Illustration by Yuko Shimizu, of a Japanese geisha with tattoos and a boom box.

Creative Voices

Illustrator Yuko Shimizu

By Kristi Highum

Illustrator Yuko Shimizu creates images full of texture and life. Her work is exuberant, precise, and evocative—and very much in demand. But even when she wasn’t making a living as an illustrator, she felt compelled to draw: “Artists will create regardless, right? Because I created for myself, and there was zero audience for a long, long time, and that didn’t stop me from making.”

Yuko’s illustrations begin with a rough pencil sketch, which she then fills in with brush and ink on paper—she does all her brushwork by hand. “Once you’re in your ink, you have to focus on it all,” she says. “One at a time and focus.” She finishes her illustrations by applying color in Adobe Photoshop.

Yuko has been a professional illustrator since graduating from art school when she was in her early thirties. She had lived in the New York area as a child, and after an early career in corporate PR in Japan (where she “drew on the side for a long time”), she decided New York was the place to pursue what she wanted to do. “It wasn’t a plan at the beginning,” she says. “It came out that way.” She completed two years of art school, and after graduating she was ready to promote her work as a full-time freelancer.

Get to know illustrator Yuko Shimizu in this video profile. Click to watch.

She says that as a freelancer, you have to accept that everything is your responsibility. A freelance illustrator doesn’t get sick days—so you have to take care of yourself, know your limits, and make time for inspiration and relaxation. Yuko finds inspiration in art outside of her field. She’s a big fan of graphic design, furniture and product design, and reading, especially novels. “When you read, you learn the art in different form, and a lot of the books are visual.”

Travel also inspires her: “When you travel to somewhere you haven’t been and experience things…you’re like a kid again, like your day’s so long because everything’s new and everything’s stimulating.”

Many of Yuko’s clients are magazines and newspapers, and she finds that working with them becomes a collaboration. Her illustration ideas come from research: exploring what was suggested by the client and then completing more research on her own. She says, “Whenever I teach my students, I always say thank your high school English teacher because whatever she or he told you, like read, read between the lines, underline everything that’s important, summarize into one sentence—you know, who, where, when, what —all these things are what I ask, and what I don’t understand, I read.”

Illustration by Yuko Shimizu, of a flooded New York City street
Illustration by Yuko Shimizu, of a woman in a rabbit mask.
Illustration by Yuko Shimizu, of the Incredible Hulk swimming

Yuko just finished a “once-in-a-lifetime project,” working with the writer Michael Cunningham on a book of illustrated short stories based on fairy tales. For more than a year, Yuko worked closely with the writer, as well as the editorial and design teams of publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux: “They always wanted to meet up in their office, and we drank coffee and we brainstormed. I think there are some differences that come out of collaborations where you know everyone really well, and what they expect from you. It was a very special project.”

About her illustrations, Yuko notes, “I’m trying to be honest to who I am when I’m creating work.” Other recent projects include the completion of a seven-year collaboration with DC Comics Vertigo (creating the cover art for issues 1–70 of the Unwritten series) and the 80-foot-wide YES! mural project in collaboration with Sagmeister & Walsh in DUMBO, Brooklyn. “It was the biggest piece of artwork that exists of my work…the whole process was challenging. There was a lot of revision…but when finally it clicks, it moves forward—everything’s working, and you feel like you are on the next level because you have accomplished something you thought you wouldn’t. And the outcome is something you never expected.” 

Cover of the Michael Cunningham book
Illustration by Yuko Shimizu, from the book
Illustration by Yuko Shimizu, from the book

Yuko collaborated with the writer Michael Cunningham and his editors on the illustrations for his new book of short stories, A Wild Swan and Other Tales.

Detail from Yuko Shimizu's

Yuko collaborated with Sagmeister & Walsh on an 80-foot-wide mural commissioned by the DUMBO Improvement District in partnership with Two Trees Management Company and the NYCDOT Urban Art Program. Learn more about the YES! mural.  

September 11, 2015

Original artwork: Yuko Shimizu, courtesy of the artist  

Video: Kristi Highum   Layout: Nicolle Rodriguez