyo for 11 years before I quit to move to New York to enroll myself in the first year of college at School of Visual Arts in New York in hope of becoming an illustrator. I started art school very late (my classmates could have been my kids if I was a teenage mom), and started my career very late (after two years of undergraduate studies, and two more years in graduate school). 

I can talk a lot about this process. But of course, I don’t have unlimited amount of time so I will sum up what I have learned:


Life change is hard. But if you know what you want to do with your life, change when you can. There is no such thing as you are too old. And it is OK if your life would not turn out the way you have dreamed, because it often wouldn’t, and life have no guarantees. 

What I can tell you for sure is, that if you have something you like to try out, and if you do not try it out for reasons such as fear of failure, you will regret it for the rest of your life, and ‘what if’ would always haunt you. What matters is that you give yourself a chance, and work hard toward it, regardless of the final outcome, you would never have that regret of ‘what if’. What is more important in life is the process, and not the outcome. 


Am I an internationally recognized illustrator? Um, I guess you can say that, as I make my living doing this, and I get projects from different countries. But in every day basis, I don’t really think about it that way. What is important for me is I am working on projects I am happy with and proud of (though, often times, it is tough going through each project. Every project hurts like birth. Well, not that I have given birth. But each work is my baby I care a lot about. ), and that I am giving myself enough challenge to let me grow as an artist everyday. 

“Spy Vs Spy” - Illustration, 2015


Unfortunately you are sometimes mistaken for another artist with the same name who created ‘Hello Kitty’, but you yourself have worked on some pretty big name projects! What is it like creating for the likes of Nike, Gap and Rolling Stone?

My name is very common in Japanese. Ask any Japanese person, he/she probably knows at least one Yuko Shimizu. So, it is no surprise to me, but it does get annoying when (and often) random people ask me about Hello Kitty, or they send enthusiastic e-mails telling me they have created this amazing character and I need to help them with it. 

“Deloitte women, energy and economic empowerment” - Illustration, 2014


Which has been your favourite commission so far, and why?

I don’t linger much on past. I do, of course, have illustrations I have created in past that I like more than others. But that’s my past. An artist’s job and aim is to grow to be a better artist tomorrow. Lintering to the past success feels unhealthy to the artistic growth. 


I like working with anyone who trust me as an artist and aim to together create something great. Some of the best art directors I have worked with are confident enough to think their most important job is to pick the right artist for the right project, and trust what we do. Of course, feedbacks and revisions can be tough at times, but when it is to make the illustration better, I don’t mind. 

The hard commission is when the clients can’t trust the artists, and in such case, revisions and feedback is almost always focused on less important details. Good clients/art directors know how to see the wood without focusing on the trees. Bad ones are when they can’t see the wood for the trees. If you can’t see the woods, everything falls apart.

“Maximum the Hormone” - illustration, 2015


The process from initial concept to finalised design must be enjoyable, but i’d imagine also very complex, tell us about the steps you go through to create your works?

The basic simplest process is as follows: 1) research and idea brain-storming 2) thumbnail rough sketches 3) sketches in pencil 4) approval from client 5) ink and brush drawing of final illustration on paper 6) scan and color on photoshop.


But the first steps, research and brain storming then making them into rough idea sketches is the toughest part. Every time, every project. And I often bite my nails going through it. 

People who are not in creative industry, or those aspiring to be one, tend to think those of us professional creatives have this amazingly genius brain when we think of ideas, this light-bulb lights up. In reality, it is not that way at all. 

Ideas only come from painstaking amount of research. At this point in my life, I got so good at research, to the point my former classmates started telling me I would make a good spy (not the 007 type, just the information collecting part). And I think this almost spy-material research skill is really helpful to the creatives in all field.

“On Such a full sea” - illustration, 2014


You also teach at your alma matter, ‘The School of Visual Arts’ in New York City, tell us about the transition into teaching and in what ways its helped you to progress your practise?

I was given a ‘test’ to teach pre-college high school summer class right after I received my MFA. I am very grateful for the chance the chair of the illustration department Thomas Woodruff gave me. So, I came to NY to study at SVA, then graduated and started teaching in SVA. My life in New York equals my life in SVA. 

My instructors, many of whom I still keep in touch, have taught me and helped me so much, I would like to do the same for my (hardworking) students. A way to pay forward. 

At the same time, students teach me a lot about what is happening in the world, and where the future is heading, just by having discussion in class, or work they do, or their natural attitude toward life. They don’t know that they are teaching me though, lol. 

I think I need to keep teaching as long as I can. when I stop interacting the young people of the future, I would become old, out of touch and grumpy. I can’t let that happen to myself!

“Best in Class 401(k) Plans” - illustration, 2016


In order to fulfil dreams of travelling and to bring your knowledge to young artists around the world, you offer travelling workshops - what kinds of things do you do in the workshops and wheres the best place you’ve had the chance to visit as a result?

Workshops differ according to many  aspects, like where, the length, level of participants, etc. So, I can’t generalize, but when I teach illustration workshop for 3-5 days or so, it is usually a short intense version of classes I teach at SVA. I try and give them as many different assignments as possible, and learn different aspects of illustration. Now with internet, one can live anywhere and work with anyone around the world. it is giving so much new potential to artists around the world. 

And I love traveling to places I have not been. When I travel, I cut myself off from regular illustration jobs. I am not the type who meet deadlines in the hotel rooms. When I am out of my studio, I am not doing studio work. I need to absorb and intake inspirations and stimulations from outside to give me fuel to create something new and fresh in the future. Working working working all the time won’t help me in in a long run. 

So, when I am at the destination, I am ready to fully absorb the experiences. I also try and take at least a day or a few days exploring the city/country. 

What is great about work travel is that destination choses me, and not the other way around. (because they are invitation basis.) And it is not a travel in a way you only see tourist destinations. It is all about meeting and interacting with locals, and really really experience where I am visiting. 


I have to be honest, I was a bit scared of going to India, until I got invited to go talk in Designyatra Festival in Jaipur. We hear all the terrible stories on the news about India. I was freaking out. Then, I went, and you know what? It was one of the best experiences I have ever had. Now I am so curious about the country, culture and history, I have already read 6 books by contemporary Indian authors since I got back from the trip in October. 


We all do have these irrational fear and judgment against unknown. People in India probably think US is this crazy country where everyone walks around with machine guns and shoot them in schools. The best thing we can do is by taking off that barrier of unknown, and work travel is giving me that chance, and I think of how fortunate I am, like every day. 

The more different way of thinking and living we are exposed to, the better we can be as a creative to come up with ideas, as well as, the better we can become as a human, in genera

“ Swimming in Fear ” - illustration, 2013