Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 1, 2020

Illustrator Saturday – Saki Tanaka

Saki Tanaka is a Mexican-Japanese author-illustrator who grew up in D.C., Tokyo, and Paris. Because of her transient and multi-cultural upbringing, she is fascinated by gray areas where polarities meet: between the real and otherworldly, individuality, belonging and being an outsider, between East and West.

Japanese author-illustrator who grew up in D.C., Tokyo, and Paris. She  illustrated her first picture book, If Sun Could Speak, this year and was published by Clear Fork. When not writing or drawing, Saki puts on her design director hat on to create logos for brands like Disney and Petco. She’s found a home (for now) in Brooklyn, NY.

 Saki discussing her Process:

When Mira Reisberg (art director and editor at Clearfork) shared Kourtney LaFavre’s manuscript for If Sun Could Speak with me, I was immediately enchanted by Sun as a character (confident and a bit of a ham in an endearing way). I’m fascinated by space and astrophysics so taking this on was a no brainer. I started by immersing myself in research and inspiration.

I read the manuscript a few times to get a sense of Sun’s personality and sketched initial impressions of the character using a Col-erase indigo pencil, which I like because it’s erasable and smudges less than graphite. I kept going back to reference images of the sun and was inspired by how solar flares look a bit like hair! I made that part of the character’s design. Then I drew out a few tighter sketches. I revised and whittled these down with Mira (she was very particular about the nose, and it was amazing to see how one little element could make such a difference!), then did a few more poses and color studies.

Then I started doodling ideas for each spread on the margins of the manuscrpit, and sketched each spread as tiny thumbnails, trying various compositions and considering how each one flowed from one to the next. Finally I shared tighter sketches with text.

I then developed a palette inspired by vintage science books and posters, adjusted it with feedback from Mira to balance contrast and warmth, and applied it to the spreads digitally.

Then I created final art by printing the cleaned up sketch onto Arches hotpress paper, then painted the watercolor washes (left), and layered in details using color pencils (right).

Finally, I scanned it in for a final digital clean up, then shared it with the team after layering the text in.

It was a wonderfully collaborative process. I was able to suggest ideas and workshop them with Mira! These ranged from pagination shifts, to layering in a secondary character that doesn’t appear in the text, to adding blurbs about scientists that advanced our understanding of the universe. Mira shared these with Kourtney and amazingly, she was open to try them out (huge thankyous to both)!

For the secondary narrative, I added this “girl” as a way for me to visit space vicariously! During my research, I found out that Hispanic women are one of the most underrepresented groups at NASA, so it was important for me to portray this character as a Hispanic girl. Mira gave me great direction on adjusting her age and making sure she appeared consistent.

How long have you been illustrating?:

I got my first illustration assignment (If Sun Could Speak) with Clearfork in 2018. It came out in the spring of this year!

What and when was the first piece of art you created for money?

At the elementary school I attended in France, I sold my drawings to kids in class for 5 Francs a piece. As a grown-up, my first sell was a pastel painting I prepared for a show at the Mehu Gallery in New York City, of a pony falling for a wooden carousel horse. I was so excited when it sold, I hugged the buyer! Years later, I recreated it as an illustration when a writer friend noted that there might be a story in there.

Did you study art in college?

I started as a hybrid Fine Art/Humanities major at Carnegie Mellon University, but eventually transferred into their School of Design. Back then, I was more drawn to the problem solving bent in the Design practice, and not as confident about the self-expression focus that defined the Art curriculum.

What did you study?

Communication Design (graphic design)

Did you take any children’s illustrating courses?

Not during college, though professors and mentors often noted that my design work felt “illustrative.”

Do you feel school helped you develop your style?

Design school taught me visual and conceptual problem solving, as well as the value of invisible tools that do a lot of heavy lifting like composition and typography. Having to design on a computer all the time made me miss using my hands to create, which indirectly shaped my current illustration style and mark making process (which is mostly traditional).

Did the school help you find work when you graduated?

A lot of my graphic design internships and jobs came from contacts I made at school and my professor’s recommendations. I have been fortunate and am very grateful for their support.

What type of work did you do when you started your career?

I did (and still do) design work. I’ve worked on a wide variety of projects at various firms, including print, web, environmental, and identity design. I’m currently a design director at a creative consultancy called Lippincott, a practice that spans brand strategy, experience innovation and design expression.

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate children’s books?

