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Art with human touch transcends borders

Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer Ryuzo Suzuki

Tatsuro Kiuchi stands in front of his computer at his studio in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, surrounded by antiques that he has collected over years.

By Ayako Hirayama / Japan News Staff Writer Illustrator Tatsuro Kiuchi is prolific. Based in Tokyo, he has created a range of materials for books, magazines, newspapers and advertisements, among other mediums, with his clients spanning the globe from The New York Times and The Washington Post to Penguin Books. He has even illustrated his own children’s picture books.

His deeply human illustrations feel like something you have seen somewhere before. Among his well-known works are covers for the Japanese best-seller novel series “Shitamachi Rocket” written by Jun Ikeido as well as 2006 Christmas stamps for Britain’s Royal Mail and Starbucks designs for its 2007 worldwide holiday promotion. About 200 million sets of the stamps illustrated by Kiuchi are said to have been printed.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Kiuchi speaks about a drastic life shift from majoring in biology to seek a career in art. He said he has always enjoyed drawing since he was a child.

  • Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer Ryuzo Suzuki

    Christmas stamps for Britain’s Royal Mail featuring Kiuchi’s illustrations.

  • Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer Ryuzo Suzuki

    The cover of “Living Express Karl,” a children’s picture book written and illustrated by Kiuchi. The main character was named after German philosopher and sociologist Karl Marx.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Kiuchi speaks during an interview with The Japan News.

Kiuchi said the job of illustrators is all about artisanship. “In many cases, I don’t have much freedom in drawing. I need to make my illustrations cater to my clients’ requests as much as I can,” he calmly said. “So I feel I’m more like an artisan.”

Despite such limited freedom, the 53-year-old illustrator is skilled at displaying his distinctive style in his works. He works digitally, but his illustrations do not look that way. “I initially used oil paints for illustrations. I then began seeking to work digitally to increase efficiency, but I didn’t like digital illustrations that look obviously done by computers. So I explored ways to create digital work that looks like it was drawn by hand,” he said.

The result of his experiments using Photoshop was a style resembling woodblock printing that evokes feelings of warmth and hand-drawn textures. It has become his signature. “I think I’m one of the first people to use such a print-like style,” he said.

Yet the handiness of digital rendering sometimes becomes a headache for meticulous illustrators like Kiuchi. “In digital, I can make changes forever. It could be endless,” he said. “It’s my nature to do things too much. So I always try to leave a good sense of looseness that looks like it was drawn by hand.”

Initially, Kiuchi never thought of making a living as an illustrator. A native of Nerima Ward, Tokyo, he spent his early childhood in a rural area in Gunma Prefecture. Having developed an interest in living creatures, he took up a major in biology at the International Christian University in Tokyo. His thesis was on the eggs of about 100 cockroaches; he chose the insect as a research subject for its low cost. But he gradually realized biology involving chemical formulas wasn’t his thing.

After graduating from the university in 1988, Kiuchi then made a drastic shift to seek a career in art, with the realization that he has always enjoyed drawing since he was a child, when he constantly drew animals and insects based on an illustrated encyclopedia. His desire for a new path led him to study at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., where he studied for nearly three years, from the basics to practical skills for going professional. He began promoting his works, such as by submitting them to publishers and entering competitions. His talent was quickly recognized by an artistic director of a publisher who came to the college to see students’ portfolios. This brought him an opportunity to illustrate a picture book, “The Lotus Seed,” written by award-winning author Sherry Garland, for which he read the story, compiled ideas and consulted with the publisher based on his rough sketches.

His career appeared to be off to a good start. However, after he returned to Japan in 1991, he needed time and patience before he could stand on his own feet as a freelance illustrator, especially when the internet was not widely used. “It took me 10 years. I managed to get through the period by living at my parents’ house and doing part-time jobs,” he said.

Kiuchi began receiving offers through agents, which are commonly used overseas. His work started gaining recognition at home and abroad by art institutions such as American Illustration, Communication Arts Illustration and the Society of Illustrators. He has won multiple competitions as well.

In 2009, he set up a studio called “Pen Still Writes” with his former student and now fellow professional illustrator hiromichiito. Kiuchi has constantly produced illustrations standing up. For years, he has avoided sitting while working to reduce pain in the shoulders and back, which he calls his biggest concern for meeting deadlines.

Kiuchi now tries to take advantage of social media platforms, such as Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr, to increase the number of people who see his illustrations.

“Many illustrators including me are introversive and have difficulty doing self-promotion. But it’s important to make your works seen by many people,” the soft-spoken Kiuchi said.

Amass ‘database’ within you

Kiuchi also teaches at Aoyamajuku, an illustration school in Tokyo, which accommodates all levels of illustrators. He stresses the importance of observing objects to draw. “People tend to draw things in front of them with their knowledge instead of actually observing them.”

Selecting what to draw is also key. When commissioned to illustrate the world-famous Augusta golf course in Georgia for the U.S. magazine Golf Digest, he focused on elements that symbolize the place. “I don’t play golf and don’t know much about it. I drew based on the instinctive impressions that I strongly felt.”

He said this casually, but execution is no easy task. Tomoya Ogawa, an illustrator who used to study at Aoyamajuku, has been fascinated by Kiuchi’s works that look “new” despite sticking to the basics. “When I looked at his works, I sensed his intelligence in the way he captures scenes to draw and the vast database of knowledge about paintings stored within himself.”

Indeed, Kiuchi encourages his students to create such a “database” to cultivate their aesthetic sensitivities by observing numerous paintings and other artistic objects. “You should look at many things, both good and bad. I believe what you have seen will be reflected in your works,” Kiuchi said.

Having created digital illustrations for so many years, Kiuchi now wants to brush up his old skill: oil painting. Last year, he held a solo exhibition featuring oil paints, and preparations are being made for another one. “I’m now eager to draw things for myself rather than my clients,” he said.

■ Quick Questions

Q: Who is your favorite artist?

A: N.C. Wyeth. (Early 20th-century U.S. illustrator. His use of light and shadows and structure have influenced Kiuchi.)

Q: What do you do in your downtime?

A: Ride a motorcycle.

Q: What is your favorite place?

A: My workplace.

Q: What is your current passion or interest?

A: I have no passion for anything other than drawing.

[Published on May 18, 2019]Speech

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