Illustrator Yuko Shimizu on blending traditional Japanese art with a contemporary edge

The New-York based illustrator explains how she transformed thousand-year-old, largely unknown tales into visually relevant modern stories.


Illustration by Yuko Shimizu from The Folio Society edition of Japanese Tales ©Yuko Shimizu 2018

Award-winning New York-based Japanese illustrator Yuko Shimizu has been burying her head in traditional Japanese art for her latest project. You may have seen her work on billboards, book covers, in the pages of the New York Times or on a Pepsi can, but the illustrator of more than 10 years has most recently been commissioned by The Folio Society to illustrate a new collection of historic Japanese tales.

The stories are enthralled with mythical and human characters, which have been translated and edited by London author Royall Tyler and bound within the silver pages of one of The Folio Society's exquisite books.

Japanese Tales is made up of 170 tales which have been around for almost a thousand years. They involve characters such as saints and scoundrels, ghosts and magical healers, as well as a range of deities and demons. Royall Tyler’s colloquial translations provide the reader with a window into Japan’s cultural heritage, but also reveal that human conditions – such as compassion, jealousy, lust, benevolence, greed, charity – are not so far removed from our own experiences.

Illustration by Yuko Shimizu from The Folio Society edition of Japanese Tales ©Yuko Shimizu 2018

Yuko was asked by The Folio Society to illustrate the collection, blending Japanese style with contemporary influences. Yuko has created single and double-page, full-colour illustrations alongside black-and-white line drawings. These are presented in a blocked-cloth binding and a die-cut and blocked slipcase. The new edition is finished with silver page tops and a marker ribbon.

We asked Yuko why illustrating Japanese Tales was an important project to her on a personal level, how she researched old Japanese art for inspiration, and how she hopes her illustrations help to make ancient tales relevant to current readers.


Illustration by Yuko Shimizu from The Folio Society edition of Japanese Tales ©Yuko Shimizu 2018

As well as feeling a personal connection to the book, the Folio Society was on Yuko's "dream project list for a long time" – so she couldn’t turn down the offer.

"I do a lot of magazine illustrations, so it's one thing and then it’s over and I move onto the next. I need to carefully choose what long term projects to take, because each take up a lot of time, and I have to be happy working through the process," she says.

"When the right long-term project comes, it’s a chance to show multiple images in a whole package. It's in a way, a portfolio of my work. It is to show the potential viewers who I am and what I am passionate about."

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Illustration by Yuko Shimizu from The Folio Society edition of Japanese Tales ©Yuko Shimizu 2018

More importantly, it was a chance to show Yuko's creative flair in a way that reflects the contents of the tales.

"They are old Japanese tales, and I have to show my creativity, but only based on what is true to the book and stories," she says.

"I researched both in Japanese and English Google, and I work near a huge Japanese bookstore Kinokuniya in New York. How much research I do on the subject determines how well I do on the final images. I looked at a lot of old Japanese art and some historic research."


Illustration by Yuko Shimizu from The Folio Society edition of Japanese Tales ©Yuko Shimizu 2018

When it came to beginning her creative process, Yuko first read the tales and picked out the ones that were most exciting to illustrate, before creating initial sketches.

"I looked at a lot of Japanese art and tried to use the traditional composition styles," she says. "I do lots of lots of composition rough sketches until I find the one I really like, then I create a tighter sketch with pencil on paper.

"Once approved, I increase the approved sketch to the size I want to draw and cut a watercolour paper to the size I will be drawing. I then trace the sketch quickly with pencil onto the paper using a lightbox and complete all the line drawing with brush and ink.

"I scan the drawing and colour digitally on Adobe Photoshop. My dear assistant, who comes to work for me once a week, Tatiana Cordoba, is a very talented young painter. She does the base colouring on Photoshop to help me.

"She worked overtime and on the weekends so we could meet the deadline. Once Tatiana separated the drawings in Photoshop for me to start really working on the colour, I spent more time bringing the drawings to finish."


Illustration by Yuko Shimizu from The Folio Society edition of Japanese Tales ©Yuko Shimizu 2018

Creating illustrations that simultaneously pay homage to Japanese heritage while helping to make the tales relevant to modern readers is no small feat. Whether or not Yuko has achieved this is ultimately up to the readers to decide, although she hopes to have made a positive impact on the tales’ legacy.

"I tried to make the images reminiscent of old Japanese art, but also with a contemporary edge. The stories are very accessible, thanks to the beautiful translation and editing by Royall Tyler. I have nothing but high respect for the author," she says. "I am happy if my work helps to invite new readers to experience these, mostly unknown, old tales from Japan.

"I tried to be true to the story and to the history as much as I am capable of."

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Illustration by Yuko Shimizu from The Folio Society edition of Japanese Tales ©Yuko Shimizu 2018

Yuko was surprised at how much creative freedom she was granted from The Folio Society for this project. This approach seems true to the publisher, whose creative directors we've previously interviewed.

"Some projects are really hands on, and some are, hands off for most part. Hands off doesn’t mean the clients don’t care. It is rather the opposite," says Yuko.

"They trust me to let me come up with good pictures, they trust themselves that their biggest job is to find the right person for the project. When things are not going the right way, then they step in to put me back onto the right path. It was a lovely experience."

The Folio Society edition of Japanese Tales translated, edited and introduced by Royall Tyler and illustrated by Yuko Shimizu is available exclusively from The Folio Society.