How to be an award-winning illustrator

Globally acclaimed Japanese artist Yuko Shimizu shares seven lessons she's learned over the last decade.

What did you do when you turned 30? Award-winning creative Yuko Shimizu saved up, swapped her corporate job in Japan for art school and became a globally acclaimed illustrator.

It didn't happen overnight. In fact it took three years to get the cash together. But as Shimizu – who counts Microsoft, The New York Times and iconic designer Stefan Sagmeister amongst her many collaborators – told the audience at Reasons to be Creative 2015, you're never too old to achieve your dream.

"If America has a glass ceiling, Japan has a glass table," she said, explaining that a mentally abusive boss finally gave her the push she needed to abandon the safety of a regular pay cheque and study art for the first time, aged 34. "I was wearing jeans with 18-year-olds and faking it," she laughed.

Yuko Shimizu at Reasons to be Creative 2015 talking about her first (and possibly only) children's book, award-winning Barbed Wire Baseball

Pursuing a creative career was a life-changing decision, but over the last decade and more Shimizu has built an inspirational illustration portfolio.

Her work lives on Gap T-shirts, Pepsi cans, Visa billboards, Penguin covers and the pages of New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Time. She's been profiled in Computer Arts magazine, published a monograph and more.

What has she learned in that time? Primarily that it's never too late to do what you want to do, whether you're 19 or 90.

"We never get younger than who we are today," she told the crowd. "Start working on that dream today."

Here are seven tips – amongst many Shimizu shared with the audience at Reasons to be Creative 2015 – for making it as an illustrator.

01. Take at least one small risk every day

Yuko Shimizu's portrait of The Clash for soccer magazine 8 by 8

"I'm not talking about jay-walking or stopping the bus where there's no stop!" she laughed. "Some people have a signature style and every job is a variation of that. Repeating the same things over and over drove me nuts – that's why I quit my corporate job – but clients do have a timeline."

"So, every time I get a new project I throw in maybe 10-25 per cent of something I haven't done before. It might be a new colour scheme, or just something I haven't drawn: something that makes me a bit nervous but really excited."

"If it's 50 per cent new I'll freak out and my client won't call again. But I do lots of small jobs. If I do 10, I can grow without taking too much risk. I know I'm on the right track."

02. It's ok to turn down a job…

Why? "Because there are always others who want to do it. When I turn down a job I always suggest someone else," she explained.

"When I moved from Japan there were so many people who helped me along the way. Some of my professors gave me contacts, and said mention my name and they'll call you back. I don't know the way to thank all those who helped me, so I try to help those who need it now."

03. Clients love photography more than illustration, so give them more

Cover image for a short science fiction story written by Charlie Jane Anders for

"Now that photography is good again, clients want photography. We only get jobs when art directors think that photography won't work, so I try and do something a photo can't do."

04. Don't take a project if it takes a good night's sleep away from you

Shimizu isn't referring to the all-nighters: "I mean things I'll be ashamed of. Oil. Gambling. Everyone has something that important - a job that means they won't be able to sleep at night. Don't do it."

05. A project isn't a success unless the client thinks so, no matter what I think

Not all of her projects are showcased on her website. There are some projects where Shimizu feels both "proud and embarrassed" at the same time.

"But the bottom line is I worked hard and the client loved it. You can't make a personal masterpiece that the client doesn't want."

06. Never work for free. It undercuts others

"As a professional you make mistakes, and learn and get better. But there are mistakes you don't need to make because other people made it for you already. In this case, me," she told the audience, explaining that she once gave a persistent start-up a pre-existing illustration for free.

"They said I'd get exposure. Sometimes you do; sometimes you don't. This time I did - a lot. And then I forgot about it, until another illustrator contacted me saying she'd been asked to provide an image for free and asking what the deal was."

Shimizu realised she'd essentially told the client it never had to pay for art. "Artists are always willing to give their art for exposure. You get tricked into doing it. You feel like you're winning but you're actually losing. That's my story of shame. Don't ever do this. Artwork is called work because it's work."

07. Sometimes there are things more rewarding than money

"Whenever I have time I try and do charity work. It's a great feeling being an artist. If you're a professional and making a living, it's nice to take time off and do charity work. But if you're not, don't worry. Keep yourself on track for where you want to go and work your way there. Then you can make the time."

One of two Dumbo 80-foot wide murals created with Sagmeister & Walsh

Batman Detective Comics #52 variant cover for DC Universe

NY Times Book Review cover for the highly anticipated US release of the new book by Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Illustration for The Nation's 150th anniversary issue

Reasons to be Creative is an annual three-day conference for designers, coders and artists in Brighton, UK. This year's speakers include Evan Roth, Yuko Shimizu, Noma Bar and Dominic Wilcox - and we're reporting from the event all week.

Liked this? Try these...


Julia Sagar is a commissioning editor and writer for Creative Bloq, Computer Arts, net, 3D World and IFX magazines. Tweet her @JuliaSagar