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Illustrator and graphic designer – Shaun Tan

Interviewer, Craig Malyon

Focus questions

Refer to the artist’s response about influences. Find examples of Shaun Tan’s illustrations and identify aspects of other artists’ practice that appear to be evident in his work e.g. intentions, actions, choices

If graphic designers are artists, are artists designers? Discuss what you consider to be the distinction between artists and designers, referring to examples.

Questions

  1. What interested you into becoming an illustrator?

  2. What training have you had in this field?

  3. Describe the process you would go through to formulate and develop ideas for an illustration?

  4. What artists have been an influence on your practice?

  5. What are common themes found in your illustration?

  6. Name some issues considered when developing design work?

  7. Cite one example of a highly successful illustrative work.

  8. Are there any rules or tricks in illustration work?

  9. What is the level of involvement in digital design work?

  10. Do you think Australian graphic artists respond to international trends?

  11. Is there a fine line between commercial and fine arts and how do you demarcate these practices in your own work?

Shaun Tan is an Australian graphic artist and illustrator who last year was awarded best children’s illustration awards for his work on the book titled The Rabbits. His work displays an expressive drawing style and a prowess for illustration. His work is unique in style and powerful in terms of the depiction of his theme. In this interview he talks about his work in terms of his approach to the practice of design.

  1. What interested you into becoming an illustrator?

    “In short, it was a job, which allowed me to make a living from drawing and painting. I've also always enjoyed reading and admired other illustrator's work, especially where images enhanced or extended the text, and did not simply “illustrate” it, ie. represent whatever it was describing outright.”

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  2. What training have you had in this field?

    “Not a lot technically. I'm pretty much self taught, although I went to a high school which had a special art program; the main advantage of which was that students came to be taught by a wide range of practising artists, not just art teachers. I studied Fine Arts and English Literature at university as part of a BA degree: fairly dry stuff to do with theory, criticism and history, which interests me, but virtually no studio practice. It was more or less training to be an academic rather than an artist. I did well at this, but after writing a huge and difficult thesis, I decided to stop studying and try working as an artist.”

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  3. Describe the process you would go through to formulate and develop ideas for an illustration?

    “It's fairly methodical; a lot of research, probably a consequence of being a student so long. I still feel like a student as an artist. Learning and experimenting never ends.

    The Rabbits began, for instance, with a set of written notes resulting from historical references, with only a few rough doodles. That sets out the content, working out what the thing is actually about, which gets me closer to solving the fundamental problem of representation.

    It's really a matter of building a good conceptual scaffolding before you start constructing; in a sense educating yourself about a subject before you can begin to think effectively. The style of illustration: point-of-view, realism or abstraction, composition as a sequence, emerges from this.

    I don't start any project with an assumed style or illustration media, that's too presumptuous. I let the meaning and form of the story decide that, working through a range of rough drawings to see what works and also looking at what other artists have done when faced with similar problems.”

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  4. What artists have been an influence on your practice?

    “Lots, things as well as artists. Things you see on the street: incidents, textures and accidental compositions created by objects can be just as useful as stuff in galleries. To name a few artists whose work I like: Joseph Cornell, De Chirico, Arthur Streeton, Fred Williams, Brett Whiteley, Rene Magritte, Francis Bacon, Hokusai, John Olsen, Sidney Nolan; cartoonists such as Michael Leunig, Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman; illustrators such as Milton Glaser, Peter Sis, Frederick Clement, J. Otto Seinbold, Lane Smith, Ron Brooks; film makers such a Ridley Scott, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Kubrick & others. I like looking at things from other cultures and times as well, to see other ways of representing experience visually.”

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  5. What are common themes found in your illustration?

    “I'm not sure, I like to think they are pretty diverse. They do tend of revolve around landscape fairly consistently though, whether natural or urban. I'm always attracted to landscape as a way of evoking certain ideas or feelings. It may come from living in Western Australia, where you can't help but be conscious of it. I also tend to be interested in the relationship between nature and technology, machines and the environment. I'm also attracted to science fiction as a way of creating metaphors for real things, which are strange but also familiar.”

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  6. Name some issues considered when developing design work?

    “I'm not sure... It needs to be clear and legible, and interesting without being self-consciously design-ish, ie. too mannered or affected. You need to keep in mind the qualities that don't translate well in reproduction, eg. subtle colour ranges and textures. Everything must be essentially simple in concept, pictures or designs that are hard work to produce will be hard work to read.”

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  7. 7. Cite one example of a highly successful illustrative work.

    “Chris Van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a set of unrelated black and white drawings of simple but mysterious incidents, each accompanied by nothing but a title and a single sentence, eg. "The House on Maple Street: it was a perfect lift-off". It's one of the best examples of good illustration being evocative rather than descriptive - it encourages you to imagine a relationship between what you see and read. This goes beyond telling or even showing something; it is completely open-ended.”

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  8. Are there any rules or tricks in illustration work?

    “Not really, except that I'd recommend planning what you do, and working from the bottom up, without getting seduced by detail or cleverness. Avoid being pretentious and always refer to the subject in question, keeping in mind that any trick, skill or talent is just a tool for communicating something, not an end in itself.”

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  9. What is the level of involvement in digital design work?

    “Not much. I tend to do everything with fairly traditional media but that may change. I could use digital design as a design tool, but I can't see that it has any advantages when it comes to drawing and painting. A lot of digital art doesn't impress me much.”

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  10. Do you think Australian graphic artists respond to international trends?

    “Not sure, I'm too lazy to check out what the trends are. The Rabbits was influenced by an illustration exhibition I saw in Paris a few years ago, so that's one case.”

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  11. Is there a fine line between commercial and fine arts and how do you demarcate these practices in your own work?

    “It's an interesting question. I myself make a fairly definite distinction, as I do a lot of large scale, semi-abstract landscapes and portraits, which I feel are 'purer' than illustration in that they refer only to themselves. Commercial work such, as book covers, which I do regularly, are probably the lowest form of visual expression, in that they are merely descriptive or decorative. My picture book illustrations come close to my paintings, although tend to be more about a kind of intellectual playfulness and design, they also tend to be more about things that are not part of my everyday life, exercises in fiction. Illustrating remains a secondary activity in this respect, it refers to the real world, but not directly.”

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