The art of Kinuko Y. Craft
Wednesday, May 18, 2022
After yesterday's post about Patricia A. McKillip's books, illustrated with the sumptious cover art from the Ace Books editions, let's take a closer look at the artist with whom Patricia's novels have long been paired....
Kinuko Yamabe Craft is widely acknowledged as one of the finest illustrators working today. She has won more than one hundred awards for richly detailed work ranging from fairy tale and folklore subjects to Shakespeare, historical themes, and modern mythic literature. Whether painting Baba Yaga or Turandot, Sleeping Beauty or Romeo and Juliet, she conjures the glow of magic at the heart of the world's great stories.
Kinuko was born and raised in Kamazawa, Japan, where she fell under the spell of art as a child pouring over the books in her maternal grandfather's library. She received a BFA from The Kanazawa Municipal College of Fine and Industrial Art in 1962, and then obtained sponsorship to study at the School of Art Institute in Chicago. She subsequently worked with two commercial art and design studios in Chicago before branching out on her own as a freelance commercial artist. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Newsweek, Time, Playboy, Forbes, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic other major publications, and on book jackets for a range of authors including Isabel Allende, Dorothy Dunnet, Carl Sagan, Eileen Goudge, Antiona Fraser, Barry Lopez, and Stephen King. She's also created illustrations for historical works, Shakespeare, and opera classics. "I'm comfortable creating imagery crossing over many different cultures," she says, but she'll only take an assignment if the subject speaks to her, and allows her room for self-expression. "I choose my jobs by instinct, by my reaction to the theme or manuscript. The writer's sensibility must meet me half way. There must be room for my imagination and heart. I can't just be a hired hand. If something's not right, if I read the story and it's like a blank, then I know that I can't do it."
Kinuko works in a variety of styles, but she's especially drawn to fantasy and folklore themes, which resonate with her own rich imagination and aesthetic sensibilities. In the 1980s, her work began to appear on the covers of adult fantasy novels, where she quickly developed a loyal following for her jewel-toned imagery. Over the next two decades, Kinuko's dreamlike, distinctive paintings graced books by such fine fantasists as C.S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Tanith Lee, Robin McKinley, Sheri Tepper, Guy Gavriel Kay and Ellen Kushner in addition to Patricia McKillip; at the same time, she also created exquisite art for children's picture books including Cinderella, Beauty & the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave, Cupid and Psyche, Pegasus, and King Midas.
When she's working on a book, Kinuko spends many hours with the manuscript, letting its mood seep inside her, tint her dreams and spark inner visions. "Stories have color," she explains, "a certain smell and taste. I have to spend time with that, inhabit it, taste it, know it. I want to bring out my fantasy about that flavor." Although it's import to her to understand and express what the author has written on the page, it's ultimately her mission to tell her version of the story -- to render her reaction to it in color, shadow, and line. She doesn't like to be rushed, but rather to take the time to truly live with the tale. "The more time I put in, the more something lives in the image. I actually live in the book while I work. I function much like an actor taking on a role. The outside world fades away. It can be a real problem, especially when we run low on food during an ice story, and I've just spent twelve hours in my studio. But I think I've been in a fantasy world all my life."
Accuracy is important to her -- not only the little details of a character's hair coloring or dress, but historical accuracy, which is always meticulously researched. Even her fantasy paintings, she says, "must have a basis in reality -- a loosely assigned place in history. That sets the tone and flavor within which I must work, like a stage in a play and then I must fold my own fantasy into it. I consider myself a storyteller, and like any good actor, must convincingly portray my subject in a way that lends credibility to what I paint."
She particularly revels in her roll as storyteller when creating picture books for children, in which the reader is guided through the story by means of a string of linked images. She doesn't view them as books just for children, however -- and indeed, her picture books are also collected by many adult art lovers. "I create the images mainly for me," she notes, "for both the mature woman and the child within myself. I believe we are always young inside and psychologically never grow old and worn out, from birth to death."
The books of her grandfather's library provided her earliest art education, and it's no accident that her work is most often compared to Renaissance art. "He had a few volumes of Renaissance work. I was quite mesmerized by them and spent hours in their capture. I wanted to somehow become a storyteller like Giotto, Martini, Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Credi, Ghirlandaio, Bellini, Mantegna, Titian, and especially Leonardo da Vinci, who to me is the greatest painter who has ever walked the earth. I'm also attracted to painters of neoclassicism, romanticism, the symbolists, pre-Raphaelite paintings, Hudson River School works and Boston painters of the early 20th century. And also more modern works by artists like N.C. Wyeth, Kay Nielsen, George Tooker, Jared French and Richter attract me, maybe because I am moved by the elements of fantasy or the poetic themes of their paintings."
Kinuko has her own method for creating her distinctive imagery, combining watercolor and oil paints:
"First I make a very careful drawing on Strathmore brand illustration board. Sometimes, just planning the drawing can take longer than the actual painting. When I am pleased with the design, I begin by overpainting it with thin watercolor washes. That lays in the basic colors and tones. After that, I apply a sealer to the surface, to prevent the oil paint from soaking into the surface. The next step is quite time consuming. I work with very small Windsor Newton watercolor brushes, overpainting the watercolor with oil paints. Sometimes a painting can take up to a month."
Kinuko's original paintings are even more beautiful than book reproduction conveys, and as a result her art has been widely exhibited and collected. Highlights among her long list of shows include Brave Little Girls at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (which subsequently traveled throughout the U.S.), New York 5 at the Art Directors Club of New York (which subsequently traveled to Japan), Women and Illustration: Contemporary Visions and Voices and The Art of Enchantment at the Norman Rockwell Museum, Illustrating Women at the Ringling School of Art and Design, Masters of the Art of Children's Books at the University of Wisconsin, Storytellers at Westmont College, The Fantasies of Kinuko Y. Craft at the Norfolk Library, Visions of the Floating World at the Cartoon Art Museum, a one-woman show at the Society of Illustrators in New York, and numerous appearances in the Society of Illustrator's annual exhibitions. Her work is in the permanent collection of The National Geographic Society, Time Inc., and The Museum of American Illustration, as well as in private collections world-wide.
The pictures in this post are just a fraction of the imagery Kinuko has created over decades of dedicated, focused, passionate work. What keeps her inspired? "I'm driven by an attraction to beauty wherever I find it," she says. "That can be in the natural world, or in music, poetry, literature, or in a picture in an art museum, or in anything that touches my sensibilities or strikes a chord in my senses. I like to try to create the feelings these things touch off in me in my paintings, but always fail miserably. That's why when someone asks me, 'What's your best painting?' I always answer 'My next one,' in the vain hope that I may finally be successful."
I must beg to differ with Kinuko's humble appraisal of her work. In gifting us with her unique vision, creating imagery that is deeply personal yet also universal, she has increased the world's store of enchantment, painting by painting, book by book. The beauty that illuminates her art is both restorative and necessary in this age of harsh discord: it nurtures our sense of wonder, and helps us to find the magic in the world around us. Her paintings, like Patricia McKillip's stories, are absolutely luminous, and may the faeries bless everyone at Ace Books who conspired to put these two remarkable women together.
The quotes above are from an interview with the artist by Maurizio Manzieri (ASFA Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2003), an interview by Karen Haber (Locus Magazine, August 2002), and from Kinuko's website. Titles for the paintings and drawing can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the art above reserved by Kinuko Y. Craft.