In 2011, I took a continuing ed illustration class at the School of Visual Arts. The instructor noted that my experiments with watercolor and gouache felt conducive to children’s book illustration, which sparked something that had been dormant for ages. I’d always loved picture books and the magical worlds they let me escape into as a kid, but it wasn’t till then that I seriously considered making one myself. My desire and intent was still nebulous then, and slowly, slowly morphed into what it is now (and continues to grow). Once my focus had narrowed in on children’s book illustration, I took picture book making classes with Monica Wellington at SVA. That deepened my understanding of the artform, and connected me to my awesome critique group friends (hi, Seedlings!). It’s fun to look through old work and retrace my meanderings.

When did you move to the US?

The first time was when I was three months old, till my father’s work moved us back to Japan four years later. The second time was right before my senior year of high school. I was sad that I couldn’t graduate with my friends in Japan, but the move helped me decide to go to college in the States. I grew up feeling like a foreigner wherever I went, and it wasn’t until I discovered Brooklyn, NY that I felt like I found a place I wanted to grow roots in. And, I’m still here!

Did you take any online workshop or classes to help you navigate the children’s book industry?

I’m a workshop addict! With every class I take and perspective I come across, I learn something new about image making and storytelling. I’ve explored a lot; writing, painting, drawing, poetry, book making, dream analyzing, acting, song writing, all the things! I’m in awe of teachers. It’s one of the most important jobs in the world.

How did Clearfork find you to illustrate If Sun Could Speak by Kourtney LaFavre?

Speaking of great workshops… I took the Children’s Book Academy’s Craft and Business of Illustrating Children’s Books course a few years ago. I signed up to get a portfolio review with the lovely editor and Art Director, Mira Reisberg. She liked this drawing of a little cloud character I had developed and thought I could find fun ways to visualize Kourtney’s beautiful words.

How much time did they give you to do the illustrations?

About seven months. It flew by!

How did you connect with your agent Linda Pratt at Wernick & Pratt?

When first researching agents, I gathered my favorite picture books and looked up who had represented them. One that really stood out for me was Journey by Aaron Becker. I noticed that Aaron had thanked Linda in his acknowledgement blurb in the front matter of the book. I looked up interviews Linda had done and felt a kinship in the types of stories we liked so she’d been on top of my “dream agents” list for a while. A few years later, we connected thanks to the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature mentorship program and she very kindly mentioned how looking at my work made her happy, and offered to represent me!

Have you done any illustrations for other books?

I’ve done illustrations for several pre-published picture book dummies that are at various stages of completion and submission. This makes me feel like a bad book mom, but I’m learning to focus on just a few of them at a time.

Have you done any illustrating for children’s Magazines or any other magazines? If so, who?

I’ve illustrated poems for Cricket Media’s Babybug and Ladybug magazines. These publications are perfect resources for remembering what kids wonder and think about. They make me nostalgic for my childhood!

Do you have a studio in your house?

Space is a precious commodity in NYC… but I’ve managed to carve out a small workstation in my living room filled with trinkets, sketchbooks, stacks of paper, and all sorts of mark making tools. It’s next to a window that gives me natural light and faces a wall covered in layers and layers of doodles, inspiration, color swatches and stickie note musings.

Have you ever tried illustrating a wordless picture book?

I have! It’s napping in my ever growing “work in progress” drawer, waiting for me to wake it up once I finish my current projects. I do check in on it once in a while to make sure it’s still with me.

I see you do commission work. How did this start and how do you find that type of work?

Friends, family and colleagues hear about my illustration work through the grapevine and are nice enough to inquire. My first “commission” (which I still do every year) was a family “nengajo” (Japanese new year’s greetings card) that my dad sends out every January. They often incorporate the Chinese zodiac animal of the year that Japan imported as a custom.

Do you work full time as an illustrator?

I currently split my time between design duties during the week, and illustration fun times (nights, weekends and any other pockets I can find).

Is working with a self-published author to illustrate their book something you would consider?

Yes! If I think the story is something my particular point of view and experience could add value to, and if my bandwidth allows. One thing to note is that they would need to reach out to Linda (my agent) as she manages all inquiries related to children’s books.

I know you will have many successes in your future, but what do you think is your biggest success so far?

Finding and getting to know so many kindred spirits (kids, librarians, authors, illustrators, teachers, agents, editors) who believe in the power of images/stories and are just as obsessed as I am with picture books and other forms of kidlit. A few of my favorite encounters include:

  • When a 6-year-old girl who watched me draw a page full of her favorite things gasped “wow, that’s magical!” I still well up thinking about that moment.
  • The first time an editor said the name of my picture book protagonist out loud, and he became real.
  • Getting to meet and share my work with Mike Curato at the Highlights Foundation. What a star.

What is your favorite medium to use?

