Keika Yamaguchi was born in Japan, and raised in Los Angeles. She graduated from the Art Center College of Design and is a former Walt Disney Imagineering intern where she worked closely with producers illustrating the very first concepts for the kids room for the New Disney Cruise Ship, and Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom Trading Card Game at Walt Disney World. We sat down with Keika to get a feel of her creating environment, process, and more! Read below for the full Q&A…
What were your first inklings that you might someday become a professional artist? What were your first steps in developing your talent?
Keika: As a kid, I was confident that I have a potential in my artistic skills. However, I never thought about becoming a professional artist until last several months of my senior year in high school. Before that, I was hoping to build my career in music. I would say, my first steps in developing my artist skills were from the basic practice of drawing and painting from life. The practice eventually lead to refine my ability in putting down what I see on a blank surface.
As a Disney intern, what kind of skills and preparation did that give you in your career today?
Keika: Many of the projects that I worked on as an intern at Walt Disney Imagineering were required to be executed quickly. Therefore, what mattered the most was to create simple and clean art work that communicates an idea effectively. The experience has taught me to know when to stop working on a piece, and to always look for a comfortable method that would allow me to create a painting in a short amount of time. Those came in most handy when I work on a project an the entertainment company.
Describe your working environment.
Keika: I work from home. I am surrounded by books that I enjoyed as a child. I frequently use my laptop, and paint using my Wacom tablet. I always have a bunch of scrap papers and notebooks in handy to brainstorm my ideas, to write notes, or to jot down my vision. I also have a stop watch so that I can keep in track my hours. My dog is usually hanging out near me while I work as well. Having her around keeps me calm and cheerful.
As a writer writes, they see small snatches of scenes from the story, but as an illustrator, you have the knack of taking those snatches and turning them into whole, beautifully detailed pictures. How are you able to achieve this?
Keika: That’s very kind of you to say. Thank you!…Building the habit of trying to constantly imagine the completed book or the painting has helped speed up in deciding what I want to see in the pictures. If I don’t see a clear idea in my head, I look for inspiration that can possibly help set direction of the painting.
Do you have a set routine when you are working on a book or do you wait for inspiration to strike?
Keika: No, I don’t have a set routine, but It usually starts with the vision that I get from reading the words for the book and the notes that I get from the writer. From there, I do whatever I can until I can invasion the colors, mood, compositions, and elements clearly. I create a dummy to help me see if the flow of the book makes sense. I sometimes listen to a music that reflects the mood of the scene I’m painting. If I’m still feel stuck after coming up with different methods, I would stop myself from working, and I do an activity unrelated to art until I can get my mind off of the painting. Then, when I come back to the painting again, I can look at it with fresh perspective, and I am able to think outside of a box to solve the piece.
So how does the process of illustrating someones words work? Do they reach out to you? And also do you have to be a fan of the story in order to illustrate the narrative?
Keika: Yes, I do feel that it’s important to be a fan of the story. I usually look for a story that I can believe in, and a story that gives me a strong and exciting visual in my head. Creating book is a long process, and it will take up months to sometimes years to complete. You wouldn’t want to stop in the middle of the book and decide that the story no longer excites you. If I feel bored or careless about the story, my emotions will reflect through the work. The audience can grasp those emotions when they look at it. If an illustrator doesn’t believe in the story, it’s hard to expect the audience to enjoy the book.
What role did books play in your childhood? What were some of your favorites?
Keika: As a child who came from Japan, picture books were essentials tool to help me learn English. I was compelled to read if I needed clarity in what was happening in the picture. It was also a source of entertainment when I’m at a place without a television. I saw the book as a portal to an imaginary world that I can get lost in. Picture books also brought comfort in me when my mother read a book to me in bed. I treasure the times when she would patiently answer the questions that I came up with regards to the page that we are on. Some of my favorite picture books back then were The True Story of Three Little Pigs! by Jon Scieszka, Tuesday by David Weisner, and Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg.
What are some of your favorite Asian films or Anime?
Keika: My recent favorite Asian film is Thirst by Park Chan-wook. I enjoy the twisted narrative, and for it’s beautiful cinematography. For Anime, I consider Porco Rosso by Hayao Miyazaki as one of my top favorite Anime. As a kid, I use to dream of flying my own airplane to explore the unknown, so it brought my childhood dream to life. I fell in love with it even more when I watched it again as an adult. I was able to recognize the depth of the story, messages, and thoughts that Mr. Miyazaki has placed in the film that I did not see before. I was simply intrigued. I have more appreciation for his films now then ever.
Could you walk us through your creative process for one of your pieces? Perhaps, Gentle Mr. Wolf?
Keika: I wrote a twisted version of the short story The Little Red Riding Hood. It reveals that the original story that we are familiar with is all a misunderstanding. The wolf was kind and all he wanted was a friend. The painting Gentle Mr. Wolf is a scene where the wolf is showing the Red Riding Hood a flower field that she can gather flowers for her grandmother. I wanted that scene to feel warm, yet it has a hint of loneliness and nervous tension of how the wolf is feeling. Having that in mind, I first collected reference paintings or photographs that best represents the mood. Then those inspire me to draw thumbnail sketches to I nail down the layout and shading. I choose one composition out of the thumbnails, and expand it to refine and add details. I then scan it and take that into Photoshop. I experiment with various colors that I have in mind in the program, while I continuously look at the reference photo to make sure I captured the feeling I’m looking for, and take it to finish.
Do you have any tips for an aspiring illustrator?
Keika: I honestly feel that I’m not in a position to give advice since I’m only few years out of college, but if I can to say something useful to illustration students, I would say to keep in touch with your colleagues or teachers even when you get out of college. They will be your close friends who you can share your journey in building your career as an artist, and they can think with you when you are trying to reach somewhere. It’s a great feeling to know that there are people out there who really understands the struggle you are going through.
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