Featured Illustrator: Yoko Tanaka

For this month's Featured Illustrator, Words and Pictures is proud to showcase the fantastic work of Yoko Tanaka. Having travelled from Japan to study art in the US, Yoko spent some time in Thailand before settling in London, from where she creates atmospheric dream-like gallery paintings for exhibition, and intricate children's book illustrations. See more examples of Yoko's work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery.

Let me introduce myself. I am a painter/illustrator and fledgling writer born in Japan, graduated from the the Art Center College in Pasadena, California, lived in Bangkok, and now live in the UK. My work has been exhibited across the United States and in Europe and has won numerous awards. Some of my illustrated children's books are The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo, the Theodosia series by R. L. LaFevers, and Sparrow Girl by Sara Pennypacker.

Early life

When I was small (up to age 5) I didn't go to kindergarden, though my elder sister and brother did. My mother didn't like how the schools made all the students do the same thing in certain ways. So, I stayed at home and was given the basics of education by my parents. I would draw every day and then would leave my work on the table so that my father could write comments on it after he came back home late at night. He was very honest and wrote comments like, "the head is too big" or, "the legs are too long" and put a score on each drawing. I looked forward to seeing what he wrote the following morning. My mother then taught me how to fix it correctly. We did this for many years and I still have a large pile of drawings with my father's comments on them. 

Drawing was always with me while I was growing up, serving as an important source of communication. When I was older, between 6-10 years old, my mother took me to lots of art exhibitions, mostly showing the work of French Impressionist painters like Pierre Bonnard, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Maurice Utrillo and others.

My father passed away when I was 17 which led to me having to give up going art school after high school. I had to be very practical, so I went to university to study law.

My life as an artist changed dramatically in the year 2000 when I went to Los Angeles and found a great art school called Art Center Pasadena. It was very good luck I got in. There, I felt I had freedom to express myself again.

After I graduated

I was pursuing gallery exhibitions, painting large paintings that needed to be hung on a wall. Painting to me meant one original piece and they had to come from the depth of my feelings. This attitude changed when I was contacted by my literary agent Steven Malk in 2005.

He suggested that I try to illustrate for children's books. At first, I said "No" to him. I thought my works were too dark for children and I wasn't sure if I could work as an illustrator. He said, "No problem. I will find the right projects for you".  He did find me the right projects and since, I've enjoyed working on children's book illustrations very much.

As an example of my process I'll write about a painting I worked on for a customer who commissioned me in 2007. The conditions she gave me were broad, only specifying to put a woman and a cat in the image.

This was my first sketch, among some other sketches (sitting in a café or talking on a street). The customer chose this train setting.

I changed it into a vertical composition to make the focal point clearer.

This is the final image, acrylic pigment on canvas. While painting the final art, I changed some elements in it (which I often do for a personal project like this). I remember I really wanted to put lily flowers in it, so I took the coffee cups out. Then suddenly, it looked very sad, as if they were coming back from a funeral service. After more thought, I decided to take out the shelf with the hats and that made it come together.  The magically floating hats absorbed all the sadness and darkness in this composition.

Current Work

Currently, I'm working on a new picture book project with an American publisher (FSG Macmillan) and also writing and painting my own first picture book. I've also been illustrating for Apps and am working on a collaborative project with friends for a second App this year for the iPad. Moving to the UK made it a little difficult to paint large paintings, but I am trying to go back to work on more personal paintings as soon as I can!


I don't research other illustrators' works. I do admire the work of many illustrators, but I simply enjoy their images as an audience, then put it aside once I finish looking at them. I believe that by keeping our favourites away from us while we work, we can possibly shortcut our way to finding our own illustrative voice. Great masters' images influence us in certain ways even if we try not to be influenced. It's our choice to follow a fashion or not.


Find more examples of Yoko's work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery.
Her personal website is www.yokotanaka.com.
email: yoko@yokotanaka.com
agent: Steven Malk (www.writershouse.com)


  1. beautiful, magical, surreal!

  2. Love your work, Yoko. Loved the Magician's Elephant and I look forward to seeing your own picture book out in print. Good luck!

  3. More! More! I wanted to know what happened between when you studied law and went to Pasadena. And I want to know what happened to that first picture book project!

  4. Congratulations on being featured artist, Yoko. I loved your Stew cover!

  5. Thank you, Yoko. The story of how you came to illustration is incredible in itself, and your work is beautiful.

  6. Thank you all so much for your nice comments! Candy, it was a magical event that I could go back to art and study in art school, but it's a long story. Maybe we can talk about it over beer next time! The picture book project is still in progress, actually it has made a big progress just yesterday thanks to my critique group. ^^

  7. I just read this after our critique group - fascinating and your project is going to be stunning! Such depth in your work, Yoko - I love it!

  8. Thank you, Bridget. Your suggestions for my project were so helpful! I will keep on working..!

  9. Beautiful - I love your work Yoko!

  10. Thank you, Jion. Candy, thank you for always encouraging me!

  11. Hi. I own five of your paintings. The coffee shop, two tall chef guys w big hats, lady cutting cookies and guy cutting fish.


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