Aug 4 2008 12:24pm

Shaun Tan

Shaun Tan, The Rabbits

Shaun Tan, The ArrivalThe cool thing about being an illustration groupie is, sooner or later, you end up meeting most of your art heroes. The cooler thing about illustration is how often they turn out to be humble and gracious people. After admiring Shaun Tan's work for ages, I finaly got to meet him at last year's World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, NY. He was soft spoken with a wry sense of humor and incredibly giving. He has earned a well-deserved Hugo nomination for his remarkable wordless book, The Arrival.

Shaun Tan, Tales from Outer SuburbiaHis latest book, Tales from Outer Suburbia, is a series of short stories and vingnettes set "somewhere close and familiar but also on the edge of consciousness....The subject of each story is how ordinary people react to  [extraordinary] incidents, and how their significance is discovered, ignored or simply misunderstood." Juding by the sketches and notes he has posted on his website, it promises to be every bit as rewarding an experience as The Arrival.

A few quick questions for Shuan:

Favorite painting you did in the past year?

Probably this one, a painting of an imaginary mural from a story in the book Tales from Outer Suburbia; this one about an Italian migrant family living in Australia. What makes it work are anachronistic touches, like the telephone.
Shaun Tan, Tales From Outer Suburbia
Dream assignment?
Well, no assignment at all! Just a big box of oil paints, a few giant canvases, and nothing else happening for the next month.

Do you remember the first time you knew you wanted to be an artist?
When I was about six, and gave up on earlier aspirations to be an astronaut, because grown-ups didn't seem to take that seriously. Not that wanting to be an artist seemed much more realistic!

What painting do you wish you painted?
Lots of scenes from dreams, which are unfortunately impossible to recollect. They simply don't translate into the conscious world.

Shaun Tan, The Lost ThingFirst break in the business?
Winning the L. Ron Hubbard Illustrators of the Future Award in 1992.

Most embarrassing illustration related moment?
I once had a magazine cover painting rejected because it supposedly had a penis in it. This was not so much embarrassing as curious - I had no idea where it was! I eventually found it in an abstract background element, not even a real object but an accidentally 'penis-shaped' negative space. These days I check all my work for anything even vaguely penile!

Do you have a set image in your mind when you first start sketching or do you start out abstractly and let the process of doodling take over?
Well, I have a vague image, but it's very much the doodling that brings it forth. Drawing is a form of thinking, much as speaking is a form of thinking, it takes its form through the action itself. I always like the comment made by Paul Klee that "a line is a dot that went for a walk."
Shaun Tan, The Arrival

David Keck
1. dkeck
That's some stylish stuff. And I'm intrigued by the substantial variation between the pieces. In one you see great realism, in another you find wonderful storybook stuff, and there is even a poised touch of tapestry.

(And I love that streetscape and its insinuating tentacles).

eric orchard
2. orchard
Great interview! I love Mr. Tan's work and I'm glad to have some insight into where his work is coming from.
His Klee quote is telling, there's a sense that Mr. Tan is exploring a world through his images.
Irene Gallo
3. Irene
Each book _does_ take on a completely different style...although, all with a wonderful otherworldliness to it. I almost went into that here but I thought I'd wait to get a look at TALES and then revisit it.

As for that streetscape -- give yourself some quiet moments and look through THE ARRIVAL. So so haunting and lovely. It'll stay with you for a long, long time.
Soon Lee
4. SoonLee
Ooo, ooo! There's a new Shaun Tan on the way? That's excellent news. He's extremely talented & likable - saw him in a Melbourne con a few years ago & bought a print of that streetscape from "The Arrival" from same. I've lost count of the number of copies of "The Arrival" we gave away as Christmas & birthday presents.
Christine Evelyn Squires
5. ces
OK, here I go again.

I didn't like The Arrival. It was depressing. Sorry.

Good interview Irene.
David Keck
6. dkeck
I just ordered The Arrival. (I'm sometimes willing to tolerate* the melancholy).

Thanks Irene for the suggestion...


*aka. wallow in

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