GAI interview with Illustrator Jillian Tamaki


Simply stated, Jillian Tamaki is an ambitious, old soul. Since graduating Canada’s Alberta College of Art and Design in 2003, she has already accomplished more as a working illustrator than many struggling artists achieve in a lifetime. Her first book, Gilded Lilies, was released in 2006, and her new book, Skim (a collaboration with her cousin, writer Mariko Tamaki), is due out in the Spring.


This 27-year-old listens to public radio, watches PBS, and enjoys spending time with her husband (fellow illustrator Sam Weber) and little grey cat, Gretel. Did I mention that her work has already been featured in The New York Times, The Village Voice, and The New Yorker? The secret ingredient to her success seems painfully simple: Talent. Tamaki says her ultimate dream would be for Tina Fey to direct the film version of Skim. At the rate she is going, her wish just may come true. We caught up with her for a quick Q+A.

You used to live in Canada, but have relocated to Greenpoint, Brooklyn. How has this move influenced your work?
Hard to say. I don’t really leave my apartment much, so I might as well be still in Canada. Location affects my personal work, when I get to do it. I feel like I’m drawing a lot more nature since moving to New York.

How did Gilded Lilies come about? Did the publisher contact you or did you find them?
AI had made a mini-comic called “City of Champions”, which I would describe as a love-letter to Edmonton, Alberta. I lived in Edmonton for 2 years after graduating art school. Anyway, Andy Brown of Conundrum Press, a small publisher out of Montreal, saw it and asked me if I wanted to put together a compilation book of whatever I wanted. It contains a mishmash of stuff… comics (including City of Champions), silkscreens, sketchbook stuff, base drawings for illustrations, etc.

Tell me a bit about your next book Skim. Your blog says that you went to Canada to do research over the holidays. What kind of research were you doing and what have you learned?
Skim is about a 16-year-old teen wannabe wiccan and her bratty friend in private school. Coming-of-age type thing. It sounds kinda bad on paper, doesn’t it? It’s really funny and dark though. My cousin is hilarious. The thing is that it takes place in a very specific time and place: Toronto, 1993, between Halloween and Christmas. I was up in Ontario in November, taking a ton of photos for reference and just immersing myself in Skim’s world.


What kind of things did you draw when you were a little kid?
Horses and Rainbows. A friend of my parents once told me that when I was a kid, I always included a rainbow in every drawing.

Do you still have some of your early artwork?
There’s a lot of bad high school graphite renderings in my parents’ basement.

What is the last really good thing you have seen at a museum/gallery and why did you like it?
I recently saw the Walton Ford exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. He does dark, highly observational watercolors of animals, which are reminiscent of old anatomical plates, such as those of Audubon. I liked a lot about that show. I guess the images seem familiar at first, but they are really quite satirical and violent and encapsulate a lot about nature and humanity, even though there’s nary a human depicted.

Who is your favorite author?
For some reason I’ve read a lot of Charles Dickens. I think I’m drawn to his sense of caricature.

Is there an artist you always get compared to but feel it is unjust?
I think people like to make a strong connection between my work and that of my husband, Sam Weber. Not that I think it’s unjust, I think it’s just it’s an exaggeration. It’s cuter and people like to make the association.

If you could have any talent other than visual artistic talent, what would it be?
Gourmet chef, Pulitzer Prize winner fiction writer, classically trained pianist.

Before you had a long list of prominent clients, how did you land your first few freelance illustration jobs?
I made a website, made some postcards, mailed them out. It was pretty easy.

What advice would you give to an illustrator that is just starting out?
Talent alone won’t guarantee your success. There’s a business end to the whole thing that is less fun but necessary. That said, you have to be good at what you do and create something that people want to buy.


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