Art Center College of Design | Pasadena, California | Leading By Design

Joel Nakamura

Illustration '82

Award-winning painter and commercial illustrator Joel Nakamura is known for his unique blend of folk art, urban edge and sophisticated tribal iconography. Nakamura's ability to render such primal imagery in an engaging manner has captured a broad range of clients, from record companies to Time magazine.

His paintings have enlivened the pages of many books and publications, including the programs for the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, as well as marketing materials for corporate titans such as Lego, Merck & Co. and Nike.

Nakamura has been profiled in Communication Arts, Step Inside Design and Confetti magazines. He divides his time between illustration and fine art projects, and is proud to be the recipient of more than 200 awards of excellence. A former Art Center faculty member, Nakamura lives in Santa Fe with his wife Kathleen and their two children.

Art Center: Are you able to balance fine art with the commercial work you do?
Joel Nakamura:
I don't wake up in the morning and say, “I want to do a painting about bandwidth.” But it's interesting to get that assignment, to paint stem cells or bandwidth. It may not be something I would choose to paint, but a lot of times my assignments are stimulating enough that I want to explore some of those ideas a little bit further in the imagery I do.

AC: Is it difficult to interpret a client's non-visual ideas?
It can be, and the illustrator can be dead wrong. Those of us who go into illustration always have a maverick attitude anyway. We don't want to be molded or pigeonholed or overly structuredhaving to show up at a particular place all the time, on time, in terms of a regular job. It's the perfect career for people like meit's an incredible freedom to not have to paint this pair of boots or this can of green beans over and over again. I like to be the “myth guy,” in that I like to paint about myths of indigenous people and try to mythologize abstract ideas for what's going on in societyespecially technology or medicineand then address spiritual issues that evoke a New Mexico or Mexico experience. Those are the kinds of jobs that tend to come my way.

AC: Will artists and designers still be painting and drawing by hand 10 years down the road?
Yes. America is very much a “we want to own this object” society, and a lot of digital media can't be physically owned. People will still love to own objects, and that's something that will probably never change.

AC: What's the most important thing students of art and design need to know as they prepare for their futures?
Give 100 percent. In every class I ever had, there were great experiences that I missed out on because I thought, “This isn't important to what I want to do right now.” Also, learning about business is really important. It hasn't been a tradition at Art Center to teach business per se, but if necessary you should take an accounting class at a community college. We are in a business as artists, and we should be aware of that from the start. If I had to do it all over again, I would even get an MBA somewhere just to learn the business side.

I would also recommend teaching. When you have an opportunity down the road to be an instructor, you should, because it will teach you a lot. You learn to articulate your thoughts and communicate effectively; you learn to deconstruct and analyze; to project and have empathy. Then you can feel like a proud dad when you see your students go out and succeed.

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