Shaun Tan

Shaun Tan, Shaun Tan, born in 1974, is an award winning illustrator and author of many well-known children’s books. Tan was born and raised in Fremantle, Western Australia, where as a boy, spent his time writing and illustrating poems and stories. Tan was known at his primary school as very talented artist. Through out high school, Tan continued his passion for illustrating, where he was enrolled in a special art program for gifted students. However, Tan eventually took an academic path into university where he studied studied to become a geneticist before chasing down his dream of working as an artist.

Tan picked up his education at the University of Western Australia where he studied fine arts and English Literature and graduated in 1995 with a bachelor of arts. Tans productions are usually in the form of illustrations of original children’s storybook, however being an artist has produced many different visual communications. Throughout his career, Tan has not only illustrated his own work, but many other authors work, including several books written by Gary Crew. Tan and Crew worked together on a book called Memorial, a story about a tree planted beside a war memorial monument, in a small country town by returned servicemen.

Years on, the tree has grown to be huge and wild, dislodging the statue next to it and creating a traffic hazard in what is now a much larger, busier town. A decision is made by a local council to cut the tree down. Tan tried to capture, as he described “the nature of memory” in his illustrations, which were fragmented, worn and faded looking. Tan incorporated collage, drawings and painting in his drawings and used fabric, leaves, wood, rusted metal, photographs, newspaper and dead bugs.

The use of various materials was to replicate the ‘texture’ of memory as memories only come alive when they are experienced Tan said. As Tan is an illustrator he works with a range of different specialists. First of all he works in collaboration with the author of the book he is illustrating, this close connection allows Tan to really understand the message or story that the author is trying to portray and reflect it in his illustrations, to allow for the illustrations to tell the story with out narrative.

Along with the author, Tan would also work with editors and publishers to finalize and refine the smallest details of his illustrations before they are printed. The first thing Tan would do when solving a problem would be communication with his client, which in nearly all cases is the author. The communication takes place in order to establish exactly what the author wants to depict through the illustrations. Tan will also have his own ideas about a subject and he will write them all down, he will use this as a small brief to himself and this becomes scaffolding for his design processing.

As the image becomes more evolved he will take that scaffolding down removing personal opinions, and references or at least muddle them making them more obscure. This then allows for more space for the reader to interpret the ideas freely. Tan, like most other designer’s works in a way atypical to popular belief. In an interview, Tan says that most people assume designers have an idea or a vision and then set about meticulously rendering it where as Tan describes it as a mad scramble at first and over time the idea gets clearer and clearer. Tan goes about this by drawing over and over again until his idea comes apparent.

Tan is more of a traditional designer in that he doesn’t have any specific techniques to save time on repetitive drawings. A perfect example is Tan’s Illustrations for his original story, The Arrival where he drew around two thousand detailed illustrations. These illustrations were set out in a format similar to a comic strip meaning that a lot of the images he drew were quite similar and would have been very repetitive. Tan stated that for each of the two thousand illustrations accumulated the same time to produce as a canvas-sized image would.

However when Tan is creating a collage, he will create graphite sketches, which may then be reproduced numerous times with different versions varying with parts added or removed, but usually this process is done with scissors and glue. Although Tan is allowed a large amount of his own interpretation to reflect in his drawings, he still must have a very close relationship with his client being the author. At the end of the day Tan still has to fit his interpretations inside of what the author actually wants or the design brief.

The relationship must be strong to allow for a connection from the authors thought through to Tan’s illustrations, meaning Tan really has to understand and feel what the author is trying to tell through his story. Tan has always been known as a very good user of the graphite pencil. This is something he has been practicing since he was a young child and is now very talented. Tan is able to capture in his pencil drawings such a large amount of depth and tonal range. Despite the fact Tan dislikes drawing realistic figures, he proved in his novel, The Arrival that he is quite talented in producing realistic images with only a graphite pencil.

Tan also uses a lot of texture and collages in his work and can create pieces that are filled with meanings and can ignite reader’s memories that relate to the story being told. Tan often finds himself doing a lot of research on the history and culture of his topic. Most of his research is done on the Internet as it the most extensive library for his kind or work. Along with the use of computers Tan incorporates a lot of photography and photo editing in his illustrations.