Yuta Onoda

Garrick Webster meets a Canada-based Japanese artist who graduated only a year ago, but already works for a number of magazine publishers

Sometimes a magazine feature comes along that's just perfect for a particular illustrator. When the Canadian quarterly Modern Dog got in touch with Yuta Onoda to illustrate a piece on canine mortality, little did they know that back home in Japan, his family's dog had recently passed away at the age of 16. It was a story that really resonated with the Toronto-based artist.

"The main idea I had for the assignment was like a message to my own dog," he explains. "It was a painful process, but I wished that he would make a lot of friends and be happy in his next journey. I came up with the idea of a lot of transparent-looking dogs welcoming the dog that belongs to the girl in the image."

The result was To Lost Friends And Fallen Comrades. One of Onoda's finest pieces to date, it was widely celebrated in this summer's North American illustration annuals. Modern Dog editor and creative director Jennifer Nosek was very happy with the piece. Like many of Onoda's images, it was created using a mix of inked line work and elements painted using acrylics. These were tweaked and merged in Photoshop.

One interesting thing about the composition is that you don't see the girl's face. "I wanted dog owners to feel emotionally attached to it. I thought without showing the specific facial appearance, it would be easier for viewers to get into the piece. I also thought a dramatic composition would help to add more depth," he says.

It's this level of insight that has led Onoda to win editorial commissions from magazines across North America. His work has graced the pages of Popular Mechanics, Outdoor Canada, MyMidwest, Paste, Spirit, PLANSPONSOR, Explore and many more. Just like an editorial piece needs to strike the right balance with design elements on the page, Onoda takes a very balanced approach to this kind of work. After studying art in Japan, he moved to Canada to improve his English and eventually ended up studying at Sheridan College, which is well-respected for its creative programmes. There he learned to adopt a consistent approach. Graduating a year ago, he's inundated with commercial work and is a rising star of illustration.

"My goal is to be able to create images that aren't limited to any particular field," he says. "The illustration program at Sheridan really helped me understand the concept of illustration. Of course, I do need to think about layouts and balance my illustration when it is incorporated with typography, or other design elements."

Onoda's usual process on receiving a brief is to send a couple of sketches to the art director. They'll choose one and sometimes block out on the sketch where they see editorial elements fitting. Based on this, he can then consider the composition of his image, working around type boxes and taking into account whether it's a left- or right-hand page. The magazine's tone and style are also considered. "It's important to know about them and get familiar with them," he says.

"It's always great to read the article before I illustrate, because understanding the article in-depth will help me come up with a greater variety of ideas," Onoda continues. "However, it can also be interesting not knowing everything about the article. It depends on what kind of images clients are looking for. Sometimes not having too much information helps you be more creative."

Another of his successful pieces is Struck By Lightning, one of five illustrations he did for an issue of Outdoor Canada. Although he comes from Tokyo, he likes the Canadian wilderness and his images often include animals or nature. For this piece, as the title suggests, he was asked to illustrate a fisherman, on a boat, being struck by lightning. Although it sounds like an easy brief, he says it was one of the toughest assignments he's had to date.

"The image needed to be simple and straightforward, so I focused on the composition to come up with something dynamic," he explains. "I decided to get out of my comfort zone and used colours I don't often choose. The lines are all done in graphite. I played with inks and acrylics for texture, then started working in Photoshop."

There's no actual lightning in the illustration, just a flash of colour to suggest it. "I didn't want to draw a bold lightning shape and make it too obvious," says Onoda. "I wanted to use bright colour to help make the blast more distinctive. I thought limiting the colour palette would help capture the moment he was struck."

Not long after completing the work, he updated his portfolio on his agent's website. He's represented by Gerald & Cullen Rapp. A few days later he got a call saying that Brody Price, an art director at Pace Communications, had seen his work and was interested in the way he drew water. It led to a new job for Spirit, the in-flight magazine of Southwest Airlines. The brief was to create a DPS illustration for a story about someone who's learning to surf in his 40s.

Onoda felt inspired. "I wanted to go crazy with water details," he says. "So, I tried to come up with a composition that would allow me to add on the waves. I was also told how the typography would be incorporated with the image, so I spent a lot of time coming up with a dynamic composition.

"The colour scheme I had in my mind was more like bluish emerald green. I thought adding too many colours would easily take the focus off the water. Knowing that there was going be a title and text on the image, I also needed to leave the background white so that the text could be read. Then I chose the base colour and started adding details on the water using similar tones. As I progressed, I needed to add one more colour to give depth, so I added red on the surf suit."

The way Onoda illustrates now is a refinement of a style he used towards the end of his course at Sheridan College. He created the personal pieces Happiness Of Being Loved, Consequence Of Our Action and Confusion to draw together graphite, inks, and acrylics, combining and colouring them in Photoshop to more or less define his style. His desire to outline objects in his images, he believes, comes from his childhood love of comics. One of his favourites was Dragonball, by Akira Toriyama. He also likes to infuse his images with decorative elements and detail and this, he says, comes from his love of Art Nouveau and Ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints. He now seems to merge Eastern styles with North American content, like the outdoor spirit of the Canadian wilderness.

But it's not just his style that has benefited from experiencing both Eastern and Western cultures. His overall outlook has changed too. "Living in two different cultures has opened my eyes, and I don't think I would be able to start my career as an illustrator and painter if I hadn't moved to Canada," he says. "Having connections with people from different cultures has changed my thinking process. It has helped me develop more perspectives, to look at things differently. This has helped me build the illustration approach I use today, and I am very glad that I decided to study English in Canada."

The early personal work he did while defining his style has stayed in his portfolio, alongside pieces like All Is Mine and Restoring What Was Lost. For these, he decided to practice his editorial illustration skills by creating images for articles he'd read. The former was his response to a piece about how children desire toys. The latter, which features cupped hands holding a stag with enormous antlers, was based on a piece about wildlife. "The article was about the recovery of the population of the Columbian white-tailed deer. I love drawing animals and I thought this article would be a perfect fit for my illustration approach," he says.

Recently, there hasn't been much time for personal work, though. Perhaps as a result of the kind of work he's included in his portfolio, Onoda is in the fortunate position of getting lots of jobs centred on things he enjoys drawing. "My balance has shifted towards commercial work. But it doesn't mean I'm not doing creative work. Most of the clients I've worked with so far have given me similar themes to what I would probably work on when I have free time anyway, so it feels like I'm working on personal pieces."

Just a year into his career, busy doing work he loves and with a style that's in demand, Onoda is in an enviable position. He's currently working on book jacket illustrations for Scholastic and Abrams books, as well as more editorial work for magazine clients. For him, it seems as though illustration is a calling and he has no dreams of deviating from this path. "I hope to continue my career as a freelance illustrator and painter. It's extremely busy these days, but I really enjoy my life now. I hope to continue doing what I love, and hopefully it will last a lifetime," he concludes.