Jillian Tamaki

SVA class of 2014

Apr 30th, 2014

Today was the last day of class. Boo… also, yay. Always a lot of feeeeelings at this time of year. I like to share a few notable images at the end this last semester. Hire these kids!

Camille Chan:



Kjersti Faret:




Hyein Jeon:


Colleen Tighe:




Amanda Scurti:


Tim Reed:


Kirstie Belle Diongzon:


Grace Kanazawa:

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Aatmaja Pandya (future comics superstar):



Taylor Cabaniss:




Courtney Menard:


End of Year!

Apr 25th, 2013

Yesterday was my last class with my SVA senior portfolio students. Like I did last year, I thought I’d share a selection of their work. (Some of this stuff was made in our class, some in other classes with different teachers.)

Neel Sawhney



Jessica Lauren Chung


Jenny Zych

jz cake_web

Judith Kim


SohYoung Park


Anna Yoken


Alexa Cassaro



Adria Mercuri



Othello_Master001 web_900

On Drawing and Illustration and the Difference Between the Two

Nov 8th, 2012

I’ve been teaching illustration for about 5 years now. I feel really lucky to have seen some of the students I taught/met during my first couple years at Parsons go on to become professional creative people themselves (Katie, Anna, Zack, Roxie, Hannah.)

The vast majority have not.

For my current class, a senior portfolio class in the Illustration Dept. of the School of Visual Arts, I require my students to build an online portfolio website for their final project. It’s the only group critique we have in the 2nd semester. I visited some of those sites this week and noticed that most haven’t been updated since that day of the final critique last spring.

Why? Why put all that time and money and effort into 4 years of college if you’re not even going to make a run at being a professional illustrator? I suppose there are myriad reasons… the main one being that I just don’t think most human beings find the freelance life to be all that amiable. Talent is important and so very lovely when you have it, but I’ve found it often doesn’t correlate to any real-world post-graduation success. A persistent attitude is just as important.

I actually think that most people don’t realize or think about the difference between Drawing and Illustration. They think they’re the same. They’re not. Drawing is an act, whereas Illustration (as I define it) is a profession. Illustration *can* involve drawing (it can expand beyond drawing too, obviously), but it’s actually the act of thinking and problem solving. I think I’ve mentioned this before but Tim O’Brien once said something to the effect that the sketch-phase of a project IS the Illustration… I couldn’t agree more, despite my work being incredibly different from Tim O’Brien’s.

I wish this delineation between drawing and illustration was made more clear earlier on to young art students. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe illustration is more than a just a “style” and that most students enter such schools with hopes of eventually making their living being an illustrator. For this reason, I try to structure my class around real-life projects, prompts, feedback, and processes. (It’s also the way I myself was trained.) I do recognize that illustration programs are not quite the “trade schools” they used to be, and that they can be fulfilling experiences unto themselves. But again, I think most students enter with reasonable expectations that they will be exposed to realistic representations of Illustration as a JOB.

Illustration is about fitting your conceptual and aesthetic style to a problem. There is a “solving” aspect to it. I find students either revel in this aspect or absolutely hate it. It can represent a brainteasing challenge or be completely oppressive, depending on your point of view. If you want to become a professional illustrator, it helps to be the former. Sometimes you will feel more like the latter! But mostly you need to be open to collaboration and working within constraints. The joy of illustration is striking the delicate balance of solving the problem with artistry.

No real conclusions or grand(er) pronouncements than that. Just something I’ve been thinking about lately…

Year’s End

Apr 26th, 2012

I thought I’d share some of my favourite images produced by my Senior Portfolio students this year [some were made in my class, some were made for instructors Chris Buzelli and Marcos Chin].

Student Questions

Feb 24th, 2012

This week I had my students submit written questions. The question could be about anything: promotion, business, whatever. Some of the questions were pretty good! I’ve decided to share the answers here on my blog.


If I have many different styles, how should I promote them?

This is a question I hear often. I suppose it’s because my own portfolio contains a variety of “styles”. I should say that putting together a portfolio is more of an art than a science. My thought is, however, that your portfolio should be more consistent when you are a starting illustrator. But consistency can be more nuanced than “all 12 portfolio pieces should be identical”… consistency across a body of work can be more about a consistent tone, flavour, or conceptual style. Not just aesthetics. But back to the question: I think you should tailor your promotional materials, sending images that are most appropriate for the potential client. But at the same time being open-minded about what is and isn’t appropriate. For example, the NYT Op-Ed runs dioramas, children’s book-style art, photo-illustration, etc. Not just black and white, metaphor-heavy line-art. You can only gauge your portfolio’s effectiveness after probably 6 months of earnest promotion.

