Recently I spoke with Shaun Tan about Sketches From a Nameless Land, his revelatory book, which divulges, through text, photos and hundreds of drawings, how Shaun made his multi award-winning graphic novel masterpiece The Arrival. Both books have just been released together in an extraordinary slipcase.
Are you worried you’ve given the game away by revealing your trade secrets?
Not really – I don't think being an artist is the same as being a magician. In fact, a large part of the appeal of painting and drawing is to do with the visibility of process, all the lines, paint blobs and material facts of creation are exposed. I think it’s also good to appreciate the fundamental simplicity of The Arrival, that it’s a book of ideas more than anything else, and rendered using the most basic medium of pencil on paper. The published book is just a final part of a much longer creative process, which I think is worth seeing. I’m also interested in sharing working methods and any insights learned along the way with other artists, given that I’ve drawn from the work of so many other people myself.
Years of research, modelling, sketching and storyboarding went into making The Arrival, including six days to draw the final artwork for each page. How do you manage a life, and earn an income, while working on a book that takes years to make? I imagine embarking on something like The Arrival is a big risk.
It is a big risk: and not something I would have committed to blindly. I tend to discuss concepts quite early on with a publisher, largely because illustrated fiction is costly to produce and is not assured of having a wide audience. Previously I had been accustomed to working on shorter picture books, which each took me about a year (which felt long) so yes, The Arrival was a big leap. I thought of it as something like a PhD project, so the same questions of managing a life apply here – to work on a large, unpredictable and unpaying project for many years is not an unfamiliar thing for many people. I think most of life is like that actually! The most fortunate thing in my case was having a patient publisher: I originally planned on finishing the book in 2003, but actually completed it – as a much longer work – in 2006. I also managed to sustain my income by working freelance, including concept artwork for the films WALL-E and Horton Hears a Who.
Coincidentally or not, The Arrival seems to directly address the current political hot potato of immigration and the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. But in Sketches you don't write about this, as I thought you might. Why is that, especially since I reckon it's something you have been asked about quite a bit since The Arrival came out?
Yes, that question is a natural one. But I have to disagree that my book directly addresses a political debate, I was not thinking about it so much to be honest. Much of that ‘hot’ debate seems to be from a shallow external viewpoint – all heat and no light – with Australians looking distantly at others (as summarised by superficial phrases such as ‘boat people’). I was far more interested in immigration as an historical subject, where a country such as Australia is actually the ‘other’. Interestingly, immigration is always a current issue and it will continue to be so for hundreds of years, or as long as humans are around. One reason The Arrival is set in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century is to acknowledge that this is a much broader issue beyond domestic contemporary politics and media buzz. Moreover, for refugees themselves, the idea of migration seems far more profound and concrete – their problems are pressing and personal, not academic. I wanted to my drawings to reflect this more than anything else. If The Arrival contributes to a public discussion at all, it would be in reminding us that these issues are more than just passing fodder for politicians and media.
What struck me about Sketches From a Nameless Land was the amount of fact-based historical research that went into making The Arrival, which is a fantastical trip into a fictitious world. What is it about both fact and fantasy that attracts you?
I guess I don’t see a huge difference between them, in that we always reconstruct the world internally: it’s one half reality, and one half imagination – theories, ideas and stories that help us understand what we see and feel. History is a perfect example; it’s a set of selective stories that helps us to sort through the chaos of the past, to pick out significant objects and events, and sometimes refashion them. All fiction works in a similar way, only far more openly speculative: as Picasso put it, ‘art is the lie that lets us see the truth’. For me, that’s all about appreciating the strangeness of a reality that we otherwise take for granted. I think that is where fantasy is really useful, showing that strangeness, the arbitrary nature of history and circumstance. Fantasy is not so much an invention of another world, it’s the rearrangement of the real one in order to examine it from a new angle – and that's where research comes in, supplying the initial raw material or palette of ideas for reconstruction, as well as an ongoing measure for ‘truthfulness’.
You mentioned that the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman and others were an influence on your drawing style for The Arrival. How conscious are you, and perhaps pressured by, the work by other graphic novel and cartooning artists? Are they looking over your shoulder as you draw?
In the beginning, I did feel that pressure, largely because I had no clear visual language of my own and was floundering a bit, looking to other graphic novelists for solutions. Raymond Briggs was a big influence – the British creator of works such as When The Wind Blows - and I began to emulate elements of both his story structure and character design in some early drafts (consciously or otherwise), only to learn that these did not work for the story I wanted to tell. That seems to be a normal pattern for me with creative development: I study a lot of other styles, both contemporary and historical, try to learn from them, and then later move on to something else. It's as if they are scaffolding, giving me the confidence to find my own 'voice' in pictures.
How much of a influence was your father, an architect, on your work? I just ask because your work features many street-scapes and urban vistas, not to mention it has a strong sense of place and form.
Yes, there's probably an unconscious, even genetic predisposition at work there. But perhaps the biggest influence is my dad's attention to detail, whether he is drawing a plan or building a piece of furniture. Everything has to be well constructed, no matter how long it takes, so he is extremely patient. It sometimes drives my mum crazy, as she is from the school of thought that feels it's okay to use a hammer on a jigsaw puzzle to get the job done. I probably get a lot of my drawing skills from my mum, though, who was always talented as a child but never had the opportunity to pursue it - she was very interested in character design and animation, and used to paint Disney-like murals on the bedroom walls of my brother and I.
In the making of The Arrival you did more than simply sketch out a story with a graphite pencil: you constructed clay figurines; filled apartments with secondhand furniture and boxes; you based key images on historical photos; you had your friends enacted scenes which you photographed and then drew; and you modelled the main character on photos you took of yourself. Where does this fanaticism and attention to detail come from, and do you always work like this?
I have to refute that it's fantacism - though I can see how that might look! Believe it or not, this actually sped up the process of visualisation immensely, like a series of short cuts - it's all very practical. Something that can take days to develop through sketching can be accomplished just as well in an afternoon spend cutting and taping bits of cardboard together, or playing around with modelling clay, or actual role-play filmed by video camera. With The Arrival there is also a particular problem of continuity, given the number of sequential drawings, so the use of sets and photographic reference helped a lot here. Lighting became a big concern, because it is so fundamental to creating a sense of realism, and physical models where often used for lighting tests alone. In fact, the whole book seemed closer to film-making than my usual illustrative practice.
Finally, you are an accomplished short story writer, as evidenced by Tales from Outer Suburbia, yet The Arrival works beautifully wordless (or at least English-less). What in your opinion are the unique qualities that text-less drawn stories have that are possibly unattainable with written stories?
There's a kind of timelessness, in an illustrated story that is very easily broken by the 'speed' of written language, and the specificity of words can wake you up from an otherwise dreamlike experience - in the same way that you can't describe a dream verbally while you are having it. I suppose what has always attracted me to painting and drawing is a fundamental ambiguity, a slipperiness, that an image does not 'say' anything, but works quietly through layers of subtlety, and is very open to interpretation, across different cultures and periods, as well as between individuals. Language can do this too, though in a different way - words can better convey some ideas and feelings, and images can better convey others. There are no strict rules as far as I can tell, it's just a matter of playing around with different forms to see what works. You know when something's working when the way of telling seems inseparable from the actual story, that they become one and the same thing, a singular experience.