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The Curse of Hackdom

Late last year I interviewed Iku Dekune, a Japanese picture book creator who lives and works in Prague in the Czech Republic. I’m a great admirer of her work. She told me that she studied as a graphic designer, began working as a painter and then later began adapting her painting style towards children’s books, thus it appears she’s cycled through practically the whole gamut of 2-D visual arts.

Seeing the smooth transition of Dekune’s large expressive painted gallery works to the powerful images in her picture books made me realise how different the culture and education behind Japanese picture books is from, say the UK or USA. This is work by someone who’s as much an “artist” as they are an “illustrator”, in fact there’s little division between the two. I remember when I was at college in the UK my tutor Tony Ross (himself a well known children’s illustrator) confidently asserted – “illustrators often make great artists, but fine artists rarely make good illustrators”. True perhaps in the 1970’s in the West, but not so in Japan, where the two genres are closely interwoven.

It’s not always successful, there are all too many Japanese picture books that seem all about expression and nothing about communication, which have mood but no plot, are well designed but crudely painted. Many of these fail to connect with children at all. However when skillfully crafted, as in Dekune’s work, the results can be a profoundly sophisticated meeting of expression and fantasy.

It also has a lot to do with individual character. I remember one of my tutors at college telling me I was a “born illustrator”, by that he meant that my talent was 100% straight down the line graphic art. I always wondered whether that implied I’d never be a “real” artist because fundamentally I’m a graphic hack.

In SCBWI I’ve been trying to persuade more of the Japanese illustrator members to display their work on our website. It’s a free bonus service we offer to members of SCBWI in Japan, but very few Japanese picture book artists have taken up the offer. Why could this be? I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s the “Artist” factor at work again. Some of these illustrators, though they’ve released many books, do not own a scanner, do not know what a 72dpi jpeg is, and do not have their own portfolio website, things that are generally regarded as essential for any commercial illustrator nowadays.

In the world of Japanese children’s books author/illustrators often seem to breathe a rarified air, unsullied by the grime of commercial illustration, though the artist themselves may live in the harshest of concrete jungles. Many young bright Japanese children’s author/artists maintain part-time jobs and live at home with their parents until they marry, so never have to worry about paying rent or bills through their illustration. It’s enviable to see the apparent ease that artists like Dekune switch from gallery paintings to book illustrations, in an bubble of creativity that seems cut off from the day-to-date world around. But comparing this to myself I have to face facts – fundamentally I like the grimy business of commercial illustration, it suits my character. Self expression has always been less important to me than creating visions of a world of imagination. I like the pressure of deadlines, without them I tend to waste time and procrastinate. I’m in my element at 2.00 am meeting a tough morning delivery. I can’t ever see myself taking on another job “regular” job just to see me through. For me illustration is all or nothing.

Therefore it’s each to his own, if I’m truely condemned as a graphic hack then so be it. I just have to make sure I’m the best bloody graphic hack around.

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