Will a variety of styles make my portfolio seem diverse or unfocussed?

It depends, and this is largely a matter of taste. Art, not Science, as I mentioned above. There are two common scenarios: the student is too emotionally attached to certain pieces and is unwilling to cut them from the portfolio (the rendered oil painting of a still-life or whatnot). Or, the student who thinks a piece is WILDLY different from their typical work that is most definitely NOT. So you may have to confer with outside people and get their opinion as to whether a portfolio is diverse or unfocussed. Again, there are things apart from aesthetics and “technique” that can link a body of work.

In a studio, is salary based on years of experience or quality of portfolio?

If you are applying for an entry-level job, you will likely start at the base-starting salary, regardless if your portfolio is “great” or “supergreat”.

How do I determine how much to charge for an illustration?

It is my experience that most illustration jobs come with a budget. So, you don’t really have too much of a say, especially with editorial and publishing jobs. The rate is the rate, roughly. The best-known guide for these things is the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. I haven’t used it myself, but it is oft cited and at least can give you a place to start (not only for pricing guidelines but invoice templates and familiarizing yourself with contracts). Of course, a spot in an alternative weekly is not going to pay the same rate as a spot in a national magazine. At some point you will have to use your good judgment: weigh how much time/effort/pain it will take, whether it will be a good portfolio piece, etc. Never do things for free (without good reason) or on-spec, of course. Here is the thing: there is no fixed price for ANY of this, and you will often confer with peers and colleagues to determine if a price is fair. But do NOT email professionals asking about this stuff, OK?

How do I determine how much to charge for a piece of original artwork?

That’s entirely up to you, darlin’. What you feel is fair and how badly you need to pay the bills. It may be $25 or $2500.

How do I approach art directors of children’s books?

I have little experience in the kids book realm, so I asked someone who does. John Hendrix, author/illustrator of A Boy Called Dickens and John Brown, is going to help out with the next few questions.

John sez: The following advice is from my limited experience doing 4 picture books, so it is from a single vantage point and probably not universal by any means. That said, from my experience, children’s book art directors are just like editorial art directors, they like finding new artists and love a good promo postcard as much as anyone. While it is wrong to completely reinvent the problem of promoting yourself to a kids book marketplace, it is also wrong to assume that getting hired for a kids book is exactly like getting hired for an editorial spot illustration. Clearly, the stakes are much much higher, for a 36 page kids book, as opposed to a 3″ high black and white illustration that will run one day in The New York Times. So, for that reason, you have to show them more than just pretty pictures. Most art directors will not hire you from postcards for a picture book… you should show them that you can create content. And show them some of your process as well.

Me again: There is some legwork involved in compiling contacts for any facet of the industry. This legwork is not hard or mysterious, but does require some effort. This is called HUSTLING, and if you are unwilling to hustle, well, god help you.

I would start with direct mailers. Make a small little sampler of work (a mini-porfolio) and send to Art Directors via mail with a polite, brief introductory letter. But how to find those names? Annuals, industry-group newsletters, internet research. That’s a start. HUSTLE.

Again, a small piece of advice. Diversify your options. You may not get a children’s book right out of the gate, but maybe you could get some illustrations in the myriad children’s/preteen magazines that are out there. Hm, but what are the names of those magazines? HUSTLE.

Lastly, become involved in the community. If kid’s books are what you want to do, you should be going to book and library conferences and getting involved with the SCBWI. The Internet (and, if you’re a student, your school) is full of people who want to help and share knowledge. Use it.

How do I pitch a children’s book story?

Here’s John again: Pitching a story is super easy: it just involves writing an amazing story, creating some memorable characters, rendering vivid dialogue and personalities and then designing some great comps of how the book will look. Ok, that isn’t easy at all.

From my experience, never send in a book with complete final art in it. It is rare (read: IMPOSSIBLE) to have a book printed as is from the one you labored over in your mom’s basement. Have the manuscript completely finished, and then comp the entire book out… just as if you were going to do a sketch dummy. Design the page breaks, and arrange where the text would go. Then rough out some sketches for the book. Perhaps you do a full character study of the main players, or in a few spreads go with some super tight roughs and then one piece of finished art to show your chops. Bind it together so it look professional. Professional doesn’t mean corporate, by the way. It can be quirky or handmade… just needs to look like the person who made it can be taken seriously. Track down an art director you admire (hint: Look at the list of art directors who show at Society of Illustrators Original Art Show) and give them a call. I’ll admit, not easy, but completely do-able.

