I’ve invited a number of people who have published in indie press and gone on to become professionals in the field to write about their experiences. In today’s post, the amazing Shaun Tan, perhaps Australia’s most well-known author/illustrator, shares his incredible journey.
My career as an illustrator, writer and film-maker can all be traced back to very humble origins in small press Australian science ficiton.
My first illustration was published when I was 16, the cover of a small press SF magazine Aurealis, which I had discovered at my local newsagency in outer suburban Perth (now that I think about it, if it hadn’t been for than newsagency, my life may have taken a different direction!). I was very interested in SF at the time, and ended up being invited to illustrate many stories for different small press publications on the strength of early unsolicited submissions, including the stylish Eidolon, (which I eventually came to art direct some years later, since it was based in Perth). Lots of strange concepts came through the mail box that proved very challenging to illustrate, which was very good experience, especially as I had no formal illustration training. All of the artwork I produced was A4-sized, black and white, and paid a rather token $20 each, $25 if I was lucky. But I would have done them for nothing at the time because they were a great opportunity to be published, get to know other writers and artists with similar interests, and also be granted a certain license to develop novel illustration styles without any real commercial pressure or client briefing. Perth had (and continues to have) a fairly distinct community of some of the best SF writers, artists, academics in Australia; and I made many new friends through editorial meetings and annual conventions.
For me, the process of producing about two hundred story illustrations for small press magazines throughout the ’90s sharpened my interest in illustration as a conceptual practice, not simply a clever way of furnishing written words with attendant visuals. For instance, I became increasingly attracted to images that were independent from text in some way, and told their own story. As I moved further and further from literal depiction, I started to draw things that were not necessarily described by writers, and the experimental, non-commercial environment of small press SF meant that I could do this without much fuss; I don’t think I had a single rejection (although I did for my writing, which is a whole other story!). It’s much harder to be innovative when working in professional publishing as I later found out, because they need predictable outcomes, hence more conventional painting styles.
I occasionally produced illustrations that accompanied no story, other than what was impressed upon the reader’s imagination; stuff that was irreducibly mysterious, inviting (if not demanding) explanation from the viewer, given some stimulating clues. This inevitably fed into my later picture book work, and bigger projects like The Arrival and The Lost Thing.
When I finished an Arts degree at UWA, I was not sure how to go about getting work, and for a while had limited success. Eventually, I got a few jobs and my foot through the door – one was illustrating some books in a series of short young adult horror stories put together by Lothian Books in Melbourne, who have since become the publisher of all my picture books. Notably, I was hired on the basis of recommendations from the writer Steven Paulsen, a guy I had worked with pro bono on small-press SF newsletters – it’s a good example of how unpaid work can lead to paid work. Other writers such as Sara Douglass, Greg Egan and Sean Williams also helped me secure book cover commissions, with a good word put in by fellow illustrator Nick Stathopoulos, who I had also met through work in Eidolon, along with our mutual editor Jonathan Strahan. That commercial work ended up paying my rent, and allowed me to commit time to more experimental picture book projects, which have since become internationally recognised, leading to work with the likes of PIXAR, Blue Sky Studios and Passion Pictures (the latter resulting in an Academy Award this year). The Lost Thing trailer
So all in all, it’s fascinating to consider that all of this was seeded by a dodgy drawing of a robot kangaroo (folded into an envelope!) sent to Aurealis, back when I was still in high school. I can thank both my training as an illustrator, and the slow creep up the professional ladder, on a decade or so of small press work, and the support of everyone else behind these small experimental magazines, many of whom have gone on to international acclaim as authors, illustrators and editors.
Shaun Tan grew up in the northern suburbs of Perth, Western Australia. In school he became known as the ‘good drawer’ which partly compensated for always being the shortest kid in every class. He graduated from the University of WA in 1995 with joint honours in Fine Arts and English Literature, and currently works full time as a freelance artist and author in Melbourne.
Shaun began drawing and painting images for science fiction and horror stories in small-press magazines as a teenager, and has since become best known for illustrated books that deal with social, political and historical subjects through surreal, dream-like imagery. Books such as The Rabbits, The Red Tree, Tales from Outer Suburbia and the acclaimed wordless novel The Arrival have been widely translated and enjoyed by readers of all ages. Shaun has also worked as a theatre designer, and worked as a concept artist for the films Horton Hears a Who and Pixar’s WALL-E, and directed the Academy Award winning short film The Lost Thing with Passion Pictures Australia. In 2011 he received the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, honouring his contribution to international children’s literature.