Shaun Tan grew up in Perth, Australia. Wanting to become an artist from a young age, he ended up graduating from the University of Western Australia with a degree in Fine Arts and English Literature.
While being a student, he began illustrating as way of making money – drawing for magazines, newspapers, book covers, music posters, flyers and newsletters, mostly around campus, plus selling the odd painting. Things learnt doing those small jobs later reflected in his illustration techniques.
He became involved as an artist and editor with the Perth-based Eidolon for ten years while a student, which was essentially unpaid but rewarding because he met plenty of other like-minded writers and artists, and really learnt different ways of illustrating by working with a challenging variety of texts.
On leaving university, he became increasingly involved in children’s and young adult literature, including picture books, largely because some of the writers involved with science fiction were also being published in this area as well. He knew very little about picture books when first asked to illustrate one, and tended to share many people’s prejudice that they were exclusively the domain of young children, not an art form that lends itself to much artistic or intellectual sophistication.
Working with Gary Crew on his first few books – some small horror stories in a series called After Dark and an elaborate science-fiction picture book The Viewer – led him to think about picture books more deeply. From Gary he got the idea that pictures books are ideal for older readers, not just children.
When talking about illustrating picture books, Shaun says: “Working in this area I find that the most interesting relationships between words and pictures are not actually very descriptive at all, but rather about the interesting relationship that can exist between two independent means of expression. In all of my recent work, the text and illustrations could operate as narratives in isolation, but happen to react in similar ways, opening new meanings from each other’s context. More recently I have been thinking a lot about visual narrative where there is no accompanying text. I’m intrigued by the ability of the reader to superimpose their own thoughts and feelings onto visual experience, without the possible distraction of words.”
Describing his artistic process he says: “Painting and drawing for me is not about creation but about transformation. It’s not so much about expressing preconceived themes or a mastered delivery of statements but rather a process of slightly absent-minded discovery, of seeing where certain lines of thinking take you if you keep following them. I know I’m on the right track when there is a sense of unfamiliarity about what I’m doing, that I’m actually being surprised by the way mixed drawings and words make their own novel sense, and I can coax them into surrendering whatever meaning is there through repeated drawings.”
It is concepts like these that distinguish his works, make them so memorable and equally loved by children and grown-ups. Among his most well known picture books there are Rules of Summer, The Arrival, Cicada and Tales from the Inner City, to name a few.