Do I need a literary agent?

John: No, you don’t need one. But, they really really help. I did my first two books without an agent, and I read my own contracts and negotiated all on my own. It was fine, but it got so much better when I signed with Writer’s House. My philosophy with agents is let them come to you. Approaching people before you are a proven quantity puts you in the disadvantage. Most book agents take much less of your earnings than a typical advertising or editorial rep might. Agents are like marriages, and you have to talk and get on the same page with things, and you have to trust each other. So, go into a relationship with an agent with a healthy understanding of who they are what their goals are for you.

Jillian: I think having a book agent is very helpful, in terms of helping you penetrate the market and dealing with the contracts, etc. But as John says, it’s likely a matter of having agents approach you. Not the other way around.

When do I send an invoice?

After you have completed the job and the Art Director replies, “We got it! I LOVE IT. My editors LOVE it. You are an unparalleled GENIUS!” I like to send it after you’re given the all-clear and all changes have been made.

Are pieces of original art a good idea for a promo?

Generally I would say don’t bother but it’s up to you. Put your time into improving your work, not making fancy-dancy mailers.

How long does it take for a response from an Art Director after I have sent my portfolio?

The concept of “sending a portfolio” is a bit antiquated. Art Directors are almost looking exclusively at your online portfolio (hence why it must be effective and half-decent). You are more likely to be sending promos to ADs, directing them to an online portfolio, and are not owed a response. You may get a job a few days after a promo is mailed, or a few months. If you get no response from your promo in 4 or 5 months, take a look at your work.

How many of your schoolmates are working creatives right now?

Oy! What a question. Well, two of my classmates were Sam Weber and Thomas Porostocky, so I think we did OK. Let me preface my response by saying my programme was half graphic design, half illustration, so many of my classmates got design jobs which, of course, are more plentiful than illustration jobs. So while I’d guess maybe 80% of them are currently “creatives” in some capacity, of the 15 or so students who did the Illustration focus, only 3 or 4 are working illustrators/cartoonists. Did the others lack talent? No. But I think many were temperamentally unsuited to the business of illustration.


So those are the questions for this year. As a new grad you will never be fully prepared for every scenario and there are many ways to skin a cat. (Do not skin cats.) Remember the bit about the hustling and use your your brain, peers, and the resources available to you. I am only speaking from my own experience and what has worked for me.

Special thanks to John Hendrix… visit him! Follow him!

Illustration in Practice

Jun 13th, 2011

Over on Twitter, @walrusmagazine asked readers to take photos of their new Summer Reading issue. Above, a few contributions (used with permission!).

One of the most thrilling things about the most recent TCAF was seeing the poster I designed tacked around Toronto, where for a few weeks it was part of peoples’ workplaces, commutes, and daily routines. While it’s always cool to see your work printed, it is even more exciting to see it in an even-larger context: the world!

When I teach, I’m often struck about how jaded students seem to be about Illustration, often by 3rd year. Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism? A response to the classic “embittered illustration instructor” syndrome? Perhaps it’s a scapegoat: that if that student fails to find success as an illustrator, she “didn’t really want to be an illustrator anyway”. Perhaps it’s legitimate anxiety about the economic feasibility and the creative constraints of being a working, practicing illustrator. Whatever it is, the jadedness is very exasperating and strange to me. Lots of things that are worth doing require sacrifice, confidence, and a little healthy self-delusion. But to me, the payoff is so exciting: you’re not just a consumer of culture anymore, you’re a contributor. Illustration, at its best, injects a bit of beauty and insight into a visual landscape that is often so vapid, crass, and garish.

When I was living in Edmonton in 2004, I started seeing extremely lo-fi silkscreened band posters around town. I’d rip them down and hang them up in my apartment (now THAT is effective advertising!). The simple beauty and attention to detail was so sublime. It made life in the city a bit better every time I found a new poster quietly affixed to a telephone pole. It was a little thing, but life is kind of made up of a lot of little things, isn’t it? (I later found out they were made by Raymond Biesinger, who has since gone on to much illustration success himself.)