Lately, it has been watercolor. Its unpredictability used to intimidate me, but this control-freak is learning to let go and let it do its thing. For part of the 100 Day Project this year, I experimented with making random paint blots, then carving out whatever image I saw in the shapes with an indigo colored pencil. It was a bit like a Rorschach test! I found the process exhilarating and have continued to play with the balance of spontaneity and control.

Has that changed over time?

I’ve gone through a graphite phase, pastels phase, oils, acrylic, vector graphics, you name it! Ultimately, I’ve found that what I want to do with my art visually (blurring lines between the real and surreal) dictates what I use to achieve it (watercolor and color pencils, for now).

Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet when illustrating?

I use a Wacom tablet for final edits after I scan hand-drawn or painted work. This is mostly for cleanup, color correction and scaling if anything is off. I find it more precise than a mouse.

What materials and/or tools do you use to create your work?

I start drawing with Col-erase pencils on sketchbook paper, which I scan, adjust, and then print onto watercolor paper. I color plan digitally, then use watercolor paints followed by color pencils to complete the final illustration.

Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?

I try to paint every day, however short or long the session. I’ve found it’s like physical exercise—I get rusty if I don’t keep practicing and playing on a regular basis.

Do you take pictures or research a project before you start?

Always! As shown in the process for illustrating If Sun Could Speak, I gather pictures, buy and borrow subject-matter reference books, watch documentaries, surround myself with props, try to recreate relevant experiences (within reason), make playlists, and of course, get lost in internet wormholes.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

There are three big things I’ve gained thanks to the internet. One is limitless access to creative expertise, through online courses and workshops. The second is a (shamefully latent) sense of civic responsibility and a need to stay informed so I can find ways to use my privilege for better. The third is being able to share and get feedback on personal projects from peers through social media. That accountability and prompts like Inktober and The 100 Day Project was a great motivator.

Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?

Too many. It’s overwhelming. The biggest one by far is reaching readers who might need my book, for whatever reason. I want to connect with fellow dreamers, “outsiders” and “uncool” kids (who are actually the coolest) everywhere. I hope in some small way, I can shed light on those who feel unseen and give a voice to those who can’t always speak for themselves. That and teaching!

What are you working on now?

Some commissioned work and my first author/illustrator book which is too soon to say anything about formally. It’s tentatively set to come out in 2022!

Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.

I love Arches watercolor paper. For paint, I use everything from Schmincke to Crayola to Daniel Smith. A recent discovery is that mixing Dr. Ph Martin concentrated inks with watercolor paint really punches up the vibrancy of the colors (but still lets you lift)! I also like turning everything into art supplies; jar lids, seashells and MUJI dishware make great palettes, lego blocks are handy brush holders, and desk lamps can double as tape dispensers.

 Any words of wisdom for new illustrators?

I’m still pretty new too… and feel like I’ve benefited from always being a work in progress. I’m constantly learning, questioning why I like the things I like, and why I create the work I create. It helps me be more intentional when turning my curiosities and experiences into artwork. This process is also constantly changing! But If I had to list a few things I wish I knew sooner, they would be:

  1. Embrace mistakes: For a while (and I still have moments) I was terrified of making “mistakes” but eventually came to appreciate them. That fear goes away whenever I remember why I loved drawing as a kid: it’s FUN. Being able to take a vision in your head and make it appear on paper is magic, and it’s often better when it takes more than one try.
  2. Seek out the good eggs, treasure them, and let go of the “bad” ones: Actually it’s less about “good” or “bad” and more about chemistry. You (and your work) aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s a great thing. It means it’s specific. It took me forever to figure this out as an awkward introvert who struggled with, but wanted to fit in.
  3. Pay attention to coincidences (or what I call “universe nudges”), no joke.

Thank you, Saki for yout interview and sharing your expertise with us. Please let me know your future successes so I can share it with everyone.

To see more of Saki’s work, you can visit her at:



Talk tomorrow,



  1. Your work is so playful and fun, with really nice color. I love that friendly sun. I wanted to mention a little warning, though, about Dr. Martin’s dyes. When I first started out (ages ago) I used to use them because the color was so vibrant, but I learned that many of those colors do not scan well because florescent is added and the colors when printed can really look bad. Also, they are very fugitive and will fade over time, like most dyes, so if you want to sell or display the artwork this must be kept in mind.
    Good luck with your career.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Perfectly enchanting artwork. Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful artwork! Who knew that a nose could make such a difference! And I love the Lego paintbrush holder. Lovely use of color and movement! Best wishes!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Such soft, fun and colorful illustrations -congrats!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Your work is incredible, Saki! Thanks so much for sharing your insights and thoughts– much appreciated!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: