Asahi Nagata On Starting a Career In Illustration and Staying True To Yourself

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In Japanese, Asahi means "sunrise." Making for a name fit for an artist who brings so much light and cheeriness into the world.

Freelance illustrator Asahi Nagata currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she creates gorgeous designs that mimic the style of traditional printmaking techniques, from risograph and screen printing to linocut. With clients from Google and Apple to Lucy and Yak and the Star Tribune, Asahi is making her mark on the world of illustration.

We recently had the joy of sitting down with Asahi Nagata to ask her how she uniquely captures a sense of wonder in her illustrations, the hard-earned aesthetic she developed over the years, and the ways motherhood has affected her work.

If you find yourself as inspired by Asahi's work as we did, be sure to check out both her Instagram and Etsy shop for endless inspiration.

Can you explain how you began your career in illustration and design? Did you always know that you wanted to be in a creative field?

My mom told me that I started drawing as soon as I turned one, and ever since then, drawing has always been my hobby. It took me a while to figure out how I could utilize this hobby as my day job. I majored in Graphic Design in college and interned at a web design company in Japan. Then I worked at a design firm in the US as a vintage print restorer—while I worked there, I got lots of inspiration from the 50s and 60s illustrations and prints and learned how to mimic them digitally to establish my current illustration style.

You've worked with brands from Google and Apple to The Knot. Can you describe the timeline of a project when working with these bigger brands?

As a stay-at-home mom of a 1-year-old, my time to work has been very limited. I try to focus on my task as much as possible whenever I get some time, whether it's during my daughter's nap time or at night after she goes to bed. I communicate with my husband and make sure I have enough time to work during evenings and weekends.

How has your aesthetic and style changed over the years since you first started?

When I graduated college and started working as an illustrator at a design studio in Minneapolis, my illustration style was different from what I have now. My current style can be most recognized as vintage and riso-like illustration, and back then, it didn't have the same texture or riso effect. My style changed over time as I practiced different drawing methods.

Who or what is your biggest inspiration?

While I worked at a design firm in the US as a vintage print restorer, a part of my job was scanning vintage prints and scraps of illustration from the 50s and 60s. I got to look at so much good, old stuff there, and those became a major inspiration for my current work.

Have you ever found yourself in a creative rut? If so, how do you get yourself out of it?

I am always trying to figure this out myself! Usually, I take a break completely (unless I have a deadline.) Walk to the park, watch tv, read comics, etc. When I have a deadline and have an artist block, I keep working until I get out of it. I wish I could work non-stop like a robot.

How do you determine your color palettes for each illustration?

Being inspired by 50s and 60s children's books and commercial prints, I love using vintage, bold color palettes. Also, being massively fascinated by traditional printmaking methods such as screen printing, risograph, and block printing, I often use a color overlaying technique and offset effects to display the authentic retro print-like effect in my illustration.

I learned how to mimic this retro print texture myself while working at a design firm in Minneapolis as an illustrator and doing vintage prints restoration works for five years. In my illustration, I usually limit myself to three colors in each work because, in traditional printing methods, the numbers of colors were traditionally limited to about that many. I enjoy challenging myself to think creatively about depicting an object using only a few shades. This challenge has given me my own space to express my creativity within every commission, and it makes every commission exciting.

Your style is utterly unique, but do you ever find yourself falling into the trap of designing in the style of what's trending, or is it easy to stay true to yourself?

Staying true! I believe every different illustration style has different demands, so it is easy for me to stick with mine.

Your style seamlessly captures a childlike sense of wonder. Have you found inspiration through your own childhood experiences, or does this inspiration come from somewhere else?

I feel like I'm still a child at age 29, so I think that's helping!