The walls of Jillian Tamaki’s studio are covered with ephemera. There is a hastily framed vintage picture book called Hoofed Animals, faced on the opposite wall, by an Inuit print. Over here is an e-mail from David Sedaris, thanking Tamaki for an illustration that accompanied a story of his in The New Yorker, and there, pinned near the computer, are tickets to see Lynda Barry and Maira Kalman at the 92nd Street Y. The items are as varied as Tamaki’s work, which ranges—across editorial assignments, personal projects and three books—from classic mid-century-style illustration to comic art to spontaneous, energetic experiments she shares with the world on a sketchblog she’s maintained since 2007.
“Very little do I actually dislike, it seems,” she says with a laugh, talking about her influences and throwing German Expressionism, crafting, David Hockney and John James Audubon into the mix. “I think the stronger influences are the ones that are subconscious and that you consumed a lot of as a child, and they’re typically junky, like Archie comics. I read so many Archie comics, and I realize that is so much in my work,” she says.
Tamaki, 30, grew up in suburban Calgary. She is fourth generation Japanese-Canadian on her father’s side and Egyptian-American on her mother’s, a background that appears in her face, which is strong, broad and pretty. “I don’t think most people who are artistic can remember a point where they think, ‘I’m going to give this a go,’” she says. “It’s an impulse you have from the get-go.”
She attended the Alberta College of Art + Design, where she gravitated toward illustration, and where she also met her future husband, illustrator Sam Weber. The couple now live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a historically Polish neighborhood that has attracted many artists. Her studio is in their apartment, while Weber keeps a workspace nearby.
After school, she admits to being “too afraid to take the leap” into full-time freelancing, so she worked for two years at Edmonton-based video game company BioWare. “I was building up small jobs here and there, and eventually I did start getting jobs from the Times and The New Yorker. There was no breakthrough moment, it was just sort of a math moment, where I realized that I could actually live on this.” She moved to New York, joining Weber, who studied at SVA, in 2005. After adapting to the city—a process humorously chronicled by some early strips in her recent book, Indoor Voice, from Montréal-based Drawn & Quarterly—she settled into a thriving career.
Technically, Tamaki is, above all else, a draftsman. She does not draw on a computer. Instead she works with brush pens, nib pens and occasionally pencil. Her first book, Gilded Lilies: Comics and Drawings (2006, Conundrum Press), shows the stamp of the Expressionism that influenced her in art school, doing the number on the people of Alberta that George Grosz once did to Berliners. And while she still experiments with the grotesque, she also renders—throughout her portfolio—scenes of tremendous beauty. “I feel every illustrator has a niche and one of my niches is women, or dancers, which I love,” she says.
One exemplary piece, which accompanied a New York Times story about laid-off ballet dancers, is a pencil drawing of a dancer taking a curtain call. Tamaki applied a splash of red to another sheet of paper, then composited the two together in Photoshop, creating a sublime, classic effect. Her colors, which she applies digitally, are vibrant and—perhaps because of their contrast with Tamaki’s organic brushwork—often otherworldly. (“I feel like they’re a little too tasteful sometimes,” she confesses, admitting that “if I never had to color anything else again in my life, I’d be happy,” a view she attributes to her love for comic art.)
This same polish can be seen throughout her “official” portfolio, whether it’s her lithe drawings of tigers for National Geographic or the solitary image of a boy sitting atop a massive sea turtle, which accompanied the David Sedaris story “Loggerheads” in The New Yorker (the one for which he thanked her). Drawn & Quarterly creative director Tom Devlin nails this aspect of her work when he says, “There’a a fluid, elongated grace to her drawings that I’ve seen people either imitate or arrive at as a kind of modern expression.”
Some of Tamaki’s work strikes Asian notes—like the Sedaris illustration and her oddly erotic contribution to the Fantagraphics Beasts! series, featuring a Japanese tanuki struggling with a partially-clad maiden—but she attributes this to the DNA of her design interests rather than to her own, though her last name often leads critics to conflate the two. “People like that neat package of it being Asian-influenced,” she says. “It’s in there, but it’s not something that is intentional or trying to be deep or self-referential. I totally acknowledge it’s in there, but it’s just one ingredient of a weird soup.”
Tamaki is not afraid to experiment with myriad styles and techniques, even in public, as evidenced by her blog, where she posts much of her spontaneous work. “It’s tough, because on the one hand, your sketchbook stuff should never be seen. If you’re too concerned with people seeing your creative mucking about, then you’re going to be inhibited and it’ll be a stunted exercise.”
An adjunct instructor at SVA, she tells her students, “If there aren’t some bad drawings in your sketchbook, you’re probably doing it wrong.” Still, the fearless enterprise of a public sketchbook has proven fruitful.
“It has encouraged me to do more things,” she says. “It’s going somewhere. It’s being put in a place and it has encouraged me to work more in the sketchbook and it’s a place that’s not an official portfolio, but it’s up there for art directors to see.”
And they do see it. Several projects have been sparked by work from the blog, including Indoor Voice. “I read the blog religiously and was struck by not only how serious she was (perfect detailed drawing after perfect detailed drawing),” says Drawn & Quarterly’s Devlin, “but how she was very willing to experiment—there were brush experiments, color experiments, collage, fashion spreads, superhero parodies and illustration advice. So out of that blog work and few discussions we came up with the idea to do Indoor Voice, a largely improvised book of experiments.”
And while Devlin notes that “Jillian really can just draw circles around so many cartoonists”—witness her drawings for Skim (Groundwood Books, 2007), the multi-award-winning coming-of-age graphic novel written by her cousin Mariko Tamaki—he says, “what separates Jillian from the others is not only the fact that she draws better and has better taste than just about anyone, but that she’s funny.”
“She’s got a very unique way of telling a story," adds Aviva Michaelov, art director of the New York Times Op-Ed page. “She’s able to pick up on the little details of life, which is something I like about her work.” For Father’s Day this year, for example, she contributed a short-form comic to the Times called “Domestic Men of Mystery,” about suburban fathers she had known growing up, a story told with both warmth and bemused wit. “What basically drew me to her work was her draftsmanship and her ability to portray life,” Michaelov says. “And the line of her brush stroke is so strong.”
As for all this stylistic shape-shifting, Tamaki says, “None of it is super-conscious. I was very interested in art history when I was a teenager, and I always thought I would go into that, but I’ve always been interested by a wide range of things and had my imagination captured by a wide range of styles and art periods. I have such a short attention span; I’m always trying evolve. Our industry is so trend-driven. It’s kind of an extension of fashion, in a way, and if you’re not changing with the times and updating your work, you’re going to be left behind. I don’t really feel like I’m putting on different hats. It’s much more ephemeral than that.”
As for what’s next, Tamaki is always experimenting—an example of some of her recent needlepoint hangs on the wall, near the tickets to the 92nd Street Y—but she imagines a future in which she can balance commercial work with her personal comics work.
“A lot of comic artists do illustration because it’s more lucrative, but they don’t actually like doing illustration, because you’re at the mercy of somebody else,” she says. “I actually do love doing illustration.” ca