Illustration is powerful precisely because it is commercial. People interact with it in a way that is very distinct from other art forms and to me, that’s the upside, not the downside. Illustration is for the masses, but that doesn’t mean the masses deserve crap. Most people could probably describe to you their favourite comic or cartoon or album cover or picturebook from childhood, regardless of whether or not they are “creative”. The things people encounter in their daily lives are not inconsequential and they have an impact. Perhaps those jaded students can think back and remember the things that enticed them to pick up their paintbrushes and pencil-crayons in the first place.

The Great Night

May 6th, 2011

A piece in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review It accompanies a review of “The Great Night”, by Chris Adrian: a retelling (of sorts) of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer’s Night Dream”. AD Nicholas Blechman.

I have been getting a lot of questions lately about consistency of “style”. Which, of course, I interpret to mean, “your work is inconsistent. I thought that was bad?” Har. Anyway, my personal thoughts on the matter:

– a consistent style is definitely beneficial when you’re just starting out as an illustrator. I would recommend a tight portfolio of about 12 quality images.

– there are other things that define and link your work than surface appearance.

– you’re not a machine and you’re allowed to evolve and change. Illustration is such a fad/trend driven industry; that what is popular today will likely be dated sometime down the road. I actually try to see experimentation and change as an investment in my own longevity. Maybe I’m naive, but that’s what I tell myself.

Drawing Action

Mar 24th, 2011

I sent my students to the National History Museum (or Bronx Zoo) to draw animals this week. I wish I had the resources to bring camels and baby tigers into the studio à la Disney, but alas. The results were varied but an interesting pattern emerged. Even though most kids were drawing from taxidermy animals, some were really able to make the drawings feel alive. As if they captured a moment in time, instead of simply drawing a stuffed animal.

To my mind, gesture is really paramount. If the gesture is wrong, the story is wrong, then what’s the point of making the drawing? It’s important to draw action, not just record the form, particularly if it’s a living thing, but the same can and does apply to even inanimate objects. In many cases of the best animal drawings I saw today, you could almost sense the animal’s next movement… a thrust forward, a lazy flick of a tail, or dash off into the bushes. As if even the past and future was captured in the single image.

This is where the idea of empathy in drawing comes from… I think many of us have had the experience of drawing an angry face, for example, then found we were scowling/furrowing our brow while we drew.

I’m not really talking about dynamic motion here. More like “potentiality”. Even solemn, quiet images have energy.

[Top image: “High Fascism”, NYTimes Op-Ed, AD Alexandra Zsigmond)


Mar 3rd, 2011

I have always been thankful that I did my Foundation year in a Fine Arts environment. (I went to Queen’s University.) To have spent time around fine artists has shaped the way I think about images, make images, and my understanding of Illustration.

One of the exercises made quite an impression on me was one that involved charcoal powder and reductive drawing. Lay down a ground of charcoal powder down (you can make your own powder by rubbing charcoal onto sandpaper) and pick out the light with erasers… kneaded/sharpened with an xacto, etc. This relinquishing of control can be frustrating until you learn to accept the media on its own terms. Because the elements are typically very foreign, it lends itself to a sense of play, which is entirely the point.

I did the aforementioned exercise with my students today. They came up with some entirely unexpected and delightful results; some looked like silkscreen prints, some looked like etchings, some looked like constellations in the sky. Still so many of them seemed skeptical. As if by virtue of NOT spending countless hours slaving away on a picture somehow invalidated the whole thing!

Prototype for Walking Machine

Feb 23rd, 2011

I haven’t been posting too much sketchbook stuff in here lately. It’s because I’ve been working like a crazyperson trying to finish up some big book illustration projects that hopefully I’ll be able to share soon.

I gave a talk at Parsons last week. There was a theme that kept on coming up (maybe it’s just on my mind): Faith. Not the religious kind, but rather how a life in the Arts demands quite a bit of it. Following a life in the Arts is a leap of Faith ALWAYS. No matter if you tackle the freelance life when you first get out of school, or are transitioning from a day job or whatever. There are no guarantees that your work will connect with anyone, or that you’ll make a living from it. Or, for someone in my position, a little more established, that you’ll be doing this in 40 years’ time. (It’s for this reason that I have infinite respect for those illustrators have been doing this for a lifetime, REGARDLESS of whether I personally like their work or not.)

You can only task yourself with creating good, honest work, because that’s one of the few aspects of all of this one can actually control. In fact, “creating good, honest work” is the meat of it. The life-long labor that is difficult and sometimes not fun, but a mysterious compulsion. The rest of it is a semi-delusional Faith in the Universe that it things will work out; that you’ll be able to feed yourself, shower regularly, take a vacation, not feel the need to stick your head in an oven.