• SHAUN TAN – Interview

Best known for illustrated books that deal with social, political and historical subjects through surreal, dream-like imagery such as The Rabbits, The Red Tree, The Lost Thing and the acclaimed wordless novel The Arrival, Shaun has also worked as a theatre designer and as a concept artist for the films Horton Hears a Who and Pixar’s WALL-E. His short film with Passion Pictures Australia; The Lost Thing recently won the Annecy Cristal Award for best short film.


Detail from the book The Lost Thing

What is the difference between good and bad design?

I guess the main thing for me is a truth to form and idea. As an illustrator, for instance, I’m very conscious of whatever medium I am working within, such as a picture book – its physical nature, it’s limitations, it’s cultural contexts, how it works with time and space. I also think that all good designs – including paintings and stories – are basically quite simple. They can be complex, but not complicated. A lot of bad designs strike me as either missing  some conceptual conviction, or else cluttered by gratuitous elements, effectively lacking integrity or clarity of purpose.
Most importantly, good design must communicate to others, whether through ideas or feelings, or actual use. It’s not enough to simply ‘self-express’ or ‘say something’. You have to see your own work from the veiwpoint of other people, a potential audience to whom you give the utmost respect.

How have the challenges in your career changed over time?

I guess it’s moved from trying to find things to do, to trying to find the time in which to do them! I’ve gotten a lot busier over the years, as my work has progressed gradually from painting in my parent’s garage to working with multiple international publishers, and more recently, a quite demanding short film project. Over time I’ve become more confident, both in creating my work and talking about it. The best thing about any creative success is that it’s a form of encouragement, you begin trusting your own ideas and judgement a bit more.
The basic challenges are, however, still the same, they haven’t changed very much. Every time I start a new project, I feel the same way I did as a high school art student, not quite sure what I’m doing but prepared to play around until I find out.

Do you think there is anything unique about the way Australia illustrates and designs?

Yes, I get the sense that we are remarkably free-range in style and concept compared to, say, the culture of illustration in the US, UK or Europe. I can almost spot a French, Italian or American picture book illustration by style alone, as other countries seem to have quite defined conventions an tastes, a ‘right’ way of doing things. I have slightly more trouble identifying an Australian illustration. I think this has something to do with a publishing culture, which I noticed especially in the 1990s as being quite innovative. Perhaps it’s because we don’t have such broad tradition of children’s book illustration in this country, and like other aspects of Australian culture, we are interested in trying new things and questioning ourselves.

What excites you most about the future of illustration and storytelling design in Australia?

I think the rise in graphic novel interest, both here and internationally, in the past ten years. We seem to be seeing a lot more illustrated books dealing with adult subjects: politics, war, relationships, sexuality, religion. I feel that’s been long overdue. I originally got into picture books thinking ‘why aren’t there more illustrated books for people older than 8?’ – so I’m hoping that one that this question might be irrelevant one day, in the same way that when we say ‘animation’, we don’t automatically assume ‘children’s film’.

How might illustrating and designing in Australia best be nurtured.

Mainly by publishers being more open minded, paying more attention to design and art direction. They have to be prepared to take the same risks that artists do, rather than always looking backwards and trying to emulate past success, which is a big problem with larger publishers. They also need to get behind young illustrators, and realise that good creators develop gradually, they don’t pop up overnight – and they really need to invest consistently in good book design. Too often design is regarded as a bit of an afterthought, or something set aside from content. Designers need to be given more resources – and more time – to do their best work.
Given the tight economics of illustrated book publishing, I think that illustrator grants and other funding (such as the PLR scheme), have a very important role to play. I know that grants from the Australia Council, as well as funding received from Screen Australia for a recent short film, have been essential in getting my own work off the drawing table, as well as providing tacit encouragement along the way. As all artists know, finding time and money can often be the greatest creative challenge of them all!
View the trailer for The Lost Thing and a video interview with Shaun at The Forge
View or read the 2009 Colin Simpson Memorial Lecture delivered by Shaun.
Visit Shaun’s website to see many more examples of his artwork and answers to many more questions including:
Do you sell your artwork, or prints?
Do you accept commissions?
Where can I find your books
Do you do school visits and talks?
How can you be contacted?
What books influenced you the most as a child?
How did you become an artist?
How would you define illustration?
Why do you use humour in your books?
How do you create a picture book?
Do you start with words or pictures?
How do you make a finished illustration?
Do you have much involvement with book design?
Which artists’ work most influences your own?
What advice would you give to an aspiring illustrator?
Tips on Getting